Textual Raptures, essay on co-writing

This essay was published in To Do by Hybris Konstproduktion as a report on Möte09.

TEXTUAL RAPTURES

Some thoughts on co-typing in the backwash of Möte09

I got my hands on a real-time collaborative text editor for the first time in 2005. The software was called Hydra, named after the many-headed serpent that fought Hercules. When the Greek-roman demi-god cut off one of the dragon’s heads he found that two grew back. And although he almost got killed, Hercules won the fight at that point. A couple of thousand years of individualist, anthropocentric, patriarchy followed. But I have the feeling that a new hydra has woken up, stronger and smarter than ever before.

Technological breakthroughs are often followed by cultural changes. The praxis of writing is linked to the material conditions for writing. When the typewriter came in use the process of producing text started to resemble the process of reproduction. Writing became a matter of typesetting. Writing with a computer keyboard follows the same pattern. The text is broken down to a set of characters, which in a digital context are ever interchangeable. A text is a consequence of a compley series of key strikes.

The last few years of software development has made it possible to render the same key strikes of several keyboards visible on many screens simultaneously. This means that several people can write a text collaboratively in real-time, each one navigating with their own marker. Anyone involved can at any time add, edit or delete any content. Writing together in this way is quite new, and so far mostly programmers have used it. But once writers, authors and artists in general get going with the technology it will probably have deep impact on how we think about writing, reading, text and creativity in general. Since it’s not a matter of continuously writing a text, but rather type your way through a flow of expanding text I think it is suitable to call it co-typing, until some better term emerge.

What seems clear is that production and reproduction of the text merges on screen. In this way writing becomes communicative in a dialogical way (as opposed to the monological structure of a book or newspaper). But it’s a dialogue with one voice, or at least expressed through one text. Thus the process of writing/reading the text might for some be more important than the result of the process.

The experience of participating in a writing session like this is something that could be compared to a jazz jam or a role-playing session. The pauses, flows and associations become important, since they actually mean something. The musical dimension of the text, relating to tempo and simultaneity is lost once the writing session is over. The text can still be interesting and worth reading, but it’s obvious that the product is the excrement of action and not its absolute goal.

Co-typing thus require a different set of skills than individual writing. You must be able to read and write at the same time, being usurped in flow created by the group. Media theorist Henry Jenkins has proposed a number of cultural competencies and social skills needed for full involvement in participatory culture. They include play, performance, simulation, appropriation, multitasking, distributed cognition, collective intelligence, networking and navigation.[1] Many of those skills are quite different to the traditional traits of the author, being patient, concentrated, dedicated, etc.

The myth of the author is challenged in general. The single-minded author with divine inspiration, sitting on his own in his chamber, exiled from social life does in most cases not exist. And even if he did “these aspect of an individual, which we designate as an author (or which comprise an individual as an author), are projections, in terms always more or less psychological, of our way of handling texts: in the comparisons we make, the traits we extract as pertinent, the continuities we assign, or the exclusions we practice”[2]. Everyone who writes knows that the process is linked to many social activities: finding inspiration, doing research, getting feedback etc. Co-typing intensified this social aspect of text-production.

But since getting “flow” is a matter of both skill and challenge, and many of the skills are new to us we cannot expect to be master co-typers in a minute. The more I co-type, the more it becomes of obvious that it’s an activity with a set of skills that doesn’t equal with traditional writing. Flow theorist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi suggests several ways in which a group could work together so that each individual member could achieve flow. The characteristics of such a group include target group focus, advancement of something in existing, differences among the participants, playground design, etc.[3]

If you enter the session with an old-school author mentality you will probably end up super-frustrated. The others will change, rearrange and delete your work. But with the right approach the joy and pleasure of writing together cannot be understated. When you see the text flooding the screen, you need to immerse intensely to keep track and give input at the same time. The intensity makes it urgent to change approach at some points during the process. The easiest way of doing that is through time-boxing.

The easiest way of regulating the intensity of the typing is through time-boxing. One score we have tried several times is to imitate the process of print media in fast-forward giving:

  • 5/10 minutes of creative writing (free writing without really stopping ourselves),
  • 5/10 minutes of editing (spell-checking, reorganising, cutting, etc),
  • 5/10 minutes of silent reading (hands off the keyboard)

The amount of time given must be clear on beforehand, and a half time and last-minute call for each period definitely helps. The first period works perfect to create a mass of text to work with. When you write together you will not face problems relating to lack, but rather problems of excess. Thus, the second period of editing and deleting is quite important. Then the reading follows, functions as a way for the group to build up a productive frustration among the participants, since they are not allowed to work with the text. They also get an overview of the whole corpus, which is a hermeneutical necessity for any further development of the text. So … when you have went through this three-step session once you can go for it again.

If you are aiming for fiction there are plenty of possibilities to choose a direction on beforehand. A pronoun is a good starter. Whether I or You, he or she, the main characters can be chosen before, just as they are in a role-playing game. An easy way of coming up with characters is to start out with traits or professions: boss, cleaner, killer, miner, princess. Then come up with adjectives or attributes: smelly, sexy, evil, chaotic, eager, blue, tasty. Combine the trait with the attribute giving more or less original gestalts: The eager cleaner, the evil miner, the blue killer, the smelly princess, etc. Adjectives can also be combined with genres: smelly drama, chaotic social realism, sexy sci-fi, etc. This method is really joyful, and a great way of starting out exploring the possibilities. It can sometimes end up to fun.

Keith Johnstone, the guru of improv theatre states that the first thing people do when they get a chance to participate, improvise and act is to come up with dirty jokes, ruining for each other, trying to be fun and aiming for attention.[4] This is phase that most groups go through, so if you want to do some serious work you should plan for a free, wild and fun session so that everyone can empty their inner “dirty” thoughts and ideas and start anew with a fresh mind after half an hour or so.

The research and experiment on co-typing will continue for sure. I think this will be one of my very last essays written as an individual. I am to be dissolved – rebirth as a head of the beast.

Illustration: 16th-century German depiction of the Hydra


[1] Jenkins, Henry, et al. (2008): ”Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century”

[2] Foucault, Michel (1969): ”What is the author”

[3] Csíkszentmihályi, Mihály (2003). Good Business: Leadership, Flow, and the Making of Meaning.

[4] Johnstone, Keith (1979): Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre

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