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I just finished Clive Thompson’s Smarter Than You Think: How Technology Is Changing Our Minds for the Better and really enjoyed it. So much of what we read about technology these days is doom and gloom that I wanted to spend time on something a little more positive. And turns out, there’s much to be positive about.

 

There are many stand-out moments in the book. One is the exploration of ambient awareness — how social media often makes our in-person connections stronger because we know so much about each other’s minutia that we can skip the small talk and jump straight to the important stuff when we see each other.

 

But the part I want to elaborate on a little bit here is what historical events tell us about the important criteria to meet for collective thinking to be successful. I think it's pretty relevant to what we do here at Jive. Clive points out four important aspects of successful online collaboration:

 

  1. Collective thinking requires a focused problem to solve. One disastrous story Clive tells is when the LA Times create a wiki page on the Iraq War and encouraged people to edit it. No focused outcome = a rapid decline into the bottom half of the internet. But give people a common problem to solve — like “Which tent hospitals in Cairo need help, and what do they need?”, and people start to shine together.
  2. Collective problem solving requires a mix of contributors. Specifically, it needs to have really big central contributors, and then a lot of people making small contributions to push the solution forward. As Clive puts it, “these hard-core and lightweight contributors form a symbiotic whole,” coming up with the best solution in the fastest possible way.
  3. Collective thinking requires a culture of “good faith collaboration”. Contributors need to struggle constantly to remain polite to each other. And it is a struggle, but a necessary one. As Anil Dash once said, if your website’s full of assholes, it’s your fault.
  4. To be really smart an online group can’t have too much contact with each other. This sounds counterintuitive, but the evidence supporting the point is pretty overwhelming. Clive goes over a few examples that shows that “traditional brainstorming simply doesn’t work as well as thinking alone, then pooling results.” This also explains why Design Studio is such an effective way to solve design problems. So one of the secrets of online collaboration is that it “inherently fits the model of people working together intimately but remotely,” as Clive puts it.

 

I think it would be great for us to think through these principles as we design our collaboration environments, and as we teach people how to use them. What have you seen works or doesn't work in your collaborative communities?