Online Creative Communities

Online Creative Communities:

Communities of Practice and Creative Writing Pedagogy

Daniel Lipson

San Jose State University

Abstract

For many artists and authors, the internet is presented as a vehicle for content and a place for promotion. An increasing number of creative people have discovered that the internet can be used to foster collaboration in digital communities, bringing with them their expertise and desire to learn from each other. A new pedagogy is being developed around online courses, especially those with a creative writing focus, which often require students to interact and critique each others work. Literary communities, often created because of the high level expertise of the professionals involved and the ease of working together, are haunted by many of the same forces that pressure print publications and tend to lack the energy that comes with the digital era. A few peer-based and professional creative community models exist on the web, but they lack a solid framework for writers to develop their craft. Communities of practice (Wenger, 1998), based around an organic group of members working to contribute to a field or craft, have become more prevalent online, as modeled by the community surrounding the growth of the online encyclopedia, Wikipedia. The proper model for a creative community suggests a certain level of experience, a user base with primarily intrinsic motivations, a comfortable and safe space for creativity, and interaction on a personal and individual basis.

Keywords: Community of Practice, community, wiki, creative writing

Introduction

Research into creative writing communities is spread over a wide variety of disciplines and specialties, and so the literature discusses various aspects of both creative writing and the process of collaborating online. Before examining how creative writing is conducted online, we need to understand some of the basic concepts that come with both the online landscape and the act of writing itself. One key concept to explore is the idea of a community of a practice (Wenger, 1998; Yang, 2009), a term many of the authors adopt to describe a group of people collaborating on an activity. Alongside communities of practice are knowledge communities and communities of interest, which all may be able to coexist in the same space.  

Different formats for online communities are discussed, specifically the juxtaposition of blogs and wiki technology, best exemplified by Peter Duffy and Axel Bruns (2006). To better understand wiki, I have included information about the development of wikipedia (Luyt, Aaron, Thian, & Hong, 2008; Lam & Riedel, 2011; Lucassen & Schraagen, 2011) as a community based around learning and knowledge gathering (Baytiyeh & Pfaffman, 2010; Yasseri, Sumi, Rung, Kornai, Kertesz, 2012; Zhao & Bishop, 2011).

When examining academic studies concerning different uses of technology in classrooms, we see that the qualities present in the online encyclopedia (Wikipedia) are also of value in online teaching. The idea of creating a community of practice is explored as students are encouraged to find their own motivations for creative writing and editing within and beyond the classroom, and to protect quality content. By examining both academic and non-academic approaches to knowledge gathering, I find that there is a need for professional guidance in any creative community, as there are large gaps in the background knowledge of users.

Much of the literature reviewed suggests a target audience of K-12 students with a focus on education and improving literacy. While this goal is worth noting in the construction of the project, the literature is utilized as a means of exploring how a community of individuals interact and benefit from a structured education environment. The Wikipedia community is introduced as a community outside of academia that benefits from administrators that curate.

Important to note are the variety of communities that already exist on the web. The most well known of these is Deviantart, a community devoted to young artists showcasing their work. What is discouraging about Deviantart is a lack of critical interaction between members. While it is easy enough to tag and share artwork with other users, there is little incentive or training that encourages users to collaborate and give constructive feedback. While there is a critique feature on the site, it is a premium feature that only truly devoted “deviants” will tap into. Criticism on deviantart is only upon request.

The most typical practice for creative writing online is to submit to an online literary journal. These journals exist in a form that is nearly identical to that of their print formats, and publishing on them typically requires the same processes that take place in print, including potential submission fees and other requirements. There is still no guarantee that your work will be read, and these sites are only a vehicle for getting your work seen. Aside from Deviantart, there are a few online creative writing communities that exist as social networks which allow writers to post their content and create a digital portfolio. These are often similar to literary magazines in that they showcase the top rated work on public pages. While there is some room for critique on these sites, they typically become content farms where writers submit work which drives traffic to the site, without an expectation of feedback (Brunton, 2012).

Community

Historically, a community has “constructed boundaries or social hierarchies, established histories and rituals, shared geographical space, mutual interests, and shared values and norms” (Brown, 2006). Perceiving community as a metaphor for the use of space helps to give context to the relationship between authority and discourse. Online communities are defined by public discussions, shared interests or characteristics, and social bonding. Membership is defined by an attachment to the community and an attachment to the other community members (Neff et al., 2013). Traditional face-to-face interactions and the construction of social sanctions are usually absent in virtual communities (Yan, Davison, & Mo, 2013).

What becomes quickly apparent is that virtual communities should include more than actual or perceived geographic and ideological similarity. A community of practice looks at the set of relations through joint exploration and problem-solving in a group, which manufactures the environment for learning and establishing group ideologies (Brown, 2006). Members of a community of practice communicate goals, resources, and principles while developing skills necessary to participate in these environments. Knowledge communities, such as Wikipedia, may also be communities of practice, but their end result is undeniably the pursuit of knowledge. Communities of interest may be built upon a framework that encourages a community of practice, but the interaction and learning that takes place in a community of interest is not on the same level as a typical community of practice. The distinctions within these communities is explored throughout the literature.

Community of Interest

Booth (2009) looks at the practice of fans utilizing wiki technology to re-craft narratives out of pre-existing texts, using the popular television shows Lost and Heroes. This practice showcases how collaborative technology can cause creative work to continue to transform and live long past its completion. Booth describes the “process by which communal interactive action constructs and develops a coherent narrative database” as “narractivity” (Booth, 2009, p. 373). Fans construct a working knowledge of the narrative depicted in the media object, and are able to deconstruct and transform it from the knowledge base that they have created.

Through the nature of serialization, contributors build up a working knowledge base about the material as it is revealed to them in official releases, and piece together mini-narratives about characters or events. These are linked to other articles on the wiki through their connections within the narrative.

Wikipedia: History and Accuracy

Wiki, Hawaiian for quick, was revealed in 1995 by Ward Cunningham as a “web-based platform to help computer programmers” quickly and easily share ideas (Cunningham, 2005). This idea remained obscure until Larry Sanger and Jimmy Wales decided to begin working on a radically new idea: an online encyclopedia. Early on in the life of Wikipedia, it doubled in growth annually, with more content resulting in more users who were able to generate content themselves. By 2006, it peaked, with a smaller pool of potential content. As most relevant topics were covered early on, new additions often became obscure, and the discussion shifted from the volume to the quality of its content (Lam & Riedel, 2011).

Many have researched the growth of the Wikipedia community in relation to how accurate the articles are. Using data about the survival time of “error edits,” researchers at Nanyang Tech in Singapore examined whether the age of content correlates with a propensity for erroneous information (Luyt et al., 2008). In a 2006 study, researchers compared the Encyclopedia Britannica with wikipedia articles, and found similar numbers of factual errors, omissions, and misleading statements, suggesting that their accuracy is roughly equivalent. Luyt et al. (2008) looked directly at the Encyclopedia Britannica study and extrapolated from that when the edits which contributed errors were made, using Wikiblame to index articles and compare differences between edit dates. They then determined when the “edit error” was made in relation to the life of the article. It was noted that many of the errors come from initial edits, because early contributions and new material has a wider scope.

Luyt et al. (2008) conclude that basing the trustworthiness of the edit on time, edits, or editors is not necessarily useful information. They imply that editors pay more attention to the core material of an article instead of simply adding content (Luyt et al., 2008). Lucassen and Schraagen (2011) take this further in a number of their studies as they examine the concept of trust and its relation to credibility. They describe credibility as the perceived quality of information, whereas trust includes a willingness to rely on that credibility. In judging whether to trust specific users, their information skills and domain experience is brought into question. Novices must rely on surface characteristics, while experts can assess the content more deeply.

Lucassen and Schraagen (2011) tested to determine whether a decrease in factual accuracy has an impact on domain experts but little impact on novices, and the use of semantic features in trust judgments. Their finding echoes earlier studies which demonstrate how domain experts value Wikipedia articles’ credibility more than novices, because their preexisting knowledge is consistent with the information presented in the article.

Novices generally had less trust in the original articles because they are aware of their limited ability to judge their credibility, and are skeptical of the information being presented. The experiences and perception of Wikipedia itself frequently were cited both as a negative and positive influence on the perceived credibility of the information, without any reference to the content of the information. There is a typical distrust over the policy which defines that consensus as more significant than the credentials of the editors.

Yasseri et al. (2012) examines what happens when there are conflicts in the creation of Wikipedia articles, and consensus is not reached initially. A significant percentage of the discussion on major articles concerns vandalism and the act of reverting back to previous states, and the community has created measures to address this, including locking out non-registered users, banning malevolent editors, and tagging controversial articles. What Yasseri et al. (2012) examines is the cases where the contents of the article itself is brought into question as two editors with opposing viewpoints present their information. These conflicts generally are resolved over time as the discussion becomes stale, one side becomes dominant in number, or other external forces intervene, but rarely from the merits of one side’s arguments (Yasseri et al., 2012).

The Wiki Community

By looking at the studies for the accuracy of Wikipedia, it becomes clear that the edit community created surrounding the site is responsible for its continued success. What Sanger and Wales built in 2001 organically grew as a community of practice based around the interactions of its contributors. Interactions between contributors improves quality. A social structure is built around the collaborative act of knowledge building. The amount of communication naturally increases with the quantity of edits and the age of the article.

Unlike typical virtual communities, the Wikipedia community is not immediately visible to typical users and it emerged, rather than being designed. Personal relationships are not necessarily key values, though reputation and recognition is taken into consideration among users (Zhao & Bishop, 2011). The motivations behind Wikipedia are thus: primary among them is the motivation to learn and second most pertinent is the creation of a public artifact. (Baytiyeh & Pfaffman, 2011). While a sense of community is essential, Baytiyeh and Pfaffman indicate individual learning goals and creativity are more valuable in a collaborative environment. The importance of accurate, truthful information is ultimately up to the users who take command of the content themselves (Luyt et al. 2008; Lucassen & Scraagen, 2011; Yasseri et al., 2012). Their mission is to learn and create in an environment they control. Wikipedia can be seen as a knowledge community and a community of practice, where the purpose is practicing skills while sharing, acquiring, and creating knowledge. A commitment to a public online community combines formal knowledge with informal practice, and gives members the freedom to choose their own role (Baytiyeh & Pfaffman, 2011).

Writing, Teaching, and Technology

Barbara Karsbaek (2011) examines writers workshops as a tool for teaching writing. David James (2012) addresses criticism about the dominance of the professor in teaching writing, and how workshops are largely victims of subjectivity based on inexperience. Ideally, the writing process should highlight the weaknesses and strengths of a piece and students should learn how to better engage the reader. The writing workshop supposes that a creative work can always be improved, and is never truly finished, only abandoned (James, 2012).

When looking at teaching writing in an online context, there is an understanding that the most important goal of the task is properly teaching the material, regardless of the technology that is in play. Chong and Lee (2012) look directly at different types of software that can be utilized to promote teaching creative writing, and designed a modular software (Storyworld) that breaks apart setting, character, and outline as separate sections with a number of exercises for students to run through, as well as a module titled Story Creator for students to create and write their own stories. At every stage of the process educators give feedback and assess spelling, grammar, and creativity. Coskie and Hornof (2013) examine some key principles that may guide the implementation of technologies (such as Chong and Lee’s (2012) Storyworld) in writing workshops. Above all, the authors emphasize the importance of teaching students the writing process, and how to compose original content, instead of “fill in the blank” storytelling. The five principles are as follows:

      1. Consider if the use of technology will enhance the writing or whether the writing will become subservient to the technology.

      2. How will you monitor the use in action?

      3. Understand the power and problems with the technology being used.

      4. Promote social interaction and peer collaboration.

      5. Decide where to explicitly teach lessons relevant to the technology (Coskie & Hornof, 2013).

These principles, which they title E-Best, point out a number of gaps in Chong and Lee’s (2012) design, most notably a lack of discussion about the need for a supportive social environment and a strong sense of peer support. A sense of interactivity and community is essential to effective writing instruction. (Mehlenbacher, Miller, Covington, & Larsen 2000; Hall & Davidson, 2007).

Increasingly in the realm of technology, there is space for the line between student and teacher to blur into something more akin to a newsroom, with the teacher primarily seen as an editor. Computer-based environments such as Blackboard (and Canvas) can be utilized for file sharing, chat, and threaded discussions in an online environment (Brown, 2006). A more democratic environment for learning writing encourages teachers to create a space where these communities can grow organically.

Stephanie Imig (2010) looks at how building a virtual writing community has helped her students to improve their writing. Through the use of video in a format called Livelesson, she walked students through a step-by-step process of how to create a poem taking advantage of personal memories and images of home. The conversation shifted from teacher-to-student over towards student-to-student as they found similarities between each other and began to foster a better understanding of their peers. Imig regretted that the exercise was voluntary, because many reluctant writers may have benefitted from a natural sense of success. Her experiment indicates that the art of writing workshops can be lifted into the virtual world without much compromise if the participants are eager and excited to participate in the discussion (Imig, 2010). Ducate and Lomicka (2008) also found that students preferred reading and writing about personal topics, although they seemed ambivalent about commentary.

There are a number of techniques online classes have utilized to teach writing to students. Classroom blogs and Google Docs/Drive allow students to work digitally. The teachers can then share this work with students from other locations, and generate a conversation across state or national borders. By encouraging young writers to start their own blog, teachers hope that they will continue to write after the class is completed. (Boling, Castek, Zawilinski, Barton, & Nierlich, 2008; Hall & Davidson, 2007). Other teachers take advantage of the editing ability of wiki technology to write and edit collaboratively. The wiki model suggests a larger focus on the act of revision. Teachers and students can provide feedback at any point during the writing process (Woo, Chu, & Li, 2013). Wichmann and Rummel (2013) argue that the talk pages, a major part of Wikipedia’s success, are not as successful when used in educational formats, and teachers need to take extra steps to ensure good revision practices.

Rama Ramaswami (2008) cites an instance where blog writing proved to create interaction between students and encouraged them to continue writing both beyond and during school hours. As Coskie and Hornof caution, the focus needs to remain on the writing, and blogging should be woven into the standard structure of the classroom. Studies have shown that creating comments of substance on blogs is challenging for students, and suggest that teachers focus on strategies to teach students how to make constructive, informative comments on each other’s work in an effort to promote peer learning. (Lacina and Griffith, 2012; Hall & Davison, 2007) Josephine Ellis (2010) and Yang (2009) look at why students are often initially apprehensive with blogs, and how students digital footprints might be protected, and Ellis counter’s Yang’s suggestion that culture is a significant factor. Pascopella and Richardson (2009) acknowledge the risks behind all types of online interaction, but believe that they are infrequent and easily managed.

The pedagogy around writing highlights the need to separating the technology from the practice, and offers methods for students to interact and learn independently. As the motivational influence of learning and creativity was seen as the most valuable motivation for communities of practice such as Wikipedia, the methods and research utilized by teachers should also apply outside of the classroom setting (Baytiyeh & Pfaffman, 2011).

Preexisting Models

Deviantart is touted as a community of artists working in the same space to create innovative content. The majority of its success comes from the grouping of art by production technique, rather than genres (Salah & Salah, 2013).  While these artists are clearly learning from each other’s techniques, the community is more about showcasing one’s work as opposed to the skills that are developed by working in a community of practice. Still, it may be argued that a community such as Deviantart is a community of practice base only on the concept of creating a social world based on active participation (Perkel, 2011).

Online writing communities primarily come in one form. Evan Hughes (2006) introduces (short lived) website The Frontlist and its American counterpart Zoetrope as places where writers can submit their work to get feedback and recognition. These sites may incorporate a ranking system, and often promise the possibility of getting published; they primarily serve to streamline the publishing process and promote their writers. While many were short-lived, online workshops continue to survive as e-books and online distribution have become more popular. Small online literary magazines continue to surface as editors take advantage of the technology to work outside of the larger market (Paling, 2006). Websites such as TheNextBigWriter encourage interaction between writers by rewarding credits for posting edits, although there’s little to restrict the quality of the edits (Blanton, 2008).

The use of Cloud-based services is popular among small organized groups, but these services lack a community-based model. In additional to fanfiction blogs like those discussed in Booth (2008), sites such as Fictionmob are beginning to explore how wiki technology can be used to collaboratively create certain genres of fiction. Projects such as Creative Common’s “Remix My Lit” and Penguin UK’s “We Tell Stories” explore different ways that the web can be used to collaborate and create a community based around a shared practice (Wilson, 2008).

Discussion

As Duffy and Bruns found in 2006, both blogs and wikis are strongly community based. What differs is the type of community that develops through their use. While knowledge communities such as Wikipedia are built upon a community of practice, they restrict any form of creativity in the pursuit of neutral, unbiased information. Similarly, communities of interest such as Deviantart are focused only on individual creativity, and may not be considered communities of practice. Writing blogs, while useful for individual development and on a small scale, are dependent on the author’s ability to network, as there is no built in community outside of an academic sphere. Zhang and Bishop (2011) remind us that a community of practice is nothing without reification and content, and many communities fail because they separate the outcomes of the practice from the practice itself. Hadjerrouit (2013) highlights an important issue that can be seen throughout, in that cooperation (dividing a task) is not necessarily the same as collaboration (shared problem solving).

Joanne Roberts (2006) brings up a number of criticisms of the community of practice model, as defined by Wenger (1998) and seen throughout the examples. The issues of power, trust, and predispositions are presented as early concerns that can be seen throughout. The issue of power can be countered somewhat when examining Wikipedia as a community of practice, as we can see that the main motivation is learning, and not reputation (Zhao & Bishop, 2011; Baytiyeh & Pfaffman, 2011). The issue of trust is examined briefly in terms of students’ reluctance to post online or share knowledge, although it is admittedly something that continues to be an issue when posting anything in a public space. Finally, the examination of predispositions suggests that certain communities of practice may resist change once they’ve established a knowledge base. While this can be seen even in wikipedia, a focus on the creative arts provides a fluid environment for new knowledge. Roberts also criticizes communities of practice as being largely devoid of typical community values, although we can see through the communities of practice formed around teaching that the relationships between users are still important when dealing with creative writing (Hall & Davidson, 2010;  Imig, 2010; Karsbaek, 2011; Pascopella & Richardson, 2009; Ramowski, 2008).

Further Research

Before a proper model for an online creative community can be designed, it is helpful to examine how students and other individuals use sites such as Deviantart and literary blogs and websites (including Zoetrope) to communicate their work. While there is widespread agreement that both blogs and wikis have their value in the education of writing, there is no proof that this community can form outside of academia in the way that Wikipedia formed. A survey of the population of creative writing sites would need to be made, as well as a campaign to determine the desire for a virtual creative community. Many writers already maintain their own writing blogs, but they are not associated with a community of practice and often stand on their own, or as part of a community of interest. The specifics of how creative writing bloggers interact is only briefly touched upon in articles about classroom blogs, and no suggestions are made for how to continue this outside of the classroom setting. Some important questions must be addressed: What tools would writers and artists deem useful online that they cannot already find? Are artistic communities open to collaboration and critique outside of controlled/academic circles? How should privacy and ownership be addressed? Is there a need for professional opinions in the creative space, and how can this be achieved?

Beyond the Literature Review

After spending a considerable amount of time exploring different aspects of creative collaboration, what became clear was the personal gravity I felt specifically towards interactive gaming communities. While traditional forms of storytelling allow for creative collaboration on a basic level, the nature of play inherent in gaming adds a unique element to the act of creation that transforms it beyond the capacities of established practices. To create something in a gaming environment is an exercise in total unpredictability, and there is often a minimum of learning that takes place because most occurrences in a gaming (roleplaying) world are happenstance, or developments built entirely on imagination. Breaching this topic while exploring creative communities proved to be impossible, and the decision to focus on creative writing communities instead limited the discussion to the literary and academic communities.

Creative Writing, as an academic discipline, is fairly new. There is still only a small amount of research into how best to teach people writing, and there will always be arguments about whether creativity can be taught. Literary communities, mostly backed by highly educated professionals, still exercise old traditions while adapting to new models offered by technology. They continue to evade the bulk of outside scrutiny by operating in closed circles, and their flexibility allows them to enjoy a comfortable level of success on digital platforms. Active research and development within this community would need to be done on a large scale before any consensus could be made on how it could best be served. Creative writers in the digital space now enjoy the diverse communities built around different technologies, and many of them seem to be content with the options that they already have. Establishing a superior model would require research into all of the successful qualities of these sites and technologies (Zoetrope, TheNextBigWriter, Deviantart, Fictionmob, Remixmylit) as well as a method for combining their unique, likely incompatible, offerings. While the research may benefit the communities, and lead to another form of online community, the writing community seems to treasure their privilege of slow evolution and change. The creation of something should be done as a community effort, and not as an individual endeavor.

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