[-empyre-] and a comment on collaboration
adam at flossmanuals.net
Thu Jan 19 23:07:58 EST 2012
“Collaboration on a book is the ultimate unnatural act.”
One of the most obvious opportunities open to the online production of
books is collaboration. Of course collaborative writing actually has a
somewhat (unfairly) tainted name. At the onset of wikimania Penguin
books conducted an experiment called A Million Penguins (1) which was a
collaborative writing project using a wiki. By all accounts was more
successful as a social experiment than a literary experiment. I think
most people think of this kind of thing when they think about
collaborative writing. Its an interesting experiment, the thinking goes,
but possibly it is not able to produce the same quality as a single
authored work. However lets not forget that ALL books are produced
collaboratively. Books generally carry the name of an author but this is
because the publishing industry trades on and builds a star system. It
is better marketing to build and push one star than distribute the glory
over the 2,5, or 10 who were actually involved in producing the book.
We must discard this artificial conceit of 'the author' which prevents
us from fully exploring the richness of collaborative production.
Producing books online obviously opens up some very interesting
possibilities for collaboration. First, unlike a typical writers room
the net is a public space. That makes the possibility of making
connections with people you may not know. It also means that you could
box yourself in and open the door just to those you want to let in. The
point is you have the choice of a variety of collaborative workflows.
Some of the most amazing results can come from open yourself up to
unanticipated collaboration. My experiences with FLOSS Manuals can
recount many stories regarding this since our repository is completely
open. Anyone can register and edit any book. As a result of these
experiences I find the case for 'open collaboration' extremely compelling.
The following are two examples of collaborative workflows enabled by
online book production. They investigate different ends of the
collaborative process. The first example is from James Simmons. James
wrote several books online in a manner he calls a 'Book Slog' or
'collaborating without co-authors'. The second example is of accelerated
book production using a collaborative process known as a Book Sprint.
The normal way...
From the words of James Simmons:
A “Book Slog” is pretty much the normal way of writing a book. It is
what most publishers would nail (attribute) to a single author. The long
road to producing a book. For example:
The book will, of necessity, take more than a week to write. More than
likely it will take months, and will involve much research. The main
author will end up knowing much more after finishing the book than he
did when he began it.
The book will have one main author, who will do most of the actual writing.
The book may or may not have other contributors.
The contributions of others may be informal.
Other contributors will not be as highly motivated as the main author,
or may have their own motivations that are not the same as the main author.
The contributors will likely never meet face to face.
The question is, does online production have anything to offer the
Slogger? Based on my own experiences, I would have to say it does. I
used Booki for my books. The main reason to use Booki rather than a word
processor to write a book is to effectively collaborate with other
authors. I have completed two books this way (and the Spanish
translation of my first FLOSS Manual would definitely qualify as a
third) so my opinions on this might be worth something.
Some might not think of these book as a collaborative effort, since I
wrote every word, but in a very real sense the are collaborative works.
I got lots of feedback from other developers, help debugging my
examples, help resolving problems with the test environments, and many
useful suggestions. Writing the book on the web made that kind of
collaboration much easier.
There were a couple of people who offered to write chapters, but this
did not come to pass. In the end this didn't matter; the books ended up
doing what they needed to do.
After the first book was published there was interest in creating a
Spanish version. Some of the most successful OLPC projects have been in
South America, so I definitely wanted there to be a Spanish version.
Unfortunately, I don't speak any Spanish, so I didn't feel qualified to
do it. After the translation project got set up a couple of people got
accounts and looked over the book, and one of them translated a few
paragraphs. Several of the people who had offered to help were concerned
that they did not have the technical knowledge to translate the book,
and for several days it looked like nobody was going to work on it.
A friend suggested using Google translate to create a base translation
that native speakers could correct. I ended up using Babel Fish instead
because the HTML generated by Google Translate had a lot of extra stuff
After I started doing this a retired teacher who was fluent in Spanish
started to correct the text, and I went through and untranslated things
that should not be translated, like code examples. It really needed
native speakers to get it into shape. The retired teacher sent out an
email on some lists explaining that we had a translation going that
needed to be corrected. After that several native speakers got accounts
on the site and started to correct the text.
What I learn from this is that starting a book from nothing is
intimidating. However, once the book reaches a critical mass and there
is no doubt that there will be a finished book you'll find that getting
help and feedback is easier, almost inevitable.
This was not the end of the problems getting the book translated. While
we had several people willing to polish up the Spanish in the earlier
chapters, none of them were confident in their ability to update the
more technical chapters later on. We were fortunate enough to have
someone come along who did have a technical background, but she wanted
to start the whole translation over again, using no automated
translation at all.
She felt very strongly that while a machine translated book might be
tolerable for adults, for students still mastering their native language
it needed to be much better. The Spanish teacher in her school often
pointed out the relationship between mastering your first native
language and mastering of formal languages, including mathematics.
Adults can deal with a poorly translated book but children should not
The work her team did was absolutely terrific, but I still believe that
if we didn't start with the awful machine translated version we would
never have gotten the good one.
This second translation involved a twelve native speakers with technical
skills. The leader of the project, Ana Cichero, recruited the volunteers
and made them responsible for individual chapters. Instead of publishing
the book several times as it was being worked on Ana wanted to publish
it only once when it was completely finished. (She tells me that in
retrospect publishing several times might have been better). She reached
a point where the translation was ready to go but it turned out that
there were still problems with the book (formatting) that needed
There was a lot of unexpected work at the end, but I can't argue with
the results. The translation team did an outstanding job!
The best motivation to collaborate on writing a book is a desire for the
book to exist. To quote Antoine de Saint-Exupery:
“If you want to build a ship, don't drum up people together to collect
wood and don't assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long
for the endless immensity of the sea”
If you can sell people on the idea of the book you'll get collaborators.
That's another reason you may have to write a substantial chunk of the
book before collaborators show up. A partial book is easier to sell than
an idea for a book.
With the book "E-book Enlightenment" I got collaborators in the
conventional sense of the word. Before I had worked on Make Your Own
Sugar Activities! I had written the Get Internet Archive Books Activity
(program). In the process of doing that I met some people from an
organization in Oregon called the Rural Design Collective. This is a
group that has done work for both the Internet Archive and the One
Laptop Per Child project. They have a summer mentoring program where
talented students get involved with an Internet project and learn skills
that may lead to a future career.
When I announced that Make Your Own Sugar Activities! was finished I got
an email from Rebecca Malamud of the RDC congratulating me. I told her
about my plans for a new book and asked if she'd like to contribute.
At that point the RDC was contemplating what to do for their summer
mentoring program and they decided that working on my book might be just
what they were looking for.
We all wanted the book to exist, but for different reasons. The RDC is
focused on training young people to create websites, and so they chose
to focus on the graphic design of the book more than the content. They
did provide some content: the chapter on publishing e-books with gCI is
mostly theirs (the RDC created that software).
The RDC found a talented young artist who did some terrific cover and
interior illustrations (the small ones at the top of each chapter). The
cover illustration that everyone liked didn't really go with the title I
had proposed, so I ended up changing the title. (The same artist also
did new cover art for the printed Make Your Own Sugar Activities!)
Another of their mentees created style sheets which they used to create
a really beautiful bound and printed edition of the book.
In addition to the RDC's work I also got much help and encouragement
from the forums of DIY Book Scanning and Distributed Proofreaders.
Again, this is not collaboration in the way the word is normally used,
but it was a vital contribution to the book. I would post a link to the
book on the FLOSS Manuals website and ask for comments. The comments I
got often contained valuable information and suggestions.
So in summary I'd say that Booki is a good way to collaborate on writing
A more radical action for online book production is the Book Sprint2.
A Book Sprint is a facilitated process that brings together a group of
people to produce a book in 3-5 days (although it has been done in
shorter time). While the group meet in person the books are produced
collaboratively using networked (online) end-to-end book production
tools. Often remote participants also join in. Usually there is no
pre-production and the group is guided by a facilitator from zero to
published book. The books produced are high quality content and are made
available immediately at the end of the sprint in printed (using
print-on-demand services) and e-book formats. Books sprints produce
great books and they are a great community and team building process.
The quality of these books is exceptional, for example Free Software
Foundation Board Member Benjamin Mako Hill said of the 280 page
Introduction to the Command Line manual produced in a two day Book Sprint:
“I have written basic introductions to the command line in three
different technical books on GNU/Linux and read dozens of others. FLOSS
Manual’s “Introduction to the Command Line” is at least as clear,
complete, and accurate as any I’ve read or written. But while there are
countless correct reference works on the subject, FLOSS’s book speaks to
an audience of absolute beginners more effectively, and is ultimately
more useful, than any other I have seen.”
Book Sprints offer an exciting and fun process to work with others to
make that book you always felt the world needed. It is a fast process –
zero to book in 5 days. Seem impossible? Its not, its very possible,
fun, and extremely rewarding in terms of output (a book!) and the team
building that occurs during the process.
There are three common reasons to do Book Sprints:
Produce a book that will be ready at the end of sprint drives the
process and helps to justify the effort.
Produce knowledge in a short period of time force the participants to
master the issues related to their subject. They will intensely work on
a content together, share and reshape their understanding of a
Reinforce or create social links. Mobilize a community to produce a book
or text forge and solidify a sense of belonging among participants.
As a result we have experimented a lot with this format. To understand
the many facets of collaboration in this process lets look at the second
case study - Collaborative Futures.
This book was first written over 5 days (Jan 18-22, 2010) during a Book
Sprint in Berlin. 7 people (5 writers, 1 programmer and 1 facilitator)
gathered to collaborate and produce a book in 5 days with no prior
preparation and with the only guiding light being the title
These collaborators were: Mushon Zer-Aviv, Michael Mandiberg, Mike
Linksvayer, Marta Peirano, Alan Toner, Aleksandar Erkalovic (programmer)
and Adam Hyde (facilitator).
The event was part of the 2010 transmediale festival
<www.transmediale.de/en/collaborative-futures>. 200 copies were printed
the same week through a local print on demand service and distributed at
the festival in Berlin. 100 copies were printed in New York later that
This book was revised, partially rewritten, and added to over three days
in June 2010 during a second book sprint in New York, NY, at the Eyebeam
Center for Art & Technology as part of the show Re:Group Beyond Models
of Consensus and presented in conjunction with Not An Alternative and
Day one of the first sprint consisted of presentations and discussions.
During this first day we relied heavily on traditional ‘unconference’
technologies—namely colored sticky notes. With reference to
unconferences we always need to tip the hat to Allen Gunn and Aspiration
for their inspirational execution of this format. We took many ideas
from Aspiration’s Unconferences during the process of this sprint and we
also brought much of what had been learned from previous Book Sprints to
First, before the introductions, we each wrote as many notes as we could
about what we thought this book was going to be about. The list consists
of the following:
* When Collaboration Breaks.
* Collaboration (super) Models.
* Plausible near and long term development of collaboration tech,
methods, etc. Social impact of the same. How social impact can be made
positive. Dangers to look out for.
* Licenses cannot go two ways.
* Incriminating Collaborations.
* In the future much of what is valuable will be made by communities.
* What type of thing will they be? What rules will they have for
participation? What can the social political consequences be?
* Sharing vs Collaboration.
* How to reconstruct and reassemble publishing?
* Collaboration and its relationship to FLOSS and GIT communities.
* What is collaboration? How does it differ from cooperation?
* What is the role of ego in collaboration?
* Attribution can kill collaboration as attribution = ownership.
* Sublimation of authorship and ego.
* Models of collaboration. Historical framework of collaboration.
* Influence of technology enabling collaboration.
* Successful free culture economic models.
Then each presented who they were and their ideas and projects as they
are related to free culture, free software, and collaboration. The
process was open to discussion and everyone was encouraged to write as
many points, questions, statements, on sticky notes and put them on the
wall. During this first day we wrote about 100 sticky notes with short
“Art vs Collaboration”
“Free Culture does not require maintenance”
“Autonomy: better term than free/open?”
“Centralized silos vs community”
“Free Culture posturing”
…and other cryptic references to the thoughts of the day. We stuck these
notes on a wall and after all of the presentations (and dinner) we
grouped them under titles that seemed to act as appropriate meta tags.
We then drew from these groups the 6 major themes. We finished at midnight.
Day two—10.00 kick off and we simply each chose a sticky note from one
of the major themes and started writing. It was important for us to just
‘get in the flow’ and hence we wrote for the rest of the day until
dinner. Then we went to the Turkish markets for burek, coffee and fresh
The rest of the evening we re-aligned the index, smoothed it out, and
identified a more linear structure. We finished up at about 23.00.
Day three—At 10.00 we started with a brief recap of the new index
structure and then we also welcomed two new collaborators in the
real-space: Mirko Lindner and Michelle Thorne. Later in the day, when
Booki had been debugged a lot by Aco, we welcomed our first remote
collaborator, Sophie Kampfrath. Then we wrote, and wrote a bit more. At
the end of the day we restructured the first two sections, did a word
count (17,000 words) and made sushi.
After sushi we argued about attribution and almost finished the first
two sections. Closing time around midnight.
Day four—A late start (11.00) and we are also joined by Ela Kagel, one
of the curators from Transmediale. Ela presented about herself and
Transmediale and then we discussed possible ways Ela could contribute
and we also discussed the larger structure of the book. Later Sophie
joined us in real space to help edit and also Jon Cohrs came at dinner
time to see how he could contribute. Word count at sleep time (22.00):
Day five—The last day. We arrived at 10.00 and discussed the structure.
Andrea Goetzke and Jon Cohrs joined us. We identified areas to be
addressed, slightly altered the order of chapters, addressed the (now
non-existent) processes section, and forged ahead. We finished 2200 on
the button. Objavi, the publishing engine for Booki, generated a
book-formatted PDF in 2 minutes. Done. Word count ~33,000.
Over the course of the second book sprint we often paused to reflect on
the fact that editing and altering an existing book (one originally
written five months prior by a mostly different group of people) is a
completely different challenge than the one tackled by the original
sprinters. While the first author group began with nothing but two words
-Collaborative Futures-, words that could not be changed but were chosen
to inspire. This second time we started with 33,000 words that we needed
to read, understand, interpret, position ourselves in relationship to,
edit, transform, replace, expand upon, and refine.
Coming to a book that was already written, the second group's ability to
intervene in the text was clearly constrained. The book had a logic of
its own, one relatively foreign to the new authors. We grappled with it,
argued with it, chipped at it, and then began to add bits of ourselves.
On the first day the new authors spent hours conversing with some of the
original team. This continued on the second day, with collaborators
challenging the original text and arguing with the new contributions
If this book is a conversation, then reading it could be described as
entering a particular state of this exchange of thoughts and ideas.
Audience might be a word, a possibility and potential to describe this
reader-ship; an audience as in a performance setting where the script is
rather loose and does not aim for a clear and definite ending. (It is
open-ended by nature); an audience that shares a certain moment in the
process from a variable distance. The actual book certainly indicates a
precise moment, thereby it IS also a document, manifesting some kind of
history in/of open source and counter-movements, media environments,
active sites, less active sites, interpassivity (Robert Pfaller
<www.psychomedia.it/jep/number16/pfaller.htm>), residues of thought,
semi-public space; history of knowledge assemblages (writers talked
about an endless stitching over…) and formations of conversations.
The book as it is processed in a sprint, is a statement about and of
time. The reader or audience will probably encounter the book not as a
“speedy material”. Imaginary Readers, Imaginary Audience.We came to
recognize, however, that the point was not to change the book so that it
reflected our personal perspectives (whoever we are), but to collaborate
with people who each have their own site of practice, ideology, speech,
tools, agency. In service of a larger aim, none of us deleted the
original text and replaced it to reflect our distinct point of view.
Instead, we came to conceive of Collaborative Futures as a conversation.
Since the text is designed to be malleable and modifiable, it aims to be
an ongoing one. That said, at some point this iteration of the
conversation has to stop if a book is to be generated and printed. A
book can contain a documented conversation, but can it be a dynamic
conversation? Or does the form we have chosen demand it become static
In the end, despite our differences, we agreed to contribute to the
common cause, to become part of the multi-headed author. Whether that is
a challenge to the book or a surrendering to it, remains unclear.
Founder, FLOSS Manuals
Project Manager, Booki
Book Sprint Facilitator
mobile :+ 49 177 4935122
identi.ca : @eset
booki.flossmanuals.net : @adam
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