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Collaboration instead of the crowd: Gabriella Coleman & Karim Lakhani on how people work together online

News organizations, faced with the dual incentives of declining resources and the possibilities of the Internet, have tried any number of angles for gathering the labor of its audience in ways useful to the enterprise. (Crowdsourcing is the term, for which you can credit/blame outgoing Nieman Fellow Jeff Howe.) But outside a few oft-repeated anecdotes, it’s sometimes unclear what lasting value those efforts have produced. Or at the very least, the value isn’t as obvious as it is in the open-source software movement, where enormously popular and powerful programs have been built on the backs of coordinated volunteer labor.

Above you’ll see two people who know a lot about that software world talking about what they’ve learned about how collaborative communities work. This is a video of a plenary session at the recent Future of News and Civic Media Conference at MIT. The lineup: Gabriella Coleman, an NYU professor who studies online collaboration, particularly in the Debian Linux community; Karim Lakhani, the Harvard Business School professor, who studies distributed innovation systems and who has also spent a lot of time looking at the software world; and moderator Chris Csikszentmihályi, director of the MIT Center for Future Civic Media.

Neither Coleman nor Lakhani specifically research the journalism world, but that’s part of what I find appealing about them: They don’t bring along either the assumptions of professional identity that many journalists do or the blind webby optimism of some sloganeers. They know the “crowd” can do amazing things, but they also know it’s really, really hard to optimize systems to ensure amazement happens. Give them a listen.

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  • C.W. Anderson

    It’s funny – if you listen to Biella’s talk you can understand why I guy like me who grew up in the Indymedia movement (a bunch of anarchist media makers with roots in the free software community that Biella is talking about ) always goes on and on about institutions.

    Because people who start with no institutions ALWAYS build them! Only journalists (and their representative talking heads), who are coming out hidebound, dying, massive institutions would ever think we’re headed towards a deinstitutionalized media universe. But if you’ve ever watched networks operate in a fairly free ecosystem you notice that these things always solidify. It’s just a question of how.

    Listen to this talk, folks. It’s quite important.

  • Jonathan Stray

    This is my summation:

    Communities have structure. They’re not just a pile of equivalent people, randomly connected. And if you’re sharp, you can build a community so that the structure furthers a specific goal. But it’s hard.

  • Steven

    Someone needs to tell that MIT fellow that it’s /ˈdɛbiən/ not /ˈdiːbiən/.

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  • jamie

    I really don’t like Karim Lakhani’s comment about how Debian’s social contract would be considered “draconian” in the corporate world. The corporate world has *tons* of draconian policies already, it’s just that none of them have any sort of ethical sensibility at all.

    Furthermore, how refreshing would it be if more corporations *did* have strong ethical social contracts? I wouldn’t consider it draconian at all. I actually think they are dropping the ball by failing to consider ethics more in what they do.

    queue montage of oil covered pelicans…

  • Taran Rampersad

    Could have done without the first 5 minutes of the video – especially having a PPT read to me on video… O.o

    That said, it’s interesting to hear what these people had to say about online collaboration from without. Good stuff.

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