Software as Scaffolding and Motivation and Meaning: The How and Why of Crowdsourcing

Libraries, archives and museums have a long history of participation and engagement with members of the public. I have previously suggested that it is best to think about crowdsourcing in cultural heritage as a form of public volunteerism, and that much discussion of crowdsourcing is more specifically about two distinct phenomena, the wisdom of crowds and human computation. In this post I want to get into a bit more of why and how it works. I think understanding both the motivational components and the role that tools serve as scaffolding for activity will let us be a bit more deliberate in how we put these kinds of projects together.

The How: To be a tool is to serve as scaffolding for activity

Helping someone succeed is often largely about getting them the right tools. Consider the image of scaffolding below. The scaffolding these workers are using puts them in a position to do their job. By standing on the scaffolding they are able to do their work without thinking about the tool at all. In the activity of the work the tool disappears and allows them to go about their tasks taking for granted that they are suspended six or seven feet in the air. This scaffolding function is a generic property of tools.

All tools can act as scaffolds to enable us to accomplish a particular task. At this point it is worth briefly considering an example of how this idea of scaffolding translates into a cognitive task. In this situation I will briefly describe some of the process that is part of a park rangers regular work, measuring the diameter of a tree. This example comes from Roy Pea’s “Practices of Distributed Intelligence and Designs for Education.”

If you want to measure a tree you take a standard tape measure and do the following;

  1. Measure the circumference of the tree
  2. Remember that the diameter is related to the circumference of an object according to the formula circumference/diameter
  3. Set up the formula, replacing the variable circumference with your value
  4. Cross-multiply
  5. Isolate the diameter by dividing
  6. Reduce the fraction

Alternatively, you can just use a measuring tape that has the algorithm for diameter embedded inside it. In other words, you can just get a smarter tape measure. You can buy a tape-measure that was designed for this particular situation that can think for you (see the image below). Not only does this save you considerable time, but you end up with far more accurate measurements. There are far fewer moments for human error to enter into the equation.

The design of the tape measure has quite literally embedded the equations and cognitive actions required to measure the tree. As an aside, this kind of cognitive extension is a generic component of how humans use tools and their environments for thought.

This has a very direct translation into the design of online tools as well. For example, before joining the Library of Congress I worked on the Zotero project, a free and open source reference management tool. Zotero was translated into more than 30 languages by its users. The translation process was made significantly easier through BabelZilla. BabelZilla, an online community for developers and translators of extension for Firefox extensions, has a robust community of users that work to localize various extensions. One of the neatest features of this platform is that it stripes out the strings of text that need to be localized from the source code and then presents the potential translator with a simple web form where they just type in translations of the lines of text. You can see an image of the translation process below.

This not only makes the process much simpler and quicker it also means that potential translators need zero programming knowledge to contribute a localization. Without BabelZilla, a potential translator would need to know about how Firefox Extension locale files work, and be comfortable with editing XML files in a text editor. But BabelZilla scaffolds the user over that required knowledge and just lets them fill out translations in a web form.

Returning, as I often do, to the example of Galaxy Zoo, we can now think of the classification game as a scaffold which allows interested amateurs to participate at the cutting edge of scientific inquiry. In this scenario, the entire technical apparatus, all of the equipment used in the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, the design of the Galaxy Zoo site, and the work of all of the scientists and engineers that went into those systems are all part of one big hunk of scaffolding that puts a user in the position to contribute to the frontiers of science through their actions on the website.

I like to think that scaffolding is the how of crowdsourcing. When crowdsourcing projects work it is because of a nested set of platforms stacked one on top of the other, that let people offer up their time and energy to work that they find meaningful. The meaningful point there is the central component of the next question. Why do people participate in Crowdsourcing projects?

The Why: A Holistic Sense of Human Motivation

Why do people participate in these projects? Lets start with an example I have appealed to before from a crowdsorucing transcription project.

Ben Brumfield runs a range of crowdsourcing transcription projects. At one point in a transcription project he noticed that one of his power users was slowing down, cutting back significantly on the time they spent transcribing these manuscripts. The user explained that they had seen that there weren’t that many manuscripts left to transcribe. For this user, the 2-3 hours a day they spent working on transcriptions was an important part of their day that they had decided to deny themselves some of that experience. For this users, participating in this project was so important to them, contributing to it was such an important part of who they see themselves as, that they needed to ration out those remaining pages. They wanted to make sure that the experience lasted as long as they could. When Ben found that out he quickly put up some more pages. This particular story illustrates several broader points about what motivates us.

After a person’s basic needs are covered (food, water, shelter etc.) they tend to be primarily motivated by things that are not financial. People identify and support causes and projects that provide them with a sense of purpose. People define themselves and establish and sustain their identity and sense of self through their actions. People get a sense of meaning from doing things that matter to them. People find a sense of belonging by being a part of something bigger than themselves. For a popular account of much of the research behind these ideas see Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us for some of the more substantive and academic research on the subject see essays in  The Handbook of Competence and Motivation and Csíkszentmihályi’s work on Flow.

Projects that can mobilize these identities ( think genealogists, amateur astronomers, philatelists, railfans, etc) and senses of purpose and offer a way for people to make meaningful contributions (far from exploiting people) provide us with the kinds of things we define ourselves by. We are what we do, or at least we are the stories we tell others about what we do. The person who started rationing out their work transcribing those manuscripts did so because that work was part of how they defined themselves.

This is one of the places where Libraries, Archives and Museums have the most to offer. As stewards of cultural memory these institutions have a strong sense of purpose and their explicit mission is to serve the public good. When we take seriously this call, and think about what the collections of culture heritage institutions represent, instead of crowdsourcing representing a kind of exploitation for labor it has the possibility to be a way in which cultural heritage institutions connect with and provide meaning full experiences with the past.

The Crowd and The Library

Libraries, archives and museums have a long history of participation and engagement with members of the public. In a series of blog posts I am going to work to connects these traditions with current discussions of crowdsourcing. Crowdsourcing is a bit of a vague term, one that comes with potentially exploitative ideas related to uncompensated or undercompensated labor. In this series of I’ll try to put together a set set of related concepts; human computation, the wisdom of crowds, thinking of tools and software as scaffolding, and understanding and respecting end users motivation, that can both help clarify what crowdsourcing can do for cultural heritage organizations while also clarifying a clearly ethical approach to inviting the public to help in the collection, description, presentation, and use of the cultural record.

This series of posts started out as a talk I gave at the International Internet Preservation Consortium’s meeting earlier this month. I am sharing these ideas here with the hopes that I can getting some feedback on this line of thinking.

The Two Problems with Crowdsourcing: Crowd and Sourcing

There are two primary problems with bringing the idea of crowdsourcing into cultural heritage organizations. Both the idea of the crowd and the notion of sourcing are terrible terms for folks working as stewards for our cultural heritage. Many of the projects that end up falling under the heading of crowdsourcing  in libraries, archives and museums have not involved large and massive crowds and they have very little to do with outsourcing labor.

Most successful crowdsourcing projects are not about large anonymous masses of people. They are not about crowds. They are about inviting participation from interested and engaged members of the public. These projects can continue a long standing tradition of volunteerism and involvement of citizens in the creation and continued development of public goods.

For example, the New York Public Library’s menu transcription project, What’s on the Menu?, invites members of the public to help transcribe the names and costs of menu items from digitized copies of menus from New York restaurants. Anyone who wants to can visit the project website and start transcribing the menus. However, in practice it is a dedicated community of foodies, New York history buffs, chefs, and otherwise self-motivated individuals who are excited about offering their time and energy to help contribute, as volunteers, to improving the public library’s resource for others to use.

Not Crowds but Engaged Enthusiast Volunteers

Far from a break with the past, this is a clear continuation of a longstanding tradition of inviting members of the public in to help refine, enhance, and support resources like this collection. In the case of the menus, years ago, it was actually volunteers who sat at a desk in the reading room to catalog the original collection. In short, crowdsourcing the transcription of the menus project is not about crowds at all, it is about using digital tools to invite members of the public to volunteer in much the same way members of the public have volunteered to help organize and add value to the collection in the past.

Not Sourcing Labor but an Invitation to Meaningful Work

The problem with the term sourcing is its association with labor. Wikipedia’s definition of crowdsourcing helps further clarify this relationship, “Crowdsourcing is a process that involves outsourcing tasks to a distributed group of people.” The keyword in that definition is outsourcing. Crowdsourcing is a concept that was invented and defined in the business world and it is important that we recast it and think through what changes when we bring it into cultural heritage. Cultural heritage institutions do not care about profit or revenue, they care about making the best use of their limited resources to act as stewards  and storehouses of culture.

At this point, we need to think for a moment about what we mean by terms like work and labor. While it might be ok for commercial entities to coax or trick individuals to provide free labor the ethical implications of such trickery should give pause to cultural heritage organizations. It is critical to pause here and unpack some of the different meanings we ascribe to the terms work. When we use the term “a day’s work” we are directly referring to labor, to the kinds of work that one engages in as a financial transaction for pay. In contrast, when we use the term work to refer to someone’s “life’s work” we are referring to something that is significantly different. The former is about acquiring the resources one needs to survive. The latter is about the activities that we engage in that give our lives meaning. In cultural heritage we have clear values and missions and we are in an opportune position to invite the public to participate. However, when we do so we should not treat them as a crowd, and we should not attempt to source labor from them. When we invite the public we should do so under a different set of terms. A set of terms that is focused on providing meaningful ways for the public to interact with, explore, understand the past.

Citizen Scientists, Archivists and the Meaning of Amateur

Some of the projects that fit under the heading of crowdsourcing have chosen very different kinds of terms to describe themselves. For example,  Galaxy Zoo project, which invites anyone interested in Astronomy to help catalog a million images of stellar objects, refers to its users as citizen scientists. Similarly, the United States National Archives and Records Administration recently launched crowdsourcing project, the Citizen Archivists Dashboard, invites citizens, not members of some anonymous crowd, to participate. The names of these projects highlight the extent to which they invite participation from members of the public who identify with and the characteristics and ways of thinking of particular professional occupations. While these citizen archivists and scientists are not professional, in the sense that they are unpaid, they connect with something a bit different than volunteerism. They are amateurs in the best possible sense of the term.

Amateurs have a long and vibrant history as contributors to the public good. Coming to English from French, the term Amateur, means a “lover of.” The primarily negative connotations we place on the term are a relatively recent development. In other eras, the term Amateur simply meant that someone was not a professional, that is, they were not paid for these particular labors of love. Charles Darwin, Gregor Mendal, and many others who made significant contributions to the sciences did so as Amateurs. As a continuation of this line of thinking, the various Zooniverse projects see the amateurs who participate as peers, in many cases listing them as co-authors of academic papers published as a result of their work. I suggest that we think of crowdsourcing not as extracting labor from a crowd, but of a way for us to invite the participation of amateurs (in the non-derogatory sense of the word) in the creation, development and further refinement of public goods.

Toward a better, more nuanced, notion of Crowdsourcing

With all this said, fighting against a word is rarely a successful project, from here out I will continue to use and refine a definition for crowdsourcing that I think works for the cultural heritage sector. In the remainder of this series of posts I will explain what I think of as the four key components of this ethical crowdsourcing, this crowdsourcing that invites members of the public to participate as amateurs in the production, development and refinement of public goods. For me these fall into the following four considerations, each of which suggests a series of questions to ask of any cultural heritage crowdsourcing project. The four concepts are;

  1. Thinking in terms of Human Computation
  2. Understanding that the Wisdom of Crowds is Why Wasn’t I Consulted
  3. Thinking of Tools and Software as Scaffolding
  4. A Holistic Understanding of Human Motivation

Together, I believe these four concepts provide us with the descriptive language to understand what it is about the web that makes crowdsourcing such a powerful tool. Not only for improving and enhancing data related to cultural heritage collections, but also as a way for deep engagement with the public.

In the next three posts I will talk through and define these four concepts offer up a series of questions to ask and consider in imagining, designing and implementing crowdsourcing projects at cultural heritage institutions.

The Value of Design Narratives: The Case of Environmental Detectives

In Please Write it Down: Design and Research in the Digital Humanities I suggested that there are some valuable ways of thinking about the connections between building/designing and creating knowledge and scholarship.  In particular, I suggested that those interested in learning through building in the digital humanities might find some value in work in educational research over the last decade which has tried to define what exactly what a design based research methodology might look like.

This is the first post, in what I imagine might be an ongoing line of thought here, to try to put ideas from design based research in conversation with the digital humanities. As a point of entry, I am going to walk through one emerging genre of writing in design based research, the design narrative. Before getting there, however, I would briefly pause to note that the journal this piece appeared in, Educational Technology Research and Development, is itself an interesting note to the digital humanities. I for one, would love to see a journal in the digital humanities similarly situated as a place for sharing and disseminating R&D knowledge.

The Case of Environmental Detectives

In Environmental Detectives: The Development of an Augmented Reality Platform for Environmental Simulations Eric Klopfer and Kurt Squire offer a summative and reflective report on their work developing the augmented reality game Environmental Detectives. The paper makes some valuable suggestions for how we might better design augmented reality games, but I think its primary strength is as an example of a particularly novel and useful genre of design based research report. 

Brenda Bannan-Ritland’s article, The role of design in research: The integrative learning design framework offers a robust framework for thinking through how the design process and the research process can fit together. See her diagram below  (don’t get lost in the details). The intellectual work that diagram and her approach offers os to illustrate what happens if you mush together the steps in an array of design processes and research approaches. The diagram illustrates how the features of product development, research design, and user centered design can leaf together. 

If you look a the top part of the diagram carefully you will notice that practically every step in this process has an arrow that points over to the publish results box. This is a key concept here, the idea behind design based research is not that the design process is itself a research method, but that throughout the design process there are a series of publishable results and lessons learned that emerge which warrant being refined, shared and communicated. Squire and Klopfer’s article is a great example of the kind of piece one would want to write as a summative result of an extended design research process.

Design Narrative as a Genre of Design Based Research Article

Design based research can generate publishable results in any particular research tradition. You can find interviews, ethnographic approaches, micro ethnographic approaches,  case studies, randomized clinical trials, and methods from usability studies like eye tracking used at different points in the design and development process. In short, there are any number of ways to use existing research methods approaches to reflect on and report out results of research in the process of informing design. Part of what is particularly interesting about Klopfer and Squire’s paper is that it represents a somewhat novel mode of research writing, the design narrative.

Drawing from Hoadley’s 2002 piece, Creating context: Design-based research in creating and understanding CSCL, Klopfer and Squire offer a reflective narrative account of their work designing, developing and researching the Environmental Detectives game. Unlike other papers they published, which might report parts of this research in terms of a case study, or the pre-post test scores or the results of a particular evaluative test of the game’s outcomes, this summitive piece serves to reflect on the design process and offer an account of the context and lessons learned in the course of the design process. It is worth reporting on actual structure of the piece.

Review of literature that informed the design: After explaining background on the idea of design narrative Klopfer and Squire offer an account of both the extent literature on augmented reality games and a review of the existing games projects that they looked to which informed their design. This serves to provide the conceptual context that they began from, it sets the reader up to understand exactly where the project started from while also providing information on what theory and knowledge at the time of the projects start looked like.

Retrospective and Reflective Design NarrativeThe bulk of the paper then reports out on each phase of their design process. In their particular case they describe six phases of their research, brainstorming, designing the first instantiation, developing a first generation prototype, classroom field trials, classroom implementations, expanding to new contexts, and a sixth phase in which they added customized dynamic events to the game. It is not necessary to go into the details of each section for this review. What matters is to stress that each section begins by explaining how they went about their work in the given phase and reports a bit on what they learned in that phase. What is essential in this approach is that each section explains what worked and didn’t work in any given phase and how exactly Klopfer decided to remedy their approach and design to respond to problems.

As is generally the case with qualitative research, the moments when things don’t go according to plan and exactly how we make sense and work through those moments are generally the most valuable parts of the process. The value in this kind of retrospective account is two-fold. It provides a context for understanding why the game they made does what it does, but more importantly, the design narrative’s primary value is as a guide to other designers on what parts of the design process were particularly valuable. This kind of narrative helps us to refine our ideas not only about this particular design situation, but more broadly about how we can refine our own design practices.

Conclusions and Implications from Reflection: After reporting the design narrative the paper presents a set of technological and pedagogical implications. In much the way that the discussion section and conclusion sections of research reports function, this section attempts to suss out and distill the lessons learned from the work. In their case, they present a range of specific implications for the design of augmented reality games that emerged from their design approach.

The Value of Design Narratives

If you read through their references, you can see that they have published about this work on a few previous occasions. It is not that they are double dipping on publications, instead those other publications report results from subsets of this project, some of the earlier findings, or any of the points in the design process that resulted in interesting findings. This paper is really a summitive report, retracing the design narrative of the entire project.
I see the value of this particular design narrative approach as having two primary values, two values that I think are particularly useful to the still emerging world of the digital humanities. Composing these narratives serves an internal value to designers as part of reflective practice. Sharing these narratives makes the kinds essential tacit knowledge that comes about as part of doing design accessible to others.

Reflective Practice is Best Practice: If you can hold yourself to some sound practices for documenting the stages in your design process (the ideas that you had, how you went about implementing and revising them, and the results), you are in a good position to use that documentation to reflect on your practice. In this sense, the design narrative, the retrospective account of what you did, why you did it, what you learned  is an essential piece of doing reflective design practice. When you go back and think through your own process you are not simply reporting on what you learned you are actually making sense out of your trajectory and coming to understand what it is that you actually learned. Like much of qualitative and hermeneutic research, the process of writing is not a process of transmission of knowledge but of the discovery of knowledge. Writing a design narrative is the process by which we come to know and learn from our work.

Making Tacit Practical Design Knowledge Explicit and Available: It is essential that the knowledge developed in the design process is documented and shared. While the individual studies that come out of a design research process provide evidence of the value, or of particular lessons learned in part of a design project, they leave a considerable amount of the bigger picture knowledge off the table. Quite frankly, much of the most essential parts of design are not about explaining that something works, if someone wants to get into design they need access to the deeply pragmatic, heuristic driven, knowledge that develops on over time in the process of design. The design narrative is an essential medium for capturing and disseminating this kind of tacit knowledge.

In short, I would suggest that this particular piece of scholarship serves as a great example of the value of reporting design narratives and an exemplar for others to use as a model for composing their own design narratives.

Techies You Decide! You’re either a Feminist or a Misogynist

I got caught up reading Margaret Robertson’s great post today, In Which I don’t try to write like a man. She describes how she has self-censored herself. How she has tried to frequently go out of her way to de-gender herself in her writing on games.

Here is a particularly good quote:

It’s taken me a while to recognise that a big part of why I don’t post things like this is because I’m *scared*. Actually scared. Actually worried that I’ll terminally undermine my credibility. And that’s because the degree of abuse you can attract is of a different order from the generality of internet rough-and-tumble

This depressed me. This feeling of depression took me back to reading Skud’s post, On being Harassed. (Seriously, if you haven’t read Skud’s post go read it now, and some of the links.)

See, I work on open source, but I work on it in libraries and the digital humanities. I also do things with games, but it’s humanities research. In both cases, I end up spending my time on the web hanging with feminists like myself. In general, I think folks in the digital humanities respond rather well to issues around gender and technology. For example, I think the What Do Girl’s Dig conversation that Bethany kicked off was really productive. Heck, it became a book chapter. With that said, we are working on it. I think DH folks do a rather good job in realizing that conversations about technology come pre-loaded with gender problems.

If you read Robertson’s post, and the comments, and Skud’s post I think this becomes rather self-evident. You are either a expressed feminist or you are a witting or un-witting misogynist. I just wanted to make where I stand clear, and invite anyone else who wants to make this clear to say so as well.

Mysogony or Feminism: The Choice is Yours

But I’m an equalist!!!!111!! No, you’re not. If you are an equalist you are a feminist. The situation is as follows. Society is normative. Society is anti-feminist. That is just how power works. You can choose to recognize this. If you do, the result is that you need to think very carefully about what you are going to do to try to help make sure that your actions don’t further exacerbate the problem. Otherwise you can accept that you are an unwitting accomplice in perpetuating the status quo. Seriously, go read about some of the psychological research on stereotype threat. (For those unaware of stereotype threat research, the gist is that you can quantify the effects of gender and race stereotypes effects on academic achievement on tests.)

This is Not Novel But It Needs to be Restated

The purpose of this post is not to make a new or novel point. I make no claim to be breaking new ground. I just think we need more people in tech, more men in particular, who will explicitly and unambitious state that they are feminists. There are plenty of people out there waiting to shout women down and the more people willing to clearly state that this is a problem the better we will all be.

This is not a women’s issue. I want to live in a more just society. That is why I am a feminist. If you want to live in a more just society then you’re a feminist too. It upsets me when I am reminded of just how unkind and abrasive the web, technology and gaming communities are to women. I feel rather strongly that the world needs more people in technology, men in particular, who are willing to clearly state that they are feminists. To me that means being someone who is willing to think through and second guess my own actions. It also means that I consciously try to advocate on behalf of women in technology.

So, which side are you on? Remember, you get to choose, but choosing not to choose is also choosing a side.

Newbs, N00bs and Elitists: Neologisms for learners and teachers in open online communities

The openness of online communities is one of the things that make them so exciting. Anyone, anywhere, can create an account and start participating. The more I think about some of the research I did on the more I think that the neologisms for dispositions of a few different kinds of users on the site capture some important parts of defining teachers and learners in open interest driven web communities. In this post I will briefly describe how the terms Newbs, N00b and Elitist Bastards expressed in the ground rules of the RPGmakerVX community serve to define the roles for learners and teachers in this space.

As a frame of reference, is an online discussion board where those interested in creating SNES looking role-playing games congregate to discuss, develop, and share their projects. Elsewhere I’ve written about how this operates as a community of learners. When I first visited the site though, I was struck by the discussion boards simple guidelines.

Eletist Bastardly Behavior Will Not Be Tolerated

The following appears at the top of the Board Rules page. For our purposes, the first prime directive and its first bullet point are particularly relevant.

This prime directive classifies three kinds of users. First and foremost, the elitist bastard, the kind of person who is not tolerated on the boards. The elitist bastard refuses to understand the difference between two different kinds of new members to the site, the newb and and n00b. Before parsing through all of this in a bit more depth it is worth following the link for newb and n00b from the rules to see how the terms are used here. Following the link leads to this comic from CTL+ALT+DELETE

Glossary: Newb/Noob

The following is the comic linked to from the discussion boards. (Actually it looks like the link is broken now but this is what it linked to a few months back.) This 2006 web comic walks through the distinctions between these two terms for gamers who are new to a particular game.

The newb is inexperienced, but is wants to learn and when given guidance is happy to take it and act on it. In contrast, the n00b, while similarly clueless is unwilling to submit to respect the elders, the gamers who know how to play the game, or in this case the game makers who have developed expertise. The comic explains what , “newbs should be cared for and nurtured so that they may grow into valuable skilled players” while “N00bs deserve our wrath” and our apparent pity as they are likely to have problems in finding or making any meaningful relationships.

Newbs Respect the Authority/Wisdom of the Open Knowledge Community, N00bs are Unwilling to Learn the Ground Rules for Being a Novice

These neologisms are widespread. Turning to the OED of Internet slang, the Urban Dictionary. We find that a newb is “A term used to describe a inexperienced gamer/person/etc. Unlike a noob, a newb is someone who actually wants to get better.” Aside from just being part of the rules of the community, when I asked participants in my study of the RPG Maker VX community what the difference between a N00b and a newb most of the participants could parse the difference between the two terms.

The Elitist Bastard Fails to Nurture the Novice

The elitist bastard is one who fails to recognize the difference between new learners. There is almost no barrier to entry to All you need to do is sign up for an account to join and start posting. This means that new community members are going to need to be vetted and filtered after they have already come in the virtual door and started talking. Some of the new users are newbs, that is individuals who are want to learn to make games and are willing to show deference to the elders of this online community. Some of those users are n00bs, who are unwilling to do things like read the FAQ, read stickied posts on how to ask questions and post about their projects, and when told follow the rules will simply become disgruntled and argumentative. In short, experienced members of the community need to know who to nurture and who to moderate, call out, and judge for not respecting the rules of the community.

Necessary Neologisms for Learning on the Open Web?

I’m curious to hear from those who talk about learning webs, about massively open online courses, or for that matter any bread of open online education projects about this. It strikes me that the story of is very similar to my experience with any number of online communities. Things like open source communities, fan fiction communities, photo sharing communities on sites like Flickr, the guild of Wikipedians, each seem to have this kind of operational structure. Are these necessary neologisms for learning on the open web, or are newbs, n00bs, and elitist bastards just 1337 way of talking about things we already have names for?

My First Citation! Not my writing but my gaming?

Well it’s happened. I have been cited for my work! While it would be fun to say that it was one of my fantastic research articles, it is actually for my chops as a Druid a few years back in World of Warcraft.

See the excerpt below from Kurt Squire‘s book Video Games and Learning: Teaching and Participatory Culture in the Digital Age.

I still do look forward to the day when someone actually cites one of my papers or my book (ideally in a positive way). With that said, there is something kind of cool in knowing that my exploits as a Druid have been immortalized in print.

To add one more layer to the story for folks who know WoW: While I was healing in Molten Core, and switched to bear form to pick up agro, I was in fact specced as a Moonkin Druid at the time. So I was actually doubly out of my element. Oh, and in the fight I was tanking one of the Sulfuron Harbinger adds.

I do like that my story falls under the heading of “The Fantasy of Being an Expert. I can relate to that 🙂

The digital humanities as the DIY humanities

A few months back I participated in my forth year of the humanities and technology camp at the Center for History and New Media. This year the conference ended with a bake off. Many of the definitions of the digital humanities hinge on the idea that digital humanists like to make things. It looks like they also like to bake things.

We don’t just make for the humanities, we just make

I don’t think it is a coincidence that Amanda French’s twitter bio explains that she is a singer songwriter, that Karin Dalziel of the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities blogs about digital humanities work alongside gardening, cooking and photography, or that Jason Kucsma, director of the Metropolitan New York Library Council, worked for years driving around the Midwest to promote a zine he helped create. One of the defining features of some of the best and the brightest in the digital humanities isn’t digital per-say, it has to do with a pervasive kind of scrappyness. It’s about having a do it yourself mindset.

The DIY technical education

Reflecting on my own experience, I think I can say that the most important digital skills and ability to carry things through did not come from my training in the history of science. It came from my attempts, from the age of 14-18 managing a band in Milwaukee Wisconsin.

  • I learned HTML to build a band website. (which is sadly lost to the ages, although the terrible one I had created before that persists at the popup riddled
  • I picked up Illustrator and Photoshop when we wanted to get our CD pressed and the only templates the press offered were for Adobe products.
  • Over those years I learned a ton about digital audio as we improved our microphones and upgraded from transferring from a real-to-real, to a 4 track cassette recorder, to a digital 8 track and ultimately to working with a all digital studio in the area.

More important than any of the specific tech competencies, I learned that when I needed to figure out what software and hardware I needed to accomplish a task, that I had the wherewithal to figure it out and make it work.

marzapan at summerfest
The band playing at Milwaukee's Summerfest

The Audacity of Doing it Yourself: Renting the American Legion Hall

More important than self taught hardware and software skills was simply taking stock of the fact that if someone was going to do make a given project happen it would be me. Further, that I was going to need to do this with the resources I had at hand. Generally, I think this translates to a lesson that in many situations it is valuable. There is a version of whatever it is that you want to do that you can do right now with only an investment of your time and energy.

There were, more or less, zero options for places to put on all ages shows in West Milwaukee. So I took cash out of pocket and rented an American Legion hall. I think it originally cost me $100. I made up some fliers on colored paper at kinkos, got four other bands to agree to play as openers and negotiated how we would cut any money. I bought a PA system and the bassist picked up lighting equipment circa 1970 at a rummage sale. We used our bassists van to get all of our equipment to the hall. We handed flyers to any and everyone who would take them in an effort to get people to show up and pay 5$ at the door. Our moms collected money at the door. It was exhausting. I was always sick to my stomach that no one would show up to the shows and I would be out the upfront money. But we got up and did it again, and again, and eventually made the money we needed to make to pay for studio time. That is until the band broke up and reformed without me.

The moral to the story is, that instead of waiting for something to happen, or someone to let us be musicians, we just decided we were and started making plans with the resources at hand. If you take a look at many of the most interesting things going on in the digital humanities a lot of them started with just that kind of scrappyness and tenacity.

The Tenacity of the Cockroach or: the Henry Rollins School for Digital Humanists

Required reading for a DIY Humanist

Part of the reason that there are so many DIY folk in the digital humanities is that making things came natural. I think another part of this is that many of us had acquired what Henry Rollins described as “The Tenacity of the Cockroach.” If you want to get your head in this space I strongly suggest reading the edited collection of Onion AV club articles which uses the quote as its title. Imho, the DIY part of this thing we call the digital humanities is the part that is keeping it interesting, lively, and innovative.

Required Reading for the DIY Humanist

Deep down, I think DIY and the web are inextricably linked.

Here the lesson from nerd-folk-rock-troubadour  Jonathan Coulton, about finding and making your own niche is invaluable. QFT

We now have an entirely new set of contexts and they come with a whole new set of tools that give us cheap and easy access to all of them – niche has gone mainstream. It is no longer necessary to organize your business or your art around geography, or storage space, or capital, or what’s cool in your town, or any other physical constraint. And this is not to say that anyone can become a moderately successful rockstar just by starting a blog – success is still going to be a rare and miraculous thing, as it has always been. There are just a lot more ways to get there than there used to be, and people are finding new ones every day.

In the same vein, Robert Krulwich’s  advice to aspiring journalists, that “some just don’t wait” is equally important for the aspiring humanist.

I’ve seen people, literally, go home, write a blog about dinosaurs (in one case), neuroscience, biology. Nobody asked them. They just did. On their own. By themselves.After they wrote, they tweeted and facebooked and flogged their blogs, and because they were good, and worked hard, within a year or two, magazines asked them to affiliate (on financial terms that were insulting), but they did that, and their blogs got an audience, and then they got magazine assignments, then agents, then book deals, and now, three, four years after they began, these folks, five or six of them, are beginning to break through. They are becoming not just science writers with jobs, they are becoming THE science writers, the ones people read, and look to… they’re going places. And they’re doing it on their own terms! In their own voice, they’re free to be themselves AND they’re paid for it!

Going from here

I would love to know if there are other DIY pasts in the closets of other Digital Humanities folk. Is this a general phenomena, or is this just about the company I keep. So if you have DIY pasts please share them in the comments. Further, are there other must read pieces you would suggest for the aspiring DIY humanist?

On Writing, Making and Mining: Digital History Class Projects

This is the forth post in a multi-post series reflecting on the digital history course I taught last semester at American University. For more on this you can read initial post about the course, the course syllabus, my posts on the value of a group public blog on how technical to get in a digital history course and on how the students content will continue to be a part of future version of the course.

I am a big fan of the idea that building and making is a hermeneutic. Part of what makes the idea of the digital humanities particularly nifty is the idea that we can embrace building tools, creating software, designing websites and a range of maker activities as an explicit process of understanding. Because of this, and in light of my feelings about the necessity for students to develop technical competency, I knew I wanted students in my class to work on a digital project.

With that said I gave my students a choice.

Everyone had to write proposals for both a digital and print project. For print projects they  proposed papers that either used digital tools to make sense of a set of texts or proposed interrogating something that was itself “born digital.” For digital projects students were required to create some kind of digital resource, a blog, a wiki, a podcast, an interactive map, a curated web exhibit, a piece of software, etc.

When I mentioned the structure of this assignment to Tom Sheinfieldt he suggested that I would be receiving 20 papers. One paper from every student. We’ll get back to what I got once I explain my justification for including writing as an option.

Three reasons writing in Digital History is new

Here are three reasons to justify using the limited time in a digital history course to work on writing projects.

The case for writing about mediums

Historians are trained to work with particular kinds of materials and to ask questions which are (to some extent) based on the nature of those materials.  Historical understanding fundamentally requires us to understand how the nature of a given medium shapes and effects the traces of the past it has on it. This requires us to know to think about communication in a letter as a different voice from a speech, and further to recognize that the transcript of a speech is not necessarily  what was said, and does not include information about how it was said. It also requires us to approach different media on the terms on which they were used and the terms on which they function. For an example of some of this kind of work in photography I would strongly suggest Trachtenberg’s Reading American Photographs. Similarly, there is a extensive tradition in “reading” and interpreting everything from tree rings in environmental history, to Long Island parkway bridges in the history of technology, to forks and spoons in Bancroft award winning works of American History. This is all to highlight that there is a long tradition of understanding objects in context in history.  I really want my students to become, to borrow from Matt Kirshembalm borrowing from William Gibson “aware of the mechanisms” they are intrepreting. In this capacity I want my students to do extensive research using and interpreting born digital materials.

The case for writing about data

While history has a long history of working with deeply understanding the medium on which traces from the past are recorded, in my experience, much of that history tends to be focused on close reading. Taking a few examples and digging deeply into understanding them.  In the sciences the question is what do you do with a million galaxies, in the humanities it is what do you do with a million books? In both cases the answer is that we need ways conceptualize and refine ways to do distant reading or at least a hermeneutics of screwing around. In class we looked at a range of examples in this space, nGram, CHOA, tools like Voyer and even things as simple as Wordle.

The case for writing as part of building

Many my students wanted to go into public history. I want them to take the opportunity to deeply explore and reflect on how systems can be created to support their work. Here I am very much in the build things camp, but a big part of building is critically reflecting on what is built. For example, writing about the web presence of a war memorial on Flickr, Yelp, and Tripadviser can offer substantive insights into what and how we should make tools and platforms to support public history. I feel quite strongly that we need a body of design and development literature that deeply engages with analyzing, evaluating, digital humanities projects.

So did I get 20 papers?

I am thrilled to report that many of the students jumped at the opportunity to develop digital skills and build out web projects. In the end I received ten papers and ten digital projects. Several students who built digital projects made comments like “I decided to step outside my comfort zone,” and I was thrilled to see them do exactly that. I think the fact that we worked with so many relatively easy to use platforms for getting web projects up and out there (ie,, google my maps, etc.) played a role in getting these projects up and out there. You can browse on the projects page of the site. Both the papers and the digital projects turned out great. From the proposals to the final projects I think you can really see development toward some of the core ideas. With that said there was one interesting trend that I am curious about getting other peoples thoughts on.

No one touched text mining/text analysis:

I thought that some of the students would take the opportunity to use tools like Vouyer or even something as simple as Wordle to work with some of the texts they are already working with in their research. Or, similarly, that some students would use some of the online corpra we looked at to explore some of their research interests in this kind of environment. To take these tools, or to take some of the corpora we were working with and use them to do some historical research. We talked about this a fair bit but no one took these up as a project idea. Instead, all of the papers students worked on explore born digital issues. Don’t get me wrong, students wrote very cool papers, for example, looking at the web presence of different war memorials and examining Fallout’s idea of the wasteland in the context of the history of apocalyptic writing. Further, the web projects turned out great too.

For whatever reason, no one wanted to try to work with the tools like Vouyer or Wordle, and no one took on the opportunity to write something up using Google nGram or Mark Davies Corpus of American English or Time Magazine corpus. In future iterations of this course I imagine I might require everyone to write a short post using at least one of these sorts of things with a set of texts. Thinking about primary source material is data sets is one of the most important things for historians to wrap their heads around.

Is text mining more radical than building for historians?

Students were excited to create digital projects. Students were excited to write about born digital source material. However, no one touched text mining or anything remotely related to distant reading.  Now it is possible that I just didn’t make this sound interesting enough. With that said, we did in fact have a great conversation about distant reading, we did cover some of the very easy to use tools and corpra early in the semester and everyone clearly got it. It makes me think that while in digital humanities conversations the idea of building as a hermeneutic is a hot topic that, at least in the case of digital history, distant reading may well be even more radical. In my own reflection, the kind of data mind set that one needs to develop and deploy in this sort of research feels more distant than the idea that we learn through building.

Digital History: The Course That Never Ends

This is the third post in a 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, my first post in the series on the value of a group public blog and the second post on how technical to get in a digital history course.

92 blog posts,


20 projects.

This is the digital foot print of my digital history seminar.

I think we learned a lot this semester. My students reviewed and used a range of digital tools and engaged deeply with analyzing and interpreting a range of digital media. This was my first course. When I designed it I did what came naturally. I set up a public course blog. That blog served as our common place to publicly think aloud and work together. It served a valuable role in the face-to-face class. But I think it is going to serve an even more valuable role in the future.

Knowledge Base: Rethinking a course as knowledge production

I am not taking down the site. Like everything, there are varying degrees of quality to the content of the posts and the discussions, but there are some real jems in the posts. Tom Kenning’s reaction to YouTube time machine and the subsequent discussion is not only one of the only reviews of this project but it is also a great introduction to some of very interesting issues that emerge in the differences between academic and amateur (meant in the best possible way) approaches to history on the web. Similarly, Jordan Hillman’s post about the Euclid project started a great conversation about digital interfaces to cultural heritage. The content from this site will persist, and I imagine that in many cases some of this will end up as top hits for idiosyncratic Google searches and continue to provide fodder for conversation in the future.

Like a beaver dam the we built together will house the next generation

In Supersizing the Mind Embodiment, Action, and Cognitive Extension philosopher Andy Clark talks about niche construction, a term he builds off of the evolutionary biology notion of environmental niche construction, as a way to think about how we make use of tools. Niche construction refers to “varying degrees, organisms chose their own habitats, mates, and resources and construct important components of their local environments such as nest, holes, burrows, paths, webs, dams, and chemical environments.” (2008, p.131) In each of these cases, animals behavior has altered their environment, and those alterations then become the basis for further adaptation. One of the primary examples of this is the spider’s web. “The existence of the web modifies the sources of natural selection within the spider’s selective niche, allowing subsequent selection for web-based forms of camouflage and communication.” (Clark, 2008, p.61) The spider’s web is interesting as an example of an individual organism and its tools, but beyond this the example of a beaver’s dam brings in far more complexity. Dams are created and inhabited by a collective group of individual beavers and further, are extended over time, outliving the lives of the individual beavers who occupy them. Further, beavers adapt to the niche which the beavers before them had created and the altered physical landscape which that dam has produced. What matters for Clark in this case is that “niche-construction activity leads to new feedback cycles.” (2008, p.62).

I intend to be exactly this kind of beaver dam. While different students register and take the class at different times their thinking and work, as manifest in the structure of the content they have produced, will play an active role in future students that occupy the space.

In other words this course will never end…

Ok, fine. According to American University the course is over. End of semester. Students got their grades. Moving on. But frankly, grades are the least interesting part. Not only am I keeping the content up, I intend to use this same wordpress instance for future iterations of the course. Whoever joins future digital history courses I teach is going to register for this blog and start posting. I will move the current syllabus to an archived syllabus page, and post the next set of student projects right above the existing set.

Some of the particularly interesting reviews of tools and are going to become course content on future iterations of the syllabus. Some of the particularly interesting student web projects are going to become examples. Some of the particularly interesting student papers will become course readings. Students from this first session of the course will be welcome to continue posting if they like and further are invited to continue to comment on the course. When I created my course I said that the blog would be the course readings that we write ourselves. Now, even more, some of that content will become part of the readings for future iterations of the course.

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.