TRANS Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 17. Nr. März 2010

Sektion 7.9. Knowledge Production, Cultural Discourses, and Media
Sektionsleiter | Section Chair: Mark Rectanus (Iowa State University)

Dokumentation | Documentation | Documentation

Tacit Knowing in Digital Communities

Michele Perras (Toronto, Canada) [BIO]




The course of this project delves into two streams of thought. The first – which reflects the original intent - will discuss the effects of networked digital social platforms on the exchange of tacit knowledge within particular communities - especially those who are mediated, to varying degrees, within a digital ecology.

We will explore the means by which these communities and individuals are enabled/ constrained by their mediations, and to what degree it affects learning, identity, narrative or literacy. What describes the nature of social practice, and what enables qualities such as empathy, trust and engagement? We will also discuss the relationship between social platforms, boundary objects, and transmedia literacies in exchanging knowledge and shared social contexts. This is looked at through the practices of a community in Toronto, loosely joined under the name BarCamp. The middle section of this paper looks at the BarCamp community in Toronto, Canada, as a case community that exemplifies characteristics of tacit knowing through digital mediation.

The second stream will focus on the why of all this, and touches upon more recent research developments. Why are these communities and individuals aligning themselves, and for what purpose? What are the underlying motivations and values that enable their emergence? This territory is more uncertain, but may prove to hold more insight towards future paths.


Section 1 - Key Themes

Tacit Knowing

In 1967, Hungarian social scientist Michael Polanyi(1) wrote “We know more than we can tell.” This passage refers to his perspective on the tacit dimensions of knowing (what we experience), the cohort of explicit, codified knowledge (what we can talk about). Polanyi developed three main premises around his concept of knowledge. First, discovery cannot be created through a set of rigid structures or articulated rules. Second, knowledge is public, socially negotiated and also extremely personal. Third, the knowledge that exists beneath the surface of explicit knowledge is much more fundamental – the tacit is the soil from which all other forms of knowledge grow.

In every context, tacit knowledge informs our behaviour as the dimension through which we acquire meaning and figure out what to think or how to act. While the specifics may be codified, our personal interpretation towards the rituals and social norms of what to do, what to say, and how to approach or handle a situation are tacit. The tacit is the knowledge of experience and procedure, and fiendishly difficult to articulate through speech and text, though we communicate it readily through body language, social narratives and storytelling, nuance, intuition and emotional engagement(2). As a collaborative, social understanding, this process of knowing continually informs what we can find the words to say.

As well, the relationship between explicit and tacit knowledge, of translating what we know from one dimension to another, is facilitated by the relatively flexible architectures of tradition and values. Karl Sveiby observes:

Tradition describes how knowledge is transferred in a social context, as a system of values stored outside the individual, [but experienced and engaged in the first person.] It is a dynamic unarticulated process by which a process-of-knowing is transferred between individuals.(3)

Apprentices initially learn to cook or to negotiate in business or to design products through three mechanisms – imitation of behaviour, identification of context and learning-by-doing – which  transfer the tacit context by bridging the base of codified knowledge with experiential understanding. This experiential understanding eventually works in tandem, and sometimes in contradiction, to the base of codified knowledge from which it emerged, i.e., as the previously latent, hyper-individual yet micro-communal codes and practices are developed.

Another aspect of the flow of tacit knowledge relates not to these procedural mechanisms but to the motivation that scaffolds them - values. As with tradition, values are not entirely subjective, but socially constructed and integrated into individual experience to provide reason and validation for action. Values integrate the diversity and paradox of our social fabric. And values - the ideals we hold dear and ethos we choose to embrace - are the fuel for passion, dedication, and future action.


Transmedia Literacy

The concept of transmedia literacy was developed from that of transmedia storytelling and has been discussed at length by Henry Jenkins, Director of the MIT Comparative Media Studies Program.

Transmedia storytelling represents a process where integral elements of a fiction get dispersed systematically across multiple delivery channels for the purpose of creating a unified and coordinated entertainment experience. Ideally, each medium makes it own unique contribution to the unfolding of the story.(4)

In relation to transmedia literacies, individuals are able to synchronously and asynchronously experience and integrate the meaning embedded across media channels, by accessing and participating with the tools, practices and constructs available, collectively creating a shared sense of engagement, identity and purpose.

Transmedia storytelling is the ideal aesthetic form for an era of collective intelligence. Pierre Levy coined the term, collective intelligence, to refer to new social structures that enable the production and circulation of knowledge within a networked society. Participants pool information and tap each other’s expertise as they work together to solve problems. Levy argues that art in an age of collective intelligence functions as a cultural attractor, drawing together like-minded individuals to form new knowledge communities. Transmedia narratives also function as textual activators - setting into motion the production, assessment and archiving of information(5).

With this in mind, the principles of transmedia storytelling and literacies can be translated towards the development of shared social practice and emergent community-driven narratives, not necessarily fictions but collectively-produced experiences and social memory(6). As well, these literacies are deeply entwined with boundary objects – discussed below – as an applied capability in building extensively developed and embedded contextual grounding.

Boundary Objects

Developed within the frameworks of knowledge management, a boundary object refers to a tool and/or concept that acts as an interface between different communities of practice, creating a shared point of reference despite potentially divergent attributions of meaning (the tacit dimension varies according to community). Boundary objects may be used as means of coordination and alignment(7) as working arrangements which contextually relate to each community, and are adjusted as required to satisfy different concerns simultaneously. And finally, “boundary objects are plastic enough to adapt to changing needs(8)” as well being able to “serve as a means of translation(9)” despite the aforementioned divergent attributions of meaning.

The final point strikes a chord in relation to transmedia literacies, and further on we will discuss the potential for digital platforms – from networks to content delivery to data streams, etc. – to in fact be boundary objects, alone and as a compositional whole. The inter-relationships between boundary objects and transmedia literacies are not necessarily new, but the breadth and depth of their impact is fundamentally transforming what it means to be literate as new behaviours emerge alongside the rapid development, deployment and adoption of new technologies.


There are many ways to define a community, depending on the lens we use and the metrics for measurement – through politics, economies, geography, sociology and psychology. Most descriptions incorporate these elements into comprehensive demographics. For the purpose of our discussion, a community is an aggregate group of individuals who are socially networked by, but not exclusively limited to a broad spectrum of criteria, and who over time develop micro and macro relationships within the group. For example, communities form around proximities or neighbourhoods, around cultural or social affiliations, around experiences, passions or skills, or through shared values or knowledge. With the added layer of digital communications, however, location and other traditionally visual or practiced cues for relationship development are replaced with, as we’ll discuss further on, technologically-enabled behaviours and status cues.

As well, communities co-create dialects, practices and particular systems of knowledge that best serve their collective goals as well as enable growth and transformation. Collective knowledge is retained through interaction and social practice, and digital platforms create an extended repository of that knowledge – they become less passive. As Echabe and Castro write, “Memory is a social phenomenon – it is social, through our interactions with other people we gain confidence in the exactness of recalling and co-create a reality.(10)


Section 2 - The Community is the Framework: The Case of Barcamp

At the writing of this paper in late 2007, the population of the Toronto network on, one of the fastest growing social network sites in North America, had just surpassed one million members. The highest rate of membership per capita, Toronto is surpassed only by London at just over two million (updated January 2008), and is taking the region by full force, entering into everyday conversation and networking as a common reference point. As well, its popularity has been reflected in the local tech, design and entrepreneurial community through, among other things, developer garages(11)– events in which presentations regarding business models and application development are given. Some of the people that attend these garage events identify with TorCamp – a loosely joined group of advocates and practitioners who focus on furthering technological capability and innovation.

Within this community – part of an international movement that emerged from an open source community colloquially known as BarCamp ( – one will find early adopters, hackers and developers, entrepreneurs, marketers, designers, social activists, and innovators - a breadth of creative talent and diversity. Embodying principles of open source(12), open space, and unconference(13) structures – where experiences and content are participant-driven and meritocratic, collaborative, potentially non-market, and oriented towards applied outcomes – the members of these communities are adept at integrating their flexible and context-specific practices with traditional norms.

While this clustering of individuals is not necessarily unique, Toronto as a city teems with interconnected and multi-disciplinary communities. Richard Florida(14) describes successful creative cities as having three major components – technology, talent and tolerance – suggesting that Toronto has all. This is part of the reason why Facebook is so successful in Toronto – the platform’s flexibility permits the various agendas of many to coexist locally and globally, especially critical in an urban centre premised upon diversity.

Moreover, the climate is ripe for entrepreneurship and innovation, spurred by both strong and weak ties across a globally-connected and engaged network, a thriving digital-sector economy and an increasingly diverse cultural makeup. As well, the dedicated and thoughtful practice of a few key, emergent leaders has catalyzed the communal landscape with principles of openness – as technology, education and access.

Most communities require common reference points or grounding to communicate, interact, and share knowledge, especially when composed of different demographics, professional affiliations, disciplines, or socio-cultural backgrounds. Trust must be established through reciprocal action and consistency in representation(15).

Needs and goals must be served at all levels, and require shared expectations and tacit understanding to inform future action. They require boundary objects that are plastic enough to frame unique meaning while resilient enough to accurately communicate that meaning across media and context(16).

The interactions and a mutually-generated sense of engagement and continual learning, as well as recognition and feedback for accomplishments, are actively illustrated through many channels in the mediated environment. But what are these platforms? The most successful and sticky are those that are granular, plastic, or transdisciplinary and are used in various combinations, depending on social norms. The following is a brief, non-inclusive overview of the types of platforms used by TorCamp members, their impact, and reflections on the composite.



Camps and Unconferences

Emerging as an open source response to what were seen as exclusive, expensive conferences, the –Camp format is structured around open access, participation and empowerment, and the impact of technologically-enabled behaviours. The manner in which the programme is created ranges from pre-selected presentations or workshops to relatively spontaneous programming (although some knowledge of the event is made available beforehand). All of these fall under the loose premise of an unconference – an event in which the programme is driven entirely by the participants, whether as pre-developed or spontaneous, with resources that are utilized exclusively to cover the logistical costs of holding an event.

Events in the Toronto community range from application demonstrations (DemoCamp), entrepreneurial case studies (EnterpriseCamp, StartUpCamp), marketing and PR case studies (CaseCamp), extended general tech-related events (BarCamp), copyright and IP discussions (CopyCamp). There are also other groups whose practice is not explicitly identified as BarCamp, but whose membership is integrated and overlapping. As well, many events occur which do not incorporate a BarCamp structure, yet serve to bring the community together for face-to-face interaction. Finally, –Camps occur around the world, further extending the conversation and requiring only the initiative of local participants to cultivate it.

In February 2007, the Toronto Transit Commission was invited to attend TorontoTransitCamp(17), a one-day event that brought together various community members – developers and designers, transit advocates, municipal representatives, local media, and transit authorities – to initially discuss the possibilities for improving the TTC’s website, about which they had opened dialogue, through a public RFP. While the initial “problem space,” i.e., a set of parameters defining the problem and it’s subsequent path of inquiry (in this case the requirement for a new TTC website), was addressed, additional sessions were developed that discussed the full spectrum of challenges that the TTC faced – funding issues, accessibility through routes, schedules, language, and infographics. The resulting model of civic and municipal engagement around both pre-determined and spontaneous problem-solving has influenced communities across North America to create similarly-themed events (BayAreaTransitCamp, VancouverTransitCamp) and initiatives (Metronauts) for engagement in public policy.


Digital Platforms

Synchronous Communication Flows

This platform includes IRC, IM, GChat, Skype chats and other forms of single/group communications, where the flow of conversation is dynamic and occurs in real-time, as opposed to pre-published and archived. Conversations are potentially unending, as group members enter and leave. There are low to medium barriers to entry that are now becoming enriched with media transfer capabilities. A public Skype chat of 100+ members exists within the TorCamp community. Originating as a backchannel for a group of people at an international conference to communicate the program, the “swarm” (as it is locally known) is active with local and global participants.

Social Network Sites

Content- and gesture-driven asynchronous platforms include Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn, Flickr, LastFM, YouTube, Upcoming, Orkut, etc. Content is archived (where applicable licensing tends towards Creative Commons affiliations except when ownership is explicitly co-proprietary, as in the case of Facebook) and the focus is towards interaction, identity, status, and the subsequent flow of social narrative.

“Open” platforms include Facebook(18) and Google’s recently announced Open Social, where the applications and user experiences are defined by external parties and members, reflecting crowd sourced, user-driven ontologies and behaviours.


Asynchronous, content driven platforms, primarily text-based with video, animation and audio incorporated. Blogs provide an archived publication format that amplifies the behaviours of periodicals in a digital context. Variety of platforms and backend development resulted in widgets – small applications that personalize and contextualize an author’s content, links to other platforms, creating a home base for identity management (one-to-many, many-to-many).


Micro-blogging looks at the recent emergence of platforms such as Twitter or Jaiku – archived content streams that utilize posts of extremely small data (i.e., 140 text characters or less), appropriate for transmission from mobile phones. Adoption and social network capabilities create a continual data flow similar to IRC, however trends illustrate the tendency for people to give reports of personal events, opinions or reactions – creating a sense of ambient intimacy(19) (closeness from afar).


Collaborative digital content platform, where a generalized framework is utilized by many (remotely connected) to publish text and other media. Popularized by the WikiMedia Foundation and Craigslist, the platform is structured for user-generated ontologies and taxonomies, democratic access and mutual consensus, thriving on argumentation. The BarCamp community is almost exclusively created via a wiki, and anyone can edit content.


Aggregation and bookmarking platforms include,,,, Stumble, etc. Content is selected and archived according to various systems, with varying degrees of orientation or taste towards commenting, voting or sharing. RSS enables dynamic curation and subscription of content. As well, RSS aggregators such as Onaswarm and Adium work to streamline communication flows from IM, social networks, and micro-blogs and build holistic narratives.

Section 3 - This Vernacular is not Obsolete

As people selectively adopt combinations of the above platforms, their creative, practical and expressive repertoire expands – certain tools and/or combinations are used in particular contexts with particular goals or outcomes in mind. In this way, individuals and collectives curate a representation of self, similar to using fashion or material artifacts to represent status or wealth. Digital tools and media instead transition into the space formerly inhabited by other social representations, creating new codes that further contextually-shared knowledge and shared practice(20).

In some cases, e.g., Google, Skype and some wikis, the user interface becomes localized through language alone. Regardless of other differentiating factors, such as place, demography, discipline, or ethnicity, the procedure of using a particular interface remains the same, prompting the question – do these somewhat standardized interfaces create a sense of solidarity and connection through the experience of use? For example, if individuals from France, Uruguay, and Japan all use Skype for the purpose of communicating, what effect does their combined use of a tool have on the creation of shared, implicit narrative and identity? Is tacit knowledge produced which then permeates throughout a community, linking the initial means by which members of that community develop a process or an outcome through a common entry point into experience? To what extent is the medium also the creator of a shared message, and to what extent is this useful to individuals as they form communities around particular values or converge around particular goals? Finally, addressed below, to what extent is this relevant in relation to boundary objects – the flexible and resilient media that link shared practices yet also differentiate distinctly between them, creating both heterogeneity and homogeneity simultaneously?

TorCamp members use particular selections and combinations of the above platforms to communicate, learn, problem-solve, innovate or exchange social capital. The impact and exchanges are felt across mediations from the fully digital to the face-to-face. Remote proximity fuels the local, and vice versa. As well, the individual dedication to continually produce content that represents the community and archives experiences, through blogs, photo-sharing, social networks, or video contributes to the overall production of shared social memory.

The explosion of relatively accessible technologies with interfaces that are fundamentally about creating or amplifying homogenous experiences and behaviours has resulted in the development of dialects for expression. “Youtubing”, “Googling” and “Digg”ing are commonplace vernacular, and can indicate membership and media literacy within a contextually-meaningful, globalized culture. As a shared dialect, these terms can contribute to the collaborative exchange of social capital and tacitly-held understanding of intent.

Embedded within each technology are implicit associations and values, and participants choose to articulate slivers of their identities through adoption, developing increasingly dynamic, somewhat contradictory composites that represent their social practice at any given moment while digitally archiving a history of previous experience(21).

The notion of social platform as boundary object occurs when participants adopt similar behaviours of use around a platform despite difference in meaning, outcome or intent. Although their goals may be different, the parameters of use create tiers of similar behavioural patterns and tacitly-shared knowledge, and, to a certain extent, an asymmetric advantage – depending on who is in the know. Ideas and practices are propagated over newly formed and spontaneous network connections, as savvy with the social norms of the platform increases as well as overall adoption and cultural diffusion. As more diverse participants become a part of a community, shaping its structure through individual use, the ability to leverage ideas into action is amplified.

The importance and potential significance of that amplification can be felt in what Yochai Benkler terms commons-based peer production(22) - communities and groups who shape the nature of networked information production economies. According to Benkler, these communities operate within a networked environment that makes possible new modes of organizing production: radically decentralized, collaborative, and non-proprietary; sharing resources and outputs among widely distributed, loosely connected individuals who cooperate with each other without relying on either market signals or managerial commands(23).

Within these mediated networks, the emergence of dynamic, self-selective communities are increasingly turning their focus towards the practices and possibilities of social innovation, technological entrepreneurship, sustainable development and human-centred systems – change-processes and goals which will contribute to a betterment of society as a whole, at least from a particular perspective. The question now turns to Why? Why are these networks and communities focusing their efforts, resources and passions on these issues? Not to judge the value of the subjects or understand the mechanics of tacit knowing as we have previously outlined, but rather to try and understand what it is people are trying to change and why.


Section 4 - Conclusions: Communities of Values

“The more intensely we feel about an idea or a goal, the more assuredly the idea, buried deep in our subconscious, will direct us along the path to its fulfillment.” – Earl Nightingale

Similar to, and perhaps in some cases underlying the networked nature of communities of practice, communities of values are premised on different yet not altogether separate themes. Whereas communities of practice are focused primarily on domains of knowledge(24) (e.g., disciplinary skills, tools, and learning, as well as structured problem-solving), communities of values are premised on shared values and multidisciplinary membership. These goals are uncertain at the outset and emerge through engagement and context, as well as passion and ideas that imagine a different future.

The world we live in is changing, this is obvious. The advent of emerging technologies, the continued legacy of industrialization, the paradigm echoes of colonialism and capitalism, environmental degradation – these are a few of the challenges that we face regularly. Not since the emergence of the industrial revolution has humanity accelerated itself into the future at a pace that barely allows for our current situation to be understood. What is apparent is that with these shifts, new approaches are required to adequately imagine and resolve that future.

Membership and authenticity within communities of values can be extrapolated through empathy, intuition and the ability to communicate ideas – one’s integrity, currency, and humanity, so to speak. The social practice of communicating their values can be enabled through the use of previously described boundary objects and flexible social architectures similar to that of TorCamp. And the extent to which those architectures are adopted can reflect a perceived human quality that technological practice has previously left wanting.

By identifying and describing the mechanisms through which TorCamp produces shared social memory and tacit knowing, we have revealed the why? Through TorontoTransitCamp we see community and civic engagement that opens up discussions with previously less available policymakers and institutions, and in doing so attempts to create conversational options in complex dilemmas. Through the more regular BarCamp events and the symbiotic behaviours associated with their tools, knowledge and know-how are shared to improve skills and future prospects – whether social, economical or political.

One of the strongest examples of other types of communities that are formed around a shared set of values and dedicated to building tools and creating access to socially-regulated knowledge and information includes Worldchanging, Wikimedia and Freebase. Wherein loosely connected communities contribute content via digital channels to extend knowledge and innovation, redefining the sources of power, authority and credibility, which are traditionally associated with holding such knowledge. As well, new models of education are emerging that amplify self-organization and development, such as Sugatra Mitra’s “Hole in the Wall” experiment(25),  wherein underprivileged children have demonstrated the ability to collectively learn through technological means, in some cases networked computers,  without the aid of traditional teaching structures or mentors.(26) The idea of a globally-connected community of values creates spaces for possible new futures, where digital divides are bridged, knowledge is contextualized and accessible, and ideas and values are perpetuated through collective social practice.

Throughout this project, we’ve explored the mechanisms by which communities of values operate and develop tacit knowledge – shared grounding and meaning in an emerging knowledge economy. However, the questions still remain: Does this work? Is it any good?

Thus far, the answers are both yes and no – but tacit knowing is difficult to qualify. Humans are messy individuals. What is successful once may fail subsequently, and how one defines success is a value judgment that can vary by perspective. What is sure is that it is constantly changing, and rapidly at that. And we must learn to be as agile.

The knowledge flows and transfers described earlier are perceived through an intentionally optimistic and somewhat idealistic lens, in the hopes that opportunities for moments that reflect our humanity will arise, that communities can be empowered to affect positive local change with globalized boundary objects, encouraging tacit knowledge and collaborative social practice.



1 Polanyi, Michael. The Tacit Dimension. London: Peter Smith, 1983, p. 4.
2 Ibid.
3, Sveiby, Karl. Accessed: May 30, 2008
4 , Jenkins, Henry. Transmedia Storytelling 101, Accessed: May 30, 2008
5 Ibid.
6 Cianciolo, Anna, Matthew, Cynthia, Sternberg, Robert, and  Wagner, Richard. “Tacit Knowledge, Practical Intelligence, and Expertise.” The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006, pp. 264-265.
7Arias, E G., and Fischer, G. “Boundary Objects: Their Role in Articulating the Task at Hand and Making, Intelligent Systems and Applications, Information Relevant to It.” International ICSC Symposium on Interactive & Collaborative Computing (ICC'2000). University of Wollongong, Australia.  Wetaskiwin, Canada:  ICSC Academic Press, 2000, pp. 567-574.
8 Star, S. L., & Griesemer, J. R. “Institutional ecology, ‘translations’ and boundary objects: Amateurs and professionals in Berkeley's Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, 1907-39.” Social Studies of Science, 19, 1989: 387-420
9 Edwards, Richard. “Contexts, boundary objects and hybrid spaces: theorising learning in lifelong learning,” 2005. Accessed May 30, 2008.
10 Echabe, Augustín Echebarria, and Castro, José Luis Gonzalez. “Social memory: Macrophysical Aspects.” The Psychology of the Social. Flick, Uwe (ed).Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1998, pp. 104-105.
11, Accesssed May 30, 2008.
12 Acessed May 30, 2008
13, Acessed May 30, 2008
14 Florida, Richard. Cities and the Creative Class. Taylor and Francis. 2004, pp. 249-251; 292.
15 Fukuyama, Francis. Trust: The Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity, New York: Free Press, 1996, pp. 43-48; 195-196.
16 Gasson, Susan. The Dynamics of Sensemaking, Knowledge, and Expertise in Collaborative, Boundary-Spanning Design. Drexel University. Acessed May 30, 2008.
17, Accessed May 30, 2008.
18 The openness refers to the developer and application relationship, not to the walled garden approach that Facebook uses towards content at the time of writing.
20 Preece, Jennifer. “Tacit Knowledge and Social Capital: Supporting Sociability in Online Communities of Practice.” Proceedings of I-KNOW’03, 3rd International Conference on Knowledge Management. 2003, Graz, Austria, July 2-4. Tochtermann, K. and Maurer, H (ed.), p. 72-74.
21 Flick, Uwe. Everyday Knowledge in Social Psychology. The Psychology of the Social, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1998.
22 Benkler, Yochai. Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006, pp. 58-60.
23 Ibid., p. 60.
24 Preece, pp. 73-74.
25, Accessed May 30, 2008
26, Accessed May 30, 2008

7.9. Knowledge Production, Cultural Discourses, and Media

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