Chapter 3. Evaluating Collaborative Literary Technologies

Table of Contents
Defining Collaboration
Application and Case Studies


Twenty years ago, technologists might have optimistically attempted an exhaustive analysis of computer supported collaborative writing (CSCW) software. Since then, the role of collaborative writing in the corporate and industrial sectors has been demonstrated to be more widespread and more important than even its staunchest supporters had imagined ([Ede1986a]). The world has witnessed the rise of free and open source software, the Internet, and a vibrant academic discourse around collaborative writing. As a result, the world of collaborative literary technology is a very different place. Today, merely assembling a list of CSCW software might prove impossible.

However, questions and processes at the core of such an analysis remain unchanged and unanswered. Which processes qualify as facilitation of collaborative writing? Which do not? Is synchronous collaboration less meaningful than asynchronous collaboration? What about access control, decision-making roles, change tracking, intra-project communication and integration with real world meetings? How does of each of these areas of analysis help define collaboration? In what ways? How do these areas relate to each other? How do they help us make sense of a given technology?

This document will not attempt to provide definitive answers to these questions. Twenty years of research and discourse around collaborative writing has demonstrated that no definitive answers exist. There are innumerable technologies facilitating collaborative writing not because the best way to do so is unclear but because the "the best way" is nonexistent. As every collaborator works differently, every collaboration is different. Approached from a perspective that prioritizes flexibility, this can be a strength of collaborative processes.

This essay attempts to give technologists analytical tools to evaluate both the nature of how a given technology facilitates literary collaboration and, as an extension, how well it is poised to succeed in facilitating collaboration in the ways and to the extent that different analysts find most important. The essay prompts readers to personalize this central analytical question and to ask: "How do I want to collaborate, and how can computer technology help me to do it?"

To answer this question, this essay describes a method for the evaluation of CSCW technology centered around the way that control is articulated in the design and implementation of the software. It is control—articulated technically as design decisions—that defines and limits the nature of collaboration. The methodology introduced in this essay includes an introduction of several areas of analysis through which computer technology attempts to control collaboration. Once introduced, it will be employed in the analysis of several existing or historically important CSCW technologies as case studies.