Participation/Contribution Archives

December 22, 2008

If the goal of a project is to get many people to contribute

Usually there will be a few contributions that are outliers in technical merit and scale. There is a temptation to reward these contributions by drawing specific attention to them while the project is running. This can sometimes have the effect of damping the project as a whole, since potential contributors will measure their work against an artificially high standard. Alternatively, only displaying the most recent contribution allows the tonality of the project to be at the whim of the last contributor.

Instead of only focusing on technical ability, draw attention to qualities that can be expressed by anyone: simplicity, individuality, and humanity. Allow there to be a feeling of “Hey, I could do that too”.

December 30, 2008

Notes on the experience of Participation and Contribution

1 - These are my definitions, sort of. They are not trivial or merely formal. I use them to Figure Things Out. They might not stand the test of time. But that test is a bitch. And if I pass (the Test), it will be because the pattern I fill in, in the shape of duck, happens to be the right answer. It will be By Accident.

2 – Here I am interested in the experience of the person participating or contributing.

3 – Participation is the experience of oneself in relation to a group or system. Its focus is a verb related to self-definition. Participation is a “state of being related to a larger whole”.

4 - From the outside, participation can be invisible. It does not require hand raising or button pushing or jersey wearing. It is a perspective shift in the mind of an individual.

5 - “Passive consumption” can be participation. The passive consumer can place himself into the meaning of what is consumed. As he unpacks the images, the text, the sounds, he can extend the mythology of what he perceives, comparing moments to memories, and joining into the narratives of inclusion and exclusion. If there is no narrative he can make one.

6 – Participation can also be visible from the outside. But the point of participation is not how it is perceived from the outside.

7 – While participation is about a “state of being”, focused on the internal, contribution is about the external, the making of a thing to be perceived by someone (or something) else.

7.5 - There are unintentional contributions and intentional contributions. Here I am interested in intentional contributions.

8 – Intentional contribution is made of 1) an intention, 2) a thing to be perceived, and 3) an internal representation of an audience that will perceive it.**

9 – An actual audience may not exist.

9.5 - The audience can be non-human, for example a system or a deity.

10 – The audience can be the contributor herself, as long as the idea of herself as audience is thought to be separate from herself as contributor; for example “an older me”, or a “happier me”.

11 – But that gets Complicated.

12 – It is possible to contribute by Doing Nothing. In this case the contributor must intend that the Doing Nothing be a thing that will be perceived by someone else. The Silent Treatment is a contribution to an argument.

13. The same action by an individual can be participation or contribution depending on whether the individual intends for the action to be perceived by someone else.

14 – It is possible to participate without contributing.

15 – It is possible to contribute without participating.**

Continue reading "Notes on the experience of Participation and Contribution" »

January 5, 2009

Simple questions to ask when planning a contribution-based project:

What technology is required to contribute?

Every layer of technology (camera, microphone, phone, software, credit card, broadband, mouse, sharpie, screwdriver…) adds a potential barrier-to-entry to your project. Can any be substituted? Is that clear?

What skill sets are required to contribute?

Do not assume that the audience has the same degree of media literacy that you do. Many people do not know how to use image-processing software at even the most basic level. Cropping photographs, merging photographs, taking screenshots, capturing audio, compressing video are all specific skill sets that not everyone possesses, and that can potentially limit the number of contributors.

Are you using specialized language in your instructions?

Be aware of any specialized language that you are using in your instructions or in the description of the project. Words and phrases like “cache”, “ftp”, “social book-marking”, “beta”, “screengrab”, “firewall”, “tagging”, “tweet”, “proxy”, etc… may not be part of your audience’s vocabulary.

Are you unnecessarily excluding people that don’t speak your language?

Can you display your instructions in a way that is not language -dependent?

If you are providing an example, does that example skew the impression of the possible range of contributions?

Be aware that any example you display can be seen as a hint or piece of advice for new contributors. In some cases this is helpful if you want to guide the project in a certain direction, however it can also reduce the number of unexpected creative solutions to your rule set.

Can people contribute in the same physical location as where they receive your instructions?

If a majority of your audience receives your instructions while at work, they will not be able to immediately contribute to a project involving photos of their front lawn. If you send instructions via twitter and people receive instructions on their cell phones they might not be able to immediately record audio. Think of the spatial distance between the reading of instructions and the act of contribution.

Can people contribute at the same time as when they receive your instructions?

Is your project time dependent? Does it involve a sunset? Bedtime story? Birthday? How long will it take? Will people have that amount of time when they receive the instructions or will they have to wait? Think of the temporal distance between the reading of instructions and the act of contribution.

Are you assuming your contributors have contextual information about the project outside what is included in the instructions?

If someone knows nothing about you, your work, or any larger context in which the project exists, will they still have enough information to contribute?

How broad or narrow is the set of possible contributions?

Are there a finite number of possible contributions? Are there a limited number of categories into which all contributions will fall? Will this appear repetitive? Is the range so broad that the project won’t appear cohesive? Are the rule sets so broad that they do not supply enough boundaries to play against?

For example “post your favorite Obama attack ad” has a small and finite number of possible contributions, whereas “make something out of legos” is perhaps too broad and lacks significant boundaries to inspire contribution.

Continued here

January 8, 2009

Installment #2 of “Simple questions to ask when planning a contribution-based project”

(click here for the first installment)

Would you want to contribute to this project?

Many potential projects might seem intellectually interesting and might sound good on paper, but fall apart when you imagine yourself actually participating. It is easy to get excited about the concept of the project as a whole, as a completed collection of many contributions, without taking the time to imagine what it will be like to participate in just one part of it.

What would you anticipate being the best part of contributing to the project?

Is your project like a puzzle? Is the best part trying to figure out a novel or best solution? (For example creating a haiku that explains Christianity). Is the actual act of contributing, the creation of the media, the best part? (For example recording audio of you and your child singing, or filming a power move) Will the best part be seeing yourself included in a gallery? Having your voice heard? Getting feedback? Is it something else? Is it a feeling of contributing to the greater good? Or is it the same sort of satisfaction you get when you alphabetize your books? The feeling of a set being completed? Of order being created?

Are you facilitating multiple rewards for those who contribute?

Some projects can be engaging/fun/rewarding to different people in different ways. Interact with contributors to find out what it was that they responded to, and make sure you are facilitating those experiences. If it is feedback, encourage feedback, if it is the process of contributing – ask questions and make suggestions to make it even better.

How personal or impersonal are the contributions?

I was once told (by a poet) that poems are like photographs: people only get interested if they’re in ‘em.

This may not apply directly to every contributory project, but I think it is good food for thought. Personalization impacts a project in three ways: First it can create desire and inspiration, second it connects the contributor to the contribution (throughout the life of the project), and third it creates another lens through which the project can be browsed/appreciated.

In terms of desire and inspiration: Personalized rule sets allow people to contribute what is specific to them – their image, their voice, their taste, opinion or experiences. The contribution is not judged by some external standard, but rather on what each person knows best – themselves. It levels the playing field.

In terms of connection to the contribution: The most obvious connection is made if someone submits his or her face, likeness, or voice. Revisiting the site means coming across a mirror – you are placed personally into the project - beyond what you have specifically contributed. This also makes it easier to share the project. Other people have no problem spotting you in the work - no explanations are necessary.

In terms of creating an additional lens through which to view the project: People are more interesting than things. Personalizing a project allows viewers to browse people as well as the project itself. Projects that include faces are perhaps the best example. Even if the focus of the contribution is something else: a written sign, something worn, an object held, I find myself scanning faces.

Of course not every project can include a picture of a face - there might not be any pictures at all. But any contribution that represents personal taste, opinion, or experience is a lens through which to explore other people, to try and figure them out, to imagine who they are. Virtual, meta people watching.

For example: if a project asks people to post songs containing the word “garbage” there is little room for people to express themselves. “Post songs that make you cry”, on the other hand, is highly personal - and the contribution, although not a direct product of the contributor, says a lot about them.

There are no hard rules here, and finding a personal angle on a project often takes a bit of work (if it is even possible). It is, however, one of the most useful questions that I have asked myself, and has made many projects more enjoyable and more successful.

Do the contributors know who the audience is?

Are people aware that a larger audience will see their contribution? Do they understand the context in which it will be displayed? In the case of reviews, comments, examples, stories - are they addressing you? or are they addressing everyone else that will experience the media? Do they think they are creating something for “people just like them”?

(I have tried to expand on this in the following post: Awareness of Audience)

January 13, 2009

Awareness of Audience

For me, the awareness of audience is one of the most exciting aspects of an authorship society. The jumbled nature of this awareness however, can be a hindrance to large-scale group collaboration.

First let me explain what I mean by “awareness of audience”.

During the creative process, the process of making a thing, I find that there are a few different states that I occupy. Of course my experience varies quite a bit from project to project, but these have proven to be reliable generalizations.

The first state is an introduction. This is where an idea presents itself in my mind. These early ideas are soft and fuzzy and can’t be fully grasped. So I turn them around, and tug at them and try to look at them from a number of different angles. I might imagine what it will be like to execute the idea, to walk myself through the experience of doing what needs to be done. I might imagine what the finished product will look like. I might also imagine how someone else will perceive the finished product, or how someone might react when they hear about it. I look at it as an early vetting process. Does it excite me? Will it be tedious to make? Will other people like it? All of this happens in my mind. And because the idea is just an idea, and the audience I am imagining is imagined, there is plenty of wiggle room. Potential criticism is met with potential alterations, potential praise is met with potential false modesty. This is the first place where an awareness of audience comes into play, but the awareness is often broad and non-specific.

The second state is a trance. This is where I am absorbed in the process of making. I focus on details and techniques that have little to do with the way I thought about the initial idea. Deciding between a 2” or 3” drainage pipe has little to do with the idea of a dream house, for example. The project, which is at this point just a collection of disjointed parts, is kept alive by the whole imagined at the outset.

The third state is an awakening. At some point, usually in the last third of the project (although I have referred to “80% complete” in the past,) I experience what I am working on as a whole in its own right - as something external. This usually occurs suddenly, much in the same way that I first experience autumn. Some small trigger, a leaf or a brisk wind, causes me to realize that autumn has crept up all around me while I still dreamt of summer. How could I have missed it? It can be harsh and it can be wonderful, but either way it tends toward sadness.

From this point forward the project can become quite a bit more difficult. There is a tension between that amorphous original idea and the very real thing that you have in front of you. Some of the dreams that kept you motivated might vanish. Parts of the project you thought would sparkle just don’t, while other unintended parts do. And that imagined audience that you could negotiate with when your idea was just an idea, now has something concrete to judge, to laugh at, or to love.

I think for a lot of people (including me more often than not) this is an unconscious process, and manifests itself in waves of frustration and self-doubt. Sometimes it is possible to push all these feelings aside and allow that original idea to fill in all the defects and hard edges of the thing created - until you convince yourself that the two are identical. We have all experienced someone that seems unable to look at their work with a critical eye.

This term, “critical eye”, might be what I am trying to get at with “awareness of audience”. If you apply a critical eye to your own work there is, of course, no physical unblinking eye. You conjure up some internal perspective through which to view your work. What shapes this perspective?  Sometimes you might imagine interacting with someone from your past – a loved one, a bully, a mentor. You might try to imagine a group – like “urban males age 18-25” based on what you have read, seen on TV or extrapolated from all the urban males age 18-25 you have encountered. Or the perspective might be an emotional state, like “cynical and ready to fight”, or “adoring but with high expectations”. In all of these cases you are creating a representation of a possible audience, you are imagining an outside world and its relation to you and the thing you are making. This is what I call “awareness of audience”.

For example, when you write a comment, or a facebook status update, or anything that goes out to a group of people – pay attention to how you imagine it being perceived. Are you imagining each person individually? Have you created some in proxy individual for the group? Are you aware of an unknown audience? What are they like? Is there a mood associated with them? How did it all come to be?

I mentioned at the outset that I find all of this to be very exciting. For me, as a result of the proliferation of authorship tools and the creation of a universe of potential audiences, this “awareness of audience” represents a sea change in the way that people perceive themselves in relation to the world around them.

I also mentioned that awareness of audience can be vexing to a collaborative project, and I am embarrassed that all this writing leads up to such a simple point, namely: If there isn’t a shared sense of who the audience is, between you and the contributors, or between the contributors themselves, the final project may appear disjointed.

One example might be if you wanted to create a project that would ultimately be viewed by a large and diverse audience, but your contributors were under the impression that it was for a small insular community. The result might be contributions that play off local, contextual knowledge (inside jokes and obscure references) and are difficult for a larger audience to appreciate.

In the extreme, contributors might think that the intended audience consists only of other contributors. A line-by-line collaborative short story can quickly shift to a line-by-line non sequitur competition, which is very fun for those who participate and utter gibberish to everyone else.

Comment sections often contain excellent content (for example if you ask a question in a post), but require the reader to jump from comments directed to an audience-at-large, to comments directed to the blogger himself, to comments directed at other commenters.

I’m not sure that this jumble of intended audiences can be completely avoided in anything but the smallest group projects. And in some cases, this jumble is what makes a project wonderfully interesting, weird and unexpected. However, there are a few ways to bring the project into sharper focus.

First you can directly state what you consider to be the intended audience: “write as if speaking to a child”, or “give advice to new buyers”. Second, you can reference a specific style (which takes the place of an audience): “like a soap opera”, “in the style of an encyclopedia”. And third, you can add a “final presentation” to the project: “Fifty entries will be displayed at this location when the project is done” or “images will be included in a book”. This at least creates a shared context for how all the contributions will be viewed, and can point to a broader audience (this ad will be shown during the superbowl), or to a very specific audience (this will be displayed at the children’s hospital).

If you are interested, I previously asked a number of people (including Ben Stiller, Imogen Heap, Clay Shirkey, Jane McGonical and 20 other artists, designers, musicians and writers) how they thought about audience during the creative process. You can read the responses here

January 15, 2009

Additional Notes on Awareness of Audience

This is a follow-up to this post based on emails I received.

1) Writing makes me self-conscious. Self-consciousness is the worst form of audience awareness. It is less rational than a critical eye - more like a dark cluster of emotions: sadness, fear and loneliness. When I write, I feel as though I am playing with an extremely thin thread, unintentionally tying tight little knots with my large clumsy fingers.

1a) "I tie knots" :: "Try not tying knots" :: "Tying not-knots?" :: Yes, try tying not-knots"

2) To try and trick the self-consciousness away I framed this blog as “Notes and Advice to Someone Just Like Me.” I assumed that someone like me would be a more forgiving audience.

3) I was wrong. Ha!

4) I appreciate the irony of writing a series of posts on collaboration in the most non-collaborative way. I am open to suggestions. Ha!

5) When I used the word “trance” I didn’t mean an actual trance and I was not trying to romanticize the creative process. I meant it in the spirit of “he walked through the room as if in a trance.” - a lack of awareness of the outside world (in this case, the audience.)

6) I believe that the process I described in “audience awareness” is not limited to large projects; it can happen when I write emails, when I put on clothes, or when I have a conversation. I go through the process whenever I do or make something with the intention of being perceived by something external. There are exceptions. In some conversations (the good ones) you can feel joined with the other person to the extent that they do not seem to be an external audience. I would call this a trance, too (or participation). And it can be jarring when you separate.

7) Someone pointed out to me that “audience awareness” has quite a bit to do with feedback. How you conceive of an audience is often greatly affected by the sorts of feedback you receive. Two issues come to mind that might be worth exploring further. One I would call “On Being Thin Skinned”, which would deal with the difficulty of being emotionally open to feedback in a world where genuine assholes roam. And the other would be “On the Squeaky Wheel” which would deal with the fact that in most cases only a small portion of the audience will give feedback.

8. Knot

About Participation/Contribution

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