HITRECORD’s open collaboration is the future of open business

At the recent IBM Connect conference, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, the well-known actor (Brick, The Dark Knight Rises, Looper, Inception), discussed a project of his called HITRECORD (hitrecord.org). He described HITRECORD as an open collaborative production company, a place where people can collaborate on projects, and freely remix content left online by others.

He gave a great example of his creative meddling by telling the story of The Man With A Turnip For A Head. Originally uploaded as a poem by one member, Gordon-Levitt thought it might be a good starting point for an animated short, so he asked the community for sketches. After a bunch were submitted, and the community had commented on them, he then asked the artist to undertake a full treatment, and then he asked for some sample work on animation. Again a round of open review, a selection, and then a full animation. He wondered about a soundtrack, and the same process led to a high school girl’s theme music being selected, and then he asked for orchestration, and musicians to play the various parts. The result played at Sundance, with a simultaneous reading by Gary Oldman. Take a look, here.


All of this would be something in the art section of the New York Times, except for the money side of things. The HITRECORD approach to sharing the proceeds of these artistic creations is open as well. In the case of a simple upload — for example, if I uploaded a poem and someone wanted to pay to publish it — I’d share with HITRECORD. But in the case of an elaborate multi-player deal like TMWATFAH they published a page with all the contributions made, including those not selected, and asked all involved to consider the value of the contributions. Then Gordon-Levitt and others at HITRECORD processed those inputs into a spreadsheet and posted it. They had another few weeks of discussion among the group, and then made a final decision, and posted that. An open and (reasonably) democratic approach, although not requiring absolute consensus.

So, I think there is a lesson to be learned here: one that reflects on the premises of remix culture and how an ‘open business’ might work in the near future. Note that almost none of the participants were employees of HITRECORD. On the contrary, they are all individuals — although it’s possible that contributors might also be companies or partnerships operating as a single entity. The group has a major voice in determining the value of the contributions of all involved, as opposed to HITRECORD — the producer — deciding in advance, one on one, how much each contributor is going to make. It value of each person’s contribution is determined after the product is made. This is decidedly not how Hollywood works, although the hollywood-style project — where a producer pulls together a team of contributors for the duration of the project, and then the team lass apart — is similar in many ways, aside from the money end.

The innovation at HITRECORD is that open model of collaboration about the value of individual contribution to the product. How could that sort of open collaboration work in a business?

Imagine a software company of the near future, called Sparky, which has only three partners and no other employees. They have modeled an open collaboration platform along the lines of HITRECORD, but for the purpose of open collaboration on software. Leaving all technical details aside, this is built on top of Github. A collaborator uploads an idea for a new sort of email client based on something he read online about social email (yes, I wrote that post, and I expect my cut, too). One of the partners at Sparky, Joesephine, likes this idea, and asks for mockups of a UI for Social Email. She gets some contributions, and discussion ensues. To make a long story short, a few months later there is a new product rolling out the door called SocialMail. And, as in the case of TMWATFAH, the team of contributiors would hammer out who would get what proportion of future revenues; well, at least for the first release. Obviously, the initial contributions would decrease in value over time, as later version are crafted and rolled out. A sort of erosionary revenue model would be needed. I’ll leave that to the partners at Sparky to hammer out. And if their contributions were to take a great deal of dedicated time, a Kickstarter might be involved as well, to get prospective clients investing in the development effort.

With open systems like Github and Kickstarter, and the open collaboration model pioneered by HITRECORD, we could see a way to an innovative scaling up of freelancers into something considerably more than just acting as professional temp workers. Instead, ad hoc connectives of contributors could rival the productivity of corporations, and without the overhead and friction involved in trying to get everyone pulling according to a single, collective long-term strategy.

And of course it’s conceivable that corporations could operate this way, internally, as well. My understanding of Valve suggests that something like this is going on there, although perhaps not so project-oriented. But a large company could leave it to members of teams to determine the value of contributions to various efforts on a connective basis, like HITRECORD, and with management playing the role of the producer, and not the primary decision-maker. And hybrids — where outsiders and employees collaborate in an open model — is also imaginable.

HITRECORD’s open collaboration model was the single most important lesson I took away from IBM Connect, although it had nothing to do with IBM. I’ll write about IBM tomorrow.