Online collaboration doesn’t happen by magic

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.