historyworks.tv post: The herd, the crowd and the forum – Real participation online

historyworks.tv post: The herd, the crowd and the forum – Real participation online

This post was commissioned by and written for historyworks.tv. They have generously allowed me to syndicate it here.

In 1832 philanthropic publisher Charles Knight exalted working-class readers of his Penny Magazine to visit and appreciate the British Museum:

“[H]ere there is nothing to pay. Knock boldly at the gate; the porter will open it … Go on. Do not fear any surly looks … You are upon safe ground here. You are come to see your own property. You have as much right to see it, as the highest in the land.”

The Penny Magazine of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge 1832 p 14

It still thrills me to read this strident Victorian call for participation in cultural and natural history at a museum: we must not forget that, though society is utterly transformed, egalitarian advocates for museums are far from new.

Unfortunately, Knight goes on to remind his audience not to touch, talk loudly, ask questions or take children under eight years-old.

We have definitely come a long, long way to improving museum experiences but, given contemporary expectations, are our means of creating participation and diversifying audiences genuinely better than those in the 1830s?

At a push, I think the answer is; probably. But there is still plenty to learn and plenty to be done to improve how participation works in the arts and heritage (I use ‘museum’ as shorthand for the range of institutions in the sector). Building on Mia Ridge and Helen Weinstein’s post, I want to introduce some concepts that I think are key to successful participatory projects and warn of some potential traps. I’ll throw in as many links as I can, but I hope to be accessible rather than an exhaustive reference.

Participation traps

The sense of losing control felt by museum staff and leaders when creating fully participatory projects is well acknowledged (Daniel Spock on museum authority). There are also potential traps that projects may encounter due to a misunderstanding of their audiences:  which can lead to audiences disengagement with experts, on one hand this comes from too much deference and on the other, through rebellious disrespect. These can be most clearly explained with traditional face-to-face examples and then I’ll explore the added complexities of moving online.

Disengagement through deference

“But you’re the expert!? You tell me!” – Every keen, egalitarian, museum expert who has tried to engage a visitor with questions about an object has encountered this attitude. There are many visitors and online users who struggle with their confidence at openly engaging with cultural material: If the anointed expert from an august institution is claiming not to know the answers, what hope is there for the visitor encountering an object for the first time?

For me, these moments encapsulate a huge amount about the shifts taking place in museums around participation. They are small, symptomatic examples of issues around how museums are perceived, their social roles, the nature of the ‘casual visit’ and the thorny problem of whether museums exist to provide answers or to create questions.

Fundamentally, this issue is about an unproductive attitude to, or perception of, authority. In this case, people’s sense of exclusion from the expertise leads to undue deference. In other circumstances, reactions to that sense of exclusion can be more volatile.

Disengagement through disrespect

Museum projects, open to community comment and interaction, come with inherent risks. Given the opportunity to participate in a museum project, not every individual finds it in themselves to show the respect and care for others that is being extended by the museum – or the deference discussed above.

Online it is frustratingly easy for unhelpful or irrelevant dialogue to dominate. This has even led to an informal maxim ‘Don’t read the comments!’ explored by anthropologists. True ‘trolls’, however, are rare and as the maxim shows, most readers will identify and ignore negative comments. Also, there is plenty of simple advice on dealing with trolls on a personal and institutional level. However, its also worth noticing that those making the comments clearly feel that their views are far from trivial and gain some satisfaction from simply posting them: there is a spectrum between misinformed, well-intentioned irrelevant contributions and the rare examples of truly psychotic ranters. With the right tools and community, users in the former group may be brought around to learning respect and fully engaging. Their abrupt rejection of politeness, good intentions or the validity of the host-sites expertise is the inverse of the undue deference discussed above.

 Avoiding trolls, fostering respect

Fundamentally, the ‘culture’ of any online discussion space, can be (partly) shaped through architecture – like real-life space. Therefore, by creating the tools and resources that attract engaged users and cultivating respect, a site’s operators can do a great deal toward shaping positive interactions. For example, the Mumsnet’s forums, though infamous for their judgemental attacks on celebrities en masse, generally have users who are respectful of one another and keen on providing informative or honest opinions. On Mumsnet anyone can read the forums but only registered users can post. This barrier (user accounts) is well used in this circumstance to ensure that those wishing to participate have made a small investment, are accountable and have signed a user agreement.

Respect, as we all know, has to be mutual. Building it into online participation requires respect from the museum of its users to start with. It’s worth noting that, despite the best intentions, it isn’t always felt by participants: even in face-to-face projects. In Whose cake is it anyway? Bernadette Lynch warns museums of ‘empowerment-lite’ in which tokenistic participation is used to further institutional aims. Rather than respected, community members may often feel used – avoiding this is crucial to projects at any scale, and the only hope for preventing this is to design and manage the framework and it’s initial interactions as equitably as possible.

Shared authority: experts as facilitators

A myriad of outstanding projects exist demonstrating how participation – from square one – can not only increase access, but change attitudes to the arts and heritage. Two offline-focused projects provide core lessons in this context: Waulud’s Bank in Luton and theHomeless Heritage project.

Luton Museum staff were confronted with a problem: a visually unexciting Neolithic henge (stone age earthwork contemporary with Stonehenge) in the middle of a mixed residential area and, in their stores, the finds from the henge’s 1890’s and 1950’s excavations. Rather than simply take the collection and repackage it, stick a sign by one of the footpaths or let the collection gather dust, the team engaged a local year 9 (13-14 year-old) geography class to produce their own designs for a low-cost exhibition and resource pack. They engaged the students as equals and co-curators and avoided fixed ideas of the output (a risky thing on a grant proposal!). Further, they performed a reflexive assessment of the project in summary and detailed evaluation reports. These resources add sustainability to the project at a strategy level, while the exhibition’s re-use keeps refreshing the outputs.

Mike (left) and Rich take a break during Homeless Heritage excavations in York. Student archaeologists and homeless archaeologists working as partners. Credit: Homeless Heritage Project

Mike (left) and Rich take a break during Homeless Heritage excavations in York. Student archaeologists and homeless archaeologists working as partners. Credit: Homeless Heritage Project

The Homeless Heritage project has engaged people almost never reached by arts or heritage institutions; those perhaps least likely to feel welcome or confident in a traditional museum. The project has facilitated homeless people to document their own heritage through mapping, excavation and curation of objects – from crisp packets to 17th century pottery. The project made its participants into experts in homelessness and placed their accounts on equal footing with other historic accounts of their cities (Bristol and York). After initial invitations, participants were given a significant voice in the research agenda of the project at all stages. This inevitably led to tensions but much of the project’s real worth came from the honest discussion of these. The project cumulated with academic articles, on which the homeless participants were given equal author credit, several films and two temporary exhibitions.

Despite their successes on shoestring budgets, it is hard notto notice that both these projects were driven by charismatic, enthusiastic specialists with the courage to challenge norms (Timothy Vickers and Rachael Kiddey respectively). Passion and energy are difficult to extend and maintain beyond projects of this size and we need the lessons from such forerunners to be embedded in wider practice before real participation can be scaled-up across arts and heritage institutions.

Moving online: Crowdsourcing myths

Crowdsourcing has emerged in the last few years as one of the most hyped elements of the social web. Conceived in corporate circles as outsourcing to the crowd – in which the crowd are online and have minimal connection to the host – it is best suited to accomplishing tasks with a high volume of repetitive steps that can be easily distributed amongst a huge ‘workforce’.

Though it may be used to perform tasks – such as tagging documents with author’s names – hosts may be more interested in user’s ideas or creations and the results might be used to shape marketing or product development. It is concieved of in the service of a commercial goal, rather than for user’s benefits.

Image of the Mechanical Turk from a copper engraving by Karl Gottlieb von Windisch's (1783). Public Domain - Source

Image of the Mechanical Turk from a copper engraving by Karl Gottlieb von Windisch’s (1783). Public Domain – Source

This brings us to another bit of history: the Mechanical Turk. This chess-playing automaton wowed Europe and America, beating all challengers. However, it relied on clever cabinets to hide chess masters that would operate the machine: a hoax! In 2005, Jeff Bezos of Amazon.com took the name (www.mturk.com) for an online service that would connect big businesses with thousands of human brains to perform repetitive tasks not yet solvable by computers (categorizing complex images, writing captions and so on). ‘Artificial artificial intelligence’ is the slogan that captures the process very well. Google’sreCAPTCHA service which provides website security whilst digitizing books operates at a similar level.

Online ‘Participation-lite’?

Both services are object lessons in using the web to create and maintain distance from users whilst using their skills for a central, controlling institution. It is the most shallow and tokenistic form of participation and the opposite of what many museums intend. However, its outputs are easy to anticipate, measure, use and build upon – for those not wanting to take risks when planning online participation it can be tempting to limit the scope for interactions.

For example, the British Library have crowdsourced the georeferencing of scanned maps (BL Georeferencing project), the Bodleian have a project describing musical scores (What’s the score?) and the V&A are doing well with a project allowing users to select better images for their online catalogue (V&A crowdsourcing).

However, none of these projects allowed users to engage one another. Indeed, they limit users engagement to a single process with the material and are completely determined by institutional objectives. The projects’ values should not be underestimated but neither should they be over-hyped as fully participatory, if the participants have no voice in the shape of the project.

These, etter projects can be seen within the Zooniverse framework (although this also contains the Bodleian score project) many of which allow users to engage one another, discuss the material, share it beyond Zooniverse (to social media sites) and learn together about the material they are collectively annotating, describing or improving. Benefit gained by these users is ancillary to the institutional objectives, although there is an understanding that access to a community is a motivation for many participations.

Some of these projects clearly have demonstrable success at ‘harnessing the crowd’ – but they do exactly that: treat users like domestic animals to be exploited for their labour. Very few put users engagement or benefit on equal footing with institutional aims or allow audiences any input, let alone control over the aims themselves.

Steps in the right direction

Three key elements: permeability, sustainability, scalability

To facilitate more effective participation, especially online, there are three concepts on which any project must be founded.

The first of these – permeability – is about creating projects which are outward-looking rather than walled-in and fixed. This means thinking through potential partners and participants carefully, they may be found where least expected. Engaging with ambassadors outside the sector and building upon their knowledge is often an excellent first step. Online, technological steps toward permeability include enabling social media share buttons on all content, enabling commenting and feedback and good cross-linking.

More fundamentally a permeable project enables the repurposing of it’s content and methodology in order to be reused, built-upon and remixed by users both during the project’s lifespan and for its legacy. This is virtually impossible without some form of open licensing such as  Creative Commons (CC), necessitating a well-thought-out approach to the intellectual property involved in the collections and their sharing. It is worth noting, however that consensus is moving toward proactive open licensing across much of  the sector. Evidence is accumulating to show that open licensing has no negative impact on the sale of images (Rijksmuseum case studyMuseums & the Web reportlist of institutions using CC).

All the learning in the sector shows that what is fundamental to the participatory success of a project is that a bigger resource commitment is required in making staff time available for engaging online audiences directly through social aspects of internal web spaces or third party social media. This has to be integrated as a fundamental aspect of the project and is obviously a big demand on over-stretched curatorial or educational staff and may require people to learn new technological skills. However, it is hard to underestimate how profound a shift this might be able to facilitate for a museums digital presence. For a member of the public (or interested colleague) the gap between a museum’s homepage and a staff-led blog (eg, Inside the Museum of London) or project wiki (eg, Smithsonian Web and New Media Strategy Wiki) is much smaller than the one between its front door and basement storerooms! Beyond single organisations, national and international participatory projects become possible. For example, #askacurator and the Day of Archaeology demonstrated hundreds of the wonderful stories and ideas that can be told by people whose jobs normally keep them behind the scenes. Permeability, therefore, is about organisational transparency and building skills, confidence and infrastructure that enable two-way communication throughout a project and organisation.

Sustainability has become such a buzzword in environmental and social policy that it’s regularly ridiculed (my favourite). However, the idea’s utility comes from opposing the idea of growth for growth’s sake and resisting the creation of shiny, new projects with fleeting outcomes and no long-term public impact.

From this perspective, sustainability takes many of the ideas necessary to make a project permeable and extends them over time – particularly beyond the active lifespan of a project. Digital preservation is fundamental to this and open licencing should be considered as part of this issue. Philosophically, a view to sustainability requires creating scope for future interactions and reuse and deciding how to record the intangible or transient elements of a project (such as performances or workshops). Deciding how, what and why to preserve ancient things is at the core of museum thinking but terrifying anecdotes about poor recording of projects or daily practice are legion. Good sustainability comes in many forms: the Science Museum (London, UK) lidar-scanning a beloved gallery before a refit. The Waalud’s Henge reflexive assessment discussed above appears basic and obvious but gives scope for a local project to inform the wider sector. Ideally, every element of the project, data, media, reflection, analysis will remain open and accessible in order to be reused and remixed as a building block of future projects.

At the Smithsonian Institution wrangling 20 public-facing institutions into the digital universe has taken a great deal of thought about scale (their report on the process: Best of Both Worlds). In fact, their head of strategy Michael Edson has been known to perform a beat poem on the subject! Planning for scale is a big challenge. Scalability means that a volunteer-created spreadsheet of information on a collection of Victorian china really ought to exist in a database which could record compatible information about Haida totem-poles. Scalability means that this database should be as stable containing 100 objects or several million. It also means that this information should be accessible online, globally and not just through a museums own site but through aggregators such asEuropeana.

Even larger institutions struggle to get sufficient IT support to implement this sort of thing with core collections, let alone small museums working on shoe-string, volunteer-led projects. Further, when commercial firms are paid to provide such services there are risks of getting ‘locked-in’ to software that isn’t actually designed for scalability.

Scalable systems are a major investment but can affect every aspect of a museum’s work. For the volunteer participants recording the imaginary Victorian china above, scalability can mean a great deal. Rather than logging information into notebooks or spreadsheets, these enthusiasts can become part of a global inter-connected network analysing ceramics collections and creating data that can be used in a myriad more ways.

Sources of inspiration

Some readers may have noticed that the three principles above – permeability, sustainability and scalability – are at the core of one of the most positive and disruptive movements of the internet age: Open Source Software. This movement has created tectonic shifts in computing, utterly changing the way software is created and sold – even in the still solidly commercial sector. The ideas, ideology and mechanics of Open Source (for a anthropology/history see Chris Kelty’s Two Bits) are also embraced by a project based around knowledge. Early computing also took an ancient name ‘forum’ for the spaces in which projects were discussed – often chaotic spaces in which participation is paramount.

The sorts of knowledge – cultural, historic, scientific – which are at the core of institutions such as museums. This project is, of course, Wikipedia. Everyone’s favourite first-step resource has a natural affinity with the public-knowledge aims of museums and has fascinating scope for fostering participation.

In order to help negotiate relationships between the sector and wikipedia’s editors, a project known as GLAMwiki (Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums). By working with GLAMwiki museums can make great strides toward integrating these three principles into their knowledge-sharing strategies. There are a range of model projects covering text, data, images and multimedia and huge scope for reaching new and diverse audiences.

However, as a participatory tool GLAMwiki is less obvious – precisely because of it’s permeability, sustainability and scalability. Fostering participation through Wikipedia is completely unlike the small, face-to-face projects typified by Homeless Heritage and Waalud’s Bank. To use a crude metaphor, traditional, onsite participation projects are zoo-based studies of animal behaviour, interacting with the wilds of the internet is just that – tagging animals and setting them free.One favourite example of this is from the Dutch Tropenmuseum (Tropical Museum). Which released nearly 50 thousand rights-free images onto Wikimedia Commons in 2009. Many of these are naturally of former Dutch colonies, particularly Malaysia and Indonesia, leading curators to debate the possibility that sharing these online was neocolonial. However, the statistics show that it is actually Malay and Indonesian language Wikipedias that are by far the biggest users of the images. This means that the thousands of articles which use Tropenmuseum images were processed, discussed and thought about by groups of Wikipedians across the world. To me, there seems to very little that could involve more sophisticated participation in a collection.

Further, one example stands out for me as a perfect example of what sharing on Wikipedia (and these principles generally) can achieve.

‘Diana’ (foreground) and ‘Retvisan’. Russian Navyships in the harbor of Sabang on the island Weh (1903) - C.B. Nieuwenhuis. From the collections of the Tropen Museum of the Royal Tropical Institute (KIT). Hosted on Wikimedia Commons

This mildly diverting image of early 20th century ships languished in the Tropenmuseum’s archive with no details beyond a year and a place name. This is all it was annotated with when uploaded in November 2009. By the end of December Wikimedia Commons user and (apparent) naval history enthusiast Alexpl had made tentative identifications of the two ships, enabling the images to be used on the ship’s own Wikipedia pages in multiple languages. Almost a year later, user Freekc34 adds the name of the photographer. Connecting the photograph with the rest of C.B. Niewenhuis’ work available on the site – most of which is also from the Tropenmuseum.

By August 2013 two users have also made the effort to do some photo-retouching.

In all, the photo has gone from being an abandoned, unusable image in a dusty storeroom to an informative and evocative image at the nexus of a number of stories: Two warships, full of Russians far from home. The Retvisan was built in Philadelphia and is on its way to its final battle at Port Arthur. It illustrates the history of the harbor (for both the Frenchand Malay Wikipedias) and it is a point in the life and work of the photographer. Unfortunately, C.B. Niewenhuis has yet to be covered (beyond the basics) on any Wikipedia, but it’s surely just a matter of time. Maybe someone reading this will do it!?

From one perspective, the Tropenmuseum example could be seen as a crowdsourcing case: getting disparate volunteers to do work curators have no resources for. However, I find it much more inspiring to think of each of the moments at which readers became editors and thereby participated in a history that began more than a century before. The best part is, there are now massively fewer barriers to this image (and the rest) being used in a myriad of other circumstances.

Online, it may be harder to measure and experience participants engaging in a museum’s materials (and long may direct contact continue!) but the freedom creates fantastic spaces for serendipity. Open, online participation is the next step in relinquishing unnecessary control – the digital equivalent of a sign which says ‘Please touch!’ and takes the spirit of Charles Knight’s 1840’s exultation into the twenty-first century.

Thanks again to historyworks.tv for commissioning this post and allowing me to post it here.

Some thoughts on academia.edu

Academia.edu – The positives

  • Free advertising

The search engine optimisation on academia.edu is excellent. Even if your organisation provides you with a profile webspace it is unlikely to rank higher in searches than your academia.edu page. Further, if like many academics today, you aren’t completely defined by the work you do with one institution you may find it easier to promote the totality of your activities outside the official webspace.
The you-have-been-googled notifications can induce paranoia in some (and have been used to insult me) but are particularly useful as they also index the papers you have uploaded. By uploading my BSc and MA theses I have had many more hits than my name would have got me and though some of those undoubtedly clicked off in frustration I have certainly had a few follows from it.

  • Attitude

In general people are fairly professional but (unlike LinkedIn) people don’t appear to be constantly on some sort of self-marketing binge! Answers to questions and personal messages are consistently polite and well meaning and most seem to be helpful.

  • Access to articles

This is a very patchy area, but for several of my regular research topics (eg, Mesolithic studies) there are a fair number of papers that are difficult to access elsewhere. Some senior professors seem to have dumped large quantities of their own back catalogue on the site including material that they have digitised personally.

  • Connections

Because academia.edu is not reciprocal (based on follows of people or interests) it enables you to see research from those at all levels of the discipline (there are no issues of student/professor and so on). This contrasts particularly strongly with Mendeley where (I find) that making a contact request is a barrier to interaction. Similarly the closed groups on Mendeley rather than the open research interests on academia.edu create barriers to interaction.

Effectively this means that I only connect with people who are colleagues in real life: I do not go out of my way to follow the work of others that profess similar research interests and I can’t see myself using it as a first point of contact. Academia.edu however I have used in preference to email for cold contact with several people, some of these have led to fruitful exchanges, all have been politely replied to.

  • Interface

Simple, clean, easy to use. Let’s hope new features never lead it to look as vomit-inducing as LinkedIn!

Academia.edu – The negatives

  • Connectivity

By this I mean connectivity, not only between researchers (mentioned above) but also between a range of entities both within academia.edu and on external sites. Firstly, internal connectivity could be greatly improved by the ability to link multiple author’s profiles to a single copy of a paper. It seems contradictory that a system designed to foster and emphasise collaboration doesn’t do this. Further, the fact that the share buttons on papers only lead to Twitter and Facebook seems utterly self defeating! If I want to share a paper that’s hosted on academia.edu with a contact who is also on academia.edu I can’t! I have to tweet them, facebook them or ctrl-C a link into a good old email. With a similar share button it should be possible to suggest contacts to one another, welcome them onto academia.edu and so on.

Secondly, connectivity to external websites. Mendeley have (recently I think) created a widget that you can dump on external websites pointing to your profile – this would be a great start. Better still would be a ‘Share on academia.edu’ button that can appear on any website with academic content in the same way as Like, TweetThis and +1 buttons for Facebook, Twitter and Google. Maybe there could be a ‘what I’m reading now’ stream?

  • Miscommunication

Many of the research interests are so broad that people from quite different backgrounds ask and answer questions with huge assumptions about the background. In my early experience of the service I found that the questions were dominated by examples that demonstrated either a complete lack of background knowledge or were so focused on the researcher’s own work that they were essentially boasts phrased as questions. This was reinforced when I asked the question Is it inevitable that all questions on here will sound either pretentious, naive or both? which was immediately misunderstood! However, it actually led to an interesting discussion on the challenges of understanding a new medium as academics.

  • New content types

It’d be great to be able to embed prezis, slideshares or videos of talks – ideally through a widget.

As a technophile I find twitter back channels incredibly useful at conferences but I can understand that syndicating such content to academia.edu could easily put off those less keen on such informal means of sharing. However, if academia.edu could introduce conference pages it could help foster digital connections that might be missed at conferences otherwise.
In fact, there is a golden opportunity to create a ‘killer-app’ for managing academic conferences. There is currently no obvious system that is functional, easy-to-use, integrated and in which academics feel safe.Eventbrite meets the Open Conference System?

  • Meta-data

The papers on academia.edu (or the other pages for that matter) seem to be lacking good machine-readable meta-data. It certainly doesn’t seem to be dublin core or readable by Zotero.

Oppurtunities and obstacles to community knowledge-sharing in the digital universe: Experiments with Mesolithic Miscellany

The lovely folk at post-graduate Archaeology Journal Assemblage invited me to contribute on my work with Mesolithic Miscellany which had been part of my MA research. You can also read the whole thesis on my academia.edu profile here: Mesolithic Europe, a historiographic basis. Or read the original post over at Assemblage.


Introduction: Clare Burke

Here in State of the Arch, we would like to introduce a new series of pieces all centred around a similar theme: the role of the internet in modern academic discourse, and the place of internet journals and resources such as assemblage in the archaeological community. We hope that these State of the Arch pieces will open up the floor for debate, and we are very interested to hear the views of assemblage’s readers on this topic. Please feel free to use the comment facilities below to voice your opinions, or if you are interested in writing an opinion or research piece on the topic, email us at our usual address.
We start with Pat Hadley, who has explored these issues through his work on Mesolithic Miscellany. His piece explores the opportunities and potential provided by dissemination of knowledge through the web, as well as the potential obstacles to this dissemination, not least, the perceived subversive nature of new methods of social sharing.

 

Opportunities and obstacles to community knowledge-sharing in the digital universe: experiments with Mesolithic Miscellany

Patrick Hadley (University of York) reflects on the initial stages of using web tools for Mesolithic Miscellany.

Setting the scene

Every academic journal began as a group of people who got together to share and record ideas about their subject of interest. This is as true of the Proceedings of the Royal Society as it is of Assemblage.
One such group were Mesolithic scholars who, in 1980, decided that they needed something cheap, speedy and informal to share news and information about their subject. In the days of print and post, organising such a group and co-ordinating a journal involved a substantial investment of effort. Mesolithic Miscellany(MM) was edited, type-set and mailed by one person. This is clearly a big task and eventually, in 1996, it proved too big and MM went out of production.
The internet facilitated the resurrection of MM in 2006, and now distribution is free, copying is infinite and submission and copy editing doesn’t involve the postman, glue or Tippex! The whole process now also takes place at almost instant speed.
However, the production process and end appearance of the new version has hardly changed. In the 1980s having one editor/co-ordinator and minimal infrastructure was the only alternative to publishing through a major publishing house, and was certainly speedier and cheaper.
Now MM is produced by the same process, but uses digital tools; roughly 700 subscribers receive a .pdf every 6 months. This was the pattern followed by the first internet news sites – initially digital facsimiles of print, produced by professionals and issued each day as a new edition: old patterns were imitated in new technology – like the first bronze axes imitating stone forms.
The gap between web-based and print news-media has now become a chasm, no longer do ‘newspaper’ websites stick to text and still images or ‘television’ sites use exclusively video. The more significant social change is that there are now built-in mechanisms for users to customise the content they want, receive content as soon as it is updated (often live) and most significantly contribute comments or other content to the site itself. Most radically, sites such as the Huffington Post ‘crowd-source’ a pool of non-professionals distributed across the globe to produce and edit their content.
My explorations

Beginning with a basic understanding of MM’s role and what was going on in other online communities I decided to explore what technological and social changes would be necessary to make MM the hub of an active, online Mesolithic community. This was done as part of an MA project at the University of York and the full thesis can be downloaded from my academia.edu page.
I identified web technologies that might have something to offer to the MM user-community – either by enhancing an existing part of what MM explicitly provided or by providing an alternative route to MM’s implicit goals.
I broke the services into four categories and tested MM user’s responses through an online survey:

Research resources These might include shared databases for raw data (from fieldwork or labwork) or a collaborative bibliographic resource.
Social and discussion services Discussion forums are the most obvious form for this. But the ability to add comments to other content and integrate social media has greater potential.
Multimedia services A collaborative photo-bank or map of Mesolithic sites would enrich MM’s services.
Improving the journal Breaking up issues and making the back-catalogue searchable would improve usability.

 

Importantly none of these methods were about attempting to improve or even influence the ways in which archaeologists use the web to do their work (a topic much better explored in the new e-book Archaeology 2.0) but just help them to share it more quickly and effectively – reflecting the original mission of MM. For example a collaborative mapping service or bibliographies had a direct precedent in maps and book lists that used to appear in each issue of MM.
To me the cheap (often free) web technologies, that required only a little technical skill to use (compared to GIS or 3D scanning) were a perfect fit for the problems faced by MM.
What I did not see at first is how subversive such technologies can be. Though I have not had the chance to develop the sorts of technologies listed above into proper services to offer the MM user-community and I remain hopeful that there might still be uptake for them, I now recognise that social issues may be larger obstacles to the success of implementing such services than technological ones.
New tools for sharing information among academics are subversive to the traditional infrastructure for doing so (journals, books, conferences, teaching and so on). They come with a real or perceived loss of control and lack of reward or recognition: these are much larger problems than simply learning to use them.
While 3D scanning or GIS may be perceived as technically complex wizardry they do not subvert the fundamental methodology of recording the spatial characteristics of an artefact, structure, site or landscape: they comfortably replace old methodologies for data generation.
The ways we share information are simultaneously a superficial part of our work and fundamental to it as they are entangled with the far more complex social systems of how we assess the quality of one another’s work and (more controversially) how we assess the quality of one another.
Though I was aware of these issues and they have been well documented in terms of major commercial academic publishers defending their territory (see for example George Monbiot for the Guardian or The Royal Society’s position) I did not expect to detect as much resistance to these liberating technologies among the MM user community.

Where to go from here?

Unfortunately, there haven’t yet been opportunities or resources to develop the major tools needed for MM to adopt more advanced tools but a few basics have gone ahead such as a Facebook and Twitter presence.
I remain optimistic that MM is one of the best places to test these new approaches – it is free, global and unencumbered by institutional obligations. It has a user-community large enough for web-advantages to be significant but small enough to enable tests to be micro managed. Also significant is that, unlike other innovative journals such as Internet Archaeology or even Assemblage, MM can exploit a well-developed Mesolithic studies community who are not sufficiently served by other publication outlets and regularly communicate through international conferences.
In various ways, each of these outlets has the potential to experiment with new forms of academic information sharing. In addition to the social aspects this also plays into broader debates about academic output that has precipitated from the web revolution such as open access, non-text-based data sets (such as spatial, visual, statistical and chronological data) and massively collaborative production.
Combined, these changes have the potential to change the balance of power between academics and the hegemonic publishing houses which own the formal journals but so far have not done so for various complex reasons.
Although these big publishers have successfully adopted certain aspects of web technology (secure, monetised digital hosting and access) their production and business models have remained unchanged.
The most fundamental change brought about by the world wide web is that anyone can disseminate any idea – globally, for free. This has the potential to cause chaos and upset established infrastructure (as it has for music and journalism) but has even more room for innovation. I am certain that academic dissemination will look radically different in 20 years but if we – as the producers of academic work – want to maximise control of what the future will be like we must use this new tool kit with care.