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.

Bandwidth woes, etc.

I’ve been having terrible problems with my net access for the last few days, and the experience has taught me two lessons. One, how barbaric it is to connect to the net at sluggish baby-modem speeds. It really feels like a terrible handicap once you’re used to zipping from page to page. This must have been what it was like living out on the frontier. Lesson two is that Bloglines and RSS newsfeeds shine all the more brightly in a low bandwidth situation, since I can check on the contents of many sites without paying the download cost of all their fancy ads, decorations, and Javascript gewgaws.

This reminded me of something I had recently read on Jay Rosen’s PressThink blog: Top Ten Ideas of ’04: “Content Will be More Important than its Container”. In it he talks about how mainstream media is losing control of the branded container that surrounds their words. He quotes Tom Curley, CEO of the Associated Press, as saying “Content will be more important than its container… That’s a big shift for old media to come to grips with… Killer apps, such as search, RSS and video-capture software such as Tivo — to name just a few — have begun to unlock content from any vessel we try to put it in.” Later in the same piece, Rosen mentions that John Markoff glibly plays down blogs and feeds.

When Markoff said that in ten years he would still be “writing for paper,” he had overlooked something rather important. Already in 2003, a majority of Times readers were online. Markoff and most of his colleagues believe they work for a print newspaper with an online edition. Psychologically, they’re still writing for “the paper.” For most of the readers, however, the New York Times is an online newspaper that also sells a print edition.

Perhaps I should assume that many of you have never seen the print version of the Paracelsus Rambles weblog. So sad.

Kevin reviews Wilbur

When’s the last time you used the word “coruscate“? My friend Kevin Durkin, a poet himself, has written a book review of the recently released Collected Poems of the American poet Richard Wilbur. If you don’t have time to read the book, at least you can read the review. You’re sure to coruscate at your next cocktail party.

Collection shows Richard Wilbur’s keen eye, chiseled phrases (Philadelphia Inquirer). Unfortunately, the Inquirer does make you fill out a free registration form.

Wikipedia never sleeps

I know I’ve been talking about Wikipedia a lot lately, but take a look at this and see if you don’t agree that it’s cool. Follow the link to see live recent changes to the site. You’ll see changes to articles flying by as they’re being submitted (which is quite rapidly). If you see one that strikes your fancy, like, say, Abelian von Neumann algebra, then click on it to go to the article, or better yet, click on the diff link and see only the part that’s being changed. This reminds me of those old pages that showed realtime search queries, only instead of sucking knowledge out of cyberspace, this is working the other way around.

And in what I promise will be absolutely my last wiki link for the next fifteen minutes, here is wiki creator (and now Microsoft employee) Ward Cunningham being interviewed for Wikimedia’s Quarto publication. Ever wonder what a wiki is? Here’s the answer from the guy who invented them.

Here’s what I think a wiki is: content before community. Low latency to correction. The workflow of submission starts with publication – publish and then edit. Trivial creation of new pages, to let them grow to the right size. And a community provided by RecentChanges — the ability to see what other editors are doing, encouraging visitors to go from readers to authors to editors.

In other words, lower the barriers to participation and stand back.