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ETech: The Hydra collaborative editor at work

by Robert Kaye
Apr. 25, 2003
URL: http://hydra.globalse.org/

ETech 2003 is the first conference I've attended where I finally joined the Mac crowd, proudly blogging from my new 12" powerbook. The number of Mac laptops at the conference is stunning and encouraging. Between Linux and Mac OS X laptops, the windows laptops are starting to become less frequent -- a refreshing change, IMHO.

Using Rendezvous and iChat to politely talk to other attendees during the conference enhances the experience and allows attendees to share insights gleaned from the presentations. Cool and simple, but very effective for enriching the conference.

But, that was nothing until Richard Soderberg bugged me to try out Hydra, the collaborative text editor. Hydra allows multiple people to edit a single text document at the same time. Using Rendezvous to discover fellow editors at the conference, a user can join others in editing a document. Hydra shows who is editing the document, how many changes they have made, and keeps all the changes from each of the contributors color coded to keep things attributed to their contributor.

For each conference session someone would start a Hydra document to keep notes during the session. Lots of people jumped in for each session to help out the editing. One or two people contributed most of the work in capturing the message of the session, and a number of others help out in digging up links, fixing typos and adding more details to the notes. The resultant document is vastly more comprehensive than the notes from any one person. Finally, an informal convention arose where each contributor added their email address to the end of the document so the original author can mail the finished document to all the participants.

Watching this process at first is outright amazing -- it's was more fascinating than TV. I stared in amazment for the first few sessions, held back by the same hesitation that I felt when I first started using Wikis. Unlike a Wiki, the document you're watching is literally alive in front of you.

However, this process also has some downsides. During Clay Shirky's "A group is it's own worst enemy" talk, there were too many cooks in the kitchen. Just as Clay was talking about how social groups can grow past their optimal size, some people started editing the same paragraph. The paragraph got totally munged because too many people were editing it at the same time. The Hydra crowd was its own worst enemy, ironically.

The collaborative note taking worked better in the smaller sessions and BOFs, where maybe 3-5 people were actively participating in the note taking. During the large keynote speeches the editing was more hectic and some portions of the document suffered from scalability issues. I think that either the Hydra editor or it's users need to take the key points from Clay's talk into account to ensure that the Hydra user can be managed without having too many editors spoil the document. (I'll be posting the key points from Clay's talk later on.)

I've really enjoyed being a Mac user at this conference. I finally understand what all the fanaticism is all about. :-)

Robert Kaye is the Mayhem & Chaos Coordinator and creator of MusicBrainz, the music metadata commons.

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