tech versus culture: what makes for good digital collaboration?

tech versus culture: what makes for good digital collaboration?
Late last summer, social media fellow Jennifer Stoops and I collaborated on a grant proposal together. Sometimes that meant sitting cheek to cheek in front of the same computer where, without much thought about the process, we tossed ideas — and keyboard control — back and forth like a hot potato. When our schedules didn’t align, we worked separately and exchanged drafts for revision or feedback. Other times we sat in the same room but at different computers, working simultaneously on the very same paragraph, but without saying a word aloud. Using cloud-based writing software, I’d watch her words appear on the screen — while she watched mine — in what became one of the weirdest, yet most effective, writing relay races I’ve ever participated in. By the end of our grant writing marathon, we could seamlessly compose sentence after sentence together.  The continuous feedback loop of activity kept the process from succumbing to those blanks and blocks so often complained about by the typical solo writer.
Walking back from a coffee break we talked about how uncanny it was that over the days of this sort of collaboration the process of simultaneously writing had begun to feel natural. So natural in fact, that when I approached solo writing tasks shortly afterwards, the return of the wordless cursor made it feel as though part of my own brain was missing. Though people often talk about having fluid collaborative experiences in physical activities such as dance, music or sports, its presence in the small and typically personal space of sentence construction was altogether unexpected. It’s not as if written collaboration was an entirely novel experience for either of us, but the software we were using — Google Docs — enabled a pace of exchange otherwise impossible.

In addition to the simultaneous writing functionality of Google Docs, the ability to produce and manage documents entirely online saved us from the frustrating task of keeping track of additions, changes, and comments across multiple drafts that would have been produced in an email exchange. All this was extremely helpful, not only because neither of us had written a grant before, but also because writing the grant forced us to think out the specifics of the proposed project. The process therefore was just as much about learning and thinking as it was about producing a final draft, and the opportunity to improve was far more expansive in this case than in other writing projects, such as a term paper, that typically get one shot at feedback.

The ability to continuously review and push one anothers’ thought, therefore, was essential to the process. Near the end of the grant writing period, we were also able to easily share the documents with peers and faculty whose changes and comments were immediately reflected in a single online draft, enabling our reviewers to build off one another’s comments and changes. Such a process would have been entirely unthinkable on a desktop word processor such as Microsoft Word. Had that been our writing tool, I’m confident that we not only would have learned less, but that our final draft would not have been as strong.
Despite our positive experience, however, it’s important to note that technological design is not the sole determining factor of a software’s success. Our genuine excitement for the project and pre-existing friendship made collaboration enjoyable; our complete ignorance of writing a grant proposal under a tight deadline made it necessary. Google Docs alone is not so fertile a bed that any passing thought might spring up into a site of rich, collaborative activity; human interest and commitment is necessary too. NYU Press and MediaCommons 2012 White Paper on online peer review warns of focusing too much on technological design:
…human relationships and investments – more than technologies – are essential for attracting participation in open review processes, for developing and modeling norms for participation, for teaching and practicing principles of mutual responsibility and good citizenship, and for enacting a participatory ethos, all of which are essential to a successful open review.
As we dream up new software platforms and set out on new collaborative projects, it’s a good reminder that no amount of software can generate the interest, excitement, participation and human organization critical to the success of any project. On the other hand, if those factors are already in place, technological design can, and does, make all the difference. One can hardly imagine, for example, how voices from around the globe might come together in a single day to discuss the contents of an article before newspapers enabled commenting. In the next semester, I’ll be thinking more about how both technological design and human behavior influence engagement in academic projects, whether through collaboration, discussion, review or consumption. How do we determine if an academic project is a success? What sort of tools and methods can we put in place to help facilitate that success? Whom do we trust to design those tools and methods, and, because these projects live in a much different space than that of the physical library, whom do we trust to host?
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