The online book: team authors, and it's never finished

New technology allows multiple writers to be in a file at once.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.

The pros and cons of collaboration

"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.

While Citizendium represents a small retreat, Sanger still believes in the power of radical collaboration. He credits open source computer programmers for demonstrating the greater efficiency of group work over that of lone geniuses.

"If we can manage to teach academics and people who are used to getting personal credit for their work [this new] way of collaborating, the result, I think, could very well be revolutionary in a real sense," Sanger says. "The result is an enormously efficient, exciting, and productive method of content development."

For those involved with Wark's book, a theoretical analysis of video games, the project was also about widening the doors of access to the writing process and making more transparent the debates that were once limited to a small circle of editors.

"The skills of an editor are not going to become unimportant; it's just that it is possible that the few hundred editors that work in publishing in New York City may not be the only people who have really good opinions about what's worthwhile in the world," says Jesse Wilbur with The Institute for the Future of the Book in New York.

He helped produce Wark's online book titled "GAM3R 7H30RY." (That's "Gamer Theory" for those who don't speak geek.) The book remains open at: www.futureofthebook.org/gamertheory.

An anathema to scholarship?

Some thinkers argue that while collaboration may work for an online encyclopedia, it's anathema to original works of art or scholarship, both of which require a point of view and an authorial voice.

"Novels, biography, criticism, political philosophy ... the books that we care about, those books are going to be in print for a very long time," says Geoffrey Nunberg, a linguist at the University of California, Berkeley. "The reason they aren't more jointly offered isn't that we haven't had technology to do it, it's that books represent a singular point of view."

Take three biographies of Noah Webster and you'll have three distinct lenses on the man's life, but an amalgam of the three would say virtually nothing, Mr. Nunberg argues.

"When people are using collaborative tools, they will naturally collaborate to a more neutral, less personal point of view," he adds. That homogenization kills originality and dulls a work. "The thing you can say about Wikipedia's articles is that they're always boring."

Discussions help shape books

For many working in this arena, the excitement of collaboration comes perhaps less from the spark of the prose and more from the give-and-take of the discussion around a text. For online writers of the future, "their work is going to be judged by how interesting the conversation is," says Mr. Wilbur.

That demands a different skill set from authors, some of whom won't be as comfortable in this new medium.

"You have to be a certain kind of author to do this, and you have to be able to attract enough people to your site," says Ms. Berinstein. For writers of these new collaborative works, she says, there's a new version of the writer's age-old self-doubt: "What if I made a book and nobody came?"

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