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What makes Wikipedia or Digg succeed? What makes other collaborative online efforts fail

Within the Cooperation project, the online case studies research group is a focused team of researchers working with Berkman Center Faculty Co-Director Yochai Benkler on an initiative to survey and explore the broad landscape of online cooperation. By examining an expansive swath of cases, the group aims to develop a deeper understanding of the varieties of communities and cooperation that exist in the Internet landscape. This will enable us to develop an evolving taxonomy of design levers – such as reputation systems or particular group norms – that can inform future attempts to foster online cooperation. Ultimately, we aim to loosen this emphasis on the online space; it is hoped that the insights from our research will also be relevant to studying cooperation in offline groups and organizations.

There are three overarching practical and theoretical hurdles that comprise the group's research agenda:

First, despite nearly five years of popular discussion about the importance of cooperation and social activity online to business and nonprofit efforts alike, the current knowledge about how such phenomena are generated and sustained remains relatively primitive. Much of the currently available discussion of community design is largely based on discrete case studies and anecdotal evidence. The group attempts to address this current weakness by examining cooperation online in a quantitatively and qualitatively more rigorous, scientific way.

Second, the current universe of data available to researchers interested in studying online cooperation remains poor. Many of the arguments and strategies for nurturing cooperation online and effectively using “social media” are based on knowledge of an small group of sites. To address this, the group’s strategy is to drastically broaden the scope of research to gain a sense of the entire landscape of cooperation online. Currently, the set of cases to be examined in our study includes over two thousand independent examples.

Third, the group, like the Cooperation project more generally, aims to explore and expand the models of human behavior. Unlike traditional behavioral economics, the work on cooperation challenges not the assumption of rationality in rational actor theory, but the practical simplification of universal self-interest. By combining new insights from the broad range of fields represented in the Cooperation project with the detailed study of over a thousand instances of successful and unsuccessful online cooperation, our hope is to generate a new model of cooperative human systems design that improves on earlier, more simplistic concepts of human motivation and behavior.

For more information, contact Berkman Fellow Aaron Shaw (ashaw AT

Industrial Case Studies

Carolina Rossini's research group studies cooperation, collaboration, and intellectual property sharing by institutions such as corporations, governme...