Collaborative writing, collaborative production

With new social models of collaboration on the web, we’ve seen an explosion of models that attempt to motivate people to contribute to a common exercise. Nonetheless there has been a certain amount of homophily in these models; a great deal of imagination in this space rests latent. The promise of social sharing is imminent; effective collaboration that mirrors the sophisticated coordination exhibited by real world publishing is more elusive.

C|Net ran a story a couple of days ago on social writing experiments involving MySpace and HarperCollins, trying (understandably) to achieve synergies between these two Murdoch properties:

Diane Naughton, vice president of marketing at HarperCollins Children’s Books, said that the challenge has shifted from the publishing industry holding the Internet at arm’s length to worries about how to prove value from online marketing efforts.

One way HarperCollins plans to tackle this challenge is to team up with MySpace, according to Naughton. In the fall, the social network plans to build and launch a new “create and share” writing tool in partnership with HarperCollins, Naughton said in an interview at Mashup. Teens and college kids on the site can write prose and then share it with friends on MySpace. People can then vote on the best writing, she said.

Another example of this type of write-and-share model is Heel Press, which has encouraged the formation of creative communities of writers, and is energetically used among its members.

Other models that more explicitly resemble shared-work, with true collaboration, include Distributed Proofreaders (DP), a project that facilitates the conversion of public domain works into digital editions that can be searched and downloaded. In these pages, Tim O’Reilly has commented on the power of the “Mechanical Turk” approach utilized by DP on the occasion of the release of their 10,000th book, earlier this year.

Experimentally more interesting are frameworks that facilitate simple project, multi-process collaboration. E.g., as I’ve previously written, Facebook is becoming a popular “shell” within which arbitrarily complex scholarly and educational collaboration is beginning to take place. (Presumably, other types of collaboration as well). In this model, Facebook provides no direct mediation, but its native tools and external application support permit the assemblage of ad-hoc, self-forming communities to achieve a common purpose.

Another example is the recent release of the Internet Archive’s Open Library, in which community participation aimed at enhancing the store of publicly accessible information on the world’s inventory of published books is invited and facilitated through an assemblage of easy-to-use tools.

Models in which complex, multi-faceted production systems are involved are still somewhat rare, since they typically require active mediation. One of the few that I have run across is a nascent company called Hol Arts. As it is currently engendered, it represents an intriguing hybrid.

Hol Arts is working towards a framework in which art-related books may be created and published (as new titles) or re-created (when public domain), or re-juvenated (if already published) while encouraging the formation of a rich resource site on art-related books that encourages self-participating communities. Hol describes their publishing support on their early-preview site,

With user-developed content, individuals will not only be making and distributing their own creative material, they’ll be collaborating with one another to develop it to a level of quality equal to that of major media companies. […]

As a book publisher in this model, it’s our job to coalesce this pool of talent, give them the tools to work together, moderate their collaboration where necessary, assist in their personal and professional development, and provide an effective outlet for their collected work.

At Hol, you choose the books we publish and organize the teams to publish them. Your team focuses on editing, design, and publicity, while Hol supports all production, distribution, marketing and general operations.

The fundamental question is whether a collaborative workplan among participants (whose eligibility for contributing must be manually vetted by the emergent team through resume and reference evaluation) is sufficiently product enhancing and cost-attenuating compared to the existing baseline book production process to make the system feasible. It might well be, particularly for high value products such as art-related works.

The strategic selection of creative-process out-placing into collaborative systems, while retaining more routine or systematic tasks, bears faint shadows of the model that Flickr helped innovate to its obvious advantage several years ago: Flickr’s mediation is automated, accomplished via the provision of hosting and software infrastructure. Notably, physical book production has a far higher activity threshold than image sharing, requiring more significant time and production cost allocations which would prove justified if the returns are sufficient over limited, easily managed production sequences. Technologies like print-on-demand may lessen some of these hurdles; one can wonder if support of electronic production might further still.

Such an extension into digital production would marry some of the strengths of electronic presses, such as Alexander Street Press and Rice University’s Connexions, with the collaborative authoring model most famously exemplified by the Institute for the Future of the Book.

As the diversity and richness of collaboration tools increases, and our ability to form self-generating communities becomes easier, it will be increasingly straightforward to disassemble and distribute the operations associated with creative expression and production. Watching the most favored combinations of these task parcels as they slowly precipitate out from the turbulent solution of options will be an interesting process.