Communities

[Crossposted from The New York Academy of Medicine’s Center for the History of Medicine and Public Health, which has published a cluster of posts previewing a panel I’m presenting on at the AHA.]

The overwhelming tendency toward openness in digital networks presents both opportunities and challenges for contemporary scholarship, and in particular for the traditional structures that have facilitated and disseminated scholarship such as membership-based scholarly societies. Some of the challenges are obvious, and have been discussed in many other fora. The increasing demand for free access to products around which revenue models have long been built, for instance, challenges organizations to reinvent their fundamental orientation toward their stakeholders. For scholars, the network’s openness presents an increasing potential for information overload and an increasing difficulty in finding the right texts, the right connections, the right conversations at the right time.

All of these challenges are of course balanced by opportunities, however, as the network also presents the possibility of greatly improved access to scholarship and more fluid channels for ongoing communication and discovery amongst scholars. These opportunities suggest that an important role for scholarly societies will be in facilitating their members’ participation in these networks, helping to create new community-based platforms and systems through which their members can best carry out their work. Insofar as scholarship has always been a conversation — if one often conducted at a most glacial pace — the chief value for scholars should come in the ability to be full participants in that conversation: not simply getting access to the work that other scholars produce, but also having the ability to get their work into circulation, in the same networks as the work that inspired it, and the work that it will inspire. For this reason, the value of joining a scholarly society in the age of the network is less in getting access to content the society produces (the convention, the journal) than in the ability to participate.

However, this opportunity points toward a deeper, underlying challenge, for societies and scholars alike: building and maintaining communities that inspire and sustain participation. This is nowhere near as easy as it may sound. And it’s not just a matter of the “if you build it, they won’t necessarily come” problem; problems can creep up even when they do come. Take Twitter, for instance, which developed a substantial and enthusiastic academic user base over a period of a few years. Recently, however, many scholars and writers who were once very active and engaged on Twitter have begun withdrawing. Perhaps the drop-off is part of an inevitable evaporative social cooling effect. Perhaps at some point, Twitter’s bigness crossed a threshold into too-big. Whatever the causes, there is an increasing discomfort among many with the feeling that conversations once being held on one’s front porch are suddenly taking place in the street and that discussions have given way to an unfortunate “reign of opinion”, an increasing sense of the personal costs involved in maintaining the level of “ambient intimacy” that Twitter requires and a growing feeling that “a life spent on Twitter is a death by a thousand emotional microtransactions”.

Gartner Hype Cycle

What is crucial to note is that in none of these cases is the problem predominantly one of network structure. If we have reached a “trough of disillusionment” in the Twitter hype cycle, it’s not the fault of the technology, but of the social systems and interactions that have developed around it. If we are going to take full advantage of the affordances that digital networks provide — facilitating forms of scholarly communication from those as seemingly simple as the tweet to those as complex as the journal article, the monograph, and their born-digital descendants — we must focus as much on the social challenges that these networks raise as we do on the technical or financial challenges. To say, however, that we need to focus on building community — or more accurately, building communities — is not to say that we need to develop and enforce the sort of norms of “civility” that have been used to discipline crucial forms of protest. Rather, we need to foster the kinds of communication and connection that will enable a richly conceived panoply of communities of practice, as they long have in print, to work in engaged, ongoing dissensus without reverting to silence.

[Image: Gartner Hype Cycle, by Jeremy Kemp. Shared under CC BY-SA 3.0 license. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hype_cycle#mediaviewer/File:Gartner_Hype_Cycle.svg]

I’m contemplating a new writing project, and as I often do in the early stages of such projects, I’m beginning by thinking about the surfaces on which I’m going to do that writing, and the surfaces on which that writing will eventually appear. That sent me off this morning into a bit of tinkering here, which resulted in a whole new theme. Something about this theme feels more conducive to the work I’m hoping to do in the coming months.

Of course, it remains to be seen whether the prettied-up surface will result in any more actual posting than there has been of late, but a girl can dream.

I Am Not Blogging

This post is likely little more than a bit of ritual throat-clearing, designed to help me get past a stage in the trying-to-write-again process in which I simply cannot get myself to focus on what it is that I need to write (promised articles coming due in very rapid succession) and yet cannot find a way to noodle around with something new, either. The result is that I find myself looking guiltily at this space, thinking I should be writing something here, that it might help get me going again, but finding myself with nothing much worth writing about.

It’s not as though I’m not writing, though, all-day-every-day: memos and reports and email messages and proposals and even one very big important project for the day job. It’s just that all of that has taken a tremendous amount of energy off the top of the thing I persist in thinking of as “my own writing.” But deadlines are pressing, and I find myself flailing around a bit, looking for that magical point of entry into these articles.

And so, I’m back into my too frequently forgotten strategies: sitting down at the computer first thing in the morning, before the day’s demands get the opportunity to make themselves known; doing whatever freewriting I need to do to get myself loosened up; consulting the notes I’ve made about the projects in front of me.

This post is a moment of knuckle-cracking before I set fingers to keyboard, hoping that the loosened-up hands will magically tap out the answers. Wish me luck.

Get Me Rewrite!

Consider this a plea for help:

This site has been through some serious migrations over the years. It’s had two different hosting providers and three different blog platforms, among other kinds of changes. As a result, its permalink structure has changed over time, and I’ve had to use mod_rewrite to grapple with redirecting old inbound links to where they need to go.

By and large, I’ve been able to manage this. I’ve got one big lingering problem, however, that results from neither a server nor a platform migration.

For several years, Planned Obsolescence ran on a single-site WordPress installation, with pretty /%postname%/ permalinks. A little while back, I got the bright idea that I should consolidate it with a few other WP instances I was running, through one clean multi-site installation.

This is now the main site of that multi-site instance. But multi-site WP adds /blog/ to the URLs of all posts in that main site. And so inbound links that are looking for http://www.plannedobsolescence.net/post-title get 404’d.

I have searched around, both within wordpress.org and out in the larger internets, for a way to use htaccess to redirect such inbound links to http://www.plannedobsolescence.net/blog/post-title. But I’ve run into several problems, most notably, infinite redirect loops: even when I include a !blog condition in the rewrite rule, the request still gets caught in some redirect vortex. I also need to make sure that a few pages and secondary blog directories don’t wind up with /blog/ added to their URLs.

I’ve created a 404 page that attempts to explain the problem, and I should probably just let it go at that, but knowing all those errors are out there makes my OCD kick in. So if there were a mod_rewrite guru out there willing to help me work through this problem, I’d be enormously grateful.

Dear Hosting Provider

Weirdly, when our team said “let’s upgrade our server” got a message saying “we’re going to upgrade your server,” we didn’t expect you to redirect our DNS entry to a machine so new that it has no files on it. Not just no files, but no configuration whatsoever. And no users, so no way to, I don’t know, configure the machine such that one can put files on it.

I know. Silly us.

No worries, though. It’s not like we were running a large-scale scholarly community that depends on the goodwill of its volunteer participants, whose goodwill varies directly with the perceived stability of the platform.

Thanks, however, for giving the team a bit of clarity on the whole “hey, do we want to stay with this hosting provider or look for another one that might be better suited to our needs” business!

Love,
@kfitz

Disagreement

Tim McCormick posted an extremely interesting followup to my last post. If you haven’t read it, you should.

My comment on his post ran a bit out of control, and so I’m reproducing it here, in part so that I can continue thinking about this after tonight:

This is a great post, Tim. Here’s the thing, though: this is exactly the kind of public disagreement that I want the culture of online engagement to be able to foster; it is, as you point out, respectful, but it’s also serious. The problem is that I think this kind of dissensus is in danger as long as our mode of discourse falls so easily into snark, hostility, dismissiveness, and counterproductive incivility.

I don’t think it’s accidental that we are having this discussion via our blogs. I had time to sit with my post before I published it. You had time to read it and think about it before you responded. I’ve had time to consider this comment. And not just time — both of us have enough space to flesh out our thoughts. None of this means that by the end of the exchange we’re going to agree; in fact, I’m pretty sure we won’t. But it does mean that we’ve both given serious thought to the disagreement.

And this is what has me concerned about recent episodes on Twitter. Not that people disagree, but that there often isn’t enough room in either time or space for thought before responding, and thus that those responses so easily drift toward the most literally thoughtless. I’m not asking anybody not to say exactly what’s on their minds; by all means, do. I’m just asking that we all think about it a bit first.

And — if I could have anything — it would be for all of us to think about it not just from our own subject positions, but from the positions of the other people involved. This is where I get accused of wanting everybody to sit around the campfire and sing Kumbaya, which is simply not it at all. Disagree! But recognize that there is the slightest possibility that you (not you, Tim; that general “you” out there) could be wrong, and that the other person might well have a point.

So in fact, here’s a point of agreement between the two of us: you say that we need to have “the widest possible disagreements,” and that “to be other-engaged, and world-engaged, we need to be always leaning in to the uncomfortable.” Exactly! But to say that, as a corollary, we have to permit uncivil speech, public insult, and shaming — that anyone who resists this kind of behavior is just demanding that everyone agree — is to say that only the person who is the target of such speech needs to be uncomfortable, that the person who utters it has no responsibility for pausing to consider that other’s position. And there, I disagree quite strongly. (As does, I think, Postel; being liberal in what you accept from others has to be matched by being conservative in what you do for the network to be robust.)

I do not think that it should be the sole responsibility of the listener to tune out hostility, or that, as a Twitter respondent said last night, that it’s the responsibility of one who has been publicly shamed simply to decide not to feel that shame. There’s an edge of blaming the victim there that makes me profoundly uncomfortable. But I do think that we all need to do a far better job of listening to one another, and of taking one another seriously when we say that something’s just not okay. That, I think, is the real work that Ryan Cordell did in his fantastic blog post this morning. It’s way less important to me what the specific plan he’s developed for his future Tweeting is (though I think it’s awesome); it’s that he took the time to sit down with a person he’d hurt and find out what had happened from her perspective. It’s not at all incidental that they walked away from their conversation still disagreeing about the scholarly issues that set off their exchange — but with what sounds like a deeper respect for one another as colleagues.

This has all become a bit heavier than I want it to be. I have no interest in becoming the civility police. Twitter is fun, and funny, and irreverent, and playful, and I want it to stay that way. But I really resist the use of shame as a tool of either humor or criticism. Shame is corrosive to community. It shuts down discussion, rather than opening it up. And that’s my bottom line.

If You Can’t Say Anything Nice

Folks, we need to have a conversation. About Twitter. And generosity. And public shaming.

First let me note that I have been as guilty of what I’m about to describe as anyone. You get irritated by something — something someone said or didn’t say, something that doesn’t work the way you want it to — you toss off a quick complaint, and you link to the offender so that they see it. You’re in a hurry, you’ve only got so much space, and (if you’re being honest with yourself) you’re hoping that your followers will agree with your complaint, or find it funny, or that it will otherwise catch their attention enough to be RT’d.

I’ve done this, probably more times than I want to admit, without even thinking about it. But I’ve also been on the receiving end of this kind of public insult a few times, and I’m here to tell you, it sucks.

I am not going to suggest in what follows that there’s no room for critique, even on Twitter, and that we all ought to just join hands and express our wish for the ability to teach the world to sing. But I do want to argue that there is a significant difference between thoughtful public critique and thoughtless public shaming. And if we don’t know the difference, we — as a community of scholars working together online, whose goals are ostensibly trying to make the world a more thoughtful place — need to figure it out, and fast.

There are two problems working in confluence here, as far as I can tell. One is about technological affordances: Twitter’s odd mixture of intimacy and openness — the feeling that you’re talking to your friends when (usually, at least) anyone could be listening in — combined with the flippancy that often results from enforced, performative brevity too frequently produces a kind of critique that veers toward the snippy, the rude, the ad hominem.

The other problem is academia. As David Damrosch has pointed out in another context, “In anthropological terms, academia is more of a shame culture than a guilt culture.” Damrosch means to indicate that academics are more likely to respond to shame, or the suggestion that they are a bad person, than to guilt, or the indication that they have done a bad thing. And he’s not wrong: we all live with guilt — about blown deadlines or dropped promises — all the time, and we so we eventually become a bit inured to it. But shame — being publicly shown up as having failed, in a way that makes evident that we are failures — gets our attention. That, as Damrosch notes, is something we’ll work to avoid.

And yet, it’s also something that we’re more than willing to dole out to one another. There’s a significant body of research out there — some of my favorite of it comes from Brené Brown — that demonstrates the profound damage that shame does not only to the individual but to all of the kinds of relationships that make up our culture. Not least among that damage is that, while a person who feels guilty often tries to avoid the behavior that produced the feeling, a person who feels shame too often responds by shaming others.

So, we’ve got on the one hand a technology that allows us, if we’re not mindful of how we’re using it, to lash out hastily — and publicly — at other people, for the amusement or derision of our followers, and on the other hand, a culture that too often encourages us to throw off whatever shame we feel by shaming others.

Frankly, I’ve grown a little tired of it. I’ve been withdrawing from Twitter a bit over the last several months, and it’s taken me a while to figure out that this is why. I am feeling frayed by the in-group snark, by the use of Twitter as a first line of often incredibly rude complaints about products or services, by the one-upsmanship and the put-downs. But on the other hand, I find myself missing all of the many positive aspects of the community there — the real generosity, the great sense of humor, the support, the engagement, the liveliness. Those are all way more predominant than the negative stuff, and yet the negative stuff has disproportional impact, looming way larger than it should.

So what I’m hoping is to start a conversation about how we might maximize those positive aspects of Twitter, and move away from the shame culture that it’s gotten tied to. How can we begin to consider whether there are better means of addressing complaints than airing them in public? How can we develop modes of public critique that are rigorous and yet respectful? How can we remain aware that there are people on the other end of those @mentions who are deserving of the same kinds of treatment — and subject to the same kinds of pain — that we are?

Advice on Academic Blogging, Tweeting, Whatever

Over the weekend, something hashtagged as #twittergate was making the rounds among the tweeps. I haven’t dug into the full history (though Adeline storyfied it), but the debate has raised questions about a range of forms of conference reporting, and as a result, posts and columns both old and new exploring the risks and rewards of scholarly blogging have been making the rounds. Last night sometime, Adeline asked me what advice I have for junior faculty who get caught in conference blogging kerfuffles – which I take as standing in for a range of conflicts that can arise between those who are active users of various kinds of social media and those who are less familiar and less comfortable with the new modes of communicating.

This was far too big a question to take on in 140 characters, and I didn’t want to issue a knee-jerk response. I’m still piecing together my thoughts, so this post will no doubt evolve, either in the comments or in future posts. But here are a few initial thoughts:

1. Do not let dust-ups such as these stop you from blogging/tweeting/whatever. These modes of direct scholar-to-scholar communication are increasingly important, and if you’ve found community in them, you should work to maintain it. (And if you’re looking for better connections to the folks in your field or better visibility for your work and you aren’t using these channels, you should seriously consider them.)

2. Listen carefully to these debates, though, as they will tell you something important about your field and the folks in it. If there are folks on Twitter who are saying that they are less than comfortable with some of its uses, or if there are blog posts exploring the ups and downs of blogging, you might want to pay attention. There’s a lot to be learned from these points of tension in any community.

3. Use your blog/twitter/whatever professionally. This ought to be completely obvious, of course, but the key here is to really think through what professional use means in an academic context. In our more formal writing, we’re extremely careful to distinguish between our own arguments and the ideas of others — between our interpretation of what someone else has said and the conclusions that we go on to draw — and we have clear textual signals that mark those distinctions. Such distinctions can and should exist in social media as well: if you’re live-tweeting a presentation, you should attribute ideas to the speaker but simultaneously make clear that the tweets are your interpretation of what’s being said. The same for blogging. The point is that none of these channels are unmediated by human perspective. They’re not directly transmitting what the speaker is saying to a broader audience. And the possibilities for misunderstanding — is this something the speaker said, or your response to it? — are high. Bringing the same kinds of scrupulousness to blogging and tweeting that we bring to formal writing are is key. [Edited 12.55pm. Bad English professor!]

4. Make your tweets and blog posts your own. As I understand it, some of the concern about the tweeting and blogging of conference papers has to do with intellectual property concerns; does a blog post about a presentation undermine the claims of the speaker to the material? The answer is of course not, but if you want to avoid conflict around such IP issues, ensure that your posts focus on your carefully signalled responses to the talk, rather than on the text of the talk itself. This is the same mode in which we do all of our work — taking in and responding to the arguments of others — and it should be recognizable as such.

5. If somebody says they’d prefer not to be tweeted or blogged, respect that. Whatever your feelings about the value of openness — and openness ranks very high among my academic values — not everyone shares them. While I have a hard time imagining giving a talk that I didn’t wish more people could hear, I know there are other scholars who are less comfortable with the broadcast of in-process material. And while I might like to nudge them toward more openness, it’s neither my place nor is it worth the potential bad feeling to do so.

And finally:

6. Relax. People are going to freak out about the things they’re going to freak out about. If you’re working in a new field, or in alternative forms — if you’re really pushing at the boundaries of scholarly work in the ways that you should — somebody’s not going to like it. Always. The thing to do is to make your argument as professionally as you can, to demonstrate the value of the ways that you’re working — and then to get back to work. Doing your work well, and being able to show how your work is paying off, are the point.

That’s what I’ve got at the moment. What am I missing?

Multiple Calendar Query

Here’s a (rather long) question for the Google Calendar devotees out there:

I’ve long had a personal Gmail account that I’ve done all my scheduling through. (I can’t remember what prompted me to switch my calendaring from the iCal/Mobile Me suite, but it probably had something to do with sync failures.) Anyhow, being a little fastidious, I’ve got multiple calendars set up in that account, each with its own color, so that I can see at a glance the distribution of my time across any given day/week. There’s a calendar (orange) for exercise, a calendar (purple) for personal stuff, and so on, and of course the main account calendar (blue), which I use for work-oriented appointments.

It’s been a system that’s worked fairly well for me. Until now!

The good news is that my work email and calendaring system has recently moved from one that I found bizarre and unfriendly (cough***Lotus Notes***cough) to the familiar and functional world of Google Apps. And the even better news is that as my colleagues move into the new system, we’re using Google Calendar for lots and lots of scheduling, so calendars are openly shared (full information, not free/busy) throughout the office.

And this is great; I love knowing when my colleagues are available, and I love that they know the same about me. But what I’m struggling with is how to simplify my scheduling across these two accounts as much as possible, without announcing every yoga class or personal appointment that I have to all of my colleagues.

I’ve shared my personal calendars with my work account and vice versa, so that everything appears in and can be manipulated from both accounts. And I’ve made it possible for my colleagues to see my free/busy status on those personal calendars. But I think that they’d have to subscribe to each of those calendars in order to get all of the information, which isn’t ideal.

What I’m wondering is whether I need to collapse all of the calendars in my personal account down into the primary calendar (and then use the recently introduced ability to set a color for an individual event to maintain the visual distinction I like), so that my colleagues only have to subscribe to my work (full info) and personal (free/busy) calendars to get the full picture.

Or is there a better way? Multiple-account-holding Google folks, I’d love to know how you’re dealing with your calendars…