My Assignment Zero interview

I was interviewed via email for’s assignment zero on crowdsourcing by Neal G. Moore, director of community relations at Indiana University’s School of Informatics. I’ll put up the first exchange. If you have better answers — or better questions — please join in.

1. How do you define crowdsourcing? How, if at all, it is different from citizen journalism?

I’m not very interested in terms and definitions; they’re meaningless unless you give them meaning. You’re doing the story on crowdsourcing. What do you think it means?

I also don’t like the term “citizen journalism” anymore — though I once did — because I think it is wrong and potentially dangerous to define journalism by who does it. This means that some will be official, professional journalists and others won’t; some will get access and protection and privilege and others won’t; someone will certify official journalists and that puts power in their hands to take that certification away. Anyone can commit an act of journalism: of gathering and sharing news. And we’re all citizens.

So I call this networked journalism, because I think the opportunity is in doing more together than we could do apart; that is the premise behind, of course. The internet is not a medium of content, it is a means of communication and making connections. And so it enables us to work together, cooperatively, pro-am — no longer serial but parallel, additively, without regard to medium, time, or location — in ways we never could before.

The key is how that is enabled. There are many ways and many needs. Tags let us find each others’ information and connect; when we tag what we write, it is an act of creating both content and connections; it is a social act. Advertising networks help support these efforts financially. Instruction helps us do these tasks better, with more credibility and trust. Links allow us to edit and surface the best, however we define best. And so on.

So I don’t think that crowdsourcing is some limited phenomenon. It is a label given to a new capability brought on by the internet: the ability to work together to a shared goal. [Later: I shouldn’t have said “new”; should have said “improved.]

2. A comment posted by a reader at Assignment Zero posed the following questions: How do Citizen Journalists establish credibility with their audience? How do citizen journalists, many of whom have little to no formal journalism training, learn to navigate the potentially tricky realms of what constitutes libel, slander, etc? Are citizen journalists held to different legal standards than their professional counterparts? If so, in what ways?

As Jay Rosen has said, the way of old news brands was that their trust rubbed off on those whose bylines appeared there: You’d get your calls answered because you called from the New York Daily News; you got trust because the New York Times trusted you.

But that is changing and perhaps even perhaps starting to reverse as writers in publications become stronger brands — with stronger reputations — and as publications gain new relationships with writers who do not work on their staffs: They link to bloggers, for example; and I will soon announce a deal involving another sort of networked relationship between big and small media.

The editor of a major magazine said in Davos at the World Economic Forum Internetional Media Council that he sees his magazine now as a collection of brands. I believe this means that the writers and their own trustmarks are part of the magazine brand and so are the readers themselves because of who they are, what they do, what they know, and now what they share.

Jay Rosen famously said at the first Bloggercon that “our writers are now readers and our readers are now writers.” The editor of another major newspaper online site took this the next step when she told me recently that her writers and readers start to look more alike.

So I don’t think we will see clear delineation between professional journalists working for major organizations and what you call citizen journalists working on their own or with those organizations or in new groupings.

How do these practitioners establish their credibility? By being right more than they are wrong and being open and honest when they are wrong. You might also ask how professional journalists lose their credibility. By being wrong and not being open about it. Different sides of the same sword. But the essence of it is exactly the same: You earn trust through credibility.

How do new practitioners learn? By education. Some of this is learning by example: how are other bloggers doing this? Some is by trial-and-error: You make a mistake and don’t make it again but learn because you make it in the open. I hope more learning can also happen more formally for those who wish it. I helped get a grant from Knight for the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism to create curriculum to teach bloggers et all the 10 things they need to know to stay out of court. Also at CUNY, I’m developing the continuing education program, which I hope will offer instruction in skills for amateurs and professionals. I also believe that the way to scale this is to turn newsrooms into classrooms where we can share what we know (how to file a FOIA, how to shoot better video, what our rights are to public meetings); that will take a cultural shift but it is part of how big media can work with the crowd in a larger network.

But, of course, I also believe that the professionals have much to learn as well: how they can now work with large crowds of fellow reporters, how they can work in new media, how they can throw out the deadline clock and tell the world what they know when they know it, how they can become better at making connections. (See a post on this here)

I’m not sure what you mean with your question about being held to different legal standards. Held by whom? This is one of the reasons why I say that we must not define journalism by the person but instead by the act. The act that is protected under shield laws for a professional must hold for an amateur as well. But this raises more difficult questions: When everyone is shielded, then there will be no more shield, for example.

Note also that identity and trust and fluid issues in this realm. That is, we are still looking for new means to identify those we trust. Slashdot and Digg have their ways to do that (by their actions); Facebook another (by their real identities); Technorati another (by their links), and so on. We are looking for more systems to help us decide whom to trust.

3. I’m of the opinion that – as we’ve seen with Wikipedia and its legion of imitators – the Web community is capable of self-policing; that it is capable, for the most part, of ferreting out incorrect, inappropriate or potentially libelous reporting by citizen journalists. Do you share this sentiment? If not, who or what can provide the necessary checks and balances?

Of course, communities have always policed themselves. But remember that they did this often by hiring police forces. There needs to be some authority, as there is in good forum communities and in Wikipedia, but that authority must be open and it operates, like good government, at the will and pleasure of the people. (That is, if a forum moderator or Wikipedia leader is a tyrant, people can and will leave.)

I believe we have found that the crowd is adept at fact-checking. It was blogger Ken Layne who said to big media, famously, in 2002 that “we can fact-check your ass.” We can and we do. And we also check our own. I know that my readers will correct me and expect me to act on that correction quickly. If I do not, I squander credibility. We have been much faster at corrections than big, old media. But I believe I see them getting faster, too.

4. Fundamental to crowdsourcing is the conviction that, given enough people spread across a sufficiently broad base, a task can be completed more thoroughly and expeditiously. Do you agree that “the sum is greater than the parts”, and if so, can you cite an example or two?

Of course.

There are now plenty of examples of news organizations and citizens sharing what they know about news.

I go to Treonauts and TreoCentral to get any information I need for my phone.

I now can get reviews of restaurants and movies from many of my neighbors.

See Dell engaging in what I call crowdmanaging (after once fearing the crowd) here.

Google itself is a product of the wisdom of the crowd. As is Both prove that we need not deliberately join together to accomplish that but that enablers can bring elegant organization — in Mark Zuckerberg’s words — to what we are already doing and what we already know. See my post here.

Gathering together around a tag in blogs via Technorati or photos via Flickr is an example of crowdsourcing.

5. How sustainable is crowdsourcing (and citizen journalism)? As it matures, what impact do you expect?

Again, I think your trying to find too narrow a definition of both. Will collaboration continue? Of course. Will we use the internet to make connections with each other and seek out and share information? Absolutely. We have always tried to do this; there is absolutely nothing new there. Only we now have new tools and means to do it better. That will not go away. Quite to the contrary, we will only find new ways with new tools to collaborate more and more effectively.