Sunday, November 25, 2012

Design Patterns of Crowdsourced Art

Sometimes I try to google "crowdsourced art" in hopes that I'll find a comprehensive list of all such projects. Maybe there's something out there that I'm unaware of... that'll be on that list... that will really make my day or something.

What I'm finding instead is either stuff that I've already heard about or things that fits into the same general pattern, one that I'm frankly getting a little tired of.

So, I'm going to share my own Comprehensive List. And then talk about the most common pattern I've spotted, as well as a few alternative ones.

30 Crowdsourced Art Projects

(Organized by how people contribute)

Drawing w/ spatial context
Webcam photo
Animating/drawing multiple frames
Cats (er, I mean drawing and writing..)
Playing w/ data
Full project remixing w/ assets
Mixed: photos/videos/text/drawings

Design Patterns

Many of the above are like, "Hey everybody, do a thing that's the same thing everyone else is doing, but since you did it, it'll be sorta unique to you! Then we'll put everyone's things together and maybe it'll be kinda neat to see the similarities and differences!" When everyone goes out and does their own thing, and then the results get smooshed back together, I call it the flat contribution model.

Flat Contribution Model (v1)

The Life in a Day project is a great example of how tons of effort and creativity were filtered down into one consumable artifact. An artifact that is meant to accentuate the artists' differences, yet also our shared humanity and whatnot... The idea was that on July 24, 2010, people all over the world would record videos of their daily lives, maybe answering some questions like "What do you love?" and "What do you fear?" and those would be curated and edited into a single movie. In the end, 80,000 submissions comprising 4,500 hours of material were edited down to 92 minutes. Whoa! Since a mere 0.03% of submissions are actually in the movie, it hardly captures the diversity it could have. On the other hand, 92 minutes was good enough for me as a viewer/consumer. There was a TON of material, a lot of which was likely crap, and some amazing editing went into constructing a coherent viewing experience.

The gist of the model is this: There's some prompt, people go out and do it on their own, submit their creations, and then some curator accepts or denies their contribution and integrates it into the One True Artifact.

Flat Contribution Model (v2) 

While I may have been too snarky about Life in a Day, I reaallly like the Johhny Cash Project. Maybe because I'm impatient and the artifact here is only a few minutes long. Maybe because I really like looking at hand-drawn illustrations. Or maybe because I can actually contribute to this project still; the Life in a Day thing is over and I'm not a video person anyway.

The idea with Johnny Cash is that people re-draw frames of a music video in their own artistic styles. Then when you watch the video, different aesthetics flicker in and out, like realistic and impressionistic and sketchy and haunting and fan art and non sequitur... Here's the link again if you don't want to scroll up and find it. Go take a look!

Some differences for version 2 of this flat contribution model are that a) people work from a common input artifact (frames of a video) and b) they're not working totally in isolation. You can see what other people have drawn before you start drawing your own frame. Working from a common artifact is a lot like the map part of map reduce, and there's research on how to actually use the map reduce model with humans.

Hierarchical Contribution Model

I was moving in this direction by mentioning that in the Johnny Cash Project, people can see what other people have done so far, and that may or may not influence how they draw their own frame.

About 2.5 years ago, Adam and I made an Android app called Sketch-a-bit. It's a gray-scale drawing application, which gives it a similar aesthetic to Johhny Cash, but any time you want to open the app and sketch something, your canvas isn't blank, but an image drawn by another user. Every uploaded sketch is added to the global pool of images for another user to randomly download some day. Every sketch also remembers its parent sketch, so the lineage of each drawing can be traced back to the one white canvas that we seeded the system with. Here's a cool skull drawing that you can trace the ancestry of -- look out for a "SHDH" as a children of one of the ancestors. ;)

The gist of this model, and of Sketch-a-bit, is that people build off other people's work, and the "artifact" -- the 80,000 images that people have drawn so far -- is never really done. It's this thing that's alive and continues to grow and evolve over time.

You may have noticed that a large percentage of those projects described above have Aaron Koblin as their instigator/creative director. His work is super cool, but I'm proud of him for finally making something hierarchical -- The Exquisite Forest -- which debuted this summer, about 2 years after Sketch-a-bit.

The projects in the "voting/consensus" category do follow this hierarchical (or evolutionary) model, but instead of contributing by executing some kind of artistic vision, people contribute simply by voting for their preferred automatically generated offspring.

Of the projects listed above, I would say that Sketch-a-bit, Exquisite Forest, Drawception, and especially Monster Mash, are all somewhat related to the old-timey surrealist parlor game Exquisite Corpse. So this hierarchical contribution model isn't really new, I just haven't seen as many instances of it as I would like.

Upside-down Contribution (Distribution?) Model

I totally just invented this one right now based on the two projects in the "Playing w/ data" category. In the House of Cards project, point cloud data from laser scanning Thom Yorke's face is released on google code and anyone can go make stuff with it. In the White Glove Tracking project, Michael Jackson's gloved hand is hand-tracked (by the crowd) through an entire music video of Billie Jean, and then the tracked hand data is released for people to play around with.

Instead of many people contributing to one artifact, many people consume one artifact (the data) and produce many different things from it.

Towards... an Ecosystem of Ecosystems! 

This deserves its own blog post some day. The idea is that I care about how and what people create based on what they've seen other people create, and that the creation process itself is more valuable than the artifact that you get at the end. We've seen a bunch of crowdsourced or collaborative art projects now, some of which are like little ecosystems in which individuals evolve each other's artifacts. Why not evolve the very nature of those creative ecosystems themselves?


Adam and I wrote a paper about our some of our findings with Sketch-a-bit: Emergent Remix Culture in an Anonymous Collaborative Art System. The pictures are from a slide deck I made for the talk I gave at a Human Computation in Games and Entertainment workshop at AAIDE


  1. For any web developers in the hizzy, here's a real quick sketch of the "Ecosystem of Ecosystems" idea:

    The pattern for a lot of the projects Kathleen linked to is that there is some database of user-created artifacts, some page for browsing what the crowd as built so far, and some page for creating and uploading a new artifact (sometimes with input from another artifact). That is, a single "ecosystem" (like sketchabit) can be defined by a pile of data and two chunks of client-and-server page code. If you put the code parts of an ecosystem in a database with the rest of the artifacts (perhaps as some server-side JS for each of the required pages), then you could have a versioned tree of ecosystems just as easily as you could have for the space of artifacts. As a twist, the artifacts from one ecosystem might be allowed to descend from any artifact of a parent ecosystem if the current ecosystem rules allow it. (Ex: a sketchabit-with-colors ecosystem might allow you to use any grayscale sketchabit image as a starting point.)

  2. Hey Kathleen, I've been meaning to reply to this post for a while--only just now getting around to it.

    I'm really excited to see your post about this topic, which is near and dear to my heart. It's also great to see so many great examples that I didn't know about. In August 2011 I asked around Twitter to try to create a similar list. Here is the result of that. Some overlap, but also plenty of unique items on both of our lists.

    I also enjoyed your thoughtful discussion of different contribution models. I agree that the "flat" model is getting stale, but I'd also argue that the "hierarchical" model is getting there too, at least when it comes to text. I've seen at least 5 startups build websites where people can add on to a never-ending story initiated by others, exquisite corpse-style. Everyone loves this idea in theory (including me), but unfortunately it's much harder to attract sustainable participation than to build the infrastructure for these sites, so they never get off the ground. I like Sketch-a-bit and Exquisite Forest because they experiment in new domains, like drawing and animation. (The now-defunct Rootclip website tried it with video.)

    My PhD research focused on collaboration among Flash animators in the community. Their projects (called "collabs") tend to use one of three contribution models, which I discussed briefly in my CSCW '08 paper. The first model (similar to your "flat" model) had animators submitting stand-alone movies based on a common theme. I called this the "themed" pattern, and it was the most popular because it was easiest and least interdependent. The second model (similar to your "hierarchical model") had animators passing around a movie file and appending chapters, one at a time. I called this the "improvised" pattern. The third model, which I called the "planned" pattern, had a leader divide up a song or story into segments, animators claimed and animated each one, and the segments were recombined into a single movie.

    All of these models could lead to high or low quality outcomes, depending on various factors, especially organizational ones. As I hinted above, the less interdependent patterns (e.g. "flat") tend to be more popular because they're less risky and more likely to succeed. I think an exciting challenge for researchers is to understand how we might support a wider variety of collaboration styles that lead to more creative outcomes. I think one promising way is to build new creativity support tools, like Sketch-a-bit and Pipeline (my dissertation software).

    Will you be at CSCW? I'd enjoy discussing this further any time.

    1. Great list! It's sucking me in... just watched the CHI/CSCW video and now I'm on Channel 101 watching Breaking Good.

      I read some of your papers when I was writing about Sketch-a-bit. I can see that improvised/planned models could fail (where a flat/themed model would be okay) due to a 'weak link'. In the newgrounds examples (any many other of these projects) there is a final goal, and the quality of that is important. Are there lessons from these structured setups that can improve open-ended setups?

      You mentioned attracting sustainable participation. Do you participate in any of these collaborative art projects? Were/are you a newgrounds animator by any chance? What led you to focus on that in your research?

      I've participated in very few of these projects, actually. I want to... I want to find new ways to be creative and be part of a community, but most aren't "casual" enough for me, I think. I've contributed to Exquisite Forest a few times, but it takes so long to get my things approved or for people to add to them. When I make a contribution, I don't feel like I made an impact. If I were more of an artist or serious animator, I might feel like I was contributing something worthwhile even if it took a long time to grow. Researchwise, I'd like to explore how people make meaninigful contributions in collaborative environments and what makes a contribution meaningful either to the contributor or the community at large. And yes! I'd love to see more creativity support tools, too! Online, open-access ones that are useful for organizing and exploring creative efforts.

      I will be at CSCW!! Looking forward to seeing you there!!

  3. None of the collaborative art projects at SITO Synergy are on your list ( Here are two that have been running for over a decade, although participation has lagged recently:
    Gridcosm - a three by three grid of squares which forms the center square for the next level, repeat to infinity. (
    Hygrid - a hyperdimensional grid of squares (

    I believe you would classify these both as flat contribution models, with no curation.
    I still participate in both of these, and I think they could come back alive with more participation!