Levels of Social Action

‘Social’ is a hot word in technology circles; new startups crop up everywhere promising social experiences, the term ‘social fabrics’ crops up in the strategy statements of Google and the like. ‘Collaboration’ shows up in business magazines, web technology conferences, activist manifestos. However, there is still a lot of confusion around what social action looks like.

The default word here – ‘collaboration’ – is used to describe a whole range of social or collective acts, leading to confusion on what social action is, and making technology seem more promising than it often turns out. Without more nuanced categories for describing social behavior, product & design teams will continue to struggle to understand what making their product more ‘social’ means, and how to understand the ways in which people do things together.

The ‘social’ notion/frame itself has gone through several iterations: starting with the articulation of social networks, on to the understanding of information artifacts as ‘social objects,’ to, most recently, the notion of the ‘social layer’. Along the way, the technologies themselves have revolved around some (mostly asynchronous) form of content sharing (Flickr, YouTube),  communication (Facebook), and emergent aggregation (Twitter, Pinterest, Foursquare).

I present here a framework for understanding levels of social action, based on an excellent framing by Denning and Yaholkovsky. In Getting to “We”, Denning and Yaholkovsky describe multiple forms of social action, and how they are related, as well as how they are related to technology.

Levels of social action. From Denning & Yaholkovsky (2008). Getting to “We”.

D&Y talk about four different levels of social action: information sharing, coordination, cooperation, and collaboration. I shall not discuss information sharing here: it is the necessary foundation on which social action is built, but by itself is not sufficient to encourage social action.

Keeping in mind the design of web and connected technologies, I suggest a reframing based on motives and goals instead of behavioral complexity: Collective, Cooperative, and Collaborative.

Collective action

In the category of collective action, a mass of people collectively create something. But – importantly – creating something together is not the goal of the individuals themselves, but is a side-effect of their interactions with the system, which produces the results because it consumes its own exhaust and traces. However, the knowledge that certain actions (e.g. rating something) will produce public good might encourage people to do them more often.

Technology examples: most recommendation and ‘social interest’ systems, behavioral aggregation (Foursquare), or collection (Delicious).


Cooperative action introduces shared goals, rules of behavior, and structures of coordination. It has the following features:

  1. The activities have stable and known rules that can be supported by structures of coordination – ways to let people become aware of each other’s actions and adjust their own accordingly. These rules are set ahead of time, or baked into the system.
  2. The group has shared goals: the goals are the primary reason for the group working together. The goals themselves may be layered and/or have a structure of completion, but they are basically known in advance and fixed.
  3. Roles start to form, and people take on different activities. Individual contributions are no longer equal or replaceable.
  4. If the cooperative activity has an end-point, that need not be clear to the participants.

Technology examples: shared information collections, SETI@home, Amazon Mechanical Turk, user-feedback/bug-reporting systems.


Collaborative action adds identity, culture, and self-determination to cooperative action. Collaborative action tends to happen when many fundamental assumptions – the roles, rules, information, goals – are liable to change, perhaps because of the nature of the goal.

  1. Identity: the group sees itself as a set of people that have a shared purpose and are coming together to achieve it.
  2. Culture: the group has a set of values, which are used to justify and select between competing rules.
  3. Self-determination: the group has a measure of control over its own destiny.

Supported by:

  1. Measurement and methods for self-awareness, so group members have a way to model and describe the group’s activity.
  2. Rituals, and layered temporal cycles of activity, to support multiple forms of cooperation, planning, and layered goals.

In the cases where collaboration is being used to solve a problem, there will need to be some sort of process. What that process will be, depends – as we know from participatory and co-design practice – on the exact problem and participants.

Of all these levels of social action, collaboration has the most extra-technological elements. Those elements can be reflected and embedded in the design of supporting technologies, but it is perfectly possible to do without designed technologies in order to achieve collaboration. The lesson here is that designing for collaboration is a lot more nuanced, and needs a lot more attention to the specifics of the activity. It may be that designing for collaboration means designing for appropriation, and to leave the technologies as open to interpretation as possible.

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