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News & Views

Collaborating just got easier
By Terry Freedman
Created on Mon, 8 Dec 2008, 00:13

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That was the message from Clay Shirky at the Online Information Conference in London last week. It was a great talk, and a few of the things he said made an impression on me, both in terms of some soundbites, and his approach. Each of the points made here would make a nice starting point for a discussion with students or colleagues.

First, the soundbites. I quite like these:

On Flickr: "Users are first class participants."

His point was that Flickr makes it very easy for users themselves to become active participants, by giving them very little but a set of tools. Thus, you can comment on someone's picture, or respond by posting one of your own. Conversations are easily started, and anyone can start a new group.

This model of "share and gather" -- ie share resources and gather people as a result -- is the inverse of the usual approach, which is "gather and share" -- ie get a group of people together and then exchange view and ideas.

I'm not sure that I entirely agree. It seems to me that you need to have gathered a group around you first in order to get noticed, unless you have quite a bit of patience as you wait to be discovered. I think if I wanted to actually start a group in Flickr about a particular theme, I'd invite my existing contacts to join in order to give it a kick start -- which is exactly what people tend to do.

So, when Clay Shirky illustrates his point with a screenshot of pages and pages of comments on one of his photos, I'm not convinced that that is the typical experience of most of us.

On journalism: "Journalism has changed from being a profession to being an activity. People commit acts of journalism."

Well, I think that's right to an extent, but it's not entirely a good thing, is it? Most professional journalists, when the economics of print were different, and there were more of them with more time to write about each item, had two characteristics which are not always evident in blogs or, to use the popular phrase, "citizen journalism".

Firstly, it was their job to check the facts and do some in-depth research, and secondly they could (for the most part) write engagingly. I'm not saying that all bloggers lack these characteristics, but that it's not their job to have such characteristics.

If it's not someone's job to look after such values, how is their survival guaranteed? (But just in case you think that I have a naive and touching faith in professional journalists, see my review of The Cult of the Amateur.)

Most of Shirky's talk was about the increasing ease of collaborating with others, and suggested that there are three types of getting together, in increasing order of difficulty:

  • Sharing.

  • Collaborating.

  • Collective action.

In the section on collaboration, Shirky discussed the asymmetrical nature (although not in so many words) of the edits in Wikipedia. He said that in any article with over 100 edits, most of the edits are done by one person, with a small supporting cast, whilst the majority of people make one edit, never to return.

However, according to Shirky, those people provided the raw material with which the "super editors" could work. I thought this was interesting in the light of the fact that he was discussing collaboration. In what sense is making one edit an act of collaboration? It's no more collaborative than the child who, in a groupwork exercise, makes one contribution to a discussion. It may be a pivotal intervention, but in my book the term "collaboration" implies a more sustained set of interventions rather than a one-off comment.

So, it may be that collaboration is easier than it used to be, but it doesn't follow that more people are going to collaborate more, or better.
Shirky gave a few nice examples of how community action has been facilitated by Facebook, and digital photos, but let me end with another of his soundbites:

"There are horizons, but no barriers. We have to experiment our way into the future."

I couldn't agree more.



What do you think? Please leave a comment.