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Enabling the collective to assist the individual: A self-organising systems approach to social software and the creation of collaborative text signals

, McGill University , Canada

McGill University . Awarded


Authors augment their texts using devices such as bold and italic typeface to signal important information to the reader. These typographical text signals are an example of a signal designed to have some affect on others. However, some signals emerge through the unplanned, indirect, and collective efforts of a group of individuals. Paths emerge in parks without having been designed by anyone. Objects accumulate wear patterns that signal how others have interacted with the object. Books open to important, well studied pages because the spine has worn, for example (Hill, Hollan, Wroblewski, & McCandless, 1992). Digital text and the large-scale collaboration made possible through the internet provide an opportunity to examine how unplanned, collaborative text signals could emerge. A software application was designed, called CoREAD, that enables readers to highlight sections of the text they deem important. In addition, CoREAD adds text signals to the text using font colour, based on the group's collective history and an aggregation function based on self-organising systems. The readers are potentially influenced by the text signals presented by CoREAD but also help to modify these same signals. Importantly, readers only interact with each other indirectly through the text. The design of CoREAD was greatly inspired by the previous work on history-enriched digital objects (Hill & Hollan, 1993) and at a more general level it can be viewed as an example of distributed cognition (Hollan, Hutchins, & Kirsh, 2000).

Forty undergraduate students read two texts on topics from psychology using CoREAD. Students were asked to read each text in order to write a summary of it. After each new student read the text, the text signals were changed to reflect the current group of students. As such, each student read the text with different text signals presented.

The data were analysed for each text to determine if the text signals that emerged were stable and valid representations of the semantic content of the text. As well, the students' summaries were analysed to determine if students who read the text after the text signals had stabilised produced better summaries. Three methods demonstrated that CoREAD was capable of generating stable typographical text signals. The high importance text signals also appeared to capture the semantic content of the texts. For both texts, a summary made of the high signals performed as well as a benchmark summary. The results did not suggest that the stable text signals assisted readers to produce better summaries, however. Readers may not respond to these collaborative text signals as they would to authorial text signals, which previous research has shown to be beneficial (Lorch, 1989). The CoREAD project has demonstrated that readers can produce stable and valid text signals through an unplanned, self-organising process.


Chiarella, A.F. Enabling the collective to assist the individual: A self-organising systems approach to social software and the creation of collaborative text signals. Ph.D. thesis, McGill University. Retrieved July 6, 2022 from .

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