The online book: team authors, and it's never finished
New technology allows multiple writers to be in a file at once.
Writing demanded such isolation for French novelist Marcel Proust that he corked the walls of his bedroom and essentially told everyone but his housekeeper to buzz off.Skip to next paragraph
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Marcel, meet McKenzie Wark.
A cutting-edge online author in New York, Mr. Wark invites perfect strangers to interrupt his ideas with their own scribbling in the digital margins.
If they make a good point, Wark amends his book. In the spring, the evolving text will be published on paper, weaving in the Web comments. Then, the author plans the ultimate surrender: Anyone will be allowed into the online version to dabble and delete at will.
Wark may be offering a glimpse into the future, where books – particularly nonfiction – become destinations for discussion rather than dog-eared possessions, and authors take on a more gregarious role akin to Oprah Winfrey or Terry Gross.
"The book is now a place, as much as a thing that somebody reads," says Paula Berinstein, author of an upcoming article on the trend in Searcher, a magazine for database professionals.
"It's a place where the author is more the host, or the maitre d' in a fancy New York restaurant," she says.
A shift toward more collaborative forms of writing began with blogs and Wikipedia, the online editable-by-everyone encyclopedia. Now technology is pushing the trend further, including a new word processor released this month by Google.
Called Google Docs, the software acts a lot like Microsoft Word, except that it's accessed for free online and more than one writer can be in the same file at any given time. The Silicon Valley-based company sees potential uses as mundane as a husband and wife's joint shopping list. But hints of grander possibilities abound: Using the software, seven authors jointly wrote a novel and a group of textbook writers hammered out an introduction together.
"Collaboration is increasingly a part of our everyday lives, and rarely do we work on something in a vacuum," says Jen Mazzon, a senior product marketing manager with Google. "Because [Google Docs] makes collaboration easier, people might be more likely to share things and to get input from person x, y, z who they frankly before may not have bothered with."
But as anyone who remembers group projects from their school days can attest, collaboration can have its pitfalls. Who gets credit for authorship? How do clashing visions get resolved? And how does the author prevent the less-informed from mucking everything up?
Wikipedia has struggled particularly with the last question. Arguing that sometimes the most obnoxious voices drown out the most informed, one of the site's founders, Larry Sanger announced this week a breakaway version called Citizendium.
Experts, some with PhDs and others with different qualifications, will be given the power to mediate disputes and to weed out inaccuracies in this new encyclopedia, or compendium. Mr. Sanger likens the shift from anarchy to a republic.