March 18, 2013

Google Docs lets you collaborate with dead writers


Your newest collaborator on Google Docs

In order to show off its collaborative capabilities, Google Documents has created a demonstration where you can collaborate with famous (and long-dead) authors on a story. It’s actually a pretty fun demonstration of how multiple people can edit a document, showing how you can see the changes that other users are making in real-time — even though you’re unlikely to be brainstorming with the likes of William Shakespeare the next time you’re writing.

You can see an example of how the collaboration works, in a video by Galleycat‘s Jason Boog here, which shows how the ghosts of Edgar Allen Poe, Charles Dickens, and Friedrich Nietzsche start butting in to make the vocabulary more like their own, and in one case, to interject, “I want some more.” In addition to those three writers, you can get automated edits from Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

I’ve been playing around with the blank document for a bit, and its produced some entertaining results. Most of the collaboration seems to involve the insertion or changing of adjectives and adverbs. For example, I opened a story with, “Without knowing exactly how, I found myself lost in the produce aisle at the supermarket,” (a rollicking start, I know), and as I typed, Robot-Poe jumped in to make it, “Without instinctually knowing how…” If you leave the page blank, your collaborators will try to get you started with a nice, “On an exceptionally hot evening in…” (from Dostoeyvsky’s Crime and Punishment) or the inevitable, “To be or not to be.”

The ghosts get impatient, too! If you go too long without writing anything, you’ll get a somewhat passive-aggressive retort; so far, I’ve seen Dickens interject, “Procrastination is the thief of time, collar him,” and Shakespeare pipe in, “Let not sloth dim your horrors new-begot.”

I was somewhat disappointed, though, that they don’t get on your case for plagiarism. I started typing the opening lines of Romeo and Juliet, hoping that Shakespeare would interrupt to scold me. Instead, the Bard remained silent while Dickens turned a few of the lines into dialogue, once again adding an incongruous, “I want some more;” Dickinson changed the word “death” to “eternal slumber;” and Nietzsche altered the second line to be, “In fair Verona, where we of a certain disposition lay our scene.” All with flagrant disregard for iambic pentameter.

Meanwhile, if you write about the authors themselves, they’re quick to jump in to praise themselves or denigrate the others. Say something about Shakespeare, for example, and he’ll insert “the handsome and lovely,” which Poe quickly revises to “dreadful and lonely.” Type in Dickens’ name, and Dickinson changes it to her own; they go back and forth for a moment, until Dickens finally changes the name to Oliver Twist. You can play around with the demo and pit the famous authors against each other yourself here.



Nick Davies is a publicist at Melville House.