Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

Google Docs Collaborations: an amateur attempt to apply ANT analysis


Reading Time: 7 minutes

I’m trying to understand Actor-Network Theory (ANT), and I have heard (and was not surprised) that reading the original texts meant taking a long time to recognize what it was about. My strategy with such things has always been to read a secondary source that writes in more plain language, and then to attempt to read the original once I had had some grasp on the topic. So my first reading was this brief overview of ANT , and I feel like I won’t be sure whether I understand it “properly” or not until I try to write about it and use it in an actual analysis.

Warning: everything in this document may be totally off. I may have completely misunderstood what ANT is, I may be projecting my own views of social research. If you know about ANT, please give me feedback; if you don’t know about ANT, please don’t consider this to be a good example of applying it – but you may learn something interesting about google docs ๐Ÿ™‚ on the side ๐Ÿ™‚ Please don’t make me regret writing this ๐Ÿ™‚ I use very little ANT terminology for fear of misusing it and also to make this legible to someone who isn’t familiar with ANT

I am trying now to write what I understand without looking at all (but I may peak) at the article. I read the article maybe two weeks ago, but have just reviewed my highlights and notes now. So I have some of it fresh in my mind.

My understanding of ANT is that it was developed as a way of understanding/analyzing the socio-technical world… And not looking at the social world as independent of technologies (technologies as they develop and not merely as they are used in their complete form) – and moreover, everything in a “network”, including the actual technologies are seen as actors. To me this means that we do not only look at human beings as acting on a neutral inanimate technology, but also look at how the technology itself acts. I take this to mean how certain aspects of the technology influence our behavior, respond to us.

This got my head spinning about a lot of things, and thinking if some analyses against technological determinism and against claims of technology being neutral all come from the same or similar mindset.

Anyway, so let me look at google docs specifically. I could look at google docs as a whole, but. i want to look at them in a particular context of #rhizo14 collaborations (i may dip into #rhizo15 briefly). So what are the ways we have used google docs in rhizo14? Here are some:

  • Brainstorming how we would do our collaborative research (starting week 2 of rhizo14
  • The actual collaborative autoethnography document where people added their narratives
  • The Untext document where we brainstormed and swarmed why the CAE project wasn’t getting “finished” or “written”
  • Various documents where we wrote out conference abstracts to be submitted, one of which was accepted and became the VoiceThread we used in our #et4online Discovery Session
  • Various full-length papers submitted to journals

#rhizo15 is a different matter, and for that, so far, we have used things like:

  • Google doc open learning recipe where I started one and invited people to hack it and oh my God so many did and it is so much better for it
  • Google doc extending and expanding Tania Sheko’s play – eventually got recorded on SoundCloud as first rhizoradio production

So usually when you describe your process of collaboration you just say “we used a google doc”, as if google docs was a black box, and it had no effect on the actual collaboration except by being a container of it. It is much more complex than that. And also, as I focus on google docs, I recognize that google docs is not independent of the following:

  • which device one uses to access it – it looks and behaves differently on a PC, on Android and on iOS (also depending on which version you have – so on my old iPad i have it working inside the old Drive app; in my new iPad I have it working in the separate docs app; I don’t use Mac much but my husband has an old one and docs barely works on it)
  • it is not a means of interaction separate from other “actors” in the network of our collaboration such as email (it sends notifications to email but we also used email to communicate in between); twitter (which we used to discuss minor issues and sometimes longer discussions that end up in some form in the google doc, some of these public and some private DM Discussions); and facebook where we sometimes shared the link on facebook, or the collaboration started on facebook

Ok, so like… In what ways does our interaction with google docs and google docs’ interaction with us influence the way our collaboration goes forward?

I have a lot of disjointed thoughts on this, so I will just list them:

  • Things don’t usually begin with a google doc. A google doc is a midway point in some conversation that started on email, facebook, or Twitter (i am talking rhizo14 ecosystem specifically) where we decided it might be best to put things into one shared document we could edit together and come back to, and that more people can look at later even if they were not on the original conversation. Most obvious case is my DMs with Keith that initiated the untext document
  • What ends up in a google doc hides much of what happens outside itEven when a google doc is open and being collaborated on, there is much communication going on via email, twitter, facebook, hangouts… Some of which is between two people or more or all the authors… You can’t “see” the influence of these on the google doc
  • Sharing settings – whether we share with particular people, and what level of sharing, all have an effect; making docs open to the public or anyone with the link, then sharing them publicly has resulted in people outside of us reading our document. We didn’t initially mind, but we later realized we didn’t want others conducting research into our thing that was meant to be participatory research and not research by experts on us. When a document is shared more privately, who gets in and when depends on when they are added and whether we used the correct email address to add them with (the email you get with “x is requesting permission to access” a doc reminds you that you are the owner of the document and that even though you thought you shared it with them, you seem to have shared it with the wrong email address (again!)
  • The different politeness options differ on google docs and differ by function. In the older version of google docs, you could post comments, or you could edit straight into someone else’s text. To be polite, you could use a different color to show what changes you made, but you didn’t have to. In newer versions, there is a ‘suggest’ option much like track changes in word. However, the ‘suggest’ option does not work well on mobile devices (you actually can’t see the suggestions and you can’t make suggestions) which makes it only half-useful.
  • Notifications – there are different options but the default is to be notified if someone comments on a part you wrote yourself, but not parts written by others; you also get notified if someone suggests edits but NOT if someone actually edits your words (unless they leave a comment and tag your email onto it – which you can do on PC but not mobile devices). This is really interesting because of course version control allows you a look into all these details of editing but the version tracking is not particularly friendly and seems cumbersome to use – i would only use it if i wanted to restore something that was deleted by mistake; otherwise, i think fedwiki is cooler for version control/tracking, but that’s another story
  • Different docs for different functions. Some documents are happy with just commenting features. Like the CAE narratives: no one should expect to edit someone else’s narrative. But there is something cool about being able to comment on someone else’s narrative and something else that’s cool about being able to write at the same time as another person (this happened in several documents). Google docs, when shared with particular people, allows you to see who is editing what where, but when shared publicly gives them an anonymous name and a random animal name which makes it funny but somewhat less human-like, if that makes sense. Other docs are stronger on the collaborative editing part, like a paper being written or the untext which is maybe the swarmiest thing I ever worked on
  • There is the chat option inside google docs but it is REALLY buggy and only works on PC (not mobile devices) so often I would edit with someone and chat in hangouts text not the inner google doc chat; before i discovered how buggy it was, I was writing a google doc with Jesse Stommel (not rhizo14 related obviously) and he kept not responding until i tweeted him and realized he wasn’t seeing the chat. Instead, we chatted inside the google doc itself then deleted the text. This happens a lot in other instances, some of them rhizo14 docs
  • Comments look different on different devices. On PC they are prominent and you see them alongside the text, they are almost unavoidable. On my Android they are more subtle. They are yellow highlights and don’t show unless you click them. This allows you to ignore them if you like. It also becomes cumbersome when you’re looking for a specific one. But one of the good tngs about mobile is that you can quickly click the tab to show all comments, even ‘resolved’ ones
  • Resolving comments. I hate that term and i hate resolving comments, even though i know i can get them back. Sometimes the most interesting processes and interactions are in those marginal comments and that’s why we have kept them in the CAE and Untext documents. In other contexts where we are submitting stuff, someone usually goes and resolves them, which can mean different things, you have to sort of resolve them at some point to indicate they have been addressed, we no longer need to keep discussing them, etc. Sometimes on mobile devices I couldn’t put a clean hyperlink so i’d put the link in as a comment until i could get to a PC (now th Android app allows links)
  • Precursors to google docs include wikis (that usually did not allow real-time collaborative editing) – and the track changes function in Word (that obviously wasn’t shared but went back n forth by email but could be considered shared if placed in Dropbox for example. However, for me the main reason behind success of google docs was the failure of Microsoft to put something usable of its office products on iPad – and so i stopped using word document except for very specific things. I needed my mobility and i needed something accessible everywhere any time. Enter clouds and google drive.

I need to stop because I am almost at work now. Will go read some more ANT. I don’t really know what I have done above. It seems boring for someone who’s very familiar with google docs, right? But I think unpacking how all of these things influence our collaboration and how we work together might be interesting. Am I anywhere near the right track?


  1. I think there is a power relationship in the resolving of comments – which is in part why it feels so uncomfortable. In a way, resolving a comment feels like silencing a voice. I often think, do I have the right to resolve this comment? Just because I think the discussion may be over, doesn’t mean other do. Also, do I own the comment such that I am the one who SHOULD be resolving it, or is it a comment that someone else owns … that who complexity is particularly interesting.

  2. And BTW – I found it VERY interesting, and not boring at all … I think it is exactly the type of thing that we need to look at in more depth – as the technologies do play a significant role in our ability to collaborate … they are both limiting and enabling, and that is important …

  3. You might find this work about Public Click Pedagogy from Networked Learning 2014 interesting Chris bigum and Ailsa Haxell (and other for all I know) are ANT bods.

  4. Chris was on the fedwiki Teaching Machines so you might also find him there ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Ah i knew the name sounded familiar! Maybe we should do an ANT fedwiki farm then ๐Ÿ™‚ if i decide to stick with it ๐Ÿ™‚ i didn’t really do teaching machines, just enjoying the mailing list

  5. Maha, I think this is a wonderfully thought-out conceptualization of ANT and Google Docs. I am particularly interested in the functionality of notifications, as the seeming inconsistency in how this works adds a complexity to its use that somehow shows the fagility of how networks form and continue to develop. I wonder how many times collaborations have faltered because of missed notifications, questions, or comments? It raises the notion that networks exhibit levels of human and non-human agency that we may quickly characterize in one way or another, without acknowledging how we tend to black box elements we forget about or find too complex to consider.

    In many ways, I think it is easier to blame some things rather than look at how fragile networks really can be.

Leave a Reply


Get every new post on this blog delivered to your Inbox.

Join other followers:

%d bloggers like this: