Collaboration is employed so widely to describe the methodology of production behind information goods, that it occludes as much as it reveals. In addition, governments, business and cultural entrepreneurs apparently can’t get enough of it, so a certain skepticism is not unwarranted. But even if overuse as a buzzword has thrown a shadow over the term, what follows is an attempt to try and construct an idea of what substantive meaning it could have, and distinguish it from related or neighboring ideas such as cooperation, interdependence or co-production. This task seems necessary not least because if the etymology of the word is literally ‘working together’, there is a delicate and significant line between ‘working with’ and ‘being put to work by’…
Some products characterized as collaborative are generated simply through people’s common use of tools, presence or performance of routine tasks. Others require active coordination and deliberate allocation of resources. Whilst the results may be comparable from a quantitative or efficiency perspective, a heterogeneity of social relations and design lie behind the outputs.
The intensity of these relationships can be described as sitting somewhere on a continuum from strong ties with shared intentionality to incidental production by strangers, captured through shared interfaces or agents, sometimes unconscious byproducts of other online activity.
Consequently we can set out both strong and weak definitions of collaboration, whilst remaining aware that many cases will be situated somewhere in between. While the former points toward the centrality of negotiation over objectives and methodology, the latter illustrate the harvesting capacity of technological frameworks where information is both the input and output of production.
Criteria for assessing the strength of a collaboration include:
Must the participant actively intend to contribute, is willful agency needed? Or is a minimal act of tagging a resource with keywords, or mere execution of a command in an enabled technological environment (emergence), sufficient?
Is participation motivated by the pursuit of goals shared with other participants or individual interests?
Are the structures and rules of engagement accessible? Can they be contested and renegotiated? Are participants interested in engaging on this level (control of the mechanism)?
Is human attention required to coordinate the integration of contributions? Or can this be accomplished automatically?
How is control or ownership organized over the outputs (if relevant)? Who is included and excluded in the division of the benefits?
Does the collaboration result in knowledge transfer between participants? Is it similar to a community of practice, described by Etienne Wenger as:
“…groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.”
To what degree are individual identities of the participants affected by the collaboration towards a more unified group identity?
Questions of scale are key to group management and have a substantial effect on collaboration. The different variables of scale are often dynamic and can change through the process of the collaboration. By that changing the nature and the dynamics of the collaboration altogether.
How are individuals connected to each other? Are contributions individually connected to each other or are they all coordinated through a unifying bottle-neck mechanism? Is the participation network model highly centralized, largely distributed, or assumes different shades of decentralization?
Can anyone join the collaboration? Is there a vetting process? Are participants accepted by invitation only?
Are all contributions largely equal in scope? Does a small group of participants generate a far larger portion of the work? Are the levels of control over the project equal or varied between the different participants?
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