Spec work isn’t crowdsourcing

The term “crowdsourcing” is being borrowed by services that solicit design work “on spec”. Design services like CrowdSpring and 99 designs solicit designers for “contests” where everyone does the work for the client, but only one will get paid.

The familiar use of “crowdsourcing” is for services where people contribute freely to something of mutual benefit – wikipedia, a support FAQ, an open source project, tips for a an investigative story. In some uses of crowdsourcing, there is a commercial provider that aggregates the benefit of free labor – technology companies gain when their customers add FAQ entries, and a newspaper or commercial blog benefits when readers submit tips for a published story. But in all of these uses, everyone who contributes benefits too.

With spec work contests, many people do contract design work for no charge and only one of them gets paid. Spec work has long been common during recessions. More buyers are looking to save money, and more contractors are underemployed and willing to put in time doing work that they may not get paid for. These services take this pattern to the extreme by soliciting dozens or hundreds of free contributions. It’s unpaid labor plus a lottery ticket.

Call it unethical, call it lottery labor, but don’t call it crowdsourcing. And if this practice does become called crowdsourcing, we need another sort of term for freely contributed work that benefits everyone doing the contributing.

Aardvark vs. Twitter – the role of social in social search

ReadWriteWeb writes about Aardvark, a new IM-based Q&A service which raises the question about how valuable the social network is to search.

Frederic Lardinois at RWW says “Aardvark is a neat new service that lives in your IM client and which routes any question you might have to an Aardvark user who has the right expertise to answer your query. In return, Aardvark will also send you a few questions every day that fit your profile. You then decide to either answer the question or refer it to another friend. Of course, you can also always pass if you don’t know the answer.”

This is a very different sort of experience than Twitter, where you send out a question to people following you, and good Q&A may be forwarded through their networks.

Personally, I greatly prefer the Twitter model. IM is interruptive, Twitter is not. You can ignore the stream entirely, and pick up only the questions you want. With Twitter, the Q&A is interspersed with other sorts of information and conversation. A barrage of constant questions might feel more like an inquisitive pre-schooler.

With Aardvark, the questions come to you via IM, which is interruptive. I can’t imagine using that and having randome questions to answer in the middle of the day — maybe this would be fun for students and retirees. I frequently use IM and IRC, but maybe younger people who live with an open set of 8 IM chats woudn’t mind getting search questions by IM throughout the day, too.

Aardvark’s social feature feels anti-social to me. You can forward a question to a friend via IM. This is cool, since you may know exactly the right person who can answer the question. But it means that your friend also feels a social obligation to answer and feels social guilt for not answering. This is the reason I prefer Twitter questions to Linked In questions, multiplied by 1000. LinkedIn questions feel awkward because someone you know is asking you personally to respond. Twitter questions do not feel awkward because there is no obligation – if you answer you get good karma, and if not, you haven’t had to choose to ignore someone.

The Q&A opportunity in general is huge. People want questions answered and enjoy answering them. Yahoo Answers is huge. As of late 2008, Answers had nearly 150 million monthly visitors worldwide and 1.3 billion monthly page views. Yahoo Answers has a much more encyclopedia-like model, where you can search and browse for answers to questions. Aardvark is IM — does this mean that answers won’t be discoverable by others?

This real-life experiment — the Aardvark vs. Twitter models — will reveal something about the psychology of social search. Personally I’d greatly prefer Twitter, but perhaps Aardvark will find a demographic and psychographic that prefers its model.

Update: Rob Spiro of Aardvark says on Twitter that they are “definitely planning an aardvark-twitter integration, using Twitter as another communication channel.” “TwitVark” would be a great configuration, since it would combine the conversational atmosphere and optional social norm of Twitter with the social search filtering of Aardvark.

The Facebook rebellion: digital democracy is inevitable

Micah Sifry is trying to get his head around the implications of the Facebook experiment in digital democracy. I think it’s inevitable.

In the 3d world, a landlord doesn’t have the right to appropriate a tenant’s furniture. In the online world, if tenants demand rights and organize, they will eventually get them. As I wrote in the post linked above in response to this Shirky post, an online social network resident is like a medieval serf who is bound to his land and has painfully few rights. A combination of changed economic conditions (greater mobility) and changed political beliefs (government by consent of the governed), could transform the relationship between members and hosts, just as it did between rulers and ruled in the modern era.

Online tribes are mobile. We don’t love migrating, but we do it occasionally, because the environment is better — could be usability, functionality, or terms and conditions. The digirati tribe moved from Friendster to Orkut to Facebook. My civic project mailing lists have moved from Yahoo to Google groups in the last few years. The member revolt on Facebook could be part of an overall change in expectation about the relationship between digital landowners and digital tenants.

p.s. I saw Micah’s tweet but haven’t read his article on TechPresident yet because the site’s down as on Monday night and Tuesday morning. Will read when the site is back up.

Twitter is for conversation (especially in the workplace)

Julia Angwin writes a Wall Street Journal piece about how to Twitter. The article has good tips for beginners – find interesting people to follow, tweet yourself, share links – but gets one big thing wrong. Angwin writes that twitter is about self-promotion not conversation. Well, it depends.

Even though Twitter cofounder Biz Stone told Julia Angwin that “Twitter is fundamentally a broadcast system”, it’s not really up to Twitter. Early phone companies that thought the telephone would be used for business – for ordering catering and opera tickets. People use tools the way they want, and some people use Twitter for conversation. On the public web, tools like Tweetdeck, which integrate reply search into the user interface, and BackTweet make it easier to discover and participate in conversation.

My personal experience is that people in a variety of of my communities (Boston friends, Austin friends, Bay Area geeks, local netroots, etc) hang out on Twitter. We have intermittent conversations about topics little and big. One of my favorite things about Twitter is sharing everyday trivia with friends who aren’t nearby. It’s part of my social life with people I know in 3d.

So, how to have conversations on Twitter? Follow people you find interesting – people who’s work you like online, people you know from work or life. Don’t just follow big celebrities who won’t be listening to you. Follow people who are interesting and not so famous, who will have attention for conversations. Listen to what they say, and reply when they say something interesting. People can see your replies and answer you back. Voila, a conversation.

Inside organizations, the “social messaging” aspect of the Twitter format is even more pronounced. Mike Gotta maintains that microblogging isn’t a good term for the use of Twitter-like tools in organizations, where it is primarily about conversation. At Socialtext, we’re seeing that Social Signals is being used for questions and answers, link sharing, and work-related status. The format lends itself well to non-interruptive work-related conversation. The privacy of social messaging at work contributes to the conversational nature – people share more in protected spaces.

Broadcast is one use of Twitter, and there are plenty of celebrities and mass media figures who broadcast their thoughts and don’t follow anybody. There are also plenty of people using Twitter conversation as part of their personal and business social fabric – and the mode is about to become more common as Twitter finds its way in the workplace.

Open data victory for Santa Clara County map data

via Bruce Joffe at the Open Data Consortium the California Appeals court upheld the Santa Clara County Superior Court’s decision to require Santa Clara to provide GIS parcel basemap data under the California Public Records Act, charging no more than the cost of duplication. While 41 other counties provided basemap data for $100 or less, Santa Clara county had atempted to charge over $150,000 for the data. This is a big victory for open government data.

Legal defense was provided by the California First Amendment Coalition whose writeup is here. The full court decision.

Journalists and bloggers – twitter for tips

One of the reasons the innovative political news blog Talking Points Memo is great is Josh Marshall’s practice of soliciting tips and research from the reading community. Since @joshtpm is now on Twitter, this could be a great new source for quick tips. One of the common and powerful uses of Twitter is to ask a question of one’s readers. It’s a quick way to learn from the collective knowledge of the community.

When TalkingPointsMemo solicits tips, they can put the twitter address among the ways to reach TPM. Journalists new to twitter should know that you don’t need to follow people to see their tips. All the TPM team would need to do is to go to Twitter search, enter @joshtpm and see mentions of that Twitter handle. TPM could even set up a public tip line by sharing a “hashtag” – a word that starts with a hashmark – like #tpmtips. Then they can use a persistent search to see all the tweets with #tpm tips. Of course this works only for public tips – but there is plenty of information about our political system that hides in plain sight – for example, what is a politician saying in his own district.

The fact that WSJ reporterJulia Angwin sees Twitter as primarily a broadcast medium – even though she learned about it by following colleagues – suggests that using Twitter as a means of learning from your audience hasn’t yet gotten good adoption yet in the journalist community.

Stupid WordPress tricks – page sort order

WordPress lets you set up a website that looks more like a site than a blog. You can create “pages”, and compose hierarchical site navigation by putting a list of pages in a sidebar or header. There are any number of pre-packaged themes that give you multi-column templates, and you can use widgets to put navigation and other content into the sidebars.

So, how do you put the pages in the order you want? The sidebar widget lets you choose the sort order – alphabetical, or something called “page order.” What the heck is that? After some “I feel dumb” searching, I looked at a page. There is a small section to the left of the page that lets you add a number which sets the sort order. So if you want your navigation pages to be sorted 1-5, you go into each page, and put the right number for each page. Kinda clunky but works

Since it took me some extra time to figure this out, I wrote this post to help others.

Social media page rank

Back in the day, Google’s pagerank used many individual acts of linking to calculate the relevance of pages. These days, the acts of linking are occurring in near-real time and viral waves on Twitter and social network services. Links in social media are a powerful indicator of relevance. A link has been retweeted, friendfeeded, bookmarked and facebooked. So there could be a “social network page rank” algorithm that calculated the relevance of links, and a “network digg” that showed the heat of a meme.

One problem is that twitter’s 140 character limit encourages the use of url-shortening services like bit.ly and tinyurl, which obscure the destination and content of the link. So the service would need to expand and compare the urls, and do a little analysis to figure out when slightly variant urls link to the same content.

A secondary problem is potential spam, but a social white list – in Clay Shirky’s geek-felicitous term, foaf-filtering – could mitigate that. Social self-promotion (I’ll retweet yours if you retweet mine) could be a problem, but I suspect the echo chamber effects would be fairly localized for garden variety topics, and the pop culture or political fangames would be interesting in their own right.

Does this exist yet? Urls welcome.

Update 1. via Chris Messina, Backtweets are the new technorati.

Update 2. John Battelle The Conversation is Shifting on the trend toward social search. I don’t think it stops at neophilia.

Sidney software dev faces lawsuit for iPhone app

ZDNet Australia reports that a software developer in Sidney, Alvin Singh, is being threatened with a lawsuit for writing an iPhone app that is the second most popular item in Australia’s iPhone app store. Rail Corporation of New Zealand, the government body that administers the railroad, charges the developer with violating copyright, but offers no way to authorize developers to access the schedule data.

TransparencyCamp was all about getting social benefit from publishing and reusing government data. Bay Area TransitCamp was about ways of creating tools and services with transit information to improve transit service. There’s a movement around providing more public access to government data so citizens like Alvin Singh can provide useful services

Developers who write useful applications with government data should get awards not lawsuits.

Transparency 1 vs. Transparency 2

Transparency Camp revealed the contrast between old and new models of protecting the public’s right to know about our government.

At the same time as Transparency Camp, David Simon, an old beat reporter in Baltimore, wrote a piece in the Washington post about the good old days of crime beat reporting. Armed with a knowledge of public information law and a relationship with a pro-first-amendment judge, and motivated by his role as the representative of the public’s right to know, Simon wouldn’t take recalcitrant cops’ excuses as an answer, and relentlessly pursued the truth about crime and police activity. In the article, Simon laments the demise of beat reporting. There just aren’t reporters on the street covering a topic and pursuing the truth. Even the current judge in the district doesn’t have an interest in enforcing public information access, as Simon found recently when he tried to find information about a police shooting.

Meanwhile, over at Transparency Camp, one of the attendees was Brian Sobel the developer of the Are you Safe iPhone application that shows location-based crime information for blocks in Washington, DC. Information about crime isn’t published because one intrepid reporter made the cop turn over the crime report, but because the database of crime stats is online.

Just because there is data about a crime doesn’t mean the data is accurate or that justice is being served. In Baltimore there were no journalists or bloggers investigating the police shooting of an unarmed 61-year-old man in February, until the retired journalist starting making calls. What’s needed is not only mapping but community input, like the everyday activism on Uncivil Servants which captures reports of illegal parking by New York city employees. And like the crowdsourced journalism managed by Amanda Michel who is taking her experience with citizen journalist campaign coverage to ProPublica. Her first assignment as Editor of Distributed Reporting is to get many eyes to cover the implementation of the stimulus bill.

In David Simon’s world, a few brave reporters had the special knowledge and connections to get enforcement of open data and open records. In our world, the government policy needs to make data available as a matter of course, and crowdsourcing tools and communities need to give more people the knowledge and the courage that David Simon had to demand accurate information from the cops.

The world is different. Open data and crowdsourcing give more people the raw information and open government literacy that David Simon had. But we need the organizational structures, funding, and motivation to use them. There’s no guarantee how well the new way will work, but there are tremendous opportunities, and it’s up to us to make them work.