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Five Hundred Lines

February 6th, 2011 No comments

A Sequence of Lines Traced by Five Hundred Individuals from clement valla on Vimeo.

The spirit of online group participation and collaboration is perhaps one of the more virtuous aspects of living an ever more connected, digital life. (Well that and the constant on-tap availability of free high-def streamed pr0n.)

The internet has afforded us the ability as individuals to work as a group to achieve amazing things we could not otherwise achieve on our own. Examples include creating a free and democratic(ish) encyclopedia, searching for a missing computer scientist lost at sea, analyzing radio waves from space in the search of alien life.

“Five Hundred Lines” is a visual exploration in the trials and tribulations of what happens when 500 people work together to perform a simple task – tracing a line. Each user is only shown the line the previous participant traced, so over time the line morphs and changes based on the how accurately each person performs their task.

Functioning as both a piece of art and a scientific experiment, the resultant video provides a demonstration of diligence, care and eye-for-detail through to outright sabotage of the task in hand. With each significant change in the course of the line we have to wonder whether the participant was adding their own personality, was simply not adept at the exercise or was essentially ‘trolling’ the task at hand.

What we are left with is essentially a visual game of Chinese whispers.

I think we can draw parallels from this video that occur in any group task or online community. The majority of participants carry out the task with a degree of care and positive spirit. Some spend a disproportionate amount of time and energy to input the highest level of quality into the project. Others intentionally troll, destroy and wreck the project for whatever reason.

This task fails to have any self-healing mechanisms in place – participants are not, for example, shown the original line or even an aggregate of the previous lines. Good online collaboration projects have such fail safes built in – wikipedia has version control that can be compared and rolled back, tasks like the search for Jim Gray or Seti make sure multiple participants see the same piece of data and respond with the same conclusion.

It would be interesting to see the 500 lines experiment performed again with some kind of self-healing and compare the final line drawing from each study.

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