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The Case for Online Word Processors

The Case for Online Word Processors

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    It’s no secret I am a fan of online word processors — computing in the cloud is just the thing for a guy like me who (I’m told) is apt to find his head in the clouds as well. I’m writing this on Google Docs, and have made no secret of my love for Adobe’s Buzzword (which unfortunately seems to have some issues on the computer I’m using right now). Zoho Writer has gotten a little use from me as well.

    I was recently asked what the big deal was — why should anyone go online when there’s a perfectly good copy of Office, Works, WordPerfect, OpenOffice.org, Pages, WordPad, LaTeX, AbiWord, KDocs, or any of a multitude of other powerful, effective, and highly usable word processors available from the desktop? What advantage could a feature-limited online word processor possibly offer.

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    It’s a good question, and one that boils down as much to subjective factors as to any absolute benefits word processing online might offer. And it’s a question with as much relevance for the whole range of powerful Web 2.0 apps that have emerged over the last couple of years and which look set to dominate computing in the near-to-mid-future. Spreadsheets, image editors, presentation software, databases, and more are migrating online, and it’s reasonable to ask why, and to what end?

    What follows is my response to the question — the reasons that matter to me as an end-user of many kinds of online applications, particularly word processors. There may well be other, even better, answers to the questions online apps pose; at the same time, some of my reasons might not apply to everyone, or even to anyone other than me. But in the end, I think that my experiences aren’t all that unique, and while I might represent an extreme in some regards, the reasons that online apps work well for me will apply to at least a significant number of other people, if not most.

    Availability
    The main benefit of online word processors for me is their availability from any computer with an Internet connection. Since my schedule puts me in front of a number of different computers throughout the course of the day, and changes as well from semester to semester, I can’t count on being able to access the same software on one computer that I used on the last — and unfortunately, although most modern file formats can be read by any word processor, there’s always the risk of losing formatting, pagination, or fonts opening a document created in one program (or version) in another.

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    Using an online word processor means I have a standard format and interface from computer to computer — I don’t have to worry about whether the version of Word on this computer matches the one on the computer where I started my document, or whether I won’t be able to open it at all. I just log in to Google Docs or Buzzword and continue where I left off — as I am with this post, which I started writing in my office at the university and which I’m finishing on my netbook at home.

    Off-site storage/backup
    Another advantage of cloud-based word processors is that no matter what kind of trouble I get into, my documents are still safe and sound on servers hundreds of miles away. I can’t tell you how many thumb drives I’ve left in computers — or put through the washing machine. I’ve never done that with the Internet…

    The document storage online word processors offer gives me an excellent off-site backup for important documents, even ones I don’t create or work on online. I feel a lot better knowing that copies of my most important documents exist far away from my home, just in case.

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    Collaboration/Sharing
    When it comes to collaboration, most online word processors beat even the mighty Word, hands down. Documents can be worked on live, rather than emailing copies back and forth and trying to keep track of versions. More important, you don’t have to contend with Microsoft’s awful, awful, awful Track Changes (which isn’t to say other word processors do it much better…).

    Plus, most online word processors allow you to set various levels of permissions, so that you can offer read-only access to one group of viewers, full editing privileges to another, and the ability to add comments to a third. You can often post documents directly to the Web, too, which can be quite handy.

    User interface
    Finally, some online word processors just have good user interfaces. Google Docs is simple, streamlined, perfect for just opening a document and slapping some thoughts together. Adobe’s Buzzword, on the other hand, is simply gorgeous — it inspires me just to look at it. I wrote the first 10,000 or so words of my book, Don’t Be Stupid, on Buzzword just to keep using it!

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    It seems foolish to point to the way an app looks as an advantage, but I’d argue it’s a very real factor. Tools matter — ask any carpenter. Buzzword to me is like I imagine a finely forged chisel is to a woodworker — my fingers just itch to get to work. Google Docs is like a set of sturdy wrenches — nothing too fancy, but I know it gets the job done. While there are desktop-based apps that also feel quite good to use, the stripped-down interfaces of online apps seems especially well-suited to this kind of inspiration.

    So there you have it — four big reasons why I use online word processors, even when I have Office or some other program easily accessible. Like I said, there may be other reasons — and maybe you have reasons I haven’t thought of. Why not share your thoughts in the comments below?

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    Last Updated on July 17, 2019

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    What happens in our heads when we set goals?

    Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

    Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

    According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

    Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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    Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

    Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

    The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

    Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

    So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

    Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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    One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

    Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

    Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

    The Neurology of Ownership

    Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

    In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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    But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

    This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

    Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

    The Upshot for Goal-Setters

    So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

    On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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    It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

    On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

    But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

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    Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

    Reference

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