"In the first decade of this century, we began to see the limits of our traditional institutions writ large. They couldn't move fast enough to halt global warming, to avert worldwide financial crises, to save our fisheries, or even to rescue our cities from souped-up hurricanes. At the same time, we also saw the outlines of new forms of social organization beginning to appear as we tried out fledgling experiments in participatory networks of all kinds. Over the second decade of the century, we saw these early experiments grow exponentially. Every kind of group--from large corporations and small startups to grassroots, nonprofit activists and entertainment media and artists--took the first steps toward defining a new phase of human society. We might call this the era of extreme-scale collaboration." - Jane McGonigal
Participatory Superstructures: Engaging the Whole Wide WorldEdit
Wikipedia is perhaps the landmark experiment that has altered the direction of human organization. In their 2006 book Wikinomics, Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams famously implored: "We must 'collaborate or perish'--across borders, cultures, disciplines, and firms, and increasingly with masses of people at one time."
The world has quickly responded with all kinds of experiments in mass collaboration:
- Peer-to-peer translation networks like DotSub provided an online platform for crowdsourced translation and subtitling of digital videos.
- Social news systems, such as Current TV's online "news game," invited viewers to help create online programming 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
- Citizen science projects like the stardust@home project invited volunteers to search for insterstellar dust through virtual microscopes while FoldIt! Created a collaborative and amateur-friendly protein-folding platform.
- Crowdsourced art, such as Post Secret, curated a collection of postcards from the art community, engaging people in sharing their most private secrets.
- Open-source search engine development environments, such as Wikia Search and Mahalo, used social networks and human filtering to improve search results.
- Crowdsourced artificial intelligence training systems like Games with a Purpose--GAWP-- used invited people to play mini-games designed to improve AI algorithms for things like audio music genre recognition.
- Participatory marketing campaigns asked consumers to create enthusiastic videos, wikis, and other Web 2.0 content to promote a product to the rest of the world--with examples like NBC's Official Wiki for its television series Heroes.
Participatory Scale: From Thousands to MillionsEdit
Just as experiments in participatory networks have exploded in number, they have also pushed the limits of scale. We're now looking at the possibility of mobilizing millions of people with minimal organizational hierarchy--outsizing the largest corporations and competing with the scale of national governments. Where size was once a competitive advantage in itself, the ability to engage mass participation is becoming the organizational frontier of the 21st Century.
This capacity to engage depends on technology, on strategy, and on some basic principles of engagement that we are just beginning to discover.
- Technologically, mesh networks provide the defining model for how networks can grow exponentially from the edges, without any centralized management. But what happens when you begin to connect one mesh network to another, linking collaboration on AI algorithms to citizen science networks to social news systems and collaborative 3D animation environments? What are the growth--or engagement patterns--that emerge in such mesh-to-mesh networks?
- Then there's the question of extreme-scale strategy. Strategy is, by definition, about long-term goals. But the meaning of long-term shifts as we shift collaborative scales. Extreme-scale collaboration offers the opportunity to set extreme-scale goals on a much longer timeline than strategy usually addresses. In fact, it almost demands that we lengthen our time horizon and focus on much larger goals.
- Finally, the basic principles of extreme-scale engagement are beginning to emerge from the fields of game design and social network research where fun economists and fun engineers are laying out new rules of thumb for 21st Century organization. Here the drivers appear to be less economic and more concerned with the pleasures of accomplishment and feeling capable. The desire to do a good thing and the opportunity to do meaningful work are key motivations, and the best reward is often a positive emotional payoff. Perhaps most important is working the participation pyramid: not everyone will participate equally but everyone has something to offer.
We are still at the very beginning of this new cycle of human capacity to organize itself on ever larger scales to achieve ever larger goals. But in a world fraught with unprecedented challenges, what a surprise to discover that we may find our way through this labyrinth by focusing on fun.