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Assignment Zero August 17, 2007

Posted by Steve Field in Assignment Zero.

I had never heard of Assignment Zero until it was mentioned in class on Monday.

So I shouldn’t have had any expectations. Still, I was surprised to see what I found.

Assignment Zero describes itself as the following:

Inspired by the open-source movement, this is an attempt to bring journalists together with people in the public who can help cover a story. It’s a collaboration among NewAssignment.Net, Wired, and those who choose to participate.

The investigation takes place in the open, not behind newsroom walls. Participation is voluntary; contributors are welcome from across the Web. The people getting, telling and vetting the story are a mix of professional journalists and members of the public — also known as citizen journalists. This is a model I describe as “pro-am.”

The “ams” are simply people getting together on their own time to contribute to a project in journalism that for their own reasons they support. The “pros” are journalists guiding and editing the story, setting standards, overseeing fact-checking, and publishing a final version.

In this project, we’re trying to crowdsource a single story, and debut a site that makes other such reports possible down the road. But we don’t know yet how well our site and our methods work. Our ideas are crude because they are untested. By participating, you can help us figure this puzzle out.

Interesting concept. If citizen journalism truly is alive in an age of digital media, then there should be a forum where citizen journalists can organize and collectively create news.

However, when looking through the tracker (where you go to look through recently filed reports), it seemed that much of Assignment Zero was focused on — surprise — citizen journalism. In a word, meta-journalism.

Two of the articles I looked at were “The Audience has the Power” (from the assignment “contextualize Bankler’s work”) and “A Contributor’s Perspective on Crowdsourced Journalism.” Both articles look that the study of community journalism. The first comes in terms of a summary of The Cult of the Amateur by Andrew Keen, while the second takes an empirical look at community journalism, citing political journalism crowdsourcing on the Daily Kos and TPM Muckraker; group endeavors with individual appeal, such as Assignment Zero; and geographically distributed local watchdogs.

All of this is interesting. However, I don’t think it lives up to the full promise and potential of the site. It may be that the premise is flawed. Maybe journalism works best when there is a single content creator synthesizing facts from multiple sources.

I’m not sure. We’ll have to see how this experiment plays out.


The challenges of Wikinomics August 11, 2007

Posted by Steve Field in Wikinomics.
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The idea of the “prosumer” — the actively involved consumer — that Don Tapscott presents in Wikinomics is clever and insightful. However, the trend of the democratization of media that he outlines in chapter five is a bumpy road for business, government and associations. The part toward mass collaboration is difficult one for institutions entrenched in traditional business models.

Tapscott outlines five imperatives of harnessing the prosumer for corporate benefit. They are:

  1. Employ more than just customization
  2. Cede control
  3. Make products modular and reconfigurable
  4. Become a peer
  5. Share the fruits

While essential to leveraging the power of the crowd, taking these steps marks a big leap of faith for institutions that are used to control — i.e. most institutions. Historically businesses have believed that they controlled their brand. They were able to shape it through advertising and one-way communication from company to consumer. Today, that is not the case.

This isn’t just the reality that business is facing. Government also faces the challenge. Consider my former place of work — the Pentagon. The U.S. military is one of the most hierarchical organizations in the world. They are also facing the realities of communicating with prosumers. The attitude of the prosumer flies in the face of traditional military organization.

Figuring out how to convince organizational leaders to embrace the principles of Wikinomics will not be easy, but it should be done.

In the mean time, enjoy a video about the world of prosumers:

The power of one (million) August 4, 2007

Posted by Steve Field in Wikinomics.

One person can make a difference. –Overused cliche
The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. –Another overused cliche

Collaboration. Co-creation. Crowdsourcing. These terms have become the buzzwords of a new way of thinking about production, articulated in Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything.

The digital economy, says author Don Tapscott, has enabled businesses to work with the public to develop new products, come up with new ideas, and change the way that society works. There is wisdom in crowds; there is possibility in groups.

Before the mass adoption of the internet, geography was an inhibiting factor that truly prevented mass collaboration. Experts with great ideas lived in different towns, different states, different countries. The odds of stumbling upon someone who could take your thinking and advance it to a new level was unlikely. It is not surprising then, that the great inventions and discoveries before the 21st century are attributed to one man or one woman. Consider:

  • The printing press — Gutenberg
  • Gravity — Sir Isaac Newton
  • Penicillin — Fleming
  • Cotton Gin — Eli Whitney

Even groups responsible for invention did so through close associates, such as the Wright brothers, for example.

Today, that has all changed.

People from vast distances — and at their own time — can come together to solve problems and contribute to new inventions. One of the coolest examples that Tapscott offers in his book is the computer program, which is available for anyone to download, that runs calculations to help discover a cure for AIDS while your computer is idle. Or that within hours, people from all over London were able to compile a detailed account of the London subway bombings.

When working together, more things are possible. And the digital economy allows it.

How does this relate to public relations? Well, PR practitioners should realize that their companies customers may have valuable insight. Let them help communicate — because an Army of citizen marketers (as Ben McConnell and Jackie Huba point out) is stronger than a 15-person corporate communications shop.

While it may be true that one person can make a difference, it is also true that she will have a greater impact if she works with a million others to achieve her goals.