André Staltz

The Myth of Mass Collaboration

There is a general belief that the internet has supercharged collective intelligence and allowed humans to collaborate at scale, producing knowledge and creating masterpieces. On the surface, it seems true. To name a few archetypal examples: Wikipedia, open source projects such as Linux, hacktivism, and crowdsourced science experiments such as Rosetta@home. However, those successes did not happen as coordination, planning, and execution at a global scale. There is little collaboration taking place.

I used to believe there was mass collaboration on the internet. But I’ve realized that collaboration is extremely hard. It does not scale, especially not at internet scale. The examples we look up to are either not collaborative on the microscopic level, or are rare exceptions to the rule.

Goals and teamwork

To collaborate on something is to work together with others towards a common goal. How often do people have a common goal? RARELY. Put three co-founders together to build a company, and each of them has slightly different goals for what they want to achieve with it. Start a band, and each musician will want to play slightly (or vastly) different genres. This is assuming a tiny group of people. Put a million people together and how many goals will there be? We have difficulty even with communication at that scale, how could we even begin to create a consensus on one goal?

Apart from setting a common goal, collaboration requires good teamwork. I’m fascinated by teamwork. When it works, it’s beautiful, it’s productive, it’s art. I’m sure there are lots of teamwork coaches who specialize in consulting teams to improve their dynamic at companies, but I’m skeptic they have understood how to consistently create it anywhere. Teamwork either works, or it doesn’t. And even when it works, it could all fall apart when you change a tiny thing, like add a member or change the environment.

I have had great teamwork with fellow programmers, and bad teamwork. I’ve had great fellow musicians in a band, and difficult musical relationships. But the example I want to write this time is in gaming.

I play Apex Legends weekly, and it’s a visceral dynamic of a team of 3 players coordinating at a fast pace, handling many variables at once, as a good e-sport should be. Unlike other battle royale shooter games, teamwork in Apex is vital. You can be good at shooting, but if you’re bad at collaborating, you’re not going to survive in Apex. You can be bad at shooting, but if you’re good at collaborating, you and your team usually end up okay.

Typically, these teams are formed… randomly. With strangers online. Sometimes you can audio chat with them too (it’s usually toxic complaints). If you’re a believer in mass collaboration, you would bet that soon enough you would stumble upon strangers that form a good team with you. Nope, you don’t. For two reasons:

(1) After playing this for 3 years, I’ve learned that you have to learn about your team mates styles, and this can only happen if you consistently play with the same folks. So playing with random people makes that impossible. (2) If you do stumble upon a stranger who is a great player, they probably… don’t think the same about you. The large supply of players on the internet means that it’s better to move on and try new team players, than to keep playing with someone with worse skills than you. This means that everyone who plays Apex with strangers is just constantly on the outlook of great team mates, and those great players don’t want to commit to anyone who is worse than them. You’re left with 3 options: either you keep on playing with mediocre players, and rarely win; or you climb up to the top 100 players, become a pro and develop friendships with the pros; or you play only with friends who want to commit to teamwork with you.

The latter has been my case. I’ve been playing exclusively with friends, and the dynamic has been similar to that of a team of programmers or musicians. And it’s still not easy, we have a hard time agreeing on our goals, and in Apex the goals and next steps change all the time. Every 5 seconds there is a different goal, and yes we disagree on what those goals should be.

Mass collaboration does not happen in Apex, because average players don’t have incentive to learn teamwork with other average players, and because the pros are such a small group that we can’t even call that “mass” anymore.

Prolific creators

Similar effects happen elsewhere on the internet. It’s been more than 5 years now that I work full-time on open source projects. Some people seem to believe that there is a “community of open source coders” collaborating on building software. That is far from the truth.

Open source is built by exceptional individuals, and tweaked by everyone else. A small group of prolific programmers do the hard job of building 80% of the code, and a crowd of other programmers take care of the 20%, comprising usually highly specific bug fixes, documentation improvements, issue reporting and outreach.

This 80-20 rule is also known as the Pareto principle and it permeates the internet. Another similar principle is the 1%-9%-90% rule, which says that in internet communities, 1% of users are active creators, 9% are occasional contributors, and 90% are lurkers. The exact numbers vary from case to case, but it stands true that lurkers are approximately an order of magnitude more than occasional contributors, who in turn are an order of magnitude more than active creators.

I’ve written about this before and gave some examples from Wikipedia, YouTube, Mastodon, and Tor. It’s one of the defining aspects of the internet. A Wikipedia article is usually kickstarted by one person, not as a team collaboration. After publication, an army of occasional nitpickers (the contributors) enjoy finding and correcting small mistakes in the articles. The consumers of the article are a much larger group than the army of contributors.

As a general rule, the role of active creators or volunteers is to create content or to support the existence of the system. The role of contributors is corrective and supportive, either they are suggest small fixes or they are boosting the active creators with retweets and upvotes. And the lurkers are basically invisible, you don’t hear much from there.

Interaction

The role of interaction or collaboration is not central to this dynamic. Interaction between prolific creators is somewhat common, but not an indispensable aspect of content creation and propagation on the internet. Take out partnerships between creators, and there’s still a lot of creators producing content independently. But if you would take out all of these prolific creators and leave content creation on the hands of millions of occasional contributors and lurkers, then you end up with an internet that is vastly smaller in quantity AND worse in quality. That is how much the internet leans on prolific creators.

Don’t get me wrong, though, interaction is extremely common, in fact it’s the majority of activity on the internet. But it’s usually not collaboration, instead it’s conversation, requests, debates, disagreements, and trolling.

Could it be said that the open source community is collaborating towards the common goal of providing quality software for everyone to use? Hardly. Programmers publishing open source projects have vastly differing objectives. Some want to show off their hobby projects. Some want attention and marketing. Others don’t have a clear goal, they just put projects on GitHub. “Quality software for all” ends up being an incidental result. Could it be said that the ecosystem of open source tools depend on each other, build on the successes of each other, and thus are collaborating? Maybe. But they do so as consumers and producers of each other’s content, not as co-creators. It’s market dynamics of supply and demand, not teamwork dynamics.

Could it be said that reviewers on Trip Advisor and Amazon are collaborating towards curating the best hotels, restaurants, and products? Maybe. But they’re doing so by interacting with the rules of the system: they feed the algorithm with structured inputs, and it’s the algorithm that coordinates the curation of the best services and products. Unassisted by algorithms, there is little to no human-to-human coordination involved.

Could it be said that the army of nitpickers is truly collaborating towards the common goal of factually correcting content on the internet? Maybe, yeah. But there is very little interaction with others necessary for an individual to spot a mistake and correct it. The work of factually correcting articles can be parallelized at scale. That said, nitpicking at a global scale is not the utopic vision that we think of when we talk about “mass collaboration on the internet”.

Mass visibility

What the internet has actually provided is scale and mass visibility to creators. When you bring everyone online, it’s a lot of people, it’s billions. And even though prolific people are rare, say 1 in every 1000 persons, then if there are 5 billion people online, that means 5 million prolific creators, which is a LOT. So much that it sustains all the 5 billion with a lot of interesting content, every day.

Before the internet, prolific people didn’t have global reach, and were limited to their local communities. While the internet has allowed more collaboration to take place, the internet has not caused collaboration. It takes teamwork, shared goals, and relationships that work. Finding like-minded people for collaboration is one thing the internet helped us, but it takes So. Much. More. Than. That. We’re still pretty bad at agreeing on goals, learning how other people like to work, and adapting to that in a productive manner. And the internet is not going to change that. Not at small scale, and especially not at mass scale.

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Copyright (C) 2022 Andre 'Staltz' Medeiros, licensed under Creative Commons BY-NC 4.0, translations to other languages allowed. You can make sure that the author wrote this post by copy-pasting this signature into this Keybase page.