Defining Collaboration

Collaboration is largely undefined in a broad technological sense. In a technical context it has been reduced to a buzzword: everybody loves it and every user wants it and every technology seems to support it—but nobody seems to know what it is. When "collaborative" means something different to each individual and in the context of each "collaborative" technology, the label becomes effectively meaningless.

Farkas' four-pronged definition, referenced in Chapter 1, provides a useful place to begin. While Farkas offers four definitions, it is his last definition, "one person working interactively with one or more persons and drafting a document based on the ideas of the person or persons," that is of primary interest to this argument. A technology that can facilitate two authors working on the complete text of the document can, with slight modifications—perhaps even managerial or other non-technical changes—also facilitate two authors contributing parts or the process of editorial review. While more difficult to implement, technology that extensibly and flexibly supports the type of collaboration in the first, more "problematic" in Farkas' words, definition, will always be more nuanced, flexible, and advanced than technologies that only support one or more of the last three.

Building from Farkas' definitions, my own concept of "meaningful collaboration" describes processes that are flexible enough to encapsulate all four of the types of collaboration listed above in broader, more flexible ways. By de-emphasizing the importance of compartmentalization, fixed roles, and territoriality implicit in the three final definitions, a collaborative project has more control of the structures and code that control the way you collaborate. For these reasons, it this definition of meaningful collaboration, and the power and flexibility that it affords, that is the central focus of this essay.