Collaborating and Relying on Masses

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Issue Definition

The development of and increasingly pervasive access to the internet has permitted mass collaboration on a scale not previously possible. Projects such as Wikipedia, Couchsurfing, Mechanical Turk, MySpace, Facebook, all rely on mass collaboration and are therefore frequently called Collaborative Innovation Networks (COINs). The success or failure of such COIN projects depends to great extent on the number of participants. As a result, project coordinators face massive challenges motivating good participants and preventing bad actors (see the cross-cutting theme on motivation).

On a more basic level, COINs are based on a shared premise that mass collaboration results in improved products: the more people involved the better quality the product. Is this a valid premise? Do we believe that using mass collaboration is as good or better than using experts? What knowledge / benefits do we lose by shifting towards mass collaboration? What do we gain?

As a review of Andrew Keen's book The Cult of the Amateur states:

Digital utopians have heralded the dawn of an era in which Web 2.0 — distinguished by a new generation of participatory sites like and, which emphasize user-generated content, social networking and interactive sharing — ushers in the democratization of the world: more information, more perspectives, more opinions, more everything, and most of it without filters or fees. Yet as the Silicon Valley entrepreneur Andrew Keen points out in his provocative new book, “The Cult of the Amateur,” Web 2.0 has a dark side as well.&#91;1&#93;

At its most basic level, this theme questions whether we really believe that groups perform better than individuals, whether a group of average individuals is as good or better than an expert.

Mob Mentality

Opponents of mass collaboration compare such projects to "mob mentality" -- a term used to refer to unique behavioral characteristics which emerge when people are in large groups -- or herd mind, or group think. Andrew Keen states dramatically that mass collaboration is nothing more than "ignorance meets egoism meets bad taste meets mob rule.”&#91;2&#93;

Social psychologists have traditionally described mob mentality in terms of its negative attributes, noting the potential for peer pressure and group-think, for stifling creativity, lowering exceptional performers, and division into us v. them approaches to information.

Sharing Knowledge

Many developers, educators, and economists argue that mass collaboration is the wave of the future: that it is more efficient, achieves better results, and is more cost-effective than the use of experts. Is this true?

While acknowledging the potential for negative outcomes (peer pressure, group-think and suppression of minority views), some researchers propose that technological solutions can overcome these challenges: e.g. have participants rank the novelty of postings in order to increase the salience of minority views.&#91;3&#93;

Other researchers are even more optimistic, suggesting that the unique characteristics of COINs make these COINs un-susceptible to the mob mentality weaknesses. As a result, COINs have all the positive outcomes with none of the negative, giving COINs a competitive advantage&#91;4&#93; and presenting the best (or only) mechanism for addressing major global problems such as sustainability.&#91;5&#93;

In this optimistic camp, Tapscott and Williams argue in their book Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration is Changing Everything that mass collaboration is the future of business and a (nearly) pre-requisite for economic success in the internet age.&#91;6&#93; Former Wired editor Kevin Kelly credits the rise of a 'digital socialism' to internet-based mass collaboration. &#91;7&#93;

Logistical Challenges

Mass collaboration on the internet presents even more challenges than traditional "mob mentality" simply from the logistics of having a dispersed group of collaborators. Catherine Cramton identifies major challenges facing dispersed collaboration projects:

  • Failure to communicate and retain contextual information
  • Unevenly distributed information
  • Difficulty communicating the salience of information
  • Differences in speed of access to information
  • Difficulty interpreting the meaning of silence&#91;8&#93;

How can these problems be addressed on the internet? Cramton notes that dispersed groups, on the basis of physical distance, often break down into "us v. them" mentality - does anonymity address or exacerbate this issue?

Related Questions

Popular v. Right

Is our information base shifting away from what is correct and towards what is popular? For example, Google has become a popular starting-point for information, but Google lists results in order based not on what is most correct but rather on what is most popular. How does this affect our knowledge base? How do we define "correct" - does it mean widely accepted, proven through scientific inquiry (in which case, Creationists would question what "proven" means) or something else? If "widely accepted", who votes? Only the expert community? Or anyone?

Consider technological solutions that are devloping, like DisputeFinder that can identify debated issues and present an alternative point of view, so the reader is at least informed on the controversy.

Raising the Average - Bringing Down the Top?

Evidence on whether collaboration actually improves performance is mixed, and appears to depend not only on the nature of the work but also on the identity of the participants and size of the group. One major question to consider, though, is whether we are achieving new heights or just raising the average.

Robert Miller conducted a social psychology study on students in his course writing collaborative papers (note: there are significant structure biases inherent in this study) and concluded that on average the collaborative papers were better.&#91;9&#93; However, Miller noted himself that he could not determine whether the papers were better because the best student in each group did the majority of the work (and therefore lower grades from the worse students were eliminated) or whether the groups really generated absolutely better quality work.

Does group work achieve new heights (better than the best person in the group could achieve) or does it simply eliminate the worst work? Miller's students reported that they felt the group work stimulated creativity and therefore led to better products.&#91;10&#93; However, a study on collaboration and the quality of scientific research found that groups were less likely to produce bad papers, but were not any more likely to produce good papers.&#91;11&#93; This study suggests that collaboration eliminates the worst mistakes but that it does not improve content beyond what an individual could do.

Size & Make-up of the Group

As noted above, the size and make-up of the group make a difference in the quality of collaboration. How do these questions come into play when we are dealing with mass collaboration (thousands and thousands of contributors) who are often anonymous so the group make-up isn't even known? At what group size do the complications and problems with collaboration outweigh the benefits?

One social psychology experiment determined that there are benefits to collaborative work, but they failed to show benefits for all-female groups.&#91;12&#93; It is not clear, however, whether this depends on the nature of the project worked on (e.g. does this still apply for female collaborations on female-dominated issues?). Also, mass collaboration often assumes that it will be mixed gender, because it is so large, but Wikipedia, for example, is estimated 80-90% male. How does this bias affect the quality and nature of the collaboration?

  1. Michiko Kakutani, Books of the Times: "The Cult of the Amateur", New York Times, June 29, 2007.
  2. Id.
  3. Gerry Stahl, "The Strength of the Lone Wolf," 3 International Journal of Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning 1-5 (2008).
  4. Gloor, Peter A, Swarm Creativity: Competitive Advantage Through Collaborative Innovation Networks (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006).
  5. Archer, Fei, & Petzel, Collaboration for Sustainability in a Networked World, Thesis, Blekinge Institute of Technology (2009).
  6. Tapscott & Williams, Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration is Changing Everything (2008).
  7. Kevin Kelly, The New Socialism: Global Collectivist Society Is Coming Online (2009) - "Of course, there's nothing particularly socialistic about collaboration per se. But the tools of online collaboration support a communal style of production that shuns capitalistic investors and keeps ownership in the hands of the workers, and to some extent those of the consuming masses."
  8. Catherine Durnell Cramton, "The Mutual Knowledge Problem and Its Consequences for Dispersed Collaboration," 12 Organization Science 346-371(May-June 2001), [Available on JSTOR if link not work].
  9. Richard S. Miller, "Collaborative Writing in Social Psychology: An Experiment, 1 Writing Across the Curriculum 95-103 (1989).
  10. Id.
  11. Stanley Presser, "Collaboration and the Quality of Research," 10 Social Studies of Science 95-101 (Feb 1980).
  12. Nancy Vanderhey Samah & Richard De Lisi, "Peer Collaboration on a Nonverbal Reasoning Task by Urban, Minority Students," 69 Journal of Experimental Education 5-21 (2000).