In the ongoing debate about amateurs versus professionals, I’ve typically focused on the benefits that amateurs bring to the table. But there are plenty of scenarios where relying on amateur contributions just simply won’t work. I’m thinking anything involving a scalpel for starters. There’s an interesting article just published on the web – An Important Lesson About Grassroots Media – that is worth a read. The short version: Creating a business that relies on amateur contributions is unlikely to succeed. Not if you try applying a business model based on professional rules.

The common mistake when comparing professionals with amateurs is to assume that professionals are better (more skilled) than amateurs and therefore you will always get a better outcome. Similarly, the common mistake about amateurs is to assume that they will behave the same as professionals but just aren’t as good. Amateurs behave differently. Sometimes the outcome will be better, sometimes it will be worse. Sometimes they will be able to help, sometimes they won’t. Professionals will be consistent – consistently good if they are highly skilled. Consistently bad if they aren’t that good at what they do. If amateurs are consistent, it means they’ve turned professional…

Scenarios where relying on amateurs can lead to better outcomes: unique events that don’t follow the rules, situations where doing something is better than doing nothing, starting something that challenges conventional wisdom (re-writes the rules). It’s a sad sad example, but the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center are a case in point. The rules were: don’t use the lifts, stay inside, wait for professional emergency services to come and rescue you. But many people found out what was happening via their mobile phones and realised staying put didn’t look like a good idea. They did use the lifts, did get out, and helped others (injured and disabled) along the way. End result: 2,500 lives saved. (Source: Wired Magazine, May 2005 Print Ed.)

Scenarios where professionals trump amateurs: regular events that require commitment to deliver (and keep delivering) the required goods, where if you can’t do it right you are better not doing it at all or waiting for someone who can. In a regular world, I go to the dentist if I get toothache. I will happily wait (for quite a considerable time and pain level) rather than let an amateur anywhere near my teeth. But in the unique event of being shipwrecked on a deserted island, with no prospect of a rescue in sight, if that tooth gets painful enough it’s coming out using whatever resources are to hand.

Traditional newspapers rely on advertising to generate revenue. To secure that revenue, they need to grow and maintain a target audience that their advertisers can sell to. That’s why they use professional writers. Professionals will deliver the goods on a regular and consistent basis. They will adhere to deadlines, follow the party line and can create a headline out of nothing. An amateur writing a blog may produce far more quality stories than a newspaper, but there are no guarantees. The worry for newspapers is that rules are being re-written. The Internet is making it easier for us to discover talented amateurs who regularly produce better and more interesting stories than the newspapers. Newspapers are losing their audience. No audience = no advertisers = no revenue = defunct business model = problem if your profits rely on that model.

The mistake the author of the article made was trying to create a business that relied on amateurs but wanted a traditional (i.e. professional) revenue model. Why has Wikipedia been so successful? It isn’t about copying traditional encyclopedias and simply replacing professionals with amateurs. It is a completely different approach to creating and maintaining an encyclopedia. Wikipedia re-wrote the rules…

Filed under: Trends – Avoid Perfection

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Join the conversation! 2 Comments

  1. I would love some details on that one: "The mistake the author of the article made was trying to create a business that relied on amateurs but wanted a traditional (i.e. professional) revenue model."Is this your current business, a previous business, what's the story?Mark

  2. Hi MarkClick the link at the start – An Important Lesson About Grassroots MediaIt's a story from someone who started a web site targeting special groups, with the aim that it would be maintained for and by the group. A great idea but the hope was to make it profitable by attacting advertisers (the traditional publishing model). To do that, you either need to be professional or a platform.In a different way, you'll likely experience a similar approach in some SharePoint projects. Organisations want to embrace the Web 2.0-ey features, but they don't want to embrace the open access that such features requlre to be truly beneficial. Fortunately, most learn through experience – starting with a locked down wiki that can only be edited by 'power users', once they are comfortable with how easy it is to restore previous versions of pages when something goes wrong (even 'power users' aren't perfect), they are usually happy to relax the controls…

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