Since around May 2010, any document created with Google Docs has contained a detailed edit history. Usually looking through them is limited to people with ‘edit’ permissions, but writer/programmer James Somers has changed that.
The tool is going to be incredibly useful for journalists, authors and nosey people alike. What’s really impressive is that it doesn’t just let you see the changes flying past in your browser. You can also generate embeds to share your finds.
Back in 2010, I wrote a long piece on Stuxnet for Wired UK. I dug out the original Google Doc that I composed the piece in and was able to watch how the edit came together.
The extension tells me that I made a total of 1,694 revisions to the version I’ve got still saved in my Google account. Here’s a section of it rendered as a Draftback embed:
The extension also generates a page of statistics about your edits. Here’s the activity timeline for the Stuxnet piece:
The data that Google stores is, as you might expect, kind of incredible. What we actually have is not just a coarse “video” of a document — we have the complete history of every single character. Draftback is aware of this history, and assigns each character a persistent unique ID, which makes it possible to do stuff that I don’t think folks have really done to a piece of writing before.
The playback feature is actually inherited from a hack by Etherpad – the startup the became Google Docs after it was acquired – built for Y Combinator’s Paul Graham, so he could show one of his famous essays being composed.
While it’s likely that some people will be creeped out by the discovery that sharing a Google Doc with someone means potentially letting them glimpse your writing process, I think Draftback is an incredible tool.
Now we just have to hope Google doesn’t decide to stop Somers’ creation from continuing to work its magic. Find out more about the story behind the extension and the technical detail in his very thorough blog post.
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