Malcolm White wonders if marketing's love affair with crowdsourcing is creating a fake news problem for commercial creativity. He looks back 600 years to a lesser known work of Chaucer for guidance.
At the end of the fourteenth century, the father of English poetry, Geoffrey Chaucer, wrote a long poem called The House of Fame. It’s nowhere near as famous as The Canterbury Tales, but it's well worth a read. Go on, surprise yourself, read something medieval today.
Over six hundred years later, at the end of April this year, Jimmy Wales announced the launch of Wikitribune, his antidote to fake news. Surely, I hear you ask, a medieval poem can't have anything in common with the modern dilemma of fake news. Or can it?
Well, it turns out that Chaucer was all over fake news well before Jimmy Wales. In The House of Fame, Chaucer tells the crazy story of a mad dream he has had in which he's whisked around the world carried in the claws of a talking golden eagle (don't ask). Eventually, he comes upon a huge building called the House of Rumour, continually spinning out of control, and disgorging an endless stream of rumour, gossip and news. Astonishingly, it is sixty miles wide and made of twigs. The cacophony of noise exiting from the spinning house of twigs makes it a good metaphor for the fake news, self-publishing and self-publicising which is flooding the internet. More Twigger than Twitter, perhaps, but weirdly prescient.
But the similarity doesn't end there, because both Jimmy Wales and Chaucer recommend the same prescription for combating fake news: the surprising use of experts. I say ‘surprising', particularly with reference to Wikitribune, because I'd expected it to be totally Wiki (i.e. community-driven), after the model of Wikipedia. But, in fact, a key element of the Wikitribune model is the hiring of expert journalists who will supply "professional standards-based journalism" to work alongside volunteers "who will reliably protect and improve articles", as the Wikitribune website puts it.
This is interesting because in recent years, in my opinion, we've either uncritically celebrated how great it is that anyone can broadcast anything they like on the internet without having to use editors or go through publishers, or we've shrugged our shoulders, thinking the internet is far too complicated to be controlled in any way, or at all. Wikitribune suggests there may be a third way.
Back in the fourteenth century, Chaucer also suggested that authority derived from expertise is the only way to control the news and shut off the noise. Because, you see, what happens in his poem is that the twig house is only brought to a halt by the appearance of a mysterious person who is described as a man of great authority, and whose entrance actually brings the poem to an abrupt end, and puts the world to rights. Perhaps he's an editor or even a creative director-like figure who literally stops the poem from spinning out of control.
That two similar solutions to similar problems have been proposed hundreds of years apart tells me that what's being proposed isn't just a good proposal, it's the right one, and this has relevance to those of us in marketing and advertising today. That's because we have our very own equivalent of self-publication (or should that be ‘selfie-publication'?), which is the fashion for the crowdsourcing marketing and communications content.
Crowdsourcing was defined by Wired magazine in 2006 as "the act of a company or institution taking a function once performed by employees and outsourcing it to an undefined (and generally large) network of people in the form of an open call", which sounds innocent enough, even laudably efficient, but its effects are anything but. Crowdsourcing may not mislead or raise ethical dilemmas but, like fake news, it always leads to work of questionable quality. As my friend, the columnist Helen Edwards, puts it: "Crowdsourcing is to commercial creativity what karaoke is to pop music" (Campaign magazine, 2014).
However, by far the biggest issue regarding the crowdsourcing of commercial creativity, which it shares with fake news, is that it undermines professional practice. Fake news undermines professionally practised quality journalism just like crowdsourcing undermines professionally practised quality advertising and communications development.
Merely stitching together crowdsourced footage and slapping a logo on the end doesn't turn that footage into an ad, or into any other form of commercial creativity for that matter. To do that, a creative idea is needed, and that takes – you've guessed it – expertise. The importance of expertise is something that we undervalue or dismiss to our detriment, unlike Jimmy Wales or even Chaucer. And we thought Chaucer lived in the Dark Ages.