Alan Rusbriger, editor of The Guardian, wrote in 2010 that the ‘ability to communicate with each other, without having to go through a traditional intermediary – is truly transformative.’
With this quote, I set about exploring the new ways in which we could speak to each other via the medium of an essay. I began by writing a first draft of my essay (viewable here), then I uploaded it to Google Docs, shared it publicly and allowed anyone at all to edit, created a Facebook event asking people to make changes, and invited everyone on my friends list. What were the results?
Well, to begin with, a few helpful pointers allowed me to fine-tune the essay for the final version (viewable here). More interesting, however, was the fact that the Facebook event went from 400 invitees to 800 (substantially more people than I have on my friends list), and people unknown to me jumped in and began to edit. The final publicly editable version of the essay can be seen here. While the usual attempts by some parties to use the opportunity to write graffiti (such as replacing all nouns in one sentence with the word ‘monkey’) and others to provide genuine feedback and advice (including notes when further sentences were necessary to clarify points or unclear referencing) was expected, what was more interesting was that the essay more than doubled in length after all the contributions had been made. The feedback had become a massive public conversation, with some people having arguments in the margins about certain points, one user offering a full retort to a specific paragraph, and several users adding in their own entire paragraphs because they wanted to make certain points.
In short, given the ability to sound off about the topic at hand (transformative communications), a kind of forum emerged, with the subject changing rapidly from one point to another. Strangers engaged with one another, invited one another and talked at length about whether or not the internet was *ever* used for practical ends. Ironically the most outspoken person on the side of the internet being a medium for mere babble and blather only was proving the opposite of his point by making such a valid contribution.
The original draft essay and final essay have ended up being straightforward revisions, however the overarching point of the essay (that new types of communication are emerging from the media which carry them) is proven by this social experiment. The resulting ‘public essay’ at times doesn’t make sense and jumps all over the place in the way you’d expect a schizophrenic mind to act (after all, there were many many contributors), but it largely provides a very interesting way to explore how tangential thoughts operate, how public changes alter the perception of the author (I was derided extensively for poor points made by other contributors) and how vast and varied the topic at hand actually is – something a typical essay could never hope to achieve.