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Setting Expectations for Contribution Based Projects (Part 1)

Setting expectations for any a project is something I tend to avoid or to overlook. This is because:

1) Defining success means that I am also defining failure. That can be frightening.

2) Setting realistic goals makes you think realistically. Which is a bummer.

3) I often think that the mechanisms of success are out of my control.

4) It is easier not to care, or at least to pretend not to care.

#1 and #3 are a devious pair and that is why I kept them apart. It is a tragic fact that in defining what is hoped for, you simultaneously define what is feared. When you don’t care, the system is at rest, neutral. Adding hope adds potential emotional energy that is bound to become kinetic. Triumph or Defeat. Not Neutral no mo’. It is easier to stay in bed.

Besides the strain of it all there are rational tricks I can play to avoid setting expectations - especially online, where it is possible to peek into the machinery of success and get overwhelmed by all the moving parts. So many forces are at play and so many things depend on other things. It can be hard to imagine the path between wanting a thing and the thing itself. In hindsight it is satisfying to attribute success to unwavering desire and hard work, but those qualities are abundant in failure as well. Then an animated gif of a butterfly flaps its wings on server in Tokyo, somehow causing Amazon to sell more copies of “A Perfect Storm”.

Can you Digg it?

But what is the alternative? No expectations. Just react. When something sticks, ride it. That is a valuable skill, no doubt, but it doesn’t always feel very human. And it doesn’t make for a very good story, even if it is closer to the truth. ***

If I don’t actively set expectations I am usually disappointed no matter what. Without something concrete, I find that I secretly wish that every project were a run-away smash success. Internet Flash Toy Cures Cancer! Any moderate achievements are always compared to the next bar I had failed to set, like that weird moment when you hit a number playing roulette and suddenly whatever you won seems like nothing compared to what it could become. 1. 10. 100. 1000.

Next: What defines success…


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Comments (3)


This is an interesting topic and I think tugs at the heart of the creative process. For me, once I have an idea I live in it completely, if it’s not working, causing too much frustration I drop it, stand back a while and then look for the simplest solution to resolve the problem. Not all ideas work, lot of them get tossed on the back burner. Incubation.

I do like the hit and run approach, which is what I appreciate about the collaborations you come up with; that theme is all over your web site. You throw it out there and see what works what sticks Art on the spot and in motion.

When I’ve worked in that way I find I get three types of responses: Group 1, will be very excited and greet me as a liberator with candy and flowers. Group 2, will hate the project, let me know rudely and why; sometimes in great detail. Group 3, generally will say nothing, but the majority will fall into either Group 1 or 2 in the end.

At that point I can choose to think the project was a success, ahead of it’s time, not the right project for that group or stomach the, what-was-I-thinking-when-I-came-up-with-that-one feeling. Too easy to count and dwell on those.

When working with outside forces looking at what's been created is a little like watching your self on film. I find I’m either cheering or hoping this time it will all work out, or repelled and turn away. A little like Kate Blanchett in Elizabeth vs. Kate Blanchett in Indiana Jones.

The things I worked the hardest on don’t seem to score big points with the masses, yet. But, I know I can always go back and feel a sense of accomplishment; I get to relish in the Beethoven moment, "It is finished." This is the most satisfying, no regrets and I’m not embarrassed to admit that I admire the people who admire the things I’m proudest of.

I don’t know if the low lows counter the high highs, I suppose they do to some extent; water in the desert, but in the end it’s the last-state-of-mind resort that settles all debates, another step in the creative process.

When it comes to the numbers, here’s something I picked up the other day about approaching the audience: 10% will always love what you do - 10% will always hate what you do - it’s the 80% in the middle you need to pursue, and if you wish to present your argument or solve a creative problem these are the people you need persuade. Pretty good, but I think Mayor Bloomberg summed it up best, '15% of the Republicans who vote for their nominee would vote for their nominee even if he was Leon Trotsky, and 15% of the Democrats would vote for their nominee if their nominee was Ayn Rand. So I would start with a 30 percent handicap.'

I feel like I understand what you (and nader) are saying. Here's my thing, though, and I think you, Ze, have a similar thing - of being too up in your head for your own good. Wait, I shouldn't say that. Being up in your head is great, but it also leads to what could turn out to be a never-ending spiral of questioning (it doesn't, for you, because you (obviously) get things done.

I have no advice, and I'm not even sure why I wrote the above. But this helps me, cheesy though it may be: John Prine's Dear Abby advice. You are what you are and you ain't what you ain't. Good enough is good enough. It helps me get out of my head a little, is what I'm saying. It gets beyond "success." Maybe.

Robbie Eginton:

It seems to me that there is something in what Nader says, about the handicap, and more importantly about how the things you're most proud of are often the things that aren't hits. And there's always that balance between wanting mass success and doing things for mass success. I'm not a full time creative, so I know I'm not one to talk, really. But there seems to be a certain choice that has to be made, between working with an eye towards success, and working for success. This probably doesn't help. And it can be really hard when you fail in that way.

I guess in a contribution based project, you're creating a framework. I will assume that large numbers of viewers are not the central point of your continued work. So, considering your relative fame, if your framework doesn't attract a sufficient number of people to use it, that either had something to do with the framework itself and the kind of people who come to your site or know people who come to your site. Thusly, the question to ask is not 'how many people is successful'. The question is how much of the artistic/creative meaning in the framework comes from you, and how much comes from the users. If it is simply a framework to elicit meaningful responses from users (the users like content, the framework like the cable company's infrastructure and your television), then perhaps the framework needs to be redesigned. If the framework itself has meaning, and the users are needed to get it on its feet (like water turning a mill-wheel), then you can either say "The framework is interesting in itself in theory, even if I couldn't put it into practice, and that's enough for me" or you can find a better group of users.

That still probably won't help with the essential difficulty - it seems unlikely that anything really can. But maybe it's good to think about?

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on January 28, 2009 2:13 AM.

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