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Words with Friends: Writing Collaboratively Online

Associate Professor T. L. Taylor

Here we discuss the means by which, after a good deal of trial and error, we found effective procedures for our collaboration.

In Interactions:

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.

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Written by
Bonnie Nardi
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Written by
Tom Boellstorff
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Written by
Celia Pearce
T.L. Taylor
Written by
T.L. Taylor

T.L. Taylor is Professor of Comparative Media Studies at MIT and Director of the MIT Game Lab. She is a qualitative sociologist who has focused on the interrelations between culture and technology in online environments for over thirty years. Her work sits at the intersection of sociology, critical internet and game studies, and science and technology studies.

Her book about game live streaming, Watch Me Play: Twitch and the Rise of Game Live Streaming (Princeton University Press, 2018), was the first of its kind to chronicle the emerging media space of online game broadcasting and won the American Sociological Association’s CITAMS book award. She is also the author of Raising the Stakes: E-Sports and the Professionalization of Computer Gaming (MIT Press, 2012) which explored the rise of esports and Play Between Worlds: Exploring Online Game Culture (MIT Press, 2006), an ethnography of the massively multiplayer online game EverQuest. She is also co-author of, Ethnography and Virtual Worlds: A Handbook of Method (Princeton, 2012) which focuses on conducting ethnographic and qualitative research in online environments.

Dr. Taylor is a highly sought after speaker and consultant. Both the White House and the International Olympics Committee have invited her to special summits focused on gaming. Journalists for the New York Times, PBS, the Los Angeles Times, BBC, CBC, and many others often reach out to Dr. Taylor for her expertise and she also regularly serves as a consultant to industry and civic sector initiatives.

She currently serves as a member of Twitch’s Safety Advisory Council, co-founded the non-profit AnyKey, and sits on the editorial boards of Social Media & Society, Games and Culture, American Journal of Play, and ROMChip.

For more information about Dr. Taylor visit tltaylor.com.

Avatar Written by Bonnie Nardi
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Avatar Written by Celia Pearce
T.L. Taylor Written by T.L. Taylor