Thursday, February 28, 2008

Collaborative Documentation for Dummies

Given the fact that our world largely remains dependent on the details written on pieces of paper, it is easy to see how this model was initially applied to the world of computing. When we received a piece of paper on our desk we immediately typed the information into a computer form and sent it to someone else for approval -- at first, by transferring them to a portable disk, ultimately relying upon the Internet to pass along the relevant data.

The problem is that this method of transferring documents not only runs contrary to the principles of the Internet, but creates countless points of inefficiency along the way. The originator could mistype the details written on the paper, the recipient could fail to see the message. With so many copies of the same information floating around the network it becomes difficult to track the end result, or to ensure that outside parties receive these results as accurately as possible.

Looking at the data in a stream of information is a more accurate depiction of the Internet as its creators intended it to be: a distributed network where every bit of knowledge flowed freely, so that if one node in the network collapsed, the others would pick up the slack. Some call it Socialism, while others call it the Electrical Grid. When you're talking about pieces of paper with bits of information that gets passed around the network: I call it Collaborative Documentation.

Unfortunately, Collaborative Documentation sounds very clinical, and hardly begins to capture the effect of sites such as YouTube, where "Collaborative Documentation" has produced an information and entertainment collective unlike no other. The same goes for Wikipedia, which has begun to transform both knowledge and education as we once perceived it in the hands of accomplished scholars. Collaborative Documentation is a major shift -- strangely enough -- in the most minor of ways.

I say 'minor' due to the size of the changes required to shift from the 'document transfer' perspective to collaborative documentation. The process is identical, as the same people are required to sign and pass the details as before, but instead of storing the document locally, you distribute it across the network so that anyone can access the information at any time, given the proper permissions.

The biggest changes would occur to the user, who is transformed from a single login name and password to a fully functioning entity on the network -- complete with a list of personalized responsibilities and an array of results, along with connections to others in the network. At once, it seems as if the simple act of acknowledging the actions of the user gives life to a network of 1's and 0's.

Which leads me to believe that if something so integral to all living matter exists in the activity of Collaborative Documentation, then a concept less clinical is necessary to capture its meaning. Just as blog and email have risen to the level of recognition as to be easily understood by the masses, so too must these documents and forms transform to become part of a shared experience.

(If you've got any ideas for a word or two better than Collaborative Documentation, please let me know!)

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