Stuart Schechter: Scaling Collaborative Writing to Facilitate Grassroots Communication, Organization, and Advocacy


Thursday, January 18, 2018, 11:30am to 1:00pm


Pierce Hall 301

Could thousands of citizens, brought together by a common cause, work together to collaboratively draft a letter to their elected representatives, a mission statement for a new organization, or guidelines for legislation? Could they collaborate as equals, making decisions about content without an organizational hierarchy? Could they still do in the presence of significant disagreements?

We examine the design space of democratic document collaboration, in which a large number of authors are given equal power to draft changes to a document and to decide which of the proposed changes will be made. We analyze collaboration as a distributed system in which humans play a central role and impose key constraints. For example, if authors find the experience less rewarding as the group grows, they will stop contributing and participation will plateau well before the system reaches the scaling limits of its technical components. 

In this talk, written to be accessible to a general audience, I will discuss the design decisions we encountered in building a democratic document collaboration platform, the reasoning behind the options we chose, and opportunities presented by alternative points in the design space. I will also discuss how democratic collaborative writing technology, if successful, could be used for research in social science.

Stuart Schechter received his Computer Science PhD from the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (1996-2004), continuing his research career at MIT Lincoln Laboratory (2004-2007) and then Microsoft Research (2007-2016). While the bulk of his research examined the intersection of security and human-computer interaction, Stuart has long been interested in using technology for community building and activism. Upon joining Leverett house as a Resident Tutor in 1998, Stuart built the first online house facebook in which students could share mobile phone numbers, create custom biographies, and opt to share information outside their houses. In 2011, he built an online tool used by his fellow scientists to pledge to peer review only for open-access publications.  Stuart moved to Seoul in 2016 to support a career move by his wife (a woman in tech) and to allow his daughters to experience their mother-in-law-land.