Crowdsourced content selection: the future of publishing?

Paul Raven @ 15-09-2011

No, not here. (Well, not yet, anyway.) Social media news network Mashable has a guest piece from Molly Barton, president of Book Country, an online community for genre fiction writers that’s trying to change the way stories get picked for publication. As with most such projects, there’s a strong egalitarian undertone:

In the modern world of broadcast and publisher media, the traditional model relies on a series of individuals reading and choosing which stories will appeal to broad audiences. These gatekeepers evaluate commercial and literary potential based on books that have previously succeeded. Daring stories that push boundaries and bend categories may be passed over because they are more difficult to market. But the tastes of readers and viewers often progresses more quickly than the stories readily available to them reflect.

But what if we created lots of little fires around which writers could tell their stories and gauge the reaction of a keen audience, improving their storytelling before bumping up against the traditional media filter? Would we get more interesting stories? Could we uncover a new group of brilliant creators who might not have connections to those gatekeepers?

They’re not just about raising up the passed-over, however; the proliferation and evolution of new genres is also part of the plan:

When Neuromancer was published in 1984, the genre called “cyberpunk” did not exist. Until Michael Crichton introduced us to The Andromeda Strain in 1969, the “environmental thriller” was but a category of stories waiting to be told. By expanding the process through which stories are found, we give those who are passionate about new kinds of stories the opportunity to influence, and in so doing, increase the likelihood that new genres and sub-genres of stories will develop and find eager waiting audiences.

Community curation, proliferation of niche verticals… lots of theories that (if you’ve been following along) we’ve bumped into here in the past, then. If you’re wondering what the business model is, Book Country is a subsidiary of the Penguin Group, so one assumes this is an experiment toward replacing the old acquisitions system, though the FAQ states that “Book Country is not a channel for the submission of unsolicited manuscripts to Penguin editors”. How the project is monetised remains unclear, though it’s still in beta, so perhaps there are contextual ads waiting in the wings, or plans to charge for access; time to send some emails and do some research, methinks.

Is Book Country the future of publishing? Or will it be just another failed attempt to graft a “social” element onto an old system? Only time will tell… but it’s good to see the industry trying new ideas instead of sitting around and wringing its hands as the landscape shifts beneath its feet.


Meatpuppet farming: the (dark) grey-hat global freelance job market

Paul Raven @ 19-07-2011

Compsec maven Brian Krebs rakes over the findings of University of California, San Diego research report into the online market for what I like to call meatpuppets: cheap human labour-on-the-web that gets leveraged for bypassing the security systems that are supposed to stop automated spammers.

“The availability of this on-demand, for-hire contract market to do just about anything you can think of means it’s very easy for people to innovate around new scams,” said Stefan Savage, a UCSD computer science professor and co-author of the study.

The UCSD team examined almost seven years worth of data from freelancer.com, a popular marketplace for those looking for work. They found that 65-70 percent of the 84,000+ jobs offered for bidding during that time appeared to be for legitimate work such online content creation and Web programming. The remainder centered around four classes of what they termed “dirty” jobs, such as account registration and verification, social network linking (buying friends and followers), search engine optimization, and ad posting and bulk mailing.

“Though not widely appreciated, today there are vibrant markets for such abuse-oriented services,’” the researchers wrote. “In a matter of minutes, one can buy a thousand phone-verified Gmail accounts for $300, or a thousand Facebook ‘friends’ for $26 – all provided using extensive manual labor.”

The evolving marketplace is best illustrated by the market for services that mass-solve CAPTCHAs — those agglomerations of squiggly numbers and letters that webmail providers and forums frequently require users to input before approving new accounts. The researchers found that the market for CAPTCHA-solving was fostered on freelancer, but quickly expanded into custom markets when the model proved profitable on a large scale. Today, there are plenty of commercial services that pay pennies per day to low-wage workers in India and Eastern Europe to solve these puzzles for people wanting to create huge numbers of accounts at one time.

It’s interesting to see massive crowds of human labour getting rolled quite effectively into these vast and largely automated systems: the darkside equivalent of Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, with a smattering of Matrix metaphors on the side. But those digital peons are just trying to make a living, and when you look at the prices being charged for Twitter followers by the thousand and factor in the significant cut being taken by the service aggregators, you realise that they’re probably not making much more than sweatshop wages. Which means that until the massive differential in income between developed and developing nations gets narrower, web security procedures will always be subject to this sort of outsourced brute-forcing. Shorter version: spam ain’t going anywhere anytime soon.

The irony of having blocked five fake Twitter accounts in the time it took me to write this post is palpable. Death, taxes, noise*, spam.

[ * Anyone who’s worked in the recording or music industries will tell you that noise is the third certainty of life. As, I suspect, will anyone who has lived in a block of flats. ]


Crowd Power

Brenda Cooper @ 09-03-2011

Last month I wrote about good design. Some of my research for developing world designs took me to a crowdfunding site called “The Unreasonable Institute” where I found One Earth Designs and Cal Sol Agua. That intrigued me. In the manner of synchronous events, I saw a tweet from Neil Gaiman that day about a project on the crowdfunded art site Kickstarter. Which is how I started down the path of the changing (and growing) power of the crowd for this month’s column. Continue reading “Crowd Power”


Soylent is people! Word processor plugin crowdsources your editing

Paul Raven @ 29-09-2010

Via Bruce Sterling; not sure how workable an idea this is in practice, but it’s a real Zeitgeisty proof-of-concept. Soylent is a plugin for Micro$oft Word that farms out fact-checking, editing, rewriting and proofreading for pennies on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk service:

Add this to the metaverse-outsourcing of translation tasks, and there’s a whole lot of people in the text-content industries getting mad angsty about their job security (myself included). Guess we finally get to experience how factory workers are feeling about the future…

(Kinda surprised they went for Word rather than OpenOffice… although perhaps that was a prescient move.)


ConGlomeration: crowdsourcing the sf convention

Paul Raven @ 03-08-2010

Well, would you look at that. After a good few years of folk kvetching and moaning into their ale about how the internet is killing off small-to-medium sized sf/f conventions, someone’s finally decided to take the bull by the horns and make the web work for conventions. Jay Garmon, head honcho of Louisville’s ConGlomeration, has teamed up with the stalwarts over at SF Signal and turned over the programming of next year’s ConGlom to the intermatubes:

After five years as a staffer at my local convention, Louisville’s own ConGlomeration, I’ve stepped up as programming co-chair on the organizing committee. But I come at this after 10 years as an online content producer and old-school social media Kool-Aid-drinker. I believe, as Doc Searls taught us, that hyperlinks subvert hierarchy. I believe that with many eyes, all bugs are shallow. I believe in black swans, tipping points, and the wisdom of crowds. And, above all, I’m looking for a few brave first followers.

I want the Internet – and especially the readership of SF Signal – to program ConGlomeration 2011.

[…]

ConGlomeration may be housed in Louisville, KY, but so far as I’m concerned, it belongs to all of sci-fi fandom – starting with everyone reading this SF Signal post. Conventions have always been labors of love, made possible by dozens or even hundreds of fans cooperating to create a shared, communal product. I see no reason why that collaboration has to be limited to people within arm’s reach. This is your con, too, and we want you to help create it.

Garmon sounds very idealistic and optimistic, and there’s a more than reasonable chance that his plan might falter for lack of enthusiam (though I sincerely hope it doesn’t). But what’s excellent about this for me (as someone who ain’t gonna be dropping by Louisville any time soon, sadly) is to see someone trying to bridge ‘trad’ fandom and web fandom without taking anything from either. Garmon’s far from being the first to do so (Cheryl Morgan is about as tireless a worker in both wings of fandom as anyone could ask for, for instance), but this is a big bold move, and I wish him the best of luck with it.

So go pitch in some suggestions, why don’t you? If you’ve never been to a convention, and you’re local enough, this might be an ideal first opportunity to get the full experience – cons at their best aren’t passive events like a movie screening, but fully participatory. Get involved, give something back to the genre you love… and you’ll get a lot more in return. Go on.

[ The caveat here is that I’m not sure the web actually is killing live-action fandom – though I only have limited experience of the con scene on this side of the pond, and none Stateside. Changing it, certainly… reinventing and streamlining it, perhaps… but killing it? Given how quick we are to say that sf itself is dying (which has been a common refrain since long before I was even born, by all accounts), I suspect rumours of the death of conventions have been greatly exaggerated… and maybe even exacerbated by the legendary conservatism and resistance to change that – very ironically – has always been a part of core fandom. Go figure. And after you’ve figured, go get involved. It’s fun. You’ll enjoy it. 🙂 ]


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