What Would it Take for You to Move to an Online Word Processor?

As we're coming up on an analysis of online word processors in my "Writing Technologies" class, I've been playing around a bit with Google docs. At the beginning of the semester, when drawing up the assignments for the course, I had planned to direct students to writely.com, but with the Google-ization of Planet Earth (gulp: there goes YouTube), it'll have to be Google Docs. (Well, that's not entirely true: I've linked to a few other options here.)

In writing a bit on/with Google Docs today, I got to wondering what it would take for me to move over to an online app for word processing. I now keep my (non-found) to-do lists at tadalist.com, my calendar at Google Calendar—so why not word process online?

Part of the challenge is that I get very attached to idiosyncratic elements in any software program. So, to move to Google Docs,

  • I'd want to know I wouldn't lose stuff any more regularly than I already do

  • I'd want to be able to use tables robustly, and to format those tables in at least as many ways as MS Word allows for

  • I'd want to be able to mail merge from at least one of my databases

  • I'd want an array of layouts, but mainly an accurate WYSIWYG view mode

  • I'd want fine (at least to .01) control over typographic measurements such as letter spacing, leading, and kerning

  • I'd want to be able to insert images that "stick" in place when text gets moved around

  • I'd want a robust track-changes capability

  • I'd want to be able to record audio comments on student work

  • and I'd want robust TOC capability for multi-chapter, multi-section documents

I want I want I want ...

I know, that might be a long list, but in many ways it's also a short list given every element one gets used to using on a daily basis.

I can't post a link here, but a grad student in our Graduate School of Library and Information Science has developed an online writing app with the ability to search linked databases for keywords in the author's online-word-processed text—so articles that match up are then immediately delivered to the author via links and pdfs right beside the writing window.

So this is to say that I think Google Docs (and other online writing tools) can transcend the paradigms of what we currently use, especially in the arenas of insta-research and collaborative composition, but moving out of the current shell always takes a deep breath and a bit of time.


  1. Anonymous6:36 PM

    I mostly use LaTeX so before I would use an online word processor, I would want it to have syntax highlighting and to know that it wasn't going to stick any random formatting in that I didn't put there on purpose. Tabs would be nice so I could keep all my files for a project open at the same time.

    If I were to use it all the time, I would need assurance that it really was privacy protected.

    I haven't really explored any of the options available, so maybe all these things already exist.

  2. Sounds cool, in theory, and after enough early adopters try it out, I'm sure I'll hop on board. In the meantime, though--and more nuanced and complex tech issues aside--every once in a while, one of the servers I need to access my online stuff--blackboard sites, my blog, etc.--goes down or just acts tempramentally. If that happens at the wrong time, it can ruin a morning, or even a day.

    At least MS Word always comes when I call.

  3. Syntax highlighting is essential, no doubt, and it would be nice to be able to specify syntactic structures w/ colors. I like the tabs idea -- we can call it Firefox(ian) composition.

    If only the online apps could give us more than what we're used to -- say, autommated tag browsing linked with composed text; so social networking linkages -- we might use them (at least at first) for certain purposes.

  4. Anonymous8:11 AM

    I'm surprised that your want list raises no concerns about privacy, which I see as the foremost disadvantage to online word processors.

    For instance, Google stores every little bit of information it knows about its users, and it "collates" information by IP address, so even if you clear and reset cookies before checking G-Mail and using Google Search each time, the company knows what your e-mail contains and can match it to what Web searches you run--and to what you type in a word processor. They then use databases to decide who you are and what to advertise to you.

    It doesn't seem particularly malevolent, but then keep in mind the AOL snafu this past summer where seemingly innocuous and seeimingly unidentifiable search information was inadvertently disclosed to the general public, and every bit of it pretty much was personally identifiable. Some poor old lady had done searches about underwear--imagine her horror being interviewed about those searches by the New York Times. Now imagine what you might write on an online word processor and what your interview with the New York Times might be like.

    Then keep in mind the FBI's insistance that Google and other search companies disclose search results for people running certain kinds of searches the FBI, in its inerrant wisdom, feels may indicate illegal activity.

    Reading the Google fine print when you sign up, you'll note that they can retain and analyze and use information about you based on what you type, and what you type on the Google word processor will never, ever go away. One innocent AOL-like snafu and one overzealous FBI investigation that threatens Google's billions will result in public or government disclosure of that old essay you wrote on legalizing pot, that list of inside jokes for your friends, that to-do list...

    What about "important" documents that you prepare for other people, or that others prepare for you? Do you really want your lawyer using an online word processor for your alimony settlement, do you really want your translator using one for your birth certificate or grade transcript? Think what could happen with the letter you had to your credit card company to dispute a charge, etc. ad nauseam.

    Oh, but what about simple essays, schoolwork, creative writing? Beyond what the FBI might love to do with someone's brainstorming, think of the potential for abuse in stealing other people's ideas, as well: robbing someone of their creative writing in development and publish it or copyright it.

    Even innocent use of the online word processor to "experiment" can be risky, since even the silly reckonings one might peck out to see how it works are, like everything else, stored and analyzed.

    This all would sound quite apocalyptic if we didn't already have examples of this kind of abuse already.

    The further potential for abuse is mind boggling. The privacy issues are very real and very alarming, and I cannot possibly imagine using an online word processor no matter who the host is, and certainly not Google.

    I personally would dissuade anyone from considering using this technology for the foreseeable future simply because it gives corporate entities and the government, no matter how innocently, too great and too direct an insight into one's life.


  5. Hey TT,

    Those are very real and well articulated concerns. They make me pause.

    But (perhaps in the interest of convo more than anything else), I can still see certain kinds of writing served by this kind of online writing environment -- real-time collaborative writing, say, or new forms of public discourse that reflect what we see in blog-writing but are somehow more revised/reconsidered.

    A lot of the writing many of us do is already online, archived, permanent (or semipermanent) -- this blog, for instance. Which, I suppose, is no real counter argument.

    The incorporation of and literal ownership over text by Google jibes with what we see in Facebook writing, where the corporation owns, archives, controls, and regulates the text.

  6. Anonymous10:26 PM

    I'm sure there will one day come along some open-source collaborative tool. I guess my concerns are less theoretical, less related to ways of communicating, than practical--ways of protecting privacy from an already intrusive commercial sector.

    Fortunately, as a translator, I do several hundred searches on Google and other search engines every day, on a variety of subjects (recently ranging from alimony settlements to 1970s slang for hashish, from nomenclature for parts of stone staircases to comparative hit frequencies on various vulgar terms for a woman's behind). The NSA must surely be confused.


  7. Funny search strings! Yeah: the privacy issue is a real one, making me think of moving to another calendar system, actually. :)