Collaborative Futures

Continuum Set

The series of criteria outlined above provide a general guide for the qualitative assessment of the cooperative relationship. In what follows, these criteria are used to sketch out a continuum of collaboration. The following clusters of cases illustrate a movement from weakest to strongest connections. This division is crude, as it sidelines the fact that within even apparently weak contexts of interaction there may be a core of people whose commitment is of a higher order (e.g. ReCaptcha).

The Weakest Link…

(1) Numerous technological frameworks gather information during use and feed the results back into the apparatus. The most evident example is Google, whose PageRank algorithm uses a survey of links between sites to classify their relevance to a user’s query.

Likewise ReCaptcha uses a commonplace authentication in a two-part implementation, firstly to exclude automated spam, and then to digitize words from books that were not recognizable by optical character recognition. Contributions are extracted from participants unconscious of the recycling of their activity into the finessing of the value-chain. Web site operators who integrate ReCaptcha, however, know precisely what they're doing, and choose to transform a necessary defense mechanism for their site into a productive channel of contributions to what they regard as a useful task.  (2) Aggregation services such as delicious and photographic archives like flickr, ordered by tags and geographic information, leverage users’ self-interests in categorizing their own materials to enhance usability. In these cases the effects of user actions are transparent. Self-interest converges with the usefulness of the aggregated result. There is no active negotiation with the designers or operators of the system, but acquiescence to the basic framework. (3) Distributed computing projects such as SETI and Folding@Home require a one-off choice by users as to how to allocate resources, after which they remain passive. Each contribution is small and the cost to the user is correspondingly low. Different projects candidate themselves for selection, and users have neither a role in defining the choice available nor any ongoing responsibility for the maintenance of the system. Nonetheless the aggregated effect generates utility.


(4) P2P platforms like BitTorrent, eDonkey and Limewire constitute a system where strangers assist one another in accessing music, video, applications, and other files. The subjective preferences of individual users give each an interest in the maintenance of such informal institutions as a whole. Bandwidth contributions to the network guarantees its survival, and promises the satisfaction of at least some needs, some of the time. Intention is required, especially in the context of attempts at its suppression through legal action and industry stigmatization. Links between individual users are weak, but uncooperative tendencies are mitigated by protocols that require reciprocity or bias performance in favour of generous participants (eg BitTorrent, emule).

(5) Slashdot, the technology related news and discussion site is extraordinary in not actually producing articles at all. Instead stories are submitted by users and then filtered. Those published are either selected by paid staff, or voted on by the user-base. Following this, the stories are presented on the web page and the real business of Slashdot begins: voluminous commentary ranging from additional information on the topic covered (of varying levels of accuracy), to analysis (of various degrees of quality), to speculation (of various degrees of pertinence), taking in jokes and assorted trolling along the way. This miasma is then ordered by the users themselves, a changing subset of whom have powers to evaluate comments, which they assess for relevance and accuracy on a sliding scale. The number and quality of comments presented is then determined by users themselves by configuring their viewing preferences. User moderation is in turn moderated for fairness by other users, in a process known as metamoderation. In addition to the news component of the site, Slashdot also provides all users with space for a journal (which predates the blog), and tools to codify relations with other users as ‘friends’ or ‘foes’ (predating and exceeding Facebook). The system behind the site, Slashcode, is free software and is used by numerous other web communities of a smaller scale.

(6) Vimeo, a portal for user-produced video, shelters a wide variety of sub-cultures/communities under one roof. Two characteristics distinguish it from other apparently similar sites: the presence of explicit collective experimentation and a high level of knowledge sharing. Members frequently propose themes and solicit contributions following a defined script, and then assemble the results as a collection.

Several channels are explicitly devoted to teaching others techniques in film production and editing, but the spirit of exchange is diffuse throughout the site. Viewers commonly query the filmmaker as to how particular effects were achieved, equipment employed, etc. The extent to which Vimeo is used for knowledge sharing distinguishes it from Youtube, where commentary regularly collapses into flame wars, and brings Vimeo close to Wenger’s concept of a “community of practice” (see the above quote from Etienne Wenger in ‘Questions of knowledge transfer’). Vimeo is nonetheless a private company whose full time employees have the final word in terms of moderation decisions. Nonetheless the community flourishes on a shared set of norms which encourage supportive and constructive commentary, and a willingness to share know-how in addition to moving images.


(7) Although there is something of an over-reliance on the Wikipedia as an example, its unusually evolved structure makes it another salient case. The overall goal is clear: construction of an encyclopedia capable of superseding one of the classical reference books of history.

The highly modular format affords endless scope for self-selected involvement on subjects of a user’s choice. Ease of amendment combined with preservation of previous versions (the key qualities of wikis in general) enable both highly granular levels of participation and an effective self-defense mechanism against destructive users who defect from the goal.

At the core of the project lies a group who actively self-identify themselves as wikipedians, and dedicate time to developing and promoting community norms especially around the arbitration of conflicts. Jimmy Wales, the project’s founder, remains the titular head of wikipedia, and although there have been some conflicts between him and the community, he has in general conceded authority, but the tension remains without conclusive resolution.

(8) FLOSSmanuals, the organization that facilitated the writing of this text you are reading, was originally established to produce documentation for free software projects, a historically weak point of the FS community. The method usually involves the assembly of a core group of collaborators who meet face to face for a number of days, and produce a book during their time together.

Composition takes place on an online collective writing platform called booki, integrating wiki like version history and a chat channel. In addition to those physically present, remote participation is solicited. When focused on technical documentation, the functionality of the software guides the shape of the text. Where conceptual, as in the case of the current work, it is necessary to come to an agreed basic understanding through discussion, which can jumpstart the process. Once underway both content and structure are continually edited, discussed and revised. On conclusion the book is made freely available on the web site under a CC license, and physical copies are available for purchase on-demand.

(9) Closed p2p communities for music, film and text, such as the now suppressed Oink, build archives and complex databases. These commonly contain technical details about file quality (resolution, bit-rate), illustrative samples (screenshots), relevant additional information (imdb links, track listing, artwork), descriptions of the plot/director/musician/formal significance of the work.

In addition most sites have a means of coordinating users to ensure persistence of data availability. If someone is looking for a file currently unseeded, preceding downloaders are notified, alerting them to the chance to assist. When combined with the fixed rules of protocol operation and community specific rules, such as ratio requirements (whereby one must upload a specified amount in relation to the quantity downloaded), there is an effective mechanism to encourage or oblige cooperation. Numerous other tasks are assumed voluntarily, from the creation of subtitles, in the case of film, to the assembly of thematic collections. All users participate in carrying the data load, and a significant number actively source new materials to share with other members, and to satisfy requests.

(10) Debian is constructed around a clearly defined goal: the development and distribution of a gnu/linux operating system consistent with the Debian Free Software Guidelines. These guidelines are part of a wider written ‘social contract’, a code embodying the project’s ethics, procedural rules and framework for interaction. These rules are the subject of constant debate. Additions to the code base likewise often give rise to extended discussion touching on legal, political and ethical questions. The social contract can be changed by a general resolution of the developers.

Debian exemplifies a ‘recursive community’ (see Christopher Kelty, ‘Two bits’), in that they develop and maintain the tools which support their ongoing communication and labour. Developers have specified tasks and responsibilities, and the community requires a high level of commitment and attention. Several positions are appointed by election.