Clark Shirky on how to successfully (or unsuccessfully) attract online collaborators

From the “Oscar Wilde of the Internet,” Clay Shirky, the author of Here Comes Everybody, speaking at the Gov 2.0 summit:

In the talk, Shirky contrasts two efforts to open controlled data to online contributions and collaborations by users–one a success and one a failure (and as usual brings in other relevant topics as well). You should watch it for yourself–it’s about ten minutes long. He concludes the success or failure of such efforts is largely based on the kinds of social agreements that exist between the project sponsor and the contributors.

To summarize his conclusions, in order to be successful in soliciting creative and meaningful contributions:

1) The “social contract” with the users (the constraints and expectations put on them) must be complete enough to get them interested, but not so complete that it constrains creativity (“depresses them”).

2) You have to understand that the users are motivated to do things that you did not (and cannot) predict. And the more you try to predict (i.e. constrain) the more those creative forces will move toward destructive rather than constructive activity. So you have to give them “space” (or freedom) to participate.

3) The more you try to take credit for future success (i.e. hype what hasn’t happened yet), the less likely that success becomes. You need to have space to adapt.

Shirky then observes: “If I asked you to make a list of three characteristics that would flummox a bureaucracy, would your list look much different than that? That’s why this stuff is hard. It’s not hard because of the technology. It’s hard organizationally.”

Does this look like a list that would flummox the managers of most archives too? I suspect it does.

He concludes by stating that it’s clear that users of social software almost never do what the designers want or expect. And that’s if the application is a success. Failure is nobody uses it at all. Successful applications create surprises. You do it because of the possibility of surprises.

How open are we to surprises? How comfortable are our users with surprises? In the next post I’ll talk about the different kinds of social contracts archives establish with users in our Web 2.0 efforts, and how the “space” that we put our collections in affects our interactions.

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