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May 11, 2010, 3:26 p.m.

Crowdsourcing goes global: The NYT’s “Moment in Time”

Visit the New York Times’ Lens blog today, and you’ll find an image slightly different from the high-quality photographs that normally populate the outlet: a spinning globe, highly stylized, its surface popping with piles of pictures.

“Here it is,” the site announces: “Earth, covered by stacks of thousands of virtual photographs, corresponding in location to where they were taken by Lens readers at one ‘Moment in Time.'”

The moment in question? Sunday before last, at 11 a.m. EST — the time when the paper asked its users to take photos in an image-gathering project that was equal parts collaborative art and crowdsourcing on steroids.

The invitation to participate:

Attention: everyone with a camera, amateur or pro. Please join us on Sunday, May 2, at 15:00 (U.T.C./G.M.T.), as thousands of photographers simultaneously record “A Moment in Time.” The idea is to create an international mosaic, an astonishingly varied gallery of images that are cemented together by the common element of time.

The feature’s editors — James Estrin, who conceived of it and oversaw its implementation, David Dunlap (who wrote much of the project’s witty instructions and textual updates), and Josh Haner (who, along with Aron Pilhofer, Jacqui Maher, and the Times’ vaunted interactive news team, helped facilitate the behind-the-scenes tech masterminding) — expected that the blog’s invitation would elicit a couple thousand photos. And that organizing and presenting them would take a couple days.

But: they received, in the end, over 10,000 user-generated submissions, Estrin told me — from photographers amateur and professional, from around the world. (Actually, they received over 13,000 at first — then removed some from the pile when it became obvious, whether by lighting or timestamp or other indicators, that the photos weren’t, in fact, taken at the allotted time.) And the process of organizing all that content took well over a week — a fact about which Dunlap repeatedly (and wittily) apologized. In a post entitled “Patience,” Dunlap wrote, “We have to ask it of you once again. Our interactive ‘Moment in Time’ gallery isn’t ready yet.”

We were bold — O.K., maybe a bit foolhardy — to think we would only need two or three days to prepare a complex three-dimensional computer display showing more than 13,000 photographs from around the world; organized geographically and searchable by topic, with captions and photo credits as coherent and accurate as possible. It’s obviously taken us longer than that and will almost certainly take us a day or two more. (We’re getting out of the prediction business for now.) We simply hadn’t had the experience of dealing with such numbers before. The popular “Documenting the Decade” project, for example, drew only 2,769 submissions.

Please bear with us while we take the time we need to get it right…Be assured that we’ll post as soon as we can. And don’t think for a moment that we’ve been using this time to weed out pictures of cats, dogs, tulips and coffee cups. There’ll be plenty.

And plenty, indeed, there are. The pictures (sortable by fellow-user recommendation, but also by Community, Arts and Entertainment, Family, Money and the Economy, Nature and the Environment, Play, Religion, Social Issues, Work, and — my personal favorite — Other) are, in general, high-quality and compelling. There’s the predictable fare — meditative close-ups of flowers, pictures of cats — but there’s also more surprising and evocative stuff: a grandmother and grandson in Bangladesh, a couple lounging in bed (caption: “My boyfriend and I planned a big adventure for Sunday morning, but we both ended up sick”), an Amish horse-and-buggy (caption: “We live in a part of Pennsylvania where wifi and No-fi coexist pretty well”).

“A Moment in Time” (and, with that, I’ll try not to use the project’s name again in this post — so that you won’t, as I did, get something unfortunate stuck in your head as a result of repeated exposure) is aesthetically compelling and socially revealing. It also suggests the Times’ openness to exploring avenues of documentation and expression that don’t fall into the neat categories of traditional journalism.

“I was driving to work, and it just hit me: Okay, we’ll get thousands of people around the world to take a photograph at the same moment,” Estrin told me of the project’s inception. And the goals of the project mix the artistic and the journalistic to the point that it’s difficult to tell where the journalism ends and the aesthetic begins: first, to produce a valuable document, one that records — to an extent — a particular moment as it’s lived out across the world. Second, from the social media angle, to facilitate the sense of shared identity that comes with “doing things as a community around the world — doing the same things at the same time.” Ultimately, Estrin says, the project was about “the intentional profundity of the moment.”

Whether the feature represents journalism, or something more, or something less, the reaction it’s received from Times users offers a lesson for news organizations chasing after the holy grail-and-sometimes-white-whale that is reader engagement. If the project’s participatory outpouring is any indication, it has struck a nerve with Times users. In a good way. And the ‘why’ in that is instructive. The project involved an assignment with specific instructions; users weren’t merely being asked for something — a hazy invitation to contribute — but to provide something specific, and easily attainable. And to provide something, moreover, that would be part of a project with a clearly defined, but also inspiring, purpose: to document the world, via its many corners, at a particular moment. That mix of depth and breadth, of pragmatism and idealism, can be a potent incitement to action — a fact evidenced by the thousands of images currently blanketing the globe over at the Lens blog.

POSTED     May 11, 2010, 3:26 p.m.
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