Vision of Earth now has volunteers and contributors from Canada, the United States, and Germany. Additionally, many of the people we are networking with are similarly spread out geographically. Yet even with these distances, we remain in very close contact with each other. Very often we choose to work simultaneously on the same project, speaking to each other face to face using technology.
In the distant past, even keeping in touch with loved ones was difficult over large distances. Now our technological tools allow us to be in instant communication even when we are located a world away from each other.
This post is a description of the major software tools we use to do this. All of these tools are available on the Internet free of charge. We hope that this information comes in handy for other groups or people looking to improve their long-distance communication.
We develop all of our posts on Google Docs. We find that there are many advantages to doing our work in this way.
- Cloud storage – Our work won’t disappear if our hard drive fails.
- Multi-user documents – You can give different people different levels of access to the document. You can choose whether someone can edit the document or simply view it.
- Simultaneous edits – multiple people can be editing the document at the same time. This is very handy for us since we often work synchronously on posts and brainstorming sessions.
- Revision history – Google Docs keeps track of every change made to the document, and who made it.
A quick note relevant to the revision history functionality in Google Docs. There are actually two Google Docs editors as of the writing of this article. They appear very similar but have some differences. We highly recommend the older editor for collaborative work.
The new editor, which is the default for all new users, has impressive real-time editing abilities. When someone else makes a change to the document, you can see the change more or less instantly. You can also see where their cursor is in the document. This is a very handy feature if you want to be interacting with the other user(s) in real time. We have found this to be very handy for brainstorming sessions. However, the revision history functionality in the new Google Docs leaves a great deal to be desired. We won’t go into detail here, but suffice to say that if you want good revision history functionality, you have to enable the old editor.
The old editor would only update the changes of other users every minute or so. If two users are interacting with the same document, it can sometimes be disorienting when a bunch of changes suddenly show up on the screen. This can be jarring, as what you were looking at or working on suddenly is somewhere else on the screen. The huge advantage of the old editor is its revision history tool. It allows you to look at every single change that has been made in the history of the document, and you can select two versions to compare them. When you compare versions, you can see in different colours the edits that different people made. We have found this to be incredibly useful for keeping track of changes to a document.
Enable old editor in Google Docs
Click “Settings” in the top right corner, and then “Documents Settings”. This will take you to a new page. Click on the “Editing” tab. There is a check-box beside the statement: “Create new text documents using the latest version of the document editor.” Make sure that this check box is not checked. Every document you create from now on will be using the old editor. You unfortunately cannot change which editor applies to currently existing documents. Whichever editor was enabled when the document was created is the one that will always be used to edit that document.
In a nutshell, Skype is a way for us to talk to each other using audio and video, even from across the world, for free. All we need in order to talk to each other is a microphone, speakers, and a reliable (relatively low-latency) internet connection. We currently use webcams as well, since we find it easier to communicate when body language and facial expressions are included.
The one disadvantage we have found to using video and audio chat is that we have a lot of information flowing that is not being meaningfully logged. That is, if we have a storm of ideas, we have to make sure that we write them down somewhere, or we are bound to forget some of them. This means that communicating via chat or through a Google Doc can be advantageous in terms of tracking the progression of ideas.
For a small cost, Skype offers a lot of other functionality, such as the ability to call ‘real’ phones like landlines and cell phones. You can call anywhere in the world, and it is very affordable. Also, you can pay to have a phone number assigned to you, so that if someone calls, you can answer using your Skype setup.
We have found that overall Gmail is the best free email service. At the very least, it is the one that we primarily use, and it has a lot of features that we enjoy.
Gmail is webmail
I prefer webmail because I can access it from anywhere that has Internet. For those who don’t know, ‘webmail’ is a term referring to an email service intended to be used through a web browser. Some people prefer to use email clients on their computers that manage their email for them.
It currently provides us 7,510 megabytes of free storage. With gmail your storage slowly increases with time. On the sign-in page you can see how it counts upwards, byte-by-byte.
One of my main reasons for entirely switching over to Gmail was that its spam filter was so much better than any of my other email providers. What I actually did was make all of my other email addresses forward to Gmail. Gmail would then filter out all of the junk that had been hammering me while I was using other providers.
Labels and filters
You can organize your mail into folders. You can attach labels to messages. You can set up gmail so that it will automatically categorize your mail into folders, or attach labels, depending on criteria you set. Available criteria for applying such a filter are:
- email from a specific email address, or set of addresses
- email to a specific address, or set of addresses
- email that contains a specific word or phrase in its subject or body
- email has an attachment
Possible actions that can automatically be taken, based on these criteria, are:
- Skip the inbox, send straight to archive.
- Mark as read
- ‘Star’ the email, indicating importance.
- Apply a label that you have created.
- Forward the email to a verified forwarding address that you have set up.
- Delete the email
- Never send email with this criteria to the spam folder.
Once you have set up a filter, you can always modify it or delete it.
In our opinion, Google is the authority on making search engines that actually work. They give you the ability to search all of your email in seconds for keywords. You can also search for only unread messages, so that you don’t have to go digging through pages of old emails. If you want to do this, type into the search bar in Gmail: “label:unread”
Reply as multiple email accounts
I have a number of email accounts. In the past, I would have to take some care to reply from the same email account that I received the current email from. This is because sometimes if you sent a message for instance from Gmail to Hotmail, it would automatically be put in their spam folder unless the person had already sent you a message. I have four email addresses currently forwarding to my main Gmail address. One of these you can find on our contact us page.
One feature I absolutely adore in Gmail is the choice to automatically respond as the email address that people originally sent to. For instance, if one of you sends an email to firstname.lastname@example.org [Edit 2022: This account is no longer guaranteed to work], it will go to my main account. When I click ‘reply’, Gmail automatically sets it up so that it will reply as my visionofearth.org account. This means that I don’t have to pay close attention like I used to. I can ‘reply’ with impunity.
That said, it takes a tiny bit of work to set this up. In Gmail, click on the “Settings” link in the top-right of the page. Then click on the tab that says “Accounts and Import”. Then click on “Send mail from another address”. You can then follow the on-screen instructions to add an email address. You will need to have access to that email address in order to confirm that you own it.
Integration with Google products
Obviously Google likes it if you use their products. They do make some things that we find very useful. In short, we like their Calendar, Docs, News, Reader, Talk, and Maps. We find that overall these products integrate very well with each other. Obviously we find Docs to be particularly useful, since we had that entire section above dedicated to it. If Docs were not a possibility, our collaborative work would be much more difficult. It is entirely possible that if this were the case, VOE may not exist. At the very least we would have been hampered by our lack of tools.
Pidgin is a chat client that can make use of many chat networks. The ones that we use it for are Google Talk and Microsoft MSN Messenger, but it is capable of many more. If you want to get all of your instant communication in one place, this is the software for doing it.
This concludes our description of our major collaboration software. Now you know what technical tools we use to overcome the fact that our members are spread all around the world. If you are interested in tools we used to build this website, you can see our post on software used to create Vision of Earth.