One week ago, the March Madness Poetry 2013 tournament came to a close.
I hope that you enjoyed the camaraderie, the excitement, and above all the POETRY that our 64 authletes created. I certainly did. I again want to thank and congratulate Cheryl Lawton Malone for her excellent tournament run, and of course Dave Crawley for winning the 2013 championship. The Thinkier trophy will be engraved with “2013 DAVE CRAWLEY” (just below the already-present “2012 STEPHEN W. CAHILL”) this weekend, and should arrive in Pittsburgh sometime next week!
I have spent the past week catching up on life and work, and simply enjoying some other fantastic National Poetry Month events and features. My favorites include Greg Pincus’ 30 Poets 30 Days, Renee LaTulippe’s ever-expanding video poetry library, and Laura Shovan’s TechnoVerse. But I didn’t want to let too much time pass before looking back at #MMPoetry 2013 (and then hopefully resuming a more normal schedule of posts here at TKT), so … here I am, and here we go.
March Madness Poetry 2013 vs. 2012: What was different?
#MMPoetry 2013, though similar to the 2012 tournament in structure and pace, was different in a number of ways. I’d like to talk about a few of the differences that I saw, in the hopes of starting a discussion with you about the future of this event. I will not cover everything today, as I intend for this to be larger, longer discussion over a span of months. But I want to get some observations and thoughts out there now. So what was different between 2012 and 2013?
1. Becoming an authlete was a competitive process.
In 2012, #MMPoetry participants were accepted on a first come, first served basis. In 2013, writers were required to submit applications to be considered as potential authletes, and the participant roster was unveiled as an event (“Selection Sunday”) in and of itself. I may be reading too much into this, but I wonder if the competitiveness of the application process and the emotions associated with Selection Sunday may have carried through to the event itself.
Others may take exception, but I personally felt that 2013′s early round poems were on balance markedly stronger than those from #MMPoetry 2012. Was it just the makeup of writers, or did authletes work longer or more intently on their 2013 poems out of respect for the writers (in many cases their friends and quality poets themselves) who were left out of the tournament? Or to otherwise prove that they belonged? I would love for authletes to share their experience from application to selection to word assignment to poem submission. Especially those that participated in both 2012 and 2013 — did you dedicate more time to your #MMPoetry poem(s) this year? I am curious.
As for the future, I would like to hear everyone’s thoughts on both the application process and the faux-live Selection Sunday video as a means of announcing the participants. What, if anything, would you want to see changed to make it a better experience for applicants or fans?
2. Cheerleading gave way to criticism.
#MMPoetry 2012 was a bit of a love fest. Everyone cheered everyone and everything because the experience was novel and no one really knew what was going to happen next (including me!). But in 2013, that seemed to change a little, at least from my point of view. In all, readers left 2,230 comments directly on the site during the event, a 20% increase over last year’s 1,867 #MMPoetry comments. Sure, there were still lots of encouraging and congratulatory comments as readers recognized the many excellent poems that had been written in response to some extremely challenging* words. But in 2013, more points of criticism also seemed to creep into the comments section — some rather subtle, some quite direct. Not all negative criticism, mind you, just a bit more appraisal versus automatic praise. Comments about meter and rhyme, rhythm and pace, form, content, intended audience, and more all came together to create a more interesting discussion dynamic, and led to some healthy exchanges in the context of several matchups. In 2014 and beyond, I will try to enable/encourage even more constructive evaluation and discussion of the poems in each pair. I have several ideas for how to facilitate this, and I am open to your ideas as well.
*I’ll soon publish a separate post explaining my choice of word prompts in #MMPoetry 2013, which I know was a source of controversy and concern. Stay tuned!
3. Word-of-mouth and social media played an even bigger role in driving visits … and votes.
March Madness Poetry only exists thanks to the power of social media. On February 9, 2012, I had a 4-week-old website and an idea. The rest was created by you. As word of the event passed from person-to-person, blog-to-blog, and friend-to-friend, it took on a life of its own, and has kept growing with every round of poetry since.
The 2012 event saw nearly 12,000 people visit TKT about 100,000 times. People liked/shared links to the event on Facebook almost 2,500 times and on Twitter about 450 times. Fans and supporters cast 12,854 votes, or 160 median votes per contest.
The 2013 event saw over 20,000 people (+67%) visit about 150,000 times (+50%). People liked/shared links to the event on Facebook over 9,000 times (+260%) and on Twitter over 800 times (+74%). Fans and supporters cast 21,780 votes (+69%), or 261 median votes per contest (+63%).
Those increases provided event exposure to an incalculable number of new people. Remember, one tweet can reach hundreds of people (and just as many robots!) in an instant, and every Facebook share shows up as a story in your friends’ timelines, and can spider further from there. Following those Facebook and Twitter trails led me to some fascinating people and places, and it was amazing to witness just how far news of the event had traveled.
But for all of the positives, such enthusiastic sharing exposed some complications as well. In 2013 even more so than in 2012, participants (inclusive of authletes, fans, supporters, and even me) had a tough time toeing the line between advertising the event and promoting one authlete over another. This led to several very exciting and several very uncomfortable moments. The question now becomes — how do we maximize excitement and attract new long-term fans while minimizing what I’ll call “negative tension”. (Tension in any game is a good thing — but negative tension can become a drag.) Negative tension comes in several forms:
- Some authletes with large platforms might want to help spread the word, but don’t want to come across as self-promoting, so they keep quiet. That is negative tension that closes off a channel that could otherwise attract new fans to the event, a missed opportunity that shortchanges everyone.
- Some authletes with small/non-existent platforms might feel intimidated when matched up against an authlete with a larger platform. That is negative tension that takes the focus off of writing great poetry and puts it on the contest itself, where it doesn’t really belong.
- Some readers might be dismayed when their preferred poem loses a particular contest because of a late “rally” by one authlete’s supporters. That is negative tension that creates suspicion among the very people for whom the event is designed — the kids, parents, and teachers who are trying to navigate the oft intimidating world of poetry, and for whom this event represents an exciting potential entry point and a dangerous potential example depending on which poems “win”, and how.
What this comes down to is that the “currency” (e.g., dollars, euros) of the event — votes — is currently both the primary driver of excitement and the sole arbiter of each matchup.
It is now clear to me after only two years that the former is unlikely to ever change. People LOVE being able to compare two things and vote as if it is a test or an election or an opinion survey, and they LOVE being able to watch the rise and fall of two opponents as if it is a sporting event. Take that away, and the potential “mass appeal” of the event may be lost.
But it is also now clear to me after only two years that the latter must change. Fortunately, there ARE ways to decide the outcome of a match other than a straight public majority vote. The trick is to devise a method that still highlights the exciting (and positive tension-generating) public vote, but that is balanced by other relevant, fair, and transparent mechanics.
And so, I now propose for discussion the following method of deciding the winner of each March Madness Poetry matchup, beginning in 2014:
The authlete who advances is the one who wins two of three of the following:
- Public vote — same as today
- Classroom vote — a prearranged sample of kids in classrooms across the grade spectrum who all vote to determine a winner
- Authlete vote — like a peer review, where as a term of participation each authlete must also vote on ALL of the other contests (not through the normal voting buttons, but a special page that I setup with radio buttons that they click for each matchup)
The net result is that the public vote still matters (and will still empower and give a sense of excitement to fans and supporters), but will only determine the winner if the kids’ vote and peer vote are split. This frees up authletes to promote their matchup (which no matter how they do it usually results in votes for themselves) and will help bring new readers to the event, without creating any negative tension. Using this method, we completely erase the already thin gray line that separates objective advertisement and subjective promotion and just tell authletes, fans, and supporters to activate their base in the hopes that people will “come as a friend, and leave as a fan.”
If both kids and poets agree that one authlete’s poem deserves to win, then that authlete will move on to the next round of the tournament no matter what the public vote says. But if the kids and poets do not agree, then the public vote decides the winner, and each authlete can walk away satisfied knowing that their poem won over either classrooms of kids or their own peers, even if they do not get to write again the next day.
All of this will take some re-design on my part, but honestly that was going to be necessary anyways (let the letter from my web host’s “abuse department” serve as proof). #MMPoetry is growing, and in a good way. Now it is time to rethink the dynamics of the event so that we can ensure its continued success.
I cannot do this by myself — I need your honest feedback, and as some of you will hear from me privately over the course of the next year, your skills and contacts to make this event the best that it can be. Together, directly through the event and indirectly through the connections that it builds, we can bring more high quality poetry to more kids around the world — because that is what March Madness Poetry is all about.
Your comments are invited and encouraged below.
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