I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my stay in Lexington for the Transylvania Seminar: fantastic conversations about the principles and practices of liberal education; great new colleagues; a bunch of amazing meals. But I’m ready to get home now, and ready to get back to work with my @CALMSU colleagues on building responsive, just, generous institutional structures in support of higher education for the public good.

It’s been a good-news-bad-news kinda day. I got word of two unsuccessful grant proposals, but I also got amazing comments on them: positive, supportive, enthusiastic, and helpful.

I’m putting this out there for two reasons: first, because I think it’s increasingly important for those of us who are free to talk about our moments of failure and disappointment to do so, to make clear that successful careers are built on a whole lot of rejection.

And second, because I am enormously grateful to the NEH and its fantastic staff and reviewers for their role in the work that we do. So much of the “no” they have to say is hard, driven by the limitations imposed by their too small, and too repeatedly threatened, budget.

I owe them my thanks — so many of us do — for the programs, for the generous feedback, and for their dedication in supporting the work of the humanities.

New tools become tenable only if the attendant social organization of labor changes in concert with the development of the tools, if adjustments are made to the ways that labor and expertise are divided and that resources and rewards are distributed. Lisa Gitelman, Paper Knowledge

Sustainability and Solidarity

I’ve been thinking a fair bit about sustainability of late. To a significant extent, this thinking has been encouraged by my recent attempts to ensure that a non-profit scholarly network to which I’m deeply committed might be able to thrive. And those attempts have in turn been encouraged by the funders and other organizations that have supported that network’s development to this point; they too would like to see the network thrive, but they cannot support it indefinitely. We need, they reasonably suggest, a plan for demonstrating that the network will, at some point in the future, support itself.

Sustainability, in this line of thinking, is thus tied up in revenue models, in business plans, in cost recovery. Sustainability is for a non-profit entity forever financialized and, as a result, forever precarious. One small miscalculation can make the difference between survival and collapse.

And of course sustainability extends to realms other than the economic: there’s environmental sustainability, in which we attempt to ensure that more resources aren’t consumed — or more waste produced — than can be developed or managed in the near term. There’s technical sustainability, in which we attempt to ensure that projects conform to commonly accepted standards that will enable those projects’ future stability and growth.

All of these forms of sustainability are important, to varying degrees, to providing for the future of a non-profit network. But there’s another form that gets a good bit less attention, and that I increasingly think precedes economic or environmental or technical sustainability: social sustainability. The social aspect points not just to the determination of a group of people to support the network, but to the determination of those people to support their groupness; not just to their commitment to the thing they’re doing together, but to their commitment to the notion of “together” in the first place. Ensuring that these commitments are sustained is, I increasingly think, a necessary precondition of the other kinds of sustainability that we’re hoping to work toward.

My particular interests in this question derive from some challenges that have repeatedly surfaced in digital scholarly communication and digital humanities as tools and platforms age. There’s often lots of support available for building and, increasingly, implementing free and open-source tools, but there aren’t funding programs designed to ensure that they can be maintained. And as a result, the tools and platforms often accrue technical debt that becomes increasingly difficult to manage, rapidly making the projects appear unsustainable.

Brett Bobley recently tweeted a question about ways of sustaining such projects:

There are numerous discussions and threads resulting from that question that are worth reading, but one that caught my attention in particular stems from this reply by Hugh Cayless:

There is absolutely an institutional responsibility involved in sustaining these projects, but, as I argue in Generous Thinking, individual institutions cannot manage such responsibilities on their own. Cross-institutional collaborations are required in order to keep open-source software projects sustainable, and those collaborations demand that the staff participating in them be supported in dedicating some portion of their time to the collective good, rather than strictly to local requirements.

Sustainability in open-source development thus increasingly seems to me to have solidarity as a prerequisite, a recognition that the interests of the group require commitment from its members to that group, at times over and above their own individual interests. What I’m interested in thinking about is how we foster that commitment: how, in fact, we understand that commitment itself as a crucial form of social sustainability.

For the last week-plus, I’ve had The Bee Gees’ “Nights on Broadway” on repeat in my head. It’s not the worst earworm I’ve ever had, but it did finally drive me to look up the lyrics so I had something more coherent than “Blay menemah (blay menemah) mmhm nights on Broadway…”

Feeds and Gardens

My last post, Connections, gathered a fair bit of response — enough that you can see a good example of Webmentions in action below it. There’s a little back-and-forth discussion there that mostly took place on Twitter, as well as a lot of likes and mentions that came from there as well.

One important question surfaced in that discussion: Lee Skallerup Bessette asks how we keep in conversation with one another from our separate domains. Webmentions are one part of that equation, but discovery as François notes is another. One thing that Twitter has been pretty good at, after all, is gathering a sense of what people are reading and talking about, or what they ought to be reading and talking about.

Before Twitter, there was RSS. In fact, after Twitter, there still is RSS, a means of sharing information from one service or domain to another whose possibilities have never felt fully explored. I will admit to having all but abandoned my RSS reader some time back; none of the options after Google Reader were quite as satisfying community-wise, and Twitter was directing me to more than enough to read, so I let it go.

But now, as I find myself withdrawing a bit from Twitter and heading toward more intentionally chosen and cultivated spaces, discovery once again becomes an issue. Happily, a Twitter conversation (yes, I know) between Mark Sample and the folks at Reclaim Hosting led to the addition of FreshRSS to Reclaim’s Installatron, meaning that in just a few clicks I was able to self-host my own RSS aggregator. I transferred my subscriptions from my old feed reader, and was back in business.

In the process, I discovered that a lot of folks I’d been following hadn’t updated in yonks, and that some feeds no longer existed at all. So I’ve done a lot of pruning. But having done so, I’m ready to start cultivating that garden again, so do let me know if you’ve got a feed that I ought to be following.

In the meantime, Chris Aldrich indicates (in a reply to my post, posted on his site, that appears in my dashboard here as a comment but that for some reason is not appearing on the front end) that there is a forthcoming generation of feed readers that will not only gather in content but also syndicate responses to it, allowing replies (like Chris’s to me) to appear both on the comment author’s site and on the site of the original post.

This all raises, as Dorothea Salo notes, some serious questions about spam and harassment. One of the things about the early community of academic bloggers that I’m so nostalgic for (nostalgic enough that I should know to be a little self-critical here) is that it was pretty small, and so could be pretty intentional. And even so, problems arose. Maintaining the care exercised in a known community while remaining open to other voices and inputs is an issue that the next wave of distributed but interconnected communication platforms are going to need to face head-on. The IndieWeb folks are exploring this through Vouch, a protocol for mediating new connections through mutually known community members.

These are real challenges, I think, a few among the many that social media platforms have utterly fumbled: finding ways to be open to the web while safe from harassment; finding ways to maintain ownership of one’s content while being open to discussion; finding ways to develop and extend community without endangering the very thing we’re trying to create. Finding ways to care for one’s plot, in other words, without winding up in a walled garden. I’m looking forward to seeing how a decentralized, distributed, interconnected web might find new ways to approach these challenges.