Back to Chapters for AOC
Primary Author: Dawn Foster
Introduction: Benefits and Types of Communities
Opening a project up to a broader community of participants has significant benefits. Open source projects have been using communities for years to write high quality software benefiting from collaboration and innovation among a diverse group of participants. A similar model has been used by other online communities focused on user generated content. For example, sites like Wikipedia would never have been successful without a large number of people from diverse backgrounds and cultures working collaboratively to share expertise, monitor the content, and correct errors as needed. We hope that the content in this book applies to a variety of communities open source, commercial developer communities, wiki communities, social communities, and more.
need to add more about corporate communities throughout this chapter
In Open Sources 2.0, Tim O'Reilly is "struck by how collaboration is central to the success and differentiation of the leading Internet applications". This network-enabled collaboration came about as a result of computer networking, which broke down the walls of geographic location, affiliation with a particular company or organization, and other ways that people were isolated prior to the broad adoption of the Internet. A cultural shift toward collaboration, which began with developers of early software and open source communities, has now spread into areas inhabited by non-developers. Starting with the Usenet, an early Internet discussion system with user forums on almost every imaginable topic, and moving into communities of today built entirely with user contributed content, like Wikipedia and eBay, or heavily augmented with user content, like Amazon.com's user comments and Listmania.
Bees provide an excellent analogy  for why collaboration has been key to the success of many online communities. A hive of bees is fairly small, maybe the size of small dog. If you were attacked by a single Chihuahua, you could probably fight it off avoiding serious injury. But an equivalently sized hive of bees could do much more damage. A swarm of bees is more successful than a single opponent of the same size because the bees band together and collaborate in large numbers. They are faster, more agile and determined to achieve their goal. This should sound very familiar to anyone who has worked with open source communities.
This line of thinking can be extended and applied to the software market with open source software as the hive of bees. There are more than one hundred thousand registered open source projects hosted on SourceForge.net alone. Like the bees, there are many open source software communities of developers working toward a common goal, which can move and respond quickly to changes in the environment. The large, proprietary software companies with less nimble, hierarchical organizational structures will continue to face tough competition from open source software. The software companies that are able to successfully embrace open source software or at least embrace more collaborative development methods will probably be in a better position to prosper in the long-term. With bees and open source software, you might be able to swat a few down (or acquire them); however, more will come to take their place.
The bee analogy can also be used to understand user generated content communities. Looking at the blogosphere as a community of individual bloggers, strength can also be found in numbers. The blogosphere can make or break a new product announcement again because of the sheer force in numbers. One or two random bloggers endorsing or dissing a product will not have much impact; however, thousands of bloggers would make an impressive marketing force or formidable death squad for a product. Sites that allow user participation along with company created content also have a swarm mentality, and popular books like The Da Vinci Code can have thousands of user reviews and comments on Amazon.com.
The bee analogy is not a perfect one in every case. It works well in cases where people are reasonably well aligned and are acting toward a common goal, as with most open source software projects. At other times, rather than one united hive as described above, you have competing swarms on either side with varied goals or in some cases random chaos when opinions on a topic are highly variable. The comment facility, which is an integral part of the blogging community helps to facilitate this back and forth discussion within the blogosphere on an issue. This back and forth discussion is also an integral part of the collaborative nature of these online communities. It helps us fully understand and work through any issues by considering various points of view.
An active and vibrant community facilitates collaboration and provides a unique opportunity for people to work together on almost any topic. Within a community, the benefits of collaboration include allowing people to share new ideas, building upon the ideas of others, evaluating ideas contributed by peers, and discussing the merits of the various contributions. As the content is evaluated and analyzed by the community, it improves in quality over time. Eric Raymond referred to this concept as "Linus's Law" stating that "Given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow." This means that as more and more people look at the content, mistakes will be found and corrected resulting in an end product with high quality. This is the premise behind Wikipedia. The wiki technology used by Wikipedia makes it easy for anyone to contribute, and articles are written collaboratively while changes are recorded making it easy to correct inaccuracies and track the changes to any article over time. The idea is that as more and more people use Wikipedia, users will make corrections and contribute content to improve Wikipedia.
Open Source Community Collaboration
The collaborative nature of open source communities has its roots in academic collaboration, which is not surprising, since the free software movement began at MIT (Dawn's note: I assume that we'll talk about the evolution of OSS in the intro / chapter 1). Collaboration within academic communities is an established and time honored tradition. In academic communities, researchers collaborate by building on the ideas of others, completing expert peer reviews to assess the merits of each proposed paper, and publishing the research in great detail allowing other researchers to examine the study methodology and reproduce the results for confirmation. In the academic paper that results from a study, the researcher is expected to complete a thorough literature review summarizing what other researchers have found in related studies and published in previous papers. During the writing process, most researchers find other experts to review and provide informal comments on the papers. When the paper is submitted for publication in an academic journal, a more formal peer review is conducted by subject matter experts who review the paper for accuracy and assess the study methodology to ensure that the paper meets the academic quality standards of the publication. During this process, they may also provide feedback and suggest corrections to the author of the study. The final published article will contain enough details and supporting materials to allow another researcher to reproduce the study to determine its authenticity or to allow another researcher to use the study as a base with a few changes to study a related topic.
In a similar fashion, open source communities build on the ideas of others, conduct peer reviews on the submissions of other developers, and make the source code publicly available for anyone to examine. Within open source communities, developers build on the ideas of others through code re-use and discussion on project mailing lists. Developers in open source projects also discuss various approaches to a solution on the mailing list with other developers commenting on the approach and on the resulting code that will be used in the solution. The source code is then made publicly available for anyone to view and modify for their purposes if they are inclined to do so. These three ideas, public source code, building on the ideas of others, and peer review, each deserve a little more explanation.
Public source code
Without making the source code publicly available, the other benefits of community collaboration would not be possible for open source software. Access to the source code is a pre-requisite to collaborating on software because it allows developers to work together to create new open source projects or modify existing projects. This also relates back to the earlier discussion of "Linus's Law", which is made possible through the publication of source code. With many developers reviewing the source code and finding errors, the quality of the product will improve.
Users of the software can view the source code, examine it for any defects (security problems, bugs, etc.), and enter the collaboration process to improve the software. This can be accomplished in a couple of ways. The user can suggest improvements to the open source community responsible for the project through the mailing list or by filing bug reports, or she can modify the source herself to fix bugs or make enhancements. Ideally these changes should be sent back to the community and included into the project if the changes are of good quality and meet the needs of the broader user base.
Making the source code publicly available provides a way to make the details accessible to a wide audience of other developers. This is similar to publishing studies in academic journals that are accessible to a variety of experts. Like academic publishing, the intended audience for review of the public open source code is other developers who have the knowledge to read the source code, understand it, and make or suggest changes as necessary in the same way that an academic medical journal study is usually published using a language that assumes a great degree of medical knowledge in order to fully understand the study results.
Peer review and meritocracy
The best solution is selected via a process of peer review with many people reviewing the code submitted to the project and only the best code being accepted as determined by the peer group. This leads to a system of meritocracy where the best code is accepted into the project and people rise up in the project based on the merits of their contributions. Certain developers who submit code of a consistently high quality eventually earn the privilege of having direct access to the source code, also known as committer privileges, to make the changes that are accepted through the peer review process.
Analogous to the academic community where a group of experts conduct a peer review of any study before it can be published in an academic journal, open source mailing lists provide a collaborative mechanism for project experts, frequently those with committer privileges, to review each submission and provide feedback to those people wishing to contribute to the project. The best additions to the project are then accepted and "published" by being included in the source code for the project. People who consistently contribute quality submissions will eventually rise through the ranks based on meritocracy to become a committer the same way that a top subject matter expert for an academic field would eventually rise to become a reviewer for an academic journal.
Building on the ideas of others
Open source software is not about reinventing the wheel; it is about learning from what others before you have done and then improving on the work to make something even better. Code can be re-used from other projects keeping in mind that the original author must be credited and licensing restrictions must be adhered to. Most developers know that in practice, it can be difficult to reuse code directly because no two projects are exactly alike, and what works in one context may not work in another. Even when the code is not reused, the ideas and concepts can be leveraged on other projects.
The mailing lists play a strong role in building on the ideas of others. Discussions about how to approach a problem or how to accomplish a task often take place on the mailing list with people building on each other's ideas to collaboratively come up with the best possible solution. One person makes a suggestion followed by a discussion about why it will / will not work along with ideas for how to make it work better.
By creating an open discussion on the mailing list, people can collaboratively build on the ideas of others in the same way that academic researchers review previous studies, discuss them with peers, and then create a new study that extends, builds on, or makes improvements to previous works. For example, a medical researcher might build on a study that measured the impact of a certain treatment on male heart attack patients by seeing if the same results can be obtained in a study of female heart attack patients. Within the open source community, it is common to take an existing open source product, extend, and build on it with new functionality. Several Chinese Linux distributors, like Red Flag, build their product starting with another Linux distribution, Red Hat in this case, to extend and customize it for the Chinese market. Another example is Flock, a Firefox-based web browser with additional functionality aimed at Web 2.0 users to make it easier to blog and share content (photos, bookmarks, etc.) from a single interface.
Open Source Collaboration: A Government Case Study
Several local United States government organizations in Colorado  realized that open source software could be used to collaboratively accomplish tasks and solve problems that governments around the world face every day. They started The Northwest Colorado Open eGov Project to facilitate this collaborative effort and made the source code publicly available on a project website to make it possible to use their code and contribute to it. The idea behind this effort is that local governments can automate tasks like paying for a parking ticket; however, each government does not need to reinvent the wheel. It makes sense to build on the ideas of others by sharing this code and reusing similar functionality among multiple governments. For example, a government could start with the basic functionality, add a module that provides animal registration capability, and submit it back to the community for review and use by other governments. This type of open source project provides a mechanism for governments to save time, money, and resources by cooperating to solve common problems.
Similar to academic environments, open source communities build on the ideas of others, conduct peer reviews on the submissions of other developers, and make the source code publicly available for anyone to examine. This collaborative development process with a community made up of people from many different organizations and backgrounds works together as a united community. Like bees all working together to accomplish what one of them alone could never do, a community of many open source developers working toward a common goal can move and respond quickly to changes in the environment to collaborate and accomplish complex tasks that a single developer could never hope to achieve.
User Generated Content Community Collaboration
Tim O'Reilly believes a key lesson of the Web 2.0 era is that "users add value". Users create data and add content to existing websites producing a competitive advantage for companies that are architected for participation to take advantage of user generated content by building communities that improve as more people use them . As a result of the recognition of the value that users can bring, communities based on user generated content are forming at a rapid pace. For this discussion, a user generated content community is defined as a community where the content is created in whole or in part by the users.
Users do not create content within online communities in a vacuum; in many cases, they work together to collaborate on shared content lending their collective intelligence to the community. As the content is enhanced by the community, it improves in quality over time as a result of collective intelligence. The concept of collective intelligence lends additional support to Eric Raymond's definition of Linus's Law ("Given enough eyeballs all bugs are shallow"), which could be re-written in this new Web 2.0 collaborative environment to read: "Given enough eyeballs all errors are shallow". Regardless of the nature of the error from obvious to obscure, if enough people look at the error, someone will notice it, and in a user generated content community, they can either point it out or correct it whenever possible.
User generated content communities range from mainstream communities like MySpace and Flickr to niche communities formed to discuss topics of interest only to a few people. These online niche communities provide another example of the Long Tail, an idea coined by Chris Anderson to describe markets for obscure music, movies, etc. The idea behind the Long Tail is that the online medium is making it possible to offer and make money selling many obscure products that are of interest to only a few people. For example, compare the selection of your local video store to an online one like Netflix. Within a physical neighborhood, a local video store would not have enough demand to justify the shelf space required to carry less popular DVDs; however, if you spread this demand for an obscure title across the country, a company like Netflix can make money servicing this market. Long Tail communities can be found for almost any interest, no matter how niche. Examples include: the Killer Innovations Community, led by Phil McKinney to discuss and collaborate on innovation; JDate, a Jewish singles community; and more.
The benefits of this collective intelligence on the community are similar to the benefits of collaboration within academic and open source communities. People can share new ideas, build upon the ideas of others, evaluate ideas contributed by other users, and discuss the merits of the various contributions. Blogs and sites like Digg and MySpace are good examples of user generated content communities.
Online Content Collaboration
Some user generated content sites are designed to facilitate online collaboration on content. Wikipedia, an online encyclopedia created entirely by users, is one of the best known examples of an online content collaboration community, and the people within this community often refer to themselves as Wikipedians. Anyone can contribute to Wikipedia; the only requirement is knowledge about some topic. Wikipedia provides an excellent mechanism to share new information either by creating an entry for a new topic or by updating an existing entry with the latest data on the topic. It also provides the ability to build on the ideas of others; one person can create an entry with the knowledge they possess, while other people can build on that entry with additional information that may not have been known by the original author. Wikipedia also has a mechanism to evaluate the content and discuss the merits of an article. Each entry has a talk page where users can collaboratively discuss the content on a page particularly for an article where the facts are in dispute or there are several viewpoints about how the article should be written. Thousands of changes are made every hour to Wikipedia, and inappropriate changes or inaccuracies are typically, although not always, found and corrected. Going back to Linus's Law and the idea of collective intelligence, for those entries that are viewed most frequently, we can assume that they are more quickly corrected and are of a higher quality than articles on less popular topics that are read by fewer people.
In "We the Media", Dan Gillmor discusses the transition from a mass-media structure where elitism and the high cost of publication meant that only a few people had a voice to the "new media" facilitated by inexpensive publication online with a global reach created by citizen journalists. This shift allows many more people to have a voice in the news and gives readers more options to read additional perspectives on current news and events than what would have been available even a few years ago. As blogging technology matures, it has become even easier for people to share news and other information online. Much of the current blogging software is online, easy to use, and has all of the required functionality (RSS, previous posts, archives, etc.) built in without any work on the user's part. This gives anyone with basic internet skills the opportunity to have a voice. More importantly, people not only have a voice, but they can now collaborate on content via the blogosphere. One person starts with a discussion on their blog, which generates a response on another person's blog, which spawns a response on another blog, and so on. By reading these divergent perspectives on a single topic, a consumer of this content can usually get a fairly broad perspective on the topic. Sites like Techmeme have formed to highlight interesting posts and collect the discussion that has ensued on the blogosphere.
Users have also found other ways to facilitate online content collaboration for news content. Digg, for example, provides a framework for users to provide links to news stories and other users collaboratively vote on these links to decide which articles are pushed to the front page of the site. The news on Digg is created entirely out of user generated content with no editorial body deciding which news is worthy of appearing on the site; in the case of Digg, the users are the editors. Newsvine, on the other hand is a merger of user generated content and traditional media. Newsvine collects the news from a number of traditional sources, like the Associated Press and ESPN, and these automatically appear on the site. In addition to the mass media sources, users can write their own columns that appear on the site or seed the site with additional news that was not automatically picked up by Newsvine.
Social and Event Collaboration
More people are turning to the internet for social and event collaboration with MySpace as one of the best known social collaboration sites. Logging into MySpace today, I found a number of events in my local area being coordinated on MySpace. This takes the old event advertising model of fliers and advertisements in local radio / newspapers and turns it on its head. Not only can I find the events happening in my local area, I can see who else plans to attend before I decide whether to go or stay home. For example, an upcoming music event in my town next Thursday has 66 comments and someone who claims to be 99, but looks fantastic for her age plans to bring her mom to the event with her. If I was a regular user of MySpace or a similar site and was maybe a few years younger, I would probably have a group of friends all participating on the same site to coordinate our parties and evenings out online. Upcoming.org is another site focused entirely on events to find events and share them with others.
Comment Discussion Collaboration
For many user generated content communities, the discussion facilitated by comments can be as valuable or more valuable that the original content. Comments associated with blogging provide one of the best examples of how comment discussion collaboration occurs. Most, but not all blogs, allow users to post comments to any blog entry. For example, if I blogged about my review of the latest release of Firefox, another user may add a comment pointing out a new feature that I was not aware of or forgot to include while another user may build on my ideas to discuss in more detail some of the pros and cons that I mentioned in my original blog entry. Other people would probably evaluate my ideas and the ideas of the people commenting to agree and disagree with the points of view offered and discuss the relative merits of the various ideas. These discussions can be quite involved, especially for controversial topics, leading to dozens and even hundreds of comments about a single blog entry. This type of comment-based discussion facilitates collaboration by giving anyone an opportunity to provide a perspective and collaboratively flesh out the many points of view on a single topic. In some cases, bloggers will actively seek out feedback and collaboration on a topic that they want to know more about or to get suggestions from their community of readers. For example, the InfoWorld Open Sources Blog once put out a call for suggestions on how to best structure an upcoming presentation on desktop Linux. Other bloggers will post a rumor and encourage comments from people who might be able to determine whether or not the rumor is true.
Digg and Newsvine, discussed in the previous section, also encourage comments as part of the content collaboration. The comments are especially helpful on these news sites, since much of their content is submitted by users. People commenting on a news story can frequently help determine the accuracy of the story, especially when a news story comes from an unfamiliar source. Much like blogging, these comments also give people the ability to collaborate and provide additional points of view that were not included in the original article and to evaluate the article and discuss its merits.
Site Enhancement through User Participation
This final category contains many of the elements just discussed in the previous section, but with one major difference. In the previous sections, the sites discussed are based entirely or mostly on user contributions where user generated content is the heart of the site. Site enhancement through user participation is slightly different because the core of the site is based on information created by a single company or organization. Amazon.com is one of the best examples of how a company has enhanced its capabilities through user participation without sacrificing its own content. For example, Amazon.com's online catalog is created by Amazon.com, not collaboratively created by a community of users; however, Amazon.com has found plenty of other ways to allow users to create content on the Amazon.com site. Customer reviews are one of the most common ways for users to add content by rating the book on a scale of 1 (I hate it) to 5 (I love it) and writing a review that any other potential purchaser can read on the site. People can collaborate on reviews by indicating which reviews they found helpful. Amazon.com has also built a community site at Amazon.com/community where people can share lists of books, wish lists, wedding registries, and more with friends, family and strangers. Listmania is a feature that enables sharing lists of books with other like-minded people; for example, I have a Listmania list of my favorite open source books. As you can see, site enhancement through user participation combines the elements discussed in the previous sections. Amazon.com provides online content collaboration through user reviews; social and event collaboration through Listmania, wish lists, and gift registries; and comment discussion collaboration by allowing people to write reviews and mark the reviews of others based on whether the review was helpful or not.
User Generated Content Summary
We have described how user generated content collaboration can take a number of different forms. Collaboration for online content, events and social activities, comment discussions, and user participation to facilitate site enhancement are just four ways that communities of people can benefit from online collaboration. Like with bees, strength can be found in numbers. These communities, including the blogosphere, are successful because of the numbers of people collaborating. If only two people blogged or if MySpace had only two users, they would not have the momentum that they have today with millions of people participating. One or two bees or a single Chihuahua would have little impact, but an entire swarm of bees can make a much larger difference.
Innovation is another benefit of having an active and engaged community. Many people tend to think of creativity and inventiveness as something that happens in isolation. Where historical communities were limited to those living in close proximity and later to those living further away with mail correspondence that could take months to arrive, online communities of today allow people around the world to cooperate and innovate. Many great inventors of history were of the lone inventor type sitting in a workshop coming up with new inventions that would eventually change the world we live in. These inventors did not have much choice; how many true peers capable of understanding the intricacies of his inventions would someone as brilliant as Leonardo da Vinci have in Florence? Now picture a world where the Internet connects people like Leonardo da Vinci with someone like Thomas Edison providing them both with a mechanism to discuss their ideas as part of a larger community of true peers innovating around similar interests.
Engaging with a community has a number of benefits for innovation. First, having more people innovating together on an idea can produce better quality ideas. This is another example of the effect of Linus's Law. Second, the time required to innovate would be reduced by having people build off of each other's ideas in contrast to the lone inventor model. Third, the costs of innovation can be reduced by having people work together as part of a community.
There are two primary types of innovation that happen within communities. Communities of users naturally tend to innovate to make a product work better for their needs. Corporations and other organizations are starting to encourage and leverage innovation communities to help with research and development. Both of these will be discussed in more detail in the following sections.
User-Centered Innovation Communities
Eric von Hippel  is a thought leader on user-centered innovation communities and democratizing innovation. He uses the term democratizing innovation to refer to the trend toward users being able to innovate for themselves rather than relying solely on innovation coming from companies. von Hippel states two primary advantages of user-centered innovation: users can create precisely what they want without relying on a manufacturer to anticipate their needs, and users can benefit from innovations by other users that are freely shared within the user community.
User-centered innovation is one of the foundations of open source software; Eric Raymond famously stated that "every good work of software begins by scratching a developer's personal itch".  Linus Torvalds started Linux in 1991 with an unassuming newsgroup post that mentioned a new operating system he was creating and solicited input from others. Linux was created not out of any commercial need or ambition, but to satisfy Linus' desire as a user to have a better Unix-like operating system that ran on less expensive (Intel 386) hardware. This was a user innovation that Linus freely revealed to others with a similar interest. As everyone knows, Linux has grown from this unassuming start into a robust operating system used in most corporations. Without Linus' continued contributions combined with contributions from thousands of other interested users, Linux may never have progressed past a hobby operating system started by a college student. Open source community contributions and user innovations provided the momentum necessary for Linux to quickly become an important technology.
Some people tend to think of open source software applications as cheap (free) imitations of proprietary applications with the open source applications lagging behind proprietary ones in innovation. The proprietary applications with millions of dollars of corporate research and development budgets are portrayed as the innovators while the poor, little open source projects struggle to keep up. Anyone who has spent any time working with open source products knows that this is not the case, and Firefox provides just one example of where the open source application is leading in innovation while proprietary applications follow. I would argue that Firefox has innovated ahead of Microsoft's Internet Explorer in a number of areas including tabbed browsing, security, and user customization. Microsoft's adoption of Firefox's orange RSS icon as an industry standard has been the most public example of this phenomenon. Because of the active user / developer communities for open source projects, innovation is a natural outcome.
The Firefox community of extension and theme developers is one of the best examples of user-centered innovation within the open source community. Firefox has made it very easy for developers who use Firefox to add functionality or enhance the look and feel of the browser. More than 1000 extensions have been developed by users that do almost everything from adding a weather forecast to the toolbar to a pop-up that shows sunrise, sunset, and moon phase information to a multi-player pong game to extensions that enhance tabbing and searching functionality. This makes it easy for anyone to control and customize the user experience based on what other users have created and freely shared. I have coerced friends and co-workers into installing Firefox, and most of them immediately become addicted to one or more Firefox extensions. A friend of mine installed Firefox for his mom; she was not convinced about making the change until he showed her the themes, and when she found that she could use a different theme for each holiday or mood, she was converted. This robust community focused on sharing user-created innovation is part of why Firefox has been so successful.
Open source software innovation can also provide additional customization and support of hardware devices. In the case of consumer devices, we are typically limited to using the device only in way that the manufacturer wants it to be used; however, some very creative individual can sometimes rewrite the firmware. This is easier if the manufacturer has provided open source code to the original firmware, but the entire firmware can also be re-written from scratch. This allows us to do things like reconfigure the user interface for an MP3 player or add additional features to your router and share these new modifications with other interested users.
Sports communities, especially from some of the more extreme sports, have been a hotbed of user-centered innovation. As people take sports into more extreme forms, the original equipment is usually inadequate in some way, and the manufacturers are not creating the innovations, since the new form of the sport does not exist until the users figure out how they want to change it. This creates a bit of a chicken and egg scenario if you look at traditional innovation processes. The users are in the process of inventing a new direction for a sport; therefore the equipment does not yet exist. The sport does not yet exist; therefore, the company is not manufacturing any new equipment. The best way to resolve this chicken and egg dilemma is to step out of the traditional manufacturing innovation process with the users innovating using the materials at hand.
This can be best illustrated by an example.  As the sport of windsurfing evolved, Larry Stanley and others began trying to execute jumps and other aerial maneuvers in the mid-1970s; however, they were unable to keep the board in place and were flying off in mid-air resulting in injuries and equipment damage. Stanley remembered that he had placed footstraps on an experimental board that he used for high speeds and realized that footstraps would be a great solution for jumping. This innovation launched the sport of high-performance windsurfing, and Stanley freely shared his idea with other users. Along with a group of windsurfing friends, Stanley took this idea to market.
Other User-Centered Innovation Communities
An entire community of researchers has formed at MIT focused on user-centered innovation at http://userinnovation.mit.edu. Their research has found that communities of users working together are frequently the source of innovation for creating new products and services, rather than being initiated from manufacturers. They have found this to be true across a variety of industries and organizations including open source and other types of software, sports, 3M products, production of steel, and many more.
Use additional content from von Hippel vignette to summarize.
Corporate Leverage of Innovation Communities
With so many brilliant people online around the world, corporations are beginning to look at how they can leverage online communities of innovators to assist with research and development. Communities are forming to help connect companies with communities of people that can help them solve specific issues. For example, InnoCentive is a community that connects scientists in chemistry and biology with companies that have research and development challenges. The challenges that have been solved are difficult and diverse: Detection of Specific DNA Sequences, Reduction of Chemical Vapor Emissions, and Removal of Safrole from Nutmeg Oil to name a few. These challenges have been solved by people from the United States, Switzerland, Russia, Hungary, Canada, India, Germany, Sweden, China, and many other locations around the world. In exchange for solving these problems, the scientist can earn up to $100,000 USD.
In many cases, the people solving these problems are not the ones that you would expect. Instead of working in scientific labs, some of the people solving these problems are working from their homes with little formal knowledge in the topic.
'This shouldn’t be surprising, notes Karim Lakhani, a lecturer in technology and innovation at MIT, who has studied InnoCentive. “The strength of a network like InnoCentive’s is exactly the diversity of intellectual background,” he says. Lakhani and his three coauthors surveyed 166 problems posted to InnoCentive from 26 different firms. “We actually found the odds of a solver’s success increased in fields in which they had no formal expertise,” Lakhani says. He has put his finger on a central tenet of network theory, what pioneering sociologist Mark Granovetter describes as “the strength of weak ties.” The most efficient networks are those that link to the broadest range of information, knowledge, and experience.'
YourEncore is another innovation community; however, it focuses on leveraging the experience of retired people with many years of experience by matching them with consulting engagements. Online communities benefit from innovation partly due to the diverse nature of online communities with participants of all ages, from many different locations around the world, and from assorted walks of life each contributing a slightly different perspective.
Diversity and Global Talent
Throughout history, communities have been frequently rooted in geographical location with communities entirely comprised of people living within a single area. Going way back to the beginning of humanity, early hunter-gatherer communities were made up of the people who lived and traveled together to find the daily food supplies. These communities tended to be fairly small, especially in areas where food resources were scarce. These small communities lacked enough diversity to survive leading them to temporarily join together with other small groups of hunter-gatherers to occasionally exchange mates, thus increasing the genetic diversity of both communities. This was also an opportunity to exchange technology with other groups to learn new tool-making techniques. The genetic diversity and diversity of ideas and technologies was limited to those people living within walking distance … keeping in mind that walking distance to a hunter-gatherer could have been weeks or months, unlike walking distance measured in city blocks as many of us might measure it today. As time went on and technology evolved, inventions like modern transportation, mailed correspondence, and the telephone made it possible to have communities of people extending past a local geographic region; however, these technologies offered only a limited ability to form communities over a distance.
Online communities provide a unique mechanism to create global, diverse communities for the first time in history. With mailed correspondence and telephone calls, a destination must be known in advance meaning that you need some method of finding your community before interacting with the people who comprise it, and with mail and telephone you can only interact with a few people at a time. In the case of the phone, you can usually interact only with a single individual, and with mail one person can interact with another person or many people at a time in a newsletter format. Current technology not only makes communities more accessible to anyone, anywhere in the world through advanced search capabilities and easily accessed information, but it allows many people to interact many other people together as a community in real time. These communities have recently sprung up everywhere and for almost any topic because the technology has become so easy to use that almost anyone can participate. The software that runs the communities combined with global networking infrastructure is the technology that facilitates the flattening of the modern world as part of what Thomas Freidman refers to as "Globalization 3.0". In he first instantiation of globalization, countries went global, and in the second wave, companies began operating globally. The year 2000 began the era of the third wave of globalization led by individuals who can now collaborate on a global level; however, Globalization 3.0 is also about diversity.
"But Globalization 3.0 not only differs from the previous eras in how it is shrinking and flattening the world, and in how it is empowering individuals. It is different in that Globalization 1.0 and 2.0 were driven primarily by European and American individuals and businesses. Even though China actually had the biggest economy in the world in the eighteenth century, it was Western countries, companies, and explorers who were doing most of the globalizing and shaping of the system. But going forward, this will be less and less true. Because it is flattening and shrinking the world, Globalization 3.0 is going to be more and more driven not only by individuals but also by a much more diverse – non-Western, non-white – group of individuals. Individuals from every corner of the flat world are being empowered. Globalization 3.0 makes it possible for so many more people to plug and play, and you are going to see every color of the human rainbow take part." 
Open source communities, as one of the earlier types of online communities, have operated in a global environment from the beginning. The Linux kernel, for example, was started by Linus Torvalds in Finland with contributions from around the world. However, open source communities tended to have more contributors from Western countries until several years ago when more people from Asia began to participate. Open source contributors from Western countries started gaining momentum in 1989 / 1990. There were certainly contributors to open source much earlier, but their numbers were fairly small. The increase in open source contributors from Asia corresponded to the globalization described by Friedman; however, the upswing started in 1995 for Asian contributors to open source, rather than in 2000 with Friedman's Globalization 3.0. The five year difference in timing between where Friedman put Globalization 3.0 in 2000 and when we saw initial increases in Asian open source developers is likely due to two related concepts. First, the initial increases in 1995 were fairly small and there was a second spike in 2000. Second, for technology enabled trends, it is typical to see developers and other technologically savvy early adopters lead the trend a few years ahead of when the trend hits the masses. The tipping point happened in 2000, but participation in open source projects led up to it.
The new breed of Web 2.0 online communities started as global communities. For example, on June 11, 2006, the all time most popular tags on Flickr included the following places:
Amsterdam, Australia, Barcelona, Berlin, Boston, California, Canada, Chicago, China, England, Europe, Florida, France, Germany, Hawaii, Hong Kong, India, Ireland, Italy, Japan, London, Los Angeles, Mexico, New York, New York City, New Zealand, Paris, San Francisco, Scotland, Seattle, Sydney, Taiwan, Texas, Thailand, Tokyo, Toronto, UK, USA, Vancouver, and Washington.
On the same day, a Google Trends search revealed that these were the top ten places where searches for the word Flickr occurred (with the most frequent listed first):
- United Kingdom
- United States
- New Zealand
In many cases, the community members are distributed around the globe and will never meet outside of the Internet. This has also been true of open source developers. A few people may meet at an occasional technology conference, but many developers work together online for years and never meet each other offline. That these communities will be global has become so obvious that often neglect to talk about it at all; however, it deserves a bit of discussion. Because these communities are global, they have some unique benefits that come from having participation from a diverse group of people.
Unique Perspectives through Diversity
Each of us has a different view of the world based on a unique set of experiences that defines who we are. Culture, socio-economic background, religion, country of origin, gender, race, education, and many other attributes shape the unique perspective that we can offer in any given situation. For example, Dawn's personal interest in anthropology shaped the direction of this section of the book by drawing a comparison and contrast between modern, online communities and early hunter-gatherer communities while another author with a very different background might have selected an alternative comparison resulting in a completely different discussion in this section.
The digg community provides a good illustration for how diversity can benefit a community. Digg is a technology news site that displays only articles submitted by community members with no editorial body responsible for reviewing and deciding which articles are worthy of being included. The community acts as an editorial body when community members "digg" stories they like and those with the most "diggs" eventually make it to the homepage. The diversity of the community is part of what makes this site interesting. If the community members were all very similar people with similar backgrounds, the site would have a group of similar stories. Because the digg community is so diverse, the stories submitted by the users run across many topics. As I write this, the top stories on digg include such diverse topics as MySpace exploitation, EBay AdContext, research on a gene linked to Asthma, AMD vs. Intel, photos from the Hubble, nanoparticle breakthroughs, personal video screen sunglasses for the iPod Video, robots, and new media coverage of the World Cup. The diversity of the community members can have an impact on the usefulness of a community and whether or not people want to join and participate in a community.
Diversity is also a key part of what makes the blogosphere so interesting. We can get so many different perspectives on any single topic. In the old-style journalism prior to the Internet, we might have seen one side or even two sides of the same story presented in the mainstream media of newspapers and television. Today, we can read nearly infinite numbers of thoughts on the topic from blogs around the world with some being of higher quality than others, but with each adding to the overall story. Someone with a background in open source software might add something different to a technology topic than someone with a background in mainframe programming while someone in China may have a different perspective than someone in Germany.
The diversity of the blogosphere becomes obvious when looking at Technorati. As I write this today, the top 25 blogs on Technorati include a blog from China written in Chinese; corporate blogs from companies like Google and Yahoo; an Italian blog with versions in both Italian and English focused on political, economic, and other topics; and PostSecret, an art project displaying secrets that people send in anonymously on postcards. TechMeme provides another example of diversity within the blogosphere by posting popular blog entries along with links to other blogs that discuss the original entry. This typically provides a number of different perspectives on the original story by a diverse group of bloggers.
Are Online Communities Blind?
Another interesting dynamic associated with the global nature of online communities is that in many cases, diversity can be partially hidden. In the offline world, you can generally tell the gender, race, age, etc. of a person with whom you are interacting. In the online world, much of this information is hidden. Karl Fogel refers to this as "You Are What You Write" and has a great example to illustrate the concept. There was one developer who submitted great bug reports and fixes that were always of high quality. When it came time to complete the legal paperwork to assign the copyright for the code, they sent him the forms and asked that he sign one and have his employer or university sign another. The guy wrote back saying that he did not have an employer and did not attend a university. He was 13 years old and living with his parents. Because of his communication skills and programming expertise, they assumed that he was much older.
A benefit of working within an online community is that you can choose to reveal as much or as little as you want about yourself.
- Your profile can contain a recent photograph of you or an icon that represents you in some way
- You can use your real name or a screen name
- You can choose to identify with a gender or not.
- You can reveal your city, state, or country of origin or not reveal it.
With this flexibility to share as little or as much as you want comes additional ambiguity in how much information we have about the other community members. In some cases you may find that a person has similar views and ideas, but comes from a very different background, or you may find that a person comes from a similar background. It is this diversity and the differing ideas and opinions that come with it that make online communities so interesting.
Collaboration, innovation, and diversity all work together as benefits for creating an online community with collaboration and diversity both feeding innovation. Thomas Friedman says:
"the creation of a global, Web-enabled playing field that allows for multiple forms of collaboration – the sharing of knowledge and work – in real time, without regard to geography, distance, or in the near future, even language. No, not everyone has access yet to this platform, this playing field, but it is open today to more people in more places on mare days in more ways than anything like it before in the history of the world. This is what I mean when I say that the world has been flattened … It is this triple convergence – of new players, on a new playing field, developing new processes and habits for horizontal collaboration – that I believe is the more important force shaping global economics and politics in the early twenty-first century. Giving so many people access to all these tools of collaboration, along with the ability of search engines and the Web to access billions of pages of raw information, ensures that the next generation of Innovations will come from Planet Flat. The scale of the global community that is going to be able to participate in all sorts of discovery and innovation is something that the world has simply never seen before."
References and Notes
- ↑ The quote comes from Open Sources 2.0 page 264. The Network-Enabled Collaboration concept discussing the evolution of collaboration from early software to Usenet to other Internet collaboration is discussed in more detail in Chapter 16 of Open Sources 2.0.
- ↑ The original idea for this analogy came from Todd Kenefsky who discussed Microsoft's proposed shift from a software company to a media company. His point was that Microsoft will be facing many small, but nimble competitors, which he compared to being surrounded by killer bees.
- ↑ The Cathedral and the Bazaar page 30 of the 2001 revised edition.
- ↑ More information about The Northwest Colorado Open eGov Project can be found on the project website.
- ↑ The architecture of participation and the idea that "users add value" come from Tim O'Reilly's 9/30/2005 essay: "What is Web 2.0: Design Patterns and Business Models for the Next Generation of Software"
- ↑ These ideas come from Eric von Hippel's 2005 book: Democratizing Innovation.
- ↑ The Cathedral and the Bazaar page 23 of the 2001 revised edition.
- ↑ This example comes from Sonali K. Shah, Open Sources 2.0, chapter 21 and was based on an interview that Shah conducted with Larry Stanley, a pioneer in the sport of windsurfing.
- ↑ This quote comes from Jeff Howe, "The Rise of Crowdsourcing" in Wired News Issue 14.06 June 2006.
- ↑ This quote and the concept of Globalization 3.0 in the preceding sentences is derived from The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century by Thomas L. Friedman pages 10 and 11.
- ↑ The data about open source usage in Asia vs. Western countries came from the FLOSS surveys released in 2002 and 2004. These surveys have a wealth of information for anyone wanting to better understand open source developers.
- ↑ This example comes from pages 122 and 123 in Producing Open Source Software: How to Run a Successful Free Software Project by Karl Fogel, and it is attributed to Jim Blandy from the GNU Emacs project in 1993.
- ↑ This quote comes from The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century by Thomas L. Friedman pages 176 - 177 and 181 - 182.