10 September 2013

A Gentle Critique of DHthis

On the roll-out of DHthis, a new crowdsourced publishing platform based on the Slashdot model:

1) The conversation about developing a kind of Slashdot for digital humanities went on in "public" spaces, i.e. web-based spaces accessible to anyone with a computer and a connection -- Twitter, comments on blogs. Many people participated in these conversations. Yet five individuals decided to take it upon themselves to develop the idea more or less behind closed doors, without consulting others involved in the initial conversation (except, as I understand it, the original JDH authors, who were asked to beta test the site). The project was then rolled out with the kind of suspense-building secret hashtags used by the likes of Apple and Microsoft. Is this our definition of "open" in digital humanities? 

2) DHthis claims to be the "first entirely crowdsourced outlet for digital humanities" -- yet the tabs at the top ("Gender," "Humor," "CFPs," etc.) are static. Who's being left out of this conversation?

3) Relatedly, "DHpoco" is one of the tabs at the top. Given that the five people who developed this site are all involved in DHpoco, this strikes me as blatant kingdom-building. Again, I ask: who's being left out of this conversation? Who isn't let behind those closed doors?

...now, to be painfully clear, I'm being sarcastic in tone, intentionally so. I've stayed silent during the recent DH spats online, because they always seem to be just that -- spats, petty quarrels that ironically end up promoting division in the name of community building. The important parts of the conversation cut across tedious debates about "who's in" and "who's out."

So, first, I wanted to use this post to draw attention to the ways we talk to each other -- how we toss around our accusations, and what warrants kneejerk suspicion. 

But, that being said, I do think DHthis is a step backward in an important conversation. It's worth taking a non-sarcastic look at why:

1) The roll-out appeared self-promoting, in a way that put individuals over a collective. 

2) The design of the site seems to lay stakes in the territory debates, rather than lifting them.

3) But, more generally -- and far, far more importantly -- the problem that Adeline and Roopika originally identified in JDH was its self-presentation as "experimental," and the problems of transparency (or lack thereof) that arise therein. While I gently disagree with how that critique was couched, this ultimately was a gift to our online community, as it started a rich conversation about what constitutes openness -- a concept that everyone seemed to agree needs problematizing in DH. David Golumbia challenged the rampant buzzwordism built into "experimental" journals. Natalia Cecire and Michelle Moravec pointed out the problems inherent in the ostensibly positive concept of "flexibility." Josh Honn -- who has been immensely helpful to me in thinking through these issues, myself -- linked to an interesting article critiquing the concept of "openness. Collective soul-searching about how we want to publish as a community ensued. In fact, it continues in Ernesto Priego's post this morning.

DHthis -- a platform thrust into the world as a solution to the problems of gatekeeping, with little critical sense of how vote-based crowdsourcing actually tends to amplify the problems of minority voices getting lost in the shouting -- seems to be a step backward, both in the pace of the discussion and in terms of identifying tangible solutions.

There is so so so much more to be said about this. I want to be clear that don't ascribe ill intentions to the designers -- not at all. I just don't want the important, ongoing conversation about 'transparency', a conversation whose pace is necessarily slow, to get lost in a tool roll-out.