Saturday, February 1, 2014

Share and Share Alike

A while back, I was at a conference and a fellow conference attendee made a really important observation. Now, the truth contained in this oberservation is one we all know, especially those of us working in Digital Humanities and using the Web for scholarship and pedagogical needs. But his comment really made me realize both how widespread this is and how problematic it has become. The Web is empty.

Ok, so that's not how my colleague put it. And of course it is not literally true. The Internet is full of all sorts of things. But what it now lacks and once had in abundance is the activity of scholars and teachers. Once not long ago, it was common for professors and instructors to upload syllabi, course exercises and materials, articles and thoughts in progress. Truly, the amount of material we all shared regularly with one another and the world was mind boggling. Now, however, our universities encourage and sometimes require us to use Blackboard, D2L, and similar content management software to run classes, upload materials, and so on. Of course, these are all proprietary. They discourage sharing, worry about firewalls, and generally put materials out of reach. Most faculty no longer have a personal web page. Not even me, in my case because the university has it so buttoned down that it is impossible to use. Point is, we no longer share.

This is not the first time we have seen this corporatization, this clamping down on things once freely available. Back in the day, between the “internet” being shared with universities by the DOD, and the explosion of the web, we had BBS, bulletin board services. Folks programmed all kinds of things: games, office software, communication software, and shared it all on the BBSes, delivered of course over dial up (thank heaven for smart modems!). Of course, that has all but become a thing of the past as companies have gobbled up smaller companies and rolled over the individual developer. Rare is a Linus Torvalds or even a Zuckerberg who develop a program and make it free to use. No, the phenomenon is not non-existent; but it is becoming more and more rare.

Someone might point out the various open source projects. Or ResearchGate,, and other such sites where scholars are sharing their materials. And that's true! I don't disagree. But too few are sharing, and most are sharing pre-publication versions of papers, a few will add conference papers, fewer add materials prepped for the classroom or just plain materials not really suitable for publication but very good research tools or data-mined material.

Anyway, the point is, 12-16 years ago when the web was new, we shared things. Now, we don't share as much. Some of this is simply that our home institutions discourage it by making everything go onto Blackboard and like sites. We've seen this before. It hasn't in the long run done us any good other than push up prices, require a constant round of updates, a culture of "let's see if we can X corporation's locks" rather than "let's see who can create the best product."  And so it goes.

 Point is, it is just too easy to give in to the corporatization of our work. We're encouraged to. Just put it all on the university's subscribed site, D2L, Blackboard, something else. And that's fine to a degree; but it does rob a larger audience of your work, of shared community resources, of useful information that we once upon time as medievalists gladly gave one another and our students.

So this is an appeal. I hope to encourage people to once again share more of their work, in particular class materials, freely online. There are multiple ways of doing so for free: a web page,, ResearchGate, Linkedin, etc. Even (but beware the dangers) Dropbox and Google Docs. In the long run, our field would be better off, our students would be better off, and it shows the world just how vibrant and exciting our field is.


Michael Sarabia said...

Thank you for this post. Very timely given the new concerns re: net neutrality and the apparent move to an ever more commercialized space on the net. People complain about social networks w/r/t privacy--and for good reason!--but I've founs my social networking experience to be rich with data--freely circulating ideas, advice, and teaching strategies from some very bright people.

However, now the business prophets tell us even the mighty facebook will be dead in five years. Why, I wonder? Because it circulates too much free speech?

bwhawk said...

Larry, thanks for a provocative post. I do think, however, that it needs to be tempered. It seems to me that, instead of less sharing, there are two other issues to consider: first, much more widespread dissemination of materials rather than a few centralized places for sharing; and, second, a lot more general noise that can obscure such widespread materials. I would argue that a lot of sharing goes on (so much so that I sometimes feel overwhelmed, especially on Twitter), but that these two factors create difficulties.

There are, after all, some great repositories for sharing, but they may not be widely known, and they are not centralized. For example, Lisa Spiro has put together a great Zotero collection for "Digital Humanities Education" resources here. Another, specific to Anglo-Saxon studies, is the Oxford-hosted Woruldhoard project, a great collection of resources here. I could link to many other examples, culled from extensive bookmarks, but they do span many different sites and many different scholarly fields. Much of my own optimism about resource sharing comes from following a good crowd of scholars (representing many different disciplines and specializations) on Twitter, which seems to be a great community for sharing, including links from disparate sources. In some ways, this wide dissemination reflects disciplinary and subject specialization boundaries in the academy. I pose just two examples, but they are in different spheres of academia (despite some obvious overlaps between medieval studies and digital humanities). Yet, as the disparate natures of these two repositories demonstrates, such sharing is spread far and wide.

All of this is a long way from the early days of the Internet, when academics formed communities through listserves and email-based discussion groups. Some of these still exist, and many more now than before, and sharing does occur on them. But add to these many other ways to share--as Larry points out, personal websites, WordPress repositories,, ResearchGate, Zotero, Twitter, even (more recently) Tumblr, and the list could go on—and the noise begins to proliferate. I don't think I need to dwell on the idea of noise on the Internet; with millions of sites available, some certainly will be more prevalent and accessible than others.

In none of this am I suggesting that we need centralization--which could possibly lead to more monopolistic enterprises. Is there a solution? Is there a way to make more resources more prominent and more freely circulating? Perhaps it means finding the right networks and following them closely.

theswain said...

While the 'Net has certainly grown over the years so that there is more "noise" as you put it, the methods of accessing, tracking,and collating the web have likewise become more advanced and nuanced. And while on the one hand there is more out there in some ways (museums and libraries uploading pictures and digitizing manuscripts), in the important ways of sharing lesson plans, syllabi, exercises, papers, research in progress, the landscape is drier.

Take for example the much ballyhooed Woruldhoard. What a great idea and resource! And the majority of materials are photos from museums already found on the museum sites, there are 5 power points of varying quality, more texts, though many are available elsewhere on the Net and have been for years....and so on. In fact, the site blog hasn't been updated in years. A noble and grand project that is really a success, but a mere shadow of its potential. And thus my post and my point. Rather than "tempering" it needs trumpeting.

Anonymous said...

I know what you mean. I just noticed on my academic webpage ( that I no longer post course syllabi because they go out through our university's online system (Laulima) or, increasingly, on a class blog that is locked.
Moreover, I am not keeping up the webpage much in terms of links, since I now do that with my public research blog, Revealing Words.
This makes me wonder whether I should maintain the academic webpage by posting syllabi there, or just transfer my attentions completely to the blog and putting links there. I doubt I will do both, and since Wordpress is easier than Dreamweaver, I am guessing the blog wins.
KL Jolly