Taking Collaborative Notes at BlogTalk

As many of you now know, a bunch of us were taking notes together with SubEthaEdit during the BlogTalk 2.0 conference. In this post, I’d like to give some details about what we did, how we did it, and what can be said or learnt about our experience.

I’d like to stress that this was not my idea. I think this collaborative note-taking is a very good example of what happens when you put a bunch of people together with ideas and resources: the result really belongs to all, and credit should go to the group (even though in this case, I don’t think I can identify all the members of this “group”).

The Story

At the beginning of the conference, I was discovering the joys of RendezVous and eagerly saying hi to the small dozen of people I could see online. Sometime during the first panel, I was asked (by Cyprien?) if I had SubEthaEdit, because they were using that to take notes. I downloaded it (thus contributing to the death of wifi and bandwidth), and after a brief struggle managed to display a RendezVous list of users on the network (shortcut: Cmd-K) currently running SubEthaEdit.

I joined Lee Bryant‘s document, which was open for read/write sharing. It contained text (what a surprise!) mainly highlighted in yellow (Lee’s colour, the main note-taker). We were four or five in there at that point. (From Lee’s first publication of the notes I gather that the two others were Roland and Stephan — or rather Leo on Stephan’s computer, like later in the day?) It took a couple of minutes for me to feel comfortable in there, and I started contributing by adding a few links I knew of, on the subject of video blogs. The act of writing in the document made me feel quickly at home with the other note-takers. At some point, I started actively pestering those logged into RendezVous so that they would join us if they had SubEthaEdit (particularly if they were already visible in SubEthaEdit!)

Lee wasn’t there at the beginning of the third panel, so I opened up a document myself in SubEthaEdit, and with a little help managed to open it up to others for reading and writing (File > Access Control > Read/Write) and “announce” it so that other participants could see it. There had already been some hurried talk of publishing our notes, and at some point, Suw (who was keeping up with what was going on on my screen) suggested we should publish them on a wiki. After a quick check with other participants (and with Suw: “you don’t think Joi would mind, do you?”), I grabbed Joi’s wiki and started creating pages and pasting the notes into them.

We continued like that throughout the afternoon and into the next day. As soon as a speaker would have finished and the note-taking seemed to stop, I would copy and paste everything into the wiki.

Update 17:30: Malte took a screenshot of us taking notes in SubEthaEdit. It will give you a good idea of what it was like.

Reflecting on the Experience

So, now that I have told you the story, what can be said about the way we worked together during this conference? I’m trying to raise questions here, and would be really interested in hearing what others have to say.

Working as a team to take notes has clear advantages: Lee was able to go out and get coffee, and catch up with the notes when he came back. When I couldn’t type anymore, Suw took my computer over and literally transcribed the last couple of panels (OK, that could have been done without the collaborative note-taking, but I had to fit it in somewhere.)

Still in the “team theme”, different roles can be taken by the note-takers: sometimes there is a main note-taker (I noticed this had a tendancy to happen when people wrote long sentences, but there might be other factors — any theories on this welcome), sometimes a few people “share” the main note-taking. Some people will correct typos, and rearrange formatting, adding titles, indenting, adding outside links. Some people add personal comments, notes, questions. Others try to round up more participants or spend half a talk fighting with wiki pages ;-)

At one point, I felt a little bad as I was missing out on the current talk with all my wiki-activity. But as Suw says about being part of the hivemind, I don’t think it matters. I acted as a facilitator. I brought out notes to people who were not at the conference. I allowed those more actively taking notes to concentrate on that and not worry about the publication. I went out to try and get other/more/new people interested in collaborating with us. I said to Suw: “keep on tzping, and don’t worrz that zour y’s and z’s are all mixed up because of mz swiss kezboard layout,” while Horst patiently changed them back.

What is the ideal number of note-takers in a SubEthaEdit session? Our sessions ranged from 5-10 participants, approximately. When numbers were fewer, a higher proportion were actively participating. When they were larger, there were lots of “lurkers”. Where they watching the others type, or had they just gone off to do something else, confident that there were already enough active note-takers?

The “Lee Bryant Experiment”, which I will blog about later, set me thinking about the nature of note-taking and notes. What purpose do notes serve? Is it useful to watch others taking notes, or does it really add something when you take them yourself? How concise should good notes be? How does a transcript (what Suw was virtually doing) compare to more note-like notes?

Formatting is an issue which could be fixed. SubEthaEdit is a very raw text editor, so we note-takers tend to just indent and visually organise information on our screen. Once pasted in the wiki, though, a lot of that spatial information is lost. It got a bit better once we knew the notes would be wikified, as we integrated some wiki mark-up (like stars for lists) in our notes, from the start. What could be useful is to put a little cheat-sheet of the wiki mark-up to be used inside the SubEthaEdit document, for the note-takers (just as I defined a “chat zone” at the bottom of the working document, so that we could “meta-communicate” without parasiting the notes themselves).

Some have found the notes precious, others wonder if we were smoking anything while we took them. Nobody really seems interested in editing them now they are on the wiki — or is it still a bit too soon after the conference? Here is the Technorati page for BlogTalkViennaNotes.

How groundbreaking was what we did? How often do people take notes collaboratively with SubEthaEdit in conferences? It seemed to be a “first time” for many of the participants, so I guess it isn’t that common. Have you done it already? What is your experience of it? How often do people put up notes or transcripts of conferences on wikis?

Discipline is needed to separate the actual notes (ie, “what the conferencer said”) from the note-taker comments (ie, extra links, commentary, questions, remarks). This isn’t a big issue when a unique person is taking notes for his or her private use, but it becomes really important when more people are involved. I think that although we did do this to some extent, we were a bit sloppy about it.

Information on the wiki page, apart from the notes, should also include pointers to the official presentation the talker made available (not always easy to find!), and I’m also trying to suggest that people who have done proper write-ups of the talks (see Philipp’s write-ups, they are impressive) to add links to them from the appropriate wiki pages (Topic Exchange is great, but lacks detail).

Participants, as far as I could make out, were: Leo, Lee, Roland, Cyprien, Horst, Mark, Malte, Björn, Omar, Paolo, Suw and myself. [to be completed] (If you took part in the note-taking, please leave a comment — I’m having trouble tracking you all down.) I did see Ben Trott online in SubEthaEdit while he and Mena were giving their talk, and was tempted to invite him into our note-taking session — but I was too shy and didn’t dare. And thanks to Joi for being so generous with the Joiwiki!

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This entry was posted in Conferences and tagged Blogosphere Interest, blogtalk, blogtalk2, collaborative, comments, common, conference, Essay-Like, Geek / Technical, joi ito, lee bryant, notes, question, rendezvous, Software and Tools, strategy, subethaedit, suw charman, talk, type, wiki. Bookmark the permalink.

52 Responses to Taking Collaborative Notes at BlogTalk

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  2. JJ says:

    Any possibility that thing is published for non-Mac users? Why do Mac users have all the cool tools?

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  5. Picture this I made a screenshot of the notetaking, so you can have a look, and I was part, too :) @ JJ: The “Coding monkeys”, the group writing SubEthaEdit said in an intervierw, they won’t port it, since they don’t write windows-programms. So you have to buy a mac :)

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  8. Our school (The Universitz of British Columbia) is a huge wireless network. Unfortunately the entire wireless part of the network makes up one big subnet. This renders the notion of ‘place’ quite useless and I can find people all over the campus. It would be great if we could specify one subnet per physical space (or classroom). Once we get this, we will likely see great changes in the interactions possible in our learning spaces.

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  10. You description of this process was very similar to what emerged using Hydra (and then SubEthaEdit) at the O’Reilly ETech ’03 and ’04. Here are the links to the collections of notes which I gathered from both: 03: http://trevor.smith.name/blog/archives/000108.html 04: http://trevor.typepad.com/blog/2004/02/oreilly_emergin.html

    Also, O’Reilly ran a Wiki to gather notes from people, whether they were collaborative or not: http://wiki.oreillynet.com/etech/hosted.conf?SessionNotes

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  13. Steph says:

    Yes, I’d love to see a RendezVous enabled VoodooPad. Then we really would have InstantWiki!

  14. Steph says:

    Yes, I'd love to see a RendezVous enabled VoodooPad. Then we really would have InstantWiki!

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  16. Ray Schraff says:

    Is anyone aware of any Windows applications similar to SubEthaEdit or VoodooPad ? ? ?

  17. Hi Stephanie,

    I have used SubEthaEdit with a colleague for collaborative document creation and have referenced it here in this posting: http://www.troyangrignon.com/blog/_archives/2004/6/19/91563.html

    It was okay, but the biggest headache was not having rich-text editing. I would LOVE to have rich-text editing. As it was, because our document got really long and we could not easily distinguish the blocks of text, we ended up falling back on the old Word + version numbering + check in/check out method. Like a VW bug, it’s ugly but it works.

    Very cool to read about your experience. Check out my posting. I talked to the creators to ask them if they would do a rich-text version. They did not seem too interested in the idea but I may have misinterpreted. I hope not. I think they would sell a TON of them if they used their existing architecture but built a rich-text editor on top of it.

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  19. The Lee Bryant Experiment
    An account of the “Lee Bryant Experiment”, where I posted his write-up of his talk into SubEthaEdit bit by bit as he was talking. Some ideas about note-taking, talking, presentations, and write-ups.

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  21. Steph says:

    Don’t miss Björn’s screen-photograph in the post trackbacked right above! It’s worth a peek :-)

  22. Steph says:

    Don't miss Björn's screen-photograph in the post trackbacked right above! It's worth a peek :-)

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  26. On Liveblogging…


    Via Bruno Giussani, a post by Ethan Zuckerman on liveblogging conferences. Again, a comment turned into a post — so here are some of my thoughts on liveblogging conferences, something I’ve been doing more and more regularly.


    No big surpris…

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