Themes

Sigh. I am wrestling with a few problems here, which have me a bit stymied. The theme you currently see1 is a child theme of Independent Publisher 2, which is a WordPress.com fork of Independent Publisher, originally developed by Raam Dev. The thing I like about the entire Independent Publisher family is the extent to which it allows focus on the text; it’s typographically clean and engaging, and pretty flexible overall.

Except for a couple of things. The original Independent Publisher doesn’t support a full-width cover image — not a deal-breaker, but I’ve grown a little attached to the one I’m using here. And its single-column layout winds up looking pretty odd on individual post pages. Independent Publisher 2 takes care of both of those issues, and adds a range of other functionality.2

But Independent Publisher 2 doesn’t really support post formats, which Independent Publisher does quite well. I’ve managed to do a bit of tinkering with my child theme’s functions.php in order to approximate post format support, which is necessary to my micro.blog integration, but I’m running into oddities that make clear how partial that support is. For instance: if I use the post date to automatically create a title for my Asides,3 those titles appear on the posts, which, if the posts were really being treated as Asides, they wouldn’t.

So I have a few options:

  1. Figure out how to hack Independent Publisher to support the full-width header image I want.
  2. Figure out how to hack Independent Publisher 2 to fully support post formats.
  3. Find a new theme that actually does all the things that I want it to do, and looks the way that I want it to look.4

I’d be happy to receive your suggestions!

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.

Connections

One of the instigating factors in my recent migration from my original plannedobsolescence.net domain to kfitz.info, and in my attempts to collect and reinvigorate my online presence here, was a talk by Herbert van de Sompel at last December’s CNI meeting. In this talk, Van de Sompel explored a somewhat mind-blowing vision for a decentralized, distributed, but heavily interconnected future for scholarly communication. In this model, individual scholars maintain and publish on their own domains but are able to respond to and discuss with one another via a robust set of protocols for cross-domain communication.

Van de Sompel pointed to the work being done at MIT by Tim Berners-Lee’s Solid group, and this is where I started to get excited. As I understand it, the vision behind Solid — from “social linked data” — involves interoperable but modular applications, allowing both for private, individual data ownership and for interconnections across applications and domains, including rich notifications and conversations.

This vision, if it could be realized, seemed to me to present an exciting solution to a perennial complaint of mine: the degree to which the vibrant network of academic blogs of the early- to mid-aughts got derailed by the rise of social media, and particularly by Facebook and Twitter. Before these networks emerged into dominance, individual authors (and sometimes groups of authors) owned and controlled their own platforms and connected to one another through comments and links. We had our own spaces, and we used them to publish not just our own ideas but also our responses to one another.

Social media networks provided immediate solutions to a few problems with those early blogging networks: they relieved the moderately heavy lift in getting started and they created the possibility of connections that were immediate, dense, and growing. But as those networks expanded, they both pulled authors away from their own domains — so much quicker to tweet than to blog, and with a much speedier potential response — and they privatized and scattered conversations. An author might still blog, but (thanks to the post-Google-Reader decline in RSS use) ensuring that readers knew that she’d posted something required publicizing it on Twitter, and responses were far more likely to come as tweets. Even worse, readers might be inspired to share her blog post with their friends via Facebook, but any ensuing conversation about that post was entirely captured there, never reconnecting with the original post or its author. And without those connections and discussions and the energy and attention they inspired, blogs… became isolated. Slowed. Often stopped entirely.

I’ve hoped for years for a means of recapturing that early blogging energy, of returning to a distributed network of folks thinking in their own spaces and yet connecting across them. And van de Sompel’s talk pushed me to think about ways I might start.

Of course, I was trying to finish a book at the time, so it took a while to take the plunge. But I eventually started the migration to kfitz.info and began looking for ways to consolidate my network activity here. And it’s that desire to consolidate that immediately drew me to micro.blog, which allows me to create very short posts here that can be republished on various social media channels.

But the essential problem of dispersion remained: I might capture all the content I create here, but responses on social media stayed on those channels. The connections remained incomplete — at least until Chris Aldrich pointed me toward Webmentions and Semantic Linkbacks. Chris published a great article exploring Webmentions yesterday at A List Apart, but the upshot is that this relatively new web standard allows for round-tripped connections among discrete domains, enabling the conversation about an individual post to be represented on that post, wherever it might actually take place.

There are still some wrinkles to be ironed out in getting the various platforms we use today to play well with Webmentions, but it’s a real step toward the goal of that decentralized, distributed, interconnected future for scholarly communication.

Why Not Blog?

My friend Alan Jacobs, a key inspiration in my return (such as it is, so far) to blogging and RSS and a generally pre-Twitter/Facebook outlook on the scholarly internet, is pondering the relationship between blogging and other forms of academic writing in thinking about his next project. Perhaps needless to say, this is something I’m considering as well, and I’m right there with him in most regards.

But there are a few spots where I’m not, entirely, and I’m not sure whether it’s a different perspective or a different set of experiences, or perhaps the latter having led to the former. For instance, Alan notes:

If I had never blogged a single word I would have precisely the same job I have now…

By contrast, I know without any doubt whatsoever that if I had never blogged at all I would not only not have the same job I have now, I would not have gotten my previous job, and might very likely not have gotten promoted at the one before that. The blog was not just the venue in which I started putting together the ideas that became my second book, the one that made promotion and various subsequent jobs possible, but it was also the way that I was able to demonstrate that there might be a readership for that second book, without which it’s much less likely that a press would have been interested. And then, of course, there’s that blog-based open review project, which was crucial to the book turning out to be the book that it was.

In fact, all along the path, such as my career thus far has taken, the blog has been necessary if not sufficient. My first formal citations in the scholarly literature, for instance, pointed to blog posts rather than to more regularly published work. So Alan’s not at all incorrect assertion —

Scholars will cite a dozen mediocre peer-reviewed published papers before they’ll cite even the most brilliant blog post.

— triggers in me an unfortunate case of #NotAllScholars!, which while perhaps literally true is just as unhelpful and privileged and key-issue-avoiding as all other versions of #NotAllX are. In fact blog posts are not the kind of thing one can detail on one’s annual review form, and even a blog in the aggregate doesn’t have a place in which it’s easy to be claimed as a site of ongoing scholarly productivity.

Alan, in any case, is working his way around to what the blog might actually do, regardless of what our shared profession thinks it might or might not do. And in a somewhat different way, I am as well. As I noted in an aside, I’ve never started a book project — and I mean that all the way back to my dissertation — in the way that I have always thought I was supposed to: (a) Having an Idea; (b) Researching that Idea; (c) Outlining the Book exploring that Idea; (d) Writing the Book detailing that Idea.

Mine have gone more like (1) having some vague annoying idea with a small i; (b) writing multiple blog posts thinking about things related to that idea; (iii) giving a talk somewhere fulminating about some other thing entirely; (4) wondering if maybe there are connections among those things; (e) holy carp, if I lay the things I’ve been noodling about over the last year and a half out in this fashion, it could be argued that I am in the middle of writing a book!

This is in my experience less a matter of, as Alan describes it, an idea pulling up in your driveway and sitting out there honking its horn, than it is me waking up in the driver’s seat on the freeway and thinking that maybe it would be a good idea to put my hands on the wheel after all.

All of which is to say: it hit me this afternoon that there’s an idea — small i; vague; annoying — that I’ve been writing and talking about in a weird range of forms lately (talks, blog posts, grant proposals). And today I’m wondering whether that might be the next car I wake up in, and whether there’s a way for me to prepare to take the wheel.

Perhaps that preparation might happen here. Perhaps what happens here might demonstrate that there’s no capital-I Idea after all. In any case, hi, thanks for reading, this space will not go wasted.1

What’s New?

Over the last couple of months, I opened Generous Thinking to a community review process at Humanities Commons. I am thrilled with how the discussion went and am thoroughly enjoying the process of revision started.

Doing that work has had me reflecting a fair bit of late on my working processes, how they’ve changed over the last several years, and how I might want to transform them yet again. And one bit of that potential transformation is leading me, with Dan Cohen, back to blogging, and, with Alan Jacobs, to ponder returning to some related technologies as well.

The 2002 version of Planned Obsolescence

But it was time for more than a minor refresh here. I started the blog now formerly known as Planned Obsolescence back in 2002, and its title was intended as a tongue-in-cheek jab at the book manuscript I’d just finished revising, The Anxiety of Obsolescence. The blog was my “what, me worry” in the face of the possibility that the book, started six or seven years before as my dissertation, might itself be obsolete before it ever saw print. Fine, I apparently thought: you want obsolete, I’ll give you obsolete.

I didn’t know so many things then. I didn’t know that within the first year of blogging I’d connect with a small crew of other academic blogging folks, including the Wordherders, many of whom became my closest colleagues and friends. I didn’t know that the reading and writing that my blogging friends and I were doing would transform the ways that I thought about scholarly work, not just how it gets done but the purposes it serves. I didn’t know that the blog would wind up hosting the first pieces of my writing to be cited in more formal academic contexts. I didn’t know that the blog would be the place I’d turn when it looked like that first book might not get published, the space where I’d wind up thinking through the puzzles in scholarly communication that eventually turned into my second book. And I had no idea that, in a bit of ironic turnabout, I’d wind up naming the second book after the blog, in part to gesture toward the blog’s preeminence.

All I knew was that I was desperate for someone to read — and maybe even respond — to something I wrote. And this seemed like one way of making that happen.

The 2018 version of Planned Obsolescence

This space has been at the heart of all of the work I’ve done over the last nearly 16 years. And it seems like a good moment to step away from the notion of obsolescence, if for no other reason than that 16 years is a whole lot of persistence.

I’ve migrated Planned Obsolescence to this new location, and my 301s seem to be working, and the Google authorities have been informed. I’ve also migrated one of my subdomains, Projects, which hosts a few old community review projects. I still need to migrate my teaching-focused subdomain, but that one’s pretty complicated, so it may take me a bit. And I’m itching to get back to work, so it seems like a good moment to launch.

I’m hoping to write some about my revision process in the coming weeks, to think through some of the challenges I’m running up against. And beyond Generous Thinking, I’m hoping to get back to using this space to think through some new ideas — not least because I have no idea what my next project will be.

It’s nice to have a period of not-knowing in front of me again, and a space in which some new connections can be forged. I’m looking forward to seeing where it all leads.

On Developing Networked Communities

I dropped what a friend of mine referred to as a “Twitter bomb” this morning, spurred on by a question raised by Tim Hutchings:

My thoughts have gotten a bit of attention, and in order to ensure that they’re not lost to the passage of time (and to do the editing that Twitter won’t permit), I thought I’d capture them here.

I’ve heard the concern about the way we named Humanities Commons a few times, and I have taken it to heart. I’ve tried, as much as I can, to put aside my somewhat knee-jerk desire to point out that few have complained about the ways that projects with “science” in their names limit their address. Because there’s a real point being made here: naming the humanities limits our reach. And to a significant extent, that’s purposeful.

The humanities have long been underserved by digital infrastructure projects. Scientists have loads of open science networks available to them. Social scientists have had SSRN. And given that Humanities Commons began with the MLA, and MLA Commons, it seemed only natural that we should serve our own constituency first.

But: First. Platforming outward from MLA Commons to Humanities Commons has been one step in a process. And more steps are to come.

It’s hard to develop community by simply throwing open the doors, though. Much as I resist the Facebook analogy (as I wouldn’t want a scholarly commons to take it as a model), it’s worth considering how the platform grew. First, they established internally-focused networks within individual institutions, enabling members to connect with people they already knew. Then they created means of connecting across those networks. And only once there was a critical mass of participation did they open the doors to everyone.

One of the mistakes that’s been made repeatedly in open scholarly communication projects has been the attempt to create the bucket of everything. Sometimes that bucket has been journal-shaped, and sometimes it’s been social network shaped. But they all face the same challenge: getting individual scholars who identify with their field or subfield and who want to speak with their colleagues to recognize themselves in “everybody.”

So Humanities Commons has begun with communities of practice — but they’re just a place to start. We welcome the involvement of new communities of practice, and we look forward to growing the network in organic, collaborative ways.

The Commons and the Common Good

A photo showing a plant growing out of a concrete wall
Earlier this week, I took a whirlwind trip back to my old New York stomping grounds, where I both had the opportunity to catch up with my colleagues at the MLA and to spend a day talking with the leaders of several scholarly societies who are helping us think through the future of Humanities Commons. I’m still a bit fuzzy-headed from travel and sleep deprivation, and I’m still processing the discussion and the challenges that it surfaced, but I’m excited about the energy in that meeting room and the possibilities that lie ahead.

Two things became clear to me in the course of our conversation. The first thing is that organizations and institutions across the humanities are facing many of the same challenges and have many of the same resulting infrastructural and communication needs. The second is that chief among those needs — if often unrecognized or unarticulated — is the ability to have some agency with respect to the solutions they adopt. Neither of these ideas really qualifies as a realization, but the degree to which the shared nature of the challenges risks obscuring the shared potential of the solutions did become a good bit sharper.

A huge part of the problem is that the most shared of the shared challenges is budgetary: everybody’s underresourced and understaffed; everybody is trying to figure out how to do more with less. Scholarly societies need to provide their members with more, and more compelling, services in order to keep those members involved and invested, but doing so often involves new systems and platforms, and supporting (much less developing) those systems and platforms is often beyond those societies’ capacity. Similarly, colleges and universities need to provide their faculty members and students with compelling ways to develop their research and make it available to and discoverable by the world, but they face similar challenges in developing the infrastructure — not just technical but crucially human — to facilitate that work.

This gap between needs and capacities has led to a thriving ed-tech and association management industry. Solutions (with a capital S) abound. The problem, of course, is that the end goal of those providing the Solutions is not the same as the end goal of the organizations and institutions they’re providing the Solutions for: not improving education, or facilitating communication, or supporting research, or whathaveyou, but instead (as Neal Stephenson would have it) increasing shareholder value. In order to do so, of course, their Solutions need to be pretty good, and pretty well-supported, but where the goal of increasing shareholder value runs up against the needs and pressures of the organizations and institutions they’re ostensibly serving, the industry’s goals are going to win. And the result is platforms and services that function more to extract value from organizations than to help those organizations serve their members’ needs.

These platforms and services, however, are generally speaking too difficult to develop and maintain for any organization or institution to manage on their own. And it’s that “on their own” that makes the Solutions industry a viable one. As long as organizations and institutions not only assume their needs to be idiosyncratic but feel the need, as Chris Newfield has put it, to “compete all the time,” they’re stuck, at the mercy of the market.

I am very grateful to have had the opportunity over the last several years to work for an organization that recognized the importance of providing community-focused platforms for scholarly communication, and that gave me the latitude to work with other like-minded academic groups to develop an open-source, not-for-profit solution (with a small s) to fill that need. The MLA is large enough, and well-resourced enough, to have been able to take such a project on where many of its sister societies could not. But sustaining a solution like this requires more than even the largest and best-resourced organizations can provide.

What’s required is a more robust sense of the commonality of our interests and the collaborative possibilities of our solutions. We need organizations and institutions to put aside competition and embrace the sorts of collective action that might help protect all of us from the markets that promise solutions but provide only Solutions. That’s a significant part of what we’re hoping to build with Humanities Commons — not just a platform for open scholarly communication, but a model for collective development and support of shared services.

This is no small challenge. We know all too well how to think about market-based forces like competition. We have much less experience, as a culture, with thinking about collaboration. But solving shared problems sustainably is going to require just that shift.

Photo credit: Cooperation 2 by Erich Ferdinand. CC BY.

Parting Gifts

Today marks the start of my last week working at the MLA. It’s been a fantastic six years, and I’m enormously grateful to have had the opportunity to work on so many fascinating projects, and with such great colleagues and members, over that time. And I’m especially happy that I’m going to be able to continue working on one of those projects, Humanities Commons.

So this is the point at which I’m going to shamelessly use my imminent departure to ask you all for a little going-away present. We are super close to a major milestone in Humanities Commons membership, and I’d really, really like to see us cross that threshold while I’m still in the office, with the team.

Here’s the call: if you haven’t yet created a Humanities Commons account, please do! Accounts are open to anyone working in any field, in any capacity, in the humanities. You can create a professional profile, deposit and share work in our open-access repository, join discussion groups, build a website, and more. And if you’re a member of one of our participating societies — MLA, AJS, ASEEES, and as of last week, CAA — you can participate in your scholarly organization’s work as well.

If you already have an account, thank you! I’d love it if you’d give me — well, all of us, really — a small gift as well: deposit a syllabus, a conference paper, an article pre-print, or something else entirely, to share with the world.

Thanks, all, for all of your support and enthusiasm over the years. Here’s to our next steps toward building the humanities community of the future.

Sustainability

As we’ve just announced, the MLA is grateful to have received a generous grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in support of the next phase of our work on Humanities Commons. I’m personally grateful as well, both to have had the opportunity to work with an amazing team (about whom more in a moment) on this project over the last five years and to have been given the opportunity to continue that work from my new position at Michigan State University.

Our goal for Humanities Commons is to build an open access, open source, not-for-profit network that is focused on the needs of scholars and practitioners in the humanities, helping them share their work with one another and with the world. Humanities Commons is committed to an ethic of collective, collaborative, sustainable development, and this next phase of our work is focused on just that. Over the course of the next year, we will work with a group of prospective partner societies to produce a comprehensive business and sustainability plan to ensure the network’s future, as well as a governance model that will ensure that the network’s sustaining partners have oversight of its operations and a voice in its future development.

Real sustainability, after all, isn’t just about revenue generation and cost recovery. It’s about relationships, about personal and institutional commitment, about the willingness to work together toward long-term means of ensuring that the platforms we build today will not just survive but evolve with our technologies and the people who use them.

We want to thank our partner societies in the pilot of Humanities Commons — the Association for Jewish Studies; the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies; and, as of later this week, the College Art Association — for their willingness to build those relationships in the service of this new network. And we want to thank the organizations that have agreed to participate in this year’s planning process, about whom more in the very near future.

But we also want to thank the more than 4000 members who have joined Humanities Commons since we launched in December, for helping us create and promote a community of scholars, for scholars, by scholars.

And most of all, I personally want to thank the Humanities Commons team. The team of course includes my fabulous colleagues at the MLA, who have brought an astounding creativity, commitment, and spirit of member service to building a truly sustainable scholarly communication network for us all: Nicky Agate, Head of Digital Initiatives; Eric Knappe, Head of Web Development; Ryan Williams and Leo Fulgencio, Web Developers; Anne Donlon, Community Manager; and Caitlin Duffy, our social media maven. It also includes some amazing collaborators: Matt Gold, Boone Gorges, and the rest of the CUNY GC team who brought us Commons In A Box; Barbara Rockenbach, Mark Newton, Rebecca Kennison, and the rest of the Columbia University Libraries team past and present who have energetically participated in the development of CORE; Benn Oshrin, Scott Koranda, and the rest of the Spherical Cow Group for their work on the identity management system that makes this federation possible.

It has been a privilege to get to be part of this extraordinary collaboration, and I very much look forward to seeing where the next year leads us.

Things I Have Learned from Other People’s Use of My Email Address

Kevin Fitzpatrick’s monthly AT&T Wireless bill is creeping higher month by month, and unless he’s got family members on his account, he should probably seek a better plan.

Kevin also apparently had some serious damage to his 2013 Dodge, but his insurance company seems to be all over it.

Kathleen Fitzpatrick got a great deal on some lovely clothes at Nordstrom Rack in Eatontown, wherever that is, but she’s not going to be getting a copy of her receipt.

Kathy Fitzpatrick’s mum, Mary, is super sweet, and I hope their upcoming trip goes wonderfully.

K. Fitzpatrick found a better deal on a Samsung Galaxy Tablet than what JohnLewis.com was offering, but JohnLewis.com did the right thing and matched it. Or would have, had she gotten the message instead of me.

Another K. Fitzpatrick and her husband have a really nice financial advisor, who reached out to them for a review to start the new year. I am glad her husband got the message but wish he’d noticed that his wife’s email address was wrong before replying-all.

And yet another K. Fitzpatrick’s nursing license renewal application has been received by the Tennessee Department of Health. Registered nurses are the best, and the Tennessee Department of Health is awesome too, as they’re the ONLY organization that has ever worked to track the correct email address of the correct K. Fitzpatrick down. Rock on, TN Health.

* * *

I will admit to being somewhat facetious in detailing the above, and I’ll also acknowledge that some of the misdirected email messages I get are the result of sender typos (see Kathy Fitzpatrick’s mum). That’s going to happen. But other instances of this problem are much more concerning. After several months of trying to notify someone about the problem, I am still receiving Kevin Fitzpatrick’s AT&T bill, as well as notices of when he’s paid, and because of that I know his account number and the last four digits of his credit card. And then there’s the teen several years back who signed up for a series of MySpace-like social networks using my email address, which proceeded to bombard me with notifications about her activity within the sites, in way more detail than I would have wanted.

The bottom line is that this is not safe. That a mistake can result in a stranger receiving all kinds of personal information about you points to a major flaw in many of the systems with which we interact today. And what’s worse is that in many cases this information leak is avoidable: if AT&T or any of the other sites and networks that have started sending me someone else’s information were to require email verification before employing user-provided addresses, they’d take an enormous step toward securing their users’ privacy.

I have undoubtedly mistyped my email address on several web-based forms. Kevin Fitzpatrick may well know more about me than I would like. All the more reason to find it astonishing that such a basic flaw in internet-based communication seems to be getting worse rather than better.