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Open Source: Does a Collaborative Process for Developing Ideas Imply Innovation?

By Dick Weisinger

A goal of Open Source is that the model allows alliances to be built among randomly distributed remote developers.   The theory goes that the collective ingenuity of many remote contributors can focus together on improving and creating a much more rich product than what can be created by a single individual or small closed group.  The success of Linux springs to mind immediately as an example of Open Source collaboration work well and what many people would consider to be even better than the traditional process of closed development.

But does this type of collaborative approach inspire creativity and originality in the works that are produced? A group of behavioral scientists associated with MIT, Harvard and the Berkman Center for the Internet recently tried to get some data that would point one way or the other in helping to answer that question.

The scientists tried to see to what extent collaboration breeds creativity.  Their study was based on data made available from the web site Scratch.  The target age group for Scratch is young kids, but the age of contributors does vary widely.  Contributors of the Scratch community can upload and share projects that they’ve worked on — stories, games and animations.  Once uploaded, others can then download and ‘remix’ the work, making changes to the project and then again uploading their ‘remixed’ version for others to check out.  Scratch currently has more than three million projects.

The study found that very few of the projects that are uploaded ever get remixed and those that do have remix cousins that were only very superficially changed.  Somewhat paradoxically, the researchers found that the most creative and new projects are the ones that are least likely to be remixed, while the less original a project is, the greater the chance that it will spur someone else to attempt to alter it with a remix.  Their conclusion is troubling in that it suggests that collaboration is usually associated with discussion about ideas or things that are already well known and not that innovative, while more innovative ideas tend to stand on their own as contributions from single individuals.  Although could those researchers be missing the lines of influence from earlier projects that eventually inspired someone to break out into new territory with a new idea implemented from scratch (not based on a remix)?

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