Distant Mirrors and the LAMP
This is the text of the talk I delivered at the 2013 MLA Presidential Forum Avenues of Access session on “Digital Humanities and the Future of Scholarly Communication.” Slides (PDF) are available here. Comments welcome.
I attended my first MLA convention in 1996. I was a PhD student at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville at the time, and the MLA was just up the road in Washington DC. A bunch of us carpooled. Like many first time attendees, I had earnestly mapped out my convention schedule in the space provided at the front of the program. One session in particular stood out to me to me, premediated (as we now say) with arena rock-like production values: [SLIDE]
“The Canon and the Web: Reconfiguring Romanticism in the Information Age,” organized by Alan Liu and Laura Mandell, two names very familiar to contemporary observers of the digital humanities. [SLIDE] The Web presence you see here—one of those distant mirrors of my title—had been placed online months prior to the convention, on May 26th to be exact. As Liu commented in a recent email to me, “I am struck (as you are) by how fleshed out that panel site was.” There are animated GIFs and gratuitous tables, yes, but there is also an evident will to situate the session amid a thick contextual network (the links to associated projects, related readings, and relevant sites); there is a clear desire for interactivity, as expressed through the live email links and the injunction to initiate correspondence; and there is also a curatorial sensibility which seems very contemporary to me, [SLIDE] most notably through the “Canon Dreaming” links which take users to collections of materials assembled by Liu and Mandell’s students—certainly prototypes of what we would today realize through, say, an Omeka installation. [SLIDE] Finally, there were the participants, complete with links to email and home pages alongside the thumbnail bios, an obvious early instantiation of the ubiquitous user profiles we routinely create for social media services. The names here reflect many who have continued to be thought leaders and key practitioners in the space we now call DH, and they were a key element of the panel’s appeal.
The real backbone of scholarly communication at the time remained listserv email. There was a rawness to it. You subscribed and you were on, sometimes pending moderator approval, usually more for spam control than anything else. Once you were on, you posted. Or lurked. Or flamed. Or accidentally hit reply-all when you meant to backchannel. But you didn’t have to worry about how many followers you had or if you were popular or pithy enough to be retweeted. You didn’t have to ask someone else if you could be their friend in order to converse with them. Strange, down-the-rabbit-hole geographies of influence formed, where the mainstay of a list would turn out to be a graduate student, or an emeritus at an obscure institution in New Zealand.
[SLIDE] The starting point for any discussion of email in the digital humanities must be the venerable HUMANIST listserv, whose first substantive message [SLIDE] is time-stamped 14 May 1987, 20:17:18 EDT, from one MCCARTY@UTOREPAS. This is, of course, Willard McCarty, who still edits the list to this day. HUMANIST: the name itself reminds us of a time when it was hard to conceive of a need for more than one listserv serving the academic humanities, that most general of titles serving to distinguish it from, say the LINGUIST list, which came along in 1990.
Humanist remains active today, its digests delivered regularly to, I suspect, a number of inboxes in this room. [SLIDE] Some of you may also follow an account on Twitter dubbed @hum_comp. The owner of this account, who wishes to remain anonymous, [SLIDE] is chronologically culling the Humanist archives, starting with the earliest entries, for tweet-length tidbits that either seem quaint or remain relevant. “I was immediately struck,” said the account owner to me via email, “by how similar they sounded to the conversations I [have] been listening to, and tentatively engaging in in 2009/2010. . . [T]he early HUMANIST listers saw much clearer than I ever did in the 1980s and 1990s what the challenges and promises of humanities computing and communication really were, right from the beginning of an expansive networked communication.” Thus: [SLIDE] [SLIDE]
The longevity of Humanist notwithstanding, by 1998 it was clear that many of the scholarly listservs that had sprung up in the first half of the decade were already living out their use horizon. One of the lists that was important to me at the time was entitled H-CLC, which was part of the H-Net consortium. [SLIDE] The CLC stood for Comparative Literature and Computers. In late November, 1997 Nelson Hilton wrote to it: “A growing number of inactive lists, it seems, have folded their tents and disappeared into the electronic night after a ritual call into the void met with resounding stillness. Perhaps it is a sign of advanced maturity in the medium — novelty has long worn off and we return to work at hand. If a list speaks to that work, we pause and read, perhaps respond — otherwise, quite rightly, why bother?” (Mon, 3 Nov 1997 10:33:21) “A sign of advanced maturity in the medium,” Hilton mused. I remind you, this was 1997.
The next Great Migration was to the blogosphere. Even as the lists were folding, the blogs began to spin up, built on nascent social networking scaffolding in the form of blogrolls, comments, trackbacks, and RSS feeds. Blogs are still very much with us today of course, but these were the salad days. Not WordPress or Blogger but Movable Type. Remember MT? [SLIDE] Or maybe you hacked your own. Some bloggers seemed to exist only in the interstices, “comment blogging” as some of us called it, living out their online identities in the long trellis of text that dangled from the bottom of prominent postings. Group blogs were a particularly notable feature of the scholarly landscape, with venues like The Valve, Crooked Timber, Wordherders, and Cathy’s HASTAC becoming daily reads for many wired academics. [SLIDE] For me, the most important such experiment was GrandTextAuto, which for five or six years was host to numerous important and intense conversations in digital studies, electronic literature, computer games, procedural literacy, and what we nowadays call critical code studies and software studies. [SLIDE] Its “drivers,” who included Scott Rettberg, Nick Montfort, Noah Wardrip-Fruin, Andrew Stern, Michael Mateas, and Mary Flanagan, created an active and energetic user community, one with sufficient gravitas and presence to spur the MIT Press to use it as the platform for the open peer review of Wardrip-Fruin’s first monograph, Expressive Processing. Today when I hit the site I get this. [SLIDE] When I emailed Nick to ask for his thoughts he said this to me, among other things: “Those of us who started out as graduate students took on professorial and administrative responsibilities, and there was less time available to play gadfly, perpetrate April Fool’s jokes, and explore aspects of projects through online discussion — instead, we had to write grants, teach classes, supervise graduate students, and so on. So, the heavy burden of responsibility, growing up, and so on.” For my part, I think the rise of Twitter also had a strong impact on the vitality of the blogosphere, even though, as I’ve written elsewhere, blogs and Twitter co-exist with one another in powerful mutually enabling ways.
[SLIDE] Which brings me to the new MLA Commons, launching this weekend here at the convention. [SLIDE] The MLA announcement states that it is intended “to facilitate active member-to-member communication” and “offer a platform for the publication of scholarship in new formats”—language that echoes, among other early electronic exemplars, the Welcome message from the Humanist listserv so long ago. The MLA Commons is built out from the CUNY Commons in a Box package which is built on top of the BuddyPress extensions to WordPress which itself depends on the Linux-Apache-MySQL-PHP LAMP stack of my title, four bedrock open source technologies that all existed, but were in their infancy, at the time of that 1996 Canon and Web panel. Working from the distant and very partially mirrored history of online scholarly communication I’ve been sketching, there are a few propositions I want to leave you with.
First, access always engenders power. Power dynamics are built in to our social networking services at the most basic level—indeed, the ability to define and operationalize various strata of relationship functions—trust, visibility, reciprocity—is arguably at the heart of the read/write Web. [SLIDE] To wit: for the past few days my email inbox has been regularly populated by messages from “MLA Commons” with the subject heading “New contact request.” [SLIDE] I’ve accepted them all, including the ones from people I don’t really know, because the platform is new and my instinct is to err on the side of openness. But I don’t accept all Friend requests on Facebook (nor are all of my earnest solicitations accepted) and I don’t follow back everyone who follows me on Twitter even as I do follow people I’d give my eye teeth to have follow me—but alas, they don’t. As MLA Commons gains steam, at what point do the filters go up, to an extent replicating existing power dynamics in the profession? Do I accept contacts from everyone in my home department? Does someone with a convention interview send contact requests to members of a search committee? If they do, is it presumptuous? If they don’t, are they anti-social in the most literal sense? Do I accept all contact requests from those of a higher professional rank than me? Accept no contact requests from those of lower rank? Anyone who manages their relationships so coarsely is missing the point and very likely has life problems far greater than their facility with online social networking, but given that reputation metrics (whether in the form of Web 2.0 services like Klout or scholarly rankings such as the social sciences’ H-Index) are operationalized in the very marrow of our online media, including digital publications and citations, we’d be mistaken to believe that these concerns are extraneous or can be entirely sidestepped by any mature scholarly communications network. It’s not a reason not to have a Commons, but it is a reason to be mindful of the relational and procedural models built in to its fabric, especially given the varied technologies the end-user experience rests upon.
Access also always entails risk. [SLIDE] I have had a home page on the Web since the summer of 1995. [SLIDE] In 1997 I began writing my dissertation online, not quite “live,” more of a time-shift as I edited and managed different document technologies, but always posting the prose in full, not just excerpts. [SLIDE] My inspiration here was Harlan Ellison, who regularly wrote short stories seated in the window of community bookstores. In 1977 he did it for a full week, a story a day, in a Los Angeles bookshop. I recognized early on that the Web had the potential to be an even more perfect panopticon; no great stretch, but I was also in touch with enough of my baser instincts to understand that visibility and feedback the project seemed likely to attract would entice me and keep me going. Inevitably I was asked whether I was worried about people plagiarizing my work. Again, this was in the era before blogs, and indeed most middle-state writing online; the equivalent of the blog essay, or “blessay” as Dan Cohen has called it, was mostly confined to listservs and text files distributed via FTP drops—very different from the agora of an open Web indexed by even pre-Google search engine technology. My response to the question about plagiary was to invoke another literary authority, specifically Poe’s purloined letter. [SLIDE] Hiding my ideas in plain sight, I argued, was the single best way to get them into circulation and ensure the necessity of referencing and citing them (as opposed to merely swiping them). And for the most part, I was right. The experiment paid real professional dividends. It got my work an audience, airtime in front of the eyeballs I most wanted for it, and the work was judged usually though by no means universally favorably. More I could not ask for, and I carried the same ethos over into my blogging, which began in early 2003. [SLIDE] From the outset I blogged under my own name, and I wrote a response—a blessay, I suppose—explaining why when Ivan Tribble (remember all that trouble with Mr. Tribble?) penned a 2005 piece for the Chronicle of Higher Ed called “Bloggers Need Not Apply.” In the comments I asked others to weigh in with examples of the professional dividends their online identities and reputations had reaped, and I collected several dozen instances further testifying to the power of, as the title of Phil Agre’s classic text has it, “networking on the network.” [SLIDE] I got onto Twitter in 2006, again perhaps just ahead of the adopters’ curve. Nonetheless, I come before you today to say this: I have not blogged every good idea I have ever had. I have not tweeted every insight or reference or revelation. There’s stuff I keep to myself, or better, stuff I release strategically rather than spontaneously, and it will fall to all of us, on MLA Commons and elsewhere, to find our own personal and professional comfort zones regarding what we give out to our contacts and groups, the membership at large, the public at large. Access always entails risk, and while we know scholarship is not a zero-sum game, more tangible and no less sustaining forms of reputation and reward sometimes even often are.
Finally, access always requires time. One scenario, I suppose, is that our online interactions will eventually progress to the point that genre and platform dissolve. Our work becomes our discourse stream, and a comment, a tweet, a blessay, or a monograph will all become part of it, winding more or less tightly within and amid the equally interwoven discourse strands of others. Fuzzy mathematics measuring out influence, recognition, and trust will iterate and calculate in real-time as our conversations thrive, hum, surge, and falter in the collective hive. Rivals will wage guerilla flame campaigns across the endlessly reticulating strata of the network, their memes warring with one other, spawning algorithmic eddies and tides that will buffet entire fields and disciplines. Tenure, if it still exists, may be based on cycles of attention rather than the accumulation of publications—propagate or perish. But I don’t think so. For one thing, platforms are perhaps further from interoperability than ever; Bruce Sterling, for example, predicts that 2013 will be the year of silos and tactically burned and broken bridges. Genres may indeed fray around the edges, but in the end every comment, every sentence blogged and logged, every essay chapter finished and book published is a withdrawal from the finite bank of productivity that is shaped by our individual intellects, our irreducible bodies with all their vulnerabilities, our jobs, our responsibilities, our loved ones, our hobbies and distractions and vacations and time in the woods. [SLIDE] Which is to say that however much attention spans may be redefined and reconfigured—psycho-cognitively, neuro-chemically, and otherwise—most scholarly careers, for now and the foreseeable future, are still going to be measured out in fairly pedestrian ways, in the summer months and three-day weekends and that rare “empty” day during the semester, perhaps on fellowship or sabbatical if we’re lucky and privileged, often at the expense of an hour’s sleep or a movie with the rest of the family when we’re not. Our scholarly communications networks will either cohabitate with the myriad obligations of that ticking temporal complex, or they will lie fallow—most of us are too far out as it is, and not Google Waving but drowning.
So I would leave you with one final urging—that it’s not too soon for MLA Commons to be planning for its own planned obsolescence, or what Beth Nowviskie and Dot Porter have termed “graceful degradation.” Our social (and our scholarly) networks are ever more porous, but they have yet to become reliably portable. This is a problem. Relationship economies require enormous amounts of attention and investment, and for those of us who live active online professional lives, a non-trivial amount of time is devoted to cultivating and aggregating those networks in diverse, subtle, and not-so-subtle ways. [SLIDE] Many of you have seen your own online networks shape-shift across listservs, blogs, and now the newest social media platforms. Universal avatars, imported contact lists, these are stop-gap measures; more promising for the next phase of scholarly communication may be mature personal unique identifiers, [SLIDE] as promised by ORCID, a service that “distinguishes you from every other researcher and, through integration in key research workflows such as manuscript and grant submission, supports automated linkages between you and your professional activities.” I’m currently on Twitter, Slideshare, Zotero, Google+, Facebook, and DH Answers, to name just a few. I want to migrate and port not just my content but also my reputation and relations. Regardless of if or when the MLA Commons folds its tent and decamps into that vast electronic night—hopefully not for a great many attention cycles—what should endure are the relationships it fosters and the work thus performed, the “work at hand” as Hilton put it on H-CLC. [SLIDE] Thank you and yes, do join, and do send me your contacts.
University of Maryland