Computer-supported collaboration

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Computer-supported collaboration (CSC) research focuses on technology that affects groups, organizations, communities and societies, e.g., voice mail and text 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, enabling more and more people to connect online to create what researchers have called a computer supported cooperative work, 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[edit]

Focused on output[edit]

The subfield 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 from, rather than the character or emotional consequences of, meetings or relationships, reflecting the difference between "communication" and "collaboration".

Focused on contracts and rendezvous[edit]

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

The term CSC emerged in the 1990s to replace the following terms:

  • workgroup computing, which emphasizes technology over the work being supported and seems to restrict inquiry to small organizational units.
  • groupware, which became a commercial buzzword and was used to describe popular commercial products such as Lotus Notes. Check here for a comprehensive literature review.
  • computer supported cooperative work, which is the name of a conference and which seems only to address research into experimental systems and the nature of workplaces and organizations doing "work", as opposed, say, to play or war.

Collaboration is not software[edit]

Two different types of software are sometimes differentiated:

Base technologies such as 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 content management and the actual output. 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[edit]

Accordingly, the differentiation between social and collaborative software may also be stated as that between "play" and "work". Some theorists hold that a 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 computer games can be considered a simple form of collaboration, but only a few theorists include this as part of CSC.

Not just about "computing"[edit]

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.

However, the relatively new areas of evolutionary computing, massively parallel algorithms, and even "artificial life" explore the solution of problems by the evolving interaction of large numbers of small actors, or agents, or decision-makers who interact in a largely unconstrained fashion. The "side effect" of the interaction may be a solution of interest, such as a new sorting algorithm; or there may be a permanent residual of the interaction, such as the setting of weights in a neural network that has now been "tuned" or "trained" to repeatedly solve a specific problem, such as making a decision about granting credit to a person, or distinguishing a diseased plant from a healthy one. Connectionism is a study of systems in which the learning is stored in the linkages, or connections, not in what is normally thought of as content.

This larger definition of "computing", in which not just the data, or the metadata, or the context of the data, but the computer itself is being "processed", makes the term "social computing" have a whole different meaning. The repeated use of the "blogosphere" to process daily news has a "side effect" of building up linkage maps, trusted sources, RSS aggregator feeds, etc., so that the overall system is, in some sense, learning how to do something better, more rapidly, and more easily.

Requires protocols[edit]

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 organization protocols and business processes and governance norms directly, so that regulated communication (the collaboration) can be told apart from free-form interactions, is important 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[edit]

Tasks undertaken in this field resemble those of any social science, but with a special focus on systems integration and groups:[1]

  • 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.

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

"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. social network analysis
"Ethnographic and case studies of 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. video games, videoconferences. Since some specialized devices exist for games or conferences that do not include all of the usual 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[edit]

The development of this field reaches back to the late 1960s and the visionary assertions of Ted Nelson, Douglas Engelbart, Alan Kay, Glenn Gould, Nicholas Negroponte and others who saw a potential for digital media to ultimately redefine how we work. A very early thinker, Vannevar Bush, even suggested in 1945 As We May Think.


The inventor of the computer "mouse", Douglas Engelbart, studied collaborative software (especially revision control in computer-aided software engineering and the way a graphic user interface could enable interpersonal communication) in the 1960s. Alan Kay worked on 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 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 (LISTSERV, 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 Brenda Laurel, emphasized how similar online dialogue was to a play, and applied Aristotle's model of drama to their analysis of computers for collaboration.

Another major focus was hypertext—in its pre-HTML, pre-WWW form, focused more on links and semantic web applications than on graphics. Such systems as Superbook, NoteCards, KMS and the much simpler HyperTies and 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[edit]

The Computer Supported Cooperative Work conferences are held by the Association for Computing Machinery Special Interest Group in Computer-Human Interaction biannually in the fall since 1984. The most recent conference was in 2008. Starting with the next conference in 2010, CSCW becomes an annual event held in February. In the beginning, the conferences were small affairs focused on such specific applications as hypertext—which soon got its own conference.

The conference series began when, according to Jonathan Grudin: "Paul Cashman and Irene Greif 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-1960s, 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 Ted Nelson, Austin Henderson, Kjeld Schmidt, Lucy Suchman, Sara Bly, 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[edit]

In this century, the focus has shifted to sociology, political science, management science and other 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 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[edit]

Current research in computer-supported collaboration includes:

Voice command[edit]

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

Early researchers, such as 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 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[edit]

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

Identity and privacy[edit]

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 identity theft, have grown to dominate the CSCW agenda in more recent years. The separate 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[edit]

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[edit]

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 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. Different wikis adopted different social and pseudopolitical structures to combat the problems caused by conflicting points of view and differing opinions on content.


A report on collaboratories, prepared under the auspices of the National Research Council, described a collaboratory as a . . . center without walls in which the nation's researchers can perform research without regard to geographical location—interacting with colleagues, accessing instrumentation, sharing data and computational resources, and accessing information from digital libraries.

Tools and techniques for designing and running effective "collaboratories" among researchers with similar interests and a common language have been developed over the last 20 years and are well documented in the literature. Much of this hard-won knowledge regards process as much as it does technology.

In Datacloud: Toward a New Theory of Online Work, Johndan Johnson-Eilola describes a specific computer-supported collaboriatin space: The Smart Board. According to Johnson-Eilola, a “Smart Board system provides a 72-inch, rear projection, touchscreen, intelligent whiteboard surface for work” (79). In Datacloud, Johnson-Eilola asserts that “[w]e are attempting to understand how users move within information spaces, how users can exist within information spaces rather than merely gaze at them, and how information spaces must be shared with others rather than being private, lived within rather than simply visited” (82). He explains how the Smart Board system offers an information space that allows his students to engage in active collaboration. He makes three distinct claims regarding the functionality of the technology: 1) The Smart Board allows users to work with large amounts of information, 2) It offers an information space that invites active collaboration, 3) The work produced is often “dynamic and contingent” (82).[2]

Johnson-Eilola further explains that with the Smart Board “…information work becom[es] a bodied experience” (81). Users have the opportunity to engage with—inhabit—the technology by direct manipulation. Moreover, this space allows for more than one user; essentially, it invites multiple users.[2]


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

Telework and human capital management[edit]

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

Major applications[edit]

Applications that imply certain kinds of collaboration include:

Related fields[edit]

Related fields are collaborative product development, CAD/CAM, computer-aided software engineering (CASE), concurrent engineering, workflow management, distance learning, telemedicine, medical CSCW and the real-time network conferences called MUDs (after "multi-user dungeons," although they are now used for more than game-playing).

See also[edit]


  1. ^ CSCW 2004 tutorials
  2. ^ a b Johnson-Eilola, Johndan. Datacloud: Toward a New Theory of Online Work. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press, Inc., 2005. Print.

External links[edit]

  • - Collaboration & technology - help contribute to a free collaborative encycolopedia on collaboration.
  • SPARC - Space Physics and Aeronomy Research Collaboratory.
  • Science Of Collaboratories - Science of Collaboratories Project Home, with links to over 100 specific collaboratories
  • Paul Resnick - Professor Paul Resnick's home page ( papers on SocioTechnical Capital, reputation systems, ride share coordination services, recommender systems, collaborative filtering, social filtering).
  • Reticula - Weblogs, Wikis, and Public Health Today. News, professional activities, and academic research.
  • Fifteen Charlie - A weblog about the policy discipline of emergency preparedness and response. (This is just one example of a massive, multi-level, dynamic, ad hoc, politicized, life-and-death, computer-supported coordination and collaboration task. Question: What changes to the computing infrastructure might make this work better?).
  • US National Health Information Network News about and links into the US NHIN and efforts to build a nationwide virtual Electronic Health Record to support and facilitate electronic collaboration between clinicians, hospitals, patients, social work, and public health.
  • Political Blogosphere - The Political Blogosphere and the 2004 U.S. Election: Divided They Blog, Adamic L. and Glance N., HP Labs, 2005. ("In this paper, we study the linking patterns and discussion topics of political bloggers. Our aim is to measure the degree of interaction between liberal and conservative blogs, and to uncover any differences in the structure of the two communities.")
  • [1] - CSCW and Groupware Literature Guide: Randy's Reviews, Recommendations, and (Optional) Referrals.