Can Online Collaboration Make Us More Creative?

Virtual communities show how online creative collaborations can enhance creative opportunities by sustaining productive networks amongst users. Especially with mobile networks, one cannot ignore how instantaneous access to communication, and with it, creative works, has become. This ease of access provides users with the means to assemble creative products, be it through writing, recording, editing, remixing, or designing.

Does this ensure that the increased creative output arising from the internet will be of high quality? At the level of the individual, of course not. Just because the internet makes creating easier doesn’t mean that the majority of work it harbors will be creative. However, at the systemic level, our investment in the internet for these purposes can lead to a more creative society in general – or, at least, a society with increased creative output.

In Here Comes Everybody, Clay Shirky (2008) discusses how recent technological innovations mark an all time high in our “expressive capability” (p. 105-106). One example he provides is the growth of Wikipedia. Just as Walter Benjamin (1968) pointed out that the photograph transformed our conceptualizations of art (224), so too has the evolution of the wiki form in Shirky’s eyes changed our conceptions of knowledge from individualized to consensus-bound.

Wikipedians display several elements of what has been termed in network theory as a “small world network.” 90% of Wikipedians contribute little to the site’s overall content, meaning it’s likely that a tight knit community of editors operates amidst a network filled with weak ties (Elias, 2008). Weak ties, in this case, would refer to editors that have made minimal contributions and have not actively associated with other members of the Wikipedian community. The impressive rate of Wikipedian activity is an extraordinary instance of online creative output, as it involves synthesizing various sources into an objective, holistic account and linking pieces of information with other nodes through hyperlinking other pages.

Creative individuals must produce significant amounts of work to increase their chances of producing a highly innovative piece. Why would the same not be true at the societal level? For a creative society, a proliferation of potentially creative pieces from a significant percentage of the population is vital. Likewise, in using the internet as a hub of online creativity, we have given users common platforms to hear back from other users and to join different online communities, allowing them to gain the kinds of networks crucial to creativity.

With that said, it would be naïve to think that such a hub does not present challenges to creativity and the creative process as well. Whether it is fears of noise, information overload, or communities too large to support genuine creativity, I feel that there are many criticisms out there. However, to me, the misconception lies in thinking these challenges are unique to online collaboration or are something new entirely.

When using the internet for purposes of creativity, it’s important to keep searching for new online outlets for collaboration while securing a level of comfort and trust in an online community that the creator can depend upon. In doing so, any creator would be using the network architecture of the internet to his or her advantage.

Works Cited

Benjamin, W. (1968). The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction. In Illuminations. Schocken.

Elias, A. (2008). Interactive Cosmopolitanism and Collaborative Technologies: New Foundations for Global Literary History. New Literary History, 39.

Shirky, C. (2008). Here Comes Everybody. New York, NY: Penguin Books.

Ned Prutzer

Ned Prutzer is a former CCT Graduate Student.