Assignment Zero learns from ‘flawed mechanics’ of crowdsourcing project

Assignment Zero, an experiment to involve members of the public in the construction of online journalism suffered from haphazard planning, technological glitches and a general sense of confusion, says one of its bankers.

A collaboration between Wired News and, Assignment Zero launched in March with the aims of mobilising readers to take part in the news-making process.

Over 900 people have since contributed interviews, knowledge and other information to its 18 editors.

The project concluded with write-ups of 80 interviews conducted by contributors. Of which, the first five pieces were published last week.

However, one of the editors, Jeff Howe, whose Crowdsourcing book provided much of the inspiration to the project and even became the subject of the first wave of Assignment Zero articles, said not everything went according to plan.

“It fell far short of the original aim of producing over 80 feature stories, but in over a dozen interviews conducted by phone and e-mail, contributors uniformly described a positive, ‘though frequently exasperating’, experience,” Howe wrote.

“The choice of subject was a decision we would come to regret. Using the crowd to investigate crowdsourcing inspired, by contrast, confusion.”

Mistakes included appointing editors only after 500 citizen contributors had already begun publishing work on the site. Team leaders also had to counter a lack of conversation between contributors by building forums around key topics.

Around 60 of the 80 question-and-answer interviews submitted by contributors, Howe added, were of a standard professional enough they could be published in national magazines. The experiment has also found favour in the blogosphere.

One contributor submitted an interview with Fulham football fan William Brooks, who discussed his attempts to “crowdsource” management of a football club.

In practice, professional journalism already benefits from a similar involvement of the public in news production. While Saturday’s closure of UK Tesco stores broke on BBC News 24, informational was supplied largely from eyewitness viewers via SMS, MMS, email or the telephone.

But rarely is the entire gathering and assimilation process outsourced to so many as part of a prior editorial agenda, as it had been with Assignment Zero.

Despite problems, the experiment yielded a thorough exploration of the assignment subject, Howe said: “As flawed as the project’s mechanics proved to be, the final result met the goal of being the most comprehensive exploration of crowdsourcing to date.”