We live in an age characterized as narcissistic and self-obsessed. But, in reality, collaboration — not self-reliance — has become our primary mode of both work and play. Instead of turning to centralized “authorities” for news, politics, or daily fashion cues, we look to friends on social media. We’re reaching across cultural and geographical boundaries in unprecedented ways — finding new ways to grow in business, healthcare, technology, and the arts.
“The impulse towards collaboration has always been there,” says Ioana Literat, Assistant Professor at Columbia University’s Communication, Media, and Learning Technologies Design Program.
“To create means much more than an isolated mind producing ideas,” emphasizes Literat. “It refers to acting in the world in relation to others with the symbolic and material means of culture.”
For Sarah Daly, joining an online community of artists was an appealing escape from the drudgery of her day job. In 2009, Daly — a musician and screenwriter who goes by the name Metaphorest — signed up for hitRECord, an open-collaborative production company founded by actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt. She began uploading songs and writing that had been gathering dust on a hard drive.
“Before long,” she says, “I was contributing and collaborating regularly, and being more creatively active then I’d been probably since childhood. It was wonderfully exciting, and still is.”
Now a “Resident Curator” at hitRECord, Daly has seen her work performed by the likes of Sia, Anne Hathaway, and Channing Tatum — not to mention Gordon-Levitt himself. And while not everyone’s contributions gain so much traction, hitRECord’s open platform gives a piece of work the chance to speak louder than its author’s resume.
Indeed, anyone can join the hitRECord community and upload snippets of text, audio, video, or illustration, which are all called “records.” Then, anyone else can remix those records by, say, adding an illustration to the text of a short story, or creating an animation to accompany a song. Everything uploaded to the site is collectively owned, and users interact with one another not via consensus, but by individual interest in a particular record.
“I would say there is less communication in this kind of digital collaboration,” admits Sarah Daly. “But in my mind, that often works better, as you remove a lot of the unnecessary and distracting ego and disagreement.”
In other words, HitRECord streamlines the collaborative process.
“If you think something could be better,” Daly says, “you remix it rather than making negative comments about it. You can still learn and improve, as I absolutely have, just by creating more, and watching your work evolve, rather than by filtering through a mass of negative comments for something useful.”
A fully formed “record” that began its life as a song by Metaphorest.
Whether in art or business, it seems organizations that engage individuals as co-creators are most effective in establishing vital digital platforms.
In their study, “Exploration of Digital Collaboration,” Gensler Research & Insight examined how people collaborate digitally in everyday work environments through apps, messaging, document sharing, etc. They found that tools such as shared digital to-do lists increased efficiency by allowing:
Improved transparency and access
The ability to explore for inspiration
Indeed, organizations the world over have noted the many benefits of the digital “hive mind.” And the collaborative processes they’ve come up with are as diverse as the organizations themselves.
Twine Health is a collaborative digital platform that helps users steer their own ship in the notoriously decentralized medical field, where patients are often left frustrated, or even in danger. (For example, an if an out-of-state ER doctor doesn’t have access to their patient’s full medical history.) Twine functions as a sort of virtual healthcare village. Patients set goals with physicians, and share them with an inner-circle of concerned individuals. Family members, therapists, doctors, and life coaches can all interact and check on patient progress and vital stats via an app — increasing accountability and centralizing scattered resources.
“As the intensity of participation increases,” writes Ioana Literat, “So does the creative agency of the contributors.” In other words, successful digital collaboration is not about simply having access to the technology, but the ways in which we are invited to make it our own.
Still, digital collaboration is a not exactly a democratizing panacea, and we should be wary of viewing digital space as protected from the social and political dynamics of everyday life. Even open-sourced, wiki models — which, like hitRECord, are open to anyone with Internet access — rely on editors to determine the quality and relevance of an entry. Based on a 2015 report, “It’s a Man’s Wikipedia?” by authors Claudia Wagner and David Garcia, Wikipedia’s community of self-selected editors are primarily white and male, which Wagner and Garcia argue may create systemic bias in articles.
“Digital creative participation is not as open, inclusive and egalitarian as we would like to think,” says Ioana Literat. “Specifically, the design of the collaborative project […] shapes how deeply people can be involved on a creative level and determines their degree of creative agency.”
Ultimately, it’s about how we learn to make the technology work for us. As virtual space helps solve problems presented by boundaries such as time and geography, the success of digital collaboration hinges on the agency and awareness of its participants IRL.