It’s hard to deny that mass collaboration is an important basis of communication nowadays, as argues Tapscott and Williams’ Wikinomics. Today’s businesses, research groups, news media, and other institutions alike rely on user input to extend their reach and profitability. Yet stepping back from analyzing the causation for this phenomenon and before blindly attempting to take advantage of it, there lies a fundamental question: what is the role of mass collaboration in society?
Understanding the role of mass collaboration is more than noting what benefits mass collaboration brings to it. The implications for business alone epitomize the great potential of involving the masses. Instead, we ask, why is this phenomenon so powerful and still growing, and what does this reflect about the values of users? What fundamental need does mass collaboration fulfill?
Firstly, mass collaboration is a means of generating social capital. In a world without collaboration, the internet would be simply a marketplace for ideas. The metadata used to browse these ideas would be personalized, thus it becomes difficult for users to find ideas from different perspectives. Ultimately, the procurement, analysis, and use of data would be limited to the personal scope, where no interaction or social capital would be generated; this is no more efficient than a personal library. The lack of social capital would make the internet a city whose residents refuse to leave home and build the city. Mass collaboration ensures that the internet population stays active and populated.
Mass collaboration also gives its subjects meaning and context. Companies compete incessantly to be relevant to its target audience, and involving them in collaborative projects is a means of creating relevance. Participation in a project connects the participant to all others and to the very project itself, creating a solid network of interested individuals. This increases the persistence of ideas (and advertisements) within groups and motivates them.
Mass collaboration is, lastly, a source of resources for its participants, as users are able to network with peer coaches, company representatives, and the like. This reflects the idea of a physical community where social capital exists and communicating with neighbors has meaning.
Ultimately, we haven’t escaped into a new realm by turning to our computers: we simply have collectively decided to make our online experience more similar to our physical ones but without the boundaries of physics and reality. Mass collaboration is but everyday communication on a scale comparable to that of Big Data. Instead of replacing the physical world, mass collaboration has the potential of being a virtual machine to simulate or experiment without as significant costs.