endless threads on facebook and other online collaborative tools
I have recently been engaging – and indulging – in very long threads of comments following on from Twitter updates that were posted to my Facebook account. As much as I love this way of sharing ideas and throwing in a bit of banter and more seriously contemplated ideas, I wished there would be better ways of getting the material collected and brought into a form that allows for further editing and sharing – once Facebook takes way too much time to load all the comments and you are finally forced to start a new thread. It is a semi-public way of sharing and debating on Twitter, Facebook, Youtube etc where screenshots are the least convient way to capture long and complex threads.
In a corporate context which provides users with shared drives/servers Microsoft Excel’s share option has been the standard tool for collaboration with multiple users in most organisations I have been working with so far. However, as soon as more than 3 users start reviewing a large Microsoft Word document processing speed slows down. Also, a number of functions, such as merging cells, are not available in shared MS-Excel spreadsheets. Frequently, all useful tools which facilitate editing, sharing and tracking of changes, and especially many useful social bookmarking tools are simply blocked by corporate data protection policies. Collaboration with individuals outside the organisation needs to take into account that users may work under different systems. Further issues are data protection, copyright and security of the data.
For small and specific projects, Microsoft-users may find CoWord and CoPowerPoint a useful option. The download of these applications is free. Editing files in a real-time multi-user collaboration is made possible without need to share one telepointer (mouse cursor) but users can even hide those of others. The CoWord manual provides a good overview and helps identifying whether these specific applications will be sufficient for the project in question.
Google Docs is also a free browser-based application to edit and create documents (word processor, spreadsheet, presentation and form; sharing of PDFs) in real-time in collaboration with other users. The autosave option prevents data loss but data is saved on Google servers by default. While files are mobile browser enabled (view, not edit) the document size as well as the total number of imported files is restricted, though. There seems to be widespread confusion about the requirement for a Google Applications account and a Gmail account: users do not need a Gmail [Googlemail] account, they sign up with their existing email address and only need to open a Google Applications account.
There is ongoing debate about data security in Google Applications and especially in collaborative work the issues of intellectual property, privacy, data protection many may want to take a closer look at, so the Terms of Service deserve a comment. Google makes a number of reassuring promises but by taking a “buyer beware” approach, users agree to make Google not liable for any possible damages caused. So, basically, if something goes wrong, for instance by loss or destruction, it is the user’s problem. In research that might mean a breach of ethical requirements and potential harm of research participants.
EtherPad does not seem to offer that much more than Google Docs – the real-time collaborative text editing has been built into Google Docs and hence the bonus free EtherPad used to have had has gone. What makes a difference, though, is that Etherpad does not require a specific account: links are emailed back and forth, also, tracking changes by various authors is facilitated by colour highlighters and the extensive “undo” function is a plus. Currently, the application is still free and data/pads are part-secured by unique and what they call “non-guessable” URLs. So once you loose the URL or it was emailed accidentally to the wrong recipient, data security may be under threat. EtherPad is planning to charge business and individuals equally for secure data hosting.
As a web-based application, free of charge for individuals and a limited number of projects / collaborating users, there is then also
ZOHO which enables simultaneous collaboration between multiple users. The large range of suites includes Writer, Sheet (spreadsheet application), DB and Reports (database and reporting – pivots, charts etc), Show (presentations, import Microsoft PowerPoint), Projects ( Gantt charts , reports, share supporting files), Wiki, Planner, Notebook, Chat, Mail and Meeting (web conferencing – participants can use any operating system).
Certainly an impressive range. Much appreciated also the fact that ZOHO applications are available for mobile devices such as PDAs and the iPhone. ZOHO’s word processor supports Microsoft Word, Office Open, various text-formats, HTML, RTF, JPG, GIF & PNG files. In addition it is able to embed media from hosting sites, such as Flickr, Zooomr, Youtube and Vimeo.
ZOHO Writer’s earlier version suffered from an updating delay, but the latest version comes with real-time notification from ZOHO Chat. Security-wise ZOHO argues that they have a large range of physical and processoral systems in place that prevent loss, damage or abuse of data, this includes back-up on multiple servers and data encryption.
Having looked into these options, I am inclined to go for ZOHO, mainly because it is covering such a large range of applications which will help me to stay flexible and efficient – especially for building up on current data collection towards a larger PhD project, although it comes at a price cf. ZOHO pricing_all applications. The conditions seem to be fair and allow to up- or downgrade or terminate whenever necessary cf. ZOHO Projects pricing and they will even please commitment phobes.
So, in preparation of my Master thesis research project I will now need to look into survey tools – SurveyMonkey has been my initial choice but a more thorough evaluation at this stage may pay off later – and also I am going through my notes on methodological aspects, especially the material compiled during last year’s Open University course Ethnography (D844).
I am most grateful for your comments – let me know what your experiences have been so far with this and how you collaborate best online. I have a feeling that a successful and enjoyable online collaboration with strangers has a considerable impact on the expectations and attitudes in offline settings…
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About Britta Bohlinger, CFEFounder and Director of RisikoKlár in Iceland. Native German, global perspective - previously in London and Berlin.
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