PressForward Institute Welcome

[Note: this is a lightly edited and linked transcript of the Welcome that I gave for the PressForward Institute last week. — JFT]

It is so nice to be here and to meet you all in person. And I am so glad that you all are here to meet each other. This PressForward Institute is an opportunity to meet people with similar projects, shared goals, and of course, shared challenges. What is lovely about this gathering is that it is a meeting to share knowledge about knowledge sharing.

On a small scale we will be reproducing your knowledge-sharing publications, because we will be discussing reports of our explorations, lessons learned, and results confirmed. The PressForward team is also hoping that now that you have arrived, the travel is behind you and the “out of office” message is on, that you will be able to have the distance and perspective to think about both the forest and the trees — the biggest picture of your goals and challenges – and also about the small, incremental steps along the way.

We all are interested in sharing information. I’ve been at the Smithsonian for a year, which is long enough to automatically invoke the phrase “increase and diffusion of knowledge.” I think we all share this mindset, which makes for an excellent place to begin.

We also are interested in the practical and pragmatic questions about how to do this. We have a willingness to experiment and a commitment to learning by doing. Which is good, especially since we are in an ever-changing landscape of web publishing and an ecosystem of scholarly communication, which may or may not be adjusting as quickly as we would like. This environment, in turn, sparks our interest in experimenting and doing something to try to shape it for the better.

PressForward began, like other software-building projects at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, as a way to solve a technical challenge that was posing a professional challenge for academics. In this case study, it was the process of monitoring the open, web-based communications of the scholarly community in the digital humanities. Three by-products of that monitoring process also were important: sharing the results of that effort with others; creating a replicable process for doing that monitoring; and elevating the valuable work that otherwise might go unrecognized because it was in unfamiliar medium, or genre, or in an unfamiliar location.

We wanted to build on the capabilities of technology in order to expand the capabilities of the profession. And the environment we were working in was—and remains– rapidly changing. Web-based scholarly communication has been adjusting to changing expectations of practitioners, which in turn have been influenced greatly by the broader trends of web publishing over the past decade.

In 2005, blogging platforms came on the scene and made it easier scholars to share their work and their commentary and build a community in public – if they were bold enough to work in that space. Through comments and the use of hyperlinks that essentially acted as footnotes and prompts to respond, a community could develop around a shared and growing body of work.

By 2009, blogging was becoming more popular. RSS feeds and feed readers like Google Reader made following multiple sources a much easier process. Newer on the scene for academics were microblogging platforms – Twitter and even Facebook – that created an easy way to broadcast the existence and location of that work, but also allowed for more conversation separate from the linked and evergreen content on blogs. Together, the blog posts and the Twitter feeds had created a “river of news” that often felt like it came from a firehose. It was at this time that Dan Cohen, former director of the Center for History and New Media and currently Director of the Digital Public Library of America, started a prototype for aggregating and curating scholarly content from the open web—the very first iteration of our own Digital Humanities Now.

By 2011, there were signs that scholars were exploring ways to move beyond limited formats and genres– for example the Force11 Group’s first “Beyond the PDF” conference that hoped to support methods of publishing and circulating scholarly work that was not locked in flat files; to make tables of data accessible and usable; and more importantly, to make the outlook and practice of scholarly communication one focused on accessibility and interoperability.

Also in 2011, Dan Cohen and Tom Scheinfeldt approached the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to propose PressForward — to use the existing Digital Humanities Now publication to experiment with methods to funnel “the river of news” from RSS feeds so that scholarly communication could expand, both in sources and genres of material, and also in discoverability and availability.

By 2013 that “river of news” on the open web had been manipulated into a “stream” of information that for many people lived within applications rather than the web browser. Alexis Madrigal, an early advisor to the PressForward project, wrote in The Atlantic  that he found the never-ending “stream” of information disconcerting – with its constant scrolling to find less structured content with fewer links and less engagement, or platform-dependent engagement such as comments that are walled off into Facebook, and streams of content organized by nowness, prioritized by algorithm, and also prone to become an echo chamber – Madrigal thought that the stream had crested and something new was coming. But I think we can easily say that the stream is still with us, and if anything, has turned into a stream more dependent on images and video.

Now the audience expectation for seeing lots of images and video is an excellent opportunity for those of you with fascinating images from your research, particularly for communicating scientific practice when experiments and discoveries are less easily explained or captured in writing. But is important for us all to consider how and whether or not the stream is an improvement over the river of news. In fact, our goal is to try to figure out the best way to circulate information to serve scholarly communities and our public audiences who need persistent information and conversations in addition to the latest highlights.

The PressForward methodology and technology that you are all using or are here to learn more about is still an attempt to make a positive influence in this environment, whether your community and your audiences are dealing with an abundance of work online currently in a “river of news” or a “stream of content,” buried in open repositories, hidden in walled garden applications, or perhaps even scarcely visible on the open web.

We want to prioritize and cultivate an extensible web that makes incremental and easily adapted adjustments to a shared based of the web; and we want to encourage a network of content that is linked and long lasting, or as Alexis Madrigal calls it, “a network of many times, not just now.”

To do this we need a few things: a manageable process; an invested community; and open and sustainable structures.        

First, we are aiming for a manageable process that enables the behaviors that we want to see more of in the world: actual reading of content, sharing and discussion with others, and persistence of information. Moreover, we want that process to be within a user interface environment that enables us rather than prohibits or limits or frustrates us.

We also want to marshal our communities. Having those who know best — the people within the scholarly community – involved is so important for a number of reasons.

  • So that our communities engage with the material;
  • So they learn ofand fromthe material; this type of review work allows you to stay on top of your field and also learn about what’s at the leading edge;
  • To contribute a form of service to the larger community;
  • And critically, because the more people who are involved, the greater the number and proportion of the community who have a sense of the shape of scholarly communication and its challenges and opportunities – for the individual scholar, for the field, and for the technical and social infrastructure of scholarly communication.

In this case, the more eyeballs you have, the more problem solvers you have. Which is why having open source software is so important. To encourage its use, certainly, but also to encourage experimentation. And that’s an important reason why we’re here for this institute.

Also important is our contribution to keeping technologies alive that use the most sustainable architecture – in this case RSS. Simply put, using sustainable formats and extensible architectures keep content more accessible and usable for longer.

Now of course this may be an uphill battle in the larger landscape of web publishing and online communication. While we are in it every day it is hard to see incremental changes, which is why I was so struck by Hossein Derakhshan’s recent piece from last month, “The Web We Have to Save” about the social changes of the web in the past 6 years, and re-reading tech entrepreneur Anil Dash’s more technical pieces “The Web We Lost” and “Rebuilding the Web We Lost” from 2012.[vi]

Derakhshan is an Iranian-Canadian journalist who was an important and founding member of the Persian blogging community. He was in Iran and arrested in 2008, in part for things he wrote in his blog and being part of that community, and while he was in jail he was offline for nearly 6 years. When he was released in 2014 and restarted his blog he no longer had his huge audience of 20,000 readers. He was struck by the efforts required of an author to make his work visible — even discoverable— on a lot of different social media platforms.

His voice was lost in part because of the 6 years of absence and the explosion of people publishing online – but also because instead of a network of linked blogs, now there are so many difference platforms that are walled gardens. He had to announce and cultivate a discussion on Instagram, where comments stayed on Instagram; on Facebook, where comments stayed there; on Twitter, and so. Rather than having one home on the open web where attention could be directed, the conversation cultivated, and links to other writers could be made, he had to make the effort to have his work live – by being visible and engaged – on all these platforms, none of which allowed him to retain real ownership of the content. In his piece he mourns the loss of the open web and the distribution and ownership of the conversation among many people, and the hyperlink that made it possible to form networks.

Now long-form scholarship and informative, thoughtful pieces you aim to highlight may not be distributed on social media platforms at the same rate as individuals expressing their creativity or aesthetic eye or documenting their social life or providing commentary in order to gain attention on social media. But these broader changes in the web affect the tools at our disposal, the environment in which we work, and the expectations and behaviors of our audiences.

So we can’t be oblivious to the behaviors of liking and retweeting—impact factors and altmetrics already are evolving concepts in scholarly communication. But we do need to learn how to make them work for our needs, and to make a positive influence in the landscape of the web, and the ecosystem of scholarly and scientific communication.

Of course we all know that it is more difficult to write something informative, coherent, and thoughtful and to actually try something new in order to improve our practice and get closer to our goal.

But I’m here to remind us that it is worth doing. And that to help us along the way, we have tried to make PressForward a replicable process and an expandable technology that you can tailor to your specific needs.

I hope you learn a lot from each other about the complexity of the communities and communication landscape you each are in. I hope you find value in hearing about the challenges faced, and the ideas that are brewing. And I hope that you appreciate their successes and feel that your community has expanded to include the Public Library of Science, the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society, Microbe.net, Zooniverse, the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, and the many others who here with us.

And with that, let’s get started!

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