The New Generation of Organization

Webtrepreneur Kevin Nguyen explores the tools of Google Docs and other sites geared to manage your shared work projects and your life.

It’s a tragedy that Charlie and I only just started using Google Docs. This spring semester, we had been searching for a better way to study for our International Theory class, and only recently did we realize the power of collaborative note-taking. Now, for every chapter of textbook reading, one of us uploads our notes and the other edits anything that needs clarification.

Fellow Bureau writer Caitlin Boersma is one of the alternative music directors at Tacoma’s 90.1 FM The Sound. She keeps detailed, collaborative spreadsheets on Google Docs that track the CDs she and the other music directors have received and reviewed.

Google Docs is well-designed. The word processor has all of the basic features you’d expect in Word and allows you to save in a number of formats. I’ve only spent considerable time with the online word processor, but Google also offers knockoffs of Microsoft Excel and PowerPoint as well. Admittedly, the online word processor is still a far cry from the power of regular software, but for me, the greater lesson is how effective internet-based services can be when it comes to organizing my life. Considering this generation’s affinity for anything web-based, it may be the way we all organize our lives in the future.

Google instills a lot of goodwill in people. Their corporate image is playful (Google’s motto is “don’t be evil”), but most importantly, Google offers a handful of excellent free services. When Gmail made its debut on April 1, 2004, users thought the unprecedented one gigabyte of storage was an April Fool’s joke. It made a mockery of Hotmail, which at the time allotted an unimpressive two megabytes–more than 500 times less.

It’s also hard to deny how well Google has integrated all of their services. From your Gmail account, you can share your documents, calendars, RSS feeds, and photos. Oh yeah, and it’s also a pretty good search engine.

Still, Google isn’t the only player in the future of internet organization.

When Nick and I first launched The Bygone Bureau last summer, we managed everything through email. It was a messy system, so we tested out 37signals’s online project management tool Basecamp, which, since then, has been indispensable to running the site. Our plan costs $12 per month–obviously pricier than Google’s free services–but it’s never a bill we mind paying. We’ve been able to tailor Basecamp to our needs thanks to its simple, versatile design. Even our less technologically talented writers (see: Jeff Merrion) adore how easy it is to upload drafts and edits. Basecamp will even send a reminder for an article due date, which comes in particularly handy for our less deadline-conscious writers (see: Jeff Merrion).

I suppose the Bureau could operate solely through the sharing features of Google Documents, but it wouldn’t be nearly as efficient. Google Docs capabilities are too broad and lack the organizational structure of Basecamp, thanks to its sharp emphasis on making collaboration as intuitive as possible. As our schedules and work become online versions that can be accessed from anywhere in the world, we can look forward to the development of more services like Basecamp to create a future that is efficient and social.

Kevin Nguyen is a founding editor of The Bygone Bureau. His only marketable skill is an above-average knowledge of European geography. He has been useless since the introduction of the atlas in 1477. Reach him by email or follow his Twitter account.