When people work together for a common goal, rather than just the goal of creating more individual wealth for themselves, good things happen. In Wikinomics, Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams describe such collaborative endeavors as the Human Genome Project, Wikipedia, and even user-created Lego sets. They offer three rules for open source collaboration: “Nobody owns it, everybody uses it, and anybody can improve it.”
The example of the Katrina PeopleFinder project particularly amplifies the good that a self-actualizing creative computing community can accomplish. Here, “three thousand people, lightly coordinated” were able to aggregate information about Katrina victims, and personal messages to those victims, that was popping up in a multitude of places all over the web. These volunteer computer heroes were able to accomplish more in 4 days with a loose, self-made mandate, than the federal government or any other large, bulky, 20th Century institution could have done with millions of dollars in resources and one or two years.
So why is it so hard for institutions to embrace the open collaboration manifested in such success stories like GoldCorp, Wikipedia, The Human Genome Project or PeopleFinder? The record industry, for example, has fiercely opposed the bending of Intellectual Property (IP) laws as they fight against mashups of popular songs. But some argue that allowing sampling would generate renewed interest in many artists who escape current notice due to the plethora of emerging artists.
I recently received a message through a professional list serve that NBC is inviting submissions for a new diversity program. You’re allowed to use images, music, and other elements of NBC shows including The Office, to create a promotional advertisement that promotes diversity in the workplace. This open call advertising contest seems like a good idea on the surface. NBC is releasing its IP for mashups and collaborative filmmaking. The contest is even called WithoutaBox. But some deeper thought on the matter unveils the dark side of the story. Some highly paid creative types employed at either NBC or their advertising partners are being displaced by citizen filmmakers. I simply ask: Does this cross the line from collaboration to exploitation? Are the rights of the NBC staffers being undermined by mashup artists? Are the old rules out the window, smashed to smithereens?
While the motives behind NBC’s contest are not easily determined, I don’t think the efforts of the contestants are all that compelling. The ad agency people shouldn’t worry about being displaced. (Not that I watch very many commercials anymore, having just purchased TiVo.)
There are many instances where collaboration has led to better reporting and greater common good. CNN makes good use of viewer supplied videos and photos in its I-Reports, most recently with the collapse of the bridge in Minneapolis. Bloggers have revealed scandals such as the Mark Foley intern debacle and the unveiling of the widespread dismissal of Democrat-friendly U.S. Attorneys. So on the whole is it seems that collaboration even in the media is in the best interests of society at large.