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.
This is mostly a pointer to Frank Chimero’s new post that connects jazz and design thinking to web platforms and APIs in a neat way. Frank is, unsurprisingly, actually walking the walk when it comes to designed content; his approach is simple and very effective. Look at a previous post to pick up on the pattern.
The illustrations remind me of some of the best sections of Watchmen—the graphic novel, not the movie—where whole scenes play out “silently” behind the main action. It’s visual counterpoint—the illustrations not simply, er, illustrating the text, but actually riffing on it. Maybe even satirizing it a tiny bit. It’s just great.
Anyway! I say “mostly” because I also want to tag on a question. Frank builds his argument on the great virtues of jazz. I think this graf sums it up best:
You know what I love about jazz and improvisation? It’s all process. One-hundred percent. The essence of it is the process, every time is different, and to truly partake in it, you have to visit a place to see it in progress. Every jazz club or improv comedy theater is a temple to the process of production. It’s a factory, and the art is the assembly, not the product. Jazz is more verb than noun. And in a world riddled with a feeling of inertia, I want to find a verb and hold on to it for dear life.
Here’s the question. Let’s change our time-scale from years or decades to hundreds of years or more. Does process-based work endure? Does pure process endure?
Will people still be riffing on jazz standards in a hundred years?
This is totally not a rhetorical question! I can imagine a whole line of thinking that goes: Oh yeah, actually, this is the secret weapon. Encode your work as pure process, and it will get made and remade over and over. It’s immaterial and therefore indestructible. This is the trick that every religion has figured out.
But I can also imagine the other line: Actually, process is fragile. It doesn’t survive the fallow periods. It depends too much on an unbroken series of practitioners—of champions. To reliably make it between generations, you need a canonical text or a finished canvas. You need to print on paper or etch in stone. Process is fine, but the finished product is the thing. Materiality is the ultimate ark. Hello, Renaissance?
But, this is pretty abstract, so let’s focus on the simpler question:
Jazz is young—really young. But the jazz icons and jazz standards that Frank invokes actually feel quite old to me. It feels like they’re on the wane, and have been for quite a while. Tell me if I’m wrong. And tell me: Do you think jazz—jazz as process, jazz as platform—is around for the long haul?
I like the sound of this, over at Bobulate…
Start with the doorknob. Once you become a doorknob expert, you can move on to becoming a room expert, a door expert, a window expert. Make connections, and you can become an expert on how public spaces can foster community interaction, or how city design can alleviate congestion.
…but I wonder if it’s actually true? A couple of things come to mind:
One: In I Am a Strange Loop, Douglas Hofstadter argues against the notion that we’ll derive a useful theory of consciousness from what we know about neurons. His analogy: We know that a hurricane is, at root, a bunch of air molecules swirling around. But we don’t use the physics of molecules to predict hurricane behavior. We use the physics of hurricanes. So even if things are linked—as minds and neurons certainly are, or as doorknobs and public spaces certainly are—it doesn’t mean you should start at the bottom to understand the whole system. Actually: you probably shouldn’t.
(Note that I’m not doing justice to Hofstadter’s argument in my lil’ thumbnail sketch. It’s really thought-provoking and ultimately, I thought, really convincing.)
Two: Hewing a little more closely to the point that Jeff Veen (as paraphrased by Liz Danzico) is trying to make: Don’t super-specialists usually just remain super-specialists? I’m thinking, for example, of movie production: the cinematographer, the make-up artist, the special effects artist, the special effects artist who is really good at spaceships, the special effects artist who is really good at spaceships piloted by lizard-droids… and so on. You’ve seen those credits! And the one in charge of the big picture—the “expert on […] public spaces” in this situation—is in fact the one person who didn’t specialize. The generalist; the ringleader.
This is not to say that super-specialization is not a super-smart strategy! Being extremely good—the best in the world—at a particular thing is actually one of the best strategies for survival and satisfaction. But I just don’t think it necessarily leads anywhere other than… super-specialization. It seems to me, looking around, that the people in charge of cities, public spaces, organizations, and Spider-Man 4 are the people who have gone straight at those more macro levels like an arrow.
Note that Will Smith’s wisdom, noted in the same post, is on the contrary unassailable.
Pixar president Ed Catmull, in a speech to Stanford’s business school, talks about sharing work even (especially) when it’s incomplete:
In the process of making the film, we reviewed the material every day. Now, this is counter-intuitive for a lot of people. […]
Suppose you come in, and you’ve got to put together animation or drawings and show it to a famous, world-class animator. Well, you don’t want to show something which is weak or poor. So you want to hold off until you get it to be right.
The trick is actually to stop that behavior. We show it every day—when it’s incomplete. If everybody does it, every day, then you get over the embarrassment. And when you get over the embarrassment, you’re more creative.
It’s not obvious to people, but starting down that path helped everything that we did. Show it in its incomplete form. There’s another advantage to that. When you’re done… you’re done.
By that last bit, he means that if you haven’t been sharing your work every day, even (especially) when it’s incomplete, then when you get to the point where you say, “Whew, finished! Take a look at this,” it’s an illusion—your work is still just beginning.
It’s iteration! And seriously: it applies to everything.
Wow—Wired Science has been absolutely dominating the astrophotography beat lately. Here’s a feature that’s kin to one of those “behind the scenes at a magazine cover shoot” posts… except instead of Beyonce, it’s a nebula:
Looking at the original snap, and then at the final product, I am stunned, as always, that all that stuff is up there. You just need electronic eyes to see it.
Related: I’m not the only one who’s been re-watching Cosmos autotuned every 15 minutes, right? 675,000 views, and 2,000 of them are mine.