Sunday, 21st September 2014

Online collaboration doesn’t happen by magic

Posted on 27. Oct, 2010 by in Open culture

This article is based on ‘Online collaboration doesn’t happen by magic’, on the Appropedia blog, July 30th, 2009. It was co-written using EtherPad by Chris Watkins, Mark Dilley, Michael Maranda, Tim Rayner.


Just as you can’t expect to get people to a meeting or event just by putting up a flier, setting up successful collaborative communities online takes work. Take the example of Christine Gorman, a blogger on global health issues. Gorman was researching patent issues surrounding “Plumpy’nut,” an easy-to-make peanut-based food used to treat malnutrition. She decided to try a collaborative approach. She started posting on the Plumpy’Nut patent controversy on her blog, in the hope that others might come forth and offer their views.

Gorman soon discovered that getting concrete contributions can be a challenge. Months after her initial post went online, Gorman was still waiting for quality contributors to emerge. As she lamented in an article in the Global Health Report, it was not the ‘instantaneous burst of community magic’ she had hoped for. ‘Online collaboration may be the wave of the future’, she mused, ‘but it’s not so easy to convince people to do it’.

Online collaboration doesn’t happen by magic. As we’ve discovered in the initiatives associated with Movement Camp and elsewhere, there are some important social and technological prerequisites to creating successful collaborative communities online.

The first step towards successful online collaboration is the invitation. It is particularly important to get the tone of the invitation right – so think of the kinds of people you’d like to collaborate with, and consider how your invitation might be best pitched to appeal to them.

The second step towards successful online collaboration is to decide what tools you want to use for your project. This decision is ideally made at the same time as you craft your invitation. As noted above, the key to a successful invitation is that it appeals to the people you want to get on board. So choose the tools to suit your community. Inviting social media fanatics to collaborate on a wiki project, or fans of real time chat to contribute to a blog, is just making things hard for yourself. If you are not sure what tools are best suited to your project, try inviting your community to experiment with different collaboration tools. The internet is full of free tools for collaboration – use them. In the course of evolving the Coalition project, we have exploited and explored numerous online tools, including Facebook, Twitter,, Skype, YouTube, BaseCamp, WordPress, Wagn, Wiggio, WiserEarth, EtherPad,, Internet Relay Chat, Wikis and BetterMeans. It is important to ensure that your group is able to establish the kinds of social processes that assist in open collaboration, rather than allowing social exchanges to be determined by a limited set of tools.

The third step towards successful online collaboration is to demonstrate stewardship. Stewardship is an important prerequisite for successful collaboration. To grow a collaborative ecosystem, it is necessary to create a space of sharing and engagement. Transparency, flexibility, and generousity are all important here. It is also important that someone (or perhaps a rotating group of people) assume the task of stewardship, watching over the evolving discussion and steering it by providing perspectives on where the discussion is at, in the sense of what has been achieved, and what needs to be achieved, to complete the project. Stewardship creates the opportunity for people to bring new perspectives and ideas to the group without fracturing and splitting the project. Social cohesion and innovation need not be enemies of one another. Under the syncretistic gaze of a good steward, it is possible for a project to evolve in various different directions without coming apart at the seams.

The fourth step is patience. Being the steward of an successful open community requires more than just creating a space. It takes the patience and persistence to grow that space. There is a rule of thumb that it takes five committed people to ensure a successful wiki. Sometimes it takes time to assemble the critical mass of contributions that will enable your collaborative project to snowball.

This is what Christine Gorman found in her efforts to untangle the patent issues surrounding Plumpy’Nut.

“[A] kind of long-amplitude wave eventually did materialize. My old Plumpy’Nut posts kept getting traffic. Maybe I had brought a fast-food mentality to a slow-cooking world.

And indeed, a year after the blog went up (and many months after I stopped posting anything new), I received an e-mail from Martin Enserink at Science, who was working on a story about Plumpy’Nut and wanted to include a sidebar on the patent controversy”.

(via Global Health Report: What Plumpy’Nut Taught Me).

In sum, successful online collaboration requires a mix of organizing skills that together help nurture a thriving community. These skills include solicitude, stewardship, experimentation, patience, cheerleading, inclusion, and listening.

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10 Responses to “Online collaboration doesn’t happen by magic”

  1. paul t. horan 27 October 2010 at 2:34 am #

    THANKS!!! I needed this …

    • Tim Rayner 27 October 2010 at 3:50 am #

      Thank you Paul for your dedication and spirit!

  2. Chris Watkins 27 October 2010 at 3:52 am #

    A thought on “Inviting social media fanatics to collaborate on a wiki project… is just making things hard for yourself.”

    The challenge comes when the intention of the collaboration requires collaborative editing, rather than sequences of posts. E.g. creating a Green Knowledge Trust can’t be done just through Twitter (& Identica), FB, blogs and other sequential platforms. At some point we have to edit what someone else has written.

    I have some ideas – perhaps this can be our next collaborative blog post?

    • Mark Roest 29 October 2010 at 6:28 am #

      Hello Chris and Tim,
      CMap (ConceptMap) is mind-mapping software that supports collaboration and web-publishing, but (I think) you can start a map offline. In other words, true flexibility for generating a map, getting it to the point that it actually reflects what you think, and then inviting your network to evolve it.

      One thing Ii see in this group is the capacity to generate high-quality ideas that others can build on, that reflect real systems and opportunities — ideas of true vision. I think that makes a large difference in the quality of a collaboration effort, both practically and psychologically.



      • Tim Rayner 29 October 2010 at 7:44 am #

        Mark – let’s try it. We need to put together a team of people to work on the Open Innovation Africa proposal – perhaps we could use this then?

  3. Tim Rayner 27 October 2010 at 4:26 am #

    Sounds great Chris. Throw some ideas at me, when you are ready. Let me be your wall.

  4. MarkDilley 27 October 2010 at 5:48 am #

    Chris, that particular thought was the one that had the most energy for me. I would be interested in tackling that with you as well.

  5. paul t. horan 28 October 2010 at 4:29 am #

    Chris and Tim and everyone who just might be so inclined,

    Let’s kindly consider crafting, collaboratively of course, some sort of openly innovative calls for participation.

    For instance, imagine about one year now, sometime on November eleventh (aka 11.11.11 : ) your phone rings. So now, shift from merely imagining to actual fantasizing = answer your phone = someone’s calling you from 7 generations in the future to say “THANKS!!!” for the vigilant, brilliant and especially hearty efforts you’ve begun making via cotw work camp parties and comparable labors of love.

    Such an image, I trust, might just prove FUN and useful for any of us inspired to begin bringing more of our gifts (including our gift giving capacities : ) to one another as we learn to celebrate collaborating. Let’s explore opening the floodgates of human compassion and insight more radically in preparation for our upcoming powwow on 11.14.10!

    In this crazy world,
    collaboration’s magic.
    That’s no accident!

  6. Tim Rayner 29 October 2010 at 7:44 am #

    Paul – that’s a strange and brilliant idea! I wonder what we might achieve if we coordinated the phone campaign with COTW2? Might even be a way of working the idea into the script.

    • paul t. horan 3 November 2010 at 5:39 am #


      Kindly consider pardoning my delayed response. I just read your response (29 October 2010) after neglecting to revisit this post for like the past 5 days. Been following my nose through various exchanges with multiple folks elsewhere in this world=wide=web=0=sphere of ours. That’s my excuse and I’m stickin’ to it.

      Anyhow, thanks for the “strange and brilliant” acknowledgment! Please feel free to blend this idea into the COTW2 script via whatever ways make sense and feel good for you & your team mates, since I’d love for it to be appreciated and implemented as a gift and I trust you’ll let me know if/when/how I might just be able to help with your efforts.

      Ciao for now,