Crowdsourcing Doesn’t Guarantee Quality… But It Can Be Great Advertising

Sourced with compliments

Earlier this month, BBC Audiobooks America started an audiobook project based on Twitter messages where Neil Gaiman kicked off an exquisite corpse process of stringing together about 1,000 Tweets to forge a storyline. Dozens of Twitter users contributed tweets to be edited into a coherent plot that will be released as a free audiobook download. From this publicity stunt, an approximately 50-page book (or 2-hr audiobook, actually) has been created from Gaiman’s fans. And presumably, the collection of tweets could also be remixed and edited — and improved — to possibly gain further participation from Gaiman (who contributed the first line of the story and will read aloud the completed audiobook) and the attention of any number of other authors. It’s not exactly a brand-new idea to compose a story in this way, but it’s a very interesting way to advertise and connect with fans to whet their appetites for more content to come (and even pay for).

However, the crowdsourcing aspect of this particular audiobook has been criticized in detail for exhibiting the worst of literary clichés as well as a meandering plot with too many characters and unresolved arcs. But generalizing this crowd’s apparently unsatisfying result to all possible collaborative-author processes seems a bit disingenuous. Perhaps it’s one of my pet peeves, but the schadenfreude surrounding crowdsourced works that aren’t “as good as Shakespeare” seems to focus too much on some artificial failure, and not the potential or the realized successes. Maybe fiction isn’t the best target for collaborative authorship, but the suggestion that collaborative writing won’t ever work for good storytelling is far from proven. In fact, many popular stories (TV shows, etc) are written by teams of authors. (So the question could be posed: where does the optimal number of authors arise?) Conversely, the overwhelming number of unsuccessful stories written by single authors should not discourage writers from working alone, either. Bad stories happen.

The real triumph of this crowdwork is that this experiment engaged with its audience and promoted Gaiman and BBCAA for future works. From the BBC’s perspective, a ton of content was generated largely for free, and a promotional audiobook was created in just a few days. Had the BBC commissioned a single author to compose a similar work, there wouldn’t be any guarantees of a compelling book in the end. And working with a single author might require more complex licensing rights and royalties. So crowdsourcing this project sounds like an advertising coup — generating a promotion appropriately disguised as free content. It’s not Shakespeare, but it’s a whole lot better than a banner ad, right?



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