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How to build a unicorn-fan relationship with distributed work

September 23rd, 2010 by

When I talk about my passion for unicorns, most people do not know how to react. Some laugh as if I am joking. Others look confused, and back away from me a bit.

“Lots of people are into it” I say, walking after them, trying to justify my love with a description of Robot Unicorn Attack, an indie game with hundreds of thousands of fans.

Incredibly, some people remain sceptical. For them (if they are still in earshot) I bring out the big guns: the adventures of Charlie the Unicorn. Chapters 1, 2 and 3 of this series are, in my humble, pro-unicorn opinion, among the most hilarious animations on YouTube. With their perverted nonsense, these episodes have attracted nearly 100 million viewers. (Move over Tea-Party!) You can now even buy handsome unicorn merchandise, or as I have, download delightful Charlie-flavored ringtones (to clarify the scale of this achievement, this is the first ringtone I have ever bought).

Distributing the creative workload
If there is one problem with the Charlie series, it is that there is not enough of it. The long wait between episodes have led strung-out, addicted fans to create imitations of the original. Although the results in this case are not brilliant, this fan-based, creative crowdsourcing is something we here at Microtask find very interesting.

More successful examples of such fan-motivated crowdsourcing abound in the music world. As we mentioned in a previous post, both Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails have pioneered this collaboration between artists and their fans.

Continuing this experimentation, Radiohead have recently released a free-to-download video of an entire concert made from “crowdshot footage”. This followed the release by Nine Inch Nails of a free HD version of the band’s tour Lights in the Sky, also made from “distributed filming”.

Star Wars Uncut: A new hope?
Other examples of fan-made crowdsourced content abound. Star Wars: Uncut, is a project where Star Wars fans from all over the world (and, it would seem, galaxies far, far away) were asked to re-enact 15 seconds of the saga. The segments with the most votes were then put together to form a complete, hilarious remake of the movie. (If you’ve seen Jack Black’s movie Be Kind, Rewind or any “sweded movies”, you will have an idea of what to expect).

Crowdfunding is another area where the relationship between artists and fans can be one of collaboration and respect rather than the traditional one-way, idol-driven dictatorships. For example are sites like IOU Music, shaping new landscapes for artists of the future.

At a time when technology is blurring the lines between creators and consumers, there has never been a better time to get involved in creative activity that you are interested in. Fans with no musical ability may never write a great song, but one day I hope they will be able to assist or influence its production, in a way that is beneficial for both them and the artists. Until that day comes, I’ll stick to just watching unicorns.


Mo money, mo problems?

September 20th, 2010 by

Slain rapper Biggie Smalls, a.k.a Notorious B.I.G, once observed “Mo money, mo problems”. Personally, I disagree. Like most people, I wouldn’t mind some mo money, and do not think this would create mo problems for me.

Being a courageous soul, I am more than willing to test my theory. My guess is that a fair few of you would happily join me, to give the study added weight. Unfortunately, I doubt many institutions are interested in providing the cash to prove the point.

Waxing lyrical
Of course, there are better ways for one to make some extra money, with a pay increase being the most obvious. If you have a boss, you could simply ask him or her for a raise. Being smart, you could suggest that it is a win-win situation: you get more money to test Biggie’s theory, and the boss gets improved output from you to justify the pay increase.

To an extent, the assumptions behind this scenario are taken for granted in capitalist society. What’s interesting is that the boss might be getting a bit shortchanged. This is because there is some doubt as to whether giving additional money is an effective way to motivate people to perform better.

A while ago, scientist Sam Glucksberg conducted a study on a variation of the Candle Problem. The original experiment tested participants’ ability to attach a lighted candle to a wall without it dripping wax on a table.

Glucksberg’s variation was to throw money at the problem to incentivize more rapid problem solving. But things didn’t work out quite as expected. It was found that participants who were promised financial reward if they completed the task faster than average took longer to come up with the correct solution. Adding a financial incentive actually made them perform worse.

This result has been replicated in many studies since. The common thread that runs through the findings is that using financial incentives to motivate may increase quantity, but not quality.

All tasks, great and small
Even basic crowdsourcing tasks are not immune to the effect. A recent study conducted using Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, found that increasing financial rewards generated a greater quantity of work, but not necessarily a greater quality. In fact the authors, Winter Mason and Duncan J. Watts, concluded that in some cases it would be of more benefit not to pay participants at all, provided the task tapped some form of intrinsic motivation.

It is here that things get a bit more complicated, given the motives for participation are one area where crowdsourcing and distributed work can differ from traditional modes of work. This is something I will come back to in a later post.

Until then, perhaps the easiest way to sort this all out (and guarantee a happy life for you and world peace etc) would be for you to send a few dollars my way. Then forward this post to at least seven other people. In a few weeks I’ll report back to you, from the tropics, on whether I have mo problems.


Facing the future: Will we all work for Mark one day?

September 16th, 2010 by

For most people, part of the allure of travel is not just the thrill of adventure, but the telling of the story afterwards. So it was for a friend of mine, when she related a story from her recent trip to New Zealand.

One morning, while she and a few other backpackers were eating breakfast in their hostel, a gray-haired German tourist suddenly burst into the room. “You must come down to the beach!” he said, puffing hard from his short run. “There are hundreds of dolphins!

While hurrying to get her bikini on, my friend felt obliged to wake up a Canadian girl, who was still dozing in her dorm room. After all, this was the sort of thing they had travelled to the ends of the earth to experience.

Oh wow, thanks” the Canadian said, as she rolled out of bed, took her laptop out and flicked it on. “Do you want me to wait for you?” my friend said with growing impatience, as she watched the Canadian log into Facebook and update her status to reference the dolphins. “Oh no, you go ahead” the Canadian said. “I’m going back to bed.

Let us pray
Whether you love it or hate it, spend two hours of your day using it or all your waking hours criticizing it, almost everyone in the world by now agrees on at least one thing: Facebook is a big deal. One only needs to turn to Google for proof: although the word Facebook did not exist before 2004, if you type it into Google there are no less than two and a quarter billion results. It is perhaps no irony therefore that Facebook has recently overtaken Google as the most viewed website in the US.

Ever since it began to hit headlines, people have been debating what the future holds for this era-defining social network. In 10 years will it be a withering has-been like AOL, or will it become a phenomenon that is as a pervasive feature of modern life as the iPod, or even TV?

With over 400 million members – from zealous supporters to those who rarely show up – the Facebook community is now perhaps more akin to a world religion than a website. In the online world, the value of a product or service increases in direct proportion to the number of people who use it. This means that Facebook – like Google before it – is in an increasingly dominant position in the market, and as discussed in the Guardian recently, arguably too big to fail (in the sense that the social networking service has achieved a position of such dominance in the online ecosystem that its eclipse is unthinkable).

But that is not to say that this dominance will always continue. AOL is an example of how the big can fall, as is Myspace. Even without the tactical blunders which with hindsight precipitated these companies’ fall, Facebook faces numerous hurdles.

For one, some argue that social “networking” is intrinsically self-limiting, because as primates we can only cognitively maintain a very limited number of relationships.

Although that may well be true, presumably growth will still come from new users. But that in itself may present hurdles: if everyone, including your parents and their pets use Facebook, can it still be considered “cool”? I know many of my friends, many years ago avid Facebookers, now have removed their profiles or barely ever login.

Show me the money
Tactically, Facebook has made few errors. One move which has attracted much praise, for example, is to allow people to access information on their Facebook accounts from other networks, such as Twitter. Keen to cash in on the massive user-base, companies have invested huge amounts in programs based on this platform, further contributing to its dominance of the market.

While Facebook is now finally starting to generate serious money (in 2010 it should make over a billion dollars) one often sited weakness of its business model is the relatively low number of click through rates for social network advertising. This is why despite the enormous membership, revenue is still disappointing (“disappointing” clearly is a relative term here).

This has not seemed to worry Facebook, which is more intent on developing its services than monetizing them. In October 2008, Zuckerberg saidI don’t think social networks can be monetized in the same way that search did… In three years from now we have to figure out what the optimum model is. But that is not our primary focus today.

Although profits do not necessarily dictate fortunes (look at Wikipedia), it seems fair to assume that if Facebook could profit fully from the size of its user base, its position of dominance would be significantly strengthened (being in a position to spend vast sums on development and buying up new businesses always helps).

Tag – you’re it
One way this could eventuate is through using its hundreds of millions of users, like you and me, to work for it. Of course I don’t mean that Mark Zuckerberg is going to offer us all jobs, but that Facebook may well look to monetize its membership using crowdsourcing. Facebook has already used crowdsourced labor when it translated its webpages into other languages (as discussed in an earlier posting). This process was so successful, that Facebook has now tried to patent it.

In the future Facebook could extend this by offering members the opportunity to complete basic microtasks such as asking users to decipher a hand written word or tag a photograph that a computer reading system is having trouble with. For such microtasks it could get away with paying the crowdsource labor with online goods, such as game tokens or apps. With a growing demand for such goods, and a user base of half a billion, the potential value is enormous.

Just imagine: A few years in the future, instead of just updating her status, the Canadian girl in my friend’s hostel could earn a virtual dolphin to send to her friends before going back to sleep. What a wonderful world it would be.


Ghost in the machine: crowdsourcing the meaning of life

September 13th, 2010 by

Ghost in the machineRecently there has been a lot of controversy over claims to Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech. It seems everyone wants a piece of his legacy.

This got me thinking about visionaries in other areas.

If the world of videogames has an “I have a dream” man, it is surely Chris Crawford. Already well known for his foresight, in 1992 Crawford made a dramatic speech, where he outlined his dream of using videogames for artistic expression (and talked about dragons a lot). When he finished this speech he drew a sword and stormed out of the conference, leaving the traditional videogames industry forever. (Apparently this is how people who think about videogames all day behave.)

Tell me I’m dreaming
Since this speech, Crawford has been working on a program called Storytron, to simulate human emotions, motivations and personalities.

In this endeavor, he is not alone. Jason Roher’s games Primrose, Gravitation and Passage are more art than action. Although the graphics are extremely primitive, a Wired columnist said ”More than any game I’ve ever played Passage illustrates how a game can be a fantastically expressive, artistic vehicle for exploring the human condition”.

Roher tried Storytron, and decided he could deliver a more interesting and compelling interactive experience. The problem, as Roher saw it, was the inadequacy of the artificial intelligence. His solution was simple: put a human in the place of it. ”A human” he said, ”could be in charge of creating believable reactions from characters and modeling their mental state and so on.”

What he came up with is called Sleep is Death/Geisterfahrer. The name is based on a German term used to describe someone driving on the wrong side of the road – literally a “ghost driver”. The game is an unparalleled experience in interactive storytelling. While one player tries to maintain cohesion in the world, the other tries to tear the fiction apart. It has the feel of a videogame, but with the potential to be something far greater.

The intelligence of the crowd
It is this use of human intelligence in videogames that interests us most at Microtask. It is not a new idea: players of MMORPG’s or competitive multiplayer games like Modern Warfare 2 interact with other players all the time. The difference is that these games do not really explore emotions, motivations or personalities like Ghost Driver does.

We believe that crowdsourcing human intelligence is the next evolutionary step down this path. Perhaps no one encapsulated the possibilities like Crawford did when he said:“I dreamed of the day when computer games would be a viable medium of artistic expression — an art form. I dreamed of computer games expressing the full breadth of human experience and emotion.”

With crowdsourcing, we believe this is possible.


A penny for your thoughts: Why crowdfunding is taking off

September 2nd, 2010 by

Ever since our ancestors scratched each other’s hairy backs, humans have seen the benefit of lending a helping hand. With the rise of corporations, charities and stock exchanges, this assistance has become more complex, but in many respects it still relies on the same basic principles.

At Microtask we just closed a successful funding round, which got us thinking about how the methods of raising capital are changing.

For a startup like us, funding usually starts with the three Fs (family, friends and fools), before moving to angel investors, public funding, venture capitalists and finally, if things go well, a public listing on a stock exchange (although in the last decade, a trade sale to a larger company is a much more likely exit scenario). Today, startups – like almost anyone else looking for funding – can also turn to the crowd.

Friending for funding
Crowdsourced funding, or crowdfunding, at its most basic, involves raising funds through a network of people. Crowdfunding can help with everything from paying for a new heart to buying a real-life fantasy football team, investing in fashion to fulfilling a personal dream. What is new is not so much the underlying concepts – charities and cooperatives have been doing similar things for years – but how easy and effective it now is thanks to the internet, micropayment technology and social media.

But crowdfunding is not just about raising money. It is also an excellent way to publicize an idea and get feedback on it. If the crowd, in its collective wisdom, supports an idea, this in itself can be a very powerful marketing tool to attract other investors (and later consumers). It is not surprising then, that over the last few years a number of exciting companies have sprung up to facilitate crowdfunding for a wide range of causes.

At one end of the crowdfunding spectrum are companies like Crowdcube and Laraghfinance, which help businesses raise funds by offering the public real equity stakes (both have apparently overcome financial regulator issues). Perhaps because of a current lack of available venture capital, both of these companies are generating a lot of interest. Along with these companies, increasing numbers of businesses, such as Trampoline Systems, have also established their own systems to raise funding directly from the crowd.

Sounds like a great idea
The traditional music industry, struggling with declining record sales, has also turned to the crowd for help. Leading the charge is Sellaband, which helps bands reach out to individual investors to pay for recording costs. These investors then share in any profits from the album. Likewise, Artistshare has been helping artists fund albums since 2003, by offering investors extra material, published accreditation and even a chance to help with the creative process (in 2004 Maria Schneider won a Grammy with its help). AKA Music is doing similarly exciting things.

If you prefer the visual arts, CinemaShares offers the opportunity to buy a piece of a Hollywood blockbuster. It raises money for films by giving small investors the chance to buy individual shares. If you’re more of an art-house type, you can invest in indie films with Indiegogo. Vloggers can also access the crowd through sites like Have Money Will Vlog. Once again, some are going directly to the crowd, like the people behind the film The Cosmonaut, which takes small donations in exchange for accreditation as a producer (at last count the film had 2,242 credited producers).

Give a little bit
But probably the most visible benefactor of crowdfunding applications are charities. Who among us hasn’t been asked to donate to a charity in support of an old friend’s crazy endeavor? With companies like Just Giving and First Giving donating to such causes is almost annoyingly easy (now there are no excuses not to give). In a similar vein, Pledge Bank enables people to make pledges, and challenge others to do so as well. Others provide great opportunities for longer term giving, such as Give.fm which relies on clever use of micropayment technology.

Finally, of course, there are the more general crowdfunding providers, such as Kapipal, ChipIn, Fundable, Kick Starter and Rocket Hub. Each has successfully helped scores of people and organizations achieve their goals.

All these examples do not mean that crowdfunding is suitable for every situation or without its flaws. But what is clear is that a growing number of people and organizations are seeing the benefits of turning to the crowd for a helping hand.

In an era of belt tightening, crowdfunding may be exactly what innovators, charities, creative-types and the wider economy need. Not all such ventures will end happily, but by inviting public scrutiny as well as funding, failures will surely be in the minority.

As Abraham Lincoln (and later George W. Bush, sort of) said: “You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time. ” With the wisdom of the crowd, individual investors – unlike former presidents – are much less likely to make fools of themselves.


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