Leading the Crowd

by Kurt Luther (Georgia Tech)

Who tells the crowd what to do? In the mid-2000s, when online collaboration was just beginning to attract mainstream attention, common explanations included phrases like “self-organization” and “the invisible hand.” These ideas, as Steven Weber has noted, served mainly as placeholders for more detailed, nuanced theories that had yet to be developed [6]. Fortunately, the last half-decade has filled many of these gaps with a wealth of empirical research looking at how online collaboration really works.

One of the most compelling findings from this literature is the central importance of leadership. Rather than self-organizing, or being guided by an invisible hand, the most successful crowds are led by competent, communicative, charismatic individuals [2,4,5]. For example, Linus Torvalds started Linux, and Jimmy Wales co-founded Wikipedia. The similar histories of these projects suggest a more general lesson about the close coupling between success and leadership. With both Wikipedia and Linux, the collaboration began when the project founder brought some compelling ideas to a community and asked for help. As the project gained popularity, its success attracted new members. Fans wanted to get involved. Thousands of people sought to contribute–but how could they coordinate their efforts?

(from “The Wisdom of the Chaperones” by Chris Wilson, Slate, Feb. 22, 2008)

Part of the answer, as with traditional organizations, includes new leadership roles. For a while, the project founder may lead alone, acting as a “benevolent dictator.” But eventually, most dictators crowdsource leadership, too. They step back, decentralizing their power into an increasingly stratified hierarchy of authority. As Wikipedia has grown to be the world’s largest encyclopedia, Wales has delegated most day-to-day responsibilities to hundreds of administrators, bureaucrats, stewards, and other sub-leaders [1]. As Linux exploded in popularity, Torvalds appointed lieutenants and maintainers to assist him [6]. When authority isn’t decentralized among the crowd, however, leaders can become overburdened. Amy Bruckman and I have studied hundreds of crowdsourced movie productions and found that because leaders lack technological support to be anything other than benevolent dictators, they struggle mightily, and most fail to complete their movies [2,3].

This last point is a potent reminder: all leadership is hard, but leading online collaborations brings special challenges. As technologists and researchers, we can help alleviate these challenges. At Georgia Tech, we are building Pipeline, a movie crowdsourcing platform meant to ease the burden on leaders, but also help us understand which leadership styles work best. Of course, Pipeline is just the tip of the iceberg–many experiments, studies, and software designs can help us understand this new type of creative collaboration. We’re all excited about the wisdom of crowds, but let us not forget the leaders of crowds.

Kurt Luther is a fifth-year Ph.D. candidate in social computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology. His dissertation research explores the role of leadership in online creative collaboration.

References

  1. Andrea Forte, Vanesa Larco, and Amy Bruckman, “Decentralization in Wikipedia Governance,” Journal of Management Information Systems 26, no. 1 (Summer): 49-72.
  2. Kurt Luther, Kelly Caine, Kevin Ziegler, and Amy Bruckman, “Why It Works (When It Works): Success Factors in Online Creative Collaboration,” in Proceedings of GROUP 2010 (New York, NY, USA: ACM, 2010), 1–10.
  3. Kurt Luther and Amy Bruckman, “Leadership in Online Creative Collaboration,” in Proceedings of CSCW 2008 (San Diego, CA, USA: ACM, 2008), 343-352.
  4. Siobhán O’Mahony and Fabrizio Ferraro, “The Emergence of Governance in an Open Source Community,” Academy of Management Journal 50, no. 5 (October 2007): 1079-1106.
  5. Joseph M. Reagle, “Do As I Do: Authorial Leadership in Wikipedia,” in Proceedings of WikiSym 2007 (Montreal, Quebec, Canada: ACM, 2007), 143-156.
  6. Steven Weber, The Success of Open Source (Harvard University Press, 2004).

Workshop Paper
Fast, Accurate, and Brilliant: Realizing the Potential of Crowdsourcing and Human Computation

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About Kurt Luther

Kurt Luther is a postdoctoral fellow in the Social Computing Lab at Carnegie Mellon University. His research focuses on how social computing systems can support creative collaboration. He recently completed his Ph.D. in Human-Centered Computing at Georgia Tech.

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