Collaborative Futures

Does Aggregation Constitute Collaboration?

Can all contributions coordinated in a defined context be understood as collaboration? In early 2009 Israeli musician Kutiman (Ophir Kutiel) collected video clips of hobbyist musicians and singers performing to their webcams posted on YouTube. He then used one of the many illegal tools available online to extract the raw video files from YouTube. He sampled these clips to create new music videos.He writes of his inspiration,

“…Before I had the idea about ThruYou I took some drummers from YouTube and I played on top of them—just for fun, you know. And then one day, just before I plugged my guitar to play on top of the drummer from YouTube, I thought to myself, you know—maybe I can find a bass and guitar and other players on YouTube to play with this drummer.”

Kutiman on the ThruYou project

The result was a set of 7 music-video mashups which he titled “ThruYou—Kutiman Mixes YouTube”. Each of these audiovisual mixes is so well crafted it is hard to remind yourself that when David Taub from was recording his funk riff he was never planning to be playing it to the Bernard “Pretty” Purdie drum beat or to the user miquelsi‘s playing with the theremin at the Universeum, in Göteborg. It is also hard to remind yourself that this brilliantly orchestrated musical piece is not the result of a collaboration.

When Kutiman calls the work “ThruYou” does he mean “You” as in “us” his audience? “You” as in the the sampled musicians? Or “You” as in YouTube? By subtitling it “Kutiman mixes YouTube” is he referring to the YouTube service owned by Google, or the YouTube users who’s videos he sampled?

The site opens with an introduction/disclaimer paragraph:

“What you are about to see is a mix of unrelated YouTubevideos/clips edited together to create ThruYou. In Other words—what you see is what you get.

Check out the credits for each video—you might find yourself.


<> (emphasis in the original)

In the site Kutiman included an “About” video in which he explains the process and a “Credits” section where the different instruments are credited with their YouTube IDs (like tU8gmozj8xY & 6FX_84iWPLU) and linked to the original YouTube pages.

The user miquelsi did share the video of him playing the Theremin on YouTube, but did not intend to collaborate with other musicians. We don't even know if he really thought he was making music: it is very clear from the video that he doesn't really know how to play the Theremin, so when he titled his video “Playing The Theremin” he could have meant playing as music making or playing as amusement. It would be easy to focus on the obvious issues of copyright infringement, and licensing, but the aspect of Kutiman’s work we're actually interested in is the question of intention. 

Is intention essential to collaboration?

It seems clear that though these works were aggregated to make a new entity, they were originally shared as discrete objects with no intention of a having a relationship to a greater context. But what about works that are shared with an awareness of a greater context that help improve that context, but are not explicitly shared for that purpose?

Web creators are increasingly aware of “best practices” for search engine optimization (SEO). By optimizing web pages, creators are sharing objects with a strong awareness of the context in which they are being shared, and in the process they are making the Google Pagerank mechanism better and more precise. Their intention is not to make Pagerank more precise, but by being aware of the context, they achieve that result. Although reductive, this does fit a more limited definition of collaboration.

The example of Pagerank highlights the questions of coordination and intention. Whether or not they are optimizing their content and thus improving Pagerank, web content publishers are not motivated by the same shared goal that motivates Google and its share holders. These individuals do coordinate their actions with Google’s out of their own self interest to achieve better search results, but they don’t coordinate their actions in order to improve the mechanism itself. The same can be said about most Twitter users, most Flickr users, and the various musicians that have unintentionally contributed to YouTube’s success and to Kutiman’s ThruYou project.

Collaboration requires Goals

There are multiple types of intentionality that highlight the importance of intent in collaboration. The intentional practice is different from the intentional goal. Optimizing a web page is done to intentionally increase search results, but unintentionally contributes to making Google Pagerank better. When we claim that intention is necessary for collaboration, we really are talking about intentional goals. Optimizing your site for Google search is a collaboration with Google only if you define it as your personal goal. Without these shared goals, intentional practice is a much weaker case of collaboration.