Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

The Affective Dimension of (Online) Collaborative Writing

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You know there’s something interesting going on when you’ve been thinking of something all day, wondering why you haven’t read about it, until the right “google search term” pops into your head – and suddenly you realize that people have written about it. I’d been thinking all day about what I am not calling the “affective dimension” of collaborative writing. I do a lot of collaborative writing, and there is definitely an affective dimension to it, but for some reason I don’t remember coming across much that others have written about that aspect of things.

There seems to be lots of focus on tools (e.g. google docs, gingko, etc.) or approaches to collaborative editing (such as many of Mike Caufield’s blog posts) – but little on the emotional aspects of it. I guess there are emotional aspects to it whether you’re co-editing face to face or online, but it’s much more of an issue one needs to be mindful of when it’s online because you don’t have the visual cues and tone of voice to discuss why you might be editing someone’s work, deleting it, etc., and a tool like google docs isn’t the “politest” for this kind of thing, though there are other options, such as Penflip). I’m not saying people aren’t thinking of the affective dimension, I am sure they are, just that I have not recently come across discussions of it.

So… my google search returned these interesting articles (skip the next two paragraphs if you want to get to the “meat” of my blog post hehe):

This thesis about the nature and dynamics of collaborative writing, as well as this journal article co-authored by the same person about intra-group conflicts in collaborative writing. And this article, which focuses directly on technology-enabled collaborative writing, but it was written in like 2003/2004, before google docs became popular (if it even existed). I did write a collaborative paper for my master’s degree in 2003, I just think we used track changes back and forth, so not the same thing. I have not looked at these articles yet.

It occurred to me this morning that one of the things Mike Caufield (and I guess some tools like PenFlip, Draftin) advocate is to replace the wiki/google docs (where people totally overwrite someone else’s authored parts, relegating previous versions to be accessible only via versioning) with something that allows “forking” (which I understand to mean (Mike, correct me if I am wrong): different versions of the same doc, but where the original author can choose to incorporate suggested changes) – is really a lot like what “track changes” in MS word does anyway, right?

ANYWAY – Affective dimensions of collaborative writing

  1. It is complicated to have to delete or heavily edit someone else’s work
  2. It creates complicated feelings to have someone else delete, heavily edit, or suggest huge modifications to one’s own work
  3. It is complicated to explain to someone why the above (1 or 2) is happening, and also complicated to work with one’s own feelings about 1 or 2 above
  4. It is a thin line between being constructive and critical – kind of like the way peer review works

I don’t really know where this post is going, except that I want to start thinking and talking about this affective dimension of collaborative writing online. I know something like google docs has a comment feature and a chat option. I’ve used them a lot and they help a lot – but not always enough to cover the depth of emotion that can happen when writing collaboratively.

I’ll come back to this topic but would love to hear about other people’s experiences with collaborative writing

2 Comments

  1. I’m actually interested to see the culture around SFW at scale. The thing is that SFW is actually different than Word revisions. In Word track changes the assumption is that everybody will end up with the same document eventually. In SFW there is no such assumption.

    That changes a lot. Ward Cunningham, for example, took a piece of mine, forked it to his own site, and monkeyed with it a bit to make it fit his site’s style better. The headings were changed to one word headings. The text was edited down, and a major portion was cut out. Video links were inserted. Paragraphs were broken to make them shorter.

    And I LOVED it.

    It’s like music. I write songs and record them in a specific style that is shooting for a certain texture — a lo-fi texture that most people don’t get. If someone came to me and said — hey, you should clean up those drums, and jeez, stop close singing on the microphone, also I fixed your solo to sound more professional — well, I’d probably tell them to get lost. Some changes might be useful, but a lot of them are just trying to make “me not me”.

    On the other hand, songs of mine have been covered by people who have decided to handle so much of the song differently that it is barely recognizable. And *that* is flattering as hell.

    The difference here is that they are not telling me to be like them, they are expressing themselves through my work. That’s neither track changes or Google docs.

    In SFW I get to look later and if the stuff they have done with my stuff has helpful revisions, then great. If not, hey — it’s how they want to roll. This is why Ward calls the approach “A Chorus of Voices”, with the idea that our different approaches to things are not meant to bludgeoned out, but synchronized. I don’t write enough about the affective side of things, but it’s the humanity of the SFW approach that I actually find most compelling.

    • Hey Mike, thanks for this. That’s actually very clear (as usual – you have a gift for this!), but also indirectly refers to the affective side of things, you talk about “loving” what Ward did, or how annoyed you’d get if someone did x, and how “flattering” something would be.
      There is, of course, what you say on your blog: SFW is doing sthg different from the kind of collaborative writing we do now. We just keep discussing it in reference to that because we haven’t yet grasped what it is or can do. “We” being ppl like me, not you or Ward.
      Having said that, I think there might always (?) be a need for that collaboration on one final document e.g. To write an academic paper together, co-teach a course, or produce a report at work. In that case, things like penflip (rather than SFW) might suffice in terms of “politeness” in co-editing, right? I guess there’s also all sorts of stuff going on in the background of wikipedia and a lot of emotions flying there as well.
      Unless you think SFW might also revolutionize all that stuff, too, in which case, I’d love to hear more from you 🙂

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