"Can you give me edit access?"
Issue 5: Collaboration in creative tools, creative ownership and versioning.
Happy Sunday and trust everyone had a fruitful weekend wherever in the world you are. I am thankful for the time I got to take off and re-charge this past week. Coming in hot and fast with this week's topic-of-note: collaborative creativity or rather, collaboration inside of creative tools.
Before I dive into it, if you are new here, welcome! If you were forwarded this email by someone, feel free to check out all the past issues here and if it appears that your brain likes this sort of thing, do consider subscribing to get this newsletter in your inbox every Sunday.
Collaboration in creative tools is a big topic but thankfully the universe has worked in my favor by giving me the fodder I needed this week to carry this theme through.
While some of you reading this newsletter may not have experienced this (though, I can sort of gauge the demographic here so I bet there aren't many here that fit this bill), I lived through an era where in the time it took to connect to the internet, I could microwave a bag of popcorn. (And truth be told, that's exactly what I used to do as I slowly dialed up to the iNteRweBz.) All this to say that being able to collaborate as we do now with multiple users online, all at once, is definitely a luxury we have only known in the past decade or so. When I first discovered that you could "track changes" in Microsoft Word (circa 2005), I almost tripped over myself. Then in 2012, Google Docs came along and in doing so, totally changed the way we collaborate with one another online.
To talk about collaboration in our digitals tools, whether that's in a text editor, or a shared design canvas is to also talk about the sense of ownership of ideas in a digitally shared space. Before the dawn of collaborative software — by which I mean before Google Docs — our ideas were ours and ours only until we intentionally invited someone into the shared space. I’ve taken for granted how open (and I speak for myself) I’ve become to both receiving and giving feedback when a document is shared with me, or rather, pops up in a shared workspace. If I were given a penny for every time someone has said to me “I don’t have edit access” or “I just requested access” — I’d have enough to buy myself one of those Hollywood Hill homes on Selling Sunset (yes, I contain multitudes okay)!
In the last ten years, collaborative software has gone hand-in-hand with flattening the notion that our ideas are ours alone and opened up discussions of privacy when it comes to our ideas. To take this thought a little further, it appears I’ve only ever come across two types of people in my working life — those that are very open to share in the process of their work, allowing everyone and anyone to freely give feedback in any which way or form, and those who hold tight onto their ideas until their docs are “finished” and even then, only dole out "allowed to comment" access. (I’m the former.)
This then, was the perfect week to stumble into this piece (/project) by Ink & Switch that just came out — Peritext: a CRDT for Rich-Text Collaboration. I highly recommend skimming through it and while yes, it is rather long, it’s also extremely well thought-out if you’re into this sort of thing. Now this project takes the thinking in collaborative software one-step further than what we’re covering here today but fundamentally, it challenges the way a lot of us have been collaborating over the last ten years, which is: in-sync, always online, always updating in real-time. It makes way for ideas that are more concurrent with how code is written today: offline, individually in one version and merged with changes with the main branch when ready. The project explores how this can be done in a rich-text environments.
Now let’s entertain a moment that we’ve undoubtedly all experienced, which is, when our co-worker makes significant changes in a shared Google Doc without hitting “Suggesting” before their edits begin. Sure, you can see a change log of all edits by showing all previous versions of a single document but merging conflicts between multiple versions of the same document sounds like my kind of Bad Place. Let’s also entertain another scenario where you do toggle on “Suggesting” and thereafter present your collaborator with a digitally “red-inked” document where you might just as well have rewritten the document from scratch. Neither sounds great and while Google Docs has reigned supreme since 2012 (I know, it feels like it's been half a century), I've recently been thinking about the limitations of such collaboration.
In the two scenarios presented above, the latter is something I’ve always been guilty of. And while I can potentially get away with blaming the technology for giving me the means by which to commit such acts of digital murder, it often strips away the ability for me to explain why I made the changes I did, where I did. In some sense, it oddly feels like a committing a crime and not being given the means to be innocent until proven guilty. Recently, in an attempt to give feedback more thoughtfully, I've opted to add a comments in addition to suggested edits which of course just adds more evidence in favor of this metaphorical digital crime scene.
As I write this newsletter, and because I’m not expecting a round of edits or feedback from anyone other than my own critical self, I’m drafting this up on Notion. Notion, for all the delight the tool has given me in the past few years, and as a software that touts itself as collaborative, is surprisingly un-collaborative when it comes to the features we’ve come to adore in other similar tools like Google Doc. The limitations by which edits and changes are tracked in Notion are still limited to comment-only which makes for a pretty lackluster collaborative text editing software tool still.
Though maybe for all the ways we compare it to Google Doc, Notion should be thought of differently. It’s not just a text editor, but a rich media one instead. This means that on top of tracking changes to text, changes tracked would also have to include any and all instances where someone is moving a block around, adds / deletes an embedded Whimsical file, or when H3 → H1 → Text → Bold. At present day, I can barely stand to see more than a handful of comments on a single Notion page, I don’t want to think about the nightmare that might come from a live "Suggesting" mode.
To my delight, it does appear that Notion is thinking deeply of ways collaboration can happen in rich text (and hopefully by extension, rich media) environments given that the aforementioned Ink & Switch research project is funded in part by Notion. The way in which the paper delves into the idea of online/offline asynchronous editing — the idea by which collaboration is done via “pull requests” and making changes off of the same document in a local environment — seems to open up the possibility that Notion might one day also explore an offline mode of their own. A girl can only dream.
To be honest, I had a lot more planned for this newsletter (like, did you know that last month, Figma released branching) but once my fingers hit the keyboard, they were relentless! Alas, I will be saving some topics for the next one so you can bet we’ll be talking about collaborative creativity for a few more weeks to come. I’m also hoping to get some more reading done in this space and I’ll track some of what I’m reading and watching on my Twitter here. If you have anything to recommend, please hit reply or leave a comment below!
Until next week, keep exploring →
Peritext: A CRDT for Rich-Text Collaboration by Ink & Switch / Geoffrey Litt, Slim Lim, Martin Kleppman, Peter van Hardenberg (read) — I’ve mentioned this a few times above so if you want to dive into these ideas a bit more, it is prime time to choose this as your adventure.
WaaZam!: supporting creative play at a distance in customised video environments by Seth Hunter (read) — my partner reminded me of this piece that was written by a friend of ours who has explored at length about this very topic. The themes enclosed are also very befitting for the current world in which we live in.
The Bit Player by Mark Levinson (watch) — a documentary / docudrama on Claude Shannon, the (often overlooked) father of information theory and whom we have to thank for collaborating across the internet as well as for the internet itself.
The creator economy by Nadia Eghbal (read) — if you don't already know, Nadia is the brain behind Working in Public: The Making and Maintenance of Open Source Software. I'm a huge fan and think you would be too! In this one, she explores questions like, "Is there inherent value in 'creating' for the sake of it?" A very apt topic to think about now that the internet has built some friendly ecosystems for any and all creators, the question now becomes, but at what cost?
Collaborative creativity with Nikolas Klein via the Metamuse Podcast (listen) — of course, typing "collaborative creativity" in Apple Podcasts brought me straight to a Muse podcast and this one is a gem! This was from earlier this year and features Nikolas Klein, one of the first product designers at Figma.
To go down this rabbit hole a little more, here's a project called Artifacts, a human-centered framework for growing ideas by Nikolas and a few co-collaborators. It was a thesis project that contains in it a whole bunch of nice visual nuggets around tools for thought and almost seems like if Roam & Muse had a baby.
Readwise.io (download) — I'm not quite sure why it's taken me so long to get here but I finally have a paid subscription to Readwise and to celebrate, here's a recent snippet I saved out:
Computers serve us best when they allow everything to change — Seymour Papert
And with that, over and out.