Why let Anonymous Hedgehog read your mind?

Imagine you saying something and ten different people—all known to you—correct you as you are speaking, in real-time. I’m reasonably sure it would annoy regardless of how well you know those ten people.

But that is precisely what seems to be happening in real-time digital document collaboration!

Consider a real-time document on Google Docs, or the online version of Microsoft Word.

At what point do you share the document with other participants?

I usually create the document or the spreadsheet without sharing it with anyone and edit the share options once I’m fully done. And then the alert goes to the people I have included in the share (or I open it for share-with-anyone-who-has-the-link to the document and it goes to people I did not directly share it with).

The people it was intended for look through it, and edit it (if I had added the edit rights). I then get an alert and I look up the changes suggested or the comments included.

But there have been times when I was working on the document the 2nd or 3rd time, and the people with whom it was shared were also lurking on the same document, either as readers or as editors. When their cursor moves on my screen, it is a monumentally creepy feeling akin to my laptop being remotely taken over 🙂

I imagine the prospect of 5 other people editing the document I’m working on currently adequately disorienting, to put it mildly.

Given this backdrop, of my own usage, I was surprised to read the recent Wall Street Journal piece capturing the fear of people about real-time document collaboration: The Five Most Dreaded Words at the Office: ‘Let’s Start a Google Doc’ – Shared documents are a workplace minefield of performance anxiety and awkward interactions.

I had no idea that people share a document before they work on it or complete working on it!

In fact, even a post-completion shared document, in my view, tends to look very busily messy for me to focus on what needs to be done.

I recall using the analogy of a whiteboard to explain document collaboration to someone many years ago. The whiteboard is visible to everyone present (in the room). If one person is writing something on the board, others could read it in real-time and raise points that could be added by him (which are indirectly being added by the others).

But in hindsight, I see that the analogy falls apart in a few ways.

The directly equivalent digital version of an offline whiteboard exercise would involve 2 modes of communication – oral and written. The group gets on a video call (or, at best, an audio call), and one of them opens a Google Docs that’s shared with the rest. One person manages the document edits, while another does the talking, collaborating, and getting inputs from the others.

But, what actually happens in remote, real-time document collaboration is that one person’s thoughts, as articulated by her, are being edited as they are thinking and articulating! It’s perhaps the closest we can come to mind-reading 🙂

Think of it like your colleague or boss standing behind you, watching what you type on the screen and dictating corrections or changes even as you are typing. Your visceral reaction is likely to be, “Give me a break! Let me finish this, and I will share it with you once I’m done!!”.

You may argue that such annoyance is more about the lack of consent from you (to allow your colleague or boss) than the act itself. But think about it – would giving them that consent make it any better?

On Google Docs, magnify the impact with not just one, but a potential 73 people being present on your document in real-time, checking it or editing it!

Why 73? Google, on its part, has done some nifty things to make collaboration interesting. The idea of the anonymous animals is pretty geeky and cool, in particular. There are 73 creatures, by the way!

I have a feeling that this real-time document collaboration was added as a feature to mimic the function of ‘brainstorming’. The whiteboard exercise I mentioned earlier is an integral part of brainstorming.

I already have a very poor opinion of ‘brainstorming’ as an activity, as I had written last year.

To be fair, it is less about the activity itself and more about the way it is usually conducted, and the way it is misused by many participants to offer the performance of contribution more than actual contribution.

Is there a way out?

The first would be to answer this question: what kind of work demands real-time (remote) digital collaboration on a document? I cannot think of any (that leads one person to endure others to read her mind in real-time as she types). But I’m open to suggestions.

The next would be obvious: do not share a document before you are done with it. Give it your undivided attention and intelligence, instead of letting others second-guess you in real-time. Only you know the intent behind what you are typing; others only see what you have completed articulating, word by word. Our thinking is rightly called (sometimes) ‘a train of thought’. It is not over until you say it is over.

In face-to-face communication, we humans are tuned to pick up non-verbal cues to recognize when someone has finished their part in the conversation. The voice tapering at the end of a sentence as someone speaks indicates that we need to be ready with our part. Or it could even be body language.

But in a digital document, there are no cues whatsoever for us to understand intent. It’s literally what we see in the form of words, still forming. The least we could do is be civil and let them complete the train of thought fully. And then have a go at it. Even if they have shared it by mistake before they were able to complete it.

After all, it is terrible manners to interrupt someone while they are talking, right? Why do we do it online in the form of document collaboration even if we were permitted to do so? It’s probably a software product misfire (trying to emulate brainstorming in the digital format) that led us down this path in the first place.

PS: Thanks to a Facebook comment by Tony Sebastian, I found at least one magnificently valid use case for real-time, multi-party, digital document collaboration!

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