Extended electronic, annotated correspondence
September 12, 2020 3:36 PM   Subscribe

So I have a college friend and we have been writing email to each other for almost 30 years. Just to mix things up, I recently combined two emails he had sent me into a single document, and responded by inserting comments. He then replied to those comments. It was pretty cool, and we were left with an interesting record of our communication. Some problems arose, however: those side conversations taking place in the comments grew increasingly unwieldy. Is there a better technology for this kind of extended, collaborative conversation/shared writing?

Ideally it would produce a text that could be exported, and not be tied to a subscription model. I like Roam Research a lot, but $15/month is a little expensive.
posted by mecran01 to Computers & Internet (7 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
What you describe sounds like collaboratively editing & commenting using a google docs document, which is perhaps what you've already tried. I haven't used google docs enough to know if there's a neat solution of how to "fork off" a discussion in a comment thread into its own doc and link it back to the original & make it easy for collaborators to keep participating.

There's a family of wiki-like services marketed at businesses for knowledge management -- they might be rather heavyweight but could plausibly work: e.g. https://www.atlassian.com/software/confluence , https://www.zoho.com/wiki/ , https://www.getguru.com/ , https://tettra.com/ A number of these have 0 cost or low cost for teams with very small numbers of members and no business-y requirements.

Another option: hosted source code management services (github, bitbucket) offer an additional wiki feature. With bitbucket it looks like you and a small number of collaborators could create a free account and take advantage of free private wiki hosting, for github it looks like you need to be a paying user before they let you create private wikis. Might not be a great fit since these offers are aimed at teams collaborating on software. These wiki products may be simpler and lighter-weight that many of the above wiki products (especially confluence) but some of the functionality will be structured assuming that when you make changes to a text document like a wiki page, you're comfortable tracking the changes using the git version control tool -- which is not something that anyone finds natural to learn, including software developers.
posted by are-coral-made at 4:38 PM on September 12

Arrrghh, I neglected to mention that the above collaboration took place in a Google doc, which quickly grew unwieldy.
posted by mecran01 at 4:53 PM on September 12

Google Wave was really good at this for about 12 minutes in 2010, but alas it is no more. I mention it because Google open sourced the project after they killed it, so there might be some kind of successor out there if you go looking.
posted by jacquilynne at 6:19 PM on September 12 [1 favorite]

Wikis track edits, so if you and your friend share a personal wiki, the wiki can alert you to all new edits. Then you can make as many pages as you please!
posted by aniola at 7:48 PM on September 12 [1 favorite]

Tidlywiki fits an entire Wiki into one file, that you can email back and forth or edit on a Dropbox etc

posted by SaltySalticid at 6:29 AM on September 13 [2 favorites]

It looks like a wiki with notifications of some sort might be just the trick, thanks.
posted by mecran01 at 6:25 AM on September 14

You might want to look into "inline replying" (here's a relevant Wikipedia article). It's a style of replying to electronic messages that used to be quite popular especially on Usenet. In brief, your messaging software would format the message to which you were replying by adding a special character to the beginning of each line (a greater-than sign ">" was popular) and you would insert your replies and some whitespace into your reply directly following the relevant sentence(s). If the message to which you were replying already had these kinds of replies, you'd end up with several of the special characters being added at the beginning of those lines so you could always tell which replies were new. Finally, you were also free to delete lines in the original message that were not relevant to your reply.

It is a little bit complicated until you get used to it. And I don't know of any place where it's still practiced. E-mail clients, particularly Outlook, have a different default setting ("top posting") and that seems to have killed this practice. But I quite miss it; it made many conversations much clearer and easier to understand.
posted by ElKevbo at 10:20 PM on September 14

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