April 2, 2008

Five principles for successful mass collaboration, part 3

Author: Charles Leadbeater

Linux has succeeded as a product only because the community that supports it has organised itself systematically to create, share, test, reject, and develop ideas in a way that flouts conventional wisdom. Successful We-Think projects are based on five key principles that were all present in Linux. Earlier I introduced threeprinciples; here are the final two.

This article is excerpted from the newly published book We-Think: The Power of Mass Creativity.


A mass of contributions does not amount to anything unless together they create something ordered and complex. An encyclopaedia is not a mass of random individual contributions; it is a structured account of knowledge. People playing a game or building a community need to agree rules to govern themselves, or chaos ensues. How do We-Think communities govern themselves without an obvious hierarchy being in charge, enforcing the law? This challenge is not technical but political. We-Think works only when it has responsible self-governance, and that is a particularly difficult thing to achieve in highly diverse communities.

People often think in different ways because they have very different values; what matters to them differs. Someone who sees the world through art and images will acquire skills -- drawing and painting -- that make it easier for them to work. Someone who sees the world in terms of numbers and money is more likely to become an accountant, to use a calculator rather than a paintbrush. A large toolbox that includes both calculators and paintbrushes, both artists and accountants, is good for innovation.

The trouble is that people with fundamentally different values often find it difficult to agree on what they should do and why. Diverse ways of thinking are essential for innovation; diverse values, based on differences about what matters to us, often lead to squabbles. This is why diverse communities often find it more difficult agree on how to provide public goods, such as healthcare, welfare benefits and social housing. Diverse groups can become very unproductive when their differences overwhelm them, provoking conflicts over resources or goals. Elinor Ostrom found that shared fisheries, forests and irrigation systems required effective self-governance and local monitoring by participants to make sure no one was over-using resources. When local self-governance fails, the commons collapses and innovation becomes impossible.

We-Think succeeds by creating self-governing communities who make the most of their diverse knowledge without being overwhelmed by their differences. That is possible only if these communities are joined around a simple animating goal, if they develop legitimate ways to review and sort ideas and if they have the right kind of leadership. What they are not, ever, is egalitarian self-governing democracies.

As an example, consider the open source community that produces Ubuntu, a user-friendly version of Linux. Mark Shuttleworth, Ubuntu's founder, is like a benevolent dictator and reserves some decisions for himself, such as the design of the Ubuntu Web site. The heart of the community, the technical board, meets online to set technical standards and to define what should be included in the different versions of the program. The board's decision-making is transparent and open: anyone can propose additions to policies through the Ubuntu wiki; the board's agenda is made available as a wiki every two weeks; and anyone can attend the online meetings as an observer. The decisions are taken, however, by Shuttleworth and four other board members, whom he appoints -- albeit subject to a vote among the community's lead programmers. Meanwhile a separate Ubuntu community council supervises the social structure, creating new projects and appointing leaders for teams that support different releases and features of the program, such as those for laptop users. Then there are the LoCo teams around the world who promote the use of Ubuntu in their country. Someone can become an Ubuntu member (an Ubuntero) by coding software, documenting changes, contributing artwork or acting as an advocate for Ubuntu. In mid-2007 the community had 283 core members. Those with most power and responsibility -- dubbed Masters of the Universe -- are the core developers and they have their own council to determine who should be allowed into their guild.

The lesson of Ubuntu -- which is still far from a proven success -- is that effective governance of creative communities is like a lattice-work. Decision-making is very open: anyone can see what is decided and how; anyone can make suggestions about what should be done. But the way decisions are made is rarely democratic. Ubuntu the product may be open source; the community that sustains it is far from open-ended. These are not like the Utopian communes of the 1960s -- which is why they might be more successful than cooperatives of the past.


We-Think enables a mass social creativity which thrives when many players, with differing points of view and skills, the capacity to think independently and tools to contribute, are brought together in a common cause. If the players are distributed they must have a way to share, combine and cohere around a common goal. However, for much of the time contributors may work independently and in parallel, often reworking elements of a core central product -- whether that's an epic poem in Ancient Greece, a piece of genetic code, a latter-day software program or an encyclopaedia. The product grows through accretion and a reciprocal process of observation, criticism, support and imitation. Most people take part because they get an intrinsic pleasure from the activity and seek recognition from their peers for the work they have done. These communities must have places -- forums, Web sites, festivals, gazettes, magazines -- where people can publish and share ideas. Social creativity is not a free-for-all; it is highly structured. Although the lines between expert and amateur, audience and performer, user and producer may be blurred, those with more standing in the community, based on the history and quality of their contribution, form something like a tightly networked craft aristocracy. Social creativity collapses without effective self-governance: decisions have to be made about what should be included in the source code, published on the site, pushed to the top of the news list. Participants who do not abide by the community's rules have to be excluded somehow. They must respect the judgments of their peers.

The raw material of these collaborations is creative talent, which is highly variable. People are good at different things and in different ways. It is difficult to tell from the outside, for example by time-and-motion studies, who is the more effective creative worker. It is impossible to write a detailed job description for a creative position specifying what new ideas need to be created by whom and by when. Open source communities resolve the difficulties of managing creative work by decentralising decision-making down to small groups who decide what to work on, depending on what needs to be done and the nature of their skills. It is very difficult for someone to pull the wool over the eyes of their peers; they will soon be found out. When it works, peer review excels at sharing ideas and maintaining quality at low cost.


We-Think will not work where there is no core around which a community can form; where experimentation is costly and time-consuming, and so feedback slow; where decision-making becomes cumbersome or opaque, beset by complex rules; where the project fails to attract a large and diverse enough community. It will not take off if tools to add content are difficult to use; if contributors cannot connect to one another; if communities cannot govern themselves effectively and so either fracture or ossify. For many important activities, We-Think will make no sense at all: performing medical operations, cooking meals, running nuclear reactors, railways or steel mills. It is not well suited to tasks where only professional expertise will do. In late 2006 I had a minor operation and was very glad to find that the surgeon was not assisted by a group of pro-am butchers, bakers and candlestick-makers who were taking their lead from the Wikipedia entry on the procedure they were about to perform. (Pro-ams are people who undertake activities as amateurs but to professional standards.)

We-Think works only under certain conditions. Usually, a small group creates a kernel which invites further contributions. Its project must be regarded as exciting, intriguing and challenging by enough people with the time, means and motivation to contribute. Tools should be distributed, experimentation cheap and feedback fast, enabling a constant process of trialling, testing and refinement. The product should benefit from extensive peer review, to correct errors and ratify good ideas. Tasks should be broken down into modules around which small, close-knit teams can form, allowing a range of experiments to run in parallel. There should be clear rules for fitting the modules together and separating good ideas from bad. Ownership of the project must have a public component, otherwise the sharing of ideas will not make sense.

It is not all or nothing but a matter of degree: from No We-Think at one end of the spectrum, where traditional, closed and hierarchical models of organisation still make sense, to Full We-Think at the other end, with the likes of Linux and Wikipedia. In the middle, there will be lots of opportunities to blend some of these ingredients in different ways.

Blogging is a prime example: it allows a mass of people to contribute their views, but only rarely do they find a core to build around. Mostly, bloggers communicate into the ether. They have no desire to build something with others, merely to leave their mark on their little patch of digital space. Blogging is high on participation, low on collaboration. Flickr, the photo-sharing site, and YouTube, the video site, fit in this Low We-Think category: they allow a mass of participants to connect with an audience and with one another. Yet there is relatively little collaborative creativity. When YouTube becomes a platform for people to collaborate in making films together it may acquire some of the features of We-Think.

Social networking is Medium We-Think. Sites such as MySpace, CyWorld and Bebo have not yet encouraged much deliberate collaborative creativity, although some participants have begun to use them for example to support political candidates or to rally around causes they care about. Collaborative filtering and the book reviews and ratings on Amazon, and social tagging tools like Technorati and del.i.cious, through which people help one another find interesting material on the web, fit into this category.

Only when all our five conditions come together at scale to provide a deliberate, conscious form of social creativity in which many people contribute and collaborate does Full We-Think emerge. OhmyNews, the South Korean citizen-journalist news service, fits in here, as do mass computer games like World of Warcraft and scientific collaborations like the project to unravel the worm's genome. Full We-Think is the deliberate and organised combination of contributions from a mass of distributed and independent participants.

It would be silly to suggest that We-Think can work in every situation and that it is always the best organisational recipe. The challenge is to engage in more We-Think when it is appropriate, which is when we are collectively trying to solve a complex problem, or to create something that no individual could produce and where creative thinking is critical to develop ideas. We-Think will not touch all organisations but some will be transformed, and many will find some aspects of what they do changed, possibly quite fundamentally, by this new organisational recipe.


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