Redistributing Leadership in Online Creative Collaboration

(This post originally appeared on the Follow The Crowd Blog.)

Online creative collaboration is complex, and leaders frequently become overwhelmed, causing their projects to fail. We introduce Pipeline, a collaboration tool designed to ease the burden on leaders, and describe how Pipeline helped redistribute leadership in a successful 28-person artistic collaboration.

For the Holiday Flood, 28 artists from around the world used Pipeline to create 24 artworks and release them in the days leading up to Christmas.

Leadership is important in many types of online creative collaboration, from writing encyclopedias to developing software to proving mathematical theorems. In previous work, we studied leaders of online animation projects, called collabs, organized on websites like NewgroundsThese leaders take on a huge variety of responsibilities, and many become desperately overwhelmed. They also struggle with poor technological support, relying on discussion forums designed for conversation, not complex multimedia collaboration. To manage these challenges, leaders attempt less ambitious projects and embrace top-down leadership styles. Still, less than 20% of collabs result in a finished product, like a movie, video game, or artwork.

Our goal was to encourage complex, creative, and successful collabs by designing a technology to ease the burden on leaders. Two theories guided our approach:

  • Distributed cognition holds that cognitive processes can be distributed across people, objects, and time.
  • Distributed leadership suggests that leadership roles can be decoupled from leadership behaviors, which could be performed by any member of a group.

We integrated these theories and used them to design a system which helps leaders distribute their efforts across both people and technology.

The result is Pipeline, a free, open-source collaboration tool. Pipeline enables redistributed leadership through the notion of “trust.” Projects have two types of members:

  • Trusted members, who can create and lead tasks (among other privileges)
  • Regular members, whose privileges are limited to working on existing tasks

At one extreme, creators can replicate the old “benevolent dictator” model popular on Newgrounds by trusting only themselves. At the other extreme, creators can trust every member of their projects, creating an open, wiki-like environment. Most Pipeline users will opt for something in between, making real-time adjustments as needed.

The Pipeline tasks system. In this example, Spagneti posts a new version of a work-in-progress, and RAMATSU provides feedback. The right column includes information about the task, links to other versions of this work, and a recent activity feed.

We launched Pipeline in 2011 and have seen users organize a variety of creative projects, includi moviesvideo games, and even a global scavenger hunt. Our paper focuses on one case study, an artistic collaboration called Holiday Flood. Over six weeks, 28 artists from at least 12 countries used Pipeline to create a digital Advent calendar with 24 original Christmas-themed artworks, along with an interactive Flash galleryEvery aspect of the project was completed on schedule, and the Newgrounds community responded with high ratings and a staff award.

The main menu of the interactive Flash gallery for Operation Holiday Flood. Clicking any of the square thumbnails reveals one of 24 Christmas-themed artworks.

Our research suggests that Pipeline contributed to Holiday Flood’s success in several key ways. It emboldened the project creators to attempt something more complex and ambitious than anything they had tried previously. Pipeline also helped members perform leadership behaviors previously reserved for leaders, like planning, problem solving, and providing feedback.

For more, see our full paper, Redistributing Leadership in Online Creative Collaboration.
Kurt Luther, Carnegie Mellon University
Casey FieslerGeorgia Institute of Technology
Amy Bruckman, Georgia Institute of Technology

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