2 August 2018, 17:28

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.

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.

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.