TISH GRIER ON ASSIGNMENT ZERO LESSONS FOR MANAGING PARTICIPATION IN COLLABORATIVE PROJECTS FROM



Tish Grier writes:

One of the best measures for understanding online participation is to first understand what it takes to run a face to face (f2f) volunteer effort. I was brought in to work on Assignment Zero (http://zero.newassignment.net) the first open-source journalism project to emerge from NewAssignment.Net (http://newassignment.net) (NYU journalism prof. Jay Rosen's research project) is because I have the unique skill set of having been the volunteer co-ordinator the Northampton Independent Film Festival coupled with my many years participating in online communities of various kinds. (note: I also implemented some online recruitment strategies for the '06 festival--proved to be very successful)

There were several challenges to maintaining participation in AZ. The first challenge came after the initial press releases announcing the project launch. Five hundred people signed up in the first week--800 in the second--and by the end there were 1100 total. The Director of Participation, Amanda Michel (who had worked on the Dean and Kerry campaigns) knew, as I did, that successful volunteer retention relies on personal contact from someone within the organization. This goes esp. for an online project, where there's a high probability that there will be no f2f contact

How were we to convey to 500-plus people that they were needed if we could not contact each and every one personally?

The initial plan was to use the site--the blog and the reporting pages--for this purpose. But it quickly became clear that this would not work when one of the editors began receiving an avalance of email regarding various "moving parts" of the project. The avalance occurred, in part, because people were looking for specific assignments and things to do from an editor connected with a designated topic--and there weren't any particular designated editors. AZ was waiting for topics to be whittled down first...

However, AZ was not a closed newsroom with a finite number of participants who could, by voicing their opinions, limit the number of stories the project would cover. There were an unlimited number of participants (since we didn't know when it would cap) and thus the potential for an incredible number of nuanced topics/stories. This could, potentially, cause the project to go beyond the deadline.

What worked well in the average newsroom was not going to work in an open-source, long-tail environment.

The more savvy online communicators from our volunteers slowly started to use the Exchange to post questions. Yet there was much going on behind the scenes with site tweaks and editorial tasks that made it difficult to respond quickly to the Exchange.

And there was no guarantee that everyone would read it.

We would have to resort to email--both personal and group--for keeping in touch with participants. We desired to keep the pool of participants as diverse as possible, and thought that to try to adopt techologies favored by one group or another might cause the population to skew towards a young demographic. Email was the default. We then worked as quickly as possible to position editors on topics who would be the ones to first-respond to any inquiries from volunteers within various topics. The core team would then have an easier time responding to questions from a small group of editors than from a large group of volunteers.

The editor questions could also be used as fodder for the blog, thus opening up another means of mass communication. (the blog would later prove a valuable tool for driving traffic back to the site and creating "link love"--as the experienced blogger to the site, I encouraged this strategy)

Once the correct mass-email client was found, we decided that we needed to send out weekly "blasts" to eveyone who signed up to the site with an "unsubscribe" option to discontinue email. Amanda and I knew that there would be an attrition rate among volunteers in part because of the lack of quick response--attrition also could be attributed to lack of interest in the particularly niche geek topic of "crowdsourcing". I also had the added insight that, in online environments, some people simply like to join sites. Sometimes the intention is to return, sometimes it is simply to feel a part of something, still another is to have lurking priviledges (Jakob Nielsen found that 9 out of 10 visitors to a site will lurk, leaving only 10% participation rate.) Once the email blasts started going out, we were able to track various statistics on how many email were opened, as well as how many "unsubscribed." From these blasts, we were able to re-ignite interest that had dwindled from the initial volunteer sign-up burst.

Weekly email commuincation on project status, with follow-up blog posts, and quicker response time to the Exchange and personal email helped renew interest and foster a sense of community. We found we would always have a percentage of "unsubscribe" requests, but also some would forward the posts and we had better retention of volunteers who came later into the project after the email blasts were regular.

Once volunteers were grouped and working with editors, activity on the Exchanged dropped off, while activity on individual assignment reporting pages picked up (these were still problematic for open editing--wikis would have been better.)
Weekly email and follow-up blog posts announced changes to the project, what parts of the project needed participation (very important--people liked knowing where they were needed, not kept in a holding pattern), and incentives
. Our biggest and best incentive was the Wired byline. We were able to demonstrate how the byline would work in our Citizendium story, which we spun off and completed on May 15 (if you need the link, I'll find it) Occasional email from Jay Rosen (head of the project), not just the "Assignment Zero Editors"--something Amanda and I also knew was effective from our f2f volunteer work--also sitmulated interest and loyalty in the project. Email from the "head honcho" makes people feel there is a leader--and if this leader is one they respect and admire, retention and participation increases.

Core team unity came about through email, IM, and the occasional conference call. Yet even this evolved once we became used to the particular "quirks" of email communication styles that everyone seems to have (as well as filtering--or knowing when to respond and when to ignore, as well as not escalating misinterpretations of cross-communication.) Volume of email, however, remained high--but email also became the way in which the core team was able to get a great deal of work done during "crunch time"--within the group, we were notified quickly of problems and whomever was available to jump in and assist did so. There was no bickering over who's job it was to do "x" assignment, as this would have been unproductive. (It's important to note that our team was spread out across different time zones and two countries. our newsroom operated on an almost 24-hour basis. see this post describing how the team worked: http://zero.newassignment.net/blog/assignment_zero_editors/jun2007/01/assignment_zero_moves_production_phase

Now, some have criticized that email was not a "transparent" way of working--however, our reporting was transparent, as it was always logged on the site. All mid-stream changes that were made to the project were announced via email and on the blog--thus bringing important communication about the project into the open. All announced changes, specific needs and incentives such as the Wired byline, became ways of retaining interest in the project. How we worked out the team's social dynamics was best carried out in email and through calls when necessary. when f2f can't be accomplished, the next best is v2v (voice to voice.)

JA NOTE: Tish .. THANK YOU.. I can imagine anyone who has worked, or will engage, in collaborative writing projects will find your Assignment Zero experience and reflections on the process invaluable. Grateful for your sharing.
Clearly you learned about project management and effective process for collaboration through your project.