Friday, October 29, 2010

The Johnny Cash Project: A Participatory Music Video That Sings

One of the questions that comes up most frequently when I talk with folks about participation is: what should we do with the things that visitors create? What should we do with their post-its and stories and drawings and poems?

This question is a byproduct of the reality that most participatory projects have poorly articulated value. What's the "use" of visitors' comments? If you don't have a sense of an outcome--whether that be internal research, community conversation, or something else--you can't decide how or whether contributions should be documented or archived. When a participatory activity is designed without a goal in mind, you end up with a bunch of undervalued stuff and nowhere to put it.

But the best participatory projects don't suffer from this problem, because they solicit visitors' contributions toward a very specific outcome. Whether visitors' work will be used to create an artwork, a dataset, or an exhibit, the solicitation is directly tied to an intended product. This works best when:
  1. Visitors have a clear understanding of the overall goal for the project. When everyone knows how their work will collectively build toward something greater, it increases motivation to participate and encourages participants to contribute high-quality work. It's not just a personal activity; it's an opportunity to be part of something.
  2. The project is designed to scale. Ideally, it can absorb lots of repetitive or voluminous visitor contributions and deploy this additional material in a thoughtful way. The project never gets "full" and is always open to new contributors.
I was reminded of these two design principles when exploring the Johnny Cash Project, a crowd-created music video for a posthumous recording of Cash singing "Ain't No Grave." To construct the video, artist Chris Milk assembled images and footage of Johnny Cash in a sequence along with the song. That's hardly revolutionary. But what happened next is: Milk created a simple tool to invite visitors to augment the frames of the video with digital brushstrokes. The result is a beautiful animated video that composites together alternative frames created by participants all over the world.

There are two basic ways to participate on the website: you can contribute your own augmented frame to the video, or you can assemble a video by selecting frames from the huge volume produced by the crowd. The first activity is creative, the second editorial. You can also rate frames, which changes their likelihood of being displayed in the default video, which features the highest-ranked frames submitted by participants.

The result is a video that changes dynamically based on what people contribute and rank on the site. It's not a waste to have multiple participants contribute versions of the same original frame: at any time, any version could be more popular, or more appealing to a specific subset of viewers, than the others. Some viewers might enjoy populating a video with frames that feature references to Christ; others might prefer highly photorealistic images. The additional frames add volumes of data that make the user experience more personalized, diverse, and powerful.

There are a few other things that make the Johnny Cash Project compelling:
  • The creative activity is well-scaffolded. If you want to make a frame, you don't have to start from scratch; instead, you get to draw over a pre-existing reference frame. While the drawing tools could be more intuitive, remixing a reference image is likely less scary for non-artists than other more involved ways to produce a frame. You can also watch time lapse video of any frame being created. These videos inspire and instruct would-be participants while stroking the egos of past contributors.
  • The collective outcome (a cool music video) is clear. The video is a cohesive, beautiful story, and it's obvious to any user how her frame might be integrated into the whole. This is not just an opportunity to venerate Johnny Cash or perform a personal creative act but to contribute to an understandable and compelling product.
  • There are lots of ways to participate. Even if you don't want to submit a frame, you can vote on frames or compose your own custom video based on the frames submitted thus far. You can even explore the submitted frames by artistic style ("pointillism," "sketchy," "abstract").
  • The site gives credit to contributors. Every frame is labeled with the name of its creator, and the Credits section also lists the contributors by name. The terms of serviceare reasonable and thoughtfully written (though the underlying terms are full of draconian legalese that seems somewhat contradictory to other language on the site).
Design-wise, there are some lousy aspects of the site, especially when it comes to accessibility. The color contrast is poor, the instructions are somewhat mysterious, and everything's in Flash.

But overall, this is a model project that starts with an outcome, not an activity. Chris Milk didn't say, "How about we let people draw pictures of Johnny Cash and then we'll have a huge collection of portraits we don't know what to do with?" He said: "Let's make a dynamic music video--and let's set up a tool so fans can help us do it."

Are you making that shift in your thinking about participatory project design?
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