Collaboration happens around some kind of plan or structure, while cooperation presumes the freedom of individuals to join and participate. As a free-agent, much of my time is spent cooperating. When I cooperate, I give freely, but no one tells me what to do. On the other hand, collaboration is required to get things done. This is when we have milestones, deadlines, and deliverables. I collaborate on the projects and work I commit to do.
The social contract for independent creative workers is relatively simple. For much of my day, I work on what I want to. I do a lot for free. This is on my terms. I write my blog and share ideas with the world. I license these for easy sharing. Many people and companies use these ideas. This is fine, as I get to decide what and when I want to share.
I cooperate with a lot of people. I often provide advice or make referrals to my extended networks. I will share my ideas to help others do their work. These interactions happen almost every day. I have developed many professional distant relationships over time and I value all of them. For instance, I met Beth Kanter in person for the first time last week. We have known each other online for a decade. We have shared many ideas in a cooperative way, building upon each other’s ideas. The value I get from my knowledge networks is the main reason I stay engaged online.
When a stranger’s first contact is a request for free services, it is not often that this will turn into a long-term relationship. On the street, you might call that person a panhandler. Some people mistake cooperative behaviour in online social networks as doing collaborative work for free – it’s not. We cooperate because we want to improve our knowledge commons for everyone. In many ways it is a labour of love.
If someone wants me to focus on their priorities, the normal cooperative ways of sharing no longer apply. We need to agree to work collaboratively on a common purpose. In addition, working for another person or company’s purpose usually requires some financial compensation. But money cannot be the prime motivator, so I find it’s best to discuss this up front and set a price. Then we can get the money off the table. After that, we can get to work, and maybe even have some fun.
Don’t mistake cooperation for collaboration. While there may be a gift economy in cooperatively sharing via social media, you cannot engage in it unless you give gifts as well. For example, you would not show up at a potluck dinner with empty hands. If you need creative or knowledge services, don’t drop in uninvited to the social media potluck, expecting a free meal. Go to the market instead.