Last week, a bunch of digital humanists got together at the Center for History and New Media to make a new tech tool that the broader academic AND nonacademic communities could use for their work. The catch: they had to conceive, design, and ship the thing in JUST one week. And as anyone who’s spent any time hanging out with university people, the pace is usually pretty glacial compared to the commercial world, even/especially for tech.
They called it “One Week | One Tool,” with a great subhead in the deck: “A Digital Humanities Barn-Raising.” You can see the sweet team that put it together here. And CHNM has a great track record with these kinds of projects: Zotero and Omeka alone are free, open-source world-class products that have made life in the research and curatorial feeds way easier.
Now about half these people working on One Week | One Tool are in my Twitter feed, and they spend a lot of time talking to each other, so as this was unfolding, I read about this event non-stop. People wrote blog posts about it. Folks (especially those of us who were on the periphery) made puns and cracked jokes. It was an ongoing communal broadcast that you could follow on the #oneweek hashtag if you wanted the full dish. It was very, very similar to the excitement around the 48HrMag (now Longshot Magazine) project when it was first announced, albeit within a slightly smaller, maybe more homogeneous community.
But, importantly, with all that information circulating, nobody said anything about what the tool actually was. There were even enigmatic teaser tweets, like “Just used the new #oneweek tool for the first time; works great!” It wasn’t LeBron-taking-his-talents-to-South-Beach suspense, but at a certain point, more and more people were waiting to find out what the heck the thing was. They even launched a video stream to make the announcement. I don’t know if they tried to get ESPN to donate some time and sell commercials for charity, but who knows?
And sure enough, it became big news. Everybody who’d been following it live-tweeted the news once they’d gotten it. (Some people even begged their Tweeple to post it, since they couldn’t watch the video broadcast.) It got written up in ReadWriteWeb, the Chronicle of Higher Educaton, and the Atlantic, among other big-for-DH venues.
And they put together a great open-source tool: Anthologize, a WordPress plugin that helps you take online content like blog posts and collect, edit, design, and format them into a book — for either digital or print. Solid software, with obvious utility for lots of people, not just academics. (Although part of me quietly wonders if the CHNM’s last big project, “Hacking the Academy,” motivated the choice, since that explicitly was an effort to turn a whole bunch of scattered blog posts — again, all written and/or curated in one week — into a book.)
Now this is the part on Snarkmarket where, usually, I would try to explain what I think all of this means — for you, for us, for media, for journalism, for education, for the children. And this time, I’m deliriously happy, because I think we’ve already done it. I can just take two posts+comment threads from the Snarkmarket archive and blockquote the hell out of them. (And as everyone knows, me and blockquotes are totally BFFs.)
Here are some highlights from Robin’s still-uber-potent “The future of media? Bet on events“:
So far we’ve got this TED/Phoot Camp media-making workshop spear-gun. Now, bolt on deadly additions from Iron Chef and the Long Now Foundation’s debates. Now we’ve got a
laser swordmedia product that is:
* Live. It’s an event that happens at a specific time and place in the real world. It’s something you can buy a ticket for—or follow on Twitter.
* Generative. Something new gets created. The event doesn’t have to produce a series of luminous photo essays; the point is simply that contributors aren’t operating in playback mode. They’re thinking on their feet, collaborating on their feet, creating on their feet. There’s risk involved! And that’s one of the most compelling reasons to follow along.
* Publishable. The result of all that generation ought, ideally, to be something you can publish on the web, something that people can happily discover two weeks or two years after the event is over.
* Performative. The event has an audience—either live or online, and ideally both. The event’s structure and products are carefully considered and well-crafted. I love the BarCamp model; this is not a BarCamp.
* Serial. It doesn’t just happen once, and it doesn’t just happen once a year. Ideally it happens… what? Once a month? It’s a pattern: you focus sharply on the event, but then the media that you produce flares out onto the web to grow your audience and pull them in—to focus on the next event. Focus, flare.
I wrote this in the comments:
I like positioning the generative-web-event as being somewhere between a seminar, a TV show, and a magazine.
Like a seminar, or workshop: it’s brainy, and collaborative, aimed at creating knowledge, not just reciting it;
Like a TV show: it’s live! It’s happening now! Or, rather — it was happening then. We’re going to show you something that’s going to gain and capture your attention;
Like a magazine: you’re not capturing a random viewer, who is just trying to tune in to whatever catches their attention at that moment. You’re connecting with subscribers, and trying to gain and hold their attention. Too much of the web, of social media, is like flicking through the channels, with too much of the bad aspects of that and not enough of the good.
And Shamptonian asks:
Regardless of the tools, methods and processes involved, I keep wrestling with the existential question of “what is the ultimate purpose of this media?”
Are we generating it:
1. For profit?
2. For attention?
3. For education?
4. For helping humanity?
5. For the evolution of civilization?
I have no answers I think I’m just growing weary of having to assign purpose to art, and the increasing belief that the forms of [artistic] media (poetry, literature, painting, photography, video, etc.) are less meaningful, less marketable, less ‘social’, if they do not have a broader intent.
Actually, that whole comment thread is one of my favorites ever: it features a goodly chunk of the all-time Snarkmatrix comment all-stars, and we talk about the awesomeness of the Snarkmarket ampersand, the non-value of farts in windowless rooms, and even spawned what’s still my favorite mass-culture media idea, “Lego Hamlet.” Read it, or read it again.
Now, Robin started out his events post thinking about events for profit, but clearly, as Anthologize proves, you can also get a lot of mileage for events that look to educate and help humanity AND — maybe most importantly — generate attention. Here’s Robin again:
A specter is haunting the internet, and I think it’s even scarier than the challenge of getting people to pay money. It’s the challenge of getting them to pay attention. I think it’s only going to get worse—which is to say, better, because we as internet users and blog readers and tweet slingers will have more cool, weird, interesting stuff to look at all the time, and it will just keep coming faster and getting cooler and fragments and—ack!
So what kinds of cultural objects historically have gotten people to pay attention? Well, I wrote about this last month:
The way our culture works, depending on what field you’re operating in, certain kinds of objects (or in some cases, events) generate more cultural focus than others. Shirky gives an example from painting: “Anyone can be a painter, but the question is then, ‘Have you ever had a show; have you ever had a solo show?’ People are always looking for these high-cost signals from other people that this is worthwhile.” In music, maybe it used to be an album; in comedy, it might be an hour-long album or TV special; I’m sure you can think of others in different media. It’s a high-cost object that broadcasts its significance. It’s not a thing; it’s a work…
It’s no surprise, then, that he Big Digital Shake-Up in the way cultural objects are produced, consumed, sold, disseminated, re-disseminated, etc. is shifting our concepts of both authorship and the work in many genres and media. What are the new significant objects in the fields that interest you? Pomplamoose makes music videos; Robin wrote a novella, but at least part of that “work” included the blog and community created by it; and Andrew Sullivan somehow manages to be the “author” of both the book The Conservative Soul and the blog The Daily Dish, even when it switches from Time to The Atlantic, even when someone else is guest-writing it. And while it takes writing a book to get on Fresh Air, to really get people on blogs talking about your book, it helps to have a few blog posts, reviews, and interviews about it, so there’s something besides the Amazon page to link to.
I put forward a guess at the end of that post, which is a partial answer to that question. One new kind of media that’s starting to function as a work is a blog. Not, in most cases, a blog post — but a blog. If the New York Times decides, “hey, we’re going to start and host a blog all about parenting” — that blog becomes a Work. It produces ongoing cultural focus, and not just because it’s in the New York Times. Some posts get more attention than others, especially if they cross over into a long-form venue, but writing that blog, sticking with it, being its author, creates focus, readership, and a long accumulation of content. And I’m sure Lisa Belkin (who already wrote a book about parenting) will get another book out of it.
But the other new, emergent work, which might be more radical, is the generative web event. 48HrMag, One Week | One Tool, Robin’s novellas, and maybe even the New Liberal Arts (especially if we put together another edition) are all ancestral species of this new thing — the children of TED and Phoot Camp and Long Now and Iron Chef, and the parents of whatever’s going to come next.