Wednesday, September 08, 2010

The Problems of Crowd Sourcing

I'm always fascinated by examples of crowd sourcing being used in the arts. There has been, since Clay Shirky's "Here comes everybody", a sense that the arts should remove the gatekeepers and let the people decide.

It's the very ethos of the Guardian's "Not the Booker". Wondering about all those books read by the Booker judges and that didn't make the longlist (or weren't even considered) Sam Jordison ran this alternative list last year, where the discussion was equally as interesting as for the official list. Pointedly, there was a more contemporary slant to a list that, last year at least (and to a lesser extent this year), was steeped in the past. Booker judges, it seems, prefer well-researched novels - the rest of us have more catholic tastes.

This year, the discussion on the Guardian books blog has been rich and varied - with over a hundred eligible novels put forward. However, on confirming the short list, the Guardian organisers discovered some slightly odd voting patterns. Writers were mobilising their Facebook friends to sign up and comment. The crowd, when mobilised, becomes a mob of sorts.

A few Christmasses ago, Cornerhouse, Manchester's art cinema, asked for choices for a Christmas film. The crowd wanted "Die Hard" rather than more traditional fare such as "It's a Wonderful Life." There was an element here of "daring" the art cinema to put on something so mainstream. They stuck by the deal, and it was a welcome sell-out.

What's fascinating about this year's "Not the Booker" is that it wasn't only the Guardian's staff, but other commentators on the thread, who had been active in the discussion (and on other Guardian' blog threads), who pointed out block voting. Like Union meetings where the mobilised mob misses the debate, and only turns up for the voting - there was a concern that this had happened here.

Given that books on the shortlist will be well read, sell a few more copies, gain some publicity it's probably a list worth being on - but I'm wondering why there is this "mob" rules approach to books. If I've already read a book (David Mitchell, Martin Amis), I'm not really going to read it again to be part of the Not the Booker discussion, though at least I'll have an opinion. I read Jen Ashworth's "A kind of intimacy" not because it made last year's list, but because I'd seen her read from it a couple of times, and found something genuine in her prose. I'm interested in this competition not because I want a particular book to win it, but because I want to be drawn to a list outside the Booker's predictability. Yet, if there's been a bit of mobilising of the mob for the shortlist, then to what aim? If these 5 books are any good, we won't mind, but if they don't appeal to us, then the chances are that few people will bother picking them up, reading them, or contributing to the discussion.

With Sam Jordison and Sarah Crown re-opening the voting with a List A and List B, the debates on the blog are fascinating - an open door on a process that asks serious questions about the unmediated "crowd sourcing" of opinion. What I find surprising is the football team approach to this whole experiment. The question one commentator asks: "is this a popularity contest to see which authors have the most mates willing to spend a couple of minutes creating a Guardian account?" is at the heart of the crowd sourcing conundrum. In a world as small and rarified as books, those with a deep interest can be easily swamped by those with a shallow one. Yet, at the same time, there's clearly some genuine enthusiasm for some of the books on list A as well as list B.

It's a fascinating experiment, and the openness of the organisers is to be applauded. They seem genuinely not to know what to do about this! The crowd is now being asked to arbitrate on whether or not there has been a "crime." No participation without responsibility, of course! For my part, I'm more interested in the books raised above the parapet by the discussion (far more than you'll encounter on the review pages), than in the weekly read (for which I'm not sure I'll have time or inclination). Just as I don't buy a Booker book just because its on the list, neither will I rush out buying Not the Booker books. What is so positive about it all, is the genuine enthusiasm, not just for fiction, but for a wider range of styles and names that is usually pushed our way by the supermarkets or even the publishers. In all of the discussion on what is the role of the "author" in the new social media world, its clear that its the "word of mouth" of the reader, particularly when mobilised by an accessible author, that is still paramount.

As a final point, several authors, Jon McGregor, Linda Grant, Stewart Home to name three, have contributed to the thread - the enfant terrible that is the latter turning out to be reasonableness personified. Careful, Stewart, you've a reputation to defend!

UPDATE: The pre-amble is now over, and List A stays. Will be interesting how people respond to the crowdsourced shortlist. Latest news from the Not the Booker is here.


Sam Jordison said...

Thanks for this. Really interesting... Glad to have given you food for thought.

Adrian Slatcher said...

And well done for at last getting through this stage, to the book reading...

Sapeur said...
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Sapeur said...


You'll no doubt be getting a bit of traffic now that Sam quoted you in his posts, so this might be a good place to spread the word about Cornerhouse. Not just that it is a good place to hang out, watch films, read, eat and take in some art, but also that Cornerhouse is just that: without the "the". If you check Cornerhouse's website you won't find a "the" prefixing the name anywhere. There are people who get themselves quite bent out of shape about this. I lean that way, but don't lose sleep over it.

Looking forward to following the discussion.

Adrian Slatcher said...

Ha ha. Thanks. Will fix it now. And they've never said in all the time I've worked with them....

Adrian Slatcher said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sapeur said...

Something to talk about at work perhaps?

I always imagined it being at the top of the list of the Cornerhouse commandments given to new staff on joining (careful use there as the "the" is referring to the commandments and not Cornerhouse). Big bold letters:

1. It shall be called Cornerhouse.
2. Cornerhouse does not take the definite article.
3. Official warnings will be given to staff using a "the".
4. Repeated use of the "the" may result in dismissal.
5. You shall make every effort to spread the word that the "the" is not to be used when referring to Cornerhouse.

and so on.

It wasn't like that then?

Adrian Slatcher said...

It's just you, then, Steve!