Collaboration and Conflict in Open Source Projects

Nathaniel Tkacz

Working together to produce socio-technological objects based on emergent platforms of economic production is of great importance in the task of political transformation and the creation of new subjectivities. Within this process, collaboration has become a veritable buzzword, used to describe the human associations that create these new media objects. Historically, collaboration has been defined in two ways: one, as working together in cooperative unison toward a shared goal; and two, as cooperating willingly with an enemy (in a traitorous act). The first definition posits its subjects as sharing common visions and desires, a priori, who then work together to overcome barriers preventing actualisation. The only problem is how to achieve. The second assumes social unrest; an antagonistic setting where parties have very different desires and the only subject able to move between (or mediate) sides is that of the traitor.

Wikipedia is perhaps the largest open source (content) project described as collaborative. The thousands of contributors on this project are a disparate bunch, with visibly differing goals and beliefs that regularly manifest in vociferous conflicts. Because of this Wikipedia cannot be understood within the parameters of the first definition. Neither, though, is the type of conflict present here adequately accounted for in the second. Using Wikipedia as a case study, this paper highlights how so-called mass-collaborative projects are rife with conflicts based on fundamental difference. If collaboration is to have continued descriptive relevance for open source projects, it is argued that a third definition must be developed - one able to posit such difference as immanent, and foreground how collaboration is contingent on agonistic (Mouffe) processes of mediation.

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