Writing and collaboration in the digital age

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by Kevin Eagan

Yesterday, I wrote about how reading has changed in the digital age. Today, I want to focus on how writing has changed. Specifically, I focus on the good (collaboration, new fields of study, etc.) and the bad (hasty publishing, poor editing, etc.).

infinite collaboration.

“Every artist tries to foresee or even nudge the context in which expression is to be perceived so that the art will make sense. It’s not necessarily a matter of overarching ego, or manipulative promotion, but a simple desire for meaning” — Jaron Lanier, You Are Not A Gadget

As I thought about how writing has changed in the digital age, I realized that the act of writing itself is utilitarian and boring. Essentially, not much has changed over the years when it comes to writing; the act of writing itself is just a matter of sitting and doing it, and trying to do it well. In this way, writing is no different than most other forms of creative output. An artist, for example, takes paint or ink and a canvas and creates something new out of it. What changes in the process of writing — or creating anything, really — are the tools used and the ability to find meaning in using them.

Because writing itself changes very little, I don’t see a negative change in terms of creative output on the internet or in any other digital space. People will create even more now that the tools are easier to use, and this can only mean that more amazing literature and art is out there to be discovered.

On the internet, this means shorter, more succinct, sometimes more sensationalist writing. On an e-reader or similar app-based device, this can mean more plot-driven writing, but it can also mean writing that plays freely with form. Even in the act of writing this blog post, I’m aware that this will be a longer post that requires some involvement from the reader. On one level, I’m breaking an unspoken rule about blog posts remaining short and sweet, but on another level, I’m aware that most of my readers will keep reading. Either way, this writing is a lot different from my scholarly writing, or writing for publication, even if a lot of the content remains the same.

Digital audiences are different from other audiences, and the contexts in which they exist are always in flux. This gives writers in the digital age a lot more leeway in creating and experimenting, but it also makes it a lot harder to gain and keep an audience of readers.

As I see it, there are two areas where writing in a digital space is different. First, the tools available allow writers to move beyond a print matrix, incorporating other rhetorical modes: coding, design, pixelation, hyperlinking, etc. Second, digital connectedness gives writers new ways to collaborate with people and groups that they may not have sought out in any other space. Both of these areas are incredibly important if we are to create new ways of thinking and writing.

When digital tools are used, like wikis, blogs, QR codes, collaborative word processors, and the like, the possibilities are endless…if you know how to use them, and know what they do. As someone who knows little about coding, I know that I must seek out someone who knows a lot about coding in order to make my web site or project do what I intend for it to do. Equally, someone who is great at coding but might not be that great at design might seek out a graphic designer to help turn ideas into something real. The tools are there, but what makes them work well is the ability to collaborate. This aspect is, without a doubt, the most important aspect of writing in the digital age

What I think collaboration means in the digital age

As a writer, scholar, teacher, and blogger, I love the idea of one place where I can go and find anyone and anything. On the internet, the possibilities are endless, and the result of a functioning internet is being able to collaborate well. I would argue that collaboration on the internet supersedes any possibility of collaboration before the internet. There is something about being separated from the physical space that allows the ideas — the true matter of collaborative effort — to come through in more clarity than in any other collaborative space.

Of course, there are many issues with collaboration on the internet. The idea of creating a “hive mind,” a digital groupthink, is a legitimate concern. As in our non-digital lives, too much groupthink leads to the loudest person in the room winning the “consensus” of the group, which doesn’t always lead to the best ideas. Wikipedia and other great websites often suffer from this problem, and many writers have discussed the idea of what Susan Cain calls “the new groupthink,” an expectation that collaborative work will always create the best possible outcome, which is not always true.

But the internet provides a different type of collaboration, one that allows a writer to create something great on his or her own, in isolation, but with the guidance of the group. I like the idea of groups coming up with a general idea, then going away for a while to work on the idea in isolation, and later coming together to finalize the project as a group. This can be done best online, because the group dynamic is, physically, in isolation, but in “spirit,” it’s a collaborative effort.

Because of collaboration, writers today have more options to create something new that is both truly collaborative and yet not hampered by groupthink.

Thus, the true challenge for writers in the digital age is this: how can we harness collaboration in a fruitful way? What tools or guidance do we need to collaborate effectively? Can new modes of thinking, art, music, or rhetoric be created through non-hierarchical collectives of really smart, thoughtful, fun people on the internet, alone & together at the same time?

I’m optimistic that this will happen.

Kevin Eagan (@KevEagan) is a freelance editor and writer living in Central Florida. He edits book manuscripts and articles for local and national publications. Critical Margins is his place to share his interests. You can also check out his professional website, KevinThomasEagan.com.