Monday, July 22, 2013

The Age of Collaboration

Sitting as the 8th most popular website in the United States (and 7th, globally) is Wikipedia.

On an unrelated note, have you ever tried reading the Scottish wikipedia out loud?

Wikipedia has become a fantastic resource over the years. It features millions of articles on nearly any subject you can think of. Although people will debate its credibility (and indeed, even Wikipedia says that Wikipedia shouldn't be trusted at face value), the website is still a good starting point for deeper research on a subject, and can guide you toward resources with higher reliability.

The truly interesting thing is that Wikipedia is crowd-sourced. Its contents are entirely determined by user contribution. There are Wikipedia editor communities, editing wars, and even problems with editor drama. Through this bustling and sometimes chaotic group dynamic, an invaluable resource emerges.

And this is something that can be observed in other places online as well.

Wikipedia is one example among a long list of crowd-sourced jewels online. We've seen the power of the crowd emerge in our explorations of internet vigilantism and online social justice. While those two things involve the online crowd actuating social movements, Wikipedia and other crowd-sourced projects are just that: projects. Goods and services, tangible or otherwise, that can come about from the collective efforts of a mob.

'Open source' projects have gotten a lot of popularity online. For a program or software to be 'open source', its code must be public and free for anyone to peruse. This permits people to make their own modifications and additions to the code, which can then be uploaded for other people to use. The contributions can vary wildly in utility and quality, but the individual contributions ultimately improve the overall project.

There are plenty of examples of successful open source projects. One such project is Mozilla Firefox, the famed alternative browser to Internet Explorer that rose to prominence in the mid-2000s. You could find the relevant source code here, if you felt inspired to add anything to the browser. Another example is the Linux operating system, presented as an open source alternative to Windows and is completely accessible to people online.

Open source logo selections are hit and miss.

Certainly, it's not hard to understand why these projects can find appeal online. The Internet is a medium where enterprising individuals can make great products that reach millions of people. Open source projects empower everyone with the opportunity to contribute to something bigger than themselves. Open source is especially interesting when we also consider the cultural libertarianism that we see online. It's easy to see how bottom-up projects for the people, by the people, would have strong individualist appeal.

Certainly, we must consider that the vast majority of people aren't actively contributing to open source projects, but instead just using the free software. This likely goes along with the cultural libertarianism mentioned earlier, as it can reinforce the sense of entitlement often seen online. After all, this free and open software is available for download as soon as you feel like having it.

That said, the actual contributors do assist in great work. Obviously, collaboration is nothing new - human beings have been collaborating since the beginning of humankind. But while the Internet doesn't introduce the concept of collaboration, it certainly enables collaboration on a larger scale. People can work with one another from great distances, and keep in sync with one another at previously unimaginable speeds. They can be working in tandem with thousands of other people.

The value of online collaboration is so great that people now develop goods and services that make collaboration easier. Websites like Github allow programmers to upload their code and share their work within a group. Cloud storage tools like Dropbox allow for quick and easy transfer and synchronization of files within groups. These tools are purely organizational - they exist to help us collaborate better, to keep us moving towards a project direction. The crowd can be a bunch of individuals working remotely, but working in the right environment, they can still be guided towards greater work cohesion.

This brings us to one of the most impressive crowd organizers of them all: Kickstarter.

I think I'm just going to keep using logos for my pictures in this blog.

Kickstarter is not about open source, but rather open funding. Enterprising groups propose a project and ask for a certain amount of money. Individual members of the online crowd donate small amounts of money, often being offered incentives if the project meets its funding goal. Many notable projects have gone through this system, from resurrecting dead TV shows to empowering independent game developers.

Kickstarter has facilitated the transfer of hundreds of millions of dollars to its many independent projects, turning crowd-funding into a legitimate option for aspiring entrepreneurs. Europe has since found its own version of the website in Ulule. The website IndieGoGo presents itself as a similar international platform with some slight differences in their funding model. The beauty of these websites is that they are purely organizational, much like Dropbox and other services. They are a way to empower individuals to contribute to a project bigger than themselves, by guiding them toward an entrepreneur with greater resources. Since this is purely a monetary exchange, the barrier of entry is much lower than that of a programming project.

Crowd funding has found its wings in charity ventures as well. The Desert Bus is a group of gamers who record themselves playing video games, and stream it live over the internet. Through this live event, viewers are encouraged to donate money to Child's Play charity. The stream gets thousands of viewers, and any one individual will only donate a small amount, but the organization has managed to collect hundreds of thousands of dollars to go to this charity. This streaming model is used by many other online groups as well, relying on the casual benevolence of the online mob.

Open source, crowd funding, and other crowd-focused ventures have caught on like wildfire and are already poised to begin disrupting old infrastructures. One big example of this can be found in the scientific community.

Science? On the Internet??

Science is one of those fields that is entirely run on collaboration, even before the Internet. A lot of work in these fields, however, remain very difficult to access unless you're already a scientist. Scientific work gets published in costly journals, and the dialogue of inquiry between scientists is often very difficult to access if you're on the outside.

The Internet has given rise to the open access journal, which publish like any other journal but are free for people to peruse. A number of these have already popped up in existence. This gives scientific work a greater degree of public accessibility, which is something that some people have literally died for.

Open problems within scientific fields have also become more transparent to the public eye. Websites like Innocentive have made bounties out of challenges in the STEM fields. A resourceful and imaginative individual could find a problem that interests them, contribute meaningful work, and then win a prize for their submissions. The website Microryza is a science-specific crowd-funding website, where donations are accumulated much as they are in Kickstarter. Suddenly, we have open and crowd-sourced alternatives to the journal system, the grant system, and even the research process.

Of course, crowd-sourced projects have a lot of traps and pitfalls to them. We see it with Wikipedia - sometimes the open content is not reliable. There have been reports of predatory science journals, funded kickstarters that fail to launch, and lack of long-term support with open source software. As it is with other free and open things on the Internet, sometimes the crowd-driven option isn't necessarily the option with the best quality control.

But an awareness of these pitfalls can only help us use these tools - and perhaps regulate them - more efficiently. I don't know if these new ways of collaboration will ever overtake the traditional ways that we allocate our resources - in fact, I have a hunch that they won't. But they are one more tool in our arsenal, and having more tools is always a good thing. The crowd is a powerful tool...when guided correctly.

No comments:

Post a Comment