Category Archives: Blogs

Information Overload, Past and Present

The end of this year has seen much handwringing over the stress of information overload: the surging, unending streams, the inexorable decline of longer, more intermittent forms such as blogs, the feeling that our online presence is scattered and unmanageable. This worry spike had me scurrying back to Ann Blair’s terrific history of pre-modern information stress, Too Much to Know. Blair notes how every era has dealt with similar feelings, and how people throughout the ages have come up with different solutions:

These days we are particularly aware of the challenges of information management given the unprecedented explosion of information associated with computers and computer networking…But the perception of and complaints about overload are not unique to our period. Ancient, medieval, and early modern authors and authors working in non-Western contexts articulated similar concerns, notably about the overabundance of books and the frailty of human resources for mastering them (such as memory and time).

The perception of overload is best explained, therefore, not simply as the result of an objective state, but rather as the result of a coincidence of causal factors, including existing tools, cultural or personal expectations, and changes in the quantity of quality of information to be absorbed and managed…But the feeling of overload is often lived by those who experience it as if it were an utterly new phenomenon, as is perhaps characteristic of feelings more generally or of self-perceptions in the modern or postmodern periods especially. Certainly the perception of experiencing overload as unprecedented is dominant today. No doubt we have access to and must cope with a much greater quantity of information than earlier generations on almost every issue, and we use technologies that are subject to frequent change and hence often new.

Blair identifies four “S’s of text management” from the past that we still use today: storing, sorting, selecting, and summarizing. She also notes the history of alternative solutions to information overload that are the equivalent of deleting one’s Twitter account: Descartes and other philosophers, for instance, simply deciding to forget the library so they could start anew. Other to-hell-with-it daydreams proliferated too:

In the eighteenth century a number of writers articulated fantasies of destroying useless books to stem the never-ending accumulation…One critic has identified the articulation of the sublime as another kind of response to overabundance; Kant and Wordsworth are among the authors who described an experience of temporary mental blockage due to “sheer cognitive exhaustion,” whether triggered by sensory or mental overload.

When you ask historians which place and time they would most like to live in, it’s notable that they almost always choose eras and locales with a robust but not overwhelming circulation of ideas and art; just enough newness to chew on, but not too much to choke on; and a pervasive equanimity and thoughtfulness that the internet has not excelled at since the denizens of alt.tasteless invaded rec.pets.cats on Usenet. Jonathan Spence, for instance, imagines a life of moderation, sipping tea and trading considered thoughts in sixteenth-century Hangzhou.

Feels to me like there are many out there grasping for a similar circle of lively friends and deeper discussion as we head into 2014.

 

Just the Text

This post marks the third major redesign of my site and its fourth incarnation. The site began more than a decade ago as a place to put some basic information about myself online. Not much happening in 2003:

In 2005, I wrote some PHP scripts to add a simple homemade blog to the site:

In 2007, I switched to using WordPress behind the scenes, and in doing so moved from post excerpts on the home page to full posts. I also added my other online presences, such as Twitter and the Digital Campus podcast.

Five years and 400 posts later, I’ve made a more radical change for 2012 and beyond, as the title of this post suggests. But the thinking behind this redesign goes back to the beginning of this blog, when I struggled, in a series called “Creating a Blog from Scratch,” with how best to highlight the most important feature of the site: the writing. As I wrote in “Creating a Blog from Scratch, Part I: What is a Blog, Anyway?” I wanted to author my own blogging software so I could “emphasize, above all, the subject matter and the content of each post.” The existing blogging packages I had considered had other priorities apparent in their design, such as a prominent calendar showing how frequently you posted. I wanted to stress quality over quantity.

Recent favorable developments in online text and web design have had a similar stress. As I noted in “Reading is Believing,”

rather than focusing on a new technology or website in our year-end review on the Digital Campus podcast, I chose reading as the big story of 2011. Surely 2011 was the year that digital reading came of age, with iPad and Kindle sales skyrocketing, apps for reading flourishing, and sites for finding high-quality long-form writing proliferating. It was apropos that Alan Jacobs‘s wonderful book The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction was published in 2011.

Now comes a forceful movement in web design to strip down sites to their essential text. Like many others, I appreciated Dustin Curtis’s great design of the Svbtle blog network this spring, and my site redesign obviously owes a significant debt to Dustin. (Indeed, this theme is a somewhat involved modification of Ricardo Rauch’s WordPress clone of Svbtle; I’ve made some important changes, such as adding comments—Svbtle and its clones eschew comments for thumbs-up “kudos.”)

One of the deans of web design, Jeffrey Zeldman, summarized much of this “just the text” thinking in his “Web Design Manifesto 2012” last week. Count me as part of that movement, which is part of an older movement to make the web not just hospitable toward writing and reading, but a medium that puts writing and reading first. Academics, among many others, should welcome this change.

Evans and Cebula on Academic Blogging

There has been some very good writing recently on academic blogging that I wanted to highlight in this space. Over on the excellent History of Emotions Blog, Jules Evans asks “Should Academics Blog?” (Update 1/6/12: For some reason Jules Evans has taken this post down), and offers some smart reasons in favor. I particularly liked this reason, given how academics often find the writing process difficult:

Firstly, it makes me a better writer. If you only write articles for peer-reviewed journals and the occasional book, you’re going to lose the habit of writing, and when you do write, you may find it a torturous process, like doing no exercise at all then suddenly running a marathon. Or, to use another simile, it’s like being a painter who only ever practices their art by painting huge frescoes. It’s helpful to have a sketchpad to try out ideas, find ways of putting things, and to preserve insights while they’re still fresh. It’s not either blogging or longer and more serious work. Blogging makes the longer work easier and more vibrant.

Another experienced (and award-winning) academic blogger, Larry Cebula, provides sound advice for academics thinking about starting a blog, or those who worry about sustaining one:

Decide what your blog is about, and stick to it. This blog covers the history of the Pacific Northwest, digital history and resources, and sometimes teaching. You topic does not have to be a straight jacket (perhaps 10% of my posts are outside of my usual topics), but keeping a tight focus helps you build an audience and reputation.

And in case you’re new to this blog, my views on academic blogging from 2006.

 

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.

Video: The Ivory Tower and the Open Web

Here’s the video of my plenary talk “The Ivory Tower and the Open Web,” given at the Coalition for Networked Information meeting in Washington in December, 2010. A general description of the talk:

The web is now over twenty years old, and there is no doubt that the academy has taken advantage of its tremendous potential for disseminating resources and scholarship. But a full accounting of the academic approach to the web shows that compared to the innovative vernacular forms that have flourished over the past two decades, we have been relatively meek in our use of the medium, often preferring to impose traditional ivory tower genres on the web rather than import the open web’s most successful models. For instance, we would rather digitize the journal we know than explore how blogs and social media might supplement or change our scholarly research and communication. What might happen if we reversed that flow and more wholeheartedly embraced the genres of the open web?

I hope the audience for this blog finds it worthy viewing. I enjoyed talking about burrito websites, Layer Tennis, aggregation and curation services, blog networks, Aaron Sorkin’s touchiness, scholarly uses of Twitter, and many other high- and low-brow topics all in one hour. (For some details in the images I put up on the screen, you might want to follow along with this PDF of the slides.) I’ll be expanding on the ideas in this talk in an upcoming book with the same title.

Introducing Anthologize

A long-running theme of this blog has been the perceived gulf between new forms of online scholarship—including the genre of the blog itself—and traditional forms such as the book and journal. I’m obviously delighted, then, about the outcome of One Week | One Tool, a week-long institute funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities and run by the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. As the name suggests, twelve humanities scholars with technical chops hunkered down for one week to produce a digital tool they thought could have an impact in the humanities and beyond.

Today marks the launch of this effort: Anthologize, software that converts the popular open-source WordPress system into a full-fledged book-production platform. Using Anthologize, you can take online content such as blogs, feeds, and images (and soon multimedia), and organize it, edit it, and export it into a variety of modern formats that will work on multiple devices. Have a poetry blog? Anthologize it into a nice-looking ePub ebook and distribute it to iPads the world over. A museum with an RSS feed of the best items from your collection? Anthologize it into a coffee table book. Have a group blog on a historical subject? Anthologize the best pieces quarterly into a print or e-journal, or archive it in TEI. Get all the delicious details on the newly revealed Anthologize website.

Anthologize is free and open source software. Obviously in one week it’s impossible to have feature-complete, polished software. There will be a few rough edges. But it works right now (see below) and it’s just the start of a major effort. The grant from NEH anticipates more work for the One Week team over the next year to refine the tool, culminating in a follow-up meeting at THATCamp 2011.

I suspect there will be many users and uses for Anthologize, and developers can extend the software to work in different environments and for different purposes. I see the tool as part of a wave of “reading 2.0″ software that I’ve come to rely on for packaging online content for long-form consumption and distribution, including the Readability browser plugin and Instapaper. This class of software is particularly important for the humanities, which remains very bookish, but it is broadly applicable. Anthologize is flexible enough to handle different genres of writing and content, opening up new possibilities for scholarly communication. Personally, I plan to use Anthologize to run a journal and to edit and write two upcoming books.

Credit for Anthologize goes to the amazing team that produced it: Jason Casden, Boone Gorges, Kathie Gossett, Scott Hanrath, Effie Kapsalis, Doug Knox, Zachary McCune, Julie Meloni, Patrick Murray-John, Steve Ramsay, Patrick Rashleigh, and Jana Remy. It is notable that the One Weekers ranged from a recent college grad to tenured professors, programmers and designers and interface experts who also are humanities scholars, and professionals from libraries, museums, and instructional technology. Remarkably, they first met last Sunday night and had production-ready code by Saturday morning, a website to market and support the software, an outreach plan, and a vision for the future of the software beyond its original state. Not to mention a logo to go on nice-looking swag (personally, I’ll take the book bag).

Credit also goes to the great Center for History and New Media team that instructed and supported the One Weekers in the ways we like to conceive, design, and build digital humanities tools: Sharon Leon, Jeremy Boggs, Sheila Brennan, Trevor Owens, and many others who dropped in to help out. Two huge final credits: one to Tom Scheinfeldt for conceiving and running the structured madness that was One Week | One Tool, and the National Endowment for the Humanities, which took a big risk on a very untraditional institute. We hope they, and others, like the idea and the execution of Anthologize.

And just to give you some idea of what Anthologize can do, here’s the Anthologize ePub version of this blog post on an iPad, created in five minutes:

Digital Campus #45 – Wave Hello

If you’ve wondered what an academic trying to podcast while on Google Wave might sound like, you need listen no farther than the latest Digital Campus podcast. In addition to an appraisal of Wave, we cover the FTC ruling on bloggers accepting gifts (such as free books from academic presses), the great Kindle-on-campus experiment, and (of course) another update on the Google Books (un)settlement. Joining Tom, Mills, and me is another new irregular, Lisa Spiro. She’s the intelligent one who’s paying attention rather than muttering while watching Google waves go by. [Subscribe to this podcast.]

Leave the Blogging to Us

The history of genres is filled with curious transformations, such as the novel’s unlikely evolution from wasteland of second-string prose to locus of Great Literature. One of the founding notions of this blog was that despite its inauspicious beginnings and high-profile overcaffeinated incarnations the genre of the blog has always been well suited to the considered pace and output of the scholar.

Original functions of the blog (and the stereotypical blogger), like the transcription of the day’s minutiae or logging of interesting websites (thus the inharmonious neologism, weblog), have, in the last two years, swiftly emigrated to other platforms and genres, such as “microblogging” services like what-I’m-doing-right-now Twitter (with its one-sentence “tweets”) and gee-look-at-me social networks like Facebook. If you’re a trend-seeker, this makes it seem like blogging is passé, abandoned by both the masses and the digerati.

But to me, it’s simply confirmation that the genre has found its most appropriate writers and readers. It reinforces my initial view of the genre, which is that personal content management systems (what blogging platforms really are) are, despite the genre’s early, unpromising forms, perfectly suited for serious thought and scholarship. With blogging, there is no requirement for frequent posting, and I subscribe to many scholarly blogs that have infrequent, but substantive, posts. Put us in the slow blogging camp. As Barbara Ganley puts it: “Blog to reflect, Tweet to connect.”

And while we’re reflecting, it should be rather obvious at this point that thoughtful, well-written blogs can rival other forms of publication. For instance, a baseball statistician and political junkie armed with little more than a free Blogger account and considerable intelligence and energy was able this year to rival the election analysis of most professional newspaper reporters. What are the Chronicle of Higher Education‘s “Brainstorm” blogs than op-ed columns by another name? As I said in the Journal of American History earlier this fall, good writing and analysis rises and makes an impact, no matter the medium or editorial or peer-review system—or lack thereof.

Errol Morris Understands What Academic Blogging Could Be

I’ve been catching up with some reading over break—reading both online and off, despite the NEA’s recent dismissal of the former. And nothing dismisses the NEA’s dismissal of online writing as lesser than print better than the destined-to-be-a-classic series of blog posts by Errol Morris in the New York Times, “Which Came First?” Better written than most novels, more insightful than most academic articles, and more of a (virtual) page-turner than most mysteries, you should do yourself a favor and read the entire series (go ahead, print it out if you must, it’s long), and subscribe to Morris’s blog while you’re at it.

“Which Came First” begins with Morris simply trying to figure out which of two stark and riveting Crimean War photographs by Roger Fenton was taken first—the one with cannonballs strewn across a deserted road or the one with the cannonballs clustered to the side. But the series of blog posts quickly devolves into a discussion and debate about truth in photography and history. Along the way we get pointers about the nature of sunlight, warfare, and Photoshop.

Beyond the series itself, I was impressed by Morris’s conversion to blogging during the writing of the series. (Before “Which Came First?” he only blogged sporadically.) Morris began to realize that open access to his writing online led not only to a large and engaged audience, but also to critical feedback from readers. Some of the reader comments are as shrewd as Morris’s narrative.

I’m at work on a longish series of blog posts of my own tentatively entitled “The Tyranny of the Monograph,” building on my original call for professors to blog. Morris’s conclusion fits with the spirit of my series and with the need to think of new ways of academic publishing in a digital age:

A number of readers have claimed that I am not producing a blog—that I am producing a series of essays. Nomenclature aside, the idea of publishing the responses of readers to a given text (and even to including an author’s responses to those responses) goes back at least to the 17th century…So what is going on here? I believe it should appropriately be called…”Cartesian Blogging.”