Is crowdsourcing simply exploitation? Sheri Candler takes a stand
When I spent some time working at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard a few years back, one of the concepts coming to the fore was that of “crowdsourcing.” With people like Jeff Howe, Clay Shirky and Chris Anderson leading the charge, the discussion was of “harnessing the crowd” to create media. In some instances – such as the 2011 Arab Spring, when the flow of news came from ground level by nonprofessionals – it has tremendous potential. But in other instances, it may be the worst kind of cynicism.
I saw a crowdsourcing exercise at my own neighborhood at about that time when a PBS show called “Planet Forward” put out a call for submissions. The show, from former CNNer and now George Washington University journalism director Frank Sesno, asked for short videos on environmental issues. A group of students here, led by a journalism professor, went about assembling a dozen or so pieces of a minute or so. A few of those videos had a few seconds of them played on the PBS show; the rest were put on the PF website. Most of the show was Sesno leading a panel discussion about the issues. And if everybody was cool on that being what it was, no problem.
But later, I saw that one of the students involved put out on her resume that she had been “Producer/Editor/Camera for ‘Planet Forward (PBS) Nationally Broadcast.” It could either be viewed as shameless dishonesty, or possibly naivete of the saddest kind. But either way it wasn’t true. Basically she had sent free content to a venture that used a small bit of it to make their show. In crowdsourcing, that’s called being “in the crowd.” But I’m not sure she saw herself as “the crowd,” that great mass of outsiders. She mistakenly saw herself – or wanted to see herself – as an insider.
I reflected on that as I read Sheri Candler’s post today, in which she takes on the notion and ethics of crowdsourcing, specifically Ridley Scott and Kevin MacDonald’s “Life In A Day,” which is apparently asking people who contributed video for free to now help market it – of course, for free.
Sheri, an indie film marketing and publicity specialist in LA, says,
This experiment isn’t fan building or relationship building that benefits both sides. You were used to create a profit making vehicle for large corporations and now they want you to help them promote it so they can make more money. If you aren’t considered a close member of the team, you have no decision making power, you aren’t profit sharing in any way, the film premiered on Youtube during Sundance but is no longer available online for you to view a film you helped to create while they take it out to theaters and make money from it, then this isn’t true collaboration. Outside of a credit on a theatrical film end credit roll, there is nothing in this relationship for you.
I can’t help think of the famous line in “All The President’s Men” in which a government official threatens Bob Woodward with ending their relationship if certain information is reported. “But sir,” Woodward says, “We don’t have a relationship.”
The element that drives so many in the crowd, it seems, is indeed the false notion of a relationship. For example, when The Boston Globe does a “send us your cookout photos” online feature, some more self-delusional contributors may say “I’m a Boston Globe photographer.” The crowd is generally not the idealistic “common men and women” of crowdsourcing theorists, but most often wanna-bes and aspirants who desperately want that connection and are happy at times to overstate it. I wonder if what the contributors to “Day” get is the small ego boost of feeling their footage was selected by the project. Is that enough?
I blogged back then about my reservations about crowdsourcing, and more specifically “citizen journalism” (aka “free work”), calling it the Tom Sawyering of the media, as when Tom dupes his friends into doing his work – whitewashing the fence – for free. Indeed, I’ve only spent a little bit of time around Hollywood and its habitues, but I’ve seen from afar how many people out there devote their lives to getting other people to do the work, then taking credit for it (Yeah, get me talking about a “producer” I had to work with a few years back whose resume fell apart upon factual inspection like an apple crumb cake). Crowdsourcing fits that Hollywood ethic like a comfortable old shoe.
So, with a crowdsourcing exercise such as “Day” or “Planet,” what does the contributor get? Maybe a bit of focused experience toward a task, or material they can apply to their own project, or perhaps the lottery-ticket dream that they might be “discovered” by getting their work in front of these accomplished pros. Maybe it was just fun. But most probably think it might get them somewhere, and I think as little of that happens, crowdsourcing will fade. Do someone else’s work for free? I’d rather do my own.
The point I am making to my indie filmmaker friends is this. Don’t exploit your audience. True collaboration means there is something in the relationship for all parties. Don’t build up a following with the sole intention of using them for ideas, a workforce and profit that benefits only you.