Stigmergic Collaboration

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= a method of communication in which individuals communicate with one another by modifying their local environment

See Stigmergy for a full treatment of the topic.


  • Stigmergic Collaboration: A Theoretical Framework for Mass Collaboration. Mark Elliot.



"This thesis presents an application-oriented theoretical framework for generalised and specific collaborative contexts with a special focus on Internet-based mass collaboration. The proposed framework is informed by the author’s many years of collaborative arts practice and the design, building and moderation of a number of online collaborative environments across a wide range of contexts and applications. The thesis provides transdisciplinary architecture for describing the underlying mechanisms that have enabled the emergence of mass collaboration and other activities associated with ‘Web 2.0′ by incorporating a collaboratively developed definition and general framework for collaboration and collective activity, as well as theories of swarm intelligence, stigmergy, and distributed cognition.

Accompanying this creative arts thesis is a DVD-Rom which includes offline versions of the three Internet based collaborative environments designed, built and implemented in accordance with the frameworks for digital stigmergy and mass collaboration developed in the written work. The creative works in conjunction with the written thesis help to explore and more rigorously define the collaborative process in general, while testing the theory that stigmergy is an inherent component of collaborative processes which incorporate collective material production.

Supported by a range of contemporary examples of Internet activity, including the accompanying creative works, it is found that stigmergy is a deeply rooted mechanism inherent in not only traditional material collaborative processes, but a range of emerging online practices which may be broadly categorised as digital stigmergic cooperation and collaboration. This latter class enables the extreme scaling seen in mass collaborative projects such as, open source software projects and the massive, multiplayer environment, Second Life. This scaling is achieved through a range of attributes which are examined, such as the provision of a localised site of individualistic engagement which reduces demands placed upon participants by the social negotiation of contributions while increasing capacity for direct and immediate creative participation via digital workspaces. Also examined are a range of cultural, economic and sociopolitical impacts which emerge as a direct result of mass collaboration’s highly distributed, non-market based, peer-production processes, all of which are shown to have important implications for the further transformation of our contemporary information and media landscape."


Kevin Carson:

"It seems to me that a lot of the juxtapositions of "individual authorial voice" and the "collective," in critiques of "Digital communism/Maoism" like those of Lanier, Helprin, etc., miss the point.

The Web is not "collective" in the traditional sense of the term--i.e., as it was understood in the days before networked organization, when "collective" action could be taken only through large institutions representing some collective of human beings and coordinated by a hierarchy, in which each individual's freedom of initiative was limited by the coordination of a central authority.

It is stigmergic, which synthesizes the highest development of both the collective and individualism. It maximizes the efficiency of collective action by removing the transaction costs of voluntary cooperation. But at the same time, it is entirely a sum total of free individual actions, taken by individuals on their own initiative and without anyone else's permission. The sum total effect is created by individuals coordinating their own unconstrained actions with the common goal as they understand it.

Under stigmergic organization, any individual can formulate any individual innovation he sees fit, and make it universally available, and any other individual or group of individuals can adopt it as they see fit. If there is disagreement within a group as to whether or not to adopt it, they can fork and replicate two different versions of the same project. Every single "collective" is the product of the unanimous agreement of the individuals making it up. And every single contribution is modular, to be adopted or not adopted by unanimous consent in every discrete grouping out there.

So stigmergy is the highest realization of both individualism and collectivism, without either diminishing or qualifying the other in any way." (email, April 2010)

Nathaniel Tkacz:

"Elliott is not a critical thinker in the Frankfurt School sense and in many ways his works aligns perfectly with Bruns, Benkler and so on.[10] However, Elliott’s work is distinguished by the way it attempts to think the how of mass collaboration, its structural elements, rather than merely wondering at its existence. Elliott notes how collaborations have traditionally been thought to implode at around 25 members. This number was thought to be the upper limit of meaningful communication between participants for which goals, rules, roles and so on can reasonably be negotiated. With mass collaboration, negotiation falls by the wayside and instead becomes “stigmergic” in nature.

Elliott borrows the term stigmergy from myrmecology (the study of ants), which refers to how termites are able to build complex nests and mounds without any overarching blueprint or master engineer, or even without any individual ant able to conceive of the whole (2006). In its anthropomorphic manifestation, stigmergy describes a process whereby environmental conditions (such as poorly written Wikipedia articles) trigger a response in individuals to modify such conditions. This in turn triggers responses in other individuals, and a continuous process of modification and project development is set in motion. Central to stigmergy, and echoing thought on complexity in general, is that complex modes of organisation emerge from (in this case thousands of) individual members simply modifying their immediate environment. Whatever “whole” emerges is not conceived by any individual member.

Elliott’s thoughts go some way in describing the structural conditions of mass collaboration and although he remains highly enthusiastic and even utopian about such processes, perhaps unwittingly he also lays the ground for a politicised counter-reading of mass collaboration. Consider what we might call the dark side of stigmergy as a mode of organising production: participants have little control over the structures that surround them; their action is reduced to simple responses to environmental triggers of which they may have little understanding; and the negotiation considered so central to small, traditional collaborations is simply swept aside. Elliott writes:

In freeing up energy that participants would otherwise use in negotiation, more is available for contribution to a workspace’s domain level creative objectives. This has the effect of exploiting the potential inherent in stigmergic systems for globally coordinating localised input, thereby providing the capacity for the integration of a great number of individualistic contributions into that of a collective whole (2007, p. 138).

There are two important aspects of Elliott’s ontology, the first of which relates to negotiation. If the true moment of the political is the decision of one over the other, the “freeing up of energy” used to negotiate can be reread as a technical handing-over of the political as there are almost no opportunities to contest decisions. The second aspect involves a rereading of the basic process of stigmergy in relation to the human condition. Ants cannot perceive a whole mound or nest. However, a minimal amount of information passes from ant to ant in order for one to recognise what the other is doing and respond to it. Everything that emerges is determined by this relational protocol. With Wikipedia it is also the case that no individual can see the whole project and imagine every article. However, the minimal information passed between contributors (through both technical and discursive mediation) contains a high level of information and includes ideas about what knowledge is; what it looks like; how it is organised; how it should be expressed and so on. These “knowledge triggers” are so powerful that they can give shape to a complex process of human stigmergy. And when stigmergic collaboration appears to be working harmoniously, it is not because the mechanisms of control are removed, but rather that they are working particularly well. As Basem3wad makes clear, however, such mechanisms do not necessarily determine every individual contribution. Elliott’s work makes it clear that the distribution of policies and protocols and the drastic reduction of negotiation are central to mass collaboration." (

Poor Richard:

I agree that "drastic reduction of negotiation [is] central to mass collaboration" (Tkacz). However, it bears repeating that "such mechanisms do not necessarily determine every individual contribution". In the case of Wikipedia it is clear to me that they do not. In addition, a non-stigmergic framework with greater negotiation overhead is provided for higher-order collaboration, conflict resolution, and exception-handling. The stigmergy process casts considerable light on the success of Wikipedia, but only describes the "bottom tier" or "outermost ring" of that system. There is much more to learn about Wikipedia and other examples of "mixed" or hybrid systems for mass collaboration by pragmatically applying "Ostrom’s Law: An arrangement that works in practice can work in theory." (Ostrom's law:

Another way of characterizing negotiation-free behavior, long known to children, office workers, and other subordinates: "I'd rather ask forgiveness than ask for permission." Poor Richard