Q&A: Jay Rosen and Assignment Zero

Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at New York University, built NewAssignment.net as a laboratory on the Internet to test whether the same Web-based collaboration that spawned Wikipedia, the Firefox browser from Mozilla and the Linux operating system could spur a new form of journalism.

Assignment Zero, the site’s first experiment in collaboration with Wired, is to cover the small but growing trend of crowdsourcing using crowdsourcing—that is having large groups of people spread across the world working together to report and write about the phenomenon of large groups of people working collaboratively from far flung areas to produce high quality work.

“We are trying to figure out whether you can do open platform journalism and whether there are advantages to it,” said Rosen, who emphasized that this is “just an initial test.”

Rosen spoke to OJR about how the Assignment Zero experiment is progressing and what he hopes to learn from the results.

OJR: Why this particular topic for Assignment Zero?

Rosen: We used the gift of particularity that an assignment like this with Wired gives us. We don’t have to ask ourselves what on earth should we investigate because we have to investigate something that’s of interest to Wired, and so the collaboration helped focus our first efforts and give some shape to our story.

It’s also an initial test that also helped us launch our site. Because it’s hard to think of what should be in your site if you want to do open source reporting. It’s very difficult to think of something in the abstract and try and build something that works for a practice that doesn’t exist yet. So instead of doing that we just built what we needed for this assignment.

OJR: What are the criteria for whether the final product is a success or a failure?

Rosen: And there’s a number of answers to that. The most important result is learning how to practice in this area. That’s all I am trying to do we are trying to learn how to practice in this area. Where you have the many reporting and a few editing, is there a way to do it? What do you need to be prepared for? How do you motivate people to contribute? What can volunteer users do? What do they have trouble doing? All these questions are open questions and so our first imperative is simply to learn a lot about that and to learn the lessons that can only be gotten through practice.

The other goal is the work of journalism at the end is exactly going to be lots of pieces of journalism that we can compare to other forms and we can compare to standard methods. So there will be a Wired.com cover story written by Jeff Howe, who is a Wired writer, that would draw on Assignment Zero and link downward to it and at the same time we will publish a editor’s cut or edited package of features and interviews and articles and close ups–recognizable forms of journalism that can be compared to peer products as it were. So these are all ways of judging what we are doing and I think it will be pretty easy for people to judge. I’m trying to kind of make it easy by doing something recognizable on the one hand but novel for journalism on the other.

OJR: The idea of how open source reporting might work is important given some of the problems that can crop up working in an open source environment. How do you plan to deal with these negative aspects as they come up?

Rosen: Here is the way I think of it. I said we are doing an open platform reporting. We are trying to capture some of the benefits of openness. What are they? Well it’s not a big mystery. It starts with what Dan Gillmor said – readers know more than I do.

So we picked a story where we think users know a lot more than we do because the spread of crowd sourcing and open collaboration is in fact a sprawling story. So we are trying to get the benefits of openness like that crowd is more diverse than we are and has more perspectives than we do. And when you try to gain the benefits of the openness you also know that there is a lot of cost, there is a lot of problems that come with openness. And so working in this area, is by definition trying to capture the benefits and solve the problems or reduce the costs and if a reporter comes along, as many have, and brings up one of those costs and says “what about this?”

Well the answer is almost always going to be the same it’s a problem we are working on that and the solution is going to be different in each case and most of them don’t have magical solutions. They have approximate solutions.

So if you can reduce the costs enough and you can get the benefits it may be worth doing. But I can’t even tell you right now that it is. I don’t know yet, we are trying to find that out. I don’t know that this is going to work. I think it’s the most important thing to mention in this interview. We don’t know yet what the potential is. A lot of people think that there could be potential and I am one of them but by practicing we will reveal some of the problems.

OJR: Based on the volunteers that you have gotten so far, what is it that is driving these people to, as you say, “commit acts of journalism for free?”

Rosen: We hope to have a better understanding of that at the end than we do now, but a lot of them are well aware of the citizen journalism discussion. They see themselves as participants in it. They want to be part of it. It’s sort of like the de-professionalisation of journalism appeals to them, but its not that they are terribly ideological about it. They are not. In some cases it’s somebody who took a few journalism courses in college and so it’s a road not taken but still of interest. Some of them are dissatisfied with the way professional journalism has been conducted. Some of them have an interest in this subject that we are investigating here, and a lot of them we don’t exactly know. We don’t know what they intend yet and we don’t know why they joined and this is not unusual in a project like this.

OJR: There is a certain amount of enthusiasm when things are novel that drives people to want to participate. How will you sustain that interest and enthusiasm from start to finish?

Rosen: Definitely, that’s a major challenge, preventing premature disillusionment. I wouldn’t say we totally succeeded at that and that we have seen that happen. Sustaining involvement is definitely a huge puzzle.

I consider that this participation the part of this work to be puzzles within puzzles. It’s all really fascinating and difficult to understand.

OJR: As a pilot project, everyone is watching Assignment Zero very closely. With the limited resources of independent journalists or small publishers, how might they implement aspects the Assignment Zero model?

Rosen: The whole point of NewAssignment.net is for people to take what we are doing and develop it. That’s why I founded this project. It’s supposed to give its results away, it is itself a part of the gift economy.

And my belief is that since this is simply a set of tools you let people practice in this area and they use these tools the way they want to, they will start inventing things, creating things, discovering things that others will be able to pick up very quickly. So I can write 10 blog posts about how open source journalism could work should work but if I can send people one URL where a smart editor is organizing a group of people they will get it like that.

OJR: There are also hurdles in journalism culture that make this a hard sell to some organizations and journalists even if you were to prove it a success.

Rosen: I could think of a zillion and one ways in which it would be a hard sell. And there are also hidden weaknesses and traps in it that I think will come out. Because there’s a ton of problems–and I can’t stress this enough–with an open approach to reporting.

That’s why everybody loves the idea of blogging as in individual writers giving their opinion. But when we are trying to figure out the right route to reliable information than a whole bunch of new problems arise. And I just wanted to steer right towards the biggest problems because I feel that I don’t really think that I am going to figure this puzzle out. I think it’s going to be someone somewhere looking at what we are doing or reading about it who says to themselves – that’s not the way to do it, you know there is a simpler way. And they’ll figure it out. But that’s fine. Again, that’s what NewAssignment.net is; it’s not a company. Its only mission is to spark innovation. So I have a very simple agenda and I don’t care where the innovation happens.

OJR: Did the fact that you have never been a professional journalist help or hinder when putting this project together?

Rosen: I haven’t been a journalist and so I do approach the routines and rituals of American professional journalism in a more anthropological way and a lot of what journalists do seems very strange to me, but I have made a study of the routines and rituals of the press, and there are parts of them I know better than professional journalists. Not in the sense that I know how to do the job better than them, I don’t. I rarely tell journalists what they should do, in terms of like editing their newspaper or covering their story. Usually they know much better than I do but if you look at parts of their professional life, I know them better.

One of them for example is the legitimacy system that they use to derive their rationale. I studied that and know where it comes from. They tend to just reproduce it you know. It’s nature to them. It’s professional culture to me.

But this thing is not really about that. What I am trying to do with Assignment Zero is it doesn’t really have its reference points in the problems of the newsroom. It really has a different reference point which is the fact that open source projects have succeeded in other areas and so we know people can collaborate online and then pool what they know. So we are trying to figure out can this work in journalism too.

When Tim Berners-Lee invented the Web, he wasn’t inventing a new platform for CNN, he wasn’t trying to put the newspaper out of business, and he wasn’t trying to create a multimedia world. What he was trying to do when he invented the World Wide Web was make it possible for people in a scientific community interested in the same problem to share knowledge and to share data and work together.

So collaboration is not something new in use of the Web; it is in fact the original motivation for creating the Web and it’s in the DNA of this wonderful machine. And so I see what we are doing as springing from original promise of the web which is a democratic promise. It’s the idea that we are stronger together if we share what we know. Than if we are atomized and alone. And it’s not really the obsessions of the newsroom that gave rise to what I am doing now.

OJR: How do you plan to handle info overload in this project as it flows in from the legions of volunteers?

Rosen: If you invite participation that generates a lot of activity and that activity generates certain costs, like returning e-mail, for example, and if you simply try to absorb those costs by hiring more people your project runs out of money within a week. And so this point has been reached many times in open source projects and the way they work and the way they scale, as people say in the valley, is that you have to convert some of those participants to organizing the others.

And those people frequently called super contributories if you look in the literature on online organizing you’ll find that these are key players right in your volunteer core. And so that’s what you a have to do you have to configure participants so that they themselves absorb the cost of organizing other participants. I can’t say that we have done that completely yet but we are highly aware of the problem.

One of the coolest things I think in NewAssignment.net and this is something that I am going to develop more of as I go along is we have a director of participation. Her name is Amanda Michel and I got her from the world of online organizing and politics. She worked in online organizing for Dean and for Kerry. And she could have worked and made quite a bit of money actually doing the same thing in the ‘08 cycle but she is more interested in the media side of things.

And so I went out and this is the person I found when I went out looking for somebody who would actually organized people horizontally on the net to work under high pressure conditions where being wrong could have consequences right. That’s what I had wanted somebody who had done that because that’s what kind of situation we are in. So the director of participation their job is to organize people while the editors who are much more traditional figures organize the story. And learning how those two jobs work and how they those two people can work together is another thing that we are trying to discover here. And there has never been a need to organize people to report stories except for the news people. This is all a whole other kind of thing and you need somebody working on that. You need someone who is constantly removing barriers making participation easier because participation always has costs and they can get high very quickly either for you like the institution doing it like Assignment Zero or for the participants.

And if you are battling those costs constantly your project quickly becomes unworkable.

OJR: What’s the timeline for you the work that comes from this reporting?

Rosen: Yeah there will be we are looking right now… this could change of course. But right now we are looking at about June 4th or 5th to publish and so everything has to work backwards from there.

But we are going to have a filter and we are going to have… hope to have a verification round but we might end up like with two days of back checking by crowd you know what I mean. Throw everybody at what we need to check really we don’t know yet but that’s exactly why we are doing this and journalism doesn’t happen until the familiar structures of bylines and deadlines and you know…

So basically we are going to let 40 people steer 40 pages through to completed text and publish the best of them and Jeff Howe will do an overview.

Collective power: ‘Smart mobs’ connect, share information on Net

The future belongs to swarm intelligence, or smart mobs. Grouped together by common interests, age or occupation, smart mobs use the wonders of online technology to stay in touch and better their day-to-day lives. Nobody wishes to be cast out of these communities, so smart phones, computers and PDAs help them integrate and learn from each other.

The trend is clear, at least for the participants in Germany’s Trend Day conference organized for the tenth year in Hamburg, on June 2: Internet and mobile phones are the keys to this inter-connected world; blogging is “digital word-of-mouth propaganda,” the direct marketing and advertising of our day and of tomorrow; Web users become journalists with the advantage of services like Wikinews; and linking has become more important than products – that’s why “business itself should learn to google,” said media analyst and author Howard Rheingold at the conference.

In Germany there is a 50/50 usage of the Internet in private and business life. “This is a really exciting moment, because the technology is involved in daily life,” said Duisburg/Essen University’s Professor Peter Wippermann, founder of Trendbuero, the consulting company which organizes Trend Day. “But the cultural and social interaction [made possible by new media] is not really recognized,” he said, “So in this day we talk about how this will change our behavior in daily life.”

“Smart mobs” and “swarm intelligence” are two phrases that define the same concept, and since the organizers of the Trend Day conference built this year’s event around “swarm intelligence,” they invited Rheingold, who wrote Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution, to deliver the keynote address. According to Rheingold, smart mobs are spontaneous majorities of citizens who organize themselves via the Internet and mobile phones.

SMS as a smart mobs’ tool

Rheingold called services like Short Message Service (SMS — sending and receiving text messages using mobile phones) “technologies of cooperation.” They are “embryonic” today, he said, and the way people make use of new media shapes new social forms.

SMS was slower to pick up speed in the US than in Asia and Europe, but it has now taken off in America as well, Rheingold said. “[American cell phone operators] pitched SMS to 30-year-old executives instead of 15-year-old girls, and this was a mistake,” said Rheingold, explaining why SMS was slow to develop in the U.S. Plus, he explained, there were technology problems, such as the fact that American operators did not allow for messages to be transmitted from one network to another. SMS first appealed to teenagers because it was a very comfortable way to communicate with their kind without grown-ups ear-dropping, Rheingold said.

However, 30-year-old executives are now using the text capabilities of their mobile phones just like 15-year-olds. “SMS was commercially an accident – it was not originally seen as a revenue-producing service, but today 100 billion SMS messages are being exchanged every month,” said Rheingold.

Smart mobs are “the next social revolution,” Rheingold said. Nowadays our handheld devices are more powerful than the desktop computers we had 15 years ago. In a few years virtually everybody will walk on the streets with a powerful computing machine, he added, explaining that the combined computing and communication power of the people will generate a new way of group action and interaction at a societal scale.

Blogs change the business world

To Wippermann, the intelligent swarm means evolution, rather than revolution. “The Internet was a technical revolution,” Wippermann said. “The intelligent swarm is a social evolution.”

This evolution has been changing the way people communicate and is also changing the way people do business. New technologies and new communication habits offer new marketing tools. According to Wippermann, in an intelligent swarm people communicate and exchange information and opinions about products.

Blogs are one popular way for people to do these things, and this is why blogging becomes more and more important to marketing. The dialogue of the “grassroots consumer” defines the success of the markets, said the German professor, who is a specialist in trends-based brand management.

In his conference address, Wippermann talked about some of the ideas he tackled in the book The New Moral of Network Children (Steinle/Wippermann). According to Wippermann, those who can offer “a childish play instinct and youthful naïveté will provoke swarm intelligence. Events, action and styling determine the efficiency of swarm communication. Those who don’t remain in the discussion will be turfed out.”

This is how blogs became important in influencing and shifting American political views during the 2004 election, and they are now used by politicians as a campaign tool. And this is why companies that understand the power of blogging sometimes create fake blogs to discuss — and hence promote — their own products and services.

“Links are more important than products”

At the same time, in modern society linking has come to be more important than products, said Dr. Norbert Bolz, a media philosopher who teaches at the Institute for Language and Communication at the Technischen Universität Berlin. “Quality alone is not enough,” according to Bolz. “Success is a network effect. Weak connections are stronger than strong connections. Acquaintances are more important than friends,” he maintained.

“Today you make the main profit not with the quality of products, but with process of linking between buyers and sellers, between products and people,” Bolz said in an interview with OJR. The quality of products is still essential but is no longer enough, he added. “Linking is the new added value of the 21st century,” Bolz argued.

Links have absolutely added value to journalism and not only to online media, Bolz said. “A very simple example outside the world of online journalism is what traditional media do nowadays,” he explained. “Every traditional medium, television or print media, can only exist nowadays by linking to online media. Many stories have a link toward a Web site.”

The German philosopher believes besides the value of one product, today you have to provide consumers of media and other products and services with something more: “You have to give consumers the impression that they no longer consume one product at a time, but a whole sentence of products.”

One product is one word, Bolz said. “But nowadays we don’t need a word, we consume whole sentences, we consume stories. And that is [something] you can only construct by linking products or services if you want to produce and sell a story – and this is what people expect from markets nowadays: they want to buy stories. And this means you have to link products to provide a whole environment of consumerism.”

Is this the end for traditional media? Bolz’s answer is no. “I’m absolutely sure traditional media will survive,” he told OJR. “I don’t think the prospect of cannibalization in the media is really true. I think media will coexist. They will be complements of each other. Because every medium, even an old one like books on printed paper, has some qualities you can’t [find] in other media.”

What will happen, Bolz said, is that every medium will have to find its “unique selling proposition.” Most people who say the print media days are over “are just too lazy to think of their own unique selling proposition.” Things will surely change, Bolz thinks, but not in the sense that everything will be digital. “What we’ll have is a media mix,” he said. “People will arrange and mix multiple media they are interested in and everyone will be characterized by a different media mix. I think this is a much more interesting perspective on the future of media than all this talk about the cannibalization of traditional media by the computer and by the Internet. Everything will coexist, in a new way of course – wherever you have coexistence, it means that every part of this coexisting situation must redefine its own qualities.”

Wikipedia and Wikinews: anyone can produce information

For many, the keyword on the Internet is “free.” And not only in the sense that you get free information, but also in the sense that people sometimes seem pleased to work for free. Actually, online communities – call them intelligent swarms or smart mobs if you like – are often based on their members’ willingness to freely contribute to the group’s knowledge.

This is the engine powering Wikipedia, for example, at least according to its founder, Jimmy Wales, who came to Hamburg to explain how people are voluntarily posting entries on this Web encyclopedia out of sheer will to better human knowledge. Wales published the Wikipedia software in January 2001 and after four years the free encyclopedia — where entries are written, edited, corrected and sometimes voted out by ordinary people who don’t get any pay — is larger than Britannica online and Encarta put together. It is in the top 100 Web sites, and it registers more than 500 million page views a month.

“Imagine a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge. That’s what we’re doing. If the mainstream media can’t do good, unbiased journalism, then we’ll have to do it for them,” Wales said.

And they are not just doing it to the free encyclopedia, Now the Web has Wikinews.org, working by the same principles: “the free news source that you can write,” as the site advertises itself. Add to that Wiktionary, where users can input word definitions; Wikibooks, which aims to create a “complete curriculum from kindergarten to university,” as Wales put it; Wikisource for reference; Wikiquote for quotations; and Wikimedia for picture and sound files.

But doesn’t the fact that anybody can edit an encyclopedia or a news site hurt quality? And how reliable is a source where anybody, including fanatics, the dumb and the crazy can post?

It is reliable, argued Wales. Although it does not have a reputation mechanism such as those used by eBay or Slashdot, where posters’ credibilities are monitored, Wiki’s reputation “is a natural outgrowth of human interactions,” he said.

What helps is that in fact 50 percent of all edits on the English-language Wikipedia site are done by a mere 0.7 percent of all users — 524 people — and only two percent have written over 70 percent of all articles, Wales said. On the German-language site, he added, nine percent — 320 people — of all users are responsible for more than 90 percent of edits.

When things are in danger of getting out of control, for example when fanatics or extremists attempt to corrupt Wiki’s content, Wales, who views his role as that of a monarch over a kingdom, has the power to intervene and correct things. He said he nearly had to use this power when a group of neo-Nazis planned to exploit Wiki’s vote-out system to erase content they didn’t like. The Nazis tried to group-vote some articles out, but they were overwhelmed by other users and didn’t succeed, Wales explained. A nice example of how “spontaneous majorities of citizens,” as Trend Day speakers defined the smart mobs, organized themselves to counteract a neo-Nazi mob that proved to be a minority.

Dangers: cacophony and fetishism

But with so many people having a voice online, isn’t there a danger that views that society usually casts out may sometimes prevail on the Net? With so many sources such as online communities and blogs out in the wild, how can Internet users tell value from the rest? Could this multitude of sites overwhelm and confuse the readers?

“Yes, of course,” said Bolz, but this is a characteristic of the Internet culture: diversity at its best, but also at its worst – “too many voices, a cacophony.” Not only the smart mobs mobilize, he said. It is also “the dumb, the crazy, the paranoid, the radicals – everyone has a Web site, everyone has a potential of community, so the development of this new technology is not a straight road into progress or happiness, and I look at it with mixed feelings. I have mixed emotions, we have to pay our price.”

Moreover, with so many new possibilities of interaction, there is always another danger; Bolz called it “fetishism” and said it is characteristic of the whole world of interactive media. “Wherever there are interactive media, interactive possibilities, there is the danger of fetishism – which means people are interacting, or people are communicating not because they want to transfer information, to cooperate or do things, but they just communicate for communication’s sake; they just link for linking’s sake.” Often they do it only because it is fun.

“But I think these are all problems of a very early stage of this new communication,” Bolz argued. “It’s the childhood of the new digital media, and children are not only funny, but they are sometimes very dumb and very crazy, and we just have to wait, as a culture, until we get mature.”

And we’ll grow up in five or six years, Bolz thinks. “I’m optimistic because the Internet is a very explosive medium and it starts for most of us in 1995, which is exactly ten years ago, and this is not very long,” he said.