July 13, 2003

I finally met Kellan in person yesterday, and spent the day walking around Seattle, chatting about various combinations of activism, philosophy, books, and technology. Kellan has done some interesting thinking on online collaboration, and we agreed that mailing lists are not a good way to get work done. No one is ever paying full attention when the traffic is anything more than minimal; it only takes one flamer or negative type to kill a discussion; no one is addressed directly, and so does not feel obligated to engage. I find this last problem to be present even on cc: lists where everyone has met in person and has a fair amount of common group to work with.

Since I'm trying to start a virtual national newspaper in Canada, I've been thinking a lot about how to facilitate a sense of cohesion, and keep everyone on the same page, without being in the same place. Right now, people doing work for the Dominion are in Scotland, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Ontario, Alberta, and British Columbia. And two potential additions are in Nunavut and Italy. Even with Scotland out of the picture, that's a span of four days of driving or an eight hour plane ride that divides us.

On the other hand, it's pretty exciting, because none of this was possible even six years ago. That is, it was possible, but only by narrowing the range of participants to the at least mildly geeky. Now, it seems like every other person who emails me about the paper has their own weblog (more than two run their own slashdot-style collaborative weblogs), or checks their email at least a few times a week.

This makes a lot more possible, in terms of getting a group of people who are scattered all over the place to work together on one project. Email, though, doesn't seem to be enough in the long term. Kellan seemed convinced that for tasks that involve programming, much, much more can be accomplished with everyone in the same place, focused on the same task. On the other hand, he mentioned that irc meetings helped keep the indymedia tech folks in the same shared reality, until they stopped them, anyway. I've had a similar experience with various Indymedia meetings and from hanging out on the Monkeyfist irc channel for a few years. Something about feeling like the other people are present through immediate feedback makes it a much more satisfying experience than writing a long email, not receiving any reply, and wondering if anyone read it.

In the end, the choice seems to be between irc (or some kind of instant messaging) and phone conferences. Irc takes a bit of getting used to; a "pace" of back-and-forth has to develop, which can be complicated with many people present. And it's a bit geeky. Phone conferencing, though, sounds like it can also be tedious (I've been on one teleconference, but friends who work with regional environmental groups seem to dread them). And they're more expensive. Video conferencing, in the words of Eric Idle, is right out.

The production of a newspaper is a funny combination of social and antisocial. Good writing requires determinate lengths of silence and reflection. Putting a paper together, at its best, is a very social process of writing, editing, chopping, creative filling of space, and spontaneous discussion of journalistic practices or ethics, and discussion, as it gets late, of just about everything else. The end result is a collective work: stories have been re-hashed, layouts reconsidered and refined, and corrections made, with various levels of input from anywhere from two to a dozen others.

This is a lot of fun. On the other hand, I've written enough editorials at 3 am to know that it can also be extremely distracting. The Dominion, then, doesn't have this problem, but it also lacks the benefits, for the moment. The long term plan for the paper is to make it into a franchise of sorts: a way to enable people to start their own local independent paper by providing them with a solid base of 8+ pages of content, as well as design and layout services. They provide locally relevant content, local distribution, and local ad revenue.

Even in the short term, I hope to set up an office of some sort when I move to Halifax (or wherever I end up), to provide the paper with more than a virtual space. But the problem isn't going to go away; we are a national paper, and if everyone was in the same place, that would effectively make it a regional paper that calls itself a national paper, like the Globe and Mail and National Post do from Toronto.

I think, finally, that the answer is going to involve occasional short irc meetings, and persistant yet subtle encouragement of posting to the weblog. I mention weblogs because it's what enabled me, for example, to know that Kellan was in Seattle, and then to have a significant backlog of his thoughts on various topics to provide a background to our conversations. All of this involves getting people to geek out a tiny bit more than they feel comortable doing, but not enough to add a burden to volunteers who might already be close to burnout. This seems like a reasonable challenge, given the exciting possibilities of collaborating with a diverse group from different backgrounds and locations to create a newspaper that is truly national in scope and critical in sensibility. Actually, we don't have a version Francais, so that's a ways off.

The real technological solution to the geography problem was recently pointed out to me by photographer and writer John Haney. In a moment of wisdom, John suggested that we buy a railcar, paint THE DOMINION along the side, hook up some satellite internet and cell phones, and set up shop. The paper could travel slowly from coast to coast, stopping to pick up writers, confer with editors, and cover stories about various parts of the big dominion.

posted by dru in blog