How to Collaborate

Or, as my tattoo artist says, “How to not be a dick.”

After discussing tatoos as medium, I asked my tattooist if tattoos are collaborative.  I wondered because in many ways, my skin just seems like his canvas. So, I was surprised when he unequivocally said, “Hell yeah it’s a collaboration.” As we talked, he used a ship metaphor to describe the process; the client has the impulse that puts the ship in the water and the tattoo artist has the talent and wherewithal to pilot it.  He said that a bad tattoo experience occurs when one side of the equation is over-balanced.  If the client is too controlling or the artist is too obsessed with their vision – the collaboration doesn’t go well. And, most importantly, the work may suffer.

Wilma and Betty get work done!

I bring this up because I’ve been having a similar conversation with my friend Wilma, who I’ve collaborated with in the past. She described another colleague who reached out to collaborate on a project for which Wilma and I already drafted an abstract. The colleague sent Wilma an abstract and asked her to “look for ways to make it more digital rhetoric friendly.” In other words, rather than coming to Wilma with a potential project and discussing how they could work together, the colleague just wanted Wilma to add to her pre-existing project. Wilma was an add-on, an accessory – not a true collaborator.

Wilma brought this up because she and I were already writing an abstract for the same edited collection. Ironically, I also had a project that partially fit call for papers (CFP).  However, our interaction went more like this:

Me: Hey Wilma, I have this paper sitting around about Jane Addams.  I was thinking about responding to this  CFP with it, but I’m not sure where it would go from there.

Wilma: Ohhhh, what’s your paper about. Maybe I have something that will complement it.

And so on…. Our project came together because I asked Wilma to draw on her own expertise to to build on my project – not sign off on it.  I used my own strengths and Wilma used hers. This is why we work well together.

In other words, collaboration is a lot like a dance. You may occasionally have times in which you walk solo into the spotlight, but most of the dance is about working with your partner(s) to make something amazing.  When I think about how this relates to writing, it becomes clear that collaborative writing must find that balance between working alone and working together.

My friend Wilma and I want to be the next Ede and Lunsford or Hawisher and Selfe. We work well together because we recognize that one of us may be busy and the other needs to step it up for a while.  Or, that changes to one another’s prose isn’t personal – it’s about the product. Our process of collaboration serves the product.

Plagues, Viruses, and the Internet

One of my ongoing research interests is the way in which metaphors shape the way we think about the interwebs.  For example, we often describe technological changes as revolutions, breakthroughs, or cutting edge. These kinds of metaphors may mask the ways in which the interwebs are not revolutionary and recapitulate existing inequalities.

Nevertheless, one of my favorite metaphors is the virus/plague/meme metaphor. In 16th Century England, authors often compared the spread of unregulated books to the spread of disease. Similarly, we describe unwanted programs as viruses that infect our machines. This metaphor makes sense to us because plagues and viruses spread without our control.

Like viruses, images, news stories, and memes proliferate on the internet without our control. For example, historian Monica Green from Arizona State Leprosy_victims_taught_by_bishopUniversity recently found that a Medieval illustration is often used online to describe the Black Death.  However, the image actually depicts clerks with leprosy being taught by a Bishop.Green and her colleagues traced the error back to a catalog mistake at the British Library: “While art historians have long known what this image portrays, it was mislabeled as a plague image when the British Library’s digitization process removed it from its original textual context” (Jones). In other words, the error is replicated online over and over because one librarian made a simple mistake.

Errors are not new to publishing.  After all, just looking at the Hamlet Quarto Project shows you how easily errors, changes, and typos can appear in printing. Or, in the infamous Wicked Bible (1631), the printers forgot a small word and the Eighth Commandment suddenly read, “Thou shalt commit adultery.” Mistakes happen.  However, digital publishing can make these errors widespread. What’s more, when an image or error is uploaded to Wikipedia, the mistake is perceived as truth.

At the same time, the affordances of digital media allow us to fix these errors.  A mislabeled image in Wikipedia can be easily removed or relabeled by anyone with an internet connection and the knowledge. Conversely, an error may circulate for years because the Tudor kings and queens were right – information is like a virus.

Long-Distance Collaborative Writing

I’m currently working three different writing projects with people across the country. I’m collaborative-writingcurrently sitting in a coffeeshop using Facebook instant messenger to discuss an abstract with a collaborator.  In twenty minutes, I’m using Google Hangouts to video conference with two other collaborators about a paper we’re giving in May. And, I’m direct messaging on Twitter with another collaborator about a panel for a conference next year.

Yes, that’s three different methods of social media interaction.

As I navigate this complex web of relationships and work habits, I am reminded that writing is not a solitary activity. This notion is indebted to Lise Ede and Andrea Lunsford’s (1990) Singular Texts/plural Authors. In other words, I always write collaboratively. I always have friends read my drafts and talk through ideas with me. Reciprocally, I do the same for many of my friends, and by doing so, I become a better writer. Moreover, I always imagine an ideal audience and try to anticipate their objections.

So, what changes when I deliberately write with other people?  Well, the digital spaces to share files like Dropbox or become essential. Software that allow us to talk in real time become essential because sometimes a thirty minute conversation replaces hours of back and forth emails. Quick check-ins via instant messenger help clear up minor differences of opinion. Social media are essential to contemporary scholarship.