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Mass collaboration

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Mass collaboration is a form of collective action that occurs when large numbers of people work independently on a single project, often modular in its nature. Such projects typically take place on the internet using social software and computer-supported collaboration tools such as wiki technologies, which provide a potentially infinite hypertextual substrate within which the collaboration may be situated.

A key aspect which distinguishes mass collaboration from other forms of large-scale collaboration, is that the collaborative process is mediated by the content being created - as opposed to being mediated by direct social interaction as in other forms of collaboration.

Mass collaboration as distinct from cooperationEdit

Mass collaboration differs from mass cooperation in that the creative acts taking place requires the emergence of jointly developed shared understandings. Conversely, group members involved in a cooperation needn't engage in a joint negotiation of understanding (from which shared understandings emerge), they may simply execute instructions willingly.

Another important distinction is the borders around which a mass cooperation can be defined. Due to the extremely general characteristics and lack of need for fine grain negotiation and consensus when cooperating, the entire Internet, a city and even the global economy may be regarded as a mass cooperation. Thus a mass collaboration is more refined and complex in its process and production on the level of collective engagement.

Mass collaboration & the online forumEdit

Although an online discussion is certainly collaborative, 'mass collaboration' differs from a large forum/bulletin board, email list, chat session or group discussion in that the discussion's structure of separate, individual posts generated through turn-taking communication means the created content does not take the form of a single, unified body. Of course the conceptual domain of the overall discussion exists as a single body, however the components of this body can be linked back to the understandings and interpretations of a single author. The fact that there is only one author of a given entry in such cases reduces the contribution's collaborative complexity in that negotiation of contributions needn't be synthetic and instead represents the exquisite corpse model of collaboration. This model utilises primarily cooperative as opposed to collaborative methods (i.e. negotiation is not employed for the creation of individual contributions) in order to generate a creative output. Therefore, such online forums constitute stigmergic, discursive collaboration as opposed to mass collaboration.

The role of discussion in mass collaborationEdit

In traditional collaborative scenarios, discussion plays a key role in the negotiation of emergent, shared understandings – this is, perhaps, the essence of collaboration. Discussion acts as a point of mediation between the individual collaborators and the outcome which may or may not eventuate. This social mediation provides a barrier to the rapid integration of collaborative contributions that characterises projects such as (Of course, smaller scale collaborations might be conducted without discussion, especially in a non-verbal medium - imagine two painters contributing to the same canvas - but the situation becomes increasingly problematic as more members are included.)

This is not to say that social negotiation does not take place in mass collaborative contexts - it may even be essential to developing a collaborative community - but rather that negotiation takes a back seat in terms of the creative drafting process. Most (if not all) mass collaborations have discussions associated with the content being developed, but it is possible to contribute (to, for instance) without discussing what you are contributing or creating. For an example of a discussion accompanying mass collaboration, see the Israel talk page, at In addition to such points of discussion, bulletin boards, IRC (chat) and email lists often support and augment negotiation.

This mediation of negotiation is achieved through what is known in biology as stigmergy. Stigmergy is a method of communication in emergent systems by which the individual parts of the system (in this case, collaborative contributors) communicate with one another by modifying their local environment. This behaviour was first observed in the research of ants laying down pheromones along trails in order to communicate with one another. This gives rise to what is further called a stigmergic system, essentially, a domain governed by acts of stigmergy. The incorporation of this behaviour into the act of collaboration in order to mediate social negotiation enables the collaborative process to be extended in time, space and multiplicity of contributors.

Mass collaboration as distinct from coauthoringEdit

From the perspective of individual sites of work within a mass collaboration, the activity may appear to be identical to that of coauthoring. In fact, it is, with the exception being the implicit and explicit relationships formed by the interdependence of many sites within a mass collaboration. This interdependence is achieved through the hypertextual linking of articles as well as the formation of overlapping sets of coauthors whom are editing the same articles. This interdependence of collaborative sites coauthored by a large number of people is what gives a mass collaboration one of its most distinguishing features – a coherent, unified output emerging from the relations and connections of its total body of contributors and their contributions.

Non-textual mass collaborationEdit

Although the only widely known successful examples of mass exist in the textual medium, there is no immediate reason the mass collaborative process couldn't work in other creative mediums. It could be argued that some projects within the Open Source software movement provide examples outside of the written language, although the code collaboratively created still exists as a language utilizing a textual (ASCII) medium. provides many examples of such code based mass collaborations with its source code repositories.

Another example of non-textual mass collaboration is the IHMC CMapTools server network.

CmapTools is open source concept mapping software with the additional functionality of allowing for maps to be accessed on the internet. Once accessed (if permissions are granted by the map owner), an additional collaborator can add/edit/delete the contents of a map or link to another map in a similar way that an editor might in a wiki collaboration. The Cmap software also allows for synchronous collaboration, functionality which goes beyond the current interactive capacities of a wiki.

Examples of mass collaborationEdit

Examples of mass collaboration include:

  • Wikipedia and all of its sister projects;
  • Omidyar Network ( with respects to its 'workspaces';
  • with regards to projects it hosts which engage in collaborative source code development;
  • any and every wiki with a reasonable number of contributors;
  • kamparealis has a catalog of ideas and helps to divide these ideas into convenient parts and implement them.
  • IHMC CMapTools’ server network.
  • distributed online project to make free, public domain audiobooks.
  • Distributed Proofreaders network of proofreaders who correct OCR'd texts before they go into the Project Gutenberg catalog.

PhD on mass collaborationEdit

Stigmergic Collaboration: A Theoretical Framework for Mass CollaborationEdit

Mark Elliott's PhD dissertation


Accompanying this creative arts thesis is a DVD-Rom which includes offline versions of the three Internet based collaborative environments designed, built and implemented in accordance with the frameworks for digital stigmergy and mass collaboration developed in the written work. The creative works in conjunction with the written thesis help to explore and more rigorously define the collaborative process in general, while testing the theory that stigmergy is an inherent component of collaborative processes which incorporate collective material production.

Supported by a range of contemporary examples of Internet activity, including the accompanying creative works, it is found that stigmergy is a deeply rooted mechanism inherent in not only traditional material collaborative processes, but a range of emerging online practices which may be broadly categorised as digital stigmergic cooperation and collaboration. This latter class enables the extreme scaling seen in mass collaborative projects such as, open source software projects and the massive, multiplayer environment, Second Life. This scaling is achieved through a range of attributes which are examined, such as the provision of a localised site of individualistic engagement which reduces demands placed upon participants by the social negotiation of contributions while increasing capacity for direct and immediate creative participation via digital workspaces. Also examined are a range of cultural, economic and sociopolitical impacts which emerge as a direct result of mass collaboration's highly distributed, non-market based, peer-production processes, all of which are shown to have important implications for the further transformation of our contemporary information and media landscape.

See alsoEdit

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