Illustration of Derek Powazek by Adam Ellis

How Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me Is Crowdsourcing Done Right

One of my favorite NPR shows is Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me. It’s a weekly news/comedy show, where a host and a panel of comedians play a game that involves the week’s news, the audience, an interview, and lots of spontaneous jokes. (If you’ve never heard it, go have a listen.)

I was listening to it this weekend when it occurred to me that Wait Wait is a particularly good example of crowdsourced media, and could actually teach us a few good lessons about participatory projects.

(Before I go any further, let me just cop to the fact that “crowdsourcing” is a stupid buzzword. But like “blog” before it, sometimes it’s the stupid term that sticks. For my purposes, it means collaborating with the people who used to be the silent audience to make something better than you could make alone.)

  1. It’s all about the mix of voices.

    Too many crowdsourced projects reject the entire idea of professional editors/curators. And on the other side of the coin, many professional journalists will tell you that only the professionals should be making news, and their community has no role.

    But Wait Wait has a mix. There’s the host, who emcees the shows, the “panel” of comedians, and of course Carl Kasell, the official scorekeeper who’s been on the air for over 50 years. They’re the official voices. But also included in the mix are the callers, who call in to participate in the show, and the audience, who register their feedback in real time, often with laughter.

    The trick is that the interaction between the official voices and the “everyday” voices makes the whole show better. Without the callers, it would just be a few people trying to crack jokes. Without the panel, it would just be a newsy call-in talk show. But together, it’s faster, better, and way more funny.

    Lesson: Good crowdsourcing is when adding the audience’s voice makes the content better, not worse.

  2. When audience voices become part of the show, it’s in a strict structure.

    Too many community projects become derailed because they take in too much unstructured input. Online forums can be derailed by the first comment because there’s no structure imposed on the participant.

    But on Wait Wait, when they put a caller on the air, it’s in a very structured context. Callers come in to play games, the rules are clearly spelled out, and the stakes are low. The context gives the callers the ability to participate, the listeners a clear way to understand what’s happening, and everyone the comfort to have a good time.

    Lesson: Set context when asking for user participation.

  3. Games can propel a crowdsourced project to the heights of hilarity, or right off a cliff.

    In online community settings, “gaming” has a bad rap. You set up a careful community structure and people come along and treat it as a game, ruining it for everyone else.

    But games are powerful motivators. In fact, all community projects are already games, if seen from the right angle. The only question is, does the game make the content better, or worse?

    On Wait Wait, the panel is playing a game. They earn points for their answers. But the show is not really about the game – the game is just a loose structure to hang the jokes on. It propels the show, but never upstages it.

    Lesson: Examine the game mechanics in your own projects, and make sure the way to win the game makes your site better, not worse.

  4. Games require rewards, but be careful.

    No talk of games would be complete without mentioning rewards. Wait Wait has rewards, but they’re never anything valuable enough for people to get competitive about.

    There’s really nothing at stake. When one of the panelists wins the game, all they get is a cheer from the audience and then the show’s over. And when callers play a game, their only prize is to get announcer Carl Kasell’s voice on their home answering machine. When they play a game with a famous caller, they play to get Carl Kasell’s voice on someone else’s answering machine.

    I particularly like this reward because it’s just random enough to be funny, costs the show nothing to produce, but is still something the caller might want enough to make the game interesting for the audience. The key is that all the rewards are just valuable enough to propel the show, but not so valuable that real competition crowds out the fun.

    Lesson: In games, big rewards make drama (“You are the weakest link!”), small rewards make comedy. Set the reward in the right place for the experience you want to create.

  5. Encourage the audience to level up.

    Crowdsourced projects often make the mistake of giving all the tools to everyone. This leads to role confusion among the participants. Not everybody wants to do everything all the time. Give them something small to do, and then allow them to level up gradually.

    On Wait Wait there are many levels. The first would be the listeners, who hear the show on the radio or podcast (that’s me). They can level up to become a caller if they call in at the right time and get selected. They could also level up to become an audience member to watch the show live. I suppose they could then become someone famous enough to get interviewed or join in the panel – a long shot, of course, but a guy can dream.

    And the dreaming is the point. When a listener hears a caller answering questions, they’re always thinking, “how would I answer?” And that’s the key to leveling up: as soon as you think about what you’d do, you’re on your way to the next level.

    Community projects could mirror this by giving new users a clear path, limited tools, and an awareness of that those on the next level can do. Before you know it, they’ll be leveling up like crazy.

    Lesson: Give your audience something to earn.

  6. Have some damn fun.

    Community tools can sometimes overemphasize personal drama. (“My name is Inigo Montoya. You blocked my father. Prepare to die!”) Do we all have to be so terribly serious all the time?

    Think about this: Wait Wait is a show where people are routinely wrong, get caught on national radio not knowing things, and ultimately win or lose a contest in front of an audience. And it’s one of the funniest hours on radio!

    There’s no personal drama. No “I didn’t come here to make friends” reality TV bitchiness. And no forum-style flameouts. How do they do that?

    I think it has something to do with the five points above. But having some damn fun is just as important.

    Lesson: Community managers often deal with angry people, irate over some tiny slight. It can be hard to infuse an internet project with as much joy and humor as Wait Wait. But I can’t help but think that many would be better off if they did.

So that’s just a few things I’ve learned about creating community settings on the web from listening to funny people joke around about the news on the radio.

Next up: How plumbing toilets is like forum moderation.

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Hi, I’m Derek. I used to make websites. Now I grow flowers and know things. I’m mostly harmless. More.