Speaking to… Jeff Howe

“The new paradigm is shiftyness. And that’s our premise. Not only will things not stop changing. But the rate of change is only going to increase.”

Jeff Howe
Image credit: Daniella Zalcman

This is part of a series of interviews with science communicators about science communication. Today we are Speaking to… Jeff Howe

Jeff Howe, the man who co-coined the term “crowdsourcing” has had many adventures in science communication in his time. I managed to speak to him at the Citizen Cyberscience Summit in London yesterday, and in this interview we explore how he coined the term crowdsourcing, some of his multimedia teaching methods and his new book.

Jeff first used the word Crowdsourcing in a 2006 article in Wired: The rise of crowdsourcing. It was all about the disruptive elements, as well as promise of sourcing out to the crowd. His focus was on the democratisation of crafts that are usually the premise of professionals.

This was his first adventure into citizen science, or crowdsourcing. But at the time, these two “things” didn’t really exist. “Citizen science is a movement.”

And this is just one of many areas that he is interested in and writes about.

But, he is also a professor of multimedia. “Since you’re a tech guy, you should teach tech,” was what the employers said when they invited him to teach. He said he was a writer, he hadn’t taught before. But he threw himself at it and found his way.

“I just teach story telling…I teach storytelling on social media, I teach story telling on magazines….it’s all the same stuff, we just put it on different platforms sometimes.”

The logistics of story telling changes a lot, depending on your medium. The architecture of a Twitter story is very different to a magazine piece. “Telling a story on video requires a different grammar than if you’re telling a story on a series of blog posts.”

Jeff thinks that the hardest thing is finding the story, whether he is writing fiction or non-fiction. So what he teaches his students is that story telling is all about swimming upstream. “Good story telling is about swimming upstream. It’s what the reader doesn’t expect, or what the viewer doesn’t expect, that makes the story interesting.”

And this applies to science and technology writing too. He just wrote good stories that happened to have science and technology in them. His sweet spot is where science and technology are changing humans, or changing the way people look at the world. “The science and the tech is often the least interesting part… often it is the catalyst for that change. Its that change, that transformation that is essential to story telling.”

His favourite medium is long form journalism. “It’s my craft.” Although it is only now, after having been working on his prose for 25 years, that he is starting to enjoy his writing as a reader.

Now he is working on a new book with the head of the MIT multimedia lab Joi Ito. It’s going to be called The Principles: A compass for a wold without maps. The idea is that there are 9 principles that they came up with that will help institutions to adapt to a new era. this is one of constant change. Stephen J. Gould called our era punctuated equillibrium. In his case he was describing evolutionary biology which had periods of stasis for a species, which changed due to an adaptation to environment. This is similar to our preindustrial age and then great change in the late 1700’s which lead to a new industrial age, or paradigm shifts. Jeff and Joe propose a new paradigm: paradigm shifts. “The new paradigm is shiftyness. And that’s our premise. Not only will things not stop changing. But the rate of change is only going to increase.”

How do you adapt to constant change? Don’t plan. It’s not worth it economically. Now, just get on with it. Modern technology allows you to try something new extremely quickly. “Act first, and plan later.”

You can follow Jeff Howe on Twitter at @crowdsourcing.