REU for CHS: Small: Collaborative Research: Pathways to Community Success: Advancing a Comparative Science of Online Collaborative Organization

  • Shaw, Aaron (PD/PI)

Project: Research project

Project Details


Peer production – the form of community-based online collaboration used to create public information goods like Wikipedia and Linux – has transformed knowledge production, management, and innovation, and inspired millions of attempts to build collaborative communities online. However, the vast majority of these efforts – and even the majority that build sustainable and useful information goods – never become more than the work of a single individual. Why do some peer production systems mobilize large communities of
contributors and create valuable information goods while most do not?
To begin answering this question, we propose a large-scale comparative approach to the study of peer production communities that will test core theories of organizational behavior and advance both theoretical and practical understanding of collaboration in peer production systems. In particular, we will test three of the most pervasive claims about the organization of peer production: (1) that peer production is facilitated by low transaction costs; (2) that peer production is limited by competition for volunteer resources; and (3) that social interaction drives sustained participation and growth of peer production projects. Contrary to received wisdom, we anticipate that peer production organizations will be robust to small increases in transaction costs, will benefit from spillovers in volunteer effort across similar projects, and
that increased social interaction will drive greater quantity and quality of participation. In
testing these claims, we will design, build, and publish software to engage in
organizational-level analysis of wikis and a unique research dataset of nearly 80,000 communities.
Keywords: peer production; socio-technical systems; organization science
Intellectual merit
The intellectual merit of this project is that it advances knowledge of the determinants of networked collaboration through the empirical comparison of many public peer production organizations using the same software platform. We contribute to knowledge at the intersection of social computing and human collaboration by using organizational theory to draw inferences about the factors that predict the growth and survival of peer production systems. We also contribute to the study of organizational behavior by capitalizing on the
extraordinarily granular sources of data generated by wikis and comparing across many thousands of communities.
Broader Impact
The broader impact of this project is two-fold. We will develop actionable insights that communities, system designers, firms, and movements engaged in online collaboration can use to achieve their goals by advancing knowledge of collaborative organization and peer production systems. Additionally, we will generate a set of freely licensed and publicly available computational research tools and datasets. In both ways, we will contribute to the design of peer production projects and other socio-technical systems by developing
knowledge of the determinants of peer production community success.
Effective start/end date9/1/168/31/21


  • National Science Foundation (IIS-1617468-001)

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