Monday, November 25, 2013

Collaborative Writing on the Web

Last month Brooklyn-based writer and computer programmer Paul Ford reviewed for the MIT Technology Review several new web-based writing tools: Fargo, Editorially, Medium, Svubtle, Marquee, Scroll Kit, Quip, and Ghost

A teaser for the review explains that “a new crop of startups is gearing up to change the way we write, taking on traditional authoring tools such as Microsoft Word, Google Docs, and WordPress. The newcomers don’t just promise to make it easy to create documents or write blog posts—they promise to make you smarter.”

Ford finds Fargo, a simple yet powerful outlining tool, particularly appealing, noting that “with an outlining program, you don’t need a clumsy numbering system, because the computer does the bookkeeping for you.” Ford also appreciates the flexibility in such programs, describing an outliner as something that “treats a text as a set of Lego bricks to be pulled apart and reassembled until the most pleasing structure is found...That’s the thing about outlines: they can become anything.”

Editorially is a pared-down text editor that, like Fargo, runs in a web browser. Ford calls Editorially’s focus “rigidly on composing,” describing its editing screen as “one huge blank field with only a few options.” However, with this simplicity comes useful options for collaboration; every edit made by collaborators (or a single author) is tracked, and a timeline function lets users go back to a past moment in the text’s creation. 

Medium, yet another web-based platform, is better suited to blogging and other web writing by an individual. The program suggests a structure for the piece, and once the text is published, other uses can leave feedback for the author in the form of comments that, in this context, serve more as marginal notes. Ford says that “the ‘Medium Post’ is emerging as its own sort of thing—not quite a blog post, not quite an article, but something in between.”

Ford describes but doesn’t review a number of other platforms still in development. Marquee calls itself a “flexible platform that’s perfect for telling stories,” while Scroll Kit is “a new type of content editor that allows you to own the page in one click.” Ghost is a blogging platform that Ford characterizes as “a sort of modernization of WordPress.” A departure from these web-based platforms is Quip, an iOS app.  

One thing most of these new tools have in common is that they’re designed for collaboration. According to Ford, the developers of these new platforms are “building tools for reflective thought. They expect their users to contemplate, revise, collaborate—in short, to work more the way writers historically have written, and as the pioneers of the digital revolution expected people to continue to write.” To Ford, the proliferation of such collaborative efforts proves “that there are enough people willing to give up the quick pleasures of the tweet or Facebook post and return to the hard business of writing whole paragraphs that are themselves part of a larger structure of argument.” 

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