We often use these words interchangeably, but they represent fundamentally different ways of contributing to a group and each comes with its own dynamics and power structures that shape groups in different ways …
When collaborating, people work together (co-labor) on a single shared goal.
Like an orchestra which follows a script everyone has agreed upon and each musician plays their part not for its own sake but to help make something bigger.
When cooperating, people perform together (co-operate) while working on selfish yet common goals.
The logic here is “If you help me I’ll help you” and it allows for the spontaneous kind of participation that fuels peer-to-peer systems and distributed networks. If an orchestra is the sound of collaboration, then a drum circle is the sound of cooperation.
For centuries collaboration has powered most of our society’s institutions.
This is true of everything from our schools to our governments where we have worked together through consensus to build systems of increasing complexity.
But today, cooperation is fuelling most of the disruptive innovations of our time.
In virtually every aspect of our culture, the old guard is being replaced by cooperative, self organizing, distributed systems.
Collectives are part of the machinery of the previous era. They give priority to the group over the individual and encourage members to adopt a joint identity that unites them around their shared goal.
A connective doesn’t give priority to the group or the individual but instead supports and encourages both simultaneously. There’s no shared sense of identity in a connective because each member is busy pursuing their own goals.
Collectives are breeding grounds for hierarchies and power struggles.
Even with the best intentions, collaboration often encourages pyramids of power and authority. The higher up the pyramid you are in a collective, the more freedom you have to carve out your own individual identity and direct the group’s efforts towards your own goals. The conductor is famous while the tuba player remains unknown. But if the tuba player gets up to leave someone needs to step in to replace her.
Connectives are self-organizing and self-sustaining.
No master architect, conductor, or blueprint is needed. You can join or leave a drum circle at any time and the beat goes on with or without you.
Wikipedia is a collective. Delicious is a connective.
Hence the brutal hierarchies and old school power structures that govern Wikipedia. Delicious on the other hand doesn’t have the same problems; No consensus is needed because people aren’t collaborating. Each user is free to use Delicious for whatever they want.
Since connectives support individual goals, they create value even when a group is small and growing.
Wikipedia is pretty much useless as an encyclopedia until it contains thousands of articles which requires a huge collaborative effort. But the very first person who used Delicious was able to get value from the system right away. As the system became more popular new kinds of value emerged.
By linking selfish yet common acts together, connectives are able to empower individuals while creating new kinds of group value.
Moving your bookmarks from your own computer to Delicious enhances their value because you can access them from anywhere, but the kind of value you get from them stays pretty much the same. Once bookmarks are shared and interconnected though, an entirely new kind of value is created … one that transcends the original act of bookmarking and yet fuels it at as well; bookmarks are no longer just about remembering but also about finding. And this illustrates the real power of connectives: they’re able to support individuals while encouraging the emergence of new kinds of group value.
Nature is a connective not a collective.
In a forest there is no script that all of the organisms follow. There is no conductor. Yet there are countless levels of interdependence and cooperation at work in which selfish goals intersect to sustain each other and create larger, unpredictable, organic patterns.
Networks are fundamentally natural and organic processes. Although you wouldn’t know that by looking at the corporately controlled internet we have today.
Today’s internet inherited the political and technical baggage of broadcast era networks whose mechanical architecture is completely out of tune with emerging logic of our connected culture.
We want to create a new internet architecture that’s cooperative and organic. A self organizing, distributed network of equals.
We have the tools right now to roll our own cooperative networks at a hyper local level.
With a little tinkering, off the shelf wifi products will do the job. These mesh networks don’t require users to collaborate - they’re spontaneous, and self organizing.
But as these networks grow and need to be linked together over greater distances, collaboration comes into play.
It’s easy to create small, spontaneous, cooperative networks with wifi, but if you want to join these networks together with decent performance, you need to rely on point to point links to handle the long distance traffic, which by definition, requires collaboration between people on either end of the link. And the common protocols, naming systems etc that are needed to power larger networks will require some sort of governance which also leads us into a collaborative process.
Collaboration isn’t ‘bad’ but it changes the dynamics of the network.
There’s something deeply beautiful and rewarding about a community working together. In Athens Greece, point to point links are at the heart of one of the biggest community powered networks in the world and are crucial for delivering broadband type performance across the network.
But collaboration is often difficult to pull off, especially with strangers and in large dynamic groups, and, as we’ve seen, collaboration opens the doors for group dynamics that are at odds with the spirit we’re trying to capture and preserve in the first place.
Every point of collaboration is a potential source of conflict that often gets 'solved’ with artificial pyramids of rules, authority and power.
Do all kinds of collaboration threaten cooperative systems?
Can collaboration be transfrormed into cooperation?