[iDC] The Participatory Challenge

Trebor Scholz trebor at thing.net
Tue Jul 4 17:09:42 EDT 2006

Dear all,

While push media, like this mailing list, may not be well suited for
long texts, this essay directly relates to issues of the networked
public sphere, which I hope we¹ll get to discuss further over the next
few weeks.


[from: Krysa, J., ed. (2006) DATA Browser 03. Curating Immateriality.
The work of the curator in the age of network systems. Autonomedia: New
York.]  Trebor Scholz 2006 Attribution-ShareAlike 2.5

Trebor Scholz

This essay is about participation in online collaborations and the
potentials of extreme sharing networks in the unregulated commons.
Current debates focus too much on what social tools can do and not
enough on the people who use them. Motivations of the multitudes who add
content to online environments matter a great deal. What follows here
are hands-on guidelines and an outline of preconditions for online
participation. Terms like: involvement, turn taking, network, feedback,
or distributed creativity1 are frequently applied to characterise this
kind of social and cultural interaction. Today, people do not merely
browse the web. Instead they give away information, expertise, and
advice without monetary compensation. They submit texts, code, music,
images, and video files in settings that allow for such contributions.
They also re-mix each other¹s content. Thousands voluntarily participate
in open encyclopedias, social bookmarking sites, friend-of-a-friend
networks, media art projects and blogs or wikis. This exemplifies the
growing interest in technologies of cooperation. Swarms of
users/producers form extreme sharing networks, supporting their goal to
lead fullfilled and engaged lives. This broad cultural context of
increased content provision facilitated by the World Wide Web is the
precondition for the emerging paradigm of the artist as cultural context
provider, who is not chiefly concerned with contributing content to her
own projects. Instead, she establishes configurations into which she
invites others. She blurs the lines between the artist, theorist, and
curator. However, it is surprising how little emphasis has been placed
on the subtle motivations for taking part in participatory projects.

The blueprints for participation in social networks and their
multi-faceted hierarchies of gift exchanges have not been drawn out

Brian Holmes and Maurizio Lazzarato are highly skeptical about the
liberating potential of digital social communication. They argue that
networked Œlean production¹ turns full-time employees into
Œpart-of-the-solution-nodes¹ without health insurance, union protection
or job security. For Lazzarato network technologies are even more
totalitarian than Henry Ford¹s assembly line. Holmes argues that
distributed, casualised labour is based on the ruthless pleasure of the
exploiter using the soft coercion of the laptop as portable networked
instrument of control. Paolo Virno places these questions of labour,
idleness and leisure at the center of the discussion about all of
contemporary production.2 In addition, Tiziana Terranova (2004) points
out that the openess of virtual space reinforces narrow group
identities. It creates archipelagos of disconnected islands. This
extreme form of social filtering and Œcyberbalkanisation¹ fosters
micro-territories of interest-based communities. The current interest in
collaboration is surprising. Collaboration is not for everyone.
Enthusiasm for participation is not the default. Robert Putnam (2000)
outlines that civic participation and social connectedness are on the
decline in the United States. Putnam collected evidence showing, for
instance, that fewer people go to public meetings. His argument is, that
Americans are more likely to find themselves bowling alone than getting
involved in various groups. However, in opposition to Putnam¹s
observations, self-help groups and special interest communities thrive.
We connect to others who share our views. But the world outside our
narrow agreeable circles is glared at with disinterest. Critics also
propose that social and resource sharing tools cannot replace heated
in-flesh debates and that information suffocation takes away from time
for thinking and reflection. However, we are not agents of technology
without self-determination. We can make informed, human, and reflected
use of these tools. While much of the debate about networks caters to
corporate management concerns, this text is not written to promote
business. Instead it acknowledges the achievements in creating
sustainable extreme sharing networks that do not represent utilitarian
corporate interests. What follows is not an argument for or against
collaboration or networking. The centre of interest here is the issue of
participation in online environments.

Brief Chronology and Definitions of Collaboration

In 1945 computing pioneer Vannevar Bush outlined the idea of hyperlinked
pages. This became the core idea of the World Wide Web. The first person
to elaborate on this concept was Ted Nelson who in 1960 founded the
hypertext project Xanadu. In 1980 Tim Berners-Lee worked as independent
researcher at CERN (l¹Organisation Européenne pour la Recherche
Nucléaire). There he proposed a project based on the concept of
hypertext that would facilitate the sharing and updating of information
among researchers. In 1989 this led him to conceptualise the World Wide
Web by linking the idea of hypertext with the TCP and DNS ideas.3 Since
then, the unifying interface of the WWW made it considerably easier for
people to form groups on the Internet. Today, people connect in order to
discuss health issues, organise politically, find jobs or solutions to
technical problems. They join self-help groups or locate others who
share their specific set of interests. People from all walks of life
form knowledge collectives to hunt, gather, and freely share material
that is of specific interest to them. Knowledge collectives of
unrestricted exchange and dissemination include individual aficionados,
governmental and non-governmental organisations, researchers and
students. The benefits of early online groups such as the WELL4 in the
1980s were outlined by Howard Rheingold in his book Virtual Communities
(2000 [1993]). More recently, a growing number of users/producers makes
use of cooperation enhancing tools like blogs and wikis. At the same
time friends networks like LinkedIn and MySpace are attached to utopian
technoromanticism. What is portrayed as open and free is often rather
closed and expensive. Recent studies of the Pew American and Internet
Life Project show that 51 million of US American have created content
online and so the 57% of (American) teens who use the Internet could be
considered content creators. (Lenhart & Madden 2005) The average
European Internet user now spends 10 hours and 15 minutes a week online.
Personal media like blogs allow for life sharing. The social bookmarking
tool del.icio.us allows users/producers to save their URL bookmarks
online and connect to those who assigned their saved entries with the
same self-defined keywords, also called folksonomies. According to
Joshua Schachter5 there were 400,000 posts on del.icio.us in May 2004.
Skype, a program that allows users to make free calls over the Internet
has now 41 million users. These socially cooperative tools, including
RSS, make inter-communal connections easier.

Non-collaboration is the exception today. From activism to media art,
science and academia, it is hard to discern areas in which people do not
work together. However, neither collaboration nor cooperation are new
phenomena; nor are they exclusively specific to online domain. In
countries with sufficient net access and a supportive cultural context,
individuals organise to challenge intellectual property online. They
publish openly. Many even produce collaborative artworks. The high times
of the individual, solitary artist genius are over. Today, cultural
context providers realise that artistic production entails more than
making informed aesthetic choices. They are aware of the long history of
participation in art (i.e. Marcel Duchamp, Robert Adrian, John Cage and
many others). Rheingold goes so far as to suggests that: Œa new literacy
of cooperation - a skill set for how to leverage the power of
socio-technical groupforming networks and catalyse action - will become
an important competency in the next decades.¹ (2005) However,
collaboration and cooperation are not limited to the WWW. Collaboration
is an intensive, risky and complex process that brings people together
around a common goal. In collaboration - resources, reputation and
rewards are shared by all participants. Cooperation is a less precarious
endeavor based on more casual interpersonal activities. In cooperation
participants keep their resources separate. They take home the fruits of
a given project individually. Success is not hindered by divergent
goals. Consultation refers to advice from an expert and offers the least
involved model of working together. The German political theorist
Christoph Spehr (2003) introduced the notion of free cooperation.
Instead of portraying the rules of cooperation (i.e. property relations)
as an unshakable given that Œnaturally¹ transcend history, Spehr
stresses the need to negotiate and re-negotiate these rules. In its
questioning of authority, the concept of free cooperation is related to
the civil rights movement in the United States. For example,
experimentation with new modes of cultural production are in many cases
linked to the emergence of alternative institutional models. Today,
steep increases in tuition fees at universities in North America and
Europe, and the general corporatisation of academia has led to many
self-organised community initiatives such as Universite Tangente. More
collaborative, alternative models of living and working challenge the
exhausting principle of competition for domination and survival. The 11
million citizens of the world who protested simultaneously showing their
defiance of the war in Iraq on February 15, 2003 are a suitable example.
The fact that organisers were able to mobilise such a large number of
people was deemed successful, despite the fact that it did not stop the

The Social Protocols of Collaboration

However, the social protocols of (online) collaboration are not
sufficiently investigated. What makes collaboration work? Certainly
there is no Œhappy pill¹ for something as complex and quotidian as
collaboration. The following general, practical guidelines for
collaboration resurface throughout much of the literature in the field
of collaboration study:

-Develop trust and mutual respect

-Outline clear and attainable short and long-term goals

-Define needs/self-interest well

-Give reasons behind your thinking

-Combine online collaboration with face-to-face meetings to speed up the

-Be concise, patient, and persistent

-Get everybody involved in the process

-Develop a clear process including self-reflexive loops

-Stick to initially made commitments

-Take a dose of humility

-Develop good listening skills 

-Pay attention to scale in collaborative groups 
(production groups: 4-5 participants)

-Put a stop to domineering interruptions and put-downs

-Communicate frequently, clearly and openly

-Acknowledge upcoming problems

-Use facilitators for larger groups

-Develop a long-term view

-Learn when to let go

For facilitators of online participatory projects the ground rules
become more specific:

>Start with a core group of users/producers
(start working with a core group of 10-15 when it comes to the point
where you need to solicit participation)

>Start with relevant, high quality material
(the quality of initial contributions sets the tone and an expectation      
for posts to come; it creates an identity of the online space)

>Keep contributors informed
(it is not unusual for contributors to drift away after a few initial
interactions with the collaborative system; thus a useful response is to
give contributors an update on what is going on)

>Give individuals credit 
(verbal acknowledgment, the pleasure of making a submission, and having
your ideas appreciated contribute to the success of online

>Emphasise the benefits 
(it is natural for contributors to resist getting involved; hence
facilitators of a social tool need to talk about the advantages of using
it in workshops and face-to-face meetings)  

>Allow for conflict
(controversial debates are important - disagreement fosters engaged,
substantive conversations)

 >Let the users/producers rule 
(trust your contributors to take your system and adapt it to their

The Utopias and Realities of the Commons. The Hierarchies of the
Internet Gift Economy

For people in countries with affordable high speed net access and the
necessary hardware, the Internet offers a common area for sharing and
the creation of very large resource pools. The idea of Œthe commons¹
goes back to the village commons. Here, in Old New England, all could
graze their cattle or hold public festivities on this piece of land. The
term Œunregulated networked commons¹ refers to the remaining public
areas online in which people can store resources such as pieces of code,
music mp3 files, movies, artworks, or texts (e.g. Archive. org). Beyond
storage the networked commons is used by knowledge collectives and group
forming networks, mobile computing, info-driven crowds, and peer
production networks. In the unregulated commons everyone can draw on the
resources of all others. Content can be created, distributed and mixed.
There are many examples in which large groups of distributed resource
contributors participate in a central knowledge pool. But participation
and Œopen access¹  in the networked commons is hindered by the fact that
most open knowledge repositories exist predominantly in English. Tools
like GoogleTranslate or BableFish still result in auto-poetic texts
rather than accurate translations.

The openness and cornucopia of the commons is often accompanied by
triumphant narratives of digital utopians. Today¹s utopian belief in the
liberatory power of access and the renewed rejection of competitive and
hierarchical structures had predecessors in concepts of Œguerilla
television¹ and Œpublic access¹ before and during the civil rights
movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s in the United States
(Mueller, Kuerbis & Pagé 2004). For the digital utopian, Richard Coyne
argues, the Internet is the technological equivalent of the gift of
salvation or redemption, and the gift is not yet with us but it is to
come. In various ways Marcel Mauss, Georges Bataille, and Jean
Baudrillard have all argued that societies are grouped around the notion
of excess (and acts of generous gift giving) rather than resource
scarcity (Coyne 2005: 99-150). But the ideology behind social software
technologies is not purely based on the idea of gift-giving. In the gift
economy of the Internet, gift-giving does not relate to loss or the
reduction of excess. Sharing a digital file only creates a copy while
the giver retains the Œoriginal¹. What was ours is still ours after we
gifted it. Richard Barbrook (1999) refers to online gift-giving as
cybercommunism. It is not without amusement that he stresses that such
acts are deeply at odds with the military objectives for the invention
of the Internet. Brewster Kahle, the founder of Archive.org, defines his
goal as provision of  Œuniversal access to all of human knowledge¹.7
Massachusetts Institute for Technology Open Courseware (MIT OCW) claims:
ŒWe will inspire other institutions to openly share their course
materials, creating a worldwide web of knowledge that will benefit
humanity¹.8 MIT reinforces its leadership position and status based on
its openness to publish all its syllabi online. The act of gift giving
does not cost MIT anything except the operational costs of the site.
Openness functions as Public Relations. MIT¹s gift leads to a defeat for
other educational communities that cannot reciprocate this generosity. A
small college would not benefit from such openness. Reflecting on this
Coyne puts it this way: ŒIf I can withstand all this giving, then I am
indeed stronger than you¹ (2005: 99-150). Georges Bataille associates
the gift with capitalist domination. He associates Marcel Mauss¹
reference to the potlatch with emerging class struggle and oppression.
Jean Baudrillard talks about exchange of signs rather than goods (i.e.
knowledge) in the gift economy (Coyne 2005: 126). The perceived and
widely praised generosity of initiatives such as MIT OCW has to be
re-examined and differentiated in light of these considerations.

The quantity of contributions to free and uncommercialised content
environments by multitudes of users/producers cannot be matched by the
AOLs, Hotmails or Yahoos. People just love all that free content. It is
very hard to police or stop these acts of sharing. There is almost no
limit to what is shared. Crucially, the material that is made available
is not only Œopen access¹ and Œfree¹ but also licensed under a Creative
Commons or GNU Public License. By contrast to materials stowed away in
online gated communities, this allows the material to be creatively
re-purposed, edited, and shared. The community music site CCMixter is an
example. It allows remixes of music licensed under Creative Commons. We
can: Œlisten to, sample, mash-up, or interact with music in whatever way
we want.'9

Out-Collaborate This!

Collective working modes often result in cost-free and unrestricted
repositories of material such as SourceForge¹s Freshmeat project, which
maintains the Web¹s largest index of software. On its website it says:
ŒThousands of applications, which are preferably released under an open
source license, are meticulously catalogued in the Freshmeat
database.¹10 There is an additive quality of skills and knowledge within
projects of geographically dispersed online Œgift communities¹. This is
hard to match by any commercial enterprise. They are Œout-collaborated¹.
The accessibility of resources creates expectations that have political
implications (e.g. property/copyright). Who would choose to pay for
information that is available for free elsewhere? How much material
needs to become freely accessible and publicly owned before corporations
will open their treasure troves for free sharing? Large knowledge
archives can challenge the content hegemony of institutional
repositories (i.e. museums) and the selected histories that they offer.
It will have to be seen if recent art history, for example, will be
re-evaluated based an open user/producer-contributed archive of cultural
documentation. Artist-contributed archives of cultural data can inspire
younger generations by exposing them to artwork that they would not find
behind the gates of the museum or gallery. Knowledge, here, is not
delivered by authorities but assembled by the user/producer swarm. It
remains to be seen, however, how heavily cultural archives are in fact
accessed. The edited but artist-driven Rhizome ArtBase collects and
Œexhibits¹ media artworks. The rich Media Art Net database is comprised
of documentation of artworks and related information.11 Artists rarely
have secure backups of their server-side work, which makes centralised
repositories significant.

Researchers and self-learners in new media find it hard to keep up with
the changes in this rapidly evolving field. They find it challenging to
design curricula in an area that has little precedence. New media
textbooks are expensive, often not up-to-date and mostly in English.
Intellectual property rights of most materials reinforce the
commercialisation of knowledge and deny creative re-use. Much of the
intellectual labour produced in universities is locked away in expensive
books or journals published by academic presses. Collaborative knowledge
pools include Connexions, CiteULike, MIT Open Course Ware, H2O and Share
Widely.12 These tools challenge the romantic ideal of the individual
thinker who keeps her findings close to her chest. To research
collaboratively saves time and resources and improves teaching. It also
aims to avoid the reinvention of the wheel. Expectations are quantified
by ever-larger amounts of knowledge being moved into the commons out of
fortified enclosures  (i.e. password protected journals or syllabi).

Artists as Cultural Context Providers

 ŒWe (Jackie and Natalie) are the initiators and coordinators rather
than the absolute authors. User participation and contributions make up
the fundamental core of the work that needs to be done.¹13

 ŒIs drawing a distinction between the artist on the one hand, and those
mediating art on the other hand still justified in this context, or
should everyone be viewed as a producer of culture under rather similar,
often precious circumstances?¹ (Ramirez 2004: 68)

The following section suggests the model of the cultural context
provider.14  Currently, there is much advocacy for cultural practices
that demand a particular involvement on the part of the audience,
creating situations in which art projects are co-produced. People
interact with networked computer systems and artifacts evolve out of
experimental relationships between several people. The media art curator
is not exclusively the Œmiddle person¹ between artists and museums or
galleries anymore. Curators do not merely organise exhibitions and edit,
filter and arrange museum collections. Now, her practice includes
facilitating events, screenings, temporary discursive situations,
writing/publishing, symposia, conferences, talks, research, the creation
of open archives, and mailing lists. Curators become meta-artists. They
set up contexts for artists who provide contexts. The model of the
curated website has become a useful recognition mechanism. In media art
many cultural context providers function in various registers including
that of the curator. However, the once clear line between curator,
artist and theorist is now blurred. Jon Ippolito writes:
ŒWhile art professors typically divide clearly into critical (Art
History) and creative (Studio Art) faculties, new media¹s brief history
often requires its practitioners to develop a critical context for their
own creative work. This is why so many pre-eminent new media artists are
also critics or curators¹.15

The model of the well-informed expert advances to that of the cultural
editor who channels the perspectives of other cultural producers. The
prevailing standards of recognition that are prevailing in the art world
are slowly ported to their online equivalents (i.e. gallery, museum,
cafe, community centre versus self-published, peer-curated, and museum
website). The hopes of early net artists for the democratisation of art,
that would make them independent of the traditional museum curator
because of the publicness that the Internet affords, have largely not
materialised. Online projects can remain very intimate spaces without
institutional promotion while there is definitely the opportunity for
self-organisation. Artists can generate platforms such as mailing lists,
websites, and independently organised exhibitions to circulate their
ideas and set up platforms from which they can interact with an
audience. The power of the media art curator is somewhat decentralised
but she is still important as expert and cultural legitimiser. She can
contextualise projects as part of culturally discursive currents or
historical processes. Experiments with collaborative forms of curating
that would expand the notion of the sole curator are rare and have so
far not sparked much following. But curators have the ability to foster
participation in open artworks by drawing attention to them. Problems
occur due to the continuously evolving nature of audience-oriented
works. The properties of an art object have drastically changed and now
curators are faced with projects that are ephemeral, based on networks,
appear in many copies, and are often grounded in the form of
communication rather than a physical object. Sometimes context-based
artworks are dismissed by curators as service rather than art. Less
enlightened museums curators frame new media art in modernist terms that
are based on familiar rules for institutional inclusion or exclusion. On
which aesthetic criteria should institutions base their decisions in the
face of constantly changing forms of new media art works? Possibly the
museum is not the most suitable venue. Many emerging practices can be
experienced at media art festivals like Transmediale, Ars Electronica,
Dutch Electronic Art Festival, or ArtBot but when it comes to more
traditional art institutions the validity of much of this work as art is
questioned. Venues for new media practitioners are not predominantly
festivals or museums but virtually distributed communities: Œ[...]
organisations are using the traditional commission model for determining
which individuals will receive electronic archive and display space.
[...] Organisations using this strategy include Turbulence, a website
sponsored by New Radio and Performance Arts Inc. [...] Using a
peer-review process, Turbulence selects up to 20 Internet art projects
per year to commission and display, Turbulence retains exclusive rights
to display of the work for 3 years¹ (Mitchell, Inouye, Blumenthal 2001:

Such curated sites slowly gain in credibility and are a good entry point
for people looking for net-specific art.

What is an Extreme Sharing Network?

The term network does not refer in this text to a personal or
professional group of acquaintances or an Old Boys network. The
self-entrepreneurial, opportunistic networking as it widely occurs in
the art world is not of interest here. This essay does not talk about
radio or television networks. Neither does it address local or wide
area, criminal, or business networks. What this essay is interested in
are ways in which the Internet supports social networks through
listservs, message boards, friend-of-a-friend networks, mobile phones,
short message service/text messaging (sms), peer-to-peer networks, and
social software such as blogs. We focus our attention on such
technically enabled social networks. And within that realm we are
looking at self-organised, autonomous networks that support the
development of sustainable relationships that empower us to lead
fulfilled and engaged lives. We call these particular social networks
extreme sharing networks. This term evolved out of the notion of extreme
programming. The concept is seen as sustainable mechanism for social
change based on intensive collaborative work. Personal collaboration
burnout is circumvented. Extreme sharing networks are conscious, loosely
knit groups based on commonalities, bootstrap economies, and shared
ethics. They offer alternative platforms of production and distribution
of cultural practices.16 However, they are not  completely outside of
institutions. A network can be just as brick and mortar as an
institution. Over the last decade there has been the realisation that
the traditional setup of many institutions based on competition instead
of cooperation is largely inadequate. In competitive situations energy
that could have been channeled into one concentrated collaborative
effort is lost. Networks can respond faster to discursive currents. For
extreme sharing networks political sensitivities of an institution are
not an issue. Jobs are not on the line. Such social networks escape the
bureaucracies of large institutions by making productive use of
unconventional formats of debate such as networked luncheons, skype
meetings, and evenings in the living room or bar. If people identify
with a network then they have the potential to circumvent local
struggles for recognition (Linz/Vienna, Sao Paolo/Rio de Janeiro, New
York/Los Angeles). They can reach across cities and national borders and
form a social network identity that is not tied to a locale. Research
can be experimental and playful, as results do not immediately need to
be measured in financial terms. Networks can make use of publications in
hybrid forms. They employ open access publishing and collaborative
online editing (i.e. Sarai Readers). This is frequently not in accord
with standards of recognition in larger institutions.

Extreme sharing networks allow people to freely meet in the commons,
mobilise and share talents, context and resources (in-kind and
financial). They create visibility for discourses and artworks that
would otherwise be overlooked. Everybody is an expert at something and
can contribute to the mix in meaningful ways. These gift communities,17
or extreme sharing networks, have the potential to inscribe discourses
in collective memory,  inspire and to some degree shape people lives. A
list of the main potentials of extreme sharing networks follows:

>Go beyond local identities through network identity

>Resources/access to distributed talent pool

>Create visibility for discourses and artworks that would otherwise be

>Inspire also younger generations by exposing them to ideas and media

>Respond to issues in a fast, and flexible way

>Create open access resource archives for the public

>Shape expectations

>Provide intellectual community among new media practitioners

>Share expertise over wide geographically distributed areas

>Publish in hybrid formats/online open access initiatives

>Open to experimental, informal formats of research

Organisation and Domination

What marks our participations in social networks? Networks shape
expectations. If we can get a certain piece of information for free
through our network - then we will be reluctant to use a fee-based
service. Throughout New York City there are free wireless networks that
do create the expectation for wireless, high speed Internet to be free.
If an open archive of a network offers lots of material that we can
re-use without unreasonable copyright restrictions then we will come to
expect that. A set of common goals that participants can identify with
is beneficial in order to bring individuals together. The extreme
sharing network needs to be meaningful in order to attract contributors.
Also an interpretative flexibility is needed for networks to create
their own trajectory. As much as the idea of Œcollaborative ruins in
reverse¹18 - one network grows into another based on urgencies. Networks
creatively adapt to ever changing environments and gain ability to
reproduce themselves. The con nected nodes are often in central control,
which determines much of the success or downfall of networks. Who speaks
on a mailing list? How far does central facilitation reach? A rotating
set of facilitators is a good leadership model. An extreme sharing
network will only succeed if networkers understand themselves as free
agents and not as followers. Small work groups that address a specific
issue work better than larger conglomerates. Participants align
themselves with a network by publishing in its context. These networks
offer an umbrella for work in a particular area. It is a node, a
platform on which researchers, educators and activists can share their
work and produce together. Its physical presence is not so crucial for
the vitality of its output. The actuality of such a network is measured
by its research production, its dynamic, and its ability to mobilise
advanced discourse. Creation and socialisation of research do not depend
on brick and mortar institutions. The actuality of a network is
determined by the extent to which it is able to inspire. Rarely can
traditional cultural institutions afford to work about one topic for an
entire year. This is possible in an extreme sharing network. Very little
of the success of a network has to do with the newest piece of
technology. Limitations of free software for managing electronic mail
discussion such as Mailman are in the way of more successful online
debate. But they are not the central issue. Unlike in the early days of
the Internet, today it is unlikely that anybody will be attracted to an
initiative merely because of its use of a wiki or some type of
peer-2-peer software. Cooperation-enhancing tools like blogs or wikis
are important but without a true need of a social group these tools will
not go far. A social network needs to be able to connect. It needs to
allow for co-ownership of others in its activities. An insistence on
exclusive ownership in an inter-communal collaboration kills the
motivation of co-participants. It destroys a sense of cooperation and
trust. The creation of informal and formal relationships among
individuals within the network is essential. Social networks allow for
symbiotic production of events, texts, publications, and cultural
projects. Extreme sharing networks are sometimes diagnosed with the
Major Tom Syndrome (i.e. cutting off all contact to earth, suspended in
the utopian galaxy of collaboration). On the other hand the following
examples show that such networks are very real and that their output has
to be reckoned with!

The Australian Fibreculture19 network is about critical debate on
information technology and related policy issues, and  provides a forum
for the exchange of articles, ideas and arguments on Australian IT
policy. It runs a substantive open access Journal. Most recent issues
focused on the politics of networks, on precarious labour, and on new
media education. Since 2001 Fibreculture published a series of free
newspapers with topics like networks of excellence, media activism,
politics and theory. Its mailing list comprises more than 900

The Institute for Distributed Creativity (iDC)20 is an independent
research network with a focus on collaboration in new media art. The iDC
is interested in continuous collaborations and alliances, online
community art, and experimental ways of triggering participation in
online environments. In its first year the iDC held the first conference
on new-media art education in the United States, Share, Share Widely,
and has put on a dozen events since.

The Institute of Network Cultures (INC)21 focuses on research, meetings
and (online) initiatives in the area of Internet and new media. The INC
functions as a framework within which a variety of studies, publications
and meetings can be realised. Its goal is to create an open
organisational form with a strong focus on content, within which ideas
can be given an institutional context. The INC, founded in June 2004,
facilitated conferences including Art and Politics of Netporn, Urban
Screens, Incommunicado 05, and A Decade of Webdesign, in addition to a
lecture series on new media in the Netherlands.

Such peer production networks form knowledge collectives and create free
archives in the unregulated parts of the commons. They move information
into the Œopen¹ where it is protected by GPL and Creative Commons
licenses. While increased numbers of individuals provide content, or
participate in online communities, many people have a conflicted
relationship to collaboration. 

They experienced self-sacrifice, problematic crediting economies, and
invisible labour as central themes of Œfailing¹ collaborative endeavors.
Disintegration and revitalisation are seen as part of the same process.
The end of one participatory effort can fade into the next one.

As part of alternative Internet economies of generosity and the gift,
material can be shared. It is a Marxian economy by the people, for the
people, and of the people. Now property definitions are radically reset.
The growing online participation and content provision outlined in this
text is the backdrop for an emerging paradigm of the artist as cultural
context provider: a catalyst of performative online acts. The modus
operandi of new media practioners has largely shifted away from the
object creation toward the process of interaction. In addition, media
artists write, curate, produce artworks and set up discursive events.

Peer-to-peer economies and Œnetworks of excellence¹ are well examined.
In light of this prevailing business focus it is vitally important to
fully consider alternative uses of technologies of cooperation. Without
a deep understanding of the social protocols of collaboration and
incentives for participation, uncommercialised projects will not draw
the users/producers that they need. Extreme sharing networks will not
suddenly disappear. They are here to stay!


1. The term Distributed Creativity was the title of a conference and a
critical online forum co- organised by Eyebeam and Still Water for
Network & Culture at the University of Maine in 2004
distributedcreativity_eyewrap>. Also related to this term, Richard
Florida (2002) argues for creativity as a core feature of post- Fordist

2. Brian Holmes and Maurizio Lazzarato were part of the Digital Work
seminar at Piet Zwart Institute in 2003,
<http://pzwart.wdka.hro.nl/mdr/Seminars2/dwork/>. See also Holmes
(2005), Lazzarato (1996) and Virno & Hardt (1996).

3. <http://www.w3.org/People/Berners-Lee/Kids.html>.

4. WELL is an online forum and a virtual community since 1985

5. From del.icio.us list

6.Some of the examples of literature on collaboration include:
<http://www.seedsforchange.org.uk/free/res#grp>; Mattessich & Barbara
(1992); Winer & Ray (1994).


8. <http://ocw.mit.edu//OcwWeb/Global/AboutOCW/impact.htm>.

9. <http://ccmixter.org/>.

10. <http://freshmeat.net/>.

11.<http://www.rhizome.org/artbase101.rhiz> and

12.Examples of Distributed Learning Projects include:
<http://ocw.mit.edu/>, <http://sharewidely. org> (in progress),
<http://h2o.law.harvard.edu/> and <http://cnx.rice.edu/>.

13. From FAQ agoraXchange

14. This essay started with references to studies that produced evidence
for an increase of content production online. This widespread tendency
towards participation is a reason for the emergence of the cultural
context provider. Artists who have taken on the Internet as a context
for their work de-emphasize individual authorship and answer to Brecht¹s
demand for an apparatus that goes beyond broadcast-type, one-way
information (Brecht 1964 [1932]).

15. From Standards of Recognition website

16. In the past, experiments with new modes of cultural production were
linked to alternative institutional models such as Black Mountain
College. This experimental college thrived in the mountains of North
Carolina from 1933-1957 despite a small budget. With faculty such as
John Cage, Buckminster Fuller and Walter Gropius, its approach to
cultural and institutional practices was informal and collaborative.

17. However, running a network is not completely free. The costs are
small but they do add up in the long run. Time is needed to moderate
mailing lists and updating domain names, or paying for web space, are
part of the every day business of socio-technical networks. These
particular economies are under-examined.

18. The American conceptual artist Robert Smithson thought of Œruins in
reverse¹ as places that were deteriorating already at the time of their
construction. Smithson¹s notion of Œruins in reverse¹ is exemplified in
the context of a series of photographs that he presented to architecture
students at the University of Utah in 1972.

19. <http://fibrecultures.org>.

20. <http://distributedcreativity.org>.

21. <http://networkcultures.org>.


Richard Barbrook (1999) Cyber-Communism: How the Americans are
Superseding Capitalism in Cyberspace, The Hypermedia Research Center,
University of Westminster, <http://www.hrc.wmin.

Bertold Brecht (1964 [1932]) ŒDer Rundfunk als Kommunikationsapparat¹,
in Willett (ed.) Brecht on Theatre, New York: Hill and Wang.

Richard Coyne (2005) Cornucopia Limited, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Richard Florida (2002) The Rise of the Creative Class, New York: Basic

Noah Hardrip-Fruin & Nick Montfort (2003) The New Media Reader,
Cambridge Mass:. MIT Press.

Brian Holmes (2005) ŒThe Flexible Personality: For a New Cultural
Critique¹, in Geoff Cox, Joasia Krysa & Anya Lewin (eds.) Economising
Culture, New York: Autonomedia (DATA Browser 01) and

Maurizio Lazzarato (1996) 'Immaterial Labour', in Paolo Virno & Michael
Hardt (eds.) Radical Thought in Italy: A Potential Politics,
Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Amanda Lenhart & Mary Madden (2005) Pew American and Internet Life
Project Study <http://www.pewinternet.org/PPF/r/166/report_display.asp>.

Paul Mattessich & Barbara Monsey  (1992) Collaboration: What Makes It
Work, St Paul Minnesota: Amherst H. Wilder Foundation.

William Mitchell, Alan Inouye & Marjory Blumenthal (eds.) (2001) Beyond
Productivity. Information Technology, Innovation, and Creativity,
Washington, D.C.: The National Academies Press.

Milton Mueller, Brenden Kuerbis & Christiane Page (2004) Reinventing
Media Activism: Public Interest Advocacy in the Making of U.S.
Communication-Information Policy, 1960-2002, a report, July

Robert Putnam (2000) Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American
Community, New York: Simon & Schuster,

Mari Carmen Ramirez (2004) ŒTactics for Thriving on Adversity:
Conceptualism in Latin America, 1960-1980¹, in Rudolf Frieling & Dieter
Daniels, Global Conceptualism: Points of Origin, 1950-1980s, New York:
Queens Museum of Art.

Howard Rheingold (2000 [1993]) Virtual Communities, Cambridge, Mass.:
MIT Press.

Howard Rheingold (2005) Technologies of Cooperation: A Map to a Toolkit,
TheFeature.com Archives <http://www.thefeaturearchives.com/101608.html>.

Christoph Spehr (ed.) (2003) Gleicher als andere. Eine Grundlegung der
freien Kooperation, Berlin: Karl Dietz Verlag.

Tiziana Terranova (2004) Network Culture: Politics for the Information
Age, London: Pluto Press.

Paolo Virno & Michael Hardt (eds.) (1996) Radical Thought In Italy: A
Potential Politics, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Michael Winer & Karen Ray (1994) Collaboration Handbook: Creating,
Sustaining, and Enjoying the Journey, Los Altos, California: Fieldstone

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