Collaborative Futures

Looking in from the outside

This book project already had a lot of supporters and willing contributors long before the first drop of digital ink was shed. Through a short-term outreach effort, a small but passionate group of Berliners and people abroad were interested and excited to contribute to “the free culture book sprint”. The process as well as the topic triggered a great response online. Already a week before the book sprint began, about ten people met in a local cafe to discuss how they could contribute. Adam explained the process and philosophy behind FLOSS Manuals and this project in particular, and we also spoke to representatives from the Transmediale festival. In general, there was an enthusiasm and buzz about writing a collaborative book. 

Following the meeting, Adam gave some thought to the role of “external contributors”. It was clear from the book's title that it would not be as straightforward as a software manual. “Collaborative Futures” is a complex topic, which could take on many manifestations and directions. It's an experimental topic for a book sprint—who knew how it would go? To err on the safe side, it was decided that external visits to the book sprint location would be limited to those who could commit to at least one full day. The table of contents would be posted online, but only after the core group of authors had produced it on the first day. 

Beginning on the second day, it was announced that external contributors could expect the table of contents, and from that they could find a section or topic that interested them and write. However, once Tuesday came around and the index was circulated, it was difficult for anyone who wasn't in the room to understand what was going to be written, how it was structured, and what the skeleton meant. There were no guidelines or notes to follow that would have really helped outsiders find a voice in the project or a meaningful place to contribute. Still, a number of people were still interested in the project and wanted to help. We didn't know where and how to direct that energy. 

When we (Mirko and Michelle) arrived at the location on the third day, we were warmly welcomed and introduced to the group. Everyone was engaged at their computers, ready to write, but friendly and open. After a round of introductions and a brief overview of the table of contents, we were asked how we'd like to contribute. We selected areas of interest which seemed complementary and relevant (collaboration between companies & community and co-working), and got to work. 

After a few hours of intense writing and reading, we were finding it difficult to frame and articulate our sections in a meaningful way. We were realizing that the group, within the span of three days, had developed its own language. They had a streamlined plan for their writing, and they understood each others’ arguments and tasks. It is incredibly impressive that such a diverse group had converged on that level of consensus in such a short time.

Nevertheless, it proved challenging to tie our writing into the group's larger narrative. We were not equipped with the language nor knowledge about fundamental decisions they already made. It was hard to build upon their themes and connect ideas. In group conversations and one-on-one, our suggestions were welcomed and heard, but there was still a gap in the modes of writing. 

It's important to emphasize that this is not a pariah problem. There was just already a very intense and productive atmosphere of collaboration. Ideas and suggestions were flying, people were working solidly on their sections, and time was of the essence. It seemed as if the information collection phase was complete, and now it was time to write. 

Was the sprint a victim of the mythical man month? Did adding new people slow the process? We hope not. But we still found it hard to evaluate and properly place our contributions, even if we spent an intense day with them reading, writing, and discussing.

Already on day three, the group had produced an ambitious outline and an immense amount of text. Our pitstop visit, already late in the process, meant that our contributions would not be fundamental. Instead, we could merely suggest, fine-tune, flesh out, etc., but the momentum was so great that there was nothing “significant” left for the new kids. This raised the question for us: what could be our real contributions?

The question of attribution and valuing contributions was a theme brought up heatedly by the group later that evening. In a project like a book sprint, with six core authors and some external contributions, how can you scale recognition? What's the best policy for doing so? It is an open question, and one we think FLOSS Manuals handles well. But nevertheless it is good food for thought. 

So, as the group plows on for the next two days, we ask ourselves: how can this process be improved? How can the energy and knowledge of external contributors, people not within the core author group, be put to good use? We've brainstormed about some options, some of which may not have been fitting for this particular sprint, but may nevertheless be helpful for future projects. 

  • The hardest thing for outsiders is understanding the “language” of the core group. Taking notes, publishing more supplementary material, and clarifying the goal and scope of the book would make it easier for external people get a handle on the project.
  • Tasks and needs should be clearly articulated by the core group. Do you need editing help? An expert on a certain protocol? Research? Explain what you need, and there may be the expertise and skills outside to help.
  • Writing could be scheduled to include a comment period for external contributors. For example, after the second day, a certain section could be submitted to the public, discussed outside, and then revisited on the next day. The fresh perspective could be useful.
  • Another idea from someone who only joined on day 5 and very much agrees to this chapter (Andrea): While it is difficult for an outsider to fully get into the flow, tone and stream of thought of an intensely collaborating group, there could be an annotation section for each chapter, where outsiders can contribute additional examples and thoughts, which then the core group can consider for discussion and editing.

All in all, we really had fun and experienced a book sprint firsthand. We wish we could have helped more, but we appreciate the process and have learned from it. We are very grateful for the chance to join this great group and meet the people behind this book. We also are thankful for all the other external contributors who helped the project. This is an evolving process, and we are happy to have been a part of it!