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Massively distributed collaboration

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia


The term massively distributed collaboration was coined by Mitchell Kapor, in a presentation at UC Berkeley on 2005-11-09, to describe an emerging activity of wikis and electronic mailing lists and blogs and other content-creating virtual communities online. Kapor said, in the introduction to his talk:

Tools for "massively distributed collaboration"

  • wikis — massively distributed collaboration is not the only purpose served by a wiki, such as Wikipedia, but it can be the central purpose and at least is a by-product, insofar as participants are assembling a body of data or information which can be re-used by themselves and used by others...
example: Wikipedia:List of largest wikis
example: Comparison of wiki software
  • econferences / listservs -- the archives, of econferences and listservs some of which have been in operation since the early 1990s, are the best records we possess of the establishment and development of digital information techniques, the Gutenberg Bible of the Digital Era -- one hopes such archives will be preserved...
example: PACS-L
example: biblio-fr
  • gaming boards / product forums — a vast range of topics gets discussed, in some of these... an entire younger generation obtains and develops much of its peer-group collective knowledge on these things, now, just ask them...
example: Doom
example: Keyhole BBS / GoogleEarth Community
  • blogs — as for econferences (above), so for blogs, archives of these are at least as important as the realtime interactions they host: the best records of the Age of Incunabula of the Digital Era may well become blog archives, and again one hopes that they will be preserved...
explanation and examples: Blog
example: Avatale / Bloghubs
  • Wi-Fi — any tool which extends the "distribution", "massively", to enable the "collaboration" -- the increasing transparency (XeroxPARC term) of the technology is its basic enabling device, letting the machinery blend back into the woodwork just as the telephone did...
  • cellphones — another tool extending "distribution", "massively" — this one directly offering interactivity to enable "collaboration", as vs. say improvements in screen technology which more enable passive Infotainment etc. applications...
  • virtual communities — another digital tool directly aiming at "collaboration" in "content creation" -- as vs. passive Infotainment, or one-to-one email, or local & restricted & possibly centralized systems -- some virtual communities can be highly-centralized, though, and restricted, defeating the purpose and depriving themselves of the advantages of "massively distributed collaboration", either intentionally or often unintentionally -- proprietary corporate or government or military systems, for example, some of which might need & want to stay "secret", but others of which might not know what they're missing, here...
example: The WELL (Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link)

Applications of "massively distributed collaboration"

  • Education -- modern education being generally less didactic and more collaborative, with teamwork emphases on just about everything including research and even test-taking, traditional classwork increasingly is being conducted online -- lectures, research, discussion, debate, team projects, consultation with the "teacher", even the "tests" --
    • traditional education -- traditional schools employ "massively distributed collaboration" in their courses, establishing class wikis and blogs and email bulletin boards, and offering syllabi to the general public and soliciting input
example: MIT Open Courseware
* distance education -- very old and established correspondence schools now are switching en masse to online, and many new such schools are emerging
example: The Open University
example: The University of Phoenix
* continuing education / career retraining -- in the outsourcing and offshoring Globalization changes, career retraining has taken on a critical significance, much of it using "massively distributed collaboration" online
example: UC Berkeley Extension
* lifelong learning -- the current era is spawning ageing population demographic bulges, in Europe and the US and Japan and anywhere which hosted a postwar BabyBoom, now moving into its 60s -- reaching such people with lifelong learning offerings increasingly uses "massively distributed collaboration" in instruction techniques
example: AllLearn -- Oxford & Yale & Stanford
  • Research
(lab and workbench resources such as the Human Genome Database and Medline, for both publication and realtime transnational collaborative research)
example: - a collaborative (wiki-based) research project focusing on collaboration.
  • Corporations -- by now, any corporation which doesn't "get" the Internet is in trouble...
see Business Week Magazine, US edition November 21 2005 -- "Best Practices, Smart Ways to Use the Web, Companies That Get It" -- they provide a list... almost all of their praise goes to "massively distributed collaboration" applications...
  • Communities -- political organizing, and other community efforts, are moving toward wifi and "massively distributed collaboration" techniques for keeping busy households in touch with one another
example: Chemical Stockpile Emergency Preparedness Program, Eastern Oregon
example: The Howard Dean Campaign, 2004
example: Democracy for America
example: The Roosevelt Institution, a distributed national student think tank
  • Emergency relief -- Katrina, the aid appeals for the Tsunami...
example: Katrina Survivor-Connector List
  • Music -- an abortive / aborted attempt at "massively distributed collaboration for content creation", perhaps, if Napster etc. represented an attempt to assemble a globalized music database? On the other hand perhaps the iPod is a renewed and more practicable effort at this, although there does not seem to be much feedback built into that...
  • Civil resistance / rebellion -- "massively distributed collaboration" seems to have had its most dramatic applications here, so far
example: "people power" in the Philippines, the EDSA Revolution of 1986 -- reportedly planned & coordinated via flipfones
example: 2005 civil unrest in France, October-November 2005 -- also planned & coordinated via flipfones
  • Political Action -- organization of broadly-based communities for political purposes
example: organization and operation of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines by Nobel Prize winner Jody Williams, a transnational and even worldwide instance
  • Law enforcement -- quid pro quo of the preceding...
example: 2005 civil unrest in France, October-November 2005 -- and the police response was planned and coordinated via flipfones, too...

Older formulations, distinctions

  • One-to-one / One-to-many / Many-to-one / Many-to-many
Various online techniques have been characterised as one or the other, or several, of these. It would seem though that the new "massively distributed collaboration" very definitely is the last -- many-to-many.
  • Global Village, Virtual Community, the Web, the Matrix
All of these labels characterized the statics, of what appeared to be going on, online, at the time the terms were coined. Some were accurate, some were not. But "massively distributed collaboration" addresses more the dynamics of what is being done now, online. It can be done by a Global village, or by a Virtual Community, or by the World Wide Web, or by William F. Gibson's entire Matrix: the point is, it must be done many-to-many -- if not, it's just advertising, or preaching, or didactic teaching, or rabble-rousing, or old-style commercial publishing, or something else besides true "collaboration". The "collaboration" is the new thing: using the Matrix not as a passive medium, as television turned out to be, but for active involvement by all participants -- that is the truly new element, enabled by the novel techniques of digital information, in these new "massively distributed collaboration" features of the Nets.
It's the "new thing" with which email filter designers and econference Moderators and Wiki editors are most familiar, perhaps... It's also the new thing which many have said never could be done: "massively distributed collaboration", among millions of people, including very different kinds of people scattered all over the planet, to produce -- together -- something respectable and useful to themselves and to others...
  • Decentralization
Another attempt to characterize the structure, or the essence, of the Internet... The original packet-switching network architecture appealed to many as a failsafe, and among other things bombproof or relatively so, system for conveying data. But even this was "statics": the way digital information looked, on a map, or at least the way its telecommunications channels looked -- "mapping" the Internet became a minor industry, producing elaborate images of 2-dimensional and even 3-dimensional splotches / nodes, surrounded by radiating little neuron-like subnodes, all of which interconnected in various scattered ways.
"Massively distributed collaboration", on the other hand, is how people now use all of that: are beginning to use it, as the Internet era of one-to-one email, and passive Infotainment, gradually is giving way to more literally inter-active applications. The latest, of these interactive applications -- in wikis, and collaborative online science research publication, and inventive sales and marketing and product development techniques, and the rest -- appears to be what Kapor has characterized as "massively distributed collaboration" in content creation.
  • Democracy
One of the greatest fears of the ancient Greeks was democracy[2], which in their terms was rule by the demos, "the mob". Their philosophers went to great lengths to insert safeguards, into political systems -- hierarchies, checks and balances, voter "qualifications", anything to prevent mob rule -- and apologies were written for oligarchy, aristocracy, philosopher-kings, any system which would keep the great masses and demagogues making use of them from truly running things.
Massively distributed collaboration offers exactly the "scale" problems which face modern political democracy: how to organize, and discipline, vast numbers of participants -- effectively, yet without stifling difference and dissent and creativity and, ultimately, participation. So wikis and other massively distributed collaboration tools offer fascinating subjects for study, now, by sociologists and anthropologists and particularly by legal and political theorists. The roles played, in these tools and applications, by their new system structures and linkages and peer-group relations, are as interesting as are the more traditional but still vital roles still played there by online moderators and editors and, yes, hierarchies: estimates have been that inevitable spam and vandalism remains online, on a pure-democracy system as enormous as Wikipedia, for a maximum of 5 minutes on average -- so, how does that happen, "democratically"? -- at least it ought to reassure the Greeks...
Modern political philosophers who strongly favor democracy, such as Robert Dahl, have worried constantly about the effects of scale in large democratic systems: Dahl's polyarchy concept has cast much light, although it has been relentlessly attacked by critics. Modern politicians have worried, too: both at home and in overseas "nation-building" efforts, trying to construct representative democracy, overnight, among peoples who never have known it... Massively distributed collaboration, on wikis and flipfones, and in transnational scientific research and Globalization big business marauding / "free market" equalizing, all might be very interesting laboratories for and even precursors to the better implementation of democracy in other policy arenas too... like politics...


First stab at elaborating the definition: massively distributed collaboration for content creation...

  • collaboration
The key to this is meaningful and significant feedback: without it, signals may be sent and received, but there is no collaboration. So a feedback-less television show or ad campaign or education session would not be covered, by the definition.
  • distributed
The idea here is the Internet multi-nodal model, the one which DARPA legendarily liked because the foreign bombs couldn't take it out easily: an information system which is greatly centralized, like the French Minitel or most traditional corporate and government information systems, would not be covered by the definition.
  • massively
The scale of the Internet, and of Globalization and other enormous information dissemination and sharing projects now under way, gets folded into the definition here. Systems deliberately restricted to small-scale use -- relative to other systems which are not -- would not be covered by the definition. "Distributed collaboration for content creation" in your household or within your (small) academic department or corporation probably would not qualify: the idea here is the "mass" scale of the system -- bigger is better, here.
  • content creation
"Massively distributed collaboration" can be undertaken for many purposes: to build a dam in China, to sell automobiles nationwide, to distribute medical assistance in sub-Saharan Africa. But if the effort is one-shot -- the automobiles get sold and there is nothing left over thereafter -- it is not "content creation". The content -- the data-plus-intelligence which yields "information" -- is the point. Certain Global efforts might be admirable, in other words, and require collaboration which is massive and distributed, but the key idea behind the definition as it is used here is that such efforts should concern information systems: meaningful data which can be archived, and searched & retrieved, and used over and over again.

If all this is a sound characterization of what is going on, now, with wikis & econferences & flipfones (?) & blogs & virtual communities & the rest, then maybe we have our definition... the purpose being not to freeze that definition in place, but to use it to understand what is going on, changing it as all these things change...


  1. ^ Kapor presentation, UC Berkeley, 2005-11-09
  2. ^ Plato, Republic Book VIII: "democracy comes into being after the poor have conquered their opponents, slaughtering some and banishing some, while to the remainder they give an equal share of freedom and power; and this is the form of government in which the magistrates are commonly elected by lot... "the forgiving spirit of democracy, and the 'don't care' about trifles, and the disregard which she shows of all the fine principles which we solemnly laid down at the foundation of the city... how grandly does she trample all these fine notions of ours under her feet, never giving a thought to the pursuits which make a statesman, and promoting to honour any one who professes to be the people's friend... "in what manner does tyranny arise? -- that it has a democratic origin is evident..." And see generally Eric Havelock, The Liberal Temper in Greek Politics (London : Jonathan Cape, [1957]), (New Haven : Yale University Press, [1964]).

See also

-- tools for & examples of "massively distributed collaboration" --

  • Cochrane Collaboration
  • Collaborative Application Markup Language
  • Collaborative authorship
  • Collaborative Bookmarking
  • Collaborative editing
  • Collaborative fiction
  • Collaborative intelligence
  • Collaborative International Dictionary of English
  • Collaborative learning
  • Collaborative real-time editing
  • Collaborative software
  • Collaborative workspace
  • Collaborative writing
  • Groupware and collaborative systems
  • List of collaborative software
  • Motivations for Contributing to Online Communities
  • West Midlands Collaborative Commerce Marketplace
  • WikiMapia
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