Social obligation, crowdsourcing, and an experimental lecture

Posted on March 29, 2013

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When I was asked to give a lecture on professional arts practice and technology at short notice a couple of weeks ago, I decided to use the opportunity to get a little experimental in my approach. This occurred in two ways. The first was that I reached out to my networks on Twitter, asked for your help here on the blog, and contacted a few specific individuals in the Australian arts community with whom I had a relationship, in order to seek ideas and content that I might not think of. The second was by playing with the lecture format itself in order to move out of transmission mode and take a more discursive approach.

So what worked and what didn’t? The crowdsourcing process was interesting. It yielded many useful responses and results which broadened my perspectives and highlighted issues relevant to the students that I probably wouldn’t have otherwise thought of, like Kim’s comment about the cross-over between marketing and IP. I was introduced to new artists too, and received links for useful resources which I was able to pass along to the students. So that was great.

Not all responses were equal, of course. Those links and connections that came from Twitter tended to be shallower and at times less useful than those I received from other sources. The most useful were, in general, those responses that came from people whose specific contributions I sought out. This aligns with what the Social Media Collective at Microsoft Research New England found when they conducted their own remixing/crowdsourcing projects last year. In the first project they ran, which “consisted first in creating a novel piece of content, an image, to serve as a creative seed and then ask specific people, using plain old e-mail, to turn it into something else, i.e., to remix it,” worthwhile responses came from more than half their targetted crowd. A subsequent project was executed using a mailing list and Facebook group, but failed to attract participants and good responses. In this second project, the message was not personalised, and there were many strangers in the groups. From this, the Collective proposed that the factors of success for the first project were that it utilised “pre-existing personal relationships”, had “well-crafted, personalized tasks directed at specific individuals, compared to the diffusion of responsibilities”, and that these tasks were more detailed than the messages to the broader group. I think my experience reflects something similar.

But crowdsourcing my lecture also led to something of a social dilemma. In the odd case where I received results that were not useful in the context of this particular lecture could I ignore them, or did I owe those people who had contributed the respect of using their links or ideas regardless? The act of reaching out asking for help and receiving it, both from people I knew and from strangers, left me to confront questions around social obligation and reciprocity. It became apparent to me quite quickly that asking for help was not value-free. While it might be appropriate to simply thank someone who’d replied to my Tweeted call for help and fold their response into my written document for the students, doing the same with a longer response on the blog felt insufficient to acknowledge the time and effort that had gone into helping me out. I felt particularly obliged to make good use of the contributions that art writer Sharne Wolff, MCA Curatorial Assistant Kelly McDonald, artist and technoevangelist Fee Plumley, and artist and curator Todd Fuller gave, since I had sought them out in person. These invisible social elements of participation became apparent to me through this process in ways they hadn’t previously.

The variety of responses that I received from this approach was, in part, what led to the experiment with lecture delivery. With only an hour with all the students in a single room, it feel like I had too little time to cover a topic as massive as “art, technology, and professional practice” in any real depth, so I wanted to get the students thinking and talking about the pros and cons of being online as an artist, and the impact such choices could have on their careers. I started with ten minutes or so giving a general lay of the land about some ways that artists were using the Internet in their work and what some of the issues were, and then opened up the floor to conversation, maintaining faith that I would be able to live-mix in examples from the responses I’d received from the crowdsourcing experiment.

The approach seemed to work quite well in some ways, but not others. The discussion in the room was great, with many students contributing and almost all appearing to be engaged in it. We were able to cover some interesting theoretical ground, and I did have ready resources at my fingertips for most of the ideas that came up. However, while there were definitely some bright eyes and eager students – those excited to have technology on the agenda and to share their experiences with me and the class – many others seemed to lack confidence, both in regards to individual platforms like Twitter, and about digital experimentation itself, and I don’t know that my approach would have equipped them with many practical takeaways.

So would I take these approaches to either lecture delivery or lecture sourcing again? Delivery yes, but not on every topic. The approach seemed to work well for the particular subject, especially given the time restrictions, but I don’t think it would be appropriate in every situation. By opening up to a more dialogic teaching method probably also meant that it was close to impossible to have predictable outcomes, inviting the risk that important issues could be overlooked. So although it was effective for engagement, it wasn’t necessarily effective for all types of teaching or all subjects.

What about lecture crowd-sourcing? Honestly, I probably wouldn’t do it again, or not without more forethought about how to seek involvement, what sort of involvement to seek, and how to incorporate the responses that I received. I’d want to develop better feedback mechanisms or ways to acknowledge contributors because in some ways it felt like I was taking more from contributors than I could give back. Inviting participation can be great, but should ultimately benefit both parties, and I don’t think I thought enough about how it might benefit those who gave feedback.

Both parts of this experiment helped me better understand some of the complexities around participation; about the social obligations it engenders and the importance of designing such projects well in order to benefit all participants. Now that I’m on the other side of the experiment, the takeaways seem so obvious. But I suppose that is part of learning too, that it is often from doing that we gain insight.

I’d love to hear about your experiences with these sorts of projects. Have you encountered similar issues from those I came across? How have you dealt with the invisible social elements of participation?

And, of course, thank you to all those who did participate in my crowdsourcing experiment. It was appreciated.

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