Pipeline aims to help online projects

Desiree Xu Mar 26, 2013

It’s easy to get the ball rolling for an online project, but managing them is a different story. Kurt Luther is out to make the managing aspects a whole lot easier. A postdoctoral fellow at Carnegie Mellon’s Human-Computer Interaction Institute, Luther is the creator of Pipeline, a tool that will help people collaborate on online projects. After researching the way online collaborations currently work, Luther identified some key problem areas.

“On one hand, the creator can just trust himself and everyone else in the project is not trusted. That ends up looking like a benevolent dictatorship and is sort of a top -down style of leadership…. On the other hand, the creator can trust almost everyone in the project, causing it to look like a wiki system where software doesn’t constrain what people are allowed to do,” Luther said. “Instead, [Pipeline] allows the people involved in a project to communicate with strangers who aren’t involved but have an interest.”

The idea for Pipeline originated while Luther was completing his dissertation as a Ph.D. student at the Georgia Institute of Technology. He had just finished a degree in computer graphics and animation, but his adviser, Amy Bruckman, was interested in online communities. While looking for an issue that overlapped both of their interests, Luther discovered collaboration on creative projects online that have failed due to the leader being overwhelmed by a centralized management.

Luther then formulated studies to find issues that the creators faced, discovered different challenges in collaborative online projects, and thus found a way to manage them. It only seemed logical to develop a tool that improved success rates of online collaborative projects.

According to Luther, Pipeline is a web application that is a cross between a project management tool and a peer production platform. Not only does it have conventional project management capabilities, but it also allows others to easily search for projects in which they are interested by giving creators the option to make their works public. People interested in a project can ask to join the effort, stay in it for as long as they want, and leave when they feel they had done their part.

Compared to pre-existing project management tools, which only allow a small group of closely knit people to work on private projects, Pipeline distributes leadership by allowing the project creator to trust as many or as few people as he wants.

Therefore, leadership is decentralized: The creator can assign tasks of varying importance to others, making them subleaders, or give project participants equally weighted responsibilities. In addition, Pipeline automatically updates changes made to the project.

All of these qualities facilitate completion of complex online creative efforts, much like the one that he featured in his Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work and Social Computing (CSCW) lecture in San Antonio, Texas. He discussed developing Pipeline for Newgrounds, a website that allows people to create and distribute creative virtual projects such as short films, games, and artwork. According to Luther, less than 20 percent of the projects started on Newgrounds come to completion.

Luther decided to apply Pipeline to one such project, called “Holiday Flood.” Holiday Flood was organized during November and December 2011 and featured 30 artists from more than 12 different countries across five different continents that gathered to develop a digital calendar. Two pieces of artwork were submitted for each of the 12 days of Christmas to the Newgrounds site, and their thumbnails were lined up to give a preview of the actual calendar. Later, the interactive gallery was submitted, and site visitors were able to see all the artwork accompanied by a new rendition of “12 Days of Christmas” playing in the background.

In retrospect, Luther argued that Pipeline improved distribution of leadership for Holiday Flood and made it easier for people to know what others were working on. This way, the creator of a project no longer had the task of administering everyone’s duties — anyone can contribute ideas to improve the quality and success rate of an online artistic enterprise.