Like last year, I attempted to archive the tweets tagged with the HASTAC annual conference’s official hashtag (this year #HASTAC2014).
The resulting dataset is a CSV file containing 3748 tweets tagged with #HASTAC2014 (case not sensitive).
The first tweet in the dataset is dated 19/04/2014 23:10:50 Lima, Perú time and the last one is dated 27/04/2014 15:00:54 also Lima, Perú time. The file also contains equivalent times in GMT.
HASTAC is an alliance of humanists, artists, social scientists, scientists and technologists working together to transform the future of learning for the 21st century. Since 2002, HASTAC (“haystack”) has served as a community of connection where 11,500+ members share news, tools, research, insights, and projects to promote engaged learning for a global society.
HASTAC 2014: Hemispheric Pathways: Critical Makers in International Networks, the 6th international conference for the Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Alliance and Collaboratory, was hosted by the Ministerio Cultura of Lima, Perú, from 6pm Wednesday 23 April to 1pm Sunday 27 April 2014 local time. In order to avoid the inclusion of spam tweets the minimum number of followers a person had to have to be included in the archive was two.
Please note that both research and experience show that the Twitter search API isn’t 100% reliable. Large tweet volumes affect the search collection process as well. The API might “over-represent the more central users”, not offering “an accurate picture of peripheral activity” (González-Bailón, Sandra, et al. 2012). Therefore, it cannot be guaranteed this file contains each and every tweet tagged with #HASTAC2014 during the indicated period.
[It should go without saying but perhaps it must also be noted that some conference tweets might have used other variations of the hashtag. Logically those were not included in this collection. Therefore it cannot be said that even all tweets tagged #HASTAC2014 represent all the Twitter activity around the 2014 conference.]
The file includes raw data and it might require refining including deduplication. The data is shared as is.
The file is shared with a Creative Commons- Attribution license (CC-BY).
I have been archiving conference tweets and sharing backchannel datasets for some time now. I am keen on promoting the study of academic conference networks on Twitter. By openly sharing the resulting datasets and by blogging about it throughout time, I have also been openly documenting my own learning curve trying to archive tweets and how to do it better. If you use or refer to this data in any way please cite and link back using the citation information above.
I will hopefully have time to finish and publish another post with more detail about the HASTAC conference backchannels soon.
Thank you for reading and sharing. If you attended the conference, I hope you had a nice time. As usual, I am sorry I could not attend in person.
Biased as I am, I immediately assumed the reason to boycott would be the toll-access model in which academics are alienated from their own work through the imposition of copyright transfers and often long embargoes; a model that imposes considerable friction/barriers of access to the general public and other academics from institutions that might not subscribe to those toll-access journals. I thought this before actually having clicked on the link. I was on the train. When I got to my desk I read the piece.
Having read the picece, it seemed to me the focus of the article was not mainly open access, or the negative aspects of toll-access as a model. The piece makes a critique of “luxury journals” and of the system of “incentives” that drives academics (scientists in this case) to publish in those journals. The article is a very important critique of the negative aspects of reputation as an incentive to publish. Coming from a Nobel prize winner, this is hopefully likely to be widely distributed and hopefully heard. Professor Scheckman denounces how the current academic system often uses place of publication (i.e. what journal, or more specifically, what journal brand) as a proxy for quality of science: “appearing in these titles often leads to grants and professorships.”
Professor Scheckman is also editor-in-chief of eLife, an open access journal funded by the Wellcome Trust, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the Max Planck Society. (You will see eLife in his list of publications, as well as PlosOne, and yes, also Science, Nature and Cell). He argues that as an alternative to the reign of luxury journals:
There is a better way, through the new breed of open-access journals that are free for anybody to read, and have no expensive subscriptions to promote. Born on the web, they can accept all papers that meet quality standards, with no artificial caps.
I want to emphasise it is very good news that a winner of the highest accolade a scientist can get is making this statement. His opinion will be respected and will hopefully be influential. This is good. It makes us all who have been talking about how misguided it is to equate brand reputation (or even worse, access model) with research quality very happy.
It is interesting that the critique focuses mainly on the (many times undeserved) reputation associated with scientific luxury journals. The focus however is not the need for wider public access. The fact that toll-access reproduces and entrenches the privilege of the wealthiest countries and institutions is not considered. The fact that luxury journals are also offering open access “options” at very high fees payable by the authors or their funders is not considered either.
I also worry that there might be the perpetuation of a general feeling that open access is just for those who can afford to publish open access. I don’t mean “afford” only in financial terms. A Nobel prize winner tells us that the academic reputation incentive system is wrong, that “appearing in these titles often leads to grants and professorships”, and yes, we look at his publication list and there they are: Science, Nature and Cell. If you are a PhD student or Early Career Researcher, what is the message you get?
The problem is even more complicated when the same luxury brands are “embracing” open access by merely inverting their business model, where instead of charging unrealistic amounts to institutional libraries (or users when one needs access to individual articles or issues) it is the author who gets charged an unrealistic amount. The message from these publishers is “if you want to make your research widely and publicly available –which in many countries now means if you want your research to “count” for your appraisal/assessment/keep you in employment- you have to pay us what we are losing from not restricting it.” See this post by Professor Melisa Terras. If a Professor in a World-class university finds the processing charges offensive, what is left for the rest of us hoping to develop our careers in smaller institutions, not to mention those in the developing world?
Luxury or legacy journals embracing open access by imposing ridiculously/unrealistically high Article Processing Charges are also contaminating the sentiment amongst academics towards open access as an option. “The new breed of Open Access journals”, as Professor Scheckman calls it, includes smaller, lesser known journals that are publishing top-quality research and engaging in innovative publishing, editing and peer review methods. They are not always funded (not all open access journals enjoy the institutional funding that eLife has) and therefore need to find a way to become financially sustainable. Reasonable, context-specific APCs are an option, but the legacy publishers have done a great job at bringing that otherwise viable and ethical business option into disrepute. There is a famous [black] list of “predatory” open access journals. It is interesting it took us so long to come up with a black list of predatory toll-access journals.
Elsewhere I argued that open access has to be an option for graduate students and early career researchers (academics at all stages of their careers, really). It cannot be only for Christmas, or only for those who have already succeeded in the reputational system. It is clear to me that at the moment only a combination of open access and toll-access publications will keep the research funding administrators content. Nevertheless it should be possible for all of us in academia to embrace open access without feeling this will jeopardise our careers.
More senior academics developed their careers in different contexts. It is inspiring and encouraging that they support open access. But if open access is only supported once careers have been developed embracing -supporting- the system that privileges “luxury journals” over newer, even perhaps grassroots open access initiatives, how will things ever change?
There is a tendency to believe “the system” is unchangeable. It is invisible yet ubiquitous and pervasive. It is everywhere and nowhere, and the individual -graduate students and ECRs- feel they cannot but play the rules of the old regime. It is essential that academics that are still developing their careers do not think that only those who have already succeeded -got the grant, got the professorship, got tenure, got the Nobel- can afford to support and publish open access actively and vocally.
On 14 May 2013 I left a comment on this thread. I have edited and extended it a little bit and tried to correct some of the typos (my original comment is here) –some might remain and some new ones might have added though– and have posted it again on my HASTAC blog hoping it finds a new audience. It’s not a proper essay about one single thing, but a series of thoughts I wanted to share. I have also copied and pasted it below.
To properly engage with academic debates online, one needs time and the right setting to sit down and go through the discussions and reply as one would like to. This means replying thoroughly, thoughtfully, including correct references and hyperlinks, engaging respectfully with the different points of view, remembering people’s names, etc.. Sadly, this is becoming increasingly difficult to do (I miss my students days!). The ability to do this is in itself a kind of privilege.
I once published a post on U of Venus/Inside Higher Education (23 February 2011) that was inspired by Spivak’s Death of a Discipline (2003), which is on comparative literature but I thought then it could also be ‘used’ to engage in debates around the theory and practice of the digital humanities (DH). My post asked if the “subaltern could tweet”. By this I meant that under-represented voices often have to face much more obstacles than well-represented voices in online and academic discourse.
For me, developing resources and communities for the humanities of today has resemblances to organizing a party. If you host it but don’t tell anyone no one will come. If you are a rude host people will leave early. If the party is boring, they might not come again to the next one you organize. If the venue is in a remote location which is very hard to get to, people might be late or get lost in the way (in case they were given an address, directions or a map). Those with special mobility needs might not come if you don’t host your party in an accessible venue. If you charge money at the door only those who can pay will come (if the party is good, some will gatecrash it).
It might sound simplistic but in my experience it is in this sense that when we talk online resources, in DH or any other discipline, your resource won’t be used just because it’s there. One needs to build ‘the thing’ and also build the community (increasingly ‘the thing’ and ‘the community’ are one and the same). (Warwick, C; Terras, M; Huntington, P; Pappa, N; 2008; Procter, R; Williams, R; Stweart, J; 2010). Moreover, often ‘the thing’ will need to address/predict what a given community might need to become meaningful. Sometimes you do a lot of hard work promoting a party, but the community is in no mood for it.
But let’s say it again: they will not comejust because you have built it. Perhaps some will come if you are famous enough (but even celebrities have someone who carefully curates their guest lists). It will be fully built until they come and they inhabit it. Even though I am sick and tired of the definitional debate, I have to say I like this metaphor of ‘building’ when speaking of DH. I echo what others have said (apologies if I don’t name you personally and link to you directly here) when I say I believe there is a difference between the need to interrogate the discourse of/around/in/on/inside/outside DH and technology in general and the need to do something with those technologies for research. They are, indeed, not mutually exclusive, but there can come the point in which they need to be distinct activities.
A simile might be useful. Often, the academic critique of, say, colonialist representations of ‘the Other’ and the act of creating colonial representations of ‘the Other’ are clearly distinct. One is performed by the cultural scholar, the latter by the film maker, photographer, advertising agency. It is possible to create representations that are critical of those colonialist represenations, and indeed address in practice the need to interrogate colonialist represenations and in so doing offer an example of how to do it differently/ethically/better. I suppose the same happens with DH: we can spend the rest of our days (hopefully with funding we have obtained to do so) critiquing discourse or practices and calling for the need to do/engage with/ digital technologies differently.
This activity, it seems to me, requires a different kind of investment than that of working directly with those technologies, no matter how imperfect. This is indeed a dilemma, because many of us are very much aware of the in-built discourses in the technologies/systems/structures/superstructures, but at the same time we face the danger of then not engaging with them at all. If we take the critique to its ultimate circumstances we wouldn’t even dare to invest our time blogging, tweeting and commenting on online discussions using these same specific technologies that require such a long set of often-uninterrogated a prioris.
It might be that the critique of DH has come too early, before we have even begun to understand what they can be. I am not saying this critique is unnecessary. On the contrary. It is. What I guess I am trying to say is that the much-needed (so-called) postcolonial critique of DH is in fact not different from the critique we all need to make of the whole academic endeavor. This also means realising that sometimes these debates reflect a USA-centrism which can be alienating for those of us outside the everyday practicalities of the USAmerican Higher Education system.
Deep down what I perceive is a general dissatisfaction with the (to many of us painfully obvious) lack of equality of opportunity in academia in general and even more in DH (given that in most cases significant funding and infrastructural support is needed to get a project/center up the ground). From a non-USAmerican perspective, it seems that suddenly ‘DH’ became this trendy panacea, making some people feel included and many others excluded. Those excluded are not happy. Once again: this is not specific of DH.
So the question is: where do we go from here? I believe there is room from all the different approaches. The fact some people are busy doing text encoding does not mean they are not sensitive to the “discursive formations” that govern most code. And if we spend all our time interrogating these “discursive formations”, maybe we won’t be coding, or doing whatever it is required to have ‘the thing’ up and running, making things happen, including some of the interrogations that had to be momentarily suspended if you will just to do ‘the thing’. (A related question is if we don’t need to be able to do something before being able to interrogate it– can a cultural critique of code be performed as a ‘reader’ only? Open question. Some prove true advancement can be achieved by blending both, see this for example). This does not mean I am making a bipolar opposition between interrogation and doing, it means I must accommodate both in their difference if we want to take things forward.
The question was if DH could be considered a historical ‘refuge’ from Race/class/gender/sexuality/disability”. My personal (very simple, direct) answer to the question: of course not. On the contrary, it might be one of the places where those categories are most openly acted-out.
As someone who has been at the receiving end of many ‘Othering’ exclusionary practices, I consider myself particularly sensitive to discrimination and exclusion. And yet I believe that DH can offer that space which is not a space of exemption (on the contrary). It is because of this that it can offer an open window (not sure if door) to what is now and could be done better, more openly and more accessibly. But in order to do this we need to host the party first. If we spend our lives discussing whether we should plan it or what the meanings of “hosting” and “party” are, well, we will just go mad (and have no party).
I write this as someone who doesn’t really do DH, not like other colleagues I respect and admire. In my case, it has been by leading and coordinating the creation of communities and colalborative online projects that I have realised how difficult and complex it can be. If coordinating a team of scholars to advance an open access online publishing platform for an emerging arts and humanities trans-discipline is doing DH, then maybe I do, but seriously I don’t think determining that is the point. All I know is that we had a choice between working to create something that didn’t exist before in the same way or not doing it. All projects are perfectible, and flaws are discovered and created along the way. Productive theoretical interrogation can take place (it often does) along practice.
Needless to say there ain’t no final truths in what I wrote. I may be completely wrong, and anyone is always-already entitled to disagree.
Version 2.0 The figshare and HASTAC versions of this post have been updated accordingly.
UPDATE Thursday 2 May 2013, 08:48am BST.
Unfortunately I did not have time to do a new collection increasing the number of tweets to collect. The initial collection used the default 1500, and even though I did it on the Monday morning (BST time) after the conference the archive did not go back enough (it can only go back 7 days). In retrospect I should have aimed to collect more tweets than the default 1500 the first time around, but I was concerned the script would time out.
I only found some time this morning to try again (script having timed out when I tried 18,000 tweets, which is the maximum output), and using 17,500 at worked this time, taking me as back as 26/04/13, 08:2243, which is more than 24 hours before my previous collection.The Conference information says activities started on 25/04/13 (Thursday) but as the programme and now both #hastac2013 archives confirm the day with the most activity was 27/04/13 (Saturday). Therefore though this new collection does not go as back as the 25th, at least it covers the day before activity peaked. Where the previous archive had 1500 tweets, this new one gathered 3,898.
Here two screeshots of the second archive’s summary charts right after I ran the collection:
You can see a published interactive archive of this new archive here.
I link to the published spreadsheets from the PDF version of this post that can be downloaded from figshare.
As they describe it themselves, the Humanities, Arts, Science, Technology Advanced Collaboratory (HASTAC – “haystack” hastac.org), is “an organisation at the international forefront of knowledge mobilization for our digital present and innovation in the academy.” I have had the honour to be a HASTAC Scholar blogging at their site since 2010.
2013 marks the 10th anniversary of HASTAC’s founding, and on 25th-28th April they celebrated their decennial conference, titled “The Storm of Progress: New Horizons, New Narratives, New Codes”, in Toronto, Canada.
I was able to participate in the conference via pre-recorded video thanks to Fiona Barnett’s kind invitation on Saturday the 27th. While I as presenting in real life at the Forms of Innovation workshop at Durham, UK, my video was being shown in Toronto! This also means that while colleagues were live-tweeting about my session at #formsinn, they were also live-tweeting from #hastac2013…
Anyway many of us were able to follow the proceedings of the HASTAC conference through a lively Twitter backchannel. I believe the backchannel is a useful research resource on its own, and of course it allows us to perform some ‘meta’ analysis of the network itself. I set up a Google spreadsheet to collect #HASTAC2013 tweets and created an interactive archive that visualises the interactions in real time. (This will make demands from your browser…)
[I have done an intial archive covering only the latest (at the time of publishing) 1500 tweets, as high values may no work due to script timeouts, but I am currently experimenting trying to get the majority of the #hastac2013 output. Will update accordingly. Times from my archiving are GMT].
I have archived and shared a version of this blog post as a PDF on Figshare, so it gets a digital object identifier. Citation is:
I have posted a response to Stephen Marche’s LA Review of Books article “Against Digital Humanities” on my HASTAC blog.
“We do not wish to penalise the machine for its inability to shine in beauty competitions, nor to penalise a man for losing in a race against an aeroplane. The conditions of our game make these disabilities irrelevant.”
Needless to say, with such a title, his article became very popular amongst digital humanities circles, and of course amongst those who feel excluded from such circles or who might have had no idea those circles existed in the first place. As far as I know Marche does not define himself as an academic (though “in 2005, he received a doctorate in early modern English drama from the University of Toronto”, his Wikipedia entry says) but as a novelist and regular contributor to Esquire magazine.
I do not mention this with any snobbish or elitist intention, as some kind of expression of academia’s well-known reputation to exclude and discriminate, but as a fact that might help us understand where his article and his clearly-defined position “against digital humanities” is coming from. His article wasn’t published on an academic journal either, appearing, indeed, in the Los Angeles Review of Books, and it was accessed by most of us I guess in its openly-available online version (I ignore if it appeared on print as well). It has to be said that had Marche’s article not been published online in such a way (and widely distributed by readers on Twitter and the like) it is very possible I would have never come across it, certainly not so quickly. In brief, noting the context in which the article appeared informs us as readers about what we can and cannot expect form it.
Unlike Marche, who presumably got paid to write his article, I am not getting paid to write this piece, something I find myself saying out loud more frequently. This is something that is often kept quiet out of politeness or pride, but the explicit declaration of this particular context, the situation in which one sets out to write something, defines in an important way what is produced. Needless to say this is what Marx would have called the material conditions of our existence, so often equated with the material conditions of production. This blog post is a blog post, and I am stealing time from other more productive endeavours (in this case, precious sleep, since I woke up at 4:00 am to write it) so I will not go into the detail I wish I could go into. This context, this setting, enables me to make this declaration of a particular positioning, and I have no doubts in my mind that the ability to declare this positioning is enhanced by the access to certain technologies, information and social networks.
Having said that what concerns me the most about Marche’s article is the malicious misrepresentation of what the digital humanities are about. And indeed, I’m not the first one to suggest that one of the things missing from his rant (if Marche’s essay hadn’t been posted on the LA Review of Books web site, it would have been just another blog rant) is precisely context (see “A Quick Reply to Marche, 29 October). “Literature is not Data: Against Digital Humanities” is a title carefully chosen to create controversy and bring online traffic to the site. It’s called link-baiting. Journalistically speaking it comes very late to the academic debate but its appearance is timely because in late 2012 the mainstream digital humanities have received enough money to create resentment amongst those coming late to the party (those recently discovering a field that can be dated to 1949). So Marche’s article touches on a sensitive disciplinary and cultural spot, because he seems somewhat aware that “digital humanities” is “a phrase with a wide array of meanings”, as he puts it, even if the examples he gives are eminently parodic:
“It can mean nothing more than being vaguely in touch with technological reality — being an English professor who is aware of the existence of Twitter, for example — or understanding that there are better ways of disseminating academic studies than bound academic journals languishing on unvisited shelves.”
Other crass misrepresentations and false assumptions in the article (“Google… ends the relationship to the codex which began much earlier….”) can only be attributed to ignorance or an ill-intended political (disciplinary, financial) agenda. Marche equates the digital humanities with “the conversion of literature into data” (which is false) and fails at all times to explain what data is. He seems to assume that there is someone somewhere that takes data as a given (datum– dare, to give), as an end in itself and not as a means to an end. Moreover, he takes for granted (as a given) that data is not always-already the result of interpretive processes and specific material and cultural conditions.
Indeed, Marche’s most obviously hilarious claim is that algorithms “are inherently fascistic, because they give the comforting illusion of an alterity to human affairs.” Alan Turing, who suffered himself the painful and irrevocable consequences of State intolerance and, it could be argued, developed technologies and methods that contributed to the defeat of Nazism, must be rolling in his grave. At best, as British Library curator Matthew Shaw pointed out, Marche’s laughable if not offensive hypothesis seems to only prove Goodwin’s Law.
What is most profoundly worrying about Marche’s article is his conservative agenda. He’s only one year younger than I but he seems to clearly and fondly remember those apparently idyllic days “[b]efore EEBO arrived”, when
“every English scholar of the Renaissance had to spend time at the Bodleian library in Oxford; that’s where one found one’s material. But actually finding the material was only a part of the process of attending the Bodleian, where connections were made at the mother university in the land of the mother tongue. Professors were relics; they had snuffboxes and passed them to the right after dinner, because port is passed left. EEBO ended all that, because the merely practical reason for attending the Bodleian was no longer justifiable when the texts were all available online.”
In a nutshell, what Marche is against is not digital humanities, but a false notion of what the digital humanities are as equated with some kind of fictional, unmediated (oh, the irony!), uninterpreted “conversion of literature into data”. The digital humanities do other things apart from the creation of digital tools that enable the physical and digital preservation and online access of texts, but Marche gives us digitisation and the rise of the online availability of texts as a prime example of this “conversion” he dreads. What Marche is against is not digital humanities, but more democratic, fluid forms of access, where people who can’t necessarily afford or have the physical ability to come to Oxford can still experience “the mystery of language […] the original literary sensation.”
Between paragraph tags, Marche finishes his essay with what he and the editors must have thought a master final blow: “Insight remains handmade.” The implication is that what is done through machines or algorithms is not “handmade”, and perpetuates the old opposition between the natural and the artificial, which his Lyotard epigraph anticipated. As someone from my generation, Marche must have heard that we have somewhat surpassed that “Postmodern Condition”.
Had I had to choose a postmodern thinker to kickstart things I would have rather quoted Derrida (I know he’s not as fashionable in the US as he once was) from his essay on Kant’s Conflict of the Faculties: “it is the publication of knowledge, rather than knowledge itself, which is submitted to authority” (1992). It is this authority of the publication format that Marche’s piece enjoys, and in a way it is that authority that some digital humanities work is gradually dismantling. What is missing from the article is any kind of self-awareness as a text that will be read online (apart from some hyperlinks, which I suppose were placed there by an editor and not by Marche himself), and, more importantly, about the material conditions of production of the article itself. I wonder if he would get a Borgesian sense of the uncanny (1972) if he looked at the source code of his own article on the online version of the LA Review of Books.
Marche’s article is a fine example of the anxieties of our age, but it is not what it purposes to be. It wants us to believe that literature and scholarly or interpretive activity is “mushy” (soft) and that its opposite is data (hard). For him literature is some kind of mystical, “mysterious” experience, but not in the way Walter Benjamin (1916) discussed it, which was always-already from a perspective that recognised the material and technical conditions of the production and transmission of information (literary or not). Marche draws a politically dangerous opposition between the study of literature and the scholarly work of the digital humanities, which seeks to develop and employ digital tools for the scholarly practice of the humanities and akin fields. Precisely, one of the positive consequences of digital humanities work is what seems to annoy Marche the most: the creation of greater awareness about the material conditions of texts, and of the structures of privilege that have allowed the access to knowledge to some but not others, in some forms and not others.
Marche denies the digital humanities (and self-defined digital humanists by extension) their legitimate belonging to the field of literary studies, building a tired, parodic straw man. His essay reads like a nerdy “my discipline is bigger than yours” rant. Like its title, its ill-founded critique of digitisation, data mining and algorithmic processes is intentionally sensationalistic and it responds consciously or unconsciously to a political agenda that seeks to create a renewed “conflict of the faculties”.
Marchen’s manichean opposition to his own fictional version of the digital humanities will resound in many who feel disenfranchised and threatened by what they perceive as a new fashionable discipline that might “replace” their own tasks and therefore endanger their positions. His article should be an alarm call for those of us engaged in digital humanities communities to work harder at communicating better and more widely what it is that the digital humanities do. We should also ask ourselves who exactly benefits from deligitimising the digital humanities and what kind of consequences such strategy could have.
To be fair, Marche’s article does have a redeeming passage where some self-awareness of his positioning is made clear. “In the popular imagination,” he writes, “writers and professors are liberals, hedonists, bohemians. Nothing could be further from the truth. They are, in fact, profoundly, deeply, organically conservative.”
Inspired by a conversation I had with my colleague Melonie Fullick, yesterday I posted “Various Shades of Digital Literacy: The New Digital Divides” on my HASTAC blog.
To be honest I am a bit concerned the HASTAC publishing platform is unreliable and offers no way of easily managing archives, saving drafts, etc. If the data is lost, it is lost, and I normally write all my posts directly onto their interface. I have seen other HASTAC scholars reblog there what they have published elsewhere, mainly on their blogs, ensuring thus they keep a back-up (and control) of their content.
So far I have only used this blog to keep track and link to my online publications but I think that from now on I will start reblogging my contributions to third-party sites here on my own blog, hoping that if something happens at least there’s a back-up somewhere.
Various Shades of Digital Literacy: The New Digital Divides
I’d like to thank my colleague Melonie Fullick for the conversation that led to this post.
I have been organising collaborative online activities since the late 90s, and throughout those years I have experienced the challenges and opportunities of doing collective work remotely with collaborators who have different backgrounds and levels of expertise.
More recently, as a researcher interested in the digital humanities and as a blogger, editor and academic blogging and social media workshop facilitator I have observed an interesting phenomenon which is also a cause for some concern.
This concern is the rise of different shades of digital literacy levels within groups or communities that are often assumed to have the same skill sets or more or less similar degrees of access to infrastructure, financial means, education, connecitivity amongst others since these groups’ members belong to the same organisation, faculty, department, etc. That members of the same organisation should not be assumed to necessarily have the same digital skills or level of access to said skills, education or resources is precisely one of the motivations for this post.
At the time of writing this, the current “Global Digital Divide” Wikipedia entry reads:
“The global digital divide is a special case of the digital divide, the focus is set on the fact that “Internet has developed unevenly throughout the world” causing some countries to fall behind in technology, education, labor, democracy, and tourism. The concept of the digital divide was originally popularized in regard to the disparity in Internet access between rural and urban areas of the United States of America; the global digital divide mirrors this disparity on an international scale.
The global digital divide also contributes to the inequality of access to goods and services available through technology. Computers and the Internet provide users with improved education, which can lead to higher wages; the people living in nations with limited access are therefore disadvantaged. This global divide is often characterized as falling along what is sometimes called the north-south divide of “northern” wealthier nations and “southern” poorer ones.”
In this case I would like to suggest there are other types of digital divides that are not necessarily between those with access and those without. As Howard Besser pointed out,
“Much of the promise of the digital ages is an increase in democratic values and of broadening public participation in the various aspects of society and culture. In order for this promise to be realized, we need to take concerted action to narrow a host of different digital divides and allow everyone an equal opportunity to partake in this democratic promise.”
Besser is right to point out that “The digital divide also includes a gap between those who can be active creators and distributors of information, and those who can only be consumers.” Nevertheless, the other types of digital divides I have been thinking about take place within those who can be both active creators and distributors of information, as well as consumers of that information.
The group I am talking about is graduate students, post-docs and academic staff in higher education institutions, and specifically within the arts and humanities and in developed nations such as the United Kingdom, Canada and the United States. The sometimes exceedingly high standard expected from candidates as specifically detailed in some digital humanities job descriptions announces a new digital divide, between those who can build the digital platforms and those who would only consume them. Importantly, it may also announce a time in which there might only be funding available for large institutional projects that already involve a great deal of infrastructural support and, very importantly, qualified human resources with advanced levels of humanities resource building –as in coding– and not for those that “only” involve advanced levels of engagment –as in, interpretation and teaching– with those humanities resources.
But there are various shades of complexity before we even get to that divide between those who “build” and those who don’t. New digital divides created by the great diversity of digital skillsets amongst most arts and humanities scholars.
The recent popularity of the digital humanities (or rather, of the term “digital humanities”) has meant that many propose that in the near future everyone in the humanities will be a digital humanist, and that the adjective “digital’ will have to be dropped soon. It is more and more common to see job adverts seeking scholars with PhDs in very specialised arts and humanities themes who can also code (for example, PhP, Python, whatever). In general, these are skills that are not formally included in most postgraduate humanities degrees. Often those humanities scholars who possess some level of coding skills acquired them through alternative methods, taught themselves or have backgrounds in disciplines that until very recently were not part of the humanities curricula.
It is as if suddenly, in some section of the academic world, we were witnessing the rise of a super-humanist, who is not only an expert in Aramean manuscripts but can also develop XML schemas, tweak APIs, design WordPress templates, who is a master of custom CSS design for ebooks and blogs, tweets, curates data sets and visualises online networks; this highly-skilled born-digital creature quantifies her open access journal articles webometrics, in brief this prototype scholar is some kind of mutant 21st century super-powered being who simultaneously designs and maintains algorithmic architectures and deconstructs the history of literary theory and textual scholarship by heart.
On the other hand, we have what I think is a more immediate scenario, that of the scholar (please humour me for the sake of argument) who mainly communicates over emails and listservs, who, say, does not know how to save a PDF or what a hashtag is and has never used a shared Google Drive document. This scholar knows her/his stuff, hates Microsoft, resents having to use a Moodle or PowerPoint (or absolutely loves them), but is not really comfortable with this whole Web 2.0, scholarship-in-the-cloud malarkey.
There’s also an in-between group if you wish, conformed by scholars who are very fluent (or think of themselves as very fluent) in off-the-shelf Web 2.0 tools, they blog, share what they do, keep track of who reads them and eganges with them, who might know what a MOOC is and might even have facilitated or participated in one, who know what tags and attributes are, who learned what they know in different ways, who may know a lot or who may struggle with some aspects of it but just about manage to get along.
And, of course, there’s always those who will belong to all of the above, to just a couple of them or to neither of them, or any other combination you can possibly imagine. The thing is, all these categories are destined to be caricaturesque generalisations, precisely because there are so many shades of fluency and engagement with technical digital skills, expertise and tools.
Therefore these new digital “disparities” in digital fluency are not necessarily about access (or privilege, or wealth, or technology, or connectivity, or language, etc.) as it used to be discussed (between the rich and the poor, the north and the south) but about actual varying degrees of skills within the same groups. These disparities have allowed a technically savvy elite to sometimes get hold of a position that depends on a big group not possessing the skills they have, so rarely there are situations in which they are encouraged to teach others. Sometimes those others will not think they have anything to learn, or will resent being told that perhaps it would be a good idea to sit down and learn how to do something. Sometimes those others wish they had the institutional support to count with the time and space and access to training necessary to acquire new digital skills, no matter how “basic” or “advanced” they may seem to others.
Moreover there is the assumption that commercial off-the-shelf web services are simply picked up by intuitition and trial and error. This is true in some cases. It’s come to the point though in which the web is not something that only interests technically-minded people, but the platform on which and with which, for better or worse, a great percentage of human communication is increasingly taking place, and as such it is worth considering if it would not be a good idea to stop taking for granted that academics (of any age) do not need structured learning opportunities to master the nuances of the web (in this case not as coders, but as skilled users). Perhaps tool-based learning is doomed to failure as these are likely to change or disappear, but core critical and practical skills appliable to a wide variety of web tool scenarios would be a great thing to have a structured, recognised framework for.
Arguably, as web platforms become the mainstream rather than the underground, not only do those platforms become more complex: their users also cannot be expected to always-already have a great degree of proficiency in their management or use. (It can be argued that unlike mainstream scenarios, underground scenes are more or used to be more likely to engage in Do It Yourself and self-taught activities and processes).
For instance, some knowledge that some social media users might take for granted, such as logging in, updating profiles, uploading files, making hyperlinks, etc. might be unknown to even the most apparently proflific of social media users, as sometimes things happen “as if by magic” without users necessarily understanding the processes behind them or without being able to replicate them when contexts or circumstances change. We must stop taking these skills for granted, and reconsider how we might be contributing to new digital divides amongst groups of peers by assuming everyone has (or even should have!) the same digital skillsets, when perhaps they don’t.
These are just some quick notes seeking to suggest that before all arts and humanities scholars become that mutant 21st century super-powered being we need to first recognise the existence of the great diversity of levels of digital literacy, and second that academia needs to figure out how to ensure that, for example, everyone feels comfortable using a search engine before asking them to code one from scratch.
PS. I could have added a lot of hyperlinks to the above post as references, but I’m afraid I don’t have the time, so you get what you pay for. Sorry about that.
[4 October 08:40am BST Update: last night the Guardian published my article “Live-tweeting at academic conferences: 10 rules of thumb”. It can be read here.]
There are very interesting resources out there that can be useful for those interested in academic live-blogging or live-tweeting. My approach comes from an arts and humanities perspective, and other disciplines might have different concerns. Those in the medical sciences, for example, might have to check the research guidelines of their institutions and professional associations before engaging in the live sharing of third-party content. In the arts and humanities we are still catching up with the challenges posed by social media (these challenges are not necessarily exclusive of social media and therefore are not particularly new). Due to the very flexible nature of social media (nothing ever remains the same and things can change very quickly) it is important to be willing to adapt existing resources to specific requirments or circumstances.
Live-blogging is essentially a form of reporting and a way of engaging with real life events and with their reports. It is a form of broadcasting content. It is also a form of research. Guidelines from journalism and research ethics (particularly Internet-Mediated Research) can be very helpful for those working with social media to report academic events as they take place. Academia in the arts and humanities has been relatively slow in the adoption of social media for professional communications and in my view the discussion of issues arising from it shows this, particularly when contrasted with similar discussions in say media or journalism studies. It is in these fields where we can find very interesting resources that we as humanities scholars can adapt to our own settings.
What follows is a quick list of some of the resources I would like to recommend. Obviously there is much more out there. Please note many of the following resources do not specifically refer to arts and humanities academic conference live-tweeting; my suggestion is that there is useful information there we could learn from and adapt to our own needs and purposes.
“Introduction to the Special Issue: Research Ethics in Online Communities”, by Aleks Krotoski. International Journal of Internet Research Ethics Issue 3.1, December 2010. Available from <http://ijire.net/issue_3.1.html>
Zhao, D., & Rosson, M. B. (2009). “How and why people Twitter: The role that micro-blogging plays in informal communication at work”. In Proceedings of the ACM 2009 International Conference on Supporting Group Work (pp. 243–252). Sanibel Island, Florida, USA: ACM. doi:10.1145/1531674.1531