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.


Jesse Stommel said...

Just a brief comment as I mull. I am not (as of yet) involved in any way with DHPoco. Neither is Martin, to my knowledge. And the point is to develop this platform with the community. What we are doing is throwing some parts out on the table for everyone to play with.

Whitney said...

Fair points, Jesse. Thanks for elaborating.

Unknown said...

Hi Whitney,

We rolled out fairly quickly as you can tell. Jesse and Martin worked hard and around the clock the platform ready, but we all knew that we were coming out in our pijamas. The reason for doing that was so we can jump right in into the part where we build this with the community (and by community we simply mean those who want to play here). No hiding. Platforms come and go depending on participation, and this one is no exception. If folks find it useful it will stick and serve a purpose.

We're not ignoring the conversations that have happened around this kind of platform. We just figured we can talk while we build.

Right now we have problem with the categories that we are very aware of. While you can create groups, the pligg platform wants to have fixed categories. We want anyone who wants to play to help us vote for what should be the top categories.

I know the dramatic component to events in the past weeks is still casting a light on this. I think your thinking on this can only make the site better. Notice that the experiment here is not in publishing per se, but in news. Worth a try, without detracting from the work of JDH or others, which I think serve their purpose too and are great resources.

Josh Honn said...

I agree that this is a step backwards, or, at the very least, a lesson unlearned. If part of the critique of JDH, as I read it and was sympathetic to, was that its policies were so open and experimental (and being made up as they went along) as to further reinforce structural inequities, then I don't understand how this is any different.

The idea that we can create open spaces online that exist outside of "real life's" messiness has been proven time and time again to be untrue (see: Reddit, Wikipedia, etc.), and it's this Silicon Valley way of thinking—upvoting and downvoting is nothing more than solutionism—that continues to further perpetuate the antithesis of humanist values despite being drenched in revolutionary marketing rhetoric—open! experimental! crowdsourced!

I was hoping the lesson learned would be deeper thought and more critical engagement, not another quick rush to "build something" that inherently will never work toward solving any of our problems. I wish we'd spend more time saying to ourselves: "Just because you can, doesn't mean you should." I also really, really wish people would read Tckacz on why "the logic of openness actually gives rise to, and is perfectly compatible with, new forms of closure."

sramsay said...

Well, I have (and similar arguments), and always wondered what sort of politics is not "competitive" -- save in the case of some kind of totalitarianism?

Couldn't one say of democracy what Tckacz says of "openness?" That it isn't oriented toward any particular form of political desire, per se?

Whether it's merely change for change's sake is a localized failure -- a radical possibility of the "platform" (where the platform is a legal construct, a form of government, or whater). To say that "openness" can only head toward one, empty teleology is as deterministic a vision as its more optimistic opposite.

Wessel van Rensburg said...

Well guys here is another 'open' space not free from real life's messiness - http://iu.raak.it/ it's how I found this post.

Simon Rowberry said...

It's always important to view the digital humanities in terms of its historical precedents and in this case, there is an important lesson from hypertext, which was often framed in terms of similar democratic experiments in a laboratory setting.

When a pseudo-hypertext (the Web) finally emerged on the scale many critics imagined, it turned out to be deeply undemocratic, as unsurprisingly, it was very hard to find anything in a network where everything is equal! It's no surprise that the most popular websites favour well-connected people over well-connected documents. Unfortunately, this leads to a popularity contest rather than proper assessment of the quality of the content.

Of course, it is laudable to strive to push beyond these problems, but with the rapid cyclical nature of activity on the Web (cf. the Dot-Com boom & the current climate), it's worth pausing to think what historical failures can teach us before potentially repeating the same mistakes.

Natalia said...

Thanks for this post, Whitney. I wrote an overly long and somewhat derailing response here.

TL;DR: I share your concern that a redditlike structure could make a site, well, redditlike. I quibble somewhat with your framing. I look on DHThis with interest.

Tim McCormick said...

> Five individuals take it upon themselves to develop
> the idea.. behind closed doors, without consulting
> others involved in initial conversation... strikes me as
> blatant kingdom-building. Who's being left out of this conversation?

I can't say I'm surprised by the situation. I've had degrees of contact with all five members of the DHthis team in the year and a half, and had disturbing experiences with at least two of them that fit patterns described. In both cases, after a period of collegial interaction in which I supported and contributed ideas to their projects, Martin Eve and Adeline Koh both publicly attacked and excommunicated me, removing me from the conversation or involvement on projects on which I was either a co-founder (Open Library of Humanities) or giving input (Koh re. Journal of DH, and DHthis). In each case, I had no idea what led to the action, they didn't explain their reasons, and they've refused to have any further contact.

In both cases, they're claiming leading roles in a project, proclaiming its originality, while effacing contributions by others. To me it looks like aggressive in-grouping and self-promotion, gauging that a relative outsider's involvement and reputation is expendable.

Sadly, if they did gauge my role and reputation as expendable for their credit-seeking goals, they might be right. Since I'm not an academic, I'm a distant concern in an intensely competitive field, where rewards are determined largely by close disciplinary peers. It's rational and predictable for academics to be oriented toward these insular incentives and reputation system, and the resulting patterns of homophily.

The opportunism we see does, however, lead to some cognitive dissonances. First, fields that proclaim principles of collaboration and equality are operating, for many, in a brutal state of competition and precarity, and vast inequality between ranks. In such Darwinian realms, can we be surprised to see this credit-seeking and status-hierarchy entrepreneurship? It's what might befall you in many a field, from the playground on up.

Second, while self-promotion is a natural part of the system, it does at some point conflict with scholarly and professional values. Such as, examining precedent, and crediting precursors and contributors. In the cases of OLH and DHthis, I'd say Eve and Koh erased such parties from mention, to take more credit themselves. The comment I submitted to Koh before DHthis' launch, which alone among comments she somehow neglected to approve or notice multiple tweets about by me and colleagues, pointed out various previous Slashdot-style scholarly systems, such as the r/scholar and DH subreddits, and Arxaliv reddit-style front end to the arXiv.

Yet, Koh's announcement article mentions no precedent, and presents DHthis as a brand new innovation. This is disingenuous and ungenerous, and suggests to the community that its contributions aren't going to be acknowledged, or only as those of secondary (non 'founder') contributors, unless they're part of the in-group that first and most loudly claims credit (and/or puts up site, etc.). Much the same happened when Martin Eve and his partner by force and without warning took over the OLH project.

To me it's disappointing and alienating, for a field to appear so driven by careerist territorializing and exclusionary self-regard than by public or scholarly values. That's one reason "digital humanities" seems to me a less interesting, important, or ultimately effective organizing idea than, say, "open access" or "public scholarship," which are about principles of public knowledge, not just one field's tools and self-dialogue.

Tim McCormick
@tmccormick tjm.org Palo Alto