Creating in the cloud

Credit: Kevin Davis
Date:8 November 2013 Tags:, , ,

By Melanie Pinola

Online collaborative tools make working with others over the Internet easy, efficient and surprisingly fun.

Lennon and McCartney’s songs, Pound and Eliot’s poems, Hanna and Barbera’s cartoons – many of the world’s greatest works of art are the result of collaborations. But if the collaborators aren’t in the same room, working together on a project can be a hassle. If you’re sending material back and forth through the mail or e-mail you can end up with multiple versions of the same file, and plenty of confusion about who is doing what.

Recently, though, there’s been an explosion of new cloud-based services that let you do everything from basic document sharing to elaborate group music creation. Whether you use a specially designed Web site or app, or just a file-sharing site such as Dropbox, these tools all provide convenient access to project files or assets in one location, near-instant updates and notifications of changes, and control over who can contribute to or edit the files. And online communities allow you to tap into the expertise of people you may have never met. The tools are so abundant that the biggest challenge is selecting the ones that make the most sense for the project.

Because almost all online collaboration requires storing files in the cloud, the first thing you should do is grab as much free cloud storage as possible. Most services, including Dropbox, Box, SkyDrive and Google Drive, give a few free gigabytes – and sometimes as much as 50 – just for signing up. See “How to get a ton of storage” for strategies that will help you rack up the most gigabytes.

Set up a group Web site

Perhaps the most straightforward way to turn multiple people’s ideas into one cohesive whole is a group blog or Web site. Many years ago, a few of my friends and I used an easy tool to create a website for an independent movie we had collaborated on. Called Mambo, the now-defunct content-management system basically let us all be webmasters through a very simple interface. Our process worked like this: at the start, we decided what we wanted the site to do (showcase the movie and offer clips and a discussion area) and the kinds of pages it would have. After I created the templates for the main page and other sections, the other users could upload assets such as video clips and music files to the system’s shared storage space. We could all create or edit pages, but, as a fail-safe, there were only two administrator accounts.

Today, we would likely use a free, template-driven service, such as Moonfruit and Weebly. Because of the template styles they offer, these website-creation tools are best used when building an entire site, such as one for a movie or business, rather than a more blog-like page. The two services support multi-user accounts, and they also both operate under the freemium model, offering bonus features, such as site search and larger file uploads, for a fee. But the free versions have plenty of customisable templates. Weebly’s interface is a bit cleaner and easier to use, and Moonfruit offers slightly more control over page layout, but, overall, you’ll get essentially the same level of fine-tuning with either.

For a place to post straightforward photos, videos and text entries, you’ll be better served by a blogging service, such as WordPress, Google Blogger or Tumblr. These sites all have multi-author capabilities and administrator hierarchies, though the paid version of WordPress (found at wordpress.org) offers more control than the others. If you have a self hosted WordPress blog, you’ll need to use a multi-user plug-in such as Co-Authors Plus or Advanced Access Manager. One of the benefits of using plug-ins like these is you get more control over user rights and can set up editorial calendars, group commenting systems, and more.

The most collaborative platform of all is the wiki. With their almost infinitely malleable design, wikis are sites that let multiple people add, edit or delete sections from a simple browser-based text editor. They’re useful for creating a knowledge-based, community website or an internal, private site – anything for which the entire organisational structure of all the information on the site might have to change often. So, although a blog displays a chronological account of everyone’s contributions about a topic, a wiki’s treatment of a topic reflects the thinking of whoever last modified the text. The most famous wiki of all, Wikipedia, is a crowd-sourced encyclopaedia, but there are wikis dedicated to travel (Wikitravel), medical reference (Ganfyd) and even network names (Naming Schemes).

To start your own wiki, you could use a wiki hosting service (aka a wiki farm), such as MyWikis, which offers free, personal hosting using MediaWiki, the software behind Wikipedia. The DIY approach is to install your desired wiki engine, such as Media-Wiki or the compact TiddlyWiki, on your own server or computer.

Also, many Web hosting services come with a control panel where you can easily install programs on your site, including wiki software. Once they’re installed, all you have to do is grant people (or the whole world, if you wish) editing ability for your wiki. With so many cooks in the kitchen, so to speak, you can make sure your wiki stays organised and relevant by regularly discussing the wiki and its content with your team and by making sure someone is in charge of reviewing the wiki – maintaining style consistency and deleting out-of-date information.

Tell photo tales together

Being a webmaster may not be your thing; maybe photography is your passion. We all have photos to share with friends, family and colleagues. With the tremendous number of photo-sharing sites on the Web (Flickr, Picasa/Google+, Shutterfly, Snapfish, Instagram and Facebook, to name a few), the problem isn’t finding a place to share your photos online – it’s consolidating everyone’s photos and turning them into meaningful stories.

Avital Fryman, a multimedia specialist at a medical supplies company, works as part of a creative team that collaborates on photo presentations for clients. Both Fryman and his clients use a variety of consumer services, including SmugMug, Snapfish, Shutterfly and Flickr for their professional presentations. The same tools and methods Fryman uses can help with personal projects. For example, he uses the starring systems – which allow users to easily mark the photos they like – on sites such as SmugMug, Snapfish, Shutterfly and Flickr to let clients and other team members submit their choices of which photos to use for a project. Those stars crowd-source and simplify the task of selecting everyone’s favourite photos.

If everyone in your circle operates within Apple’s walled garden of devices and software, they can create a shared Photo Stream, which syncs photos through iCloud to iPhoto accounts and multiple iOS devices. With Photo Stream, various people can upload, and comment on, photos in the same stream. In general, I favour Flickr, which makes it easy to invite members to a group so they can upload their own photos directly to the site or via Apple’s iPhoto on Macs or Microsoft’s Photo Gallery on PCs.

After choosing the best photos, any of photos and turn them into a slide show with desktop software such as iPhoto or Photo Gallery. These programs let you add transitions, choose themes and put the whole thing to music. For those who prefer to stay in the cloud, Google’s Picasa can do all this, too.

Make music in the cloud

There’s nothing like recording in the studio with others, but you can still get great results over the Web (or even in the mail, as the aptly named band the Postal Service did in 2001, sending CD-Rs between Los Angeles and Seattle to complete an album bit by bit).

With specially designed music-sharing sites, you can avoid resorting to the Post Office. Some sites serve as central locations to which you can upload projects, leaving them for collaborators to work on, and other sites offer live online recording sessions – no need to rent a studio, clear out your garage or even ever meet fellow band members.

To tap into the energy and expertise of musicians online, join a service that’s specifically music-focused, such as Kompoz, Indaba Music, Scratch Audio or SoundCloud; upload a recording; and invite sidemen to contribute to it. Alternatively, you can browse open projects and submit your own tracks for possible inclusion.

If you already have a collaborator in mind, the simplest way to work together may be to use an online storage service such as Dropbox. Ben Fowler, a producer, composer and musician, describes the process like this: save an early draft of a track to a shared Dropbox folder, then your collaborator can record different tracks over it and save each separate stem (a grouping of specific musical elements, such as percussion or background vocals). You might edit or record new tracks based on what you hear, adding an instrument, for instance, or modifying what’s already there. Finally, piece the best of these snippets together into its full version. All the while, participating musicians can bounce ideas off each other through instant messaging or set up synced listening sessions via Skype. You can also upload versions to Sound- Cloud, where listeners can tag specific parts of songs with comments.

To collaborate with people you don’t know, try kompoz.com. Singer and guitarist Steve Bird, who goes by the alias chilled-Strings on the site, has collaborated on 33 songs since joining last May. Based in Melbourne, Australia, Bird has contributed tracks or started projects with members in Alaska, Idaho, the Netherlands and beyond, playing guitar, singing and mixing. He says the biggest attractions of sites such as these are the supportive communities and other members’ “pure desire to just make music together”, without pushing any commercial interests. Like other online music collaboration sites such as Scratch Audio and Hyped Sound, kompoz.com is both a social tool and an online work space for musicians. Members upload or download song tracks under Creative Commons licensing (so anyone can use and expand on the tracks) and comment on songs in progress.

If music is more than just a hobby for you, though, some sites can also help build a career through networking and more exposure. On Indaba Music, for example, artists upload their music for fellow musicians and record labels to notice. Winners of Indaba contests have recorded with Yo-Yo Ma, created a remix for Linkin Park, and, in Fowler’s case, worked with Grammy Award-winning producer Rob Fusari (the guy behind Lady Gaga and other stars).

As with Web site building and photo sharing, the main limitation in cloud music collaboration is analogue: how dispersed team members communicate about the shared project. Fowler recommends that, when seeking new collaborators on the Web, try to find like-minded people with similar creative styles, at least at first. As in the real world, one person will probably take the lead to get the project moving – and as in the real world, that’s just fine.

How to… Get a ton of storage

Before you dive into cloud collaboration, you’ll want online storage – lots of it. Snap up as many free accounts as you can, and keep your eyes peeled for limited-time deals, when sites offer as much as 50 GB just for signing up.

• Dropbox offers only 2 GB for free, but the service is so widely used and so useful, it’s worth getting an account or two.

• At the high end of the free-data spectrum are SkyDrive (7 GB) and Box (5 GB), both of which have been known to up    those offerings every once in a while.

• Manage all your cloud accounts in one spot with a service such as Otixo, which allows transfers between services but  costs about R400, or Jolicloud, which is technically free, but requires you to post about it on social media.