networks: August 2006 Archives

My reaction has been mixed to the new suite of Geico commercials, although I am forced to admit that they are a serious improvement upon the "meta-gecko" crap they've been serving up. If you haven't seen them, "real Geico customers" are paired up with celebrities like Little Richard, Charo, and Burt Bachrach. Bachrach was just plain weird, but it's actually grown on me.

Anyways, one of the commercials features the guy (or one of them, anyway) who does the voiceovers for movie trailers. The commercial is utterly predictable, as you might imagine, a quasi-emergency headed off by Geico, blah blah blah, all done in the MovieGuy voice.

Which brings me. At the risk of appearing to be piling on when what I sort of hope to do is to pile up, I wanted to pick up a couple of the threads that appear in posts by Jeff and Alex, which themselves respond to an if:book post noting Kairos's 10YA. Are we all linked up? Good.

When I went over to Jim Kalmbach's retrospective in Kairos, my response was fairly similar to Jeff's. As I began to read the piece, though, as I read this:

Undaunted by this mystery, they set out to create an online journal that would explore the intersections of rhetoric, technology, and pedagogy, or as Michael Salvo (Doherty & Salvo, 2002) put it:

With Kairos, a handful of graduate students in half a dozen states, with no budget and no sense of what was and was not possible (or acceptable), created something that caught (and continues to catch) peoples' attention.

Here's where it comes together. I couldn't read this passage without MovieGuy's voice intoning it: "In a field stagnant and dominated by print ideals....a band of plucky graduate students...with only the clothes on their backs...armed with an idea and the will to change a discipline...."

This may be snotty of me, I admit. I honestly have nothing against Jim, whom I don't know, nor Michael, whom I consider a friend. In a lot of ways, this folds into Jeff's ruminations about recognition, and the way that "epic tales of struggle and triumph" tend to obscure all of the other tales. And I react against it here, in this case, not because this is an especially egregious example, but rather because the overall pattern is one that I see repeated with some frequency. The "call" is one strategy that's part of it--it's a way of "being first" without actually "being first," and I say that as someone who's issued my fair share of calls.

Jeff's right, I think, to note that we could do a better job of understanding the way that we direct attention, and the thing that "hero narratives" like these do is to direct attention squarely and solely upon the hero. This is an attitude that's been critiqued heavily in terms of pedagogy, for the degree to which other factors, often beyond the pedagogue's control, play as great (if not greater) a role in the classroom as the teacher hirself.

Writ disciplinarily larger, and here it's important to note that this Kairos piece is far from singular in this regard, I see calls for the kind of work that is already going on, but perhaps unknown to the caller. I see histories of "the field" that only recognize certain people as belonging to the field. I see "critical overviews" heavily shot through with self-citation. None of these things I find particularly pleasing. Or particularly critical. Or especially productive.

Now, it's going to be easy to read this list and wonder who I'm talking about in "our field." But, and this is part of my point, it's not just "our field" that I'm talking about. Technology cuts across many fields, and in some places, I'm talking about people that aren't even recognized as part of "our field." I bet you think this rant is about you. Don't you?

Similarly easy to think that I'm just sour graping it. Will all my posts from here on out be bitter reflections on my lack of recognition in the field? Well, yes, but that misses the broader point that all of these things, which in an unkind turn of phrase I might call self-promotion as scholarship (rather than self-promotion of scholarship), function to reinforce some of the tendencies that Alex notes in his post. I may print out the following and tape it above my desk:

A new multimedia scholarship that essentially does what we've always done, only with video and links, isn't worth the trouble it takes to create. A new medium means a new epistemology and not a predefined one held out manifesto-style like an ideological holy grail (though those can be fun to write sometimes). At the same time, though experimentation for its own sake is a necessary part of this, ultimately a new multimedia scholarship must respond to some exigency.

Back in the halcyon days of hypertext, end of books and all that, the assumption was that, if we start replacing books with hypertexts, pretty soon the snowball rolls under its own momentum, and voila! cultural paradigm shift. If you think that this is too glib an account, just go back and read some of it. What some of us, I hope, learned was that the book, for its various faults, did certain things well. Also, it had a couple of hundred years to diffuse into the culture, through attitudes towards authorship, commoditization, education, and all of these different spheres of activity, none of which was especially ready to see books wither on the vine. Plug hypertexts into that culture, and nothing much happens. "Books suck" wasn't much of an exigency. Of course, now that we call hypertexts by the various names of blogs, wikis, SNSs, discussion fora, you could argue that they've had a much greater effect, but I can't help but think that would be cheating just a little.

The moral of this little tale is that a lot of that early scholarship believed, in an astoundingly self-assured way, that you could just pluck out one medium, sub in a newer one, and change would radiate outward. So when Alex implies that Kairos is to a degree constrained by its operation within a fairly traditional, academic attention economy, I think he's spot on. Cheryl asks:

Others are doing on the web what Kairos wants to do. We see that. I see that and totally acknowledge it’s happening. So is it wrong to “call” for some of that action within the server space of the journal itself?

Maybe so, even though that's not the answer the question wants. At the very least, it's no less wrong to call for an electronic journal to blur the focus on emulating print, such that that "action" might happen. Years ago, I tried to argue unsuccessfully to push Enculturation away from the "event model" of journal publication, which is grounded in an economy of clerical and print scarcity. Why would an electronic journal need to publish simultaneous issues? thought I. Years later, and my writing has moved well away from event model poetics, enough so that deadlines are mind killers for me these days. I will count my blogwork in my tenure file the way that other performance disciplines count their work--I don't need a journal to validate it. It's led to other things I can count, like interviews with media outlets, invited talks, etc., all (of course) outside "our field," but oh well.

I feel like I've swirled myself around a bit here. I guess I should close by noting that, despite a little pessimism and skepticism, I do believe that we're slowly inching our way outside of the constraints of the academic economy. Like Jeff, I may come off here as critical of particular efforts, but also like him, I think, I find it more a function of a system than any particular agent within the system (and I'm an agent within the system, too). If it sounds like I'm waffling between "breakin on through to the other side" and "working for change from within," that's because I am. More and more, I find myself unsatisfied with either option, mostly because each requires me to think of my work at a scale that I don't find particuarly productive. My attitude is still a work in progress, I fear.

Snip, snap, snout.
This rant's told out. (#)

CCCO thoughts

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Over at if:book, Ray Cha relays and recommends an upcoming chapter from Clifford Lynch, about moving beyond "reader-centric views of scholarly literature." It has much in common with Franco Moretti's work on literary history, and is worth reading for that reason alone.

But I'm also on the lookout for ways to articulate just what it is we're trying to do with CCC Online, and Lynch's piece fits the bill. Namely...

We would also see an explosion in services that provided access to this literature in new and creative ways. Such services would also incorporate specialized vocabulary databases, gazetteers, factual databases, ontologies, and other auxiliary tools to enhance indexing and retrieval. They would rapidly transcend access to address navigation and analysis. One path here leads towards more-customized rehosting of scholarly literatures and underlying evidence into new usage and analysis environments attuned to the specific scholarly practices of various disciplines.

We would also see a move beyond federation and indexing to actual text mining and analysis, to the extraction of hypotheses and correlations that would help to drive ongoing scholarly inquiry. Indeed, the literature would be embedded in a computational context that reorganized and re-evaluated the existing body of knowledge as new literature became available.

That excerpt separates nicely into what I think we're already doing at the site, although not perhaps to the extent that Lynch imagines it, and the second half, which in many ways is the prize that we've got our long-term eyes on. If you don't think we're watching projects like this and this, well, you don't know us very well. Heh.

I'm less worried about the potential objections that Cha raises at the end of his post--"Purists will undoubtedly frown upon the use of computation that cannot be replicated by humans in scholarly research"--than I am about getting to the point where such objections can be raised. In other words, I believe that such work, if it can generate compelling results, will override knee-jerk complaints. I think it's also going to be necessary, in our own field at least, to be very careful to qualify the value of this work appropriately. Not that that's always been enough, especially when it comes to quasi-statistical work, which tends to run afoul of the old "me humanities. me hate math." goofiness.

Two other points. First is one that I'm guessing some people will not appreciate, and that's that, to an extent this work is fairly easily decoupled from the "open access" that appears to drive Lynch's piece. That is, the value of data mining is offered as a consequence of open access, and while that is true at a very large scale, I think it possible to do quite a bit in this area without it, honestly. We're able to work around providing the metadata we wanted without having to open up the journal's content, even if we might have preferred it otherwise. And I think that some pretty entrenched attitudes will need to change for what Lynch describes to be more than a thought experiment. Not that they shouldn't change, but I'm not sure how far they actually need to, for this at least.

Second point is that we use a fairly small, fairly simple suite of tools to do what we're doing now. We had to cobble stuff together, and we've done so fairly successfully, but it shouldn't go unmentioned that a couple of good programmers would go a long way towards making this a lot more doable. Personally, I have enough ability to tweak, and I'm pretty good at making MT modules do what I want them to, but we spent a fair bit of time just cobbling. I'm conscious of how much more efficient our system could be.

And yeah, it's only one journal that we're working on, and all things considered, we really have to pace things more slowly than I'd like. But it's also our flagship journal, and if nothing else, we tackled the biggest job first, in designing and testing it on CCC. There's going to be some real value in what we're doing, even if it doesn't hit the scale that Lynch imagines. And we're a pretty solid model for how to accomplish these goals on both a small scale and approaching it from the bottom up.

That is all.

In Xandiego did ComiCon...

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A while back, I aggregated Henry Jenkins' site, Confessions of an Aca/Fan, but it's taken me too long to add it to the ol' roll, a mistake I have since corrected. One of the grad students in the CMS program at MIT, Ivan Askwith, is guest-blogging some reflections from his trip to ComiCon out in SD. In particular, I'm interested in his discussion of the Long Tail and its appropriateness as a model: "recent entries both here and in the C3 Weblog tempt me to describe what I saw at ComicCon as a living illustration of Chris Anderson's Long Tail." As he ultimately concludes, though:

For all of its strengths, however, I don't think the Long Tail is designed to explain the lesson that I would encourage the entertainment industry to take away from their time at ComicCon: that a small audience of super-committed fans can be worth more, in economic terms, than a massive audience of casual viewers and readers.

I'll discuss that lesson in a bit, but first I want to second Ivan's insight that the LT isn't quite enough to explain things there. For me, one of the biggest lessons of Chris Anderson's LT work is the importance of aggregation, and the ways that the Web has enabled a kind of aggregation previously unavailable to us. In other words, aggregation is largely thought of, still, as geographical, and I mean that both materially and metaphorically. Please to explain?

Niche cultures can't support a material infrastructure, unless the threshold is set significantly lower. The stereotype of poorly lit, ugly comic stores springs to mind, or often somewhat archaic, single-screen art house cinemas. The profit margin on places like these is often just used to keep them afloat, while blockbuster joints can afford stadium seating, big fluffy chairs, big open aisles, lots of employees, etc. You pay money to keep a store/site open, regardless of whether anyone comes, and the more specialized the need you're meeting, the less your potential traffic. There's a certain threshold below which it's just impossible to afford to do this. That's material geographic aggregation of one sort.

Another sort is the con circuit, with CC being perhaps the most conspicuous. But we have em in academia, too, as do a lot of other professions. Unlike retail outlets, cons practice aggregation as event, gathering a whole bevy of like-minded folk in one place for a few days. And if you don't think that we have our own costumes, autograph sessions, celebrities, etc., I invite you to spend a day with me at MLA in December.

There's a third sort of geographic aggregation that's more metaphorical, represented by the finite limits of bandwidth, whether radio, tv, or what have you. I think network tv, for example, with very few exceptions, is one of the most underinnovated wastelands I could imagine. It's as though a bookstore took the top-5 selling books, and then gave over all its space to attempts to imitate them. The near-predictable success of quality alternatives just doesn't seem to sink in, but oh well. It's not geography per se, but it operates according to the same principle: scarcity requires centrist optimization.

The LT businesses that Chris looks at are those that built models on working around the scarcity problem. We can debate about whether it's as revolutionary as he says, but that misses one of the bigger points of the Long Tail, which is a much lower threshold to entry, especially for niche cultures (like academia, for instance). I've written about this a little bit before: Amazon, I think, learned early on that they were both in the book and the loyalty biz. By making academic books available to me, they all but guaranteed that I would make other (less LT) purchases there as well. Features like Amazon Prime and the auto-rec system (which allows me to see forthcoming stuff better than any other single source I consult) only hammer it home.

One of the things that goes unnoticed, though, is that niche stores/sites often exist symbiotically with niche communities. You wanna go where everyone knows your name, and all that. Amazon encourages the illusion that I'm known--I don't fool myself into thinking that the site actually does know me, but its features are the features of being a "member" in addition to a "customer." They don't just aggregate products but people as well. Barney Nubble doesn't have to do that--it's one of two bookstores in town here, and while a couple of the baristas do know what I like, I definitely don't feel at "home" there.

One of the things that the LT doesn't really account for, as it's not intended to, is that loyalty. In the title to his post, Ivan references the "devoted niche," which I think must be distinguished from the niche in general. There's a level of fan devotion surrounding many shows, writers, bands, etc., that is hard to account for in economic models. Ivan mentions "fans [being] ready and willing to pay well in excess of $1000 for an original out-of-print comic featuring their favorite character," and this is a strange combination of the prestige economy of a collector culture (where s/he who has the rarest objects has the most respect) and luxury items (yeah, i have better things to do with a K). Luxury industries drive their products the wrong way down the LT curve, technically, because they make up for scarcity by overpricing. But collector industries can often make up price with artificial, superficial ploys (variant covers, anyone?) to get collectors to buy 5 where normally they'd only buy one.

It's a wonky combination of features, and one that I think that Ivan is right to note that industries like the comics oligopoly don't really understand it. They don't really seem to fully understand their market, and signs are that it's not really getting better. The Big 2 (DC/Marvel) are trotting out Infinocuous Crises on a faster and faster schedule--company-wide Events designed to force readers to buy dozens of cross-over titles that they normally wouldn't. They're taking writers with cult followings and putting them on their mainstream titles, trying to feed their niches back into the head of the curve to boost sales. Joe Queseda has been getting a lot of heat for making some truly moronic remarks about the homogeneity of the inner circle at Marvel, and he doesn't seem to have any idea how to address what are some pretty accurate critiques of the way he's running the company. In a lot of ways, the Big 2 has mistaken the inertia that allowed them to survive the industry implosion in the 90s for validation, and that's only been perpetuated by recent cinema successes, I suspect.

Wow. This has become a Thing, a little out of control.

What I wanted to get to is the idea that companies can aggregate people, but they can also disaggregate them, get them to feel that their loyalty is not only unwarranted, but in many ways taken for granted. It's happened a lot lately on Spiderman titles, for instance (Gwen Stacy affair, cannibalism, unmasking, etc.). As long as the Big 2 are the Big 2, they'll be able to get away with much of it, I suppose, but the counter example of Snakes on a Plane should be instructive. Collector cultures are driven in part by their desire to be part of the thing that they're collecting--the devotion translates into the collecting. In fact, I wonder if it's not accurate to say that the devotion isn't another aggregating force, one that corporations producing for niche cultures ignore at their peril.

Hmm. Lots more to say and think about, but I've let this spiral a bit. Time for me to get along. So that's all for the moment...



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This page is a archive of entries in the networks category from August 2006.

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