Face to Face vs. Online Collaboration

Collaborating on the People of Paper: Remix Criticism document this week proved to be much more challenging than I thought it would be when I initially heard about the project. Reading Zack’s post about the Process of Collaboration made me think about this difficulty, I began to wonder how much of it is linked to the fact that we’ve grown used to collaborating in face-to-face situations.

Because I wasn’t in class on the day that the document was created, I found a substantial amount of other people’s work when I opened it. While there were many great ideas present and plenty of opportunities to expand on them, the document varied most significantly from a more typical paper was its lack of form and cohesion. Usually, I really enjoy editing, but trying to think of ways to do so in this document was a completely different experience. When I edit someone else’s work, I’ll pencil in my comments on rough drafts, even if it means scratching out paragraphs or creating a complicated web of directional arrows across a paper. When editing electronically, I like to stick to the “comment” options, which moves my remarks neatly off to the margin. With this project, though, changing something means that there is no trace of what came before it. I wasn’t just supposed to be improving on someone else’s work, I was supposed to make that work, in part, my own.

This issue of ownership is part of what made editing the collaborative piece so difficult for me. In many ways, I think this is because working in the Google Doc takes away the face-to-face human element that would normally be present in a collaborative situation. In person, I could bounce my ideas off of others, or give them a chance to explain parts of their work that I found difficult to understand, and considering their original intention when reworking it. In a situation like the Google Doc, however, these decisions must be made in a fashion that is both more independent and more abrupt: any user can decide he or she doesn’t like something, and wipe it out or change it with little effort. At the same time, this quality of anonymity could be liberating for some collaborators–while there are some comments or editing decisions that collaborators may be cautious to admit to a team member’s face, there is now an ability to delete or change without anyone else even knowing.

Personally, I have never been a very decisive person, and have been known to weigh out even minuscule decisions like what Chinese takeout dish to order to the point of great frustration for whoever is unfortunate enough to be with me. This quality translates into this type of collaboration, where making a drastic change to a work that belongs not only to me, but to others, causes guilt pangs.

This is all to say that, at 1 am on the night the project was due, I realize that I am the perfect example of why the document hasn’t fully come together as one cohesive piece. At this point, many of the issues with the piece have to do with structure, the way portions should relate to each other, or the inclusion of extra information–problems that, to me, symbolize not wanting to shift around an order that others have established, or undo their work. While, in a face-to-face collaborative effort, these tasks may eventually be assigned or hashed out together, it seems much more unlikely that, especially in a more anonymous setting, any one collaborator will step up and take this task upon themselves.

In another class earlier this semester, I was assigned to write a traditional paper that was a collaborative effort for the first time, and my partner and I actually used Google Docs simultaneously to do this. There was one crucial difference between that and this project, though–we were sitting across from each other at the time. The technology allowed us to view the changes we were making in real time, but most of our communication still occurred through word of mouth. Any decision that was made was discussed by both of us, so there was no pressure on either of us to take charge. Google Docs made the project easier to write, but collaborative process was largely the same as it would be had we been working on the same computer.

Considering the hesitations that collaborating in this form brings about, I’m not surprised that the Remix Criticism project is less structured than a traditional assignment would be. I wonder how, as Zack suggested in his blog post, having defined a more structured approach to doing this project would effect the results. Would forcing members to participate in a certain way (as face-to-face collaborative situations often do) allow us to work together to find a new way of collaborating/editing, or would we just be mimicking a more traditional collaborative process?

Elise Hawthorne


~ by elisehawthorne on April 5, 2010.

%d bloggers like this: