Tuesday, May 1, 2007

When collaboration doesnt work

I was going through some of the del.icio.us links tonight when I came across the "Mass Poetry" and the "Mass Fiction" sites that Mat had posted. Following the links I was brought to two simple websites asking for my contribution to an epic work of literature...and even better, the work is composed entirely of contributions from visitors to the site. How lucky I am to be a part of something so groundbreaking and important?

So, I'm usually game for these type of things so I play along with the sites. The poetry site simply asks you to type a line that may or may not rhyme or compliment a given line from the larger poem. The fiction site shows you the story created so far and then asks for a contribution. Both of these sites seem to embody the heart and soul of the Web 2.0 phenomenon...wild, unbridled creative power fused with the fabled "wisdom of the masses". Surely in short time these works would rival the best authors and poets of western literature, right?

As I read over the "mass poem" and the "mass fiction", all I could think about was - this is a piece of mass-crap! Surely, a thousand monkeys working on a thousand typewriters for a thousand years could produce something much better. The poem is filled with immature scatter-brained jabber that alternates between extremely banal (yabadabadoo, i love you/rain rain go away, come again another day/because it is my shoe) and extremely crude (poopstreaks). At times it seems as though the poem is a kind of AOL chatroom circa 1997, filled with rants, outbursts, and 1337.

The fiction is much worse. The major difference in the fiction section is a visitor can see the story (the last 1000 words or so) before they make their post. Also the visitor can post much more text than on the poem page. The "story" - if one can call it that - looks like an anonymous un-moderated message board. Websites, bad ascii-art, and nonsense litter the narrative. Needless to say, it will not be up for a Newberry award.

So why is it this bad?? Could it be that the site was hit by a hoard of middle school boys just before I got there? Shouldn't these site profit from the precision and reliability of other social sites such as del.icio.us, flickr, and wikipedia?

The way I see it, there are a few explanations for what is going on:

1.) The site is completely anonymous. I know they meant for it to be that way, but a major reason why social sites succeed is accountability. Usually users must register with the site to participate. Simple as this may sounds and easy as it is to register for free, this in itself deters the vast majority of people who may come by and hit-and-run (or more accurately "post-and-run"). Also once someone has an identity at a site, they are much more careful about what they post.

2.) Context and direction. There is no central concept or theme that unites people who visit this site. If the site were one promoting canine neutering, the visitors to the site would all have a common thread between them and therefore the story might be about topics central to the subject matter (Bob Barker and "the Price is Right" for example). The collaborative effort this site promotes is akin to putting Wayne Gretzky, Florence Nightingale, and a trained dolphin into a pool and making them answer the question "Where's the beef?" The point is, no matter what they come up with the answer is still meaningless because the original scenario lacks context and direction.

3.) The last explanation is that these sites are "real" and "true" in a sense that no other site on the web really is. These sites are unmoderated, uncensored, and completely open to anything people want to put on them. In a sense the products on these pages are as raw and real as it gets on the web. These nonsense thoughts represent what people really do/say/think on the web at any given moment. This is the id to wikipedia's superego, the Oscar to Myspace's Felix. This type of anti-romantic sentiment is captured in one of my favorite quotes from Vonnegut. Vonnegut, in a speech to the graduating class of Bennington College, said:

Artists use frauds to make human beings seem more wonderful than they really are. Dancers show us human beings who move much more gracefully than human beings really move. Films and books and plays show us people talking much more entertainingly than people really talk, make paltry human enterprises seem important. Singers and musicians show us human beings making sounds far more lovely than human beings really make. Architects give us temples in which something marvelous is obviously going on. Actually, practically nothing is going on inside.

The Internet is our new temple...sites like these are what is really going...

just my 2 cents,

p.s. make sure to check out some of the other stuff on the host site (smalltime.com). The guess the dictator or Sit-com character page is refreshingly amusing...
check out the original post on the Man from Porlock blog

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