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Wikinomics and Defining Collaboration

Anthony D. Williams, coauthor of Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything, recently blogged my phd dissertation. The post highlights the fact that Wikinomics was in fact the first text published on the topic of mass collaboration (as far as my research could uncover). It also highlights my criticism of the book – which must be taken in context, being that of a phd literature review. In this context each work must be critically reviewed with the objective of highlighting how your own work is unique and required. The post highlights the fact that Wikinomics was in fact the first text published on the topic of mass collaboration (as far as my research could uncover). It also highlights my criticism of the book – which must be taken in context, being that of a phd literature review. In this context each work must be critically reviewed with the objective of highlighting how your own work is unique and required.

To this end, my critique of Wikinomics is mainly centered on the usage of the term ‘collaboration’, in that the book does not provide a definition as to what it means when using the term. This is of course not unusual (unless you’re writing a phd!) as most of us tend to feel fairly confident that we know what the word means. After all, a reader can always go to the dictionary if they feel the need, can’t they?

As an artist who has worked collaboratively for many years, I was quite surprised to learn that there was no ‘general theory of collaboration‘ or anything of the like to refer to when writing a phd on mass collaboration. Rather, having spent many years producing works which required creative engagement with others in the most intimate and complex of manners, I was forced to rely upon dictionary definitions, which were far too broad to use in the context of a phd. This lead me to do a fairly comprehensive investigation into the etymology of the term collaboration, as well as to interrogate the meanings I discovered. I found that what was once meant by collaboration – working with someone on the creation of a literary work – has modulated (esp. post Internet) to anything and everything that requires more than one person to achieve it – e.g. ‘collaborative filtering’ or ‘collaborative bookmarking’.

But are these newer references really collaboration, or are they yet another collective process? In my own experience (also supported by the etymology of collaboration) creative production (in the sense of artistry) is a necessary component of collaboration. This lead me to an investigation of creativity – what is it? – of course a huge topic in its own right. Sparing you the details, what I discovered was that there was an elegant way of distinguishing between coordination, cooperation and collaboration.

Simply put,

  • coordination is required for all collective activities (bringing the parts together in a way that yields synergy),
  • cooperation employs linear procedures to leverage collective potential (if each participant does exactly ‘x’, then a predictable ‘y’ is the result),
  • while collaboration is different in that through nonlinear creative processes (no one knows exactly what they have to do until they do it, and even then the outcome is unknown) a shared understanding is created amongst the participants – one unique to those participants and that collaboration.

By way of example,

  • coordination = a web search: bringing together parts of the web in a way that creates meaning, i.e. synergy,
  • cooperation = social bookmarking: if many people tag their webpages using a particular platform, and a particular procedure, a resource much larger than any individual could develop may be generated,
  • collaboration = Wikipedia editing: read an entry, contribute in any number of modes (form, content, discussion, etc) and from an infinite number of perspectives (the multiplicity of opinion and creative volition) one becomes part of a highly complex negotiation of a shared understanding (no one owns or comprehends the whole but contributes a part of it).

The below image represents the relationship between these three terms using the technical language developed in my phd (likely to require a bit more reading for context).

So thank you Anthony for the post (hopefully my criticism makes more sense now) and thank you especially for being so good natured about the criticism, as I really do highly recommend the book – especially as an excellent introduction to the incredible world of Internet-based collective activity and its many potentials and applications in the work place.

BTW, I wonder if my phd was the first on mass collaboration?.. Any others out there?

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