Meta Collab

Computer-supported collaboration research focuses on technology that affect groups, organizations communities and societies, e.g. Wikipedia:voice mail, chat. It grew from cooperative work study of supporting people's work activities and working relationships. As net technology increasingly supported a wide range of recreational and social activities, consumer markets expanded the user base, more and more people were able to connect online to create what researchers have called a Computer Supported Cooperative World which includes "all contexts in which technology is used to mediate human activities such as communication, coordination, cooperation, competition, entertainment, games, art, and music." - from CSCW 2004

Scope of the field[]

Focused on output[]

The subfield Wikipedia:computer-mediated communication deals specifically with how humans use "computers" (or digital media) to form, support and maintain relationships with others (social uses), regulate information flow (instructional uses), and make decisions (including major financial and political ones). It does not focus on common work products or other "collaboration" but rather on "meeting" itself, and on trust. By contrast CSC is focused on the output not the character or emotional consequences of meetings or relationships. The difference between "communication" and "collaboration".

Focused on contracts and rendezvous[]

Unlike communication research which focuses on trust, computer science which focuses on truth and logic, CSC focuses on cooperation and collaboration and Wikipedia:decision making theory, which are more concerned with Wikipedia:rendezvous and Wikipedia:contract. For instance, Wikipedia:auctions and Wikipedia:market systems, which rely on Wikipedia:bid and ask relationships, are studied as part of CSC not usually as part of communication.

The term CSC emerged in the 1990s to replace the terms workgroup computing (which emphasizes technology over the work being supported and seems to restrict inquiry to small organizational units) or groupware (which became a commercial buzzword and was used to describe many badly designed systems) and computer supported cooperative work (the name of a conference) seems only to address research into experimental systems and the nature of workplaces and organizations doing "work" as opposed to play or war).

Collaboration is not software[]

Two different types of software are sometimes differentiated

Base technologies like netnews, email, chat and wiki could be described as either "social" or "collaborative". Those who say "social" seem to focus on so-called "virtual community" while those who say "collaborative" seem to be more concerned with Wikipedia:content management and the actual output, e.g. Wikipedia itself. While software may be designed to achieve closer social ties or specific deliverables, it is hard to support collaboration without also enabling relationships to form, and hard to support a social interaction without some kind of shared co-authored works.

May include games[]

Accordingly, the differentiation between social and collaborative software may also be stated as that between "play" and "work". Some theorists hold that a Wikipedia:play ethic should apply, and that work must become more game-like or play-like in order to make using computers a more comfortable experience. The study of MUDs and MMRPGs in the 1980s and 1990s led many to this conclusion which is now not controversial.

True multi-player Wikipedia:computer games can be considered a simple form of collaboration, but only a few theorists include this as part of CSC.

Not about "computing"[]

The term social computing is used mostly at IBM to describe the field, in an attempt to invoke existing social conventions or contexts as opposed to technological attributes: the use of e-mail for maintaining social relationships, instant messaging for daily microcoordination at one's workplace, or weblogs as a community building tool. Most researchers argue that these are all forms of collaboration not forms of "computing", making this variant term an oxymoron: whatever is "social" about software it is not the "computing" aspect. The term has not caught on much beyond IBM.

Requires protocols[]

Communication essential to the collaboration, or disruptive of it, is studied in CSC proper. It is somehow hard to find or draw a line between a well-defined process, and, general human communications.

Reflecting desired Wikipedia:organization protocols and Wikipedia:business processes and Wikipedia:governance norms directly, so that regulated communication (the collaboration) can be told apart from free-form interactions, is imprtant to collaboration research, if only to know where to stop the study of work and start the study of people. The subfield CMC or computer-mediated communication deals with human relationships.

Basic tasks[]

Tasks undertaken in this field resemble those of any social science, but with a special focus on Wikipedia:systems integration and Wikipedia:groups:

  • Discover the multidisciplinary nature of computer supported cooperative work
  • Discuss experiences with technologies that support communication, collaboration, and coordination
  • Understand behavioral, social, and organizational challenges to developing and using these technologies
  • Learn successful development and usage approaches
  • Anticipate future trends in technology use and global social impacts
  • Analyze CMC systems and interaction via social software
  • Design CMC systems to facilitate desirable outcomes
  • Apply CMC analysis and visualization tools
  • Find uses of video conferencing, if any
  • Apply social ergonomics
  • Work environment design and A/V considerations
  • Improve audio and video encoding - from grainy thumbnails to HD
  • Improve and integrate common video conferencing tools
  • Analyze work processes, e.g. with the support of video monitoring
  • Deploy and evaluate systems for use in particular work contexts
  • Take theoretical perspectives to fieldwork, dealing with social complexity.
  • Performing observational studies
  • Work in commercial and industrial settings, domestic environments and public spaces

Problems of method, communication and comprehension in collaborations between ethnographer and system developer are also of special concern.

CSCW 2004 tutorials listed all of the above as desirable skills to know.

Mainstream research[]

A 2004 list of "coordination and communication technologies" includes:

"Innovations and experiences with Intranets, the Internet, WWW"
"Innovative installations: CSCW and the arts"
"Innovative technologies and architectures to support group activity, awareness and telepresence"
"Social and organizational effects of introducing technologies"
"Theoretical aspects of coordination and communication"
"Methodologies and tools for design and analysis of collaborative practices", e.g. Wikipedia:social network analysis
"Ethnographic and case studies of Wikipedia:work practice"
"Working with and through collections of heterogeneous technologies"
"Emerging issues for global systems"

Plenary addresses on Open Source Society' and Hacking Law suggest a bold, civilization-building, ambition for this research.

Less ambitiously, specific CSC fields are often studied under their own names with no reference to the more general field of study, focusing instead on the technology with only minimal attention to the collaboration implied, e.g. Wikipedia:video games, videoconferences. Since some specialized devices exist for games or conferences that do not include all of the usual Wikipedia:boot image capabilities of a true "computer", studying these separately may be justified. There is also separate study of e-learning, e-government, e-democracy and telemedicine. The subfield telework also often stands alone.

Early research[]

The development of this field reaches back to the late 1960s and the visionary assertions of Wikipedia:Ted Nelson, Wikipedia:Douglas Engelbart, Wikipedia:Alan Kay, Wikipedia:Glenn Gould, Wikipedia:Nicholas Negroponte and others who saw a potential for digital media to ultimately redefine how we work. A very early thinker, Wikipedia:Vannevar Bush, even suggested Wikipedia:How We May Think.


The inventor of the computer "mouse", Wikipedia:Douglas Engelbart, studied collaborative software (especially revision control in Wikipedia:computer-aided software engineering and the way a Wikipedia:graphic user interface could enable interpersonal communication) in the 1960s. Wikipedia:Alan Kay worked on Wikipedia:Smalltalk, which embodied these principles, in the 1970s, and by the 1980s it was well regarded and considered to represent the future of user interfaces.

However, at this time, collaboration capabilities were limited. As few computers had even Wikipedia:local area networks, and processors were slow and expensive, the idea of using them simply to accelerate and "augment" human communication was eccentric in many situations. Computers processed numbers, not text, and the collaboration was in general devoted only to better and more accurate handling of numbers.


This began to change in the 1980s with the rise of personal computers, modems and more general use of the Internet for non-academic purposes. People were clearly collaborating online with all sorts of motives, but, using a small suite of tools (Wikipedia:listserv, Wikipedia:netnews, IRC, MUD) to support all of those motives. Research at this time focused on textual communication, as there was little or no exchange of audio and video representations. Some researchers, such as Wikipedia:Brenda Laurel, emphasized how similar online dialogue was to a play, and applied Wikipedia:Aristotle's model of drama to their analysis of computers for collaboration.


Another major focus was Wikipedia:hypertext - in its pre-Wikipedia:HTML, pre-WWW form, focused more on links and Wikipedia:semantic web applications than on graphics. Such systems as Wikipedia:Superbook, Wikipedia:NoteCards, Wikipedia:KMS and the much simpler Wikipedia:HyperTies and Wikipedia:HyperCard were early examples of collaborative software used for e-learning.


In the 1990s the rise of broadband networks and the dotcom boom presented the Internet as mass media to a whole generation. By the late 1990s VoIP and net phones and audio chat had emerged. For the first time, people used computers primarily as communications, not "computing" devices. This however had long been anticipated, predicted, and studied by experts in the field:

Video collaboration is not usually studied. Online videoconferencing and webcams have been studied in small scale use for decades but since people simply do not have built-in facilities to create video together directly, they are properly a communication, not collaboration, concern.

ACM conferences[]

The Computer Supported Cooperative Work' conferences are held by the Wikipedia:Association for Computing Machinery Special Interest Group in Computer Human Interaction every two years, in the fall. The most recent was in 2004. Prior conferences were in 2002, 2002, 1998, 1996, 1994, 1992, 1990, 1988, 1986 and 1984. In the beginning the conferences were a small affair focused on such specific applications as hypertext - which soon got its own conference.

The conference series began when, according to Wikipedia:Jonathan Grudin: "Wikipedia:Paul Cashman and Wikipedia:Irene Grief organized a workshop of people from various disciplines who shared an interest in how people work, with an eye to understanding how technology could support them. They coined the term computer-supported cooperative work to describe this common interest... thousands of researchers and developers have been drawn to it."

According to Grudin, "an earlier approach to group support, Office Automation, had run out of steam. The problems were not primarily technical, although technical challenges certainly existed. The key problem was understanding system requirements. In the mid-1960's, tasks such as filling seats on airplane flights or printing payroll checks had been translated into requirements that resulted (with some trial and error) in successful mainframe systems. In the mid-1970s, minicomputers promised to support groups and organizations in more sophisticated, interactive ways: Office Automation was born. Single-user applications such as word processors and spreadsheets succeeded; office automation tried to integrate and extend these successes to support groups and departments. But what were the precise requirements for such systems?"


Other pioneers in the field included Wikipedia:Ted Nelson, Wikipedia:Austin Henderson, Wikipedia:Lucy Suchman, Wikipedia:Sara Bly, Wikipedia:Randy Farmer, and many "economists, social psychologists, anthropologists, organizational theorists, educators, and anyone else who can shed light on group activity." - Grudin.

Politics and business[]

In this century the focus has shifted to Wikipedia:sociology, Wikipedia:political science, Wikipedia:management science and other Wikipedia:business disciplines. This reflects the use of the net in politics and business and even other high-stakes collaboration situations such as war.


Though it is not studied at the ACM conferences, military use of collaborative software has been a very major impetus of work on maps and Wikipedia:data fusion, used in military intelligence. A number of conferences and journals are concerned primarily with the military use of digital media, and the security implications thereof.

Current research[]

Current research in computer-supported collaboration includes:

Voice command[]

"Computer..." - spoken often on every Star Trek episode

Early researchers such as Wikipedia:Bill Buxton had focused on non-voice gestures (like humming or whistling) as a way to communicate with the machine while not interfering too directly with speech directed at a person. Some researchers believed voice as command interfaces were bad for this reason, because they encouraged speaking as if to a "slave". A notable innovation was the emergence of the Wikipedia:video prototype - Apple Computer used it to test the likely user acceptance of a voice interface. They had very mixed results, and decided not to pursue such an interface at the time (late 1980s).

Link semantics[]

What's a "link"? What am I saying when I link something, or remove a link to something? Is there one Wikipedia:taxonomy of all types of links? Is there one per industry? Per profession? Per culture?

Since the 1960s researchers had been insisting that links should have types - that for instance a link that "contradicts" another should be easy to differentiate from one that "supports" another: all of the early hypertext systems had schemes for doing exactly this, somehow.

HTML supports simple link types with the Wikipedia:REL tag and Wikipedia:REV tag. Some standards for using these on the WWW were proposed most notably in 1994 by people very familiar with earlier work in Wikipedia:SGML. However, no such scheme has ever been adopted by a large number of web users, and the "Wikipedia:semantic web" remains unrealized. Heroic attempts such as have sometimes collapsed totally.

A lot of CSC researchers ask why, and why the interest in applying a semantic web standard should continue despite so many failed attempts.

Identity and privacy[]

Who am I, online? Can an account be assumed to be the same as a person's real-life identity? Should I have rights to continue any relationship I start through a service, even if I'm not using it any longer? Who owns information about the user? What about others (not the user) who are affected by information revealed or learned by me?

Online identity and privacy concerns, especially Wikipedia:identity theft, have grown to dominate the CSCW agenda in more recent years. The separate Wikipedia:Computers, Freedom and Privacy conferences deal with larger social questions, but, basic concerns that apply to systems and work process design tend still to be discussed as part of CSC research.

Online decision making[]

Where decisions are made based exclusively or mostly on information received or exchanged online, how do people rendezvous to signal their trust in it, and willingness to make major decisions on it?

Team consensus decision making in software engineering, and the role of revision control, revert, reputation and other functions, has always been a major focus of CSC: There is no software without someone writing it. Presumably, those who do write it, must understand something about collaboration in their own team. This design and code however is only one form of collaborative content:

Collaborative content[]

What are the most efficient and effective ways to share information? Can creative networks form through online meeting/work systems? Can people have equal power relationships in building content?

By the late 1990s with the rise of wikis (a simple repository and Wikipedia:data dictionary that was easy for the public to use) the way consensus applied to joint editing, meeting agendas and so on, had become a major concern. Probably the most interesting testbed for research into these questions is the one you are using: Wikipedia itself. It's "social" features such as the User talk page and "political" features such as the Wikipedia:Arbitration Committee are examples of how online systems tend to resemble existing media.


How can work be made simpler, less prone to error, easier to learn? What role do diagrams and notations play in improving work output? What words do workers come to work already understanding, what do they misunderstand, and how can we get them using the same words to mean the same thing?

Study of content management, Wikipedia:enterprise taxonomy and the other core Wikipedia:instructional capital of the learning organization has become increasingly important due to Wikipedia:ISO standards and the use of Wikipedia:continuous improvement methods. Natural language and application commands tend to converge over time, becoming Wikipedia:reflexive user interfaces. A concern that overlaps with Wikipedia:OOPSLA.

Telework and human capital management[]

Where are the workers? Do we care? How do we coordinate them? How do we hire them, fire them, help them find the right thing to do next?

The role of Wikipedia:social network analysis and outsourcing services like Wikipedia:e-lance, especially when combined in services like LinkedIn, is of particular concern in Wikipedia:human capital management - again especially in the software industry where it is becoming more and more normal to run 24x7 global distributed shops.

Productivity paradox[]

Do computers really do anything useful for human beings at all?

Despite a widely held belief that more automation means more worker productivity, almost all studies of actual attempts to add more "computer power" to the white-collar workplace demonstrated that productivity did not improve, and in many cases went down. Yet, the "investment" in computers and software continued. This Wikipedia:productivity paradox remains unresolved. See separate article.

Major applications[]

Applications that imply certain kinds of collaboration include:

  • electronic meeting rooms or other live group support systems
  • desktop conferencing and videoconferencing systems,
  • large public wikis employing collaborative authorship such as Wikipedia itself

Related fields[]

Related fields are Collaborative Product Development, CAD / CAM, Wikipedia:Computer-aided software engineering (CASE), CASE Tools Articles , Wikipedia:workflow management, distance learning, Wikipedia:telemedicine, and the real-time network conferences called MUDs (after "multi-user dungeons," although they are now used for more than game-playing).


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