Blog Post

The Hope of "Collaboration by Difference"

I have had Cathy Davidson's "Collaboration by Difference" blog post bookmarked for a few days now because it offered me so much to think about. Her discussion of collaboration intersects with a dissertation chapter and a presentation that I've been working on about community and collaboration.  As I've discussed in previous blog posts, I've been thinking a lot about "speed" and "collision" lately.  For me, this latter term is one that has a whole lot to do with community and collaboration.  Various competing and conflicting purposes and goals collide on the Web, and what makes the Web so interesting is that these collisions can become collusions regardless of any conscious choice.

Cathy describes collaboration by difference this way: "you start with people who do notshare assumptions, who do not share backgrounds, who do not shareinstitutions, who do not share ideas, and who may not even share thesame goals. And you see what happens. No game plan."

Her primary example is Wikipedia, which is perfect for me...since it's the case study that grounds my dissertation.  Here's how Cathy describes Wikipedia in terms of "collaboration by difference":

"The form of collaboration by difference that is Wikipedia isparticularly satisfying because people who have expertise are the onesmainly responsibile for all of those entries that cater to my 'weakinterests.' That is the brilliance of the volunteerism or what we callthe participatory learning aspect of collaboration by difference. Thatis, if I am passionate about something, if I am an expert in it, I wantto share that expertise and there are only so many dinner parties onecan ruin (ah, this is getting personal) by talking about dopaminelatency and new models of associative learning. (It's a conversationstopper, believe me.) But on Wikipedia, one can write to one's heart'scontent as long as you meet the community rules of Wikipedia. Anyonecan then read your entry and they can choose when to stop reading aboutyour obsession. They are not bound by the temporalities of the dinnertable. They can dip in or dip out, they can follow links into thestratosphere...This form of contribution and participation is not simply the 'wisdomof crowds.' It is the contribution of one's singular expertise to acommunity that can challenge, emend, review, or augment that expertise."

Cathy, it seems to me, has hit on one of the largest misconceptions about Wikipedia and other Web 2.0 phenomena.  The "wisdom of crowds" narrative is often tossed around in a way that does not at all describe what's happening on the Web. Wikipedia is only a "hive mind" if you consider that the hive mind is a collection of slivers of intelligence or "singular expertise" that end up forming a collaborative enterprise. 

That is, all of these colliding chunks of knowledge and rhetorical purposes will have been a collaboration. When "you start with people who do not share assumptions...and you see what happens," there's no plan or blueprint ahead of time.  But that doesn't mean that collaboration won't happen. In fact, the most interesting collaborations on the Web seem to come when we collaborate unknowingly.  This is why movements like Creative Commons are so interesting to me.  I create something, and I invite others to re-create it.  But I have no idea how that will happen (or, if it will happen).  This isn't necessarily a group of people saying "let's get together and do this thing."  But that doesn't mean it's not collaboration.

Community and collaboration emerge from colliding interests and "singular expertise."  For me, this is the lesson the Web teaches us about community and collaboration.  (Incidentally, those who are concerned about the "hive mind" not only misunderstand what's happening on the Web, they misunderstand what's happening in the mind.  As people like Edwin Hutchins - Cognition in the Wild -  have shown us, cognition is very much relies on collisions that become collusions.)  This also offers a great deal of hope.  Cathy's post also noted that collaboration can become too insular and lend itself to groupthink.  But if projects like Wikipedia can remain hospitable to various collisions, then we leave open the door to many voices.  This disrupts groupthink, even if it also leaves the door open to vandals. 

Collaboration by difference means that collisions become collusions regardless of anyone's conscious choice.  This might mean that we are in communities that we did not choose, and that seems to be a source of great hope because it offers us some ways to speak across our various divides.




Thanks for your post! You inspired a response post


I love this, Jim. I think the "unknowingly" is precisely what makes it interesting and fruitful. I am thinking about this in many different community terms, in departmental and disciplinary terms, too. The "associationism" of knowing is partly defining what counts and what does not on numerous levels (methodology, evidence, etc). But when individuals share their intense and localized knowledges in circumstances where others will use, customize, transform, appropriate, or mashup those knowledges with others, it is not at all clear what the outcome will be--and therein lies the possibility for something great. As Wikipedia has turned out to be in ways no one could have expected even five years ago.


Your dissertation sounds terrific. Congratulations, and thanks for posting. I think Erin has a HASTAC Scholars forum on collaboration on the docket for next semester and I look forward to all our contributions, knowing and unknowing!