Redistributing Leadership in Online Creative Collaboration

Online creative collaboration is complex, and leaders frequently become overwhelmed, causing their projects to fail. We introduce Pipeline, a collaboration tool designed to ease the burden on leaders, and describe how Pipeline helped redistribute leadership in a successful 28-person artistic collaboration.

For the Holiday Flood, 28 artists from around the world used Pipeline to create 24 artworks and release them in the days leading up to Christmas.

Leadership is important in many types of online creative collaboration, from writing encyclopedias to developing software to proving mathematical theorems. In previous work, we studied leaders of online animation projects, called collabs, organized on websites like Newgrounds. These leaders take on a huge variety of responsibilities, and many become desperately overwhelmed. They also struggle with poor technological support, relying on discussion forums designed for conversation, not complex multimedia collaboration. To manage these challenges, leaders attempt less ambitious projects and embrace top-down leadership styles. Still, less than 20% of collabs result in a finished product, like a movie, video game, or artwork.

Our goal was to encourage complex, creative, and successful collabs by designing a technology to ease the burden on leaders. Two theories guided our approach:

  • Distributed cognition holds that cognitive processes can be distributed across people, objects, and time.
  • Distributed leadership suggests that leadership roles can be decoupled from leadership behaviors, which could be performed by any member of a group.

We integrated these theories and used them to design a system which helps leaders distribute their efforts across both people and technology.

The result is Pipeline, a free, open-source collaboration tool. Pipeline enables redistributed leadership through the notion of “trust.” Projects have two types of members:

  • Trusted members, who can create and lead tasks (among other privileges)
  • Regular members, whose privileges are limited to working on existing tasks

At one extreme, creators can replicate the old “benevolent dictator” model popular on Newgrounds by trusting only themselves. At the other extreme, creators can trust every member of their projects, creating an open, wiki-like environment. Most Pipeline users will opt for something in between, making real-time adjustments as needed.

The Pipeline tasks system. In this example, Spagneti posts a new version of a work-in-progress, and RAMATSU provides feedback. The right column includes information about the task, links to other versions of this work, and a recent activity feed.

We launched Pipeline in 2011 and have seen users organize a variety of creative projects, includi moviesvideo games, and even a global scavenger hunt. Our paper focuses on one case study, an artistic collaboration called Holiday Flood. Over six weeks, 28 artists from at least 12 countries used Pipeline to create a digital Advent calendar with 24 original Christmas-themed artworks, along with an interactive Flash gallery. Every aspect of the project was completed on schedule, and the Newgrounds community responded with high ratings and a staff award.

The main menu of the interactive Flash gallery for Operation Holiday Flood. Clicking any of the square thumbnails reveals one of 24 Christmas-themed artworks.

Our research suggests that Pipeline contributed to Holiday Flood’s success in several key ways. It emboldened the project creators to attempt something more complex and ambitious than anything they had tried previously. Pipeline also helped members perform leadership behaviors previously reserved for leaders, like planning, problem solving, and providing feedback.

For more, see our full paper, Redistributing Leadership in Online Creative Collaboration.
Kurt Luther, Carnegie Mellon University
Casey FieslerGeorgia Institute of Technology
Amy Bruckman, Georgia Institute of Technology

Leading the Crowd

by Kurt Luther (Georgia Tech)

Who tells the crowd what to do? In the mid-2000s, when online collaboration was just beginning to attract mainstream attention, common explanations included phrases like “self-organization” and “the invisible hand.” These ideas, as Steven Weber has noted, served mainly as placeholders for more detailed, nuanced theories that had yet to be developed [6]. Fortunately, the last half-decade has filled many of these gaps with a wealth of empirical research looking at how online collaboration really works.

One of the most compelling findings from this literature is the central importance of leadership. Rather than self-organizing, or being guided by an invisible hand, the most successful crowds are led by competent, communicative, charismatic individuals [2,4,5]. For example, Linus Torvalds started Linux, and Jimmy Wales co-founded Wikipedia. The similar histories of these projects suggest a more general lesson about the close coupling between success and leadership. With both Wikipedia and Linux, the collaboration began when the project founder brought some compelling ideas to a community and asked for help. As the project gained popularity, its success attracted new members. Fans wanted to get involved. Thousands of people sought to contribute–but how could they coordinate their efforts?

(from “The Wisdom of the Chaperones” by Chris Wilson, Slate, Feb. 22, 2008)

Part of the answer, as with traditional organizations, includes new leadership roles. For a while, the project founder may lead alone, acting as a “benevolent dictator.” But eventually, most dictators crowdsource leadership, too. They step back, decentralizing their power into an increasingly stratified hierarchy of authority. As Wikipedia has grown to be the world’s largest encyclopedia, Wales has delegated most day-to-day responsibilities to hundreds of administrators, bureaucrats, stewards, and other sub-leaders [1]. As Linux exploded in popularity, Torvalds appointed lieutenants and maintainers to assist him [6]. When authority isn’t decentralized among the crowd, however, leaders can become overburdened. Amy Bruckman and I have studied hundreds of crowdsourced movie productions and found that because leaders lack technological support to be anything other than benevolent dictators, they struggle mightily, and most fail to complete their movies [2,3].

This last point is a potent reminder: all leadership is hard, but leading online collaborations brings special challenges. As technologists and researchers, we can help alleviate these challenges. At Georgia Tech, we are building Pipeline, a movie crowdsourcing platform meant to ease the burden on leaders, but also help us understand which leadership styles work best. Of course, Pipeline is just the tip of the iceberg–many experiments, studies, and software designs can help us understand this new type of creative collaboration. We’re all excited about the wisdom of crowds, but let us not forget the leaders of crowds.

Kurt Luther is a fifth-year Ph.D. candidate in social computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology. His dissertation research explores the role of leadership in online creative collaboration.


  1. Andrea Forte, Vanesa Larco, and Amy Bruckman, “Decentralization in Wikipedia Governance,” Journal of Management Information Systems 26, no. 1 (Summer): 49-72.
  2. Kurt Luther, Kelly Caine, Kevin Ziegler, and Amy Bruckman, “Why It Works (When It Works): Success Factors in Online Creative Collaboration,” in Proceedings of GROUP 2010 (New York, NY, USA: ACM, 2010), 1–10.
  3. Kurt Luther and Amy Bruckman, “Leadership in Online Creative Collaboration,” in Proceedings of CSCW 2008 (San Diego, CA, USA: ACM, 2008), 343-352.
  4. Siobhán O’Mahony and Fabrizio Ferraro, “The Emergence of Governance in an Open Source Community,” Academy of Management Journal 50, no. 5 (October 2007): 1079-1106.
  5. Joseph M. Reagle, “Do As I Do: Authorial Leadership in Wikipedia,” in Proceedings of WikiSym 2007 (Montreal, Quebec, Canada: ACM, 2007), 143-156.
  6. Steven Weber, The Success of Open Source (Harvard University Press, 2004).

Workshop Paper
Fast, Accurate, and Brilliant: Realizing the Potential of Crowdsourcing and Human Computation