Saturday, February 1, 2014

Share and Share Alike

A while back, I was at a conference and a fellow conference attendee made a really important observation. Now, the truth contained in this oberservation is one we all know, especially those of us working in Digital Humanities and using the Web for scholarship and pedagogical needs. But his comment really made me realize both how widespread this is and how problematic it has become. The Web is empty.


Ok, so that's not how my colleague put it. And of course it is not literally true. The Internet is full of all sorts of things. But what it now lacks and once had in abundance is the activity of scholars and teachers. Once not long ago, it was common for professors and instructors to upload syllabi, course exercises and materials, articles and thoughts in progress. Truly, the amount of material we all shared regularly with one another and the world was mind boggling. Now, however, our universities encourage and sometimes require us to use Blackboard, D2L, and similar content management software to run classes, upload materials, and so on. Of course, these are all proprietary. They discourage sharing, worry about firewalls, and generally put materials out of reach. Most faculty no longer have a personal web page. Not even me, in my case because the university has it so buttoned down that it is impossible to use. Point is, we no longer share.


This is not the first time we have seen this corporatization, this clamping down on things once freely available. Back in the day, between the “internet” being shared with universities by the DOD, and the explosion of the web, we had BBS, bulletin board services. Folks programmed all kinds of things: games, office software, communication software, and shared it all on the BBSes, delivered of course over dial up (thank heaven for smart modems!). Of course, that has all but become a thing of the past as companies have gobbled up smaller companies and rolled over the individual developer. Rare is a Linus Torvalds or even a Zuckerberg who develop a program and make it free to use. No, the phenomenon is not non-existent; but it is becoming more and more rare.


Someone might point out the various open source projects. Or ResearchGate, Academic.edu, and other such sites where scholars are sharing their materials. And that's true! I don't disagree. But too few are sharing, and most are sharing pre-publication versions of papers, a few will add conference papers, fewer add materials prepped for the classroom or just plain materials not really suitable for publication but very good research tools or data-mined material.


Anyway, the point is, 12-16 years ago when the web was new, we shared things. Now, we don't share as much. Some of this is simply that our home institutions discourage it by making everything go onto Blackboard and like sites. We've seen this before. It hasn't in the long run done us any good other than push up prices, require a constant round of updates, a culture of "let's see if we can X corporation's locks" rather than "let's see who can create the best product."  And so it goes.

 Point is, it is just too easy to give in to the corporatization of our work. We're encouraged to. Just put it all on the university's subscribed site, D2L, Blackboard, something else. And that's fine to a degree; but it does rob a larger audience of your work, of shared community resources, of useful information that we once upon time as medievalists gladly gave one another and our students.


So this is an appeal. I hope to encourage people to once again share more of their work, in particular class materials, freely online. There are multiple ways of doing so for free: a web page, Academia.edu, ResearchGate, Linkedin, etc. Even (but beware the dangers) Dropbox and Google Docs. In the long run, our field would be better off, our students would be better off, and it shows the world just how vibrant and exciting our field is.