A guest post by Ken Albala
When Andy Weir wrote his award-winning novel The Martian, he wanted to get all the scientific details correct, so he tried crowdsourcing. He routinely posted questions on his website. He invited critical commentary from experts, which he received. Thus the details of the plot were not only plausible, but possible. The novel was first serialized on his site. It then became a $.99 Kindle book, then a bestseller and finally, blockbuster movie.
If you ask questions on Facebook or your blog, you are already doing a form of crowdsourcing. It is not exactly random broadcasting for feedback. Presumably, interested people are your friends on social media or readers of your site. They are already self-selected, though not necessarily expert.
Through this extended community, you are likely to find people who can offer answers for your cookbook. They help precisely because they are part of this web of actors who have connections. Eventually they will have questions of their own.
A social network works because the responders are usually not direct competitors. They are often at different stages of their careers or have different research agendas.
Here are the upsides of the crowdsourcing I did while working on my cookbook:
While writing my last book, Noodle Soup, I tried some systematic crowdsourcing on Facebook. I found I couldn’t only ask questions. Instead, I had to share information and experiences or people will have no reason to read my posts in the first place. But judicious and honest questions almost always draw a great deal of attention. People are genuinely interested in helping. Naturally, you must return the favor when possible.
Often my questions led to topics I had not thought of, a dish I had never heard of, a new ingredient, or a new technique. Sometimes a friend on social media would even send me an ingredient impossible to find in the US. People would go so far as to post interesting noodle stories on my page. They knew I was researching the topic.
The beauty of this crowdsourcing research is that you are not only getting information, you are building an audience of potential readers. These are people who have, in some measure, invested in your work and will be interested in seeing your cookbook when completed.
Your social network is ideally the same as your audience. As such, you can also test out ideas with them. When a post gets a lot of attention, it may be worth including in the book. You can also experiment with your writing voice via social media. When people give comments, without even realizing it, they are reviewing your writing.
And now, the downsides:
The downside of crowdsourcing is that people can be well meaning but mistaken. So you should never use information without corroboration. Sometimes a question will only lead to greater confusion. Take my advice: never ask Italians the name of a particular pasta shape. You will never get one clear answer.
There are other disadvantages you might not anticipate. Once you have a body of friends who know and like your work, it becomes difficult to have them review that work. This is not only for ethical reasons. Amazon will take down a review if you have thanked a person in the book. I thanked a few hundred people in Noodle Soup! They turned out to be those most qualified to write a good review.
The other danger is that stories that get the most likes or comments are not always your best work. Social media can be fickle. Often hundreds of people will like something stupid I’ve posted. Then they will ignore a carefully researched and well-written story.
So, is it worthwhile?
In the end, you have to trust your own abilities and not the whim of the crowd. This is equally true of images. What gets liked on social media is not necessarily what will look good or work well in an article or book.
Most importantly, despite all the misgivings people have about addiction to social media, you meet new people and make real friends. And often, you get really good information that you can use for your cookbook.
* * *
Ken Albala is Professor of History at the University of the Pacific. He has written academic monographs, popular food histories, cookbooks and edited many reference works. He is also series editor for Rowman and Littlefield Studies in Food and Gastronomy. He is now working on a project involving walking with wine, and finishing a book on aphrodisiacs. Follow his adventures on Facebook.
(Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links.)