So What’s All This Cooperation About?

There’s kind of an in-joke that’s popped up within the Berkman Center within the past couple of months among the group of research assistants that work on the online case studies research group. There’s so many simultaneous moving parts and research efforts going on within the cluster of projects that comprise The Cooperation Project and its allies that we’ve affectionately just started calling it simply, “Cooperationland.” In point of fact, it’s been remarked by a few of the people on the project that the pieces of the project get so numerous that sometimes even we have trouble articulating exactly in nice, simple terms what we do for a living at fancy cocktail parties, family gatherings, and that sort of thing. Embarrassing.

Though, ultimately, the question remains simple: what creates cooperation online? What community rules and structural design mechanisms can be put into place to encourage collaboration?

That’s a big one. So, in what hopes to be the first of a series of weekly posts, we’re hoping that we can provide some kind of clear context and simple, non-technical update to the sorts of things that are happening on the project. We’re hoping it becomes a source of information not only for people interested in tracking our progress, but getting involved as well.

One of the big problems we’re trying to address is this: even after years of discussion about communities online, Web 2.0, and the value of the Internet in generating cooperation — our actual knowledge of the space is still pretty shallow. Very shallow, in fact. Though it remains a terrifically impressive project, it’s almost a bit of a cliche to mention Wikipedia as an example at this point. And, the set of examples used by researchers in the field beyond that remain mostly small: Threadless, Facebook, Couchsurfing, Linux and… Indeed, such a small set holds the disturbing possibility that most of our most optimistic predictions of the web are based on only a limited set of a few fluke cases. Which, of course, would imply that there’s some real problems with the way we think about the internet.

That is to say that our problem is not only one of understanding what makes cooperation in communities and projects online tick, but one of even knowing what’s out there in the first place.

Imagine being marooned on a desert island and being asked to understand the animals and plants on the island with no foreknowledge of biology or anything. How do you start? The only way you can: wandering around and making observations. Then, given enough observations, the hope is that patterns will start to emerge, and that you’ll be able to classify sets of objects by their features (“the scaled animals are lizards”). This strategy, the creation of a descriptive taxonomy, is a big part of the initial phase of our research.

This requires, of course, two things: a) a set of specimens and b) a set of instruments that let you examine them in a rigorous, systematic way. We’ve been working on building both over the past few months and it’s currently the big lions share of our work during January. More on how this has been taking place next week.

Explore posts in the same categories: project update, Weekly Updates

7 Comments on “So What’s All This Cooperation About?”

  1. Aaron Says:

    First! (oh yeah.)

  2. Mitchel Ahern Says:

    Strange – I’m trying to think of what a *non-cooperative* internet project would look like?

  3. S.A.Kasanova Says:

    Is your definition of cooperation strictly limited to ‘online communities and projects?’I find that much of the cooperation I observe taking place online exists in a more abstract sense – such as the creation and articulation of unified arguments and rebuttals in the commentary on news pages and blogs. Sounds like a very interesting subject to study.


    Sean A. Kasanova

  4. cooperation Says:

    Great questions and insights so far–do keep them coming!

    Currently in Cooperationland we ask a lot of questions. We’ll talk more about our method for tackling the ones mentioned above in future posts, but for now know that a) we’re still working towards a robust definition of cooperation and b) we still need to develop an exclusionary criteria for what constitutes a cooperative site.

    Please share your thoughts on these questions, or hit us with links to cases you find remarkable (we’ve taken to calling our cooperative websites “cases”). Thanks!

  5. Pablo del Real Says:

    A suggestion for a specimen:

    While this site makes it easier to find out who one’s U.S. Representative is and to send that person email messages, it is not otherwise very “cooperative”. For example, Representatives could be using the site to poll their constituents and publish the results, thereby making the will of the people visible on House bills.

    To date, however, they have chosen not to do that. As a result, this may be an example of a non-cooperative site.

  6. Tim Says:

    Definitely very interesting — we’ve actually been considering building a series of case studies around just the organizational levers for building cooperative systems in government/interactions with constituency. It’s clear that‘s limited in interesting ways, and hoping that some of the stuff in will continue to get experimented with.

  7. The Berkman Center Cooperation Project » Blog Archive » (Trying To) Gain A Picture of Cooperation On The Web Says:

    […] you might remember from our opening post, the current aim of the Cooperation project is simple to state: What creates cooperation online? […]