Portrait Hi There.

I design environments that try to stimulate online participation, specifically towards the goal of CollectiveProblemSolving.

The Collective Problem Solving Wiki is trying to understand how to apply technology, design, and knowledge of human social dynamics to more effectively solve problems together online. Won’t you join us?

CommunityWiki has taught me about how open discussion (“jam-sessions”), unique perspectives, and the encouragement of our common interests can be effective in moving the world forward.

Since I’m not a hardcore techie, I’m most interested in high-level, online construction toolkits (configurable wiki engines, Drupal, Movable Type, etc.); innovative ways of using the web collaboratively (peer lending); and new mechanisms that move existing platforms forward (online reputation systems). And I am deeply interested in the psychology behind online participation.

I am also designing software, dubbed “Solution Factory” (currently in figment-of-imagination phase) that allows disparate groups of people to collectively design solutions to specific problems. User-led innovation is not a new concept, but there are no good tools for aggregating user-generated insights and proposals towards solving collective problems. The concept is as web-based social software designed to leverage user participation and balance the benefits of competition and collaboration. At the risk of sounding completely over-the-top, my hope is to realize something like this to help radically decentralize organizations and make work a lot more fun and meaningful [1]. Ultimately, I want individuals everywhere to feel that opportunities abound and power to change their lives is embodied in the freedom of participatory environments (I realize we are far from this ideal today). Most importantly, I want this shift to happen while avoiding the introduction of unnecessary evilness - like, for example, these opportunities only being available to the 2%. While I have faith that the business marketplace will eventually help realize these goals with technology, I fear the speed bumps along the way.

About Me

Thoughts in Progress

In trying to learn what helps online communities and participatory environments succeed, I am struck by the value of supportive networks. One that helps, but also pushes the newbie towards some focus, some articulation of purpose, or at least some initial goals. In most communities, this is less direct and more socially influential (e.g. hints from your family to get a job in RL, or perhaps a ‘go read the FAQ’ jab on a discussion board). This attention is simultaneously encouraging yet demanding. A timeless mix to be sure, but now finding its place in online community’s social sphere.

Pages I Am Cultivating

To Do

Write: What ingredients inspire effective online participatory behavior?


KeithHopper moved and reworked this thread -  thx: ZL, SR, LK, MM, et. al 10.2006

I would love comments, questions, and feedback on anything. Put it right on this page. If you’re even vaguely interested in the concept of CollectiveProblemSolving, please consider contributing to the Collective Problem Solving Wiki.

Keith, I’m sorry that I’m no expert on problem solving, so I can just offer some stories or wild associations.

In early 2006 a German professor for philosophy and book author, and WikiPedia user, started a wiki project for solving all kinds of problems, based an rational decision making, based on the concepts of critical rationalism. He created two wikis, English and German, wrote a couple of good introductory pages on each and waited for these wikis to take off. After a few weeks of waiting and only a few contributions of wiki travellers, he was annoyed because of this obvious lack of interest and gave up. To me it’s an example of the negative effects of wikipedia, because people expect their own projects to behave the same way as the gigantic Wikipedia and they have no chance to aquire a realistic attitude that would let them succeed.

Second thought is that problem solving is really a rare activity. It’s seems questionable whether there is a need to support it, collectively or not. Weird statement, isn’t it? … Just to provoke a discussion: What’s more useful than solving problems is to reuse existing problem solutions.

Which brings me to ChristopherAlexander and his pattern method, which is based on collections of patterns, which are “solutions to problems in a context” and fit that bill. Pattern languages put together patterns and the necessary process know-how. Actually Alexander conceptualizes the methods that nature uses to develop living systems (Popper: “Life is problem solving”) into a theory of transformation and unfolding. Which suggests “collective pattern language development”. Which is actually done in many wikis.

Just my $ 0.02.

Well, I’m sure there’s a way one could improve the entire process.

I agree that the answer to recurring problems (“problem solving”) these days should be a collection of patterns as used by Christopher Alexander. But that doesn’t mean that wikis are the best tools for “aggregating user-generated insights and proposals”. Assuming I run an association that has financial problems, managed to solve my problem, and want to contribute it to a pattern collection that helped me solve my previous problems – what are the various use cases?

  1. Enter my pattern according to a standard.
  2. Allow other users to say “me too”
  3. Allow other users to say “didn’t work for me”
  4. Allow other users to add additional constraints
  5. Allow other users to fork the pattern, using a slightly different set of contraints and resulting in a slightly different output
  6. Allow other users to re-arrange patterns in a hierarchy
  7. Allow graphical input (true SVG integration is still a big item on my wishlist)
  8. Allow other users to score, tag, filter, and aggregate patterns (producing best-of lists, sub-sets targeted at particular domains, recommending particular patterns)

Currently on wiki – since it is a free form collaboration tool – allows all of this, but it doesn’t necessarily afford it (WhatIsAffordance). On the contrary, it seems to encourage OffTopic chatting, pages are TooLong?, ShallowPages get created, and a whole host of other things. Perhaps these are necessary to produce the list of patterns, but perhaps they are not. After all, Christopher Alexander didn’t write his book A Pattern Language on a wiki.

Interesting. Lion and myself were discussing the limits of wiki last night. I think we came to kind of a conclusion that it may take an explicit process within wiki, to produce more focused results, DocumentMode pages, refactoring of discussions, etc.

So, wikis can be great for focused work, (I have participated in very focused work on wikis that turned out some really great results), but, it takes a directive process, and creating roles and rules. Wiki can also work great for loose discussion/collaboration that has no defined goal. I think it’s harder to get people to use wiki in environments where at times people are trying reach a focused goal, and at times there is just more loose conversation. It seems like CommunityWiki and Meatball wiki both have this issue. That there is a stated goal of quality DocumentMode pages, but that there are actually many processes that are constantly evolving and changing for people to try and reach that goal.

Lion was suggesting that maybe there could be some people who assume the role of grabbing the key points from the ongoing discussions and creating a page for them.

I’m eager to talk about new wiki processes, WikiFacilitation, and so on. I feel the urgency of the CommunityWikiGovernment, though, and don’t want to lose it.

One quick point on the “reuse” genre of thought: Some times, you don’t have time to perform a study. Some times, what you have to do, is just use the tools available: whatever material things are on hand, and whatever ideas you have in your head. Sometimes, if you build up a little something with what’s on hand, then it will attract people (InternetConcentration) who know the stuff that’s out in the research world, and they can connect you with it, whereas you wouldn’t have been able to find it operating alone, even knowing generally what you are looking for. Sometimes, you look at “the literature,” and you go, “Wow, this is 100 years old, and doesn’t jive with what we understand about the world today.” (And so on.) I agree that the first thing to do these days is to perform a research study. But I don’t think that it should freeze action, either. Equal parts study and practice. If there’s an idea we need to process, and the only energy available to us is to start reinventing the wheel, reinvent the wheel. As you do so, and then discover more advanced wheel designs, you will have the energy and wherewithal to upgrade. And when you read new texts, you will have a “hook” in practical experience for that knowledge to hang from. We always have to guage our gradient: “Do I go to the next formal step? Can I invest the energy to take the next formal step? Maybe I want to go in a slightly different direction?” If you’re making a radically new kind of wiki software, is it better to learn all of MoinMoin, before you start making changes? It may be better to take SeanPalmer’s wiki-in-one-page-of-text, and add your little idea there, to make a proof-of-concept. What if you can’t find his source code? What if you’re not connected to the Internet? Then write your own. But don’t lose the energy behind your idea, if you think it’s a worthy idea. If the time to scour the Internet is competitive with the time to reinvent, by all means: reinvent. Hmm… We should probably have a page on this.

Using the term “problem solving” has proven to be, um, problematic. It means such different things to different people. For my own clarification, I have gotten to defining problem solving as “with purpose”. That would make the wiki of mention titled something more like “Collective Action With Purpose”. While this sounds a little weird, I like how it points to the meat of what is worthy of exploring: how can we leverage these inspirational community environments to achieve a specific purpose or outcome.

Having said that, I have come to really appreciate the different-things-to-different-people aspect of CollectiveProblemSolving. People reference the most amazing and interesting things (like pattern matching). I am excited by what I have learned and the collective knowledge that has come together around this. Some contributions, just in their unexpected interpretation of what CPS is, are mind-expanding and revolutionary.

Helmut: On not supporting problem solving - it doesn’t have to support it explicitly. Some would argue that the free market is the ultimate problem-solving tool. For example, you’d be hard pressed to try and explicitly get a barren field in Iowa to affordably become a gourmet dinner on my plate in Boston.

Alex: Wiki is neat for problem-solving because it’s flexible enough to layer different processes on top of it – up to a point. These processes are also heavily social, so it allows for more experimentation in that realm (for better or worse). For example, you can’t just push a magic button that says “implement governance, push person off island.”

Environments with stricter controls might do this, but they also limit the encouragement found in free-wheeling appropriation. There’s some balance to be found in the middle based on what currently needs to be accomplished as interim community objectives, such as gaining critical mass, getting valuable input, encouraging people up or down, separating signal from noise, etc. etc. Anyway, this has obviously been said before in more on-topic discussions.

Sam: You’ve articulated a very important and relevant point here (might as well add CollectiveProblemSolving wiki to your list of challenged wikis)


some times you don't have time to perform a study

This is somewhat the idea behind the LazyWeb?

if your online publishing outlet has enough readers, someone will provide the answer to a question you are too lazy to research yourself.

It is also an important aspect of CollectiveProblemSolving in that it addresses two key challenges:

  1. Problem-solving can be a chore. (In the OSS world, this is addressed by giving someone a big pile of free source code and suggesting they go find a problem to solve)
  2. Information transfer can be expensive (as in the economics of transaction costs) - this means collective action is perhaps less about emergence and more about convergence. Get the right info to the right problem for the least cost.

Also, I would be greatly remiss if I did not mention Peter Morville’s book Ambient Findability here.

Keith, if I understand you correctly, this means that there is no difference between what you stated as your goal “how to apply technology, design, and knowledge of human social dynamics to more effectively solve problems together online” and what we do and want to understand in the wider sense of “wiki and online community”.

Because: A GoalStatement or MissionStatement is considered a fundamental part of any online community project. This makes any reasonable project a “problem solving” endeavour. And almost every wiki engine developer strives to enrich his platform to support the users in what they want to achieve, to give them a collaborative work environment.

I don’t want to go nit-picking, but I originally understood your “collaborate problem solving” as a specific subclass of - let’s say “groupware”. But this difference seems to have dissolved.

there is no difference between what you stated as your [wiki] goal and what we do and want to understand in the wider sense of “wiki and online community”

I would agree with that, with the exception that the wiki community is usually focused specifically on the wiki model, and I’m thinking of wiki as a subset of a larger group of options (e.g. Ebay as a free market facilitation problem-solving model and as an open design problem-solving model, etc.). One aspect of my goal is to unearth new methods and concepts.

I was first lured to online community and the notion of collective problem solving from the concept of distributed innovation in open source - the idea of solving problems at the fringes in an end-to-end network. I tried to generalize this phenomenon by calling it “collective problem solving” (to think about how it could be applied outside of software development), but that often associated it with the groupware space.

While I think some of the most advanced thinking around team problem-solving can be found in groupware research and tools (along with creativity tools like ThinkingInParallel), this feels like only the tip of the iceberg. For example, most groupware is limited to a known team and doesn’t leverage the concepts of KnowledgeCommons, NetworkEffects, CollectiveIntelligence, or reduced transaction costs associated with online information exchange (to name a few disruptive elements driving the potential of this idea).


Define external redirect: LazyWeb TooLong

EditNearLinks: GoalStatement MoinMoin ChristopherAlexander SeanPalmer NetworkEffect DocumentMode


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