CSCW: Time Passed,
Tempest, and Time Past
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[ 1] Irene Greif’s report
on the workshop
for which the term
was coined was titled
What Are the Issues?”
Proceedings of the
AFIPS 1985 Office
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
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
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.”
July + August 2010
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