Several weeks ago Assignment Zero executive editor Jay Rosen said that only about 28 percent of what we tried to do with Assignment Zero worked. (If you're unfamiliar with the AZ project, go here.) Rosen had been discussing the future of the interview with Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz, and while 28 percent's a pretty stark assessment, it's probably accurate. Let's just say there's a lot we know now we didn't know when we launched the project. In a few weeks I'll be publishing an essay on Wired.com that will try to explore what I've started to call "a wonderful failure."
But right now I want to celebrate everything that went right. About ten minutes ago I finished reading all 80 of the interviews conducted for the project. To properly appreciate this book-length body of work, I had to relinquish my expectation that they would hew to the putative subject, crowdsourcing. At first I was disappointed. Clearly Assignment Zero had suffered a case of mission creep. So I decided to revise my expectations. The general theme could be considered to be "emerging systems of collaborative production on the Internet." Mindset adjusted, I came away highly satisfied. Here's why:
With shockingly few exceptions, the interviews are compelling, thought-provoking and chock full of insights both philosophical and practical. The final package represents, to my knowledge, the most comprehensive and exhaustive knowledge base on the various ways the Internet has given rise to collaborative forms of production. I've been researching these issues for 18 months, and the collected information handily exceeds my own knowledge base—that itself is a testament to the wisdom of the crowds over the wisdom of the expert.
But allow me to gush in more detail: Most of the interviewers had obviously conducted a fair amount of research into their subject and prepared a list of appropriate questions to ask. AZ contributor Randy Burge, for instance, clearly drew deeply from the available literature on crowdsourced innovation before interviewing Innocentive co-founder Alpheus Bingham. The product is the finest distillation of the complex process by which Innocentive crowdsources problems in corporate R&D to its network of 120,000 scientists. In many cases, the interviewer was uniquely qualified to conduct the interview. James Surowiecki, for instance, was interviewed by one of his former editors.
This is the beauty of open organizational systems. People self-select, assigning themselves to tasks for which they are best-suited. Contrast this with the process by which an interviewer is assigned to interviewee in a closed system (a magazine or newspaper). A journalist is often chosen to conduct a Q&A with a subject based on his or her availability. That's a pretty poor qualification, though it's borne of simple necessity. The professional in this closed system (and I speak from personal experience), often lacks the time it takes to adequately acquaint oneself with the subject's work, ideas and experience. If the resulting product feels a little rote and indifferent, do you blame the journalist or the system?
But not only did the interviews betray a level of passion and specialization rarely found in the mainstream media, they were simply better reads. Magazines and newspapers tend to pasteurize such interviews to filter out any content that any reader anywhere might possibly deem offensive or obscure or simply irrelevant. The result is something that's leached of idiosyncrasy, complex ideas and the accidental poetry that arises from an animated conversation. The AZ interviews, lightly edited as they are, retain all these qualities (along with lots of typos and a few bits of asinine commentary.)
Over the next few months I plan on featuring several of the interviews on the blog as I'd like to directly engage many of the ideas—and their authors—on this blog. Until then ...