Sprinting

Recall the feeling of leaving the writing of a text until the last moment. You have cleaned your room, you have made yourself a cup of coffee, you have surfed the web. And finally, when there is no time left to procrastinate, you start an intense process of writing. Frantically, in a relatively short amount of time, you produce a piece of text. Unless you get stuck…
Now, imagine you are not alone with the task of writing a text. You are in a group of people who have all agreed to produce a text in a shared time and space. You have someone guiding you through the process. Instead of a deadline, you have a constrained timeframe. You are booksprinting.

The roots

The basic idea of a booksprint is to collaboratively produce a high quality book within a few days; a revolutionary concept. There are extractive and generative booksprints, as well as a continuum in between. An extractive booksprint consists of a group of people with explicit knowledge about a topic. A generative booksprint brings together people from diverse backgrounds in order to form new ideas.
Adam Hyde, who most prominently propagates the booksprint methodology, explained to me in an interview* that the idea of the booksprint developed out of the need to quickly produce content in the realm of free software. It was an attempt to production-line the book production process. However, merely producing text quickly did not yield interesting content about a specific topic. It is not enough to simply put people in a room and to say: write!

The elements

The four elements of a booksprint are a good group of people, a shared space, software as an enabling environment, and facilitation. According to Adam Hyde, writing in a group is more productive than solo writing. Collaborative writing within a constrained time frame is a very rewarding and rich process, it can even be catalytic. Co-authors can serve as a source of inspiration and provide feedback to each other. There is less pressure on the individual author due to a shared responsibility over the whole text. While new digital technologies provide us with the means of working together even though we are in different places and time zones, in the case of booksprinting it is crucial for collaborators to be in a shared space where they can engage with each other throughout the process. Software provides a platform on which collaboration can happen but it is not the thing that creates collaboration, it is just an enabling environment. The thing that really makes collaboration happen is facilitation. The role of the facilitator is to get people to write by means of applying both downward and upward pressure and at the same time making people feel that they have a place and a voice in the process. The facilitator brings about the circumstances in which collaboration can flourish. In short, the essence of a booksprint is collaboration: The goal is a shared goal, the text is a shared text.

Authorship

The social process of working on a shared text causes the idea of single authorship to disappear. One author writes a little bit of text here, another author writes a little bit of text there. The text fragments get intertwined, the text become a shared artifact.
There is a parallel between the collaborative nature of the booksprint and Barthes’ notion of ‘the death of the Author’**. Deconstructing single authorship through collaborative writing reflects the idea that ‘to write is, through a prerequisite impersonality (…) to reach that point where only language acts, ‘performs’, and not ‘me’.’ [1] And the multilayered dimensions of a collaboratively written text echo the notion that the ‘text is a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture.’[2] So in a way, the booksprinter is akin to Barthes’ ‘modern scriptor’ who is ‘born simultaneously with the text, is in no way equipped with a being preceding or exceeding the writing, is not the subject with the book as predicate; there is no other time than that of the enunciation and every text is eternally written here and now.’[3] Especially the collective sense of the here and now during a booksprinting session is something that is created as a result of the chemistry between the individual co-authors, a unique accumulation of living knowledge.

Full circle

In the past, collaborative – even anonymous – writing was the norm. Against this background, it can be argued that the ‘author is a modern figure.’[4] And even though the booksprint is a niche phenomenon that works for some types of texts and not necessarily for others, it is interesting to observe that booksprinting is one instance highlighting the increasing trend towards co-authorship. Thus, while the booksprint method has a revolutionary aspect in terms of book production, its concept is not entirely new. It rather brings us a step closer to coming full circle, where ideas of authorship from the past and the present meet. Perhaps even a space, where ‘[w]riting unfolds like a game that inevitably moves beyond its own rules and finally leaves them behind.’[5] It is a step towards a notion of writing that treats authorship in a more liberal way, consequently opening up a spectrum where text can be remixed and, with the help of digital technologies, take on a more dynamic form.


 

* This text is based on an interview I conducted with Adam Hyde in May 2014. I have remixed statements from the interview and indicated them in italics.

** Roland Barthes, “The Death of the Author”, in Image Music Text, trans. Stephen Heath (London: Fontana Press, 1977), 142-148.

1. Roland Barthes, “The Death of the Author”, in Image Music Text, trans. Stephen Heath (London: Fontana Press, 1977), 143.

2. Roland Barthes, “The Death of the Author”, in Image Music Text, trans. Stephen Heath (London: Fontana Press, 1977), 146.

3. Roland Barthes, “The Death of the Author”, in Image Music Text, trans. Stephen Heath (London: Fontana Press, 1977), 145.

4. Roland Barthes, “The Death of the Author”, in Image Music Text, trans. Stephen Heath (London: Fontana Press, 1977), 142.

5. Michel Foucault, “What Is an Author?”, in language, counter-memory, practice: selected essays and interviews by Michel Foucault, ed. Donald F. Bouchard (New York: Cornell University Press, 1977), 116.

This post is part of a weekly series of articles by doctoral candidates of the Alexander von Humboldt Institute for Internet and Society. It does not necessarily represent the view of the Institute itself. For more information about the topics of these articles and associated research projects, please contact presse|a|hiig.de.

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