The Industrial Age concept of a team is not appropriate for collaboration on the Internet
The group as an information source
After starting a family, I decided to retire from the hectic life of the ever changing and highly competitive London fashion scene to find a new, more sedate business interest. My acquaintanceship with the Apple computer had alerted me to the potential of a whole new world of possibilities that seemed to offer just the kind of life style I was looking for. It appealed to me to work from home with no pressures and not have to spend several hours of each day negotiating London traffic. My assessment was that CD-ROMs were going to be the next big thing and this seemed an ideal project to work on.
I moved away from London, into the countryside, to work on the CD-ROM "How God Makes God". In the four years it took, to create the CD-ROM and then for it to became apparent that the market hadn't materialised, I'd used up most of my capital and lost nearly all of my contacts. Once more, I was into familiar territory: back to square one.
I could have returned to London , but, by then I'd discovered the Internet and seen the light. The World Wide Web seemed to me to be the ultimate market place and I wanted to play in this exciting new game I'd found. The problem was I couldn't see any way in. I didn't have the knowledge, the contacts or the money.
Then, a friend of mine rang to tell me that a publisher's agent was looking for somebody to write a book about programming in a multimedia authoring package called "Director". He'd known I'd made the CD-ROM using this program and thought I might be interested. I was, but, the problem was that I'd actually developed the CD-ROM using another program called HyperCard and only at the last moment converted it to the Director format. In other words, I'd had only a very brief exposure to the Director programming environment and was a complete novice.
However, remembering my experience with writing the course on investment, I thought I could write the book as a learning exercise. My learning process could then be passed on to others who would also want to learn how to program multimedia projects. I made a proposal and it was accepted and I then set about writing the book.
As it happened, at this same time, Macromedia, the developers of Director, suddenly brought out a radically improved version of Director. It included many additional commands and features, new and quite sophisticated list structures and introduced special facilities for using object oriented programming techniques. This was a completely different ball game: presenting a far more difficult task than I'd bargained for.
I was in a fix because there were no books to refer to at that time. I then discovered that some of the more dedicated users of the Director multimedia authoring package had got together and set up a Special Interest Group Email Discussion Forum on the Internet called Direct-L. By subscribing to this forum, I found myself in the company of several hundred people interested in learning about programming Director. They ranged from novices to dedicated expert programmers.
I'd hit upon the perfect point in Hilbert Internet Solution Space to find out all I needed to know to be able to write a book on multimedia programming. This was the Internet equivalent of Hyper Hyper; it was a people place, a place where I could learn and get information to design a book on programming multimedia. It was a place where I could find out what people wanted to know and learn when using the Director multimedia authoring package.
At first, I was in awe at the expertise I encountered in this group. I daren't mention I was writing a book on programming because I had to start off by asking the most elementary questions. Cautiously and nervously I began to take an increasing larger part in the discussions. My knowledge of Director and the programming language (called Lingo) increased by leaps and bounds.
It was a revelation to me that I could so quickly learn to communicate and tap into the minds of some of the people at the cutting edge of multimedia technology. I could learn directly from the experts. Not just through passively reading, but by active participation and discussion. The experience took me right back to my days at the Radar Research Establishment at Great Malvern where I had learned so much simply by mixing with the scientists.
Here, I thought, was something really different from the conventional world of information and learning. As I asked questions of those who knew more than me, and answered the questions of those who knew less, I came to the conclusion that this was a potent and potentially powerful phenomenon. And, it was exclusively a manifestation of the Internet.
What struck me particularly, was the way in which it provided information on demand: on a need to know basis. Needed information was being provided through an intelligent interface: a group of humans. Indexes and search engines are often useful but very limited in the help they can give. They don't cut directly to individual specific problems, they don't prompt the asking of different questions or provide answers to questions that are needed but not asked. This amazing manifestation of the Internet, the Special Interest E-mail Discussion Forum, was doing just this: providing intelligent usable knowledge as opposed to mere information.
It meant that anyone could tap into this source from any starting point of interest or previous learning. Any member of the group could expand on their unique current knowledge; building upon it with a bottom up strategy by adding new modules of knowledge a piece at a time. There were no fixed methods or list of things to know, everyone could tap into this pool of knowledge in any way they wanted, to create and form their own niche that could be quite different from any others.
As the months went by, I came to understand how this discussion forum was being used in different ways by different people. What had initially appeared to be a single narrow based subject turned out to have innumerable variations. It seemed that everyone was using the Director authoring package for a different purpose and had links to all kinds of other interesting areas of digital communication technology.
I'd been very impressed by the seemingly altruistic and generous help provided by some of the members of this Direct-L forum. Every day, day after day, some of them were selflessly answering questions, giving advice and explaining all manner of technicalities. It was only after I had private email correspondences with one of them that I discovered this was not always as altruistic as it seemed. This particular correspondent told me it was the way he got most of his leads and contacts for his programming contract work.
The penny dropped. The success of this forum was not so much a mutual display of generosity and goodwill: it was providing a very practical and valuable service. The people who were giving were getting even more out of it. It was a win-win, non zero sum game where everyone was benefiting. This particular point in Hilbert Space with its people dimensions was an optimum point for many people: it was a knowledge generating machine that everyone could feed from. Even more of a surprise was that this knowledge generation system was perpetual and self-organising. It was being driven by needs that were continuously being satisfied - and the fulfilment of those needs was being rewarded.
Having realised that this forum was being driven by fulfilment and reward, I started to look for other motivations of the more active members. The more I looked the more I found. It then gradually dawned on me that this was not just some ancillary by-product of a multimedia authoring application, it was its main driving engine. The discussions on this forum were feeding straight back into the design. Further, it was not only an engine influencing the design of the Director application, it was an engine that was having a substantial influence on multimedia in general.
This indeed was a revelation. Here was another phenomenon unique to the Internet. A discussion group of customers that was driving a product and influencing a whole section of industry. Sherlock Holmes would certainly have seen this as a case for investigation.
As I began to see the further implications of this observation, I became more and more interested and intrigued. I experimented and found any attempt to steer the forum off subject was met with fierce resistance. This was not an organised or premeditated resistance; it was a spontaneous reaction from forum members to keep the email posts strictly confined to the subject of multimedia in general and the Director authoring package in particular . It seemed to be a self regulating system, obeying strict rules without any formal or recognised authority.
Many of the Macromedia staff employees were posting to the Direct-L forum. With some, it even seemed to be their full time job. Surprisingly though, although these employees were always trying to dominate the forum, Macromedia neither owned nor controlled it. The forum seemed to have a life and an independence of its own.
It was very apparent that the postings by the users of Direct-L were having a large influence on Macromedia's product and marketing strategy. Direct-L represented the opinions and the reactions of hundreds of different users, covering a wide range of applications and computer platforms. Although the constant barrage of niggles and complaints must have been a thorn in their side it was helping Macromedia to produce a far better product than they could ever have hoped to provide by relying solely on their own design initiatives and in-house testing facilities.
As the numbers of the people on the Direct-L list grew, so did its power and influence. It had started out as a small group of enthusiasts trying to learn from each other how to use a product and had evolved into a self-organising entity that was beginning to dominate the design of the product.