Supporting and transforming leadership in online creative collaboration

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Luther, Kurt
Bruckman, Amy S.
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Online creative collaboration is challenging our basic assumptions about how people can create together. Volunteers from around the world who meet and communicate over the Internet have written the world's largest encyclopedia, developed market-leading software products, solved important open problems in mathematics, and produced award-winning films, among many examples. A growing body of research refutes the popular myth that these projects succeed through "self-organization" and instead points to the critical importance of effective leadership. Yet, we know little about what these leaders actually do, the challenges they must manage, and how technology supports or hinders their efforts. In this dissertation, I investigated the role of leadership in online creative collaboration. I first conducted two empirical studies of existing leadership practices, focusing on the domain of online, collaborative animation projects called "collabs." In the first study, I identified the major challenges faced by collab leaders. In the second study, I identified leader traits and behaviors correlated with success. These initial findings suggested that many collab leaders, overburdened and lacking adequate technological support, respond by attempting less ambitious projects and adopting centralized leadership styles. Despite these efforts, leaders frequently become overburdened, and more than 80% of collabs fail. To ease the burden on leaders and encourage more complex, successful projects, I led the development of a web-based, open-source software tool called Pipeline. Pipeline can support leadership by reinforcing a traditional, top-down approach, or transform leadership by redistributing it across many members of a group. This latter approach relies on social processes, rather than technical constraints, to guide behavior. I evaluated Pipeline's ability to effectively support and transform leadership through a detailed case study of Holiday Flood, a six-week collaboration involving nearly 30 artists from around the world. The case study showed that formal leaders remained influential and Pipeline supported their traditional, centralized approach. However, there was also evidence that Pipeline transformed some leadership behaviors, such as clarifying, informing, and monitoring, by redistributing them beyond the project's formal leaders. The result was a significantly more ambitious project which attained its goals and earned high praise from the community. The main contributions of this dissertation include: (1) a rich description of existing leadership practices in online creative collaboration; (2) the development of redistributed leadership as a theoretical framework for analyzing the relationship between leadership and technological support; (3) design implications for supporting and transform leadership; (4) a case study illustrating how technology can support and transform leadership in the real world; and (5) the Pipeline collaboration tool itself, released as open-source software.
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