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4 lessons I learned crowdsourcing a science fiction novel

CNET's Eric Mack spent more than half a year crowdsourcing a novel. He managed to maintain his sanity, and even came away with some insights into human nature -- and the entire Internet.

Over the past seven months, CNET created a science fiction novel in a very unorthodox way. We started with an idea for a story, but then asked the public to collaborate with us in writing it. Finally, we took that crowdsourced work and edited it into the version we call "Crowd Control: Heaven Makes a Killing" that we've been publishing serially here on CNET over the past few weeks. (If you haven't been following the novel, start here.)

As the lead writer on the project, I conceived of the story, wrote a few of the chapters, served as the admin on the open Google Doc where it was drafted and worked with a team of editors to shape the final draft. Here are the four main things I learned during this very unusual process.

Crowdsourcing creates compelling characters

To keep some element of sanity during the crowdsourcing phase, I started by writing the first two chapters to introduce the characters, settings and key concepts of the story. I also outlined where I thought the story would go, summarizing chapters in a couple of sentences each. From there, anyone could jump in and start fleshing out those really basic chapter summaries, including adding or changing characters. Really only one character (Charles Danish) is essentially the same in CNET's final draft as I originally envisioned him. All the rest were either significantly changed or created through crowdsourcing.

Click on the book cover to read past installments of "Crowd Control."

Sam Falconer

This approach can lead to some pretty unusual characters, like an unnamed woman we meet in part 11 who is either from the Philippines or Korea, depending on which hint in the text you choose to believe. Despite this heritage, she's a big fan of toast and reminds me an awful lot of some of my relatives from the Northeastern United States. In a previous draft, she also makes some references to Amish country that didn't survive to the final draft.

She's just one example of how multiple contributors from around the world can create colorful personalities. These characters might seem hard to imagine in today's world, but who knows who you might run into in the 2050s, where our story is set...

We all like solving puzzles

Looking back, I will never fully understand what I was thinking when I decided that this story, of all stories, should be the one to crowdsource. The complex premise is rife with potentially confusing points, from travel between parallel universes to body swapping and characters who don't age or sometimes age in reverse. It would have been so much smarter to crowdsource a straightforward zombie epic.

But I've tried crowdsourcing far simpler projects in the past and had far less participation. It makes me wonder if it has something to do with the problem-solving aspect of creating a complex story with so many unorthodox facets. To make all the pieces fit in a way that makes sense required real effort, and some people got really into it. If you look at the shared Google Doc now you can see where contributors created charts to try to fit all the pieces of the puzzle together. I had nothing to do with much of these efforts; they sprang forth organically from the community of contributors. Why? My guess is that it's just human nature -- put a jigsaw puzzle or a Rubik's cube or a convoluted plot idea in front of people and they'll probably try their hand, at least briefly, at figuring it out.

Click the screenshot above for a closer look at an outline of the book through this point that contributors used to organize the rough draft online.

Eric Mack/CNET

The division of labor is rarely equal

Speaking of jigsaw puzzles, that's become my favorite metaphor for describing how the work on this project was distributed. If you set up a card table at a party with all the pieces to a puzzle and a picture of what the finished puzzle should look like, inevitably some people will gravitate toward it for a moment or two. Most people will spend maybe a minute or less putting a couple of pieces together, but a few people will sit down for a while and finish an entire corner.

Crowdsourcing CNET's science fiction novel worked the same way. Most contributors spent just a little bit of time here and there putting tiny pieces of the larger puzzle together, and a much smaller group really dug in and wrote entire chapters.

Idealistic ideas about the Internet are coming true

Back in the 1990s, many people thought the web was going to change everything overnight (see my series on the first 25 years of the web for more on that), but many people and parts of the world don't tend to change at the speed of technology and we've spent a couple decades talking about a digital divide instead of solving our toughest problems with tech.

However, that people from very diverse regions of the world with different levels of English fluency can use basic tools -- a Google Doc and a Facebook group -- to contribute to this project makes me think we're finally bridging that divide. Look, I know it's not that big of a deal that people in Nepal or Eastern Europe or South America were able to all collaborate on a piece of fiction. Even when you consider that many don't write fluently in English and still found ways to join the discussion and the creative process, that's not exactly a revolution.

But that's also what makes it remarkable. This project is completely fanciful and yet we're now at the point where it's easy enough for literally anyone, almost anywhere, to participate, just because they can. Maybe that is a revolution; maybe if we start crowdsourcing everything we really will be traveling to other universes by 2050. Of course, if you've read the book, you might even be convinced that we already are.