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So What Do You Do, Jeff Howe, Author and Wired Contributing Editor?

This writer discusses how an online 'meritocracy' poses a threat to journos

- October 8, 2008
When Wired editor Jeff Howe was covering the Vans Warped Tour a few years ago for an article he was writing about MySpace, he was struck by a strange phenomenon among the young people there: powered with the latest creative technological gadgets, they were creating a ton of their own content. "They were promiscuously creative," he notes. "They painted and did poetry and wrote music and played music and did Web design -- but looking at how they worked, it seemed like they had a much deeper dynamic." What he found was that they were part of a new type of online interaction, with communities forming to become engines that create collaborative content. After chewing over his findings, Howe eventually decided this was an example of how Internet communities can be harnessed for their collective talents, collaborating on projects that weren't possible in the past. In a sense, this new paradigm is all about outsourcing to the crowd, an idea that became the term he coined for his new book: "crowd-sourcing." Here he talks to mediabistro.com about these ideas, and their implications for creative professionals and freelancers.


Name: Jeff Howe
Position: Contributing editor at Wired, author of Crowdsourcing: How the Power of the Crowd Is Driving the Future of Business
Date of birth: August 19, 1970
Hometown: Columbus, Ohio
Resume: Attended Ohio University. Moved to NY in 1994 to be an art critic. Worked for a couple of years at Art Forum and Art in America. Edited a national college magazine called Link. Became a contributor at the Village Voice and worked at the magazine for Inside.com. Brought into the Wired fold in March, 2001, and went on contract several months afterwards.
First section of the Sunday Times: Week in Review.
Favorite TV show: Mad Men
Last book read: Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr by Nancy Isenberg.
Guilty pleasure: Nicorette by the dozens.


Why do you think there is this explosion of people doing stuff for free in "crowd-sourced" communities?
People do it because it's a lot of fun. People have always done it, but there has really been a renaissance of amateur activity. In the past, it was kind of an economic dark matter that took place in garages and at the local bars and in people's kitchens and at church socials where people were producing information that possibly had some latent economic value -- but there was no way to make it kinetic or leverage it. But then the Internet comes along and you can sell ads against it, and you can start pushing and prodding people to use this information production as a means of solving problems, taking photographs, and getting them rallied behind some idea of investigative reporting . [You can] have them pore over engineering blueprints instead of having a reporter do it, because some of the people in this community are engineers and know a lot more about this than an investigative reporter. It's not that this stuff started with the Internet -- it's that the Internet made it economically valuable. And now there's a positive feedback loop where you have companies that have exploited this for gain and are learning ways to foster even more people coming on and doing more of this.

The most successful examples have been ground-up; communities that form of their own sake and it's almost happenstance that they are creating something of immense economic value. And then the corporations swoop down and buy it up. It's fun -- it's passion, and passion is the currency of the 21st century.

But someone is making money off of it. How do you think this will affect the ability of people who do this kind of stuff for a living to get paid?
At this point there are a lot of thorny questions about "should these people be demanding more money?" I mean, are Flickr users "slave labor?" Flickr's offering a valuable service, but Yahoo is making money off of it. Or a better question might be whether the people of iStockPhoto are bringing down the standards of photography and the general aesthetic quality of photography. Are they hurting the ability of a creative professional to make a living? These are very important questions -- and the answer to some of these questions is "yes." But should they stop? There's obviously a value proposition there that is appealing, and that's the market, for better or worse.

"Crowdsourcing is removing the patina of authority around the 'accredited professional.'"

How do you see this market evolving?
Well, Ken Auletta is not going out of business anytime soon, and neither is Malcolm Gladwell or Sebastien Junger, and neither is David LaChappelle. High-end photograhpy will enjoy as robust a market as it ever has. I think top talent will always enjoy a market, and nothing that has happened as of now to telegraph that they're in trouble.

If iStockPhoto and blogs is hurting the general level of content, it's not by much. The fact is that the aesthetic quality of what's being produced by professionals; that mid-range mid-market kind of stuff wasn't very good anyway. I mean it was okay, it was passable. But the crowd is going to hurt the ability for your average sitcom writer to produce a really shitty product? Read some regional daily newspaper reporting -- a lot of it is really bad. I mean, there are regional bloggers out there that are much better. The fact that they're not accredited to do it, or that they don't make a living doing it, doesn't mean that they're not doing a better job.

One of the things that crowdsourcing is doing is removing the patina of authority around the "accredited professional." We've been chipping away at that patina for a long time, but this is really a positive thing. There's a lot of professionals out there who have failed upward; I feel their pain, but at the same time a lot of them are bad and the amateurs are better. The fact that someone went to J-school or studied photography or got a PhD in organic chemistry is not a guarantee that they are doing good work. What crowdsourcing creates is a meritocracy where people who aren't accredited, didn't go to the right schools, and don't necessarily need or want to make their living at it can compete with the professionals because sometimes they are as good.

But don't the quality products and the people who create them soon become professional?
That's really one of the big debates around all this user-generated content -- is this really just a talent-finding mechanism? Or are we seeing the emergence of a new ecosystem, where basically people all have their heads in "the long tail"? I lean towards the former, but I still think that crowdsourcing is transformative because if you are creating a meritocracy in all of these fields, that's still transformational. I don't necessarily think the professional will end. I just think we have found this amazing new way to discover people who should be professionals.

What is the takeaway from your book for freelancers in media industries, as well as newspaper people who are being downsized and forced to reevaluate their careers?
I'd like the book to be well-read generally, but on a very emotional level hope that it is well-read in the media industry. I spent a lot of time looking at media, and it's the one part where I didn't just spend time looking at crowdsourcing, but also in practicing it. I think that newspapers, magazines, and editors ignore crowdsourcing at their own peril. From the perspective of a journalist, the crowd is a threat. And we can try and wish that away, but we're not going to. From the perspective of publishers and editors the crowd is also a threat, but it's also a tremendous opportunity.

"The idea that the crowd wants our jobs per se -- that they want to cover city council meetings or write long-winded features about desalination -- is the product of a crack high."

A good example of this (that's not in the book) is what Budget Travel did a few months ago, creating an entirely user-generated issue. What they learned in some ways was that it was a more vibrant issue than those produced by professionals -- but it was also very labor-intensive. The lesson for publishers is that a deeper reader engagement is its own reward, but you're expending a lot more energy editing.

So the idea that the crowd wants our jobs per se -- that they want to cover city council meetings or write long-winded features about desalination -- is the product of a crack high. No one wants to do that. But that doesn't mean they don't want to produce the media; they want to give tips, they want to get involved, they want to feel like they have a relationship with the people producing their media, and they want to shoot photos and send them in. The audience has a lot of offer in terms of media, and I'm bullish on their ability to contribute meaningfully to investigative journalism.

The future of investigative journalism really is all about impassioned readers working close together with professionals unearthing information that would have formerly required teams of investigative reporters. You have smart journalists and editors who really have their ear to the rail when it comes to the subject, who are helping guide the crowd and ferreting out what's good and what's bad in what they come up with. But you have the crowd doing a lot of the heavy lifting in the aggregate. As individuals, people maybe aren't doing that much; say everyone reads 10 internal memos, and suddenly you have 300,000 internal memos to read because you have 30,000 people who are happy to do it. Every newspaper in the country should be studying what Talking Points Memo does, because you could import that model and hammer away at government malfeasance on every level.

Does this work better for uncovering stuff in government than in business? On the one hand, the crowd is able to investigate, but they don't really have the contacts or backing of a publication to get in touch with a CEO, say. I mean, it's one thing if you call up and say "Hi, I'm Jeff Howe and I'm calling from Wired…" but it 's totally different if you're just some guy who's interested.
That's why the first idea of crowdsourcing -- that the crowd is simply going to rise up and produce a wholesale journalistic product -- was terribly misguided. It just doesn't work that way. You need someone with a source network making those calls. But the crowd is very good at these select tasks; at poring over documents, and gathering unique information in bulk. If you've got 30,000 people working on something, one of them is an engineer, one of them knows Spanish, one of them used to work at said corrupt utility. So that's what you're getting. But they're not going to be completing those specialized functions that only a journalist can do. That's why you need them working together, and you need this fact-checked as well. I mean, the crowd will give you lots of crap, so it needs to be filtered and sorted.


David Hirschman is editor of mediabistro.com's Daily Media Newsfeed.

[This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]

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