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Turn This into That: a Remixing Experiment

September 11, 2012

Two sides of social production: crowdsourcing and remixing

Networked technologies have facilitated two forms of social production: remixing and crowdsourcing. Remixing has been typically associated with creative, expressive, and unconstrained work such as the creation of video mashups or funny image macros that we often see on social media websites. Crowdsourcing, on the other hand, has been associated with large-scale mechanical work, like labeling images or transcribing audio, performed as microtasks on services like Amazon Mechanical Turk. So the stereotype is that remixing is playful, creative, expressive, but undirected and often chaotic, while crowdsourcing is useful to achieve actual work but it is monotonous, and requires (small) financial incentives.

Crowdsoucing Creativity: “Mixsourcing”

The space between remixing and crowdsourcing has partially been explored. For example, one could argue that Wikipedia exists in a unique space in between these two ideas as it relies on some, albeit small, degree of human creativity, requires no financial incentives, and leverages large numbers of contributors who are encouraged to tweak one another’s submissions. However, Wikipedia’s texts are mainly functional, purposely devoid of any personal expressiveness, and constrained by the task at hand.

On the more creative end of the spectrum, artists have explored the use of crowdsourcing, such as the Johnny Cash Project and the Sheep Market, and researchers have evaluated the uses of creative crowdsourcing for design. We wondered then, if there is a way to create a generic platform to perform creative and artistic work in a more directed, crowdsourcing-like way, some kind of “bounded creativity,” which we called “mixsourcing.”

The mixsourcing of a “Moonicorn”

We decided to play with this idea of mixsourcing through an exercise that involved giving people a creative, yet directed task. The exercise consisted first in creating a novel piece of content, an image, to serve as a creative seed and then ask specific people, using plain old e-mail, to turn it into something else, i.e., to remix it. The task was specifically crafted for each individual based on their interests, which we knew through pre-existing personal relationships with them.

The seed content used in this first exercise was an image, hand-drawn by one of the researchers, showing of a unicorn with a moon as a head. We sent the email to a group of friends, appealing to their social relationship as a group and with one of the researchers; each person was offered a task: an invitation to turn the “moonicorn” into something based on what we knew they were good at:

“Hello my dear friends! [...] I’m writing to see if you can help me with my summer project [...] I gave you all top secret assignments below. If you can help, it would mean so so so so so much to me. You don’t have to spend a ton of time on it. And I’ll throw a boozy thanks-you party next week when I’m in town. I couldn’t ask for a better lump of friends. Much love from the west coast.

This is my moonicorn:

Jables: please create a moonicorn cocktail recipe.

Celia: please create an iPhone video documenting the rare, nut-eating moonicorn, played by @Ian

[...]

Jables not only created his moonicorn cocktail, he also prepared one, took a picture of it, and emailed a make-believe recipe to accompany the beverage:

The Sanguine Moonicorn

6oz Fresh Moonicorn Blood.

1oz Pure Moonicorn Tears [hold for virgins]

Topped with Moonicorn Sweetbreads, Moonicorn Gonad, Moon Cheese, and an olive.

Cleansed by fire and served over ice, with a Moonicorn Jerky Moon Dagger.

Celia and Ian also completed their collaborative task and produced a short video. Similarly, we received remixes in the form of a fiction article, a felt toy, and a music mix. Here is a collage of all the remixes people produced:

The moonicorn experiment was quite successful, as more than half of the people actually completed their remix. A lot of them spent quite a bit of time on it and were very keen on narrating their creative process as much as they were in sharing their finished work.

Subsequently, we decided to recreate a similar exercise on a larger scale. This failed, however. We used a school mailing list and a group on Facebook, but both failed to attract many participants. The message in both cases did not include personalized tasks and the groups included many strangers. Hence, we hypothesized that there were three key attributes for the success of the first experiment:

  1. Pre-existing personal relationships.
  2. Well-crafted, personalized tasks directed at specific individuals, compared to the diffusion of responsibilities, well-described in the social psychology literature.
  3. Detailed tasks. The messages to broader group were to open putting a burden of choosing on the remixers.

Turn This Into That

Using the insights gained from the previous exercises, we began to envision a mixsourcing platform to enable people to create and participate in remixing exchanges like the moonicorn one.

We called the platform “Turn This Into That,” as it describes the system’s premise.

To convey the spirit of the social relationships that we thought were instrumental to the success of the first exercise, we decided to build the system on a postcard metaphor.

People can send postcards challenging one another to turn something into something else, and the responses themselves can also be thought of as postcards. Furthermore, given the interest people showed in talking about their process the submissions provide space and encouragement for people to address the whys and the hows of their challenges and their remixes. Also, the challenges are specific in terms of what the remix should be, a photo for example, yet it leaves the choice of what to do up to the remixer.

Practically speaking, we aimed for this platform to merely be the embodiment of a mechanism to provide creative sparks, playfulness, and interactions among people without actually having to deal with the complexities of creating tools or even repositories for the content itself. Our system would rely completely on the social media ecosystem for all that, and Turn This Into That would create the linkages.

Before implementing the actual system we built a semi-functional prototype, and we would like to invite you to use it and give us feedback.

—-

Turn This into That is a project by FUSE Lab‘s intern Sarah Hallacher, in collaboration with Jenny Rodenhouse and Andrés Monroy-Hernández.

Cross-posted at FUSE Labs blog

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