Collaborative Futures

First Things First

Information technology informs and structures the language of networked collaboration. Terms like “sharing”, “openness”, “user generated content” and “participation” have become so ubiquitous that too often they tend to be conflated and misused. In attempt avoid this misuse with the term “collaboration” we will try to examine what constitutes collaboration in digital networks and how it maps to our previous understanding of the term.

Sharing is the First Step

User Generated Content and social media create the tendency for confusion between sharing and collaboration. Sharing of content alone does not directly lead to collaboration. A common paradigm in many web services couples identity and content. Examples of this include blogging, micro-blogging, video and photo sharing, which effectively say: “This is who I am. This is what I did.” The content is the social object, and the author is directly attributed with it. This work is a singularity, even if it is shared with the world via these platforms, and even if it has a free culture license on it. This body of work stands alone, and alone, this work is not collaborative.

In contrast, the strongly collaborative Wikipedia de-emphasizes the tight content-author link. While the attribution of each contribution made by each author is logged on the history tab of each page, attribution is primarily used as a moderation and accountability tool. While most User Generated Content platforms offer a one to many relationship, where one user produces and uploads many different entries or media, wikis and centralized code versioning systems offer a many to many relationship, where many different users can be associated with many different entries or projects. 

Adding a second layer

Social media platforms can become collaborative when they add an additional layer of coordination. On a micro-blogging platform like Twitter, this layer might take the form of an instruction to “use the #iranelections hashtag on your tweets” or on a photo sharing platform, it might be an invitation to “post your photos to the LOLcats group.” These mechanisms aggregate the content into a new social object. The new social object includes the metadata of each of its constituent objects; the authors name is the most important of this metadata. This creates two layers of content. Each shared individual unit is included in a cluster of shared units. A single shared video is part of an aggregation of demonstration documentation. A single shared bookmark is included in an aggregation of the “inspiration” tag on delicious. A single blog post takes its place in a blogosphere discussion, etc.

This seems similar to a single “commit” to a FLOSS project or a single edit of a Wikipedia article, but these instances do not maintain the shared unit/collaborative cluster balance. For software in a code versioning system, or a page on Wikipedia the single unit loses its integrity outside the collaborative context and is indeed created to only function as a part of the larger collaborative social object.