Today I worked on three separate collaborations: feedback on a thesis draft, a paper revision with colleagues at other universities, and a grant proposal with mostly senior scholars. Each collaboration represents my integration with distinct project teams, on which my status varies. And along with my relative status, so too varies my relationship with the Track Changes editing tool.
When giving feedback on my student’s thesis, I wrote over existing text with reckless abandon. I also left comments, moved paragraphs, and deleted at will. When working on my paper collaboration, I also edited freely, though was more likely to include comments justifying major alterations. When working on the research grant, for a project team on which I am the most junior member, I knew not to change any of the text directly. Instead, I made suggestions using the Comment function, sometimes with alternative text, always phrased and punctuated as a question.
These experiences are, of course, not just tied to me nor to the specific tasks I undertook today. They are part of a larger and complex rule structure that has emerged with collaborative editing tools. Without anyone saying anything, the rules generally go like this: those higher on the status hierarchy maintain control over the document. Those lower on the status hierarchy do not. Even though Track Changes positions everything as a suggestion (i.e., collaborators can accept or reject any change), there is something gutsy about striking someone’s words and replacing them with your own, and something far meeker about a text-bubble in the margins.
Track Changes (and other collaboration tools) do not enforce status structures. They do, however, reflect and enact them. Who you are affects which functions are socially available, even as the entire suite of functions remain technically available. Users infuse these tools with existing social arrangements and keep these arrangements intact. The rules are not explicit. Nobody told me not to mess with the grant proposal text, just as nobody sanctioned my commanding approach to the student’s thesis, or the “clean” (Track Changes all accepted) manuscript copy I eventually sent to my co-authors. Rather, these rules are implicit. They are tacit. And yet, they are palpable. Missteps and transgressions could result in passive aggressive friction in the mildest case, and severed working relationships in the more extreme.
Just like all technologies, Track Changes is of the culture from which it stems. Status hierarchies in the social system reemerge in the technical artifact and the social relations facilitated through it. Stories of Track Changes norm breaching would illustrate this point with particular clarity. I’m struck, however, by not having on hand a single personal example of such a breach. Everyone I work with seems, somehow, to just know what to do.
Jenny Davis is on Twitter @Jenny_L_Davis