What are the major social/legal/professional stakes with sharing online?
Children “share” during “sharing time” at school: my mouse, mom, yo-yo trick. Academic bloggers share details about what is behind-the-scenes: my lunch, boss, anxieties. Sharing as inclusion of personal experience into public spaces where such information has been deemed inappropriate, off-limits, non-academic. Sharing at its juvenile and narcissistic best and worst. The risks are both obvious and gendered: an embarrassing myopia, a gross mis-step in propriety, a female fall into feelings. No professional wants to be treated like a child (or a woman). The risks are in vetting; the rewards come by way of expanded expression.
I have written in the I-voice as an academic from the beginning of my career, a conscious decision founded in feminist critiques of objectivity and authority, and a commitment to what has been called stand-point epistemology. The sharing of self as an overt attack on impartiality, expertise, “the God-trick.” My I-voice always incorporates aspects of my lived identity (including being an academic); where, when and why I am writing; and overt indications of my beliefs and commitments. This sharing of the self and the personal is both theoretical and political. It imagines an academic writing that is important to social justice movements and their communities of readers.
Unlike in academia-proper, when we write online as academics we enters a domain where the I-voice is the vernacular. I write in the I-voice here not to shatter but to share norms. By sharing the sharing vernacular of the place, my intention is to model, in form and within the Internet, the kind of complex and feeding culture I want it to be. Of course, when I “share” online, this is always a performance. This is sharing as style and even as a form. I only show as much as I’m ready to expose.
In Learning from YouTube, I also shared via this word’s feminist, collaborative connotations: the dispersing of authority, the distribution of authoring, a circulation of voice between myself and every-day YouTubers and my own students. This is an ethics of sharing. The risks are again in vetting (who wrote that?; what if parts of it aren’t “good”?) and legality (how do you write a contractfor a piece of writing much of which is not your own?) Rewards are self-evident: the joy of collaboration, the ability to expand your possibilities beyond your own knowledge and skills, the promise of political and personal connection.
Image on front page by London Art and available on Flickr.
Writing on his Occupy 2012 blog, Nicholas Mirzoeff begins a post on Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s ‘Declaration’ in ‘the manner of Derrida in Limited Inc., … with the inside matter’. He does so to tease the authors of Multitude and Commonwealth for having published their pamphlet on the global social movements of 2011 using a ‘Copyright…All rights reserved’ license. ‘For a project about commoning, wouldn’t a copyleft or Creative Commons license be more appropriate?’, Mirzoeff asks. ‘OK, it’s only 99 cents on Amazon but you have to have a Kindle-friendly device: why not just put out a free PDF?’
No doubt, for many, there is indeed something hypocritical about radical theorists and philosophers advocating a politics of the commons, commoning and communism, yet letting little of this politics impact on the decisions they make regarding their own work, business, role, practices and actions as authors. And all the more so when a good number of them end up supporting ‘feral’, profit-maximising corporate publishers as a result, despite the wide range of more commons-orientated and politically radical alternatives that are available. (Hardt and Negri brought out ‘Declaration’ with Amazon, who are included on the list of privately-owned companies that aggressively avoid paying the standard rate of 26% corporation tax in the UK, along with Apple, Facebook, Google and Informa plc, parent company of both Taylor & Francis and Routledge.) Yet what’s so interesting about the question of the social/legal/professional stakes of sharing online, is the potential it contains to raise the ante for theory and philosophy even higher than Mirzoeff’s comments on ‘Declaration’ ‘as a form of copylefting’ - which he hopes ‘isn’t just a cheap shot’. For would addressing this question rigorously and responsibly not require us to also pay close critical attention to some of the ideas and practices that many initiatives associated with online sharing and the commons have themselves taken too much for granted, repressed, ignored, or otherwise relegated to their margins: ideas and practices to do with authorship, subjectivity, originality, the text, the book, intellectual property, copyright, piracy, and even the human?
To illustrate what I mean as far as the author, originality, and the human are concerned, let’s take as an example Graham Harman’s Prince of Networks. This book is published on an open access basis by re.press using the kind of Creative Commons license that would presumably be considered by some to have been more suitable for ‘Declaration’. In Prince of Networks, Harman extends and develops an earlier account of ‘The Importance of Bruno Latour for Philosophy’, in which he presents Latour as having given us ‘possibly the first object-oriented philosophy’. Harman does so on the grounds that ‘there is no privilege for a unique human subject’, for Latour. ‘Instead, you and I are actants, Immanuel Kant is an actant, and dogs, strawberries, tsunamis, and telegrams are actants. With this single step’, Harman writes, ‘a total democracy of objects replaces the long tyranny of human beings in philosophy’. However, even though Prince of Networks is available open access, that doesn’t mean a network of people, objects or actants can take Harman’s text, rewrite and improve it, and in this way produce a work derived from it that can then be legally published. Since Harman has chosen to publish his book under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND licence, any such act of rewriting would infringe his claim to copyright. This applies to both the right Harman wishes to retain to be identified as the author of Prince of Networks, and to have it attributed to him precisely as a unique human subject; but also to Harman’s right of integrity, which enables him as a singular human being to claim the original ideas its contains as his intellectual property, and which grants him the privilege of refusing to allow the original, fixed and final form of Prince of Networks to be modified or distorted by others, be they humans or objects.
Granted, there’s probably no quick or easy way of responding to this raising of the stakes for theory and philosophy. To be fair, such social/legal/professional blindspots are far from confined to Hardt and Negri, Harman, or Latour for that matter, who likewise continues to act as if he is a modern in this respect, even as he insists we have never been modern. In fact, oversights and elisions of this kind affect the majority of those theorists and philosophers who are currently attempting to replace the tyranny of the human with an emphasis on the nonhuman, the posthuman, the inhuman and the multi-scalar logics of the ‘anthropocene’. Thanks to the way in which they, too, have responded to the issue of the social/legal/professional implications of sharing – whether it’s on a ‘Copyright…All rights reserved’ or Creative Commons basis - such ‘post-theory theories’ and philosophies continue to be intricately bound up with the human in the very performance of their attempt to think through and beyond it.
Be that as it may, the high stakes raised by your survey question remain - for hopefully this post, too, is more than merely a cheap shot. So let me close with a question that’s also an exhortation: How as theorists and philosophers can we perform our work, business, role and practices differently – to the point where we might actually confront, think through and assume (rather than marginalise, repress, ignore or take for granted) some of the implications of sharing online for our ideas of authorship, subjectivity, originality, the text, the book, intellectual property, copyright, piracy – and, indeed, the human?
At an American Studies Association conference a few years ago, I was making a pitch for open access in the humanities when an older man stood up and gave one of those questions/sermons charged with disagreement. The gist of his commentary: If scholars give their work away, don’t they devalue it? I argued that openly available work could have more value because it is more visible and could be more easily built upon by others, but he continued to insist that there should be a price tag attached to academic work. This encounter demonstrated to me that not everyone embraces academic sharing, and that giving can come with costs (perhaps especially if my interlocutor happens to be on your tenure committee).
Of course, we give away some of our most valuable goods: our love, our time, our attention, our opinions. But in doing so, we gain: love, purpose, learning, and insights. As Thomas Jefferson noted, sharing ideas resembles a flame passed from one candle to another, so that “He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine.” But Jefferson also acknowledged that people might need “the embarrassment of an exclusive patent” so that they can personally profit from sharing and thus be encouraged to do so. Not sharing also has a cost—in invisibility, in standing apart from the community and the common good. And that gets to the heart of the matter: what do you give up and gain by sharing?
I would argue that sharing energizes and shapes a community, whether we share ideas, the burden, or credit. What attracts me to the digital humanities community is its ethic of sharing, whether by adopting open source software and Creative Commons licenses or exchanging ideas via Twitter and other social media. Digital humanists understand the power of open networks to connect people, as well as the need for access to data, tools and a community in order to do their work. But of course sharing is not some new-fangled notion preached by techies; scholarship depends on and aims at the free exchange of ideas.
Although I have been marking up texts and building digital collections since 1997, I feel like I didn’t really become a full member of the digital humanities community until I started to blog in 2007. Blogging motivated me to pursue questions that interested me and gave me visibility and fast feedback. As a result of my blog, I received invitations to speak and contribute to collections like this one. As I noted in 2009, making your work openly available "is good—and good for you."
In starting up the Digital Research Tools (DiRT) wiki (with the help of a group of editors), I thought that it only made sense to share. As I was collecting information about a range of tools that support digital scholarship, I wondered why not increase its value by giving others access and encouraging them to offer their own knowledge? I was struck by how readily people like Dan Cohen and Alan Liu got in touch to share their tool collections. Sharing paid off, as DiRT has grown beyond what I could have imagined and is nurtured by a great advisory board.
Yet I realize that as an alt-academic, someone not confined by tenure requirements, it’s easier for me to share. Although sharing is at the heart of what we do as scholars—creating, transmitting and preserving knowledge—academic culture and legal restrictions can stand in its way. Many humanists—and I include myself in this group—resist sharing until their ideas are perfectly polished, forgetting that the point of scholarly discourse is to contribute to an ongoing conversation, or to start a new one. By sharing, you get much faster feedback on your ideas. In an early blog post, I wondered at what point I should share. Was it OK to throw out half-baked ideas into the blogosphere? In a blog comment, Jean-Claude Bradley, one of the leaders of open notebook science, gave me great advice: just be clear about how provisional your ideas are. (I never would have received this advice if I hadn’t shared my uncertainties publicly.) Another obstacle to sharing is the perverse academic reward system, which seems to judge work not as much for its contribution or impact as on the prestige of the venue in which it is published—often one that requires readers or their sponsoring institutions to pay for access. Legal barriers also limit sharing. There’s a reason that much work in digital humanities focuses on pre-1923 material: copyright. You can’t share what others claim ownership of—nor can you fully make use of it, even if much of this material is part of a common cultural heritage. Of course, there are also ethical reasons that circumscribe sharing, particularly privacy. I typically don’t want to share information if doing so could jeopardize someone else. Despite these barriers and cautions, though, I think academics should share in order to participate in the scholarly community, do social good, and increase the impact of their work. The payoffs of sharing usually outweigh potential costs, and the value of scholarship shines through when it is shared.
Participating actively in sharing our work online is often not only something we want to do, but something we feel compelled to do if we want to keep up with the steady stream of scholarly engagement. We may meet face-to-face at conferences, but the internet allows us to keep conversations going, to make acquaintances, to test out ideas, and to become an active part of scholarly communities.
But as this survey question suggests, this type of online engagement carries with it the potential for particular professional, personal, and legal consequences. One important professional consequence to consider is the perceived value of the work we do online as it pertains to our case for tenure. As junior faculty members, the allure of joining scholarly communities online is often clouded with concern that our labor in these spaces won’t be considered suitable for inclusion in a tenure file, leaving us questioning whether such participation is a good use of our (limited) time. I’ve spoken with many junior faculty colleagues about this tension—the belief that work online is enjoyable, valuable, productive, and important contrasting with worries over whether senior colleagues judging our cases down the line will agree.
I admit that this winter, when I submitted my end of year report to my dean, I was unsure how he would respond to some items I included under “Scholarly Engagement”: I started up a (vibrant at over 350 members) Facebook group for those interested in discussing teaching media, I co-edited an online dossier of materials on teaching (with) social media for Cinema Journal, I posted two pieces at Antenna. Would he agree that this was compelling and sufficient scholarly engagement for my first semester at the college? In my case, he did. I feel very fortunate that my institution, my dean, and my senior media studies colleague are all committed to encouraging and rewarding work in the digital sphere. I feel supported in doing the work I feel passionately about, and have gotten confirmation that activities related to digital pedagogy are worthwhile at Austin College. Nonetheless, I think it’s useful to consider some strategies for making the case for online work compelling to administrators and colleagues.
- Weave a narrative around the work that you do online. Explain why you think such work is important and significant to you and your research goals. For example, in my report I explained that I use Antenna posts as a method of testing out new research before engaging in it more fully.
- Make a case for the impact such work has on your teaching. I pointed to specific queries I had made and suggestions I had encountered on the Facebook group that directly affected my work in the classroom.
- Demonstrate the way online scholarship parallels traditional scholarship. The co-edited dossier I worked on was essentially the same as a printed dossier, but the online publishing format allowed for easy embedding of links and materials, which actually enriched the finished product. Make the similarities (and advantages!) clear for colleagues who may be unfamiliar with new publishing possibilities.
- Document, document, document! If your blog posts have received a large number of pageviews or trackbacks, if you know that your work online has been used by others in their classes or research, or if far-flung colleagues mention your work in their work—document it and include it as part of your case. In my report, I mentioned that Amanda Ann Klein included my Facebook group as part of her end-of-year roundup of favorite uses of social media. It’s not an official award, but it demonstrates that other media scholars see value in the work.
- As a corollary to the last point, help one another out by informing colleagues if you’re using their work in the classroom or praising it publicly. Be outspoken and vocal about the value of work in the online sphere, and help to improve the profile of work of this type at your institution and beyond.
Image on front page by the Italian voice
I'd like to focus on the stakes of sharing academic blog posts and papers online.* In academic writing, blog posts aren't considered CV-worthy publications because they aren't peer reviewed and because they are perceived as informal. Rather, writing blog posts garners the author attention, connections, and possibly fame. What happens when an author wants to submit a blog post to an academic journal? As coeditor of the academic journal Transformative Works and Cultures, I helped create policies for submission of previously posted material. Full text readily available online usually means that the scholarship can't be submitted to a journal—any journal, not just TWC.
The reasons for this are mostly practical. The major reason has to do with clear copyright. Most academic journals, including TWC, have the author transfer the copyright to the journal. However, if the article has appeared online previously in substantially the same form, then who holds the copyright? Does the author hold it, because it appeared first in her blog? Sure, she can remove the content when she submits, but the Wayback Machine never forgets. Then there's reprint rights. Most journals charge $30 a pop for reprints. If someone can get the paper for free online, then the journal can't make money. Journals in particular want original content that can't be obtained elsewhere for free; exclusivity of targeted, vetted content is what drives readers to them. Then there's revision. Published papers go through a rigorous quality control process. The existence of an unedited version just means there's another version floating around that isn't identical to the final corrected version. Obviously the fully revised version ought to be the master copy.
Authors can take a few steps to make sure they can submit their papers to a peer-reviewed journal. If an academic conference wants to put the full text of the paper online (like Media in Transition does), then the online version of the paper ought to be completely rewritten for submission to a journal, and the cover letter to the editor of the academic journal ought to disclose the existence of the online version. The submitted paper needs to be substantially different than what appeared online. What does "substantially" mean? Usually the author has to make the case. In this sort of situation, I advocate focus: the focus of the conference paper ought to be the conference topic. When rewritten as a full-on paper for submission elsewhere, the topic may be broadened, and of course the paper will be longer. The main thesis may remain the same. The construction of the argument and the level of support will be different. If authors want to blog versions of the paper to get feedback, they ought to password-protect the post so the text won't show up on Internet searches. Authors could also post much shorter, probably hotlinked but otherwise academic-work-unsourced, versions of their ideas.
Some scholars feel strongly about open access and want to be able to hold onto copyright so they can disseminate their work as they like. That works fine for authors who are well published, famous, and/or have a relationship with a reputable press that will publish work when someone else holds the copyright, but alas, not everybody is Lawrence Lessig. Scholars who attempt to hold onto copyright when submitting to traditional outlets are more likely to be rejected simply because of the bureaucratic hassle. Such scholars are better off researching open access publication options. Most people, especially junior scholars, are hustling to get published and don't have the prestige or connections to get special exemptions.
Much of what I've written provides the rationale for why those in the publishing industry don't like to work with readily available online material: it creates confusing copyright issues, it affects their income stream, and it suborns the editorial and editing processes. But really a larger issue is at stake—an issue I don't have any answers for: what is the role of informal writings and musings within scholarly discourse? Is it part of the process of groping toward an idea, or perhaps toward a consensus with respondents? Is it a way to air questions? This was less of an issue when conference papers were delivered orally at academic meetings—there was no long-term physical record. How can we have a dynamic conversation in an era of persistence?
* Some disciplines, notably those in the scientific, technical, and medical market, make preprints available, or make available unedited versions of papers that are currently going through editing and production. Aside from certain instances of open peer review, as at MediaCommons, this is not (yet?) the case in the digital humanities.
When it comes to scholarship, pedagogy, and service—the three pillars of the professoriate—I am a staunch supporter of open access and the ideal of an intellectual commons that we can all learn from, discuss and critique, and build upon. But I recently had an unsettling experience that’s made me question my assumptions about making so much of my life public.
My experience played out against the milieu of Twitter, where I’ve been active for over five years. My Twitter stream is comprised of digital humanists, electronic literature creators and theorists, videogame studies folks, and a hodge podge of writers and publishers in the humanities and beyond. My tweets run the gamut from thoughts about teaching to jokes about higher education to comments about current events. I also tweet about the balance between my professional and personal life, a balance that is a struggle to maintain, given that I commute several hundred miles every week. Occasionally, I find myself growing bored with Twitter and I play around with the medium itself. I think many of my online friends know this about me: I like to toe the line between seriousness and playfulness, and if I ever appear to be making things up, I probably am. That’s my Twitter persona.
On January 25, 2013, I began tweeting about what was supposed to be a routine commuter flight from Washington-Dulles International to my home in Charlotte, North Carolina. My tweets grew increasingly frantic though, as I began detailing an emerging, mysterious disaster. Over the course of the next few days I continued this narrative, which eventually wound up with my interrogation at the hands of a strange foreign agent. And finally, after four days of such tweets, following the release of a murky video to my family, my Twitter account disappeared. Poof! I was gone.
Of course, the whole story was made up. Or, mostly made up. It was true that I had been stranded for a time in Dulles that evening and really was concerned about making it home in time for my son’s birthday. The character of John was based on a real ticketing agent as well. But the disaster story was made up, which many of my readers recognized at the time. The culminating deletion of my Twitter account was very real though. It was a fitting resolution to my harrowing account of captivity and apparent escape—a mic drop as one of my followers put it.
I had planned the whole thing for a while. In fact, my Dulles disaster continued a story I had begun three years earlier, a thread I was thrilled some of my forensic-minded followers picked up on. And—truth be told—the story is not done yet. There is a third part, though when it will appear I cannot say. But it is planned.
After I deleted my Twitter account is when the unexpected and unsettling event happened.
Actually, two events. One offline and one on. First, someone whom I knew only in passing but who had been concerned that my Dulles tweets were not entirely fictive had tracked me down on campus, in real life. As I headed into my classroom to teach, the person was waiting there, outside the room. The person’s intentions were clearly to make sure I was okay, but I felt that a line between my Twitter persona and my real life identity had been blurred. What had begun as a tightly scripted story about paranoia and conspiracy had leaked into my daily life.
The second event occurred solely online. I had planned on remaining absent from Twitter for three weeks, time enough for a sense of finality to settle around my story. At that point I was intending on reactivating my Twitter account. (Twitter allows you to resuscitate a deleted account if you do it within 30 days of deletion.) But then, just days after deleting my account, a slew of Twitter accounts cropped up in my name, and if not exactly in my name, then in my image. Furthermore, these accounts appeared to be continuing the story of my captivity. Leonardo Flores has done a good job documenting these various apocryphal accounts (he found a total of nine accounts that purport to be me).
So this is it: my Twitter persona had been hijacked. The story I had planned for years had been hijacked. Plundered. Derailed. Even worse, because of my reputation for playfulness online, nobody wouldn’t believe these accounts weren’t me. I was devastated when I discovered the first of these accounts, and that devastation was swiftly followed by a feeling of disbelief and shame at my own reaction. I’m always going on and on about remixing this and mashing up that and the thrill of unexpected uses of your work and then when it happens to me I cry foul.
And I did cry foul, or as near as one can on Twitter. I filed several “impersonation” reports with the service, a surprisingly retro bureaucratic procedure that had me faxing a copy of my driver’s license to Twitter. Each of the three cases I reported were dismissed, the official response being that “Twitter users are allowed to create parody, commentary, and fan accounts” (See screenshot below).
So the accounts in my name and with my avatar were not impersonating me so much as they were fan responses? I am gratified to think that I might have “fans,” except that no matter how much I protest—or because I protest?—that these account are not me, many people believe that they are.
The “Never Cry Wolf” irony of the situation (I have, I must admit, created fake Twitter accounts that I have denied ownership of) is not lost on me. And there’s an additional layer of irony in that what academics commonly fear when it comes to sharing their work online—that someone will steal it and publish it under his or her own name—is the exact opposite of what happened to me. Somebody else was supplying the work, and I only supplied the name. I was the byline to someone else’s story.
That’s what sharing online gets you. Share enough of your personality and you’ve given the world a blueprint to be you. And you’re not even that interesting.
In the end I have decided to surrender any pretense of control I have over my online persona. Or rather, I have come to recognize that there is a persona I control, but there are offshoots out there as well, like the non-canonical Never Say Never Again to my official Octopussy. We coexist. Maybe we even merge a little. It’s the social media update to the Turing Test: if a status update consistently tricks other people into thinking that it’s you, then it might as well be you. So I—and we—continue to share online, creating a commons, being common, until one of us once again does the uncommon.
Consequence number one— being reduced to public ranting about piracy despite being intellectually all about creative commons and open source. Apparently I’m a stone cold capitalist at heart when my work is shared. Rationally, I know piracy isn’t really lost sales – the files were only downloaded because it’s “free stuff” grabbed from the internet. I should just ignore those piracy alerts if I want to stay calm.
Consequence number two– public mind-howling fury about plagiarism. Not so very different than ordinary academic disdain for it, right? But I discovered a whole new level of rage when I saw my work presented for academic credit and for publication.
Consequence number three – running the risk of not keeping your cool and sense of humor on-line. No one may know if you’re a dog on the Internet, but they surely do know if you’re a noodle-brained, rage-filled, control freak.
Had my work not been available online, these instances wouldn’t have happened. I shan’t go as far as having a Luddite spasm, but having been pirated and plagiarized, I found my brain and gut were seemingly at odds with each other. There was nothing intellectual or thoughtful about my response to seeing files of my writing listed at a bit torrent site. I wanted to puke. Our reaction to our work being shared varies according to the context — well, sure, and, duh, right? What I didn’t expect was how hardwired my reactions would be based on a flash determination of the context. My body reacted to the number of accesses – no processing needed to know that this wasn’t a good thing. The volume meant it wasn’t sales and it certainly wasn’t citations. Hard as I try to be thrilled that so many people wanted my work enough to download it, my gut still says: stole, not shared.
I would thrill if only a dozen copies of a journal article or paper I wrote were shared – but, of course, that marketplace is different. Our currency here is the trading of our thinking. We want our ideas to spread – so long as our name is attached. Being plagiarized stung more than being pirated. Briefly, a very unlucky student handed in copies of my own writing to me for a grade (now there was the mother of all teachable moments), and an equally unlucky writer drew me as a reviewer.
Parsing my reactions revealed that I am, when the chips are down, on the side of The Man. None of this information wants to be free, embiggening of the commons stuff. Intellect aside, I felt used. My work, ideas, imagination – the kidnapped root of plagiarism never felt truer. And here is where I think the word sharing has been coopted and devalued. I do share my work. Had the plagiarized work been offered as fan fic, would I have cared? No, in fact, on the rare occasions that I’ve been asked, after being toe-twistingly flattered, I do give permission, and brag that my writing is a playground for others.
My attitude and thinking about ownership have been radically shaken up in the last few years of my digital existence. My academic and fiction careers are only possible because of on line sharing. Yes, sharing on line leads to risks of our ideas being no longer ours to control and profit from, but this was always true. It’s a cliché by now to say that the InterTubes have magnified and writ large our activities, and for me what they have mostly increased is the risks and stakes of revealing my personality to others. My work – it can stand for itself, and I will fight for it too — but the real stakes are personal and reputational.
A major stake is the condition of the very fiber of the woven web itself. The Web (can you remember when it needed to be fully phrased as the “World Wide Web”?) is the grandest experiment in global collaboration, or as Clay Shirky described it in Here Comes Everybody, it is "living in the middle of the largest increase in expressive capability in the history of the human race."
Sharing is multifaceted in sharing of content and property versus the inter-connectivity of information, data, but most importantly, the sharing of ideas. My students still enter creative classes with a mindset of "someone might steal my _______ and make money off it". Our defaults are not open. For social media sites like Flickr, on new accounts the default license is All Rights Reserved or Google image search where it takes multiple clicks to search for content licensed for reuse.
Colleagues are reluctant to share unfinished work or nascent ideas for worry of the same or a concern of releasing less than scholarly. I see much head nodding to the mantra of not putting anything online which could tarnish a career. Embarrassing photos where common sense ought to prevail notwithstanding, the converse of this suggests our online personas show zero flaws, not one imperfection (some suggest the name of this place is "Facebook").
It's the aversion to sharing of ideas that worries me. The value of an ongoing, shared narration of the work we do suggested by Jon Udellremains a fringe activity among academics. Mingling of ideas in the shared space is the potential energy of innovation; or as David Wiley frames it, “openness facilitates the unexpected.”
Let's reflect on the concept of the web proposed by Tim Berners-Lee. His earlier hypertext system, Enquire, so stressed the importance of the link that no node of information could not exist without being linked first from something within the space. What emerged as the open web is not only the connection of information, but echoes back to Doug Engelbart's augmentation of human intellectas the means of solving our most complex problems:
The dream behind the Web is of a common information space in which we communicate by sharing information. Its universality is essential: the fact that a hypertext link can point to anything, be it personal, local or global, be it draft or highly polished. There was a second part of the dream, too, dependent on the Web being so generally used that it became a realistic mirror (or in fact the primary embodiment) of the ways in which we work and play and socialize. That was that once the state of our interactions was on line, we could then use computers to help us analyse it, make sense of what we are doing, where we individually fit in, and how we can better work together.
Sharing via social media and content curation have connective value, yet now, as much as before, we need creators of content and ideas; we all ought to be makers of the web, not just passengers. This is a foundation of ds106 the open digital storytelling course I currently teach online at the University of Mary Washington (UMW).
Running on open source technologies, ds106 is not backed by venture capital or foundation money; in fact it was supported by the community it serves via a 2011 Kickstarter campaign.
And ds106 is not only open as in anyone can enter; everything in it is outwardly open back to web it is part of. As a syndicated network of individual publishing spaces, ds106 mimics the very fabric of the web itself.
The class of registered students I teach at University of MaryWashingtonare given and manage their own personal cyberinfrastructure- a concept promoted by Gardner Campbell and made concrete this year at UMW as a Domain of Ones Own. A student’s work is theirs, not the institution's, to shape and take with them. It is not a templated portfolio, it reflects the design and expression of an individual. Beyond learning how to create media such as animated GIFs, audio, video, remixes, ds106 students are weaving new web fabric— the connective tissue type.
The challenge is helping students step out of their learned assignment mindset and focus on the end product. "Here's my assignment" is how many of them start out, seeing their sites as some sort of drop box. No, we want them to narrate the process, to write why they chose the assignment, what it means to them, to connect to what is relevant, to tell what the story is— and to share how they made it. I ask them to share the equivalent of DVD extras, even out takes.
Perhaps what might illustrate the fabric of the web as being one of sharing is a small story of how ds106 and the open web work. Colleague Jim Groom shared via twitter a Brain Pickings post describing the idea of six word visual memoirs. As we use the concept of the six word story as an exercise of creativity in a limited medium, Jim added it to the ds106 assignment bank- an open space where ds106 participants have created over 500 creative activities, now expanded by one with the Six Word Memoirs design assignment.
Stefanieis a ds106 open participant from Germany: we don't know why she participates nor her intentions in the course, but our site tracks the links to all of the work she has been doing, following the assignments for my class at UMW.
Her creation for the six word visual story, Creating Life, elegantly mixed analog paint and digital editing, but it was the story she wrote with it that emphasized her message:
How would you tell your life’s story if you could only use six words?
This is the question which was asked in the ds106 assignment “Six-Word memoir”.
Yesterday I came back home right from a talk with a German official and they directly told me to rather give up hope to ever have a job in the creative professions. They want me to sell things or to work in a warehouse or maybe clean up other peoples dirt. I would die. I was just sad about this talk.
However, this was the right moment to create what is deeply true for my life.
Isn't this quite a bit more than an "assignment"? I was moved to shared it with Brain Pickings author Maria Popova. I do not know her, but found her contact info and sent an email message:
Your post on Six Word Memoirs inspired me to use as an assignment in an open course on digital storytelling. It reaches over the waters to an open participant in Germany who did the assignment writing with it:
Yesterday I came back home right from a talk with a German official and they directly told me to rather give up hope to ever have a job in the creative professions. They want me to sell things or to work in a warehouse or maybe clean up other peoples dirt. I would die. I was just sad about this talk.
However, this was the right moment to create what is deeply true for my life.
I'm sure your work reaches many people, just wanted to share one more story.
From a thankful reader
In 30 minutes Maria replied:
Oh Alan, what a wonderful story — thank you so much for putting a smile on my day!
Waving from Brooklyn,,
This is the nanoscopic but powerful sharing fabric of the open web- distributed, individually contributed, bending back, linking upon itself.
It's this potential for human connection not otherwise possible that is at stake, the very web fabric that can easily fray and disintegrate if we do not care for it, if we do not continue to be doing and cultivating the making of the web.
We are used to hearing “sharing” equated with “stealing” thanks to ongoing entertainment industry efforts to make it harder to share intellectual property online. What’s at stake from this perspective are the three Cs of control, careers and cash. These stakeholders have a point – if it’s true that people stop buying when they can download for free, then there is less money going into the coffers of the industry and the people who create the cultural materials we enjoy, and there are fewer jobs for the many people involved in their creation, distribution and sales. But that’s a big “if.” The data are pretty clear about control - audiences do have more power over distribution than ever before, though the entertainment industries remain exceedingly centralized. It is also clear that careers in some industry sectors are being lost, although one hears little about how those losses compare to the gain of new careers created through hundreds of online businesses such as Netflix and Spotify. The data are less clear on cash. It’s hard to draw an evidence-based line of direct causality between file sharing and revenue. There are several studies showing that at least in music filesharers buy more than those who do not fileshare.
But I’d like to set that whole conversation aside for the moment and consider another issue at stake in sharing. What if the right rhetorical frame for discussing sharing is not theft, but life? Consider this quote from an interview I conducted with Stephen Mason,bass player of the Grammy-award winning band Jars of Clay, who began their career in the 1990s before filesharing took off and who would seem to be amongst those with the most to lose if sharing is theft:
“Artists are alive when they create. And people that consume art are alive when they receive it and they pass it on and they share it.”
He went on, drawing on Lewis Hyde’s argument in The Gift that for gifts to retain their social value, they must continue to circulate:
“I have to trust in the gift economy idea, because honestly at the end of the day I would rather be surrounded by people that I know and love that are creative and that are moving and changing cultural currents. And to isolate myself in the conversation of infringement basically puts the art - it puts us in the corner that’s not as interactive and that’s not as alive. There’s not as much life in it and that’s the risk. There’s always going to be that risk. But I've been encouraged that there’s survival. There’s survival in the heart of that instead of the opposite.”
What if Mason is right? What if sharing is about art, artists and those who love art being at their most alive? What if the real risk is the loss of vitality in pursuit of shutting down infringement? How might things look if we took seriously the claim that the survival of the arts lies in trust instead of law?
(photo of Mason: Creative Commons licensed by Ian Muttoo on Flickr)
The central challenge of the internet is that it renders status quo impossible.
The power to access, contribute to, and direct the flow of cultural information has been one of the primary mechanisms of social power throughout recorded history. During the era of mass media, which coincided with industrial “late capitalism,” a hierarchical social architecture was inscribed in professionalized cultural aesthetics, and enforced with a concentrated media infrastructure. “Superstars” emerged to dominate our aesthetic landscape (most for only a brief period; they were necessarily treated as ephemera by the industries that made them), and highly powerful cartels emerged to dominate fields such as broadcasting, cinema, print publishing and recorded music.
Because these cartels served as cultural “gatekeepers,” their revenues and social power resided in their ability to restrict, rather than enable, access to the public sphere. The result, as many researchers and theorists have argued, was that only a select few retained the ability to contribute meaningfully as producers, and the majority of us were relegated to the role of consumers. Of course, we were never purely passive – resistance to cultural hierarchy took many forms, from quotidian channel-surfing to outright protest, in practices ranging from flamboyant pranksterism to “pirate” broadcasting to sober policy lobbying. Nonetheless, this pattern of cultural regulation and resistance comprised a détente of sorts; if the media cartels couldn’t compel passive consumption, neither could even the most active consumers cross the invisible barrier separating them from the means of production.
By blurring the lines between production and consumption, and bypassing the central roles of the traditional gatekeepers, online sharing has thrown this longstanding cultural détente – and therefore the entire social order – into crisis. Legacy gatekeepers stand to lose billions of dollars in revenue, as well as well-established social privilege. Consequently, they have sought to bolster their eroding walls with legal bulwarks, amplifying surveillance and censorship powers in the name of defending copyright. The state, which faces equal threats from social and economic turmoil, has thus far been their willing partner. Yet, ultimately, the cost of pursuing these policies to their logical conclusion will be the evisceration of democratic society itself; without free speech, privacy, and the right to innovate, neither the public sphere nor the marketplace can operate as efficiently and autonomously as it once did.
Together, as a society, we must choose between two risky paths, both of them as yet unexplored. Will we privilege sharing over property, and risk our security? Or will we privilege property over sharing, and risk our liberty?
As a legal academic, I see both professional stakes and risks in sharing online. Management of the self these days means management of the digital self. I expect other law professors to have their final or near-final work readily accessible online; that’s how I read most work in my field. Using SSRN or another online repository is almost a requirement for a law professor, and it gets a readership that otherwise might not exist. Other than that, there are many ways to successfully manage an online presence, from minimal (just that SSRN author page with preprints and a homepage with a brief CV) to maximal (I blog, on average, 2-3 items per day, usually cases, articles, or news stories that have caught my interest and fall within the self-defined scope of my blog). Despite my embrace of the medium, I don’t tell everyone to blog. Some people wouldn’t find it a good fit with their scholarly interests or personalities, and the last thing many scholars need is another duty. For myself, though, I’ve found having a record of recent cases and my opinions on them have been very helpful for writing longer pieces when the time comes.
One thing that my friend and coauthor Eric Goldman has regularly emphasized for online posts: you’re more exposed to the subjects of your writings than a traditional scholarly publication would be. If you do engage in public discourse, one possible consideration is whether you want professional liability insurance. Some professional societies will offer insurance that may cover defamation claims, or you can check your homeowners’ or renters’ insurance, which may offer a rider. The Citizen Media Law Project also has useful resources. (Defamation suits against traditional academic publications are not unknown either. Indeed, a law professor was recently sued for an article he published.)
My purpose is not to frighten—yes, Americans are often stereotyped as litigious, but we have robust protections for freedom of speech and it’s hard to win a defamation lawsuit; the threat-to-real lawsuit ratio is high online—but to point out that the exposure you get online can be surprising. Out of a thousand posts, it can be very difficult to predict which one will get widely linked, tweeted, etc. So the traditional advice that lawyers give to business clients may now apply to academics as well: if you wouldn’t be comfortable with having your writing appear on the front page of the New York Times, don’t circulate that writing in public. At the same time, most “public” posts are, in fact, functionally private. It’s lack of audience rather than abundance that plagues us most of the time. It’s not surprising that we write for our usual audiences, nor should we live in silence out of fear any more than we should not drive because people get in car accidents. Participation in important conversations is what makes us citizens and scholars.
If you have read Steven Levy’s (1984) Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution or similar histories of the computing industry, you might know the story of Bill Gates’ “Open Letter to Hobbyists.” If not, the short version goes something like this: In 1975 a young Bill Gates struck a deal to write a BASIC programming language interpreter for the Altair 8800—a then-popular hobbyist computer. A pre-release version of that interpreter found its way to a meeting of the Homebrew Computer Club (a hobbyist group), at which point the BASIC interpreter was promptly copied and distributed. The hobbyists, as Levy describes them, were early free software advocates, and they believed that the code for the interpreter should be shared. Gates disagreed and responded with the now-famous “Open Letter to Hobbyists” in which he argued that the theft/sharing of code might prevent the development of quality software. “Without good software and an owner that understands programming,” Gates wrote, “a hobby computer is wasted. Will quality software be written for the hobby market?”
While Gates’ concerns remain relevant nearly 40 years later, several communities and start-ups have built systems to address the concerns of sharing, ownership, and citation. Today, for example, Github (a site for “social coding”) offers a formalized structure for the sharing of code, and the service is very much tied to identity: Github contributors have profile pictures and graphs of recent activities, and their changes to code are situated in discussion and are attributed to the author who composed and submitted them. Github, as a site, seems to argue that even (and especially) in a world of shared code and collaborative work, authorship and acknowledgment matter.
I invoke the Gates narrative not because I see code repositories like Github as the specific solution to his concerns, but rather because I think collaborative code repositories can teach us how a digital community might address a technical and historical problem. Via centralized code sharing, hobbyist (and professional) developers can collaborate, license, and gain credit for their work. Additionally, because a service like Github contains a record of each “commit” to the service, it also functions as a robust digital archive, connecting identity to a history of collaboration.
Here, I offer my question for this MediaCommons thread: What might the scholarly parallel of Github look like?
Connected to that question are, I think, two significant issues. The first, as Dave Parry has noted, is that a tremendous amount of scholarship is locked up in “knowledge cartels.” Parry asks us to consider how “If we are to imagine that what we at the university do is attempt to serve the public, then we are called upon to ask whether the current system of knowledge distribution serves that public interest or benefits a small protected group.” Like the Bill Gates of 1975, many individuals connected to scholarship (publishers, authors, and readers alike) are thinking through the professional and institutional repercussions of dramatically shifting our means of storing and transmitting research. This is a complicated issue full of challenges and stakeholders, and I know that I can’t do it justice in the space of short-form text. Yet if we are to consider the social, professional, and legal stakes with sharing online, we must begin by looking at how our own work is stored and circulated. 
Beyond the space of archives, however, we must also take a critical look at our tools for composing. The .doc(x) and PDF have become the default currency of the humanities, and our work isn’t documented at a granular level. Instead, revisions often run through Microsoft’s track changes and are flattened upon publication. At best, our current archives could be populated with marked-up print copies or multiple files created with the “Save As…” command. In comparison, code archives like Github are viable because the tools for composing code work in tandem with the archive. If we examine the typical tool for humanities textual production (Microsoft Word), it is no surprise that services like JSTOR or ERIC are our default archives. To imagine a different approach to sharing and archiving, we need to rethink our means of composing. 
I should note, of course, that there are many spaces—communities like HASTAC, multimodal/open-access publications like Kairos)—that challenge the traditional norms. However, the Github model moves me to think even more dramatically about how we store and share texts. Given the right tools, a new approach to the textual archive could be grounded in collaboration, citation, and a richer understanding of revision.
Just as Gates once wondered, “Will quality software be written for the hobby market?”, I would like to today ask if we can dream and build a living repository of research that extends beyond the printed (or print-like) artifact.
: Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s Planned Obsolescence is, I think, an important point of departure for such a conversation.
: I should also note that the use of MS Word isn’t all-inclusive, and I know a number of colleagues composing in a variety of environments: Scrivener, Markdown, and LaTeX, among others. I don’t believe, however, that these tools are the norm, and there is a direct correlation between our archival problems and our tools of production.
Despite all of the collaboration that occurs in academia, there is still the tendency to veer towards the cultural illusion of the singular author feverishly creating in isolation and the notion that individual ideas belong to individual creators. While we understand theories like Harold Bloom’s “Anxiety of Influence” and similar concepts that suggest we are not creating in isolation, but are influenced by the ideas of our predecessors or cohorts, it can still be difficult to overcome when we are placing ourselves in a dynamic, online environment.
We have thrived in academia for centuries with the concept of one individual writing the article, revising, editing, sending out to a publication or conference and waiting in anticipation for an answer. This cultural phenomenon is quickly becoming obsolete as we enter the digital media age where there is more opportunity for scholars from different disciplines and different geographic locations, who would have otherwise never met, to collaborate in cyberspace.
While this presents opportunities for expansion of concepts and theories through tools like videos, chatting, blogging, social media outlets, and online publications, it can still feel threatening to be exposed in such a raw way. Once a piece of work is published online, it is more easily accessible in a potentially unpolished form to colleagues, current or future employers, and even our students. As invested as well all are in the endeavor of writing in the academic community, making our work public knowledge in the stages of processing and production is something that feels odd for those of us used to composing in an individual setting then presenting a finalized product.
This brings me back to the notion of the individual author working feverishly in isolation. Despite our use of online tools like video chats, peer reviewing, and blogging there is still a cultural belief that we are our own individual author creating ideas independent of other scholars. This folds into the notion that these ideas should be legally protected against plagiarism and appropriation and intellectual property laws have been put in place to control potential concerns; however, digital sharing exposes this ideology as potentially flawed and turns it on its head, as we get a blog post response from a colleague questioning our ideas or an online peer review adding onto the thoughts from a budding conference piece. It is not likely to end in the legal arena for most of us in academia, but there are concerns over the influences on our professional work and how this impacts our definition of authorship. While collaboration in the digital environment is intended to enhance the process of research and writing, there is also a vulnerability that is not as easily visible when a scholar creates in perceived isolation.
In the context of an online post about the stakes, possibilities, and limits of digital sharing, it seems appropriate to share the work of a few colleagues who have influenced how I have come to think about one critical site of humanities inquiry, the archive. My interests in the archive are both theoretical and practical. The theorization of the archive – from Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault to Diana Taylor and Stephen Best – has been a rich, transdiciplinary locus of inquiry for decades. And the practical aspects of the archive – from access to the thrill of the hunt – are well known to many humanities scholars, as Kyle Barnett detailed in this forum on Tuesday. But I am particularly interested in the transformations of the archive now being wrought through digitization, particularly as archives increasingly become not archives at all but databases. If, following Derrida, we believe that the process of “archivization” produces the very conditions for history and memory, scholars who use archival materials must be actively involved in these processes of digitization. We should be shaping what gets digitized, how it gets digitized, how it gets accessed or shared, and the very tools and algorithms that will underpin these processes. But that’s a big charge. Today I want to focus on one small aspect of the archive: our very concept of what an archive does.
Historically, the archive was officially meant to collect, preserve and protect. Selection of, access to and the use of archival materials was rigorously regulated. The archive cultivated an ethos of the rare and the original. Careful order was imposed. The digitization of archives has upset this careful hierarchy. Digital archival materials might be circulated and shared more freely. Amateur and expert might build archives together. We might begin to imagine the archive itself as a site of creation, change and emergence. In the past, humanities scholars have raided archives in order to capture their treasures for our books and articles. This relationship has often been uni-directional and vampiric, giving little back to the archive. In an era of connected data, our interpretations might live within the archive, curating pathways of analysis through its datasets or reframing the archive via new interfaces and multiple points of view. Many organizations are now taking up these questions, including the Alliance for Networking Visual Culture with which I work. My own thinking about the purpose of the archive in the digital era owes many debts of gratitude (some reflected in the links above), but here I briefly highlight three people whose projects have deeply influenced my thinking and my research.
Rick Prelinger was a fellow in our labs at USC in the summer of 2005. At that point, our team was well aware of his pioneering efforts to collect and preserve ephemeral film as well as his involvement with the Internet Archive. With his wife, Megan, he also opened the very radical Prelinger Library. From Rick, I learned to flip my thinking about archives, seeing them not as “quiet places” but as places “justified by use.”
Steve Anderson is my long-time friend and collaborator at USC. He is also the founder of Critical Commons, a bottom-up digital archive that challenges academics to share, annotate and remake media while also taking a crucial stand on fair use. From Steve I learned (among many other things) that we don’t need permission to do the work that needs to be done.
Kim Christen also spent time in the Vectors’ labs as a fellow before going on to lead Mukurtu, an archival platform that allows indigenous communities to manage their own cultural heritage materials, resisting the colonial underpinnings that often underwrote the archival impulse. From Kim I learned that, while sharing is a good thing, ethical and contextual sharing is even better.
I share their projects with you in the spirit of generosity and rigor with which they have shared with me. I encourage you to get to know their work if you don’t already and to adapt their lessons about sharing, the future archive and scholarship for your own purposes.
The benefits of internet activity for academics have been widely enumerated. Online networks enable intellectual and professional connections; sharing scholarship on web platforms allows for timely publication that reaches a wide audience, etc. Much less has been said about the social mores that online networking seems to flout. At the risk of sounding like Emily Post, I want to highlight the potential social ramifications of online networking among academics. Because it has become so hegemonic that “a web presence” helps advance the careers of young scholars, and because these are truly desperate times for those in search of academic employment, I hope that the list below helps academics—especially early-career academics—weigh the risks of sharing their scholarship online.
Share your work. Getting other academics familiar with what you are thinking and writing about is a good thing. Not only does it increase the chances that they will cite and/or teach it, but it can make a profession in which you spend a lot of time by yourself in front of a computer much less lonely.
Comment thoughtfully. Everyone likes getting positive feedback. Of course, it goes without saying that not everyone is going to agree with what you have to say. If you disagree with whatever the original poster or other commenters have written? Do so in the same way you would approach a face-to-face interaction.
Be modest. No one likes a braggart. Posting to online social networks is currently a dominant mode of self-expression. One can participate in these forums and still have tact and exhibit humility.
Overpost. If you frequently post to social media networks about research you are working on or have published or presented, you risk alienating people. Online interactions are not always opportunities for self-citation and/or career advancement. Overposting and overly self-referential posting are akin to dinner guests who never stop talking about themselves.
Overshare. The internet reconfigures our notions of public and private. Remember that forums like Facebook and Twitter are ostensibly public venues where what you post is open to people you know in a professional context. Some things are best left for communication of a more limited scope. If you wouldn’t say something in public, don’t say it online.
Overvalue connectivity. Activity on Twitter, Facebook, or in the blogosphere does not map neatly onto scholarly gravitas. If anything, online activity might suggest the opposite. The frequency of one’s internet postings says little about the quality and rigor of ideas presented therein.
*Special thanks to Bill Kirkpatrick and Laura Russell.
As a media historiographer, I’m keenly aware that most of what I use for my own research remains offline, scattered between far-flung archives. This has meant numerous archival trips, from the Library of Congress to Wisconsin’s Port Washington Historical Society. I carefully study finding aids and chat with archivists before my arrival – and then hope for the best.
At other times, I’ve taken calculated risks. On an East Coast trip to a number of New York-area archives, I wasn’t sure a particular collection I’d heard about even existed. While still a graduate student at the University of Texas in Spring 2006, I got on a plane from Austin to New York City.
I arrived at the New York Library for the Performing Arts, begging to see a collection that the librarian in front of me couldn’t find in her online catalog. I had heard of these materials via ARSClist, the Association for Recorded Sound Collections listserv. A discographer from the New York area had seen the materials decades before and suggested I check into them. My emails to the NYPL hadn’t been answered, but I decided that I could take a chance on the lead, since I had other stops to make in New York.
While I talked with the librarian, an archivist passed by and heard the conversation. He took me aside, explained that they did indeed have uncataloged Columbia Records materials. He slapped a “visitor” sticker on my chest and took me several stories below Lincoln Center. Then, he showed me several boxes, explaining they hadn’t yet been cataloged – adding that I could photocopy anything in the boxes for my purposes if I wrote what each box contained on the outside of the box. I happily obliged.
An email and a kind archivist had made this possible. I offered assistance in identifying for future archivists what the small collection contained. I was thrilled to have found something so remote from most researchers. But while I was feeling so fortunate to have landed in the basement of the NYPL, it led me to wonder how researchers might get better access to archival materials, especially since cataloged materials are often not that much easier to locate.
Providing access while protecting and preserving materials is a constant concern for archives. Trying to take care of collections with small staffs and a huge workload is another. While access issues are constantly evolving, the obstacles faced aren’t easy to overcome. Just coordinating with varying archives, most of which have different policies and approaches, has been an intimidating proposition.
My hopes lie on an ambitious digital humanities project coordinated by the University of Virginia’s Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities. As The Chronicle of Higher Education reported last year, they’ve partnered with UC-Berkeley’s School of Information and the California Digital Library to create SNAC, the Social Networks and Archival Context Project, a clearinghouse for archival information. You can find the prototype here.
This is a wonderful initiative, which may well help in connecting diffuse resources. But this project doesn’t – and probably can’t – coordinate even more unlikely resources held by small and remote archives. On a research trip to the Wayne County Historical Society in Richmond, Indiana, while researching the Gennett Records label, I found a notebook of early television research by Charles Francis Jenkins. How many TV researchers will ever stumble upon that?
Perhaps researchers can help bridge gaps in sharing information about these smaller archives, unlikely to be included in larger projects like SNAC. For all I know, work has started on such a sharing project, which would link up disparate resources at little-known institutions. I’m happy to share what I know about such a complicated archival puzzle.
In the work I do to somewhat balance my time in academia, I run a program for teenagers at a nonprofit. I have been doing this kind of work since 2007 and have noticed a trend in the way that teenagers interact. First, they wouldn’t ‘friend’ me on social media, then they all friended or followed me, and finally, this new generation seems silent. Twitter and Facebook is a place they might mention college acceptance letters or post vacation pictures, but they certainly don’t share their day-to-day lives.
Many teenagers have moved away from these ‘traditional’ forms of broadcast social media and instead favor mobile born applications. Almost all of them use text messages socially and many of them use Snap Chat, a social media app that allows individuals to send texts, drawings, and pictures that disappear after 3-10 seconds. This application became well known in wider circles after Facebook tried to copy the app with its re-launched poke feature.
There are several reasons for the popularity of Snap Chat, but I have found that the overwhelming reason is that, for the average 15 year old, their parents have been on Facebook for about 5 years. Their grandparents might even have an account. It feels mandatory to friend these relatives and everyone they go to school with, panopticism at its finest. They have also learned from my generation; posting silly pictures online under the impression that such postings will not live forever or that no one will look back on them is folly. They know that pictures they post online at 15 will still be there when they are applying for their first jobs at 22. They choose to use more ephemeral social media.
Snap chat is not exactly as surreptitious as it initially seems and several authors and organizations are concerned about teens not understanding that content they send might be seen by other eyes or screen grabbed. Certainly, a picture sent with the intention of being viewed for five seconds made permanent in another context opens up space for misrepresentation and bullying. It also remains to be seen how this media will evolve over time. However, more interesting to me is how savvy this generation is with sharing online.
I remember coming back from a meeting at the Annenberg School at USC in April 2006 after having met Kathleen Fitzpatrick for the very first time. I still had not yet defended my dissertation (though I had a tenure-track job already lined up at Old Dominion University), but I had gotten Kathleen and the Institute for the Future of the Book’s attention through the work Chris Lucas and I had done in launching Flow in 2004 and through my somewhat impassioned plea at the 2006 SCMS conference for the need to rethink what forms of publishing counted toward our mission as scholars and educators. The Annenberg meeting had brought together some of the top thinkers in the digital humanities to discuss the future of academic publishing and the possibilities of launching a born-digital press. This would be the genesis for MediaCommons, though I did not know so at the time. What I did know was that when I returned from the meeting, I was going to embark on a whole new mode of scholarly production: I was going to write my next essay in an open forum where interested parties could follow the process of my ideas as they formed and watch as my argument would be constructed. I truly believed – and to a large extent, I still do – that by making the processes of critical thinking and writing more transparent, we would help smart, engaged people shed their fears about participating in scholarly conversations; that we could reduce the distance between academics and the publics we wish to inspire and provoke by demonstrating our own struggles to formulate ideas along with the rewards that come from committing to the process.
I’ve never followed through on that idea.
I’d like to say that I quickly realized that it was hubris to believe that anyone really wanted to watch me do an academic version of a peep show, but that ain’t it.
And this brings me to the central idea I am trying to work through in this post on the efficacy of “sharing” within the academy. You see, I believe fully in the gift economy and in the moral and legal rationales for open-source scholarship. I know that we are all better scholars, teachers and humans when we share our ideas and the material forms they take with one another. But sadly, I am also aware that academics only possess one true form of capital, vested in their reputation and cultivated in the words they produce. I see the impulse to share butt heads with the need to establish one’s scholarly “brand;” to develop a recognizable and somewhat polished style of sharing that continues to differentiate scholarly contributions to the gift economy from other forms of giving. At the end of the day, I have never written an essay “live” online because I fear that it exposes my intellectual shortcomings to my colleagues and risks diminishing my reputation. Though sharing is a process, I am rewarded only for the products my branded ideas endorse.
Though I lament the need to change the structural constraints that privilege certain forms of scholarly work over others and constrain the willingness of scholars to put ideas out into the world in medias res, I also recognize that in order to truly share, we need to shift our perception of what makes one’s reputation in the academy. Hubris indeed.
Sharing and spreading information are nothing new to the digital age. Social media has been a regular part of many individuals’ lives for ten years. Before that, forums, blogs, and p2p content sites were a place of sharing. While sharing has become a regular part of first world life, the rules, both judicial and social, change constantly. Sometimes these changes make the news, like SOPA, but some sharing protocols are altered quietly or by the generation doing the sharing.
From February 18th through March 15th, scholars, educators and professionals, and students will share the social, legal, and professional stakes with sharing online. We mean stakes in both the positive and negative stakes. Daily, short responses to the question will be posted online. We look forward to responses on current use of social media, copyright litigation, and education. We hope that this survey will serve as a review of the current state of sharing online.
Feb 18: Avi Santo, Old Dominion University
Feb 19: Jamie Henthorn, Old Dominion University
Feb 20: Kyle Barnett, Bellarmine University
Feb 21: Hollis Griffin, Denison University
Feb 22: Tara McPherson, University of Southern California
Feb 26: April Cobos, Old Dominion University
Feb 27: Tim Lockridge, St. Joseph's University
Feb 28: Rebecca Tushnet, Georgetown University
Mar 4: Aram Sinnreich, Rutgers University
Mar 5: Nancy Baym, Microsoft Research
Mar 6: Alan Levine, CogDot It
Mar 7: Sarah McGinley, Wright State University and Old Dominion University
Mar 8: Mark Sample, George Mason University
Mar 11: Karen Hellekson, Independent Researcher
Mar 12: Erin Copple Smith, Austin College
Mar 13: Lisa Spiro, NITLE Labs
Mar 14: Gary Hall, Coventry University
Mar 15: Alex Juhasz, Pitzer College