Author Archives: Dan Cohen

A Lesson from the Past about Genres and Bias

In my sophomore year of college I took a new course with more buzz than a summer blockbuster: “Postmodernism.” Students literally ran to sign up for it, partly because it was taught by the coolest, mustard-suited professor on campus, Andrew Ross, and partly because it promised a semester filled with graphic novels, Survival Research Labs, and Blade Runner.

Beyond the discussions of mechanical reproduction and simulacra, I remember several things vividly. One was Ross’s lecture on cyborgs in which he described Arnold Schwarzenegger in Terminator as “a condom filled with walnuts.” The second was my preceptor, a brand-new assistant professor named Jeff Nunokawa. Nunokawa was whip-smart and a great teacher, and he introduced my nineteen-year-old self to the incredible revelation that Batman had a homoerotic subtext. (I’ll pause here for you to snicker at my youthful ignorance.) Finally, and most importantly, both Ross and Nunokawa repeatedly emphasized in the course that any genre in any medium could have value—and on occasion sustained creativity and insight.

So I was glad to see a cover story on the boundless energy and intelligence of Nunokawa in the Princeton Alumni Weekly (which is actually produced monthly, in postmodern fashion), especially since the article highlighted Nunokawa’s writing of thousands of online posts about literature and philosophy, art and ideas. I cheered what I thought was a great example of a professor blogging, until I hit this paragraph:

For the record, he does not call this a blog, partly, he says, because “I hate that particular syllable,” but also, more importantly, because “it doesn’t catch what I’m really trying to do, whether successfully or not. These are essays. When I think of a blog — and maybe I’m being unfair to bloggers because I don’t spend much time in the blogosphere — my sense of blogs is that that they’re written very quickly. This is stuff that I compose and recompose, and then recompose and recompose and recompose. It’s very written.”

This is precisely the bias I’m arguing against in The Ivory Tower and the Open Web. There is no reason a blog has to be quickly or poorly written; the comment made me want to time-travel the Nunokawa of 1988, Terminator-like, to confront the Nunokawa of 2011. And if Nunokawa can have this prejudice against blogs, instead of viewing them as potential outlets for good writing owned by scholars themselves, imagine what Nunokawa’s more traditional colleagues think of the genres of the open web.

As in the Oscar Wilde plays Nunokawa often dissects, there’s a final, amusing irony to this story. Where does Nunokawa do his sophisticated blog…er, essaying? Facebook.

THATCamp 2011: Even Bigger, More Open, More Educational, More Fun

We decided to pull out all the stops for this year’s THATCamp (now called THATCamp Prime or THATCamp CHNM or that THATCamp since there are now so many regional THATCamps). From the THATCamp blog:

All year has been THATCamp time, seems like, but we’re now talking about that THATCamp, which will take place

June 3-5, 2011
Center for History and New Media, Fairfax, VA

We’ve instituted some changes this year:

  • THATCamp will be larger: we’re planning on having about 125 people who do all kinds of work related to the humanities and technology;
  • THATCamp will be truly open to all: instead of having an application process, we’ll be accepting all registrations up to 125 people until April 22;
  • THATCamp will have a BootCamp: the unconference will happen as usual on the weekend over a day and a half, but the Friday beforehand will be devoted to a series of workshops dedicated to improving technical skills; and
  • THATCamp is planning on at least two virtual sessions in which we get to talk to campers at THATCamp Liberal Arts Colleges and to Jon Voss about the outcome of his Linked Open Data in Libraries, Archives, and Museums Summit.

Needless to say, we’re psyched. See you there.

If you haven’t been to THATCamp yet, I can’t recommend it enough. It’s intense, fun, and you’ll learn more and meet more interesting, great people than anywhere else. There’s also a bit of Woodstock to it, and no big registration fee, just a very small suggested donation. We also have on-campus accommodations this year at the very nice new Mason Inn.

Register right now to reserve your slot. Hope to see you in June!

Defining Digital Humanities, Briefly

I’m participating in the Day of Digital Humanities this year, and the organizers have asked all participants to briefly define “digital humanities.” It’s a helpful exercise, and for those new to the field, it might be useful to give the many responses a quick scan. I wrote this one-sentence answer out fairly hastily, but think it’s not so bad:

Broadly construed, digital humanities is the use of digital media and technology to advance the full range of thought and practice in the humanities, from the creation of scholarly resources, to research on those resources, to the communication of results to colleagues and students.

The best answer to “How do you define digital humanities?” came from Lou Burnard: “With extreme reluctance.”

The Spider and the Web: Results

A couple of weeks ago at the Digital Dilemmas Symposium in New York I tried something new: using Twitter to replicate digitally the traditional “author’s query,” where a scholar asks readers of a journal for assistance with a research project. I believe the results of this experiment are instructive about the significant advantages—and some disadvantages—for academia of what has come to be known as crowdsourcing.

For those who didn’t follow this experiment live via Twitter, you should first read the two initial posts in this series. The experiment was fairly simple: I prepared followers of my blog and my Twitter feed (as of this writing I have roughly the same number of blog subscribers and Twitter followers, about 1,600 on each service) by noting that I would reveal a historical puzzle at a particular time. At the beginning of my talk in New York, my blog auto-posted the scan of an object found in a Victorian archaeological dig, which I simultaneously tweeted.

I asked those following me online to work together to figure out what the object was. Participants in the experiment could post live comments on Twitter, and others could follow along by searching for the #digdil09 hashtag. (A hashtag is a hopefully unique string of characters that enables a search of Twitter to reveal all comments at a specific conference or on a particular subject.) I encouraged everyone to talk to each other and leverage each other’s knowledge. In addition, I set up what in the age of the print journal would have been a ridiculous deadline: only one hour for the crowd to solve the mystery. For a bit of theater (“stunt lecturing”?) I flashed the Twitter stream behind me from time to time during my talk.

It took much less time than an hour for a solution: nine minutes, to be exact, for a preliminary answer and 29 minutes for a fairly rich description of the object to emerge from the collective responses of roughly a hundred participants. Solution: the object was an ornamental gorget from the Cahokia tribe.


What happened along the way was as interesting as the result (which I have to admit was rather satisfying given the possibility of a live crowd in NYC laughing at me for using Twitter). First, Twitter was remarkably effective in multiplying my voice. Indeed, in the first five minutes about a dozen others on Twitter retweeted (rebroadcast) my mystery to their followers. This “Twitter multiplier effect” meant that within minutes many thousands of people got word of my experiment; over 1,900 actually viewed the object on my blog. And I’m lucky enough to have a particularly knowledgeable crowd following me on Twitter, as you can see from the word cloud of my followers’ bios.

Once the race was on, solvers took two distinct paths toward a solution. The first path was the one I was trying to encourage: some quick thoughts about facets of the object, followed by scholarly debate. I mentioned that the object was made out of shell but was found far away from water in the Midwest (of the U.S.), which led to some interesting speculation about origins and movement of Native Americans, Europeans, and Africans. Others focused on the iconography of the spider; what could it symbolize and which cultures used it? These were decent lines of inquiry that one could imagine in the back pages of a Victorian journal.



Twitter is mocked for its almost comical terseness, but even the most hardened Twitter skeptic must admit tweets such as these are far from useless assistance. And the power of this crowdsourcing is even more evident as you look at the full discussion trail as researchers pick up information from each other to take their speculations a step further.

The experiment was not, however, an unalloyed success, partly due to a mistake I made in setting it up. In hindsight I gave away too much my original post, mentioning St. Clair and the fact that the piece was made out of shell. Alas, Googling keywords such as these (as well as the obvious “spider”) immediately gets one hot on the trail of the solution. It’s clear from the stream of tweets that a good portion of the solving audience took the “Google knows all” approach rather than the “scholarly discussion” approach.

I suppose even this aspect of the experiment is not uninteresting; I’ll leave it to others in the comments below to discuss the merits of the “Google” approach, as well as the merits (and demerits) of this experiment in general.

[Afterword: As many have pointed out on Twitter, the experiment would have been better had I not posted an object that could be found online. To be honest, I thought I had found an unusual object with no scanned version; it shows how much has been digitized, and how good search is even on a small amount of metadata.]

The Spider and the Web: What Is This?

In 1882, a young anthropologist from Washington, D.C., went west to collect objects for the Smithsonian. He found this object buried in a small hill in St. Clair county, Illinois. It’s about three inches (8 cm) across, and seems to be made of a shell. It has two holes in it.

Confused about what this was, the anthropologist brought the object back and presented it colleagues. I would like to reproduce that activity digitally by presenting the object online, to see what readers of this blog and my followers on Twitter can make of it, individually and by talking to each other. Although you can post some conjectures in the comments on the blog, if you’re reading this at 3p Eastern/Noon Pacific/20:00 GMT on Thursday, April 16, 2009, please post ideas via Twitter by @ replying to me or by using the hashtag #digdil09. You only have one hour.

I’ll be posting the full results of this experiment in this space in a day or two.

So: What is this?

The Spider and the Web: A Crowdsourcing Experiment

If you read your blog posts on the same day they’re written, please join in later today for an experiment in scholarly crowdsourcing. I’ll be posting a historical mystery on this blog at exactly 3pm Eastern/Noon Pacific/20:00 GMT on Thursday, April 16, 2009, and will be linking to it from Twitter. I’ll be asking my followers on Twitter and blog subscribers to see if they can figure out what an unusual object is within one hour. You can follow the crowdsourced analysis live on Twitter, or find the results in this space in a day or two.

Smithsonian 1.1 and 2.9

si_logoI was lucky enough to be invited to the Smithsonian 2.0 meeting this past weekend as one of the “digerati” who were there to prod the institution out of its analog complacency into the digital future. Long-time readers of this blog will probably sense my amusement at the “digerati” designation; not only am I a history professor, which seems like an instant disqualification for any noun that ends in -ati, but I’ve always tempered the Vision Thing with the Pragmatic Thing. Having done a lot of big digital projects, my feeling is that using mod_rewrite well is as important to success as modifying ideals. Edison’s dictum about “1% inspiration and 99% perspiration” remains true for the digital realm.

Anyway, the real digerati showed up at Smithsonian 2.0 too, and they did indeed provide inspiration: hip representatives of Facebook and MySpace, people with “seriously, that’s your title?” titles like Chief Gaming Officer, and bestselling authors like Chris Anderson, editor of Wired magazine and Long Tail theorist, and Clay Shirky of Here Comes Everybody fame. (Long-time readers of this blog will probably sense my envy at not having a cool, bestselling book like these ones.) It was an incredibly well-run meeting; several of the attendees joked that the Smithsonian could get to 2.0 just by placing the people who deftly managed the coat racks in charge of the web servers.

If you really want to get a full feeling for the meeting, the best way to do it (in true 2.0 style) is to read in chronological order the Twitter stream of it. I jotted a lot of notes and ideas there, as did many other attendees. (You can follow me on Twitter @dancohen.) In addition, via the power of Twitter, we captured many excellent points and responses from people around the globe. You should also be sure to read the discussion page on the main Smithsonian 2.0 site, and initial crowdsourced recommendations I gathered before the meeting.

Let me summarize my post-meeting sense of where the Smithsonian should go for those who don’t have time to read a hundred tweets. Given my background in mathematics, I began to think of Smithsonian 2.0 as existing between Smithsonian 1.1 and Smithsonian 2.9. That is, implicit in “Smithsonian 2.0” were some incremental moves forward that could be done cheaply and quickly—Smithsonian 1.1—and a very large, expensive, complex project that would lead Smithsonian into Web 2.0 and beyond—Smithsonian 2.9. I believe both of these models can be instructive to institutions beyond the Smithsonian, whether large or small.

Smithsonian 1.1 would involve a much more aggressive use of social media and technology that’s already out there, to begin to take many small steps and make many small experiments using what is currently available. The Smithsonian has already done some of this, of course: the National Museum of American History has a blog, SI has a small presence on Flickr Commons, and museums have begun to tweet.

But these are relatively scattered, uncoordinated attempts, frequently done by younger, tech-savvy SI staffers in their spare time. The Smithsonian should be doing much, much more of this. For instance, given their expertise and excitement about SI’s holdings, it seemed clear to the digerati that every curator should have a blog, even if infrequently used, to recount tales of objects. While visiting the Museum of American History’s vaults, it was clear that a huge audience would subscribe to a weekly or daily video podcast that covered incredible treasures that rarely see the light of day, such as Abraham Lincoln’s handball, or what the Smithsonian just collected and is preserving from the inauguration of Barack Obama.



Undoubtedly there will be resistance among some curators to doing Web 2.0-y things like podcasts or crowdsourced tagging of their items. These curators believe that such efforts belittle (or “anti-intellectualize,” as one put it) the holdings of the Smithsonian. (As Chris Anderson tweeted: “Response from curators to my Smithonian 2.0 talk suggesting radical things like adding comments to stamp website: we’ll be out of a job!”) Moreover, it’s still harder than it should be for SI staffers to engage in common, modern digital activities. This institutional friction was embodied in the tale of Sarah Taylor, a National Zoo public affairs staffer, who couldn’t get the equipment or accounts she needed to upload video of the zoo’s famous pandas to sharing sites that reach millions.

If Smithsonian 1.1 requires overcoming institutional conservatism, Smithsonian 2.9 will require a moon shot mentality. Digitizing 137 million objects will be enormously expensive, and that’s just the beginning. Service layers will have to be added on top of that digital collection. The young, brilliant David Recordon of Six Apart summarized what the 2.9 project should result in (I’m paraphrasing here from memory):

Before I visit Washington, I want to be able to go to the web and select items I’m really interested in from the entire Smithsonian collection. When I wake up the next morning, I want in my inbox a PDF of my personalized tour to see these objects. When I’m standing in front of an object in a museum, I want to see or hear more information about it on my cell phone. When an event happens related to an object I’m interested in, I want a text message about it. I want to know when it’s feeding time for the pandas, or when Lincoln’s handball will be on public display. And I want to easily share this information with my classmates, my friends, my family.

This is the Smithsonian not as a network of museums but as a platform for lifelong learning and cultural engagement. A tall order, to be sure. But everything in that vision is possible right now, with existing technology. It’s just going to take tremendous will, and the funds to get there. Everyone felt that the new Secretary of the Smithsonian, G. Wayne Clough, was going to put a lot of energy and resources into the 2.0 initiative, and I suspect much will come of this meeting. The Smithsonian might not get to 2.9 for a while, but as I was writing this blog post, Sarah Taylor emailed me to say that she was able to get her video online.

Fall Opportunities

The 2008 Digital Media and Learning Competition proposals are due October 15. Run by HASTAC and funded by the MacArthur Foundation, this year’s theme is “Participatory Learning.” From the announcement:

Participatory Learning includes the many ways that learners (of any age) use new technologies to participate in virtual communities where they share ideas, comment upon one another’s projects, and plan, design, advance, implement, or simply discuss their goals and ideas together.

Applications for the fourth competition for the ACLS Digital Innovation Fellowship Program are due on October 2. Run by the American Council of Learned Societies and funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation,

this program supports digitally based research projects in all disciplines of the humanities and humanities-related social sciences. It is hoped that projects of successful applicants will help advance digital humanistic scholarship by broadening understanding of its nature and exemplifying the robust infrastructure necessary for creating further such works.

I was lucky enough to get one of these ACLS fellowships in the first year of the program, and it was invaluable for my work on the project that became Zotero.

First Monday on WebWise 2.0: The Power of Community

Last March I was lucky enought to go to, and give a talk at, the 2008 WebWise Conference on Libraries and Museums in the Digital World in sunny Miami Beach, Florida. Speakers from the conference were asked to write up their talks for a special edition of First Monday, which is now out. If you want to get a sense of how Web 2.0 is starting to affect libraries, museums, and scholars, it’s worth reading. My contribution, “Creating Scholarly Tools and Resources for the Digital Ecosystem: Building Connections in the Zotero Project,” focuses on the importance of the unglamorous but critical work of connecting digital tools and repositories together via APIs, standards, and openness.