Words with friends: Writing collaboratively online

Ethnography and Virtual WorldsCan you imagine trying to write an entire book with three other people? Tom Boellstorff, Bonnie Nardi, Celia Pearce, and T. Taylor did just that when they co-authored Ethnography and Virtual Worlds: A Handbook of Method, a guide for students, teachers, designers, and scholars interested in using ethnographic methods to study online virtual worlds. Recently, the foursome wrote a piece for ACM interactions magazine that described the process of co-authoring the project together.

In the following excerpt from the article, the four explain how they decided to write the book as a collaborative effort and what sort of methods were needed to effectively do so:

Words with friends: Writing collaboratively online

In this article we detail primarily online collaborative authoring practices we have found to be of practical and conceptual interest. In 2012, the four of us published Ethnography and Virtual Worlds: A Handbook of Method []. Prior to composing this text, all of us had written book-length ethnographies of virtual worlds and for some time had frequently been asked, “How did you do it?” The Handbook allowed us to synthesize and draw out principles and practices for effective ethnographic research in virtual worlds, beyond the more truncated methodological discussions that appeared in our individual work.

In the wake of the Handbook’s publication, we encountered a new question: “How did you write a book with four authors?” This query typically emerged when the person realized the Handbook had been written as an entirely collaborative document, with a single authorial voice. Before settling on this format, we considered several other options, including producing an edited volume and composing chapters individually authored by each of us. We eventually decided these approaches would be inadequate given the broader shared themes, examples, and practical guidance we sought to provide. We instead chose to develop a shared narrative, writing the book in a single voice. Although all four of us had co-authored publications prior to the Handbook, none of us had co-authored a book-length text with so many collaborators.

The logistics of the collaboration were challenging from the outset. Because of our differing disciplinary backgrounds and varied academic homes (anthropology, computer science, media studies, and sociology), not to mention our locations at the time (Irvine, Atlanta, and Copenhagen), we had our work cut out for us. We had 80,000 words to jointly produce, for which our goal was achieving a single voice. We needed tools that would enable us to write, comment, rewrite, edit, discuss, and reach consensus.

We achieved our goal with a mix of synchronous and asynchronous collaboration methods. Aside from a small number of face-to-face meetings, we spent many hours in email and Skype discussing how best to present the principles of ethnographic research, how to clear up misconceptions regarding its scope and value, and how to reach a wide audience. Working toward these goals meant deciding which topics were most important (staying within our self-imposed mandate of a short “handbook”), refining a terminology for multiple constituencies, and balancing details about everyday ethnographic practice with big-picture issues regarding the place of ethnography in social inquiry. Though we at times had intense discussions over particular points, the process of working through our different perspectives and coming to consensus, crafting text that resonated for all authors such that each felt that they could stand behind the work, proved incredibly valuable.

The payoff was significant, particularly in drawing illustrative examples from our varied projects, as well as integrating diverse interdisciplinary literatures and perspectives. Here we discuss the means by which, after a good deal of trial and error, we found effective procedures for our collaboration. Our hope is that an explanation of our methods will be useful to other scholars and to software designers developing collaborative writing tools.

To read the rest of the article, click here.

Tom Boellstorff is professor of anthropology at the University of California, Irvine. His books include Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human.
Bonnie Nardi is professor of informatics at the University of California, Irvine. Her books include My Life as a Night Elf Priest: An Anthropological Account of World of Warcraft.
Celia Pearce is associate professor of digital media at Georgia Institute of Technology. Her books include Communities of Play: Emergent Cultures in Multiplayer Games and Virtual Worlds.
T. L. Taylor is associate professor of comparative media studies at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Her books include Play Between Worlds: Exploring Online Game Culture.