Writing in public


(Don’t worry—not another post about my blog)

I’ve been writing a lot using Google docs lately. As most of my writing is in aid of my PhD, I’m using it for several reasons. It’s common practice in academia to write collaboratively; RMIT (my University) has recently moved all our email and calendars across to Google; using Google docs means my PhD supervisors can keep tabs on what I’m up to, leave comments and make copy edits directly; it makes it easier to share my writing with friends and family for feedback…

One of the features of collaborating and sharing with Google docs is that in any particular document, you can see who is also looking at that document. You can see their name in the top-right corner, you can ‘chat’ (through text), you can even see their cursor and each character as they type. This is great for when you and one or more colleagues are actually working on a single document. 

I’ve had a few strange experiences with this lately though. One is the experience when I’m in the middle of writing and I ‘see’ someone reading the document. Watching me write. It doesn’t matter who it is. Or even if they are actually watching (you see, with Google docs, you can see a name, but you don’t know if they are looking at the screen, if they have your document open in some hidden browser tab, or if they’ve just forgotten to log out). This feeling of being watched can be strangely constraining on what kinds of writing I’m willing to do. It’s like having someone looking over my shoulder.

The other experience is one of watching. Or more to the point, not wanting the writer to know that you are reading. I’ve opened colleague’s documents several times in order to have a quick scan, and felt uncomfortable when I see their name up in the top right corner of the screen. How do they feel about me reading their half-finished work? It’s strangely like reading over someone’s shoulder.

I don’t know what to do about these feelings (other than to not use Google docs). But there must be some kind of happy medium possible between Google doc’s real-time, see-everything collaborative editing, and only sharing ‘published’ updates.