Online collaboration; what’s in it for me?

Individuals’ motivations define group collaborations. This essay will argue that motivation is what drives users to collaborate online, and ultimately decides the type of community they choose to collaborate with. With a focus on the concept of Communities of Practice (CoP), this paper will explore the reasons why different forms of online collaboration and organisation appear to be similar in nature, but are ultimately divergent.

To discuss the similarities and differences between the Wikipedia community and the movement of protesters that used Twitter during the Egyptian and Iranian protests, this essay will explore both Deepwell & King’s (2009) and Ireson & Burel’s (2010) concepts of online communities, as discussed in Blau (2011). Deepwell and King’s (2009) research into organised knowledge exchange and collaboration within a community of practice, or CoP, as discussed in Blau (2011) defines a CoP as  a “normally professional, social grouping whose members work actively on a shared interest, solving shared problems, sharing and constructing knowledge over time” (Deepwell & King, 2009, p. 12). Blau (2011 p.27 ) also quotes Ireson & Burel (2010) and says that CoPs are formed by “groups of people with shared interests, who benefit from knowledge exchange and collaboration” (Blau, 2011, p.27).  Using this  conceptual frame work, it would seem that both the community that creates and edits content on for dissemination on Wikipedia, and the internet users who communicated and retransmitted information about the democratic protests in the Middle East, could be described as CoPs.

The formation of online CoPs allow individuals to collaborate and learn from others who share their interest. “As long as people are marginalised and distracted [they] have no way to organize or articulate their sentiments, or even know that others have these sentiments. People assume that they are the only people with a crazy idea in their heads. They never hear it from anywhere else. Nobody’s supposed to think that… Since there’s no way to get together with other people who share or reinforce that view and help you articulate it, you feel like an oddity, an oddball. So you just stay on the side and you don’t pay any attention to what’s going on” (Chomsky, 2002 p.31). The authors that produce Wikipedia and the movement of activists that collaborated on Twitter during the recent Middle Eastern political uprising, are both seeking a space in which their contributions benefit the greater community, as well benefit from their involvement with the site.

On the surface the collaborative organisation of Wikipedia fits Deepwell and King’s definition of a CoP. Deepwell and King (2009) state that a CoP is usually formed by a group of highly educated professionals (Deepwell & King, 2009, p. 12). More than 49 per cent of the authors who contribute to Wikipedia articles are university educated (Glott, Schmidt, Ghosh, 2010 p. 7). Deepwell & King (2009, p. X2) note that at its core, the collaborative platform of Wikipedia has the characteristics of a CoP;  “Characteristics of CoP, as well as the sense of community that the participants share, foster the process of e-collaboration and knowledge building taking place in the Wikipedia” (Deepwell & King 2009, p. 1X). Deepwell and King (2009) also state that members of a CoP work collaboratively with others who share the same interests to actively produce information ecologies (or articles) and collaboratively solve community problems (Deepwell & King, 2009, p. 12).  Authors of Wikipedia collectively share their knowledge by collaborating on articles with other members who also share the same interest (Arazy, Ofer, Morgan, Wayne and Patterson, Raymond 2006), and also participate in collectively solving problems through Wikipedia’s article control mechanisms, page comments and site forums (Arazy, Ofer, Morgan, Wayne and Patterson, Raymond 2006).  Deepwell and King’s (2009) concept can also be used to explain the type of collaboration that occurred when political protesters in Egypt and Iran used Twitter to organise their activism and disseminate their message to a worldwide audience.

The situations in Tunisia and Egypt have both seen an increased use of social networking media such as Facebook and Twitter to help organise, communicate and ultimately initiate civil-disobedience campaigns and street actions (Papic & Noonan, 2011).

During the 2011 Middle Eastern protests, some activists utilised Twitter’s simple set of collaborative tools to organise action and disseminate information to others with a shared political interest. Ultimately their dissemination would help them reach a worldwide audience to collaborate with. “Social media did not make the revolution in Egypt happen. But, with every step chronicled in real time and broadcast to anyone with an internet connection, it hastened its pace and transferred the voice of international scrutiny from sovereign leaders to a community of millions” (McCarthy 2011). Deepwell and King (2009)  state that a CoP is formed around a shared interest (Deepwell & King 2009, p. 12). The shared interest between protesters on the ground in Egypt and Iran was reporting and receiving information about the movements of authorities, the location of safe houses and best practices for political protest action (Grossman, 2009). Using internet connected mobile devices, and the short messaging systems (SMS) on analog cell phones, protesters in Egypt and Iran were able to access Twitter in order to collaborate with others who shared the same interest in political protest (Mcarthy, 2011 & Shirky, 2009). Deepwell and King (2009) state that members of a CoP benefit from the collaboration they partake in with other users. Through the connections made on Twitter, protesters were able to collaborate and exchange knowledge and information that they could than in turn curate for their own personal action (Mcarthy, 2011 & Shirky, 2009). Protesters using Twitter to chronicle their political action, also benefited from the collaboration with other Twitter users by centralising their Twitter posts (or collective knowledge) using hash tags.  Adding hash tags to tweets that related to a physical location or specific protest action created a pool of information and knowledge that other members of the movement could access and use in their own activism.

The process of adding a hash tag  to a tweet involves the addition of a word or phrase that is attached to a hash symbol.  The process is similar the organisational folksonomy of adding tags to blog posts. “User-generated tags is the answer of online networks” (Deepwell & King, 2009, p.26). On Twitter, hash tags centralise all posts regarding a specific topic. Common hash tags used by activists during the Egyptian and Iranian protests included names of the countries and cities that protests where taking place in. When individuals add a hash tag to a Twitter post it effectively groups their tweet with all other tweets contain information on the same topic. When protesters added a hash tag to their tweets relating to their location or the protest action they where involved in, it created a pool of information about the protest. The process of adding hash tags to posts regarding the protest movement effectively created a searchable database of information and knowledge. This database was used by members of the community not only  search for information about protest, but to also collaborate with others outside their geographical location.

Many of the tweets and hash tags produced by Iranian and Egyptian protesters contained geographically centralised information that was intended for dissemination to only few hundred, or thousand people in the same location. “Twitter is promiscuous by nature: tweets go out over two networks, the Internet and SMS … and they can be received and read on practically anything with a screen and a network connection. This makes Twitter practically ideal for a mass protest movement, both very easy for the average citizen to use and very hard for any central authority to control” (Grossman, 2009). It was the ‘re-tweeting’ of posts created by protesters on the ground in Egypt and Iran, though a pre-existent network personal connections, that took a centralised collaboration and reinterpreted it as a action that a global audience could take part in. “There’s 80 million people in Egypt, and almost 40 per cent are below the poverty line…Cell phone penetration is incredibly high, but the majority of the cell phones are not smartphones. Much of the information that was getting out was from a very small critical mass of people that were able to tweet out of Egypt. Friends of mine in Cairo estimate that it’s less than 200 people who were tweeting from Cairo.” (McCarthy, Sharma 2011). The shared tradition, of ‘re-tweeting’  within the Twitter community, is the act of copying someone else’s twitter post and publishing it to your own twitter feed. This copied post can than in turn be ‘re-tweeted’ repeatedly, through an infinite web of connections and personal networks.  The ‘retweeting’ of these messages allowed protesters on the ground to collaborate with a world wide audience of users who where empathic to their movement. Retweeting facilitated collaboration outside the geographical location of the protests in Egypt and Iran.  Retweeting helped activists achieve “the goal that dissidents have always sought: the awareness that the ouside world is paying attention (Shirky, 2009). The infinite nature of personal connections that users can make using Twitter,  and the lack of relationship building mechanics within the Wikipedias software, is an indicator of the biggest difference between the two communities and the forms of  collaboration taking place.

Successful collaboration using Twitter is reliant on personal connections between users. “Twitter makes us empathise. It makes us part of it” (Shirky, 2009). Individuals that collaborated on Twitter during the political action in Egypt and Iran where doing so because they when emotionally engaged (Shirky, 2009). “As a medium gets faster, it gets more emotional. We feel faster than we think. But Twitter is also just a much more personal medium. Reading personal messages from individuals on the ground prompts a whole other sense of involvement” (Shirky, 2009 Wayne Morgan, and Raymond A. Patterson). On the other hand, the organisational mechanisms that Wikipedia employs to foster collaboration and organisation, are not reliant on the formation of relationships between contributors. In fact there are no mechanisms in the Wikipedia platform that facilitate any personal connections at all. The majority of people that collaborate to produce Wikipedia, say they do so because they “wish to share knowledge and [have] the desire to fix errors” (Glott, Schmidt, Ghosh, 2010 p. 9). Data indicates that people are willing to contribute to Wikipedia because they want to share information and acquire a sense of personal satisfaction from their participation (Kuznetso, 2006 p.3). It is important to understand the motivation individuals have to collaborate within a community because motivation creates a different pattern of usage. “Studies of knowledge sharing typically apply motivational theory to interpret individual knowledge-sharing behavior” (Yang & Lai, 2010). If the motivations for collaborating to produce Wikipedia and the motivation Twitter to collaborate political activism are different, than the communities that foster the collaboration between the individuals must also be divergent.

Exploring the motivation for participating in a collaborative community helps define the different forms of collaboration that are taking place within the group. About half (48.89 per cent) of the authors of Wikipedia indicated that their main motivation for participation in the Wikipedia community was to “educate humanity/raise awareness” (Kuznetso, 2006 p.3). Authors of the Wikipedia receive no reward except for personal satisfaction. “No external rewards are received for sharing knowledge in Wikipedia. Even the reputation, image or respect gained in Wikipedia…is incomparable to a physical reward” (motivations for Wiki). In fact a user who writes just one paragraph in a single article on Wikipedia is just as valuable to the community as someone who produces or maintains multiple articles on a regular basis (Shirky, 2005). “The number of people (i.e the number of  ideas and opinions) in a crowd directly impacts the crowd’s aggregate knowledge” (Wayne Morgan, and Raymond A. Patterson). Wikipedia is  best describes as a a knowledge network or a Network of practice ( Wasko & Faraj, 2005) because it does not have a mechanic to provide personal connections and social capital (Creech and Willard 2001). In 1997, Neilson commented on the rise of what he called “Mega-collaborations” like Wikipedia, and stated that “millions of people can form a constructive environment where value is derived from the mass of actions even though each individual action is done purely for the sake of the individual user (Neilson, 1997). If being motivated by personal satisfaction and receiving no tangible reward for participation rules out Wikipedia as being a CoP, it then becomes more important not only to understand the motivation for contributing to a CoP but also what reward is offered. Understanding the motivation to contribute to a community were a reward is offered for participation will help define the form of collaboration taking place within the community.

Communities of practice are cultivated (Blau, 2011 p.24). Members of a CoP share a passion for something and are motivated to share knowledge and information with others because participation cultivates rewards. Unlike the equality of authors that contribute to Wikipedia, members of a CoP must actively participate numerous times  within the group to achieve the extrinsic reward (Blau, 2011 p.31). The reward for individuals who actively contributed to the CoP that collaborated on Twitter during the recent Middle East political protests, was social capital. As discussed in Blau (2011 p.27), communities of practice “function in networked society as engines for development of social capital” (Lesser & Storck, 2001). The reward of social capital is achieved by strengthening ties between members of the community (Blau, 2011 p.27). The gift of social capital was important to the collaborative political activism on Twitter because it leads to  behavioral changes, which in turn improve organisational performance and create organisational value (Blau, 2011 p.27). “Theories of collective action help explain why individuals in a collective choose not to free-ride, and suggest that individuals forego the tendency to free-ride due to the influence of social capital (Wasko  & Faraj , 2005). The major difference between the reward of personal satisfaction received from authoring Wikipedia and the reward for actively contributing to collaborative political activism on twitter is that “social capital is embedded in the social realm. While other forms of capital are based on assets or individuals, social capital resides in the fabric of relationships between individuals and in individuals’ connections with their communities” (Wasko  & Faraj , 2005). Social capital was an important incentive to offer contributes to the collaboration of political activism on Twitter because the motivation for contributing in the first place was socially motivated.

The physical act of collaborating with other authors to produce Wikipedia, and assisting social change by collaborating with activists in Egypt and Iran is similar. However, the motivations that individual participants have for taking part in the communities are very different. The motivation a user has to collaborate within a community drives the choices they make, and ultimately defines the value of the output they produce for the benefit of the group.  Although Communities and Networks of Practice appear to be facilitating similar collaborations, ultimately it is the motivation of individual members that defines the group and what they achieve.


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One thought on “Online collaboration; what’s in it for me?”

  1. Interesting article. Successful online collaboration requires use of quality tools. One can deploy on premise RHUB appliances ( as it provides best of breed flexibility and value by embedding 6 outstanding real time collaborations and applications in 1 appliance.

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