Have you ever dreamed of:
- Learning to blog?
- Writing for magazines?
- Serving as a lab rat in a Web-based experiment in open source journalism?
- Attempting to create in collaboration with people you don’t know?
- Filling two idle weeks looming on the calendar with no freelance projects scheduled?
- Losing five pounds without dieting?
Did these six thoughts occur to you simultaneously, converging as you drank your breakfast latte, read the New York Times on your laptop, and noticed a compelling description of the open source revolution taking place in journalism: an article by David Carr titled “All the world’s a story”? Did it happen in the month of March, in Ohio, with rain forecast for every single day of the two weeks that stretched before you into an uncertain and adrenaline-deprived future?
It happened to me. It occurred in a similarly menacing and delightful way to T.T. Thomas and Robert King. The three of us were accidental early adopters lured into the strange world of crowdsourced cyberjournalism at the precise moment when decisions were being made a bit too hastily by assignment editors in charge of a bizarre academic research project.
The experiment was seductively named…
Assignment Zero: Pro-Am Journalism Opens on the Web
T.T., Robert, and I were introduced to each other by our editor, Steve Fox, in rapidly dispatched email messages accompanied by his instructions not to wait for instructions. My half-baked Internet research revealed Fox had just concluded 10 years as an online editor at WashingtonPost.com. There was no time to discover why his employment with the prestigious national newspaper was terminated. His essay on leaving the position, which drew upon his memories of 9/11, later accrued disturbing connotations.
Three amateur journalists were in. We had an assignment. We were ahead of the curve. We were leading the way, learning as we went. The only thing we didn’t understand was what in the world we were supposed to be fomenting revolution to achieve. Ah, but this was an experiment. The objective was to see what we made of Assignment Zero as we struggled pathetically through the process. Perhaps we were founding another YouTube, eventually to be worth millions. We weren’t getting paid, but it was all for the common good.
Over the next two weeks, T.T., Robert, and I donated what amounted to hundreds of hours of labor to a project we saw almost immediately was doomed by poor web design. We were running the Iditarod in an airboat built for the Everglades.
Robert, a self-described slacker-philosopher, had the mysterious advantage of being a World of Warcraft devotee who, in another realm, referred to himself as a Blood Elf. T.T., a former journalist, and I, a retired police detective, were experienced writers but virgin bloggers. Our editor was missing in action, overrun by a swarm of more than 800 international volunteers who registered on the Assignment Zero website; hung out their avatars; and volunteered to write, interview, research, edit, or perform a variety of tasks during the first several weeks following Assignment Zero’s official launch.
Our three-person team’s struggle to stay together and accomplish real journalism within the overbroad scope of our assigned story topic, “crowdsourced crime fighting,” became—to us and to the few volunteers trapped nearby on the thin ice—a nightmarish odyssey by laptop among collaborators and competitors we couldn’t see.
Assignment Zero’s cumbersome site design shielded us from the actions of all but the most vocal subjects in the experiment—amateurs and professionals, both paid and unpaid. Artificial isolation exacerbated our helplessness. We began to sense that very few of us had slipped by the gatekeeper and begun working on stories, while hundreds of potential collaborators stood by waiting for permission to proceed and, more importantly, for coherent instructions.
Early on, a young member of the Assignment Zero staff was detailed to troubleshoot the web design SNAFU. David Cohn, a writer for Wired.com also named on Assignment Zero’s masthead, began modifying the website. He adopted the analogy of Assignment Zero as the Matrix.
Writing groups drew parallels with the television series Lost and Survivor or described themselves as chicks in an incubator. T.T. Thomas posted an irreverent essay that may have exemplified the feelings of many participants in what eventually became cheekily referred to in the blogosphere as AssZero. Her email humor launched dozens of naval metaphors among writers who could not make use of the Assignment Zero site to communicate efficiently.
Don’t take my word for it. The experiment continues. The drama unfolds. Enter at your own risk.
In two weeks, I learned things about myself—and all journalists—I wish I didn’t know. I communed with incredibly beautiful minds. I did lousy work. The story of Assignment Zero, however, is classic. It doesn’t star the typical technogeeks and action figures. AssZero’s heroes were intellectuals, academics, usability consultants, bloggers, professional journalists, amateur volunteers, and a few who (as T.T. put it) probably needed to return to the mother ship.
Assignment Zero’s triumphs—some of us hope—may someday help to defeat biased journalism, spin, and closed source environments. Information may want to be free, but certain curmudgeonly individuals who contributed to Assignment Zero perhaps understood only that words equaled a paycheck.
Ultimately, the story of Assignment Zero is that a bad user interface (literally and metaphorically) defeats all but the most valiant human efforts at collaboration—and desperate, alienated people can run roughshod over truth. In short, the journalistic process was laid bare.