Collaborative writing: promise and peril

From Roy (and ultimately by way of Patently Obvious) I found this nifty approach to book writing. Lawrence Lessig, the Stanford lawyer who is busy single-handedly bringing the legal profession into the modern age, decided to release a second edition of his book Code. But rather than do all the work himself, he’s turning the whole thing into a wiki and recruiting people to help him edit it. He says “My aim is not to write a new book; my aim is to correct and update the existing book. But I’m eager for advice and expert direction.”

This isn’t as bold an experiment as truly opening the book up to editing Wikipedia-style. After all, people have had their books edited by trusted colleagues since the days of the first papyrus-back potboiler. But having standardized wiki software to make the process painless is new, and Lessig is good enough to donate any money raised by the sale of the book to the Creative Commons fund. And I imagine it’s only a matter of time before true wiki books emerge. If it’s a novel way to write nonfiction, it’s a novel way to write a novel too. Has anyone seen a wiki novel yet?

Newsflash! After I wrote that last sentence, I thought to myself, well of course wiki novels must exist. Let’s go Googling and find one. I was not disappointed. By the time you follow this link to Rick Heller’s open source novel, I’m sure it will have mutated, but this opening paragraph is pure magic:


When Sandra flicked on the bedroom light, she didn’t expect to see a postman with a shotgun. Sandra started to scream, stifling the reflex midway so it sounded like a loud, undignified hiccup. Resting on the bed was a man in a blue uniform with an American eagle patch. “I’ll kill you first,” he said. Beneath his left hand, a shotgun lay in plain sight upon the bedding. Kill me first? Sandra was stunned. What would he do second? Stuff her body in a mailbag, and bury it under a pile of dead letters?

After a page or so of prose along these lines, Chapter One commences with this.

and so on for several hundred lines. You’ll have to read the whole thing to see how Sandra ends up in the casino. So there you have it. Not only does a wiki novel exist but it is a smashing success.

2 thoughts on “Collaborative writing: promise and peril”

  1. I really wish I’d goaded you into submitting to this: Beyond Threaded Conversation, a CHI 2005 workshop being run by some old colleagues/friends of mine from the AT&T days. I did throw something together in a grad-school-style 5pm-midnight way 2 days after the deadline, but not on wikipedia. I hope to have an excuse to go (what I wrote was hardly GOOD), but it would’ve been fun to introduce you to my pals in this research space.

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