I diligently took notes during the plenary featuring Clay Shirky then scampered to keep up with the abundance of information being shared everywhere at MLA 2011.
In the meantime, Marcus Banks took the words right out of my WordPress with Clay Shirky at MLA ’11 – On The Need for Health Sciences Librarians to Rock the Boat, complete with excellent application of the Twitter backchannel going on at the time. I chided him gently on Facebook that he was putting me out of my Official Blogger job but the truth is that multiple perspectives on this topic are valuable. We just happen to think too much alike about rocking the boat a bit.
I’m going to attempt to glean from my notes some areas that were not already well covered.
Shirky began by telling the story of what’s possible: of a lawyer & blogger in Nairobi during the 2007 presidential election who covered ethic violence. Mainstream & bloggers were talking about it, then the government made it illegal to talk about ethnic violence in mainstream media (especially live) because unfiltered information was too much of a threat. Bloggers then became the main source of information – she asked her readers to tell her what she was seeing. Comment threads exploded and within a few days into it she was unable to have time & energy to keep it all up. Programmers then offered to help build a platform for doing the work, and within 2 days they built & launched Ushahidi.com taking reports from phones, web, email, whatever and aggregating it on a map.
What is it that Ushahidi is doing? It aggregates passive knowledge. Everyone knows what ethic violence is. The technology for Ushahidi was lying around for 5 years (Google Maps, etc) yet it hadn’t happened. It was less about the technical tools and more about the social design: getting the participation right.
What is it made of? Code, but that’s not what really makes it what it is. Geographic observations are points of data on a map. Coordinated voluntary participation, people on the ground sending in their little bits of relevant information and desire to do so brings it all together. They aren’t paid to do it as part of their jobs. Cognitive surplus: free times & talents we have to selectively apply coupled with communication to do this in aggregate. There are 100 million hours put into Wikipedia and that equals a big project, yet watching television has taken 200 billion hours in the US alone every year.
Getting the social culture is a big shift in the media landscape – moving away from broadcast-to-environment to allow for many-to-many communication. Response to aggregating efforts across the network and getting value from that is ‘Look at this stuff, are you serious?’ (for example, LOLCats) It didn’t take long after printing press for erotica to be published, this is not new.
History represented in Library of Congress cataloging : Africa, Asia, Balkan Peninsula?! What’s the same element for all of these? It certainly is not geographic size! At the time LC was developing their cataloging system the same number of books about each area were published. It is not a system for cataloging knowledge but a system for cataloging books, and the underlying logic is that history is best divided up by geography, nations & regions. The Gypsies get punished at the end for not staying in one place (DX).
What do we do when we have no more shelf and data doesn’t have to be any place in particular? The Smithsonian put thousands of photos on Flickr to make available and see what the users made of the photos themselves. Looked at tag cloud to see what they applied to the list. Cyanotype: People who care about photographs as objects (history and process of photography). Moustache: no one would optimize for professional time to catalog by this but still of value. Steampunk: anachronistic scifi of technology of Victorians matched up with current age. Look to be that they may have been a project. No one at the Smithsonian predicted the steampunk tag but it was one of the most popular ones. The Smithsonian didn’t discover its popularity until they let it go and put the data out there.
Aggregate – surprise by looking at tags, how quickly relative frequency of those tags stabilizes even as new users come in and tag too. Lots of noise at the bottom, always will, but top accurate.
Among photos had were detailed photos of fish, Puddingwife Wrasse. Shortly after there was a comment on usefulness, imported into Fishbase of scientists studying fish. The reason you share your data is not because you know what the users are going to do with it, you share to find out what they’ll do with it.
Journals were once a way of speeding up the process and access of dissemination of information compared to book publishing but now they decrease it. People who care already have access to all of the work. It might as well be named Journal of I Can Haz Tenure? Increasingly we are seeing building of collaborative aggregates and publication doesn’t make the results public (they always have been public) yet journal equals acceptance by the traditional community. The relevant community has already done the work and academic publishing is behind. The process has broken free of traditional academic publishing structure and anyone who thinks about making info available and useful for people is already doing it.
Every story Shirky told this morning has one commonality: Surprising aggregations and hosting both data and communication about the data that is dynamic. There are two things you need, the first being communication tools. They don’t become socially interesting until they are technologically boring (when your mom takes it for granted, that’s when you know it’s in that category). How can you use the tool to convene people, participants & collaborators? The second thing is having a culture that makes participating in it worthwhile. Everything relies on these elements.