A Cookie for Your Efforts: Understanding Rewards in Mass Collaboration

When your hot date stares deep into your eyes lovingly and whispers to you the world’s knowledge or gossip, standing gracefully in slick white sleeves, it probably takes a boss or manager to pry you away from your overheated phone and back to work. Money speaks. Yet what speaks on the web itself, where many massively collaborative projects don’t hand out cash?

In a government-regulated case such as the Bermuda Agreement, authority lies in mandate and precedence. The Bermuda Agreement mandates the immediate sharing of (otherwise proprietary or self-advancing) genetic research findings with the consequence of grant money and career security / advancement (or more money). As more researchers comply to preserve their jobs, others follow convention. The government has essentially set up a safety net for those and only those who comply with its mass collaboration project. It is apparent that mass collaboration projects are heavily influenced by enforced consequences and monetary support.

Cookies. Accessible at http://dawnchapel.com/comics/2010-07-09-firefox.jpg

In less centralized cases, like those analyzed by Brown and Ashman,  success correlates with the degree of participation of members. In both grassroots organization- and nongovernmental organization-led collaborations, social capital decides the sustainability of leadership in the cause. In the cases studied, a community need (or more broadly a relevant application for a desired solution) drives a dedicated and interested group of collaborators.

The psychological rewards for mass collaboration, however, cannot be shunned. Mass collaboration projects that are less pragmatically relevant in self preservation and survival such as those of artistic expression often see less obvious incentives for participation. For many artists, their “work” is not synonymous with the arduousness others attribute to what they observe artists doing for free. The emotional satisfaction of contribution and expression is powerful. Moreover, the niche communities that are the heart of collaboration efforts often provide an environment where many can excel in (especially compared to the viciously competitive and judgmental worlds of academia and society). Such psychological rewards give users a sense of belonging, thus giving the collaboration a sustainable source of social capital.

Ultimately, the solutions to driving a collaborative project all involve tradeoffs. Centrally managed collaboration efforts (such as governmental or organization-led ones) require more practical incentives and sometimes consequences (and the means to provide or enforce them) to control and maintain social capital. Low-pivoted collaboration efforts have more sustainable management systems, but those lack the authority within the groups to give them a strong sense of direction; this role is granted to the users as psychological incentive to participate and steer the groups. The goal determines the best medium, for effective infrastructure is all it takes to make an online community a collaborative and productive one.


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