Working with others
Phil Chandler, September 2007
It is of course a truism, often repeated,  that the Internet has been the basis for a revolution in (remote) interpersonal communications, collaboration and data sharing. It is probably safe to say that there would be very few of the Free/Libre and Open Source (FLOSS) projects that exist today without the collaboration technologies the Internet supports. One of the many effects of the powerful tools FLOSS has put in to the hands of creative people is that it has potentially made them more independent. No longer are they reliant on specialists with access to expensive software and hardware to carry out aspects of their projects for them. Their limitations are now time and knowledge, not the lack of access. It is in fact precisely this issue that the Digital Artists' Handbook seeks to address, by providing authoritative information to guide practitioners in to new fields of endeavour.
The downside of this independence is that many artists find themselves more isolated, working alone at home rather than interacting with others at shared studios or where shared resources were previously found.
The Internet, being fundamentally a communications medium, offers potential solutions to this isolation, but the solutions themselves have, to date, largely dictated that collaboration happens in new ways, shaped by the technology. For some, the thousands of FLOSS coders for example, the tools have made possible projects that would otherwise be virtually inconceivable, but for other artists looking to enhance their existing practice with new digital methods the situation is perhaps more double-edged.
It maybe be useful to step back for a moment and consider what we mean when we talk about working, or collaborating with others. For a start it could be divided in to five broad types of collaboration:
This is the everyday backwards and forwards of discussion:
email: To most people the original and still the fundamental communication channel on the Internet. Although under constant assault by junk (spam) email, the simplicity, cheapness, robustness and asynchronous nature of the email system are it's fundamental advantages. There are probably few Internet users who are not already familiar with using email, and all internet service providers offer email services to users.
chat/instant messaging/IRC: where synchronous, near real time communication is required these text-based media have proved popular. The common theme is that users type what they want to say in to a chat window, and their words will appear almost instantly in the corresponding windows of those they are connected to. In all cases there are servers out on the Internet that act as hubs for this communication, and a level of complexity is introduced by needing to know which system the person you wish to converse with is using. Chat may be on a one to one basis or in a group situation. Client software is available for all common platforms, sometimes bundled with the operating system. These days systems tend to offer additional services such as the ability to send a file to someone you're chatting to, or even to use voice and video communication. In other words technologies such as chat, VoIP and video conferencing (see below) are converging. There are even websites that allow you to set up a chat session without even installing any software. 
Voice over IP (VoIP) / 'Internet telephony': This describes the technologies that use the basic protocols of the Internet to transport voice communications between users. This has allowed computers to be used as telephony devices, and for users to turn their high speed Internet connections in to cheap international telephone lines. Due to the way the Internet presently works it is often hard to achieve equal quality of service compared to a traditional circuit-based telephone connection, however the low cost has encouraged a boom in VoIP's use. It has been popularised by the proprietary Skype software  but many open source equivalents exist . As with chat services, you need to create an account on the VoIP service you wish to use, and install the relevant software. Whilst computer to computer connections are generally free, connecting to a traditional phone is usually a paid for service.
Content management systems (CMS), wikis and discussion forums: Although these equally fall in to the area of websites and self-publishing, I mention them here due to their use for community and project websites, where registered users can discuss, publicise and share work. One example is the Lancashire Artists' Network site , based on the open source Drupal content management system . CMS' provide a framework where non-technical users can create web content of various types via their browser without needing to understand how to code. Some CMS's support, in addition to text and images, audio, video, as well as specialised areas such as discussion forums. Wikis fit in to a similar model, however tend to be simpler, more focussed tools which are designed to make adding text and linking information together particularly easy. The most famous example of a wiki is probably Wikipedia , however many collaborative projects have a wiki for members to discuss and develop project documentation. Forums are webpages that are designed around the idea of threaded discussions, where users post topics and replies to those topics.
mobilephones/SMS: Of course mobilephone networks are not strictly speaking part of the Internet since they do not use the Internet's protocols, however they are in many countries a ubiquitous communication system. The wide availability of the system is somewhat offset as a collaboration medium by the present general restriction to one-to-one communication and mainly voice and text messages. As bandwidth capacity increases and costs fall it may well become more viable to expand in to video use. A number of projects, for example Twitter , are exploring how to integrate mobile and web-based systems. Whether such projects are serious collaborative tools or toys for the under-employed is still open to debate.
social networking websites: These are essentially highly branded content management systems, allowing users to present their content within fairly tightly controlled home pages. As the market matures various networks are competing on the functionality they offer in terms of managing content and connections to other members. The challenge facing the large networks at present is how to convert their large memberships in to a profit without alienating them.
virtual environments: the natural extension of social networking and online gaming is the 3D virtual environment, the most high profile one at the time of writing being Second Life . Although in essence a relatively immersive chat client, (with voice features now appearing), from a collaboration point of view virtual environments offer some additional features such as the ability to embed, e.g. video content, in virtual objects, to allow sharing and performance of works. As with nearly all online environments, the tools available for use online are prescribed by the environments themselves.
video conferencing: This can cover a wide range of technologies and qualities. At one end there is the low resolution, somewhat jumpy output of cheap webcams combined with domestic broadband connections. As mentioned above such functionality is increasingly being integrated with text based chat and VoIP software. At the other end of the spectrum there are the high quality, high bandwidth options most commonly found in corporations and universities, who have access to the expensive Internet connections required.
Although there is often no clear demarcation, since you can for example send files by email, this refers to technology more explicitly designed around sharing data files:
project websites: Aside from the discursive uses of project websites and wikis, these provide some of the simplest means of widely disseminating digital works. Content management systems often have built in functionality to manage file repositories and control access to the contents, for example restricting downloads to registered users.
file transfer protocol (FTP) sites: The traditional method of disseminating large files over the Internet, this method is perhaps falling from favour compared to the various web-based options. It is nevertheless useful to have a good FTP client  in the tool kit to access such sites. Incidentally if you are managing your own web space and need to upload files to your web server, if your provider supports it, a much more secure alternative to FTP is SFTP  . SFTP is supported 'out the box' in most Linux file managers.
code management tools such as CVS: For more complex projects, especially where it is important to track what changes have been made to work by multiple collaborators, a code management system is vital. Simon Yuill explores this in detail in his article, however from a new user point of view the first requirement is probably a friendly graphical client to access such systems. You need of course to have the right client for the particular system you're using but examples are .
peer-to-peer filesharing: If media and record industry hype was to be believed  then peer-to-peer filesharing networks are the font of all evil. However for collaborative projects that need to disseminate very large files, such as major software projects or video sharing, the ability to share the bandwidth load across many users has proven very useful. In essence peer-to-peer networks work by some users downloading files from an original 'seed' server, and then being willing to allow others to download the same files from them. As time goes on more copies proliferate across the Internet meaning that no single server or user takes the bulk of the demand. A technologically advanced example is Bittorrent.
Obviously an idea can be shared by describing it in words, sending a code example or other sample of work. Sometimes though more structured methods aid the collaboration process. One is the idea of design patterns as Simon Yuill discusses in his article, however a more general and widely popular method is that of mindmapping with some good free tools available . Mindmapping is an example of a visualistion tool to allow individuals and groups to share and refine their ideas. These can be coupled with feedback mechanisms such as annotation, voting and messaging .
For larger or longer term projects more formal management tools may be appropriate. Some are built in to code sharing sites such as Sourceforge , while others provide a specialist approach, such as dotProject  which can be hosted on a website and thus accessible to all members of the project. For many, projects wikis provide the necessary level of co-ordination. The term groupware is sometimes applied to integrated packages of collaboration software including email, instant messaging, and document management functions.
Working in real time
The methods mentioned so far are either a) asynchronous and/or b) essentially for talking about the work, or for making some version of the work available for others to see, try, or perhaps alter themselves. There are simple online creative tools , and even some that allow more than one person to work at the same time . These are obviously not comparable with the tool sets provided by such software as GIMP  and Inkscape . It is also noticeable that many of these tools tend to be basic drawing tools. What is still at an early stage are ways for artists to actually work together, remote from each other, on the same piece of work, at the same time. There are interesting experiments going on, such as Furtherfield's Visitors' Studio , however most have been orientated towards developing new tools specially for use on the Internet. But why should we leave the tools we are used to using 'at home' when we go online? There is a new frontier to be explored as to how we make the tools we are comfortable with available to us when we start working with others remotely. Perhaps the area where the most progress has been made so far is in the audio world with technologies such as streaming, Pure:Data and Open Sound Control (OSC) . Going further one idea might be to have an underlying framework that can share sessions between any appropriately adapted software. This is perhaps somewhat analogous to the role JACK  plays in the free audio software world, where any piece of software that has JACK support built in can exchange audio data with other similarly equipped applications. In this case what would be shared between two remote instances of a particular application would be information about their state, key presses and mouse clicks etc.
Whatever technical solution is found it is to be hoped that it won't be too long before a new level of working with others becomes available, whereby we can work interactively on the same piece of work, using the full power of the tools we've invested time learning. Perhaps one day we will be able to take our favourite tools in to virtual 3D studios and work closely alongside our chosen collaborators wherever in the (real) world they might be.
 “UN Fights US over internet's future” The New Zealand Herald 2005
http://www.nzherald.co.nz/section/2/story.cfm?c_id=2&ObjectID=10354409 [Accessed 12/12/2007]
 “How the Internet has Changed Our Lives” Neilsen/Netratings 2003 http://www.nielsennetratings.com/pr/pr_031229_uk.pdf [Accessed 12/12/2007]