[Contributed by Sonja Sapach]
Feb 25, 2013
Question: Trust and respect for abilities and accomplishments are keys to successful collaborative work. But where do these come from?
Recently, I had the pleasure of working with various members of the INKE team on a collaborative, academic paper for submission to a journal. Not only was it my first ever journal submission, but it was also my first experience with online collaborative ‘real world’ work. True, I have collaborated on many projects with a vast network of others, however, these projects typically involved killing some monsters or collecting certain resources in an MMORPG. As I am writing my MA thesis on the development and maintenance of trust and respect in World of Warcraft, these things have been on my mind a great deal lately.
As I participated in, and observed, the creation of the above mentioned paper, I experienced two specific, powerful emotions – excitement, and fear. The excitement was easy to understand as I was actually able to work on something that will (hopefully) be published and shared with others. I was working with a team of knowledgeable and skilled academics from whom I could learn a great deal. The fear was a bit more complex as it had both an internal and external focus. Internally, I worried about my ability to perform up to the standards of the team. After all, as a lowly MA student, what could I possibly contribute? I was afraid that I would contribute something that lowered the overall quality of the paper, that my language use would be overly simplistic, and that my knowledge of the subject was too minimal to allow for a useful contribution. These are fears that consistently gnawed away at me, despite the positive reassurance of my teammates. I think these internal fears are reasonable ones, as they did not prevent me from doing my best and contributing something useful rather, they kept me on my toes, constantly aware that I was contributing to a team project.
The external fear that I felt had to do with working as a part of a ‘virtual’ or ‘digital’ team. I had only met and worked with one of the team members – my ‘supervisor’ on the Gaming the Edition project. My external fear was not aimed at him as I had already worked with him, talked to him, and developed a trusting and respectful ‘real life’ working relationship. My fear was more directly related to the others, the ‘strangers’ whom I only knew through emails, descriptions from my ‘supervisor’, and previous work they had done. We were using Google Docs., to compose the paper, so I only ever worked with these others directly through annotated comments, and by witnessing them in the process of editing and writing (when they were logged in). All of the team members had the ability to add to, comment on, edit, and erase parts of the paper. Any number of the team members could be online at one time, working on the paper together in ‘real time’. I had only ever written papers on my own, through an offline word processor. Any collaboration I have worked on has involved the face-to-face comparison of various contributions, and a verbal discussion on how to transform the contributions into something concrete. So, watching parts of a paper I am working on transforming before my very eyes was intimidating to say the least. My internal fears kept me in check, however, how was I to know that these ‘others’ weren’t going to mess everything up? How did I know that they weren’t going to erase all of my contributions, or change the wording and claim the ideas as their own? What was it that comforted me, allowing me to work as a part of a successful, online team? Trust and respect!
We live in a world where we almost have no choice but to trust distant others, people we may never meet face-to-face, with whom we will only ever have virtual contact. My trust and respect for the folks on the INKE team stems primarily from group membership and affiliation. I know that these people are academics with a wide range of experience and expertise. Working under the same ‘banner’, I trust that they have had to go through some sort of recruitment process, applying for funding, proving their knowledge, demonstrating their potential, etc. I also respect their various ‘ranks’ or titles – Dr., professor, PhD student, etc. I know that these titles indicate that they have overcome certain tasks – tasks that I am working to overcome myself as a MA student. I trust and respect them because academic honesty, ethical responsibility, and professionalism is inherent to their membership on the INKE team.
But, what happens when a larger number of strangers, with a wider range of backgrounds and qualifications are introduced? This is what we visualize when theorizing the Gaming the Edition models. We are envisioning apprenticeships, open to everyone, that can lead to significant contributions to collaborative digital scholarly editions. Inherent to such openness is the idea that not everyone will have an academic title, not everyone will have previously published work, not everyone will be a part of a SSHRC funded team. How, then, are we to trust and respect each contributor in such a varied arena? This is where the apprenticeship becomes critical. The idea is that all members of a contributing team will have gone through the same ‘levelling’ process during their apprenticeships. Everyone will have had to overcome the same obstacles. If I am working on a certain edition with a team of ten others, I know that they have all learned how to use the interface, that they have gained an understanding of scholarly editing, and that they have contributed enough time and effort to the completion of ‘simpler’ tasks, that they have earned their place on the team.
It is here that I have to argue in favour of the inclusion of achievements and badges in our model. The use of a system of badges, where player-editors can view each others accomplishments, ‘proven’ skill-sets, and contributions, is integral to providing the level of trust and respect required to work together efficiently as a virtual team. When we lack face-to-face interactions, there needs to be a way of creating and reinforcing group solidarity. Yes, this trust and respect will develop and strengthen as the teams work together and can witness the work of the others, however, there needs to be an initial reason for the trust. In my above anecdote about working on the collaborative paper, the word of my ‘supervisor’, combined with the ‘titles’ and previous publications of the others, and shared membership in INKE, allowed me to trust and respect them. However, in Gaming the Edition, there will need to be a specific starting point, where ‘strangers’ can look at each others badges (or points, or ranks, or whatever) and know that they have gone through the same processes of validation. The ability to view each others ‘badges’ will lay a foundation of initial trust and respect, enough to allow the team to work together and develop as a cohesive, effective, well oiled, digital scholarly editing machine.