Everyday citizens can be producers and distributors of information, which can then travel the world in an instant. Social media can amplify and extend the voices of individual.
At the start of the second decade of the 21st century, we’re entering a new era of distributed collaboration. More and more, people are working together in new ways, unfettered by geography, time zones, or political barriers. New technologies have created new structures for collaboration: ubiquitous, mobile communication allows us to stay in contact; innovations in social media create new opportunities for engagement and new ways to work together. I believe that in two decades we’ll look back on these innovations and see them as a harbinger of entirely new forms of participation that will fundamentally change the face of work.
Importantly, these technologies are not just creating new opportunities for collaboration that didn’t exist a few years ago—they are also enabling entirely new forms of collaboration that are unlike what we’ve seen in the past. These new ways of working together are upending business models and power relationships, and giving a new voice to individuals around the world. For example, Wikipedia’s model of peer production—coupled with social incentives such as reputation—has led to a community in which a hundred thousand volunteers around the world have created a landmark knowledge collection, used by millions more. The Open Source software model has led to the creation of robust software systems, created by their very users, that challenge proprietary, closed source approaches. Sites such as Yelp and TripAdvisor rely on content created by their base of users, and challenge centralized, top-down sources of knowledge. The trend toward distributed, peer production and sharing of information will continue, and even accelerate.
These new forms of collaboration are not only breaking down barriers between people, they’re also realigning the power dynamics between people and their governments. Everyday citizens can be producers and distributors of information which can then travel the world in an instant. Social media can amplify and extend the voices of individuals, as we’ve witnessed in the Arab Spring and Occupy movements: no longer is political thought or citizen reporting limited to samizdat texts, distributed by hand.
What will the longer term implications of these shifts be? Certainly they are providing a voice to individuals who may have not been heard before. But there are also dangers. Social media can reinforce an “echo chamber” effect, in which we communicate with those who share our interests or ideology, very different than the public commons of old. While peer production can lead to new forms of “work,” there’s also a question of how to properly compensate this work. While Open Source and systems such as Wikipedia show the power of volunteerism, most paid forms of distributed peer production today represent menial, deskilled tasks—think Mechanical Turk.
Our challenge going into the next decade will be to build the future we want. The technologies of social media create new opportunities for more and more of us to participate in the creation of knowledge and value; we must, however, be intentional to ensure that these technologies evolve along lines that reinforce discourse, diversity, and dignity.
Dr. W. Keith Edwards is an Associate Professor in the College of Computing at Georgia Tech, where he also directs the GVU Center, a 20-year-old research center focused on the human experience of computing. He has been a pioneer in the exploration of human-centered perspectives on computer networking, particularly in the home. He has also been active in developing more usable approaches to information security systems. Lately, his research has expanded into a number of explorations of the social impacts of computing technology and understanding how technology can support the work of non-profits and NGOs. While he is a technologist at heart, he enjoys working with designers as well as ethnographers and other social scientists.
An ACM Distinguished Scientist, Dr. Edwards has published over 80 scientific articles in major journals, conferences, and books, as well as two books on the Sun's Jini distributed computing technology. An active inventor, he is the author of nearly four dozen U.S. and International patents either granted or pending.