How Technical To Get When Teaching Digital History

This is the second in multi post series reflecting on the digital history course I taught this Semester at American University. For more on this you can read initial post about the course, the course syllabus and my first post in the series on the value of a group public blog.

Technical Skills: Training vs. Education

I decided early on that I would not be teaching HTML, CSS, PHP or JavaScript in my digital history seminar. While I know this kind of technical competency is valuable, the course was not intended to be about technical training. I think that was the right decision.  I also decided I would not require students to buy a domain name and hosting. I wanted student’s projects to lead them to what they would need to do. If a hosted option like WordPress.com or Omeka.net suited their needs they could go ahead and do that. I feel less confident about that decision.

There were several points in course discussions when my decision to not require students to have their own hosting and domain would hit me in waves. For example, when we talked about Omeka and WordPress I explained that these were both software that anyone could run on their own, and further edit and tweak to their hearts content. To demonstrate I downloaded them and opened up the files in a text editor. But I realized that many of the students had never clicked view source on a page before, and thus had no idea what even the HTML in the files meant. I was able to give a quick high level overview of what was going on in the files, but I felt like I really was not doing this justice.

Still, the projects are better because of this lack of a technical focus

With this said, I have no doubt that my students took on more sophisticated projects because they were not focused on developing technical competencies. Students were able to jump right into making some solid historical web projects. That is to say, the students who pick up wordpress.com or omeka.net for their projects did not get bogged down in learning how to use floats in their design, they were not fighting with the projects respective codexes to get a handle on what kinds of calls they can make to the database to display the total number of items or posts. Instead, for the most part, they made decisions about the technologies that were available to them and decided how they could bend those technologies to their purpose. The result is that they spent much more of their time thinking about audience, doing an environmental scan, developing content, and thinking about how they should evaluate their work. This resulted in much more polished, and as far as I am concerned more thoughtful projects than those I have seen come out of courses that started from first principles with HTML, CSS, PHP, etc.

So how do we teach things like HTML, CSS, and PHP when the real answer at this point is to decide on a content management system and bend it to your will?

I am largely happy with how this turned out, but I am concerned about what I have lost by taking out some of that technical focus. While the projects may be better, and frankly the intellectual work I am most interested in having my students engage in (thinking about audience, content, evaluation, and design) I am concerned that my students are not going to take courses that get them to develop deeper core competencies for working on the web. To this end, if/when I teach this course again I am going to require students to get into this at least as deep as cPanel.

I wanted to shy away from spending time on training when the goal of this course was still to serve as part of a liberal education. With that said, I have come around to  Jim Groom’s insistence that students buy hosting and at least one domain of one’s own. In this case, the education part comes from understanding how web hosting works.  In future versions of this course I will require students to buy a year of hosting on a shared host and at least one domain name. In lab sessions I would then require students to install WordPress and Omeka. I still don’t think it makes sense for a course like this to start with first principles and teach HTML, CSS, PHP and JavaScript. I would instead encourage them to play with available themes and show them how to use Firebug to pick out elements in those themes to tweak to bend them to their whims.

What I like about the idea of requiring students to use a shared host is that they get the simplicity of working with any of the hosted services (at this point many shared hosts have one click installs for WordPress and Omeka) but at the same time we can spend a bit of lab time poking around under the hood. We can take a look at the database, and we can make some tweaks to theme HTML, CSS, and PHP. I can take a little bit of time with them to get a working understanding of HTML and CSS in the context of working with these systems. I feel like this strikes a better balance of still letting us, jump right into work with all the benefits these systems provide but still having both the full range of possibilities that working with your own copy of the software provides and also getting a deeper sense of how the web and databases work.

So how technical is technical enough? I think I have a better sense of how I think the balance can work in this course in the future, but how do you think one should try to strike this balance? Further, where do we see the lines between training people to use particular tools and providing an education?

Why A Public Course Group Blog? Reflections on My Digital History Course

This spring I had the pleasure of teaching a digital history seminar at American University. This post is the first in a multi-post series reflecting on teaching the course. For some context, I have posted the course description bellow. For more on this you can read my initial post about the course and the course syllabus.

This course will explore the  current and potential impact of digital media on the theory and practice of history. We will focus on how digital tools and resources are enabling new methods for analysis in traditional print scholarship and the possibilities for new forms of scholarship. For the former, we will explore tools for text analysis and visualization as well as work on interpreting new media forms as primary sources. For the latter, we will explore a range of production of new media history resources. As part of this process we will read a range of works on designing, interpreting and understanding digital media. Beyond course readings we will also critically engage a range of digital tools and resources.

Group Blogging Digital History on the Public Web

One of my three course goals was for students to “Thoughtfully and purposefully engage in dialog about history on the public web with a range of stakeholders in digital history: historians, archivists, museum professionals, educators, and armatures, etc.” Beyond learning about digital history I wanted my students to do digital history. In that capacity I wanted them to engage with the public web and practice public writing. This, in part, meant developing a voice as a blogger and as a blog commenter. I decided to approach this goal through a group blog. I was excited about the prospect us all working and commenting in the same space. My experience participating in PlayThePast over the last six months has opened my eyes to how powerful participating in a group blog can be and I wanted students to get a taste for that.

Beyond meeting this goal I think this approach brought with it a few other benefits.

Blogging enabled an emergent curriculum

A digital history course is fundamentally different from many other kinds of courses. The field is nascent, there are fascinating developments in digital history on the open web that have little to do with the academy, and novel projects, papers, and online resources are appearing almost daily. I was excited to see the blog serve as a mechanism for enabling a more emergent curriculum as students began to wade in the constant stream of new work and ideas in digital history.

I was thrilled to see this emergent curriculum in the first post, which covered content which was nowhere to be found on the syllabus. One of my students stumbled across Youtube Time Machine and blogged about it. Importantly, the brief conversation we had about Youtube Time Machine on the blog, and subsequently in class broached many of the issues I wanted to get into in the course. It provided a point of reflection on armature vs. academic histories online, and more importantly provided a moment to think about how a seemingly technical detail (assigning a datetime to an object) can itself be a sophisticated hermeneutic problem. (Is this the date the thing is about? The date it was recorded? Should this be the date range of the time the creator worked on it? Should this be the date range of the movement the artist was a part of? What do we do with this remix of a video from 1920 that includes a song from 1980 and was clearly remixed in 2007?).

This site, and our discussion of it, ended up serving as a invaluable point of reference for our later discussions. In future versions of the course I think I am going to plan on building in this kind of “show and tell” component into a formal assignment and require all of the students to, at some point, interject their thoughts on some found content into the curriculum.

Posts as conversation starters and sustainers

Every week we had between 2-5 blog posts reacting to course content. Each of those posts would have 1-4 comments. Students who blogged about a piece of writing were supposed to use their post as a means to kick off discussion of the text. Students who blogged about a piece of software were supposed to demo the software and engage the class in a discussion of the implications of the software for the study and practice of history.  This worked quite well. In particular, it meant there were already lively discussions going on around the texts and tools and that anyone giving a presentation absolutely could not wing it.

Everyone had at least the prop of their post to refer to as they lead discussion or demoed a tool. When I woke up Wednesday mornings and reviewed all of the posts and comments they would generally fit together quite nicely, further if we hit a lul in the conversation I had a list of comments to pull from. Lastly, as I picked all of these tools and texts for a reason, I was able to hit home points that appeared in student posts and bring up  issues I thought were critical that had not emerged in the discussions. In short, the kind of externalized thought embodied in the posts and comments was invaluable for allowing me to start, sustain, and have a sense of what students were taking away from our work.

Class Blogging Brought Out Different Voices

Some of my students talked a lot in class, some of them talked a lot on the blog. By making part of our weekly discussions occur asynchronously online I was able to hear different voices and fold those into our in class discussions. Beyond this, it became clear that some students were developing different voices in their public writing on the blog. Specifically, students were assuming familiarity in class that they were not assuming on the blog. I was particularly happy about this as it represented students embracing the notion of writing and speaking to different audiences.

My course was of a bit of an awkward size and makeup and we met in a bit of an awkward space. I had 20 students, which is a too large for my tastes for a seminar style class. Further, ten of them were undergraduate students and ten were graduate students. The student distribution was a more or less statistically normal distribution (a few PhD students, a good number of MA students, a good amount of advanced undergraduates and a few freshmen). Lastly, our class met in a computer lab, one of those spaces set up for traditional instruction where everyone sits at their computer in rows facing toward a screen. Having students use the blog as another communication channel helped make these classroom discussions work. Further, providing the course blog as another communication channel meant that I heard from everyone, not just the most talkative.

In future versions of this course I think I will make this lesson a bit more clear. First, I will require more commenting. This time around I required everyone to write at least six substantive comments. In the future I think I will require everyone to write a substantive comment on at least one post a week. Beyond that, I intend to make clear in the participation section that talking in class and talking on the blog are both very valuable ways to participate in the course. If students tend to be shy in class I still would encourage them to talk more, but I would also make it clear that they can also put more energy into communicating on the blog.

Note to self: Put more of this on the web

I am feeling that in the future it might be better to explicitly plan the class to generate a certain level of content on an ongoing basis. I would like the class to be generating enough content to not only sustain our conversation with each other but also invite conversation with the broader digital history community. In this framework I would try to schedule this a bit more tightly, having different students stagger posting their project proposals so that everyone could agree to review each other’s work.

Top 5 Books on Learning and Education

I made a claim about a book being in my top five favorite books on learning and education earlier today on twitter. To which, my former colleague Teresa DeFlitch asked to know what the other four books were. Now, I should mention that by favorite I mean that these are the 5 books I keep thinking about and talking about and will frequently revisit. I needed more than 140 characters. So, in no particular order here we go.

  1. Experience and Education by John Dewey – Completely amazed at how much depth you can find in such a little book. As far as I’m concerned it’s Dewey’s best book.
  2. Supersizing the Mind: Embodiment, Action, and Cognitive Extension by Andy Clark – The examples of how people use their environment as part of thought are fantastic. Worth reading many times over.
  3. What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy by James Gee – More than a great book on games it is one of the best primers on an array of principles for learning.
  4. Reading in the Brain: The Science and Evolution of a Human Invention by Stanislas Deheane – Best synthesis I have seen so far for taking neuroscience research and putting it in dialog with an array of other work on learning and education. Also, the idea of neurological recycling is awesome.
  5. The Educated Mind: How Cognitive Tools Shape Our Understanding by Kieran Egan – I have returned to this work several times. It opens with one of the best descriptions of differences between major schools of thought on learning and cognition and puts forward a fascinating alternative.

What would your top five books about learning and education be and why?

they rebuilt emiglio

Create your own video slideshow at animoto.com.

Includes CC licensed images:

aquila, M. (2007). Emiglio. Retrieved from http://www.flickr.com/photos/ibcbulk/387273768/

Gratton, A. (2010a). IMG_1929. Retrieved from http://www.flickr.com/photos/angusgr/4570533014/

Gratton, A. (2010b). IMG_1944. Retrieved from http://www.flickr.com/photos/angusgr/4570516362/

Gratton, A. (2010c). IMG_1925. Retrieved from http://www.flickr.com/photos/angusgr/4570534618/

robotoy75. (2009). ROBOT EMIGLIO. Retrieved from http://www.flickr.com/photos/robotoy75/3171211297/

Zebrowski, R. (2007). Some of the robots in my collection. Retrieved from http://www.flickr.com/photos/firepile/430115687/

Designing Learning Environments: Lessons from RPGmakervx.net

I am thrilled to announce that the first of a few publications resulting from my research on the RPGmakervx.net community has been published. I’m thrilled that, almost a year-to-the-day after I announced the start of the project the first of the resulting publications is out. Over the last year I had a lot of fun sharing  preliminary results from my survey on this blog and present a poster about the project at Games+Learning+Society conference last June. With that said, it is really exciting to see the results of that work ending up in  peer reviewed journal.

In this particular essay, I try to document the how and what people are learning in the community and try to abstract some principles from the kind of learning that occurs “in the wild” into lessons we can think about incorporating into more formal learning environments.

You can see a screenshot of a screenshot of the forums which I included in the paper below.

The folks at On the Horizon were great to work with. Specifically the guest editor, Christine Greenhow, and the reviewers gave me very invaluable feedback as I refined the essay. I should also note that I am quite excited to dig into the other articles in the issue.

I have included the structured abstract for the article below. Below that you can find links to it.

Trevor Owens, (2011) “Social videogame creation: lessons from RPG Maker”, On the Horizon, Vol. 19 Iss: 1, pp.52 – 61 DOI: 10.1108/10748121111107708

Purpose – Online community sites devoted to RPG Maker, an inexpensive software for creating role-playing video games, have emerged as spaces where young people are developing valuable competencies with digital media. This study seeks to examine the largest of these communities.

Design/methodology/approach – The study uses a mix of qualitative methods including a survey, interviews and analysis of the structure of the site. The study uses discourse analysis and is grounded in work on situated learning.

Findings – The study suggests that the site and community are scaffolding young people into deeper understanding of digital production and the development of practical skills, like programming, as individuals take on identities associated with different roles in game design.

Research limitations/implications – This study reinforces the value of research focused on young people’s social media creation and also suggests that there is still much to be learned about technologically simple but socially rich platforms like web forums. As qualitative research it does not generate statistical generalizations.

Practical implications – This research suggests three implications for the design of online learning environments focused on media production. Designers should: start with learners’ interests and basic skills will evolve; support a diverse range of production roles and identities; and offer simple technical systems that can support sophisticated digital learning communities.

Originality/value – While there is much work on learning in online communities, little of that work has focused on the importance of the role-taking of young people in those communities and on implications of these spaces for designing online learning environments.

If you don’t have access to the very nice looking official PDF you are free to take a look at my personal less nice looking PDF. I should note that I am able to deposit this copy of my paper on my personal website because of Emerald Publishing’s very reasonable author charter.

Reading Goodreads: A Note to Historians of the Future

There has been a recent flurry of interest in archiving social media. One of the big questions to ask before we start saving is which of this stuff is useful? We need to do a bit of work to imagine the kinds of things that people might do with social media data in the future. To that end I hope to occasionally post about some notes to historians of the future. While there is a general tendency for social media to mean twitter and facebook I think many of the most interesting examples of value come from the niche networks.

When You One-Star Something in the Lit Canon

The following is a annotated reading of one of the 43,000 reviews of Kafka’s Metamorphosis on Goodreads. That’s right, Goodreads has 43,000 reactions to Metamorphosis. Now with that full set you could do some really interesting kinds of data mining, but instead I wanted to share this back-and-forth that happens in reaction to one of the reviews on the first page.

He’s A Cockroach: The Critic

We need to start off with the original review. (I am only going to include relevant snipits here but feel free to read the whole thing over on goodreads.)

…I’m sorry, but all this stuff about him being a symbol for Jesus and struggling for mankind is a bit over-the-top I think. He’s a cockaroach. There’s no explaination for it, and his family is only mild freaked out at the fact that he suddenly turned into a giant bug. If the family tried to take him to the doctor, or sell him to the circus, or perhaps even give a damn at all, the story might have kept my attention for more than the first few pages.

Goodreads lets anybody post their comments. Just tell the world what you think about a book. In this case our writer chooses to dismiss something from “the canon.” As you can imagine this view provokes a response from fans of the book.

Stick to Harry Potter: The Critic’s Critics

Some of you might be able to guess where this is going. Dismissing this book in a comunity of book lovers is bound to stir something up. The first response is a bit pejorative, but I think it feels like the reviewer’s heart is in the right place.

You should try reading it again when you’re older. I also thought it was stupid the first time I read it. But, I read it again about 15 years later, and it was great.

From there we start to get something a bit more snarky.

what’s “over the top” is how badly you’ve missed the entire point of the story. stick to harry potter from now on, unless all that wizard talk is too confusing for you…

Then snark turns to full blown sarcasm and hyperbole.

I just wanted to say sorry on behalf of the educated community. We were wrong to judge this a literary classic; I guess none of us realized that Gregor’s just a cockroach and that there’s no explanation for it. The community and I went up to Johns Hopkins the other day, and surveyed the mental health department. 98% of them agreed that “yeah, that kafka fool was irretrievably insane, ergo ‘The Metamorphosis’ has insignificant literary value.” What fools we all were! If only the Emperor could return his new clothes…

Well, looks like its time to start burning every copy in every Literature class in the country. Can’t look back, though; always must try to recover from our mistakes! Oh Kafka, you conniving scoundrel, you!

P.S. Hope you don’t mind, we’ll be abandoning “Masterful use of Symbolism” from our list of characteristics of excellent literature, as well as changing the standard of “Understandable to a majority of people at/above a high school reading level” to “Straightforward, resolution-oriented, and written with a vocabulary of under 200 words.” Thanks again!

Literatti Peacocks Come Out to Strut: The Critic’s Critic’s Critics

With full blown snark in play it is now time for a rebuttal. Importantly, this rebuttal, all of these comments actually, are not responses from the original reviewer. This is simply other community member doing what they see as due diligence.

And the literatti peacocks come out to strut. So far we have: ‘Read it when you’re older and smarter like me’; ‘Stick to Harry Potter, you moron’; and a sad variation of ‘The literary establishment thinks it’s genius so how could your opinion possibly matter?’

And the sad part is within all these appeals to authority they actually think it turns this circle-jerk of a metaphor into something impressive.

Stick to your guns, Kathy. Even pretentious assholes with Lit degrees can’t spin straw into gold.

It’s worth noting that this critic’s critic’s critic is not alone.

Great, another elitist prick. The literary world doesn’t have enough of those! Sneer more please.

Can’t We All Get Along: The Critic’s Critic’s Critic’s Critic

One might imagine that this would be the end, but no. There is still an open call for someone to try to cut through the various stances in this thread.

The problem with these “classics” is that people who don’t like them are viewed as uncultured morons, and the people who do like them are viewed as snobbish.

Can’t the people who like them just like them and the ones that don’t just don’t? Personally, the ridiculousness of it all is what made it interesting to me, but I guess some people might view it as stupid.

Yes, the ridiculousness of it all is what is fascinating! For good measure, one commenter felt it necessary to remind us:

Not all people with Lit degrees are pretentious. I am going for my creative writing degree. However if there are pretentious literati then there are pretentious opposites as well. I wish we could steer clear of finger pointing and name calling. It’s distasteful.

Oh, Then There is Me: The Critic’s Critic’s Critic’s Blogger

Right, so it’s recursive like that. This post itself is part of that nesting doll. Now what do we find in all of this posturing? We probably do not learn that much about the book itself. But I’m not particularly interested in that anyway. The back and forth between each of these camps gives us a treasure trove of information for picking apart how different kinds of readers think about themselves. When I tweeted about this thread a few months back Chris Forster said it best when he suggested that “the 10th comment in that thread is the shortest summary of Bourdieu’s DISTINCTION” he had ever read.

I think the lesson here is that the real power of this site, and many social media sites, is not in what they tell us about the objects under discussion. What is on display here is what they have to tell us about the nature of the discourse surrounding the objects. This is commentary, and commentary on the commentary, and commentary on the commentary on the commentary. In that dialog I think we can find an unbelievably rich set of information about viable viewpoints in our society.

Someone is wrong on the Internet:

Someone is Wrong on The Internet, from XKCD

The more I think about this the more I become convinced that Ftrain’s idea about the internet as the medium that answers the question, Why Wasn’t I Consulted? As we talk about what we should save and what people will do with what we save I think it is going to be valuable to think about what sets of commentary we want to be able to mine at a latter date. I think the XKCD here describes the situation that occurred with many of the above responses. People went to goodreads to tell you why you are wrong and when they do so they tell us a lot about themselves. Collectively these statements show us what kinds of opinions are acceptable to different kinds of readers.

Designing a Digital History Course: Part 1

This spring I will be teaching a graduate seminar for American University’s history program titled History in the Digital Age. I have been thinking a lot about how I can get the practices of the course to model some of the emerging practices in digital history. As part of that process I have narrowed the course goals down to the list of 4 below.  In keeping with the spirit of collaboration and open communication I hope to make a core part of the course. I thought I would also blog the process of creating the syllabus to refine these ideas in public. I hope to generate some conversation here and use that to refine the course.

Course goals

After the course students will be able to:

  1. Independently discover, evaluate, and implement novel digital tools and resources to support traditional scholarship, public projects, teaching and scholarly communications.
  2. Develop proposals for digital history resources with detailed plans for  project management, design, outreach, and evaluation.
  3. Synthesize analysis of born digital and digitized materials, (datasets, algorithms, spreadsheets, maps, video games, web sites, social networks, text corpora, etc.) with existing approaches to analysis of traditional primary and secondary source material to develop novel historical narratives.
  4. Thoughtfully and purposefully engage in dialog about history on the public web with a range of stakeholders in digital history; historians, archivists, museum professionals, educators, and armatures, etc.

To get at the first goal I intend to have students demo tools to the class and make case for what a given tool, for example voyer, could do for research, teaching, outreach, etc. The second two goals are going to be covered by writing short proposals (one for a paper and one for a digital tool or resource) and then following through on one of those proposals. I am still working on the details of those assignments, which I will share later, but I am on my way to articulating the assignment that gets at the last goal, students participation in a public course blog.

Here is how I am framing this assignment:

The course blog: Engaging in online public discourse about digital history

We are not simply going to learn about digital history in this course, we are also going to do digital history. That means we need to engage with the public web. To this end part of our course communication is going to happen in a public course blog.

On the first day of class I will show you how to use the blog. You are expected to post a minimum of two times, once about one of the readings and once about one of the digital tools or resources. We will sign up for who writes about what on the first day of class. These are blog posts, and as such they should not written like term papers. Part of the goal of this assignment is to become familiar with the genera and format of discourse on thoughtful blogs.  You need to get in, say something interesting, and get out. Ideally telling us what the thing is, why it is, what is particularly interesting here, and ending with an invitation to discussion. You should think of your posts as mixing the features of a well composed academic book review and the well conceived blog post (Do read those links). Posts for a given week must be on the web the Sunday before class (yes, if you want you can post it at 11:59 on Sunday).

Do not assume your reader has detailed knowledge of the thing you are writing about. One of the goals of the blog is to invite interested third parties into a conversation with our course. If we are doing this right you can expect comments and dialog with historians, humanists, librarians, archivists, curators, and bloggers who are not participating in the course as students but who are participating in the public conversation we initiate through the blog.

First decision: Your identity and the blog

This is public so one of our first considerations is going to be personal identity. While this is a practical matter it is also, very directly, part of the subject matter of the course. I would encourage you to blog with your real name, it is a good idea for you to start building a web presence for yourself. It has even been suggested that in this field you can either “be online or be irrelevant.”  With that said, if there is any reason that you are uncomfortable with sharing your name publicly, you should feel free to use a pseudonym.  If there is a reason that you do not want to share your work on the web please send me an email or meet with me after class. I feel that this public dialog is an important course goal, but I will of course understand and accommodate anyone that needs a different arrangement. If at the end of the course you would like to continue blogging I will be happy to show you how we can pull all your posts out and into a new blog of your own. We will talk about this identity decision on the first class day.

Keep the conversation going

Posting is not the end of the assignment. After posting you need to foster the discussion you are initiating. When people comment you need to give substantive responses. Try to engage everyone who comments in some fashion and try to use the comments to sustain a conversation you began at the end of your post.

Commenting is also an assignment

Beyond posting you are expected to contribute substantive comments to a minimum of six of your peers posts. Your comments should extend and contribute to the conversation. Good comments are an a important format unto themselves. Read profhacker’s guidelines for comments for a sense of the kind of comment ecosystem we are trying to produce here and then read how to write a great blog comment for some suggestions on the format for comments. Comment early so that others have a chance to read them (your comments need to be up before midnight on Monday).

The course blog is the required reading we write ourselves

Beyond posting and commenting everyone needs to read everything on the blog before class each week. This is the part of the course readings that we write ourselves and in all honesty this is the most important springboard for our in-class discussions.

Review of linked readings:

David Parry. 2010. Be Online or Be Irrelevant – academhack – Thoughts on Emerging Media and Higher Education. academhack. January 11. http://academhack.outsidethetext.com/home/2010/be-online-or-be-irrelevant/.

Grammar Girl. 2009. How to Write a Great Blog Comment. March 20. http://grammar.quickanddirtytips.com/how-to-write-a-blog-comment.aspx.

Patel, Neil. 2009. How To Write A Blog Post. July 21. http://www.quicksprout.com/2009/07/21/how-to-write-a-blog-post/.

Profhacker People. n.d. About ProfHacker – Commenting and Community Guidelines. http://chronicle.com/section/About-ProfHacker/439/#guidelines.

Scheinfeldt, Tom. 2009. Brand Name Scholar. Found History. February 26. http://www.foundhistory.org/2009/02/26/brand-name-scholar/.

Schrag, Zachary. 2003. How to Write a Review. historyprofessor.org. September. http://historyprofessor.org/reading/how-to-write-a-review/.

LMGTFY, Shame, and Collective Intelligence

Let me Google that for you (lmgtfy) is a snarky way to respond to someone asking an obvious question. It was created “for all those people that find it more convenient to bother you with their question rather than google it for themselves.” Lmgtfy has become a relatively popular way to respond in any number of web forums, but more broadly, I think it speaks to the kind of literacy that search is beginning to represent.

To break this down a little bit, when someone responds to your post asking how to pivot tables in excel, or how to tie a bow hitch on a web forum by posting a link to lmgtfy you are being told that the question you asked does not require a human to answer it. It has already been answered on the Internet and with a very simple search query, as demonstrated here, you could have found that answer. At the core of the idea of lmgtfy is the notion that a savoy digital citizen should be able to make specific assumptions about the kind of knowledge the web puts at their fingertips. Lmgtfu is supposed to be a shaming experience, and the possibility of that shame is predicated on a kind of literacy of collective intelligence.

Collective What?
Collective intelligence is a mushy term, in this case I am referring to Pierre Lévy’s notion. In Collective Intelligence (1997) Lévy proposed a vision for the kinds of changes the internet could generate in culture. Lévy suggested that in online culture “The distinctions between authors and readers, producers and spectators, creators and interpreters will blend to form a reading-writing continuum, which will extend from machine and network designers to the ultimate recipient each helping to sustain the activity of others.” (p.121) I think the shame lmgtfy is intended to evoke demonstrates a limited form of this collective intelligence.

Now lets be clear, while proponents of the idea of collective or distributed intelligence and cognition are often accused of proposing some magic brain in the sky that’s not what I’m referring to. Instead, the idea is that parts of the thinking process are always mediated by tools, pen and paper, print media, computer, or mobile device, each is embedded in the cognitive process of individual agents.

On one level, this is rather obvious. Many are advocating that search and google mean that trivia and facts are less important than the ability to find and interpret information. The point I am focusing on here is that there are few key elements involved relating to thinking like a search engine and generalizing from your experience to understand if the specific question is something the Internet should know.

Thinking like Google and Thinking like the Crowd
Who was president in 1832? What’s the best way to steam carrots? How does !important works in css?  Which iPhone 4 case is best? Where can I find some good Indian food in Fairfax, VA? All of these questions have relatively straight forward online answers available. In each case, we have developed a sense of specific, limited, notions of collective intelligence and our internal representation of the kind of information that should be out there to help make a given decision. The successful individual searcher has internalized a representation, a map, of both the way a database organizes information (search terms, where google maps data comes from, etc) as well as what kind of people would share that information (the kinds of folks that review restaurants on Yelp, the extent to which a given problem would be shared, the biases of reviewers of bargain hunters on a given do-it-yourself home improvement forum). Effectively, information literacy is developing this model. In essence this is about knowing three things.

  1. Knowing what kinds of knowledge should be out there on the web. (This is a assumption about the generality of your problem and the nature of information that is put online)
  2. Knowing what kind of search query will get you there. (This is about understanding a bit about how search works, knowing what kind of keywords will get you where you need to go)
  3. Knowing what the limitations of that kind of information are both in terms of kinds of questions one can ask and the biases of the sources one encounters. (This is the interpretive part, and it is once again about your theory for why someone would post this information online)

At the core, each of these are about developing 1) a sense of how computers, and more specifically databases and search engines, structure and organize information and 2) a sense for the kind of people that share specific information in a given context.

Knowing online is internalizing  the machine that is us/ing us
The two points, internalizing a sense of how a computer searches and internalizing a sense of what things people should have shared online to be searched is effectively internalizing a working model of the internet and it’s users in your mind. It is not that the internet is itself an intelligence, but instead that we are constantly updating our mental model of the web and its users through our own search experiences.

The following example of interpreting ratings on Yelp offers a furhter demonstration of how I am thinking of this and also offers a place to consider the idea of general notions of competence and their relationship to individual sites.

Site Specificity and Domain Generality of Collective Intelligence Heuristics
Like all knowledge domains there are idiosyncrasies of competence that are narrow and specific which are nested within broader notions of competence. For example, try this word problem on any Yelper. You want a sandwich, your Yelp search pulls up a restaurant with 4 stars and a restaurant with 5 stars. Which is the better restaurant? Answer: Insufficient information, I need to know how many total reviews there are for each establishment. In short, if the 5 star restaurant has that rating as the result of 3 reviewers and the 4 star restaurant has its score as the result of 124 reviewers it is likely that the 4 star restaurant is well established, and hey, your a Yelper, you know that for every 10 reviewers out there who give a great restaurant 5 stars there will always be a few snarks out there that feel like they can only give a 5 star review once every six months. Now, even if you are not a Yelper, but you are familiar with how reviews work on Amazon, you might have come to the same set of conclusions. In all likelihood the Yelper would have a better sense of how to read individual reviews, and reviewers profiles, in the process of making restaurant decisions. However, the individual with experience with Amazon’s similar system of reviews would transfers and translates that experience into a more general competence about interpreting online ratings and reviews.

Going to the Library of Congress

For just about the last four years I have had the distinct pleasure to work on Zotero and a range of other projects at the Center for History and New Media. It has been an amazing experience and opportunity, and I am grateful to CHNM’s senior staff for all the opportunities they have provided me to hone my skills related to this thing we now call the digital humanities. My time at the Center has shaped the way I think about software and scholarship.

I am very excited to bring this experience into my new position as an information technology specialist with the National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program (NDIIP) in the Office of Strategic Initiatives at the Library of Congress. I will be specifically working with the technical architecture team. I have been following NDIIP for a while, and not only are they working an array of important and fascinating projects, but everyone I have met who is associated with the program is fantastic.

I am still going to be around George Mason University. Over the years at CHNM I have been thrilled to have the opportunity to collaborate with so many of the folks in the History and Art History program, both through projects at CHNM and through my coursework in the MA program. While I won’t be on campus every day, I will still be around once a week for courses as I continue to work on my doctoral studies in the College of Education and Human Development.

I have a few weeks before I start my new position, and I find I have to pinch myself every once and a while. Growing up just outside of Milwaukee, I never imagined that I could end up working at a place like the Library of Congress. I couldn’t be more excited about the future.

New Omeka Zotero Plugin, or “penut butter in my chocolate”

You know those reese’s commercials where two people crash into each other on a street corner. One eating a chocolate bar and the other gulping down handfuls of peanut butter right out of the jar. They collide and mix the peanut butter and chocolate together, and then realize how fantastic the combination is. Well the open source scholarly software equivalent of that happened today. Thanks to Jim Safley for the launch of the new Zotero Import Plugin for Omeka. He did a great job of explaining it on the omeka blog, but I wanted to take a few moments to explain why getting some Omeka on your Zotero and some Zotero in your Omeka is such a neat thing.

Zotero Just Became a Publishing Platform
There are a lot of scholars with tons of interesting materials inside their Zotero libraries. For example, I have 120 tifs of postcards from my book on fairfax county inside my Zotero library. Zotero’s website has become a great platform for sharing and collaborating with folks to build out those collections, but it’s not really a platform for publishing them. Further, it is definitely not a platform for showcasing the often fascinating image, audio and video files associated with those items. By instaling this plugin on an Omeka site and pointing it at the collection you want to publish you can quickly migrate the content. You can then play with and customize an Omeka theme  and push out a great looking extensible online exhibit.

Omeka Just Got A Tool For Restricting And Structuring Data Entry
On the other side, folks interested in building an Omeka archive just got a very potent way to manage building their collections. One of Omeka’s strengths is its highly flexible data model. It’s ability to let you create item types and manage data schemas is fantastic. With that said, there are times when you actually don’t want all of that flexibility. It can be a bit overwhelming, particularly when you have a large group of people trying to do data entry and add files. Now, if Zotero’s default item types work for your archive you can simply have anyone who is going to add to the archive install Zotero and join your group. In this capacity, Zotero becomes a drag-and-drop UI for adding items and files to an Omeka exhibit. Once everything is in you can simply import all the info into your Omeka exhibit.