Collaboration 101 or Writing as Social Process

Post by Jennifer Evans

This post will surely evolve over the course of the next hours. I can say that with absolute confidence because I have given Erica full license to jump in and edit my words, language, and sentence structure, as needed. I also know that I”ll be revising it on the fly (as the kids say), given multiple obligations and the different hats I wear at any given time (grad chair, researcher, supervisor, wading pool aficionado, oh, and moderately engaged parent). Why mention this at the outset of a post related to our article on social media and online hate? Because it goes to the heart of the issue of writing quickly, for immediate consumption, laying bare the process, and leveling (somewhat?) the playing field.

In the short space I have here, I want to make the case for the merits of writing quickly and collaboratively, online. As Erica outlined in yesterday’s missive, over the next few weeks, we”ll be workshopping portions of our article manuscript as a series of blog posts. Each section, or mini-section, will be tweeted (and FB’d) so as to attract interest and, we hope, solicit feedback as the ideas take form and shape. Blogging the article is more than a simple gimmick. Since one of our arguments about Flickr is that it serves as a unique (and important) form of 21st century protest, creating new and diverse publics through on- and offline participatory culture, it seems only logical that we explore this notion through our own digital writing.

In this context of rapidly evolving public spheres, it is important to consider the contradictory claims made by media experts on web 2.0’s potential to shape existing power relations and status structures, enabling marginalized voices to coalesce, mobilize, and be heard. Beyond the issue of group behaviour, even on role of social media in individual identity formation the jury is apparently out. While anthropologist Tom Boehlstorff and art historian Jennifer Gonzalez have stressed the playful and indeed liberatory work of online communities (MUDs and MOOs) as places where people re-imagine their identities as virtually human “digital assemblages,” Lisa Nakamura has argued that more often than not social media simply perpetuates time-honoured representations of racial and ethnic identities through the construction and use of cybertypes, basically new variations of old ideas.

By now, we”ve all groaned our way through citizen commentaries in newspaper reports, reminded of the limits of the medium for critical discourse and debate. And who hasn’t been forced over water cooler conversation to either defend or invoke Malcolm Gladwell’s piece in the New Yorker on the pros and cons of social media activism? Even the skeptics cannot resist the force and erudition of Pulitzer Prize winning author Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brain which has sounded the alarm against the more sinister workings of the internet in changing the way we process, interpret, and store information. According to the naysayers, deep thinking, critical thinking, and anti-foundational political thought and action is just not possible in our virtual communities.  While I agree it would be too much to suggest that tweeting is to understanding what writing is to knowledge, ie. it takes more than words on the page to make for a true meeting of minds, what about the internet”s potential for bringing an audience into conversation with the way academic ideas percolate and evolve? What benefit is there in making transparent how we hash out our arguments and make ideas jell? Might there also be something inherently productive, maybe even political, about unveiling the process, warts and all?

As explored recently in an online forum on cultures of collaboration in the contemporary university, in academic writing, we draft in isolation, only to share our thoughts with trusted friends at the end of the process of editing, revising, and rethinking. Despite efforts to promote interdisciplinarity as the stuff of intellectual debate and exchange, we tend to stay within the comfort of established disciplinary networks, especially in the early phase of writing. Journals themselves are by and large discipline specific, despite a few notable exceptions. After another few rounds of edits, where we unmake and remake our drafts in light of peer-reviewers” comments, a finished manuscript might finally be ready for publication, only a quick check of the watch shows that this will take place some 6-12 months after the initial outline was penned. It then can take anywhere from 6 to 18 months for that same piece to emerge in print, or for download, more often than not behind a pay wall, meaning average folks (and recent grads!) won”t be able to access the information without a friend of a friend with a current university library card. In other words, in today”s university, there remain considerable personal, disciplinary, and institutional impediments to getting the message out, doing things differently, and experimenting with new writing styles, ideas, and forms.

In our case, blogging the article provides several unique opportunities to negotiate our creative as well as intellectual voices while playing to our different strengths. There is an ethical dimension to this as well, as we unpack the politics of editing each other”s words, intervening in each other”s process as it were. And then there is the thorny issue of experience. I may be the tenured professor, with a few articles and a book under my belt, but it is Erica who is fluent in digital humanities tools, arguments, and practitioners. She is the student — albeit a talented one about to embark on a PhD at one of the US’s best Public History programmes — but I am surely the one with the steepest learning curve.

How is this any different from garden variety collaboration? The social media component of fast writing, blogging, and tweeting our posts makes it well nigh impossible to hide the blemishes when an idea is obviously still gestating. And maybe that too is not entirely horrible. There has been tremendous interest of late in the “Busy Trap” with journalists, bloggers,faculty unions, and scholars lobbying for a rethink of how we measure output and “excellence.” Not only is the blogging of ideas a very natural way of communicating research results for a wide audience, but posts evolve and change with each tweak, edit, and rewrite, showing anyone who has hazarded to stop by the challenges, stumbling blocks, weaknesses, and potential payoffs of a project’s parameters. While the digital medium is also well-suited to the ebbs and flows of contemporary life and the challenges of never having enough time, perhaps more importantly, it allows us to chip away at the “data” and make all manner of mistakes in the service of “getting it right.” Making the process more transparent and accessible while fessing up to the fact that ideas evolve  in well-structured chaos reminds us too that writing is also, fundamentally, a social process, perhaps even a human one, deeply flawed but dynamic and in a constant state of amelioration, evolution, and change. While perhaps not inherently democratic, interminably accessible — heck, not even always erudite and good — fast writing in digital space is most certainly creative, and in an age of rampant austerity, that alone is reason enough to consider its productive potential as a commitment to the advancement of ideas.

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