Yahoo!, what the hell?
Crowdsourcing done Wrong, in every conceivable way.
In my essay "The Problem with Crowdsourcing" I outline four components of a system governed by the network effect. I go on to explain why creative enterprises do not scale well, and why "crowdsourcing" generally fails those enterprises.

Somebody rediscovered this essay earlier today, and posted it to Twitter. Then, scant hours later, I had cause to revisit it again for the first time in months. So let's discuss a case study in how you take a bad idea, and execute it terribly. How's that?

Well, I apparently failed to list one of the biggest reasons, which is that crowdsourcing is often turned to by faltering companies looking to avoid complete failure by taking the cheapest possible way out of their declining relevance and revenues. I did not think that "iniquity" really needed to be listed as one of these reasons for failure. But apparently it does.

Long-time readers will know that I tend to move around a lot, but I lived for about ten years in Colorado. Specifically, I grew up in Aurora, an eastern suburb of the capital, Denver. This is one fact you need to know, because Yahoo! also apparently knows it.

(This, in itself, is not a problem. I don't mind companies knowing things about me; I tend to live a very open life, anyway. I don't keep secrets)

Earlier today (Friday, July 20th 2012) there was a shooting at a movie theater in Aurora; a dozen people were killed, and scores more were wounded. It's a random, senseless act of violence.

I've received a few E-mails from parties who didn't know I had left the state, or wasn't sure if I had friends there still, and wanted to know if everything was alright. If you put "tragedy in Colorado" and "Alex lives in Colorado" together, that would be one possible response. It would be the response you might consider if you had any sense of human decency, or if you were familiar with how people who were not raised by wolves tend to behave.

Alternately, you could be Yahoo!, in which case you would send me this E-mail out of the blue:

All highlighting was added by me.

What I find most fascinating about this is that it's clearly not a form E-mail; at least, not completely. Somebody took the time to think, so I want to put out a mass mailing asking for first-person perspectives on more than seventy people being shot. What do I really want out of this?

What they want, clearly, is a "colorful, first-person snapshot." Particularly if you were at the shooting, or if you were a "victim in any way." But for this, they are willing to offer the princely sum of $20. What is the price of a front-row seat to human tragedy? At most, ten cents a word.

You can, in any case, see the thought process that led to this E-mail, which is so guileless, so earnest in its slavering desire for amateur pathos that it could almost have come from The Onion. That thought process went something like this: "Hey, remember when that airplane crashed, in the Hudson River, and the first reactions came from Twitter? We could really use some of that."

The PowerPoint presentation that led Yahoo! to spam prospective victims of a shooting spree for all the gory details (with photos, please!) probably said "leverage" instead of "use," but the meaning is the same. And there are added benefits, even beyond the shameless desire to cling to the long tail. These benefits are ephemeral — but while Yahoo!'s strategic directors may be shameless, they are not stupid.

Yahoo! is aware that the "journalism" they are going to get out of this endeavor is raw and untrained. This is why they include the prompt, which seems to have been taken from a middle schooler's writing assessment. "How did the blood make you feel? Please be specific." But this is what they wanted — they're looking for the roughness that speaks to veracity only an amateur can really deliver. They want that classic TV news money shot, of the crying victims, fear still in their eyes — but in text, you can't do that, and the ragged edges of a citizen journalist are the next best thing.

Nor am I under any illusions that professional reporting is any less ghoulish; I read that the media had been able to contact the suspect's mother, which means they called her at 3 in the morning to drool over juicy soundbites. We've come to expect that, and come to expect a certain barbarism from the press. That's not a surprise.

But that doesn't make it right, either.

I should clarify that I'm not offended. I'm not looking to point fingers or lay blame; I haven't been wounded by this E-mail — nor by the follow-up that urged me to submit a piece if I had "a connection to the 1999 Columbine High School shootings" and went on to babble, "we understand there are major differences in the two events. But because of the proximity and high number of killed" [people, one presumes?] they would like contributions anyway.

It's simply so absurd, so perversely wrong-headed in its sentiments and desires, that I felt compelled to highlight it. Is this really what we've come to, Web 2.0?
20.07.2012 - 1h59
20.07.2012 - 2h08

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