Online collaboration scales

On: October 22, 2007
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About Tjerk Timan
During the last couple of years, I have been involved in Industrial Design at the Technical University of Eindhoven, both on the theoretical as well as the physical/practical side, always working on the boarder between the digital and physical. After an internship at Mediamatic, I wanted to get more involved in the digital side of new media. Currently, I am investigating the complex realm of new media [at] the master course New Media, UvA. With a thesis focus now on ‘objects that blog’ within the context of an internet of things, the challenge is to investigate the agency and influence of things. Especially when these things, being digital or physical, are capable of sharing, posting, editing, deleting content. And on who’s account? Within that same line of thought, the digital is often taking itself for granted maybe too much, where often the step towards WHO and HOW data is manipulated is left out of the loop. Taking these things back into the (design) loop is one of my missions, with the statement in mind that the way content is created and consumed has at least as much importance as the technology driving it. Furthermore, I am currently active within the Digital Methods Initiative at the University of Amsterdam. Also, I do some occasional freelance work, where disciplines differ from web-design to workshops to product design.


In talking about collaboration on the web, the first thing I did was running the term ‘collaboration’ through the WikiScanner, in order to find out to what extent online collaboration was used to create the article on collaboration on Wikipedia.
The picture shows the first result that the scanner comes up with. A whois-search returns British telecommunications as the main source for this article.
Despite the fact that we cannot be sure that one person has exactly one IP adress, there is a tendency to think that the article on collaboration was not really a collaborative piece of work.
In defining what ‘good’ or ‘successful’ net cooperation is, often Wikipedia is mentioned as the main example of a successful and equivocal project. Without going too deep into this discussion (as this is already extensively done on this blog), it is very questionable how valid these claims are (link to post). But what then, is a good example (augmented or real) of online collaboration?
In researching collaborative work on the net, one has to question what people are actually doing there? Shuman and Reilly state in their article that people:
collaborate, publish, mobilize and observe. In mapping the question what people do collaboratively and what they do individual, they introduce two axes; that of formal versus informal, and centralized versus distributed.
By introducing this strategic uses spectrum, some conclusion can be drawn on what actually is the status of online collaboration.
When looking at ‘analogue’ institutions (as an opposite of networked organizations like Wikipedia), it can be concluded that the tools used are mainly email and/or messenger infrastructures.
As Ned Rossiter argues in his book ‘ organized networks’ it is of great importance that these institutions catch up and get involved in online collaborative structures in order to keep their validity and raison d’etre as an institution.

The question now is where this all leaves us when talking about online collaboration? In short we might say that it works for mmorpg’s, it does not work for classical institutions yet, because of their bulky and slow way of adapting to the ‘now’. Also, seemingly beautiful and honest examples like Wikipedia are in fact the wisdom of a very tiny crowd.
When taking a microscopic view on online collaboration and look at my own behavior in that sense, I can say that I too still see email as the main way of communication, with Skype as a very nice add-on for direct discourse; the tools that are heavily saturated in society. With a current new (geeky-small-crowd) trend of using games and/or game-engines to communicate ideas and/or do collaborative sketching, for instance, or projects like Processing that are entirely built-up via the Web in an open-source fashion, there is a set of tools upcoming that allow you to do much more collaboration online.
When we scale up again to the institution-level, however, this is way-future material, I am afraid.

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