Collaboration and education

XVII.4 July + August 2010
Page: 38
Digital Citation


Jonathan Grudin

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Place a frog in a pot and slowly heat the water, it was said, and the frog will not notice what's happening and will thus let itself be cooked. Reportedly—I have not done the experiment—this is not true; the frog will actually jump out. But I'll stick with the myth. It is an appealing metaphor, because we know that our species is often not as smart as the frog.

Twenty-five years after its founding, the CSCW community concluded that it had been boiled. Its name no longer reflects the group's activity. Each word in "Computer Supported Cooperative Work" has lost its relevance.

C: Computers are no longer the only digital devices of interest.

S: Digital technology is no longer confined to a support role; it is integral to many activities.

C: The focus was initially on small groups [1] for which cooperation was the norm, but today's digital world features hacker attacks, spam, privacy concerns, conflict, and competition.

W: In 1985 systems capable of supporting groups were mainly affordable in corporate work settings. It's different now.

Recent weeks saw a spirited debate over how to address this. An informal discussion moderated by Loren Terveen grew to 30 participants, then moved to cscwname@googlegroups. Before running its course (or at least pausing), it generated several possibilities:

  1. No change. With a journal, two conference series, a book series, courses, and a quarter century of literature, CSCW has some external recognition. It is hard to give up an established name. Case in point: ACM has maintained "Association for Computing Machinery."
  2. Big change. Find a name that better reflects current CSCW research, such as "Social Computing."
  3. Preserve the acronym, but change what it stands for. The Springer CSCW book series was rechristened "Collaboration, Sociality, Computation, and the Web." Another possibility would be "Collaboration, Social Computing, and Work."
  4. Add a tag line. "CSCW (ACM Conference on Social Computing, Collaboration, and Work Technologies)" was suggested by analogy to "CHI (ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems)." Of course, the latter is more an obsolete legacy than a current description.
  5. Climb out of the box? Turn the decision over to the younger generation, who might come up with something altogether different.

Given the degree of disagreement and the lack of a governing body, inertia favors 1 or 4. The latter could be enacted by a single conference committee and would let European CSCW and subsequent conferences choose their own paths.

back to top  CSCW: Whence, Wither, and Whither?

The brief history that follows is marked by profound changes, which happened just slowly enough to escape the notice of frogs, such as myself, who were in the pot. Underlying the changes was Moore's inexorable law, which transformed the impossible first to the possible, then to the commonplace. Attempts to build even rudimentary theory on such shifting sands were abandoned. For example, real-time awareness of distant user activities on inexpensive machines was initially impossible, and later a major technical achievement. The first CSCW paper heralding this capability and celebrating its revolutionary potential was published in 1992. A quickening stream of papers on awareness followed, but within several years they were more likely to focus on how to limit awareness to ward off the demise of privacy. Other phenomena attracted media attention but proved to be short-lived—a "productivity paradox" in which IT did not deliver benefits was determined to have ended shortly after it garnered attention; a report of ill effects of Internet use on youths was contradicted by a replication of the study a few years later.

CSCW arose as the office automation (OA) research and development effort of the early 1980s screeched to a halt. OA was centered on minicomputers—cabinet-size computers that supported small groups and thrived between the mainframe era and the PC era. CSCW initially attracted psychologists, software engineers, sociologists, anthropologists, and researchers from management information systems (MIS), organizational theory, and artificial intelligence (AI) who shared an interest in workgroup collaboration. Despite this disciplinary diversity, most early participants were from software development and telecommunications companies. Having succeeded with word processing and spreadsheets, these companies sought shrink-wrap "killer apps" to support millions of small groups. The design and use of electronic mail was one focus.

The spread of the ARPANET and other national networks led to a focus on networked individuals, whether they were using mini-computers, PCs, or workstations. This subtly but effectively differentiated CSCW from the OA conferences (subsequently called Office Information Systems, then Organizational Computing Systems, and now GROUP), which maintained an organizational focus. For example, the design and use of database systems was a major focus of the latter, but not of CSCW.

The CSCW conference grew for a time, but it became less heterogeneous. It then declined in size from the mid-1990s, just as computer-supported collaboration blossomed and the numbers of relevant practitioners and researchers increased. Most likely this was an indirect consequence of computer science shifting its focus from journals to conferences in the late 1980s and 1990s. To motivate or demonstrate quality, conference rejection rates increased to 75 or 80 percent. Polishing work to clear that bar did not appeal to practitioners or to researchers from MIS and other journal-oriented fields. They shifted to conferences more interested in community building, such as HICSS (Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences). The small-group emphasis left little room for organizational theorists, who were in demand elsewhere when, in the mid-1980s, most study of team behaviors shifted from social psychology to organizational psychology. AI contributions disappeared, victim of an AI winter. CSCW conferences settled into two tracks: one for computer scientists who built prototype systems and applications, one for behavioral studies of technology use.

Europe was different. It had fewer influential mass-market software-development companies. The European CSCW conference series that began in 1989 drew almost entirely from academia and government research centers. It focused on issues germane to large organizations that developed software in-house or contracted for it, such as government agencies. Such projects had longer time spans and focused more on functionality, less on initial usability.

Over time the North American and European threads converged. Organizations that had built software from scratch began making more use of commercial software. People developing small-group software found that organizational context mattered—so much so that killer groupware apps never really materialized. The organizational behaviorists and theorists did not return to CSCW; instead, ethnographers studying industry practices, who were marginalized in traditional anthropology departments, were welcomed by CSCW on both continents. Computer science departments and information schools hired leading industry CSCW researchers, yielding a North American CSCW that was as academic as Europe's. GROUP, which was the descendant of the OA conferences, lost much of its distinctiveness as well.

The brief history that follows is marked by profound changes, which happened just slowly enough to escape the notice of frogs, such as myself, who were in the pot. Underlying the changes was Moore's inexorable law, which transformed the impossible first to the possible, then to the commonplace.

Demonstrating selectivity by rejecting most submissions helped CSCW researchers parlay their conference papers into academic jobs, but it prevented the conference from becoming a big tent. Other groups, including many in Europe and Asia where computer science retained a journal focus, left CSCW to form community-building conferences such as CollaborateCom, Collaboration Technologies and Systems, CollabTech, and later WikiSym and ICWSM (International Conference on the Web and Social Media).

On the surface, the current discussion about renaming CSCW suggests some of the divisions of the past endure. North Americans are quicker to focus on the social uses of technology outside of workplaces uses that are of intense interest to product developers; many Europeans are reluctant to move away from the "big W" work focus. But this gulf is likely to be short-lived: Barriers between work and non-work activities are ever fuzzier. Technologies bleed from one to the other more rapidly. The ultimate manifestation of this is the current spread of "serious games" or "productivity games."

Predicting the future can be a profitable endeavor but rarely an accurate one. CSCW has a quarter century of literature and a firm academic foothold, but there are no CSCW departments. Many leading figures have drifted from computer science to information schools, and its core subject matter appears almost wherever one looks, but rarely labeled CSCW. GROUP is fading—its SIG disbanded several years ago and its conference is unlikely to survive a shift of CSCW from a biannual to an annual conference in 2011.

An experiment is under way that might reverse CSCW's drift toward homogeneity and papers by a set of usual suspects, one that might put it on a path back to a larger tent. CSCW 2012 was asked to shift its submission date two months earlier to reduce proximity to CHI 2012, inspiring plans to introduce a true revision cycle for submissions. Some people from related fields who submit papers will get feedback on what needs fixing instead of a rejection. If enough people respond, both the quality and the breadth of the conference could increase.

A different initiative might be required to bring industry back to CSCW. Today, designers and developers are most likely to find useful research at the CSCW conferences if they work in a domain of interest to graduate students. This includes social networking sites, medical settings, ICT4D (Information and Communication Technologies for Development), sustainability, and education. Past CSCW proceedings can be accessed through the ACM Digital Library ( and the proceedings from the European Conference on CSCW are also online (

back to top  References

1. Irene Greif's report on the workshop for which the term "Computer Supported Cooperative Work" was coined was titled "Computer Supported Cooperative Groups: What Are the Issues?" Proceedings of the AFIPS 1985 Office Automation Conference (OAC'85).

back to top  Author

Jonathan Grudin is a principal researcher in the Adaptive Systems and Interaction group at Microsoft Research.

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