Assignment Zero: Valuable Lessons
July 17th, 2007

[via Social Synergy Weblog]

Wired reports on an overview of the Assignment Zero Pro-Am Journalism project. Assignment Zero described itself as:

“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 Wired report describes a project that looks like it could have been successful, but that was possibly run to much by a “seat of the pants” system of planning:

“One of the key problems confronting the project managers was technological. How to build a site that would allow large numbers of contributors to sign up and participate in meaningful ways?

The site developers turned to was Drupal, an open-source publishing system that’s become one of the leading platforms for community-driven projects. The designers built in numerous topics for contributors to colonize when they arrived. But the AZ team chose to hold off recruiting editors until after the launch, with the result that when contributors signed up, they essentially arrived at a ghost town.

The flood of volunteers made Assignment Zero’s design flaws quickly apparent. Potential contributors — which numbered roughly 500 after the first week — were routed to a single Assignment Zero staffer, a former WashingtonPost.com editor, Steve Fox.

The net effect was to put the organizational onus on the volunteers themselves. Baffled by the overarching concept of crowdsourcing, confused by the design of the website and unable to connect directly to a manager or organizer, most of the initial volunteers simply drifted away. “What we learned,” says Rosen, “is that you have to be waaaay clearer in what you ask contributors to do. Just because they show up once doesn’t mean they’ll show up over and over. You have to engage them right away.”

Over the course of the next two weeks, around 30 volunteer professional editors were assigned to manage various topics. Theoretically this should have solved Assignment Zero’s organizational problems. But this presented a new set of hurdles. For one, each editor needed to be trained to use our implementation of Drupal. But even once they were up to speed there was a lack of understanding of how open-source projects tend to work.

“What we really needed were people who understood online organizing,” says David Cohn, an Assignment Zero editor. “But many of the editors just didn’t have much experience with the internet.”

After roughly six weeks — halfway through its run — Assignment Zero reached its nadir. Most of the initial volunteers were gone, the majority of topic pages were deserted and communications between staffers, volunteer editors and the few contributors that remained were uneven, resulting in frequent misunderstandings. A drastic change was required.”

This is an important lesson for all Pro-Am and community-driven, internet-networked publication projects. Thanks to Jay Rosen, Wired, and Assignment Zero for sharing this valuable insight so quickly and honestly.

I’m going to try and catalogue and summarize the lessons in this article as I review it in this blog posting, so:

  • Assignment Zero Lesson #1: Figure out a way to engage participants as soon as they show up.

The Wired article then describes the changes that were implemented based on review of project progress:

“Although much had already gone awry, Rosen and the Assignment Zero team had one advantage working in its favor: hard-earned knowledge from six weeks of trial and error.

The first order of business was a site redesign. After consultation with the rest of the team, Cohn, who doubled as AZ’s webmaster, rebuilt each topic page to include social networking features. The relevant editor’s picture and contact e-mail were placed at the top of each page, and each topic area now included a forum. The idea was to make each topic a sort of home page, a community gathering-place.

The effect of this reorganization was felt immediately, as contributors could now collaborate openly with each other and review one another’s reporting. This certainly reinforced one of the lessons that was learned from reporting on various crowdsourcing projects: Essentially, it’s all about the community.

However, the majority of topic pages had yet to attract a base of interested volunteers. This demonstrated another lesson: The community controls the scope and direction of the project. “We had to jettison most of the topics we’d started off with,” says Cohn. “Instead, we concentrated on the topics that people were most clearly interested in.” At about the same time the Assignment Zero team made the decision to shift the goal from producing scores of feature stories to producing scores of interviews. Asking contributors to “write the story on open-source car design” had all the appeal of asking people to rewrite their college term papers. Asking them to talk to someone they admire and respect was met with a far warmer response.”

So, here it looks like AZ implemented some simple team organization and structure into their site. One thing about Drupal is that it is an amazing tool, but it’s not an “out-of-the-box” solution. It needs some real adjusting/tweaking and sometimes even customization to create a useful and comfortable environment, for both content users and creators, and administrators. Drupal administration in it’s default setup can be bogglingly complex. Yet, Drupal is flexible enough to be molded into a powerful and intuitive community tool. The Assignment Zero interface has some remarkable differences now, as compared to when I first looked at it a few months ago. It’s been my experience in launching Content Management System websites, that it is often essential to do a “test-run” of the technology, tools and proposed processes before inviting the greater public into the system. So:

  • Assignment Zero Lesson #2: Test tools, technology and processes in real world conditions prior to launching project

Another note from the quote above, is that subject matter for AssignmentZero was pre-selected in a mostly top-down way. Consequently, contributors ended up selecting the topics they were interested in, and ignoring those they weren’t. There are some different possible ways this might have been approached in hindsight. Contributors might have been given the opportunity to vote on content choices during the first week or so of the project. Or, group selection by vote on potential content could have been a “phase” of the project, prior to launching the actual writing phase.

  • AssingmentZero Lesson #3: Give contributors more direct input and control over the subject matter of content, allowing them to self-select as a group the subjects they are most interested in writing about.

These are some important lessons that we hope to apply to the decentre project, an effort to create a community-authored book about the diversity and issues of Artist-Run Culture in Canada:

decentre isa book about artist-run culture as we find it at this particular moment

a collection of short texts by many authors that strives to articulate the ideas behind artist-initiated activities, strengths, weaknesses, challenges, accomplishments and futures

a rhizome of people, projects and places, a work in progress and continually evolving

a set of network tools to initiate an organic, evolving discussion, including a wiki, online forums and groups, blogs, as well as email, list-servs, etc.

We are carrying out much of the discussion at http://www.arcpost.ca/book and in Facebook at Artist-run Centres Unite! and Decentre – concerning artist-run culture and on Flickr at Artist-run Culture on Flickr. Last but not least, a wiki at
YYZBOOKS Book Wiki hosted by SocialSynergyWeb.net. This is combining multiple different creatie/intellectual processes to attract people to share their ideas and experiences in Artist-Run Culture, and to distill those contributions into a book.

Decentre faces some of the same potential issues as Assignment Zero, including encouraging passionate participation, and creating conditions where editors and contributors can work together to create content worthy of the project goals. Decentre also faces potential technological issues, similar to some of those experienced by Assignment Zero. Hopefully, we can learn from the valuable lessons shared y Jay Rosen and the many great people who worked for AZ.


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