Collaboration 2.0

In Here Comes Everybody,
Clay Shirky argues that any group undertaking (online or offline) can
be considered in terms of a three-rung ladder. Each rung requires more
and more coordination, and Shirky uses these rungs to help us
understand Web collaboration. The first rung is sharing, in which users
knowingly or unknowingly share information  with no specific plan for
the end result. The second rung is cooperation, which requires more
energy and coordination than sharing.  The third rung is collective
action, which "requires a group of people to commit themselves to
undertaking a particular effort together, and to do so in a way that
makes the decision of the group binding on the individual members."

Shirky's framework allows us to pursue two lines of thought, and I think these two lines offer a nice jumping off point for our discussion.

1) As
we move up Shirky's ladder, we are presented with situations that
require more and more control and coordination.  How do Web technologies enable cooperation and collective action?  What challenges are presented by electronic collaboration? How does the Web allow one to harness people and resources? What new problems are raised by Web collaboration?  What old problems are re-raised by Web collaboration?
How can Web collaboration help us rethink
our efforts toward collective action offline?

2) Shirky's first rung of "sharing" opens up a different set of questions.  Collaboration does
not always require conscious coordination.  Shirky's example is Flickr, which allows a disparate group of users to share and sort images.  There is no "plan" for how this will happen, but Flickr ends up as a collaborative effort nonetheless.  Collaboration on Wikipedia is similar (see blog posts by me and Cathy Davidson for a more detailed discussion of this).  In spaces that allow for
collaboration across space and time and that allow Web denizens to
share information knowingly or unknowingly, how does collaboration
happen? Given that texts circulate to different audiences in ways that
we cannot always control, does our definition of collaboration have to
account for both the intended and unintended? Who is responsible for
such "unknowing" collaborations?

These are not the only two sets of questions we can ask, but I hope they offer us a starting point.  I'm looking forward to the conversation!



While you are welcome to join the conversation vertically by adding a text comment, we also invite you to join in the horizontal conversation by contributing a vlog via Seesmic. To add a vlog to the discussion, just click on the "Reply" or "Start a new conversation" buttons below. It requires an account on (these are free and very simple to register for), and you will either need a web cam or some other video format you can upload. Replies to the original vlog are included in the same video widget; clicking on the thumbnail pics at the bottom of the video will play these responses. The responses run in order from Jim's original vlog to the most recent response.


We extend a special welcome to the winners of the 2007-2008 HASTAC/Mac Arthur Foundation Digital Media & Learning Competition who will be joining in on this conversation!

Jim Brown is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of English at the University of Texas at Austin. He is finishing a dissertation entitled "Hospitable Texts" that uses Wikipedia as a case study to examine shifting notions of agency, community, and intellectual property. At the University of Texas, Jim teaches courses in New Media, Rhetoric and Writing, and Literature.


As someone who is still on the ground floor looking up at Shirky's ladder, I would like to add a very basic question to the excellent questions Jim has raised above: What are the elements of successful collaboration in general--whether online or offline?

I believe we will be joined by some of the winners of last year's HASTAC/MacArthur Foundation Digital Media and Learning Competition, and I know many of them have been involved in some amazing collaborative work. I would love to hear people share their experiences of successful (and unsuccessful!) collaboration to help me think through what sorts of advantages (or-perhaps some will argue-disadvantages?) are to be found in "Collaboration 2.0."

I look forward to being enlightened!  Thanks to Jim for facilitating this discussion!


We've only met twice so I'm not sure if the students in "This Is Your Brain on the Internet" will be ready, yet, to contribute, but part of the class is to participate in some form of public forum where students share expertise . . . We're reading Clay Shirky's HERE COMES EVERYBODY after Spring break, and we've begun the class with the "This Is Your Brain" part by reading the memoir Jean-Dominique Bauby wrote after a massive stroke (locked-in syndrome) removed all his ability to communicate except by blinking one eye as his therapist, and then later a young editor, read letters out loud from a frequency chart. THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY was a collaboration between the former French ELLE editor and the nurses, doctors, friends, family, and editors who helped give his body enough life to allow his butterfly-imagination to not only run free but to provide us (more collaborators) with a rare testimony from beyond the silence. We're also watching the movie by director Julian Schnabel, the famous painter, to think about film making as collaboration. Much of the movie is from the pov of Jean-Do, entrapped in his body in the bed, which means the cinematographer had to film from the bed, the actors (who are trained not to look into the eye of the camera) had to talk to the camera-in-the-bed as if to Jean-Do, and the actor who played Jean-Do was in a soundproof box with headphones twenty-feet away reacting and doing the voice over. In French. With subtitles. Next week, as a class, we'll be going to listen to a talk by and then visit the rehearsal studio of Shen Wei, the brilliant choreographer who created the opening ceremony for the Beijing Olympics. And then we will see the performance. Yes, eventually we will get to the kind of collaboration that Shirky writes about and that happens on Wikipedia and that happens in a forum like this, but even before, we are thinking about all kinds of collaboration.
Jim, your wonderful questions will help us focus as we talk about collaboration in class today. Ultimately, we want to make the leap to ask exactly how Web technologies enable cooperation and collaboration. And I love the part of the Web where it doesn't start out consciously but suddenly there is a pile-on of ideas and experiences and, suddenly, they are ADDING UP.

I find this on Facebook. What "status update" starts a snowball of comments? It's never what you expect (although food seems to elicit the most commentary from my friends). It's a fascinating run on Shirky's collaborative ladder, the almost spontaneous effect, where a YouTube video suddenly has a million hits and another dies, despite all attempts to get interest. What captures attention? Sometimes I think ATTENTION CAPTURES ATTENTION. . . that the Web isn't about the act of collaboration but the ACTORS of collaboration, the community of connection as an end almost in itself. What do others think?

I hope that's what happens with this Forum. We're all trying to figure out how this works----and we need lots of participants to, collectively, do it, so I hope this terrific kick-off, Jim, grabs attention and gets response. I'll be inviting my students to contribute and I hope everyone does.


Good luck and I hope, well, that here comes everybody . . . :)


Another great topics on HASTAC. Thanks for hosting this and starting us off with these questions. Collective, digital organizing is a force that I think is growing in importance and will soon become more influential in all aspects of life.<br>

I'm currently in the Middle East conducting research on how new media is being used to organize collective actions. Many of the countries in the region are faced with state-controlled media (you could argue that in the US these days) and find it difficult to find spaces to coordinate collective actions as they are seen as attempts to engage the state and are thus a security concern. <br>

I have been watching the reaction of citizens as Israeli massacres continue in Gaza. Many are organizing using facebook, blogs and SMS.
I've watched with great interest the tools people are using to organize collective actions, and how they have evolved - as none of the tools do everything that is needed. Facebook is great for organizing events, but a lot of people don't have accounts or aren't connected all the time. Blogs work well getting information to a lot of people, but again, you have to be connected to access. SMS on the other hand, is used to spread information quickly, and everyone has a phone. <br>

The Arab world equivalent of twitter,, is also seeing a rise in traffic as more people are using watwet to spread information about protests, campaigns and status updates.
<br>What I've discovered so far is it seem to be an ecology of new media that is being utilized. Facebook is used for its specific purposes, Blogs for theirs, and SMS for its - but they work together to form an ecology of new media to coordinate and plan collective actions.
These have replaced, or more accurately created for the first time, real spaces for doing these things, as in repressive states most of these meetings are illegal. So instead of physically meeting, they organize the collective actions using, mostly, these three tools.

An illustration: A protest is planned. An event is posted on Facebook and people are invited. The initiation spreads via SMS. Updates are published via SMS on a twitter-badge placed on a blog, and the blog post gets re-posted. After the event, pictures, video are posted on the blogs and facebook.

The evolution will be continue when someone invents a tool that does all of those things together in one page/application/tool/thingy.
I'd be interested in hearing what people thing about that, and how it fits with the ladder analogy of Shirky.


Mazi Mutafa, Executive Director of Words, Beats, Life and grantee partner of The Global Fund for Children, discusses the importance of collaboration within the nonprofit world. Mutafa addresses an increased need for collaboration and the development of partnerships amongst nonprofits, especially at present during this period of global financial crisis.


Hi, Jim, I'm wondering if your experience is that it is easier or that it is more difficult to collaborate on line? And what counts as "collaboration"--that's a formal word. Does social networking count? Fun? Frivolity?


Hi, great topic. I'm wondering to what extent the 'publicness' of the produced document maters? For instance, I've been trying to use Google Docs to share an excel spreadsheet with my partner and thinking a lot about the presence of the third-party host (as opposed to the idea of holding a "token" lock on the document). Perhaps the presence of more eyes reduces the number of changes? Do I put more thought into a collaborative project that shares every single modification? It also seems like source code control systems like CVS, Git, Mercurial, etc., might be an interesting object for study or comparison with more "traditional" texts. Typically these projects expose source code for open source projects for read-only access to the world while giving a small group write access.


Our experiences at have taught us that a successful collaboration has to offer value to each of the participants. That value can be nothing more than a nice picture, poem or thought. But from our standpoint, of trying to build a collaboration of people in 50 different states to build a comprehensive state-level campaign-finance database, value was fleeting. At first, more than 10 years ago, we tried to interest groups in the states to help build state campaign-finance databases for the public good. They would help, but only as long as they derived some value, usually limited data that spoke to a specific point they were interested in, such as environmental protection, private prisons, or health care. When that need was satisfied, the collaboration fell apart because we were no longer receiving value from the relationship.

We learned that, in our case, working with official state disclosure agencies was the "value relationship" because agencies were tasked with providing the data, and thus were motivated to help, for the most part, and we received what we valued -- comprehensive data -- to fulfill our mission. 50 fruitful relationships now exist and are becoming complementary.

Based on these experiences, and working with issue groups in many states, we found that if we could provide value, as in specific sets of data pertinent to the recipient, we could build lasting relationships.

Our collaborative experiences have now grown to the point that we're looking to fellow civic education groups for value experiences. Our prime example is our collaboration with Project Vote Smart, which compiles biographical and other information about candidates at the federal, state and local levels. Using API technology, we share our data with PVS and they share with us. Separate but complementary. 

Our Committee Analysis Tool at, groups our campaign finance data by committee assignments compiled by PVS. We also have an API that combines federal candidate data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics,, and shows which top federal candidates also gave to state-level candidates. And we're working on an API that will show which K Street lobbyists also gave in the states.

State agencies in Washington, Georgia and Massachusett are developing Web Services, a streaming of data, which we will sign up for and test for our purposes.

So in these cases, data-sharing is where we each derive value and thus strong, lasting collaborations.

But for the all the lasting collaborations we've established, we've failed at probably 10 times as many, because the value in the sharing wasn't mutual. That's a lot of ladders to climb, and from which to fall. But as we've fallen, we've learned.

So now, as we look a building collaborations with other groups, such as social studies teachers, we know that our job first and foremost is to understand the value we can given them, and to understand what our expectations can be. And we can explore the incentives we can offer to teachers, for example, to help them understand the value of our work. Cool Web tools go a long way in classrooms, as do icons and mapping tools. Games are on the horizon as a way of giving value in a fun and interesting way.

We've learned that if we can make it easy to participate, can offer value (whatever that may be...) then collaborations will blossom.









Hi, Cathy.

Yes, collaboration is a formal word, but I like the idea of keeping that formal word and applying it to both formal and informal situations.  So, when collaborations "happen" outside of our typical coordinated efforts, I like to think of these as collaborations as well.  For me, successful collaborations are all about creating the conditions of possibility.  And this can mean opening things up to colliding purposes and agendas. Colliding agendas require people to explain and re-examine their assumptions, and this can be a great thing.


With that being said, not all collaborations will benefit from collisions.  In fact, collisions aren't something we always plan for...they just happen.  So, there seems to be a need for balance between control and chaos.  As much as I would lean toward the chaos end of that spectrum in terms of creating the conditions of possibility for robust collaborations, there are collaborative efforts that require us to filter ideas and contributions more carefully.


So, do Web technologies make it easier or more difficult to collaborate?  I'd say that it very much depends on what you're looking to do...what kind of collaboration you are looking for.  If you're looking to create specialized knowledge, then collisions are a hinderance.  If you're not exactly sure what you're looking to do, collisions can be a great thing.


James J. Brown, Jr.

University of Texas-Austin


These are interesting questions, Jed.

Your discussion reminds me of a classroom experience I had last semester.  Sudents were editing a wiki page about how the Wall Street bail out was being discussed in Congress and in the media.  The idea was to collaboratively narrate this ongoing episode.

What students soon discovered was that synchronous editing on pbwiki was nearly impossible.  They kept having to steal "the token" from one another, and this meant that it was never clear which edits would make it to the page.  They were doing this collaboration in a computer classroom, and what struck me most was that they never stopped to talk to one another F2F.  The only interacted in the wiki, and this meant that they were overwriting the edits of someone who was sitting two feet from them.

I stopped the exercise after letting this go one for a few minutes, and I asked why they weren't collaborating online and offline. Why not just ask the person next to you to say "I'm done" when they're finished editing?  No one had a very good answer to this question, and students soon worked out a filtering practice that combined online and offline interaction.  One person became the editor, and all the collaborating writers posted content to the "comments" section (a better place for synchronous collaboration...)

This seems to be a good example of how issues of permission, online vs. offline interaction, and asynchronous/synchronous collaboration are really important for a succesful or fruitful collaboration.  It's a good idea to "jack out" every once in a while and remember that the technology is there to enable...not to restrict the collaboration.


James J. Brown, Jr.

University of Texas-Austin


This is a terrific topic, and one of extreme relevance to the YouthActionNet program. We engage, support and connect young social entrepreneurs (18-29) globally with both physical workshops regionally and our online platform to keep them connected. I have been struck by a number of realizations as I have actively worked with and tracked these engaged young people.</b>

<p>1. I would echo Ramsey's comment above about how multiple online tools are being used in concert to raise awareness, spark collective dialogue, and eventually bring about community action. Facebook, Orkut, Bebo, Twitter, blogs, SMS, and similar mechanisms have become the front lines of youth collaboration. </b>

<p>2. In order to engage with this demographic it is vital to respect and meet them where they are at. That means integrating, as much as possible, through APIs and widgets, the activities that are already happening across these networks. </b>

<p>3. This generation, which I would argue should include both the Y's and the millennials, are more readily inclined and actively engaged in social issues: environment, human rights, civic participation, health, etc. Among our Fellows we see a wide variety of youth-led projects using technology and web 2.0 tools to advocate, promote, and engage their communities and donors in creative and cost-efficient ways. Some examples: Counterfeit drugs are a major problem in much of Africa. Bright Simons and his project mPedigree, uses cell phones and barcodes in Ghana, and provides free SMS messaging which allows people to quickly and easily determine if the pharmaceuticals they are purchasing are legitimate or counterfeit. Khalida Brohi, in Pakistan, is courageously working to raise awareness and fight against the appalling incidents of honor killings in her country. She has been actively using Facebook campaigns & groups to educate, inform, and advocate for this issue. Richard Graves, here in the US, through Fired Up Media, is harnessing the power of today?s digital communications to amplify the voices of young people fighting global warming and working to build a more just, sustainable world. Fired Up Media consists of a growing network of young journalists, videographers, photographers, editors, and activists ? reporting from the front lines of the youth climate movement and disseminating their findings through the Fired Up Virtual Newsroom.</b>

<p>4. It is indisputable that these young people are harnessing the power and reach of online collaboration. However, I suspect that while they have mastered rungs 1 and 2, the "collective action" rung is still not always the end result. I wonder whether, for them, successful collaboration is measured by those first two rungs, rather than achieving the third. For many of them, just getting the conversation going is a victory. I would be interested in further discussion about how to get them to view collective action (online or off) as the goal, rather than dialogue (which is still of vital importance).</b>

<p>5. Inter generational collaboration: It has been striking to see how this generation approaches inter generational collaboration. In a complete reversal of the ?don?t trust anyone over 30,? these young people are willing and eager to learn, share and collaborate with anyone. They seek to learn from each encounter. However, if any form of needless bureaucracy, exclusive thinking, inflexible approaches, etc creep into the relationship, they tend to move on. They are highly opportunistic and voracious to learn how things have been done, but have no interest in retreading the same mistakes, or not maximizing new tools to solve old problems. The mastery they have of all things web 2.0 is a great equalizer of the traditional power dynamic of these types of relationships.

<p>I had other thoughts, but have already typed too much! I need to go back up and read thru those who have posted since i initially logged in!


Hi Ramsey! Miss you much :)

I haven't read the below comments yet, so I don't know if this has been addressed, but if you haven't read Shirky's book, I recommend it. He discusses some of the very things you are discussing, including the use of Twitter in Egypt (if I remember right). 

I'm not sure about a tool that does all those things together. I think tool integration can be successful (such as folks who integrate their twitter into facebook). But a single tool that can do all these things might be lost on users who already have accounts with so many other tools.


I think Jim is right to say that it depends on what you're wanting to do (and how what you want to do changes) to say whether online collaboration is easier or harder than face-to-face (or other non-online collaboration). I think other values have to be taken into consideration as well (value, risk, time commitments, etc.).


This forum is a great place to address emerging online tools that encourage groups of users to work on search engines collaboratively. "The Online Search Party: A Way to Share the Load" appeared in the New York Times in late November: The article discusses a new program being developed by Microsoft that allows multiple users to conduct searches in concert with one another. It even offers search histories and a "peek and follow" feature to observe and learn from others' word choice and techniques. I haven't tried the test version, but I am intrigued by the idea and its implications. Certainly there are educational benefits for newer web users to learn from their more tech-savvy friends, family, co-workers and peers. Even experienced web denizens should benefit from relevant information extracted by a broader/deeper search by multiple parties, particularly when members of the group can annotate and share their commentary. 


kristin wolff (portland, or)

This is a great conversation - I wish I cold talk to you all in person...which is my first point.

I think that the art of collaboration 2.0 is more about the mutiple dimensions (on-line, offline, all-at-once-smaller groups-one2one) of collaboration than about just web-based collaboration alonge (just like web2.0 is about participation, not about the technology alone). It's funny (and so great!) to watch the collaborative pratice of the open-source community develop rules, effective practices and protocols, etc. that virtually (no pun intended) mirror those developed in the fields of off-line community and civic engagement, facilitation, etc. over many years. 

Second (and related) point - beyond the instrumental everyone-must-receive-value-for-collaboration (which is correct and important), I think it's also important that the subject of collaboration be motivating in and of itself (to make the share economy work). People are social creatures who want to learn and make stuff - when you make/do something important, more people want to help (Barn Raising, Obama campaign). Even better if the thing you want to make/do simply cannot be done by one person/firm/entity alone. But organizing around sucha thing is hard. It's easier to collaborate around one-time events or data sharing. (Clay Shirky has made this point on video (which I cannot find at the minute, but some text about it is here).

Third point - the tools we now have for collaborating have made it easier to sustain social networks (though more difficult to get their attention, as James rightly points out). With extended social networks, there are more resources (in which you trust) to draw upon, so the obligation of participating (and giving) is more easily surmountable - more people are doing it so everyone's share is smaller.  

Thanks for raising the ?. So great..


kristin wolff (portland, or)








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In early 2008 Global Kids launched RezEd, the social network for educators using virtual worlds as an experiment to see if we could facilitate the growth of an emerging community of practice.

We had a suspicion that if we created a common space where museum curators, teachers, counselors, school administrators and developers could gather on issues of education in virtual worlds, that they would join, contribute and collaborate.

We've had a good bit of success at moving up the first rung of Clay's ladder, with educators sharing their "Aha!" moments, posting questions to our forums, and creating sub-groups around common interests. With nearly 1,500 members, active in a variety of institutions and virtual worlds, we think we have struck a chord out there.

Going higher up the ladder, we have seen the community work together on new projects. Notably, in September we released under a creative commons license a Second Life Curriculum, a set of lessons for use by an educator to teach others how to use this popular virtual world. After its release, a number of other people in the community, particularly Jeremy Kemp, responded by creating derivative works based on the curriculum and re-releasing them back out to the RezEd community. These included a PDF- version, a wiki-fied version, and a set of textures for bringing the curriculum directly into Second Life.

In its second year, we anticipate this level of collaboration will only increase as people get to know each other, new needs emerge, and other virtual worlds gain ascendance. We hope to be much higher up the ladder by this time next year!


I'm not sure if these links have already been posted, but there are two really great book talks that Shirky gave at Harvard right after the release of Here Comes Everybody:

The second one is a little bit redundant w/ the first, but I really enjoyed it. After about
the 15 minute mark he brings up some arguments for thinking about new modes of
activism in relation to older forms. He says this material wasn't developed enough to be put into the book,
but I think it's highly relevant for our discussion because he foregrounds differences between more established institutional collaborations and compares them to the kinds of flexible yet ephemeral collaborations that he discusses in his book.


I love how you've framed collaboration as an "art."  It reminds me of discussions of the art of rhetoric, and I think you're absolutely right that the art of collaboration requires multiple dimensions (or what others in the thread describe as an ecology).  I also think you're right that the barriers to entry are lower now and that this means folks don't have to carry such a heavy load.


This second point links back up to Cathy's vlog about the "six people who do everything" at ever university.  I'd like to hear more from Cathy about this and whether she thinks this kind of structure is still in place in most universities.  Is this how coordination has to happen...with a smaller inner circle driving the ship?  Or, are we seeing an emerging moment when collaborative responsibilities can be more distributed?


James J. Brown, Jr.

University of Texas-Austin


Thanks for the links, Joshua. I've only listened to a portion of the latter, but it is absolutely on point for this discussion. When I talk about the collaborations we've pursued, they are of the institutional variety, and they are so with purpose. If we can establish a rich and trusted information source, then establish multiple avenues for integrating and sharing that data with others (APIs, widgets, etc), and of adding value to it, then we create an environment in which the ephemeral collaborations, in the statehouses, supermarkets or corporate headquarters, can be enriched and envigorated.

Between the two extremes are many layers of collaborations. And while collaborating for the sake of collaborating sounded odd to me at first, I've come to realized that there is great value in process and practice.




That's both funny and interesting, Kirsten! And my experience is exactly what that ad suggests, that phone calls and face-to-face are where things really happen. 

I wish I could place the article, but I read something in the New York Times about collective intelligence, and how productivity goes up by approximately 30 percent when people meet face-to-face.

In terms of collaboration, I wonder if that productivity gain is a wash, since online tools give us more opportunity for both accidental and intentional collaboration, even if they don't quite measure up to the productivity levels of f-2-f.  




I'm really intrigued by the idea of "collaboration for the sake of collaboration" actually turning out to be for the sake of . . . something else! In my "Brain on the Internet" course and even in my early American fictions course, I'm having students co-lead discussions. I didn't think about what it would mean in advance but what is happening is they are talking and working together outside of class, getting excited, and that sense of excited sharing--community--absolutely inspires the class conversation and the whole thing is both smarter and more fun than I anticipated. I bet the connections that happen through collaboration are not just pragmatic but emotional. Even when online. Anyone else have this kind of collective "overflow"?


Wow.  RezEd seems like a fantastic space for people to share ideas and get their projects noticed.  Online spaces like this offer great opportunity for the "first rung" sharing that Shirky talks about, especially considering how many different kinds of people are involved.  As more and more people share, it seems like there is more opportunity to move up the ladder to rungs 2 and 3.


James J. Brown, Jr.

University of Texas-Austin


Hi everyone. I spent quite a bit of the morning figuring out the microphone to broadcast video in response to this thread, but finally gave up. So, thanks for letting me in on the conversation. 3 thoughts with the morning in mind:1. I think to be fully collaborative, we need to collectively come to Web 2.0 with full knowledge of open-source and its uses, possibilities and limits. There are still so many kinks in the technologies that we use and also kinks in our knowledge/use of them that instant collaboration is sometimes not possible.2. This brings up a second issue: Our notions of time. I think that our perception of temporality is still caught in old analog conceptions of time even as we work with new media. We still haven't come to a collective agreement about appropriate response times to Web 2.0 collaboration and say, online exchanges on twitter, Facebook, even email. So, I think a new conception of temporality has to emerge for us to move in the direction of full collaborative action on the web.3. Finally I think that our notions of space and boundaries are still caught up in old conceptions of spatiality. We work in a boundary-less, a boundless webbed environment, yet lets think of the number of times you've come to realize that you have unknowingly overstepped your boundaries with someone precisely because new technologies provided the boundary-less space of contact and collaboration between the two of you. I think of the example of tagging Facebook pictures in FB Friends' albums for example. The social network makes the album accessible and you tagging someone in that album possible as well, but not everyone is on board with the idea of "sharing" this collaborative tagging process even as they digitize and post their photos for public access and tagging. In other words, we are still in many ways still caught up in old conceptions of spatiality, limits, and spatial boundaries even as we work and move and act within new and as to yet unknown spatial limits.


These are great questions, and they reminded me of something I posted to my blog today about a Carl's Jr. coupon gone wrong:


Yes, collaboration via web technologies requires a rethinking of space and time. Expectations change, norms change, and (as you note) boundaries change (or blur...or disappear). We're again back to the idea of the "art" of collaboration, an art that requires a good bit of finesse and savvy.

James J. Brown, Jr.

University of Texas-Austin


I like Kristin Wolff's framing of collaboration as an art, which I take to mean something so sensitive to initial conditions and so path dependent that there is no recipe for making it work every time, or even most times.
One of the essential observations about directed group effort of any kind is that over the long haul it needs to be both effective *and* satisfying, which is to say that there has to be both some accomplishment relative to the group's goal or goals, but also that the participants have to get something out of it personally. (This echoes Cathy's point that the emotional connection is a critical part of successful collaboration.)
One of the things that has happened online is that there are so many more voluntary groups forming that the premium on the members of a group being happy to be members matters much more, even in settings with nominally utilitarian goals. The Apache open source project has sometimes canceled sub-projects it has sponsored not because the code doesn't work, but because the community has failed -- their view is that a working community produces good code over the long haul, and a failed community doesn't.
So a lot of what we have to figure out how to get right in collaborative forms that rely on social media is how to create satisfying collaborative environments without making satisfaction the only goal -- its the art of having both high morale and high accomplishment. Critically, neither of the obvious extremes -- fun group that only takes on easy problems, death march group that gets soured on the work even as they make progress -- produces that balance.


I'm glad we've gotten back to this discussion of emotional investment.  This statement by Clay nails it, I think:

"One of the essential observations about directed group effort of any
kind is that over the long haul it needs to be both effective *and*
satisfying, which is to say that there has to be both some
accomplishment relative to the group's goal or goals, but also that the
participants have to get something out of it personally."

This conversation about the finesse of collaboration and the role of emotional investment is an important one, especially in terms of how we typically think of collaborative "work."  Whether its academic work or the business world, issues of affect and emotion are often pushed to the side.  These are "subjective" (private) things that are not part of the "objective" (public) work of a group.  But it's possible that Web technologies are exposing to us the problem with such a distinction.  I want to be clear.  This fuzzying of public/private is not created by Web collaboration.  Rather, it is brought back upon us in a big way by technologies that make it difficult to maintain this distinction.

The goals of a collaboration are important, but the goals of the collaborators are important too.  This is why I think that Clay's ladder analogy really works.  In many cases, you have to have a sucessful first rung (messy collaborations between various goals and various players with various emotional investments) to get to rungs 2 and 3.  A good first-rung involves effectively finessing the public and the private.

Thanks for joining in, Clay!


James J. Brown, Jr.

University of Texas-Austin


Hello! Thanks, everyone, for another thoughtful HASTAC conversation.

I am on duty to blog on Monday about the upcoming HASTAC conference, and within that post I'll say more about my work. For now, I'll say that I think Kristin rightly notes that the tools we have for collaborating have made it easier to sustain social networks. Part of my work with college students who write fan fiction is to examine the ways in which certain networks ?sponsor? literacy practices, a concept I take from Deborah Brandt?s work in composition and literacy. I?ll say more in Monday's blog, but my point with regard to our current discussion I would argue that certain sponsors facilitate communication (and collaboration) better than others. So, for instance, my fan fiction participants prefer LiveJournal over because LJ allows writers to receive responses from their readers faster. This rate of response (an issue of time) is key to developing the emotional connection and investment that Cathy and Jim refer to, and in maintaining an ethic of care among users that, in turn, inspires collaboration.

As a field, composition has been interested in the pedagogical value of collaboration, though we often struggle to find ways to make it work effectively in our classrooms. Studying emerging social networks as sites of collaboration (without necessarily romanticizing them since or making unproductive comparisons across spaces that often have very different goals and agendas?and ladders) is an important piece of my work as a comp teacher and scholar. So, this month's conversation has been particularly interesting. More to come on Monday?s blog! ?


Hi Jim,

I think you are right on to remind us that while we might want technology to enable richer collaboration, a dogged focus on using the technology can get in the way.  I have been the point person introducing social software into a number of collaborative situations and the takeup is always dependent on the personalities involved.   

In a recent effort, trying to help a group of parents at a co-operative preschool enhance their ability to collaborate by extending the range of social media options available to them, it became clear that the introduction of technology designed for collaboration can acutely stunt active collaboration.  It is not simply that different affinities and capabilities restrict the full potential of collaboration, but more simply that some people reject the very idea of mediated collaboration and effectively drop out of the group, even in cases where they were active members when collaboration was all conducted face-to-face.  As the majority of the group productively used a suite of social tools, a few capable-but-resistant individuals became excluded from aspects of the collaborative enterprise, to the detriment of all.  Indeed, their absence challenged the credibility of the mediated efforts. I suppose the takeaway from this might simply be that when we consider the possibilities for collaboration we also have to keep in mind the local instances in which it might occur.  Collaboration in a  distributed effort like flickr works very differently than collaboration in a smaller group with certain barriers to entry.


Daniel Chamberlain

University of Southern California / University of Michigan 


This is a wonderfully rich discussion. And just to compact it, so people don't have to leave the site to follow the ideas, here's the Wikipedia definition of "stigmergy," which is also new to me, Howard. Thank you so much for that:
"Stigmergy is a mechanism of spontaneous, indirect coordination between agents or actions, where the trace left in the environment by an action stimulates the performance of a subsequent action, by the same or a different agent. Stigmergy is a form of self-organization. It produces complex, apparently intelligent structures, without need for any planning, control, or even communication between the agents. As such it supports efficient collaboration between extremely simple agents, who lack any memory, intelligence or even awareness of each other.Stigmergy was first observed in social insects. For example, ants exchange information by laying down pheromones on their way back to the nest when they have found food. In that way, they collectively develop a complex network of trails, connecting the nest in the most efficient way to the different food sources. Other eusocial creatures, such as termites, use pheromones to build their complex nests by following a simple decentralized rule set. Each insect scoops up a 'mudball' or similar material from its environment, invests the ball with pheromones, and deposits it on the ground. Termites are attracted to their nestmates' pheromones and are therefore more likely to drop their own mudballs near their neighbors'. Over time this leads to the construction of pillars, arches, tunnels and chambers."
I'm teaching "This Is Your Brain on the Internet" this term, an undergraduate course in our ISIS (Information Science + Information Studies) program, and the students come from every imaginable discipline. Before we even get to "the Internet," we're looking at our brains, and, as everyone knows, that's not so easy to do. Does the Internet change how we think? How would we know--since most of us don't really know how we think in the first place. Do collaborate differently because of digital affordances? How would we know, since our culture is so impoverished in promulgating ideologies of collaboration v. our from-cradle-to-grave lipservice to individualism as the quintessential "American" attribute. We're doing such counterintuitive exercises as repeating the Bauby "locked-in syndrome" (DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY) model of collaborative creation of having one person hold up the alphabet board and the other communicate ideas simply by blinking in response to a letter read outloud. We also attended a lecture, a rehearsal, and a performance by the great modern dance choreographer (he choreographed the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics), Shen Wei, in residence here at Duke for two weeks to create a new work. Someday we'll get to the Internet. But in the meantime, on Wednesday, I'll make sure we look at Stigmergy to help us think collaboration outside of human forms and then think again about ways that we collaborate, leaving signals in the environment as we go.


Clay Shirky uses the metaphor of rungs of a ladder in order to talk about group undertakings. However, does everyone need to start at the bottom rung? In fact, on playgrounds kids frequently skip rungs of the ladders when bounding toward the top platform in games of "Marco Polo" or "Hot Lava Monster." Might there be a leap right to the collaboration rung?

Based on the world of video games, I say aboslutely yes. XBOX 360, Microsoft's next-gen console for games, features the potential for linking to the wireless internet and playing against others from across the world. Thanks to countless hours of babysitting a 9th grader over winter break, I became a great player of "Left 4 Dead," a game in which 4 heroes follow the storylines from generic zombie movies in hopes of escaping the horrifying creatures. Playing online, one can join 3 strangers to form the team of 4 heroes (the XBOX360 will randomly match you with others from across the world if you aren't playing with friends) or--in an interesting turn of events--one can play as the zombies to try to attack the heroes. Microsoft also puts out optional headsets which can be used to talk with teammates, although they aren't required.

So the scene starts. You're trapped in an operating room of a hospital (not really sure why) and the zombies are pounding at the reinforced door. You arm yourself with weapons and health packs, and the four set out to obliterate the zombies and reach the exit. Without communicating, "CheerySoda5563" opens the door and each of the other three of us assemble at different angles to shoot out the zombies without shooting eachother in the crossfire. I then wade through the digitized bodies and into the hallway where "CheerySoda5563" and "DenizenOfHate" walk backward to cover the backside as "HeIsYoda22" and I move forward. And so it goes. We get to the exit, collaborating and instinctively protecting one another. Playing with headsets is eerily similar--the only communication seems to be when someone gets attacked and screams in surprise or calls to the rest of us for help.

Playing as a zombie is much different in the communication aspect. Talking is essential, and from the moment the scene loads, we instinctively move in packs and try to attack all at once ("The Horde") in order to take down the heroes. In fact, never once does anyone try to defect from the group mentality.

In playing this simple game, no information is shared, consciously or unconsciously. In fact, playing the same scene over with different people is very much the same since the characters all look the same, and all of us instinctively have the same goal. However, while it skips that first rung of Shirky's ladder, collaboration is key and understood--even without communication--as a hero. Perhaps, too, if you play as a zombie, you skip straight to the third rung wherein all players immediately go about the group undertaking as a team. Even beyond the face to face world, the digital world in this example lends itself to demonstrating collaboration 2.0, and even to demonstrating the potential for ladder rungs to be skipped.

While "Left 4 Dead" is only one example, many horror movies and video games display skipping rungs in the face of danger or fear. Does anyone else know of any other examples where rungs are skipped? Are there examples where there is absolutely no potential for skipping rungs?


Wow, almost too many comments to keep up with and respond to.

Michael, fancy seeing you here! I'm glad we can still collaborate even as we've got in drastically different directions.

I'll echo the collaboration as an art. I'd compare it to the chemistry that develops within a small group of people. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. You can improve that chances of success by doing certain things, but no matter what, sometimes it doesn't work for reasons out of your control.

I will also agree with Matt on the metaphor of the ladder. I'm not sure you have to progress from the bottom to the top. Is this forum an example of that? I've witness numerous examples where the starting point isn't necessarily the lowest level. Also, I think the progression is more fluid and allows for skipping and digressing. For example, my project, started at the third level, and is now dividing into different spaces to allow for different levels of collaboration.

Jim quoted what Clay said, that "One of the essential observations about directed group effort of any kind is that over the long haul it needs to be both effective *and* satisfying, which is to say that there has to be both some accomplishment relative to the group's goal or goals, but also that the participants have to get something out of it personally."

I've been involved in some initial research that shows the online communities have to reach a tipping point of sorts to be fully functional. That process includes having a hired or a requirement of posting regularly to encourage early activity until the tipping point is reached.

Great discussion!


Thanks Jim for another interesting HASTAC discussion! I'm sorry for entering late; I've been traveling.

I've just buzzed through the previous posts and am fascinated by the rubric brought up by Clay, Cathy and others regarding an emotional investment in the outcome. This seems requisite for success both online and offline; but can the technology itself generate or create a sense of investment, or only encourage it? Is there something about the liveliness of engagement on the web (liveliness is an ironic word to use -- I mean the relative immediacy of information online) that can make me want to become a part of something that I otherwise wouldn't (and not just for reasons of access)?

At what point is someone a collaborative partner? Does posting an Obama widget on your blog make you a part of a collaborative effort? Is there a difference between a participant, a supporter and collaborator?

Finally, in my experience, both the biggest incentive and the biggest obstacle to collaborative work is the specialization of knowledge (i.e., you want someone with expertise you don't have, but lack of a shared vocabulary or methodology makes it difficult to work together). I'm not sure that any technology for collaboration that I've used or seen has actually helped with this problem.

I'm afraid I have more questions than answers. I collaborate often but don't tend to think about about it in a global/"meta" way, so thanks for the opportunity for reflection.


Thank you Staci for your great blog entry! I'm posting a direct link to it so that participants in this forum can easily access it:


Jonathan E. Tarr, HASTAC Project Manager


Thanks Whitney for your posting, especially the piece about specialized knowledge. As an undergraduate in college, I have yet to come across a situation in which collaborative work has been hindered by specialization. Nevertheless, I think the reason specialization can be a barrier is because of education and experience.

Take a person wanting to build a house from the foundation up. He sits down with a contractor to discuss an arched entryway leading to a curved staircase supported by Greek columns. The contractor, with his or her education and experience, knows how to construct and support an arch, how to get a perfectly even curve in a staircase, and what a consumer wants when he or she requests "Greek" columns. The consumer knows has no knack for this specialization; however, the consumer only needs to have a vision for this collaborative process to work. Thus, it would seem as though a contractor with a solid education in architecture and experience working with consumers will be able to collaborate to construct a consumer's dream home.

On the other hand, a lack of education and experience will often make collaboration impossible between people with specializations. Ponder this thought experiment: A master chef of French cuisine is dating an evolutionary biologist. One evening they decide to cook dinner together in their kitchen. How does the master chef give directions? And how does the lovely couple discuss each other's views on humanity's existence? Perhaps the master chef will be disappointed to find that telling her partner to "make a roux" is useless. Perhaps the evolutionary biologist will be disappointed to find that his partner believes in fate and serendipity and humans being created on the "sixth day." Would each survive to the end of the date? Maybe. But maybe not simply because of problems with vocabulary and methodology--aspects which Whitney has discussed in the previous post.

If the evolutionary biologist had "experience" to know that many do not agree with his theories, or if he had "education" which would have taught him to whisk the melting butter into the flour, the collaboration between the two might have improved greatly. And the couple would have had a compelling conversation over a fantastic feast.

In summary, perhaps education and experience are the elements that are needed in order to overcome the obstacles of vocabulary, methodology, and specialization. Perhaps education and experience are the keys to collaboration.


Hi all,

I'm re-entering a bit late, but I wanted to thank Jim for facilitating a wonderful discussion!

After perusing through the various positions on collaboration (above), I thought I would add my two cents.

I'm interested by what seems like an (implicit?) desire to connect the kinds of collaborations that Shirky discusses to smaller scale collaborations that could have relevance in the classroom.
I think this desire is understandable and productive (given our investment in pedagogy), but I'm struck by how the desire for prescriptive accounts of collaboration (by proper design) seem like they might be at odds with Shirky's more descriptive approach ? which situates ephemeral collaborations within a particular micro-historical moment.

The difference in perspective might require a different metaphor. Let's call it the "vacuum" or "storm" metaphor. In the stories that Shirky tells, the events of collaboration each seem intimately tied to a particular zeitgeist, collective desire, or latent frustration. Instead of thinking about collaboration as arising from the joint efforts of individual actors, then, we might alternatively think about collaboration as arising from a particular micro-zeitgeist with its own low and high pressure zones which conspire to create a vacuum into which various actors rush in to fill the void. Perhaps it is only through this collective response to a shared micro-zeitgeist ? or mediascape (in Appadurai's sense) ? that we can experience collective resonance around an emergent action.

Put simply, the collaboration might come from the mediascape and not from "us" ? and thus to collaborate effectively we need to think less like designers and more like surfers. Using the metaphor of the ocean, here, it becomes possible to think about collaboration as transformative but also as potentially destructive.

The Japanese online world has a term for this kind of emergent action: the 'matsuri.' 'Matsuri' roughly translates to the English term 'festival' and seems to convey a bit Bakhtin's carnival with its sudden reorientation of social roles and ecstatic reappropriation of public space. Unlike the 'matsuri' of the physical world, the online 'matsuri' is never planned. A matsuri on the notorious forum 2channel, for example, usually refers to a sudden, collective act of online vigilantism ? often a digital "bum rush" upon some undeserving victim. But it can also imply a courageous collaborative act, as for example when thousands of 2channel users called a junior high school to complain about students who were bullying another student (and recording the act on their mobile phones to post online). 2Channel users banded together to vilify the school bullies and turned the victim into a minor folk hero.

Thinking about collaboration using these metaphors (the vacuum, the storm, the ocean, the 'matsuri,' etc.) might have applications in the classroom as well. Rather than analyzing collaboration as something with its own set of best practices or even as something that can be localized or periodized (i.e. collaboration this year vs. collaboration last year, or collaboration within this group vs. that group, for example) we might instead approach the issue in terms of internet time. The question then becomes: "what kinds of novel collaborations could happen today (and only today)?"

Granted we could, like Gladwell, design a theory for thinking about how these perfect storms are "designed" through the initial efforts of key individual actors. But I think that might miss the point of Shirky's insights. Circumstances must also conspire in order to provide the right environment for the authors of viral collaborations to become viral "authors" in retrospect. In this sense, the strategies of "surprise" which Shirky discusses are tied more to evolving normative patterns of media consumption and novel appropriation of older media forms and less to cutting edge technological tools.


Hi! I've read most of what has preceded, and realize I could post a reply to every previous comment, because these are issues I've been thinking about for some time. Some of the results of that thinking, and my collaboration with Institute for the Future, can be found at Cooperation Commons and I've accumulated resources at and
When you talk about design, what's sticky is the social side of the socio-technical equation. But perhaps more easily approachable than social interventions and institutional design -- both worthy but complicated ways to pursue collaboration design -- is thinking about design of environments conducive to collaboration. One person who has thought about that is Paul Resnick, (2007) "Beyond Bowling Together: Sociotechnical Capital" and another interesting way to look at a socio-technical framework is through "Manuel Acevedo, (2007, "Network Capital: an Expression of Social Capital in a Network Society," The Journal of Community Informatics, Vol 3, No 2
Forgive me if this is an information blast. We could design a whole course around this. A whole curriculum. One more pebble to throw in the online collaboration pond: stigmergy. I came across the term when a student in Australia asked me to referee his Ph.D. thesis. Besides stigmergy, Mark Elliott parsed the differences between coordination, collaboration, and cooperation in some detail. Stigmergy is a collaborative environment in which actors leave signals or other changes in the environment which serve in turn as coordinating tools for other actors -- the pheromone trails of ants, and the "edit this page" and revision history and talk page links on Wikipedia are stigmergic. Here's a brief article Mark wrote. Here's a short video interview with Mark


Thanks Howard,

This is an incredible set of links! I hadn't heard of 'stigmergy' before, but it's a wonderfully useful concept. I also liked the distinction in Mark Elliot's paper separating collaboration between smalll and large groups:

  1. Collaboration in small groups (roughly 2-25) relies upon social negotiation to evolve and guide its process and creative output.
  2. Collaboration in large groups (roughly 25-n) is enabled by stigmergy.

I feel like the kinds of metaphors I was struggling to articulate above could be explained more precisely with this idea of stigmergy. What I find complicated though is thinking about where to draw the boundary between self-contained stigmergic systems (such as idealized the termite hill) and messier forms of stigmergy like collisions between different schools of fish or like the internet, for example. It seems like in these messier forms the individual agents are not following equivalent rules of responsiveness to environment ? despite the fact that their overall behavior might follow certain aggregate patterns.

I'm also not sure how to situate the concept of stigmergy in relation to Shirky's distinction between ephemeral and enduring modes of collaboration. Would stigmergy more easily apply to long drawn out asychronous behavoir online or to more ephemeral viral collaborations?