Love this post on photosynthesis and science fiction by Molly Young. Super short, super fun. Might be a big idea packed in there.
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.
I’m sitting in an airport. I just made this—a site for Eyjafjallajokull-themed flash fiction. It currently has one (1) story. I want it to have three (3) before I land! I’m getting on my plane now. Go for it!
I liked this galloping graf blogged by Frank Chimero. It’s written in that great exhortational style of Whitman, and of the American West. Which would, I think, work great on the web; somebody ought to just start blogging like this.
(Is “exhortational” even a word?)
Gilbert Alter-Gilbert (?) at A Journey Round My Skull shares something—I don’t even want to call it a blog post—that is all about writers and their trademark accessories, be they personal, technical, or… architectural? All I know is, you don’t even have to read the words (though you should): just scroll and let the juxtaposition of images flicker through your brain. Opera cloaks, foxes with quills, bicycles and the Dictascrivener… and that’s just halfway down the page.
Oh why hello, Snarkmarket. I know my posting has been positively Thompsonian lately. It will get better! But in the meantime, please accept this offering: a new very short story, written this weekend and flash-edited with the help of a few dozen Twitter peeps.
Go read Andrew Fitzgerald’s new collectively-directed short story. It is weird and wild—and Snarkmarket is threaded through it.
Random sample (the beautiful thing is that you can select almost any two grafs of Andrew’s story for this purpose):
In the popular children’s online role-playing game “Fur City”, a digital avatar named Mr. Tumbles, controlled by a 17-year-old Japanese girl in Osaka is pacing the cobblestone streets. He remembers it’s Tuesday and how much he loved last Tuesday. It was cupcake day at the Sugar Plum Bakery, and although Mr. Tumbles, the local calico kitten, was no fan of strawberry shortcake wrapped in ribbons and bows, he couldn’t deny that the rabbit-run bakery was paws and whiskers above any other establishment in Fur City. Today at the Sugar Plum Bakery it’s not cupcake day. The rabbits told him it was pancake day. But he knows it’s Tuesday. Something’s fishy in Fur City.
Something’s fishy on the whole Internet.
This is more than a big in-joke, though; the way it all wraps up is sincere and more than a little wonderful.
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?
Do you know about ScriptShadow? It’s one of my favorite blogs lately: a smart, snarky, insidery screenplay review. It focuses (as best I can discern) on screenplays that have been bought by a studio but not produced yet. There are some exceptions, but that seems to be the core of it—and as such, it’s actually an odd preview of the next 2–5 years of releases.
Anyway, I mention it now because it’s sci-fi week, and you can read the review of the script for the Ender’s Game adaptation that will probably still never be produced. You can also download the script in its entirety!
Reading screenplays, like reading plays, is actually pretty fun in its own right. They’re always tight and terse: very consumable. And I find the descriptive language of screenplays sort of charming. That is, not the dialogue, but the parts that go
EXT. NEW JERSEY COUNTRYSIDE - MORNING
The train hurls straight at us.
NEW ANGLE — Skimming alongside as the train twists and turns, sucking up track — feet, yards, miles of it.
Beneath it, the curving rails, which the rushing train barely seems to touch. They vibrate with an eerie, dulcimer HUM.
It’s never particularly good prose—but it’s not supposed to be, right? It’s supposed to be descriptive and conversational. These are words that will never be seen or heard by the public! Their audience is all agents and producers and, ultimately, a director and production staff. They’re the dark matter of storytelling.
That section above is from the first page of Source Code, one of the most popular scripts on ScriptShadow, and one that I enjoyed reading.
I often find myself reading scripts before bed. Maybe that tells you something about their sensibility and heft. Actually, I think it has a lot to do with their look: a scattering of lines, lots and lots of white space. They’re light and airy. The words flow fast. The film strip plays. Ahh.