So let me start with a story, and a feeling:
In preparation for a collaborative writing project last weekend, I put out a call for photo-manipulators: people with Photoshop or Aviary skills who would volunteer to be on-call to produce some cool imagery.
So it’s Friday, and my young collaborators and I kick it off: we scan a bunch of source material from the school library, put it in a Dropbox folder, share it with the volunteers, and frame the first challenge. (Here’s the email.)
While we’re out scouring San Diego that afternoon, our allies leap into action. Finished images are appearing in real-time. Every few minutes I’ll check the Dropbox app on my iPhone, see something new, announce it to the group, and everyone will gather around the tiny screen and ooh and ahh.
Another data point: several times now I’ve put a call out on Twitter for real-time editing. As I get responses, I’ll DM volunteers with links to a rough draft and a Google form. Then I’ll go out for coffee. I’ll be walking up Clement Street, and on my phone, the feedback will be streaming in—row after row blinking to life in a Google spreadsheet.
It’s a remarkable feeling—somehow both anticipation and satisfaction at the same time. Accomplishment and gratitude… with a little edge of fear. There’s got to be oxytocin involved.
Here’s where it gets practical. Based on my experiences last weekend and with another recent story, I’ve stumbled onto a trifecta of tools that seem to change the game for real-time distributed creative collaboration. (Is that a thing? That’s totally a thing.)
This is the new utility belt:
Twitter. This is how you get the word out; it’s the spark that starts the fire. And there’s an interesting nuance here. I’ve experimented with two approaches to distributed collaboration: 1) ask people to sign up ahead of time to review a story, or 2) just tweet it out and see who responds. Surprisingly—to me, anyway—the second works better. I think it’s because a tweet has a built-in filter: it’s generally only seen by people who are plugged-in (and therefore perhaps available to help) right now. Don’t get me wrong; both strategies are useful, and a lot depends on what kind of collaborator you’re looking for. But I think the real-time call-out is where the real magic happens.
Google Docs, especially Google forms. This is your info-collector. These forms make it so ridiculously easy to get structured feedback from a big group of people. My forms tend to be very simple: three or four fields; two or three specific questions and then one open-ended catch-all. That’s it. I generally don’t ask for people’s names. No friction. (Here’s the form I sent out for Last Beautiful. Here’s a sampling of the feedback.)
Dropbox. I’ve been a devoted Dropbox user for a while now, but last weekend was the first time I’d used it collaboratively and creatively. And I’m now completely addicted. I think two things about shared Dropbox folders are especially interesting and important:
- They’re invitation-only. Filling out a form is one thing… getting access to a secret file-system speakeasy is quite another. It’s positive feedback. It’s a micro-incentive all on its own.
- They’re real-time. I didn’t see this coming, but the little Growl notifications from Dropbox—”One new file has been added to the folder SHELLDRAKE”—are totally thrilling. It’s like hearing the shuffles and scrapes of colleagues down the hall, and the real-time-ness of it maps really well to that Twitter swarming vibe.
I could go on and on about Dropbox. The fact that it’s part of your file-system—no wonky HTTP uploads—makes it feel fast and sturdy. Using Dropbox, collaborators can share media not only with you but with each other. For instance, last weekend, one photo-manipulator made a particularly nice cut-out of a source image, so he copied that over to the folder for everyone to use. Extrapolate that behavior out and it starts to get really interesting. And again: it wouldn’t be so remarkable if it wasn’t so friction-free.
(For another example, check out this little blog post I did on Alexis Madrigal’s use of Dropbox for collaborative research.)
There are other tools that deserve honorable mentions: Tumblr’s new-ish submit feature has a ton of potential. (I used it recently to very quickly gather material for Ash Cloud Tales.) Posterous has multi-author accounts that are, like Google forms, close to friction-free: it’s all just email. But for whatever reason, it’s the three tools above that just seem to snap together like Legos.
So if these are the tools, what are the skills? Jane McGonigal has already figured this out. She calls them the ten collaboration superpowers. And in particular, I think the first three are key:
- Mobbability: the ability to do real-time work in very large groups; a talent for coordinating with many people simultaneously.
- Cooperation radar: the ability to sense, almost intuitively, who would make the best collaborators on a particular task.
- Ping quotient: measures your responsiveness to other people’s requests for engagement.
(What blows my mind is that Jane came up with these superpowers three years ago. I actually can’t quite imagine mobbability or ping quotient without a Twitter network to rely on.)
Although I’m really happy with the way both Last Beautiful and Normal Heights turned out, the truth is that the processes for both were pretty sloppy and sub-optimal. There are a dozen things I could have done better to make them better experiences for collaborators—and to make better finished products, too. So this is something I’m dedicated to getting better at.
But the main thing right now is: Twitter plus Google forms plus Dropbox. Use ‘em together. They’re the new utility belt, and so many things are possible.