Serial: a spontaneous transmedia story or more like Dave Egger’s SoulSearch?

I only discovered Serial last week and have been listening to episodes every day. Suddenly cleaning up the kitchen and making the kids’ lunches is a part of my day I look forward to, because I can listen to Serial. I’m up to episode ten, nearly caught up. This Thursday the last episode of the season will be released. I’m already worried about what I’ll listen to next to make housework more interesting.

Serial-podcast-screenshot

Screenshot of the Serial podcast website showing the first three episodes.

If you haven’t listened to Serial, it’s a lot like watching a really good television detective series, you know, the sort where you either binge-watch episodes because they’re so good or you’re waiting impatiently for the next week’s episode. But Serial is sound only, and it’s the story of a real crime: the murder of high school student Hae Min Lee in 1999. Her ex-boyfriend Adnan was convicted of the murder, and is still in prison, but the case against him had quite a few holes. Sarah Koenig, the journalist and host of Serial, spends the whole season exploring the story of the murder, using audio recordings from the original police interviews and the trial as well as a lot of new interviews with people who were involved and others who help interpret evidence. And hey, Serial is an online-only spinoff of This American Life, a radio show telling short stories about real people made by the excellent public broadcasting  station WBEZ in Chicago. I listened to WBEZ a lot when we were in Chicago. They make really good radio.

Although I’m fascinated by Serial itself, what’s really interesting about Serial from a digital culture perspective is its reception. It’s the most popular podcast ever, with apparently about five million listeners around the world. And a lot of those listeners are adding to the story. That can lead to ethical issues. For instance, Sarah Koenig respects the wishes of important people in the story to not be interviewed, but listeners aren’t bound by journalistic ethics: they dig into court records and find a lot of details about these real individuals that are not mentioned on the show. The Reddit group discussing Serial has collected a lot of information, but also has a very clear rule: no doxxing. Here’s an example of a thread follows that rule in the sense that explicit personal information is not shared, but it is quite clear that the poster has found a lot of personal information about the people involved, and its shared in a general way. Similarly, the subreddit’s list of people involved in the story doesn’t include links to private information but does include links to public websites, news stories and even the Reddit user profiles for some of Adnan’s friends, who have told their versions of the story on Reddit as well. Saad, Adnan’s best friend in high school, even has an open thread inviting people to ask him questions.

Other media than Reddit have stories too, of course. Huffington Post has a collection of photos of the main characters in the story, including a very brief television interview with Hae. There are YouTube parodies – here’s an excellent one by comedian Paul Laudiero pretending to be Sarah Koenig cold calling, well, just anybody, to see whether they have information about the case. There are several podcasts about Serial. But Reddit seems to be where most of the speculation is happening.

It’s interesting and disturbing how journalistic ethics fall by the wayside once you open up a real murder case to public speculation as is happening in Serial. There’s something about the structure of the murder case that invites us to treat it as an ARG, an alternative reality game, where you’re supposed to go looking for clues. Except this is real life. Sarah Koenig talks to us listeners very directly, using “you” to refer to us frequently. She invites us to help solve the mystery, to pay attention to the clues along with her. She wants us to play along. Did she realize how far listeners would go?

What if this case is re-opened? Is there any way a new trial could be fair after this level of speculation? Or would that be more fair? Is crowd-sourcing justice a good idea?

I’m reminded of a scene in Dave Egger’s 2013 novel The Circle where our protagonist, Mae, leads a crowdsourced global hunt on a random fugitive from the law. She announces to the millions of viewers:

“In seconds, the computer will select, at random, a fugitive from justice. I don’t know who it will be. No one does. Whoever it is, though, he’s been proven a menace to our global communicity, and our assertion is that whoever he or she is, SoulSearch will locate him or her within twenty minutes. Ready?” (446-7)

A billion people are watching as a 44 year old British woman is selected. She locked her children in a closet and let them stave to death, but has not been found by the police, ten years  after the crime. Users around the world work to find any information about the woman, and within a few minutes a photo was found that matched the passport photo. They knew her address and her alias. 79 watchers lived in the same town as her. Someone said she worked with her. At the request of Mae, our host, she turns on her camera. The fugitive realizes she is being chased.

“Follow her!” Mae finally yelled, and Gretchen Karapcek and her camera began pursuit. Mae worried, momentarily, that this would be some botched effort, a fugitive found but then quickly lost by a fumbling coworker. The camera jostled wildly, up the concrete stairs, through a cinderblock hallway, and finally approached a door, the white sky visible through its small square window.

And when the door broke open, Mae saw, with great relief, that Fiona Highbridge [the fugitive] was trapped against a wall, surrounded by a dozen people, most of them holding their phones to her, aiming them at her. There was no possibility of escape. Her face was wild, at once terrified and defiant. She seemed to be looking for gaps in the throng, some hold she could slip through. “Gotcha, kid-killed,” someone in the crowd said, and Fiona Highbridge collapsed, sliding to the ground, covering her face.

(..)

“Lynch her!” someone outside the laundry yelled.

“She must be kept safe,” Stenton hissed into Mae’s ear.

“Keep her safe,” Mae pleaded with the mob. “Has someone called the police–the constables?” (450-451)

Lynch mobs are an obvious concern when it comes to crowdsourcing a murder investigation. So far, the speculations around the murder of Hae Min Lee seem reasonably safe. The clear rules on the subreddit seem to be being followed. There may well be other, more hidden sites that are less circumspect, but they’re not popping up on my relatively surface level Google searches, and if most people aren’t seeing them we probably won’t see lynch mobs. Of course, it doesn’t take a physical mob to do serious damage to an individual in the digital age.

In The Circle, the crowd wants another target after their first success. This time they pick a civilian – a friend of Mae’s. He wants nothing of it, though, and in trying to escape the furious people chasing him, drives himself off a bridge, falling to his death (The Circle 450-461).

Let’s hope we’re not that hungry for the chase in – or after – Serial.

15. December 2014 by Jill
Categories: social media | Leave a comment

Writing photographs (#1YearNoCam)

The visual turn on the internet has been evident for a few years now. Our cameras are computers, always in our pockets, always connected to the internet. We share photos in conversation, in seduction, for a laugh, to make a political point, to show the world who we are, where we are, what we like or to share information. Facebook and other networks prioritise images in our news feeds, blog posts now (unlike a decade ago) look strange without an image near the top, and we create visualisations of our research or arguments so that people will share them. The shareable image is the soundbite of bygone media days.

It makes perfect sense, then, that a digital poet like Jhave (pronouced jah-vey) would choose to write as though he were photographing.

1YearNoCam_Jhave_Nov18

David Jhave Johnston is a well established writer of electronic literature known for his beautifully multimodal works. He combines images, sounds, movements and words into literary works that are more than literature. Originally from Canada, he lives in Hong Kong and his Tumblr, jhaveHK, was full of photographs of his surroundings before he made a vow to abstain from photographs a few days ago:

1YearNoCam_Jhave

It’s interesting, don’t you think, that this manifesto, this statement disavowing images, is itself shared as an image? So many of our images on the internet today contain text. This statement requires the image format only to preserve the layout (strict, formal, simple, with a neutral font and no use of bold or italics) and to include a signature, the mark of the human hand contrasting the typed words.

Perhaps the statement is already imagined hanging on the wall of an exhibition in a year’s time, as other artists’ statements have hung on gallery walls.

“Every time I feel like taking a photo, I shall describe the photo in writing as if I had taken it”, Jhave writes. The dominance of the photograph already has us thinking in photographs, framing the world around us in our imagination even when we don’t take the photo with our cameras, noticing symmetries and contrasts in our visual surroundings that we might not have seen without the knowledge of the camera deep in our culture. Susan Sontag put it thus on the first page of On Photography in 1973:

In teaching us a new visual code, photographs alter and enlarge our notions of what is worth looking at and what we have a right to observe. They are a grammar and, even more importantly, an ethics of seeing.

I find it easy to see Jahve’s written photographs in my mind, as street photos, photos of the everyday, art photos.

1YearNoCam_Jhave_NoV-MOULD

Jhave’s written photographs are timestamped and geocoded in the manner of a digital photograph, though not mechanically: Jhave writes in the location of each: “5F stairwell CMC, HK” and Tumblr adds the time stamp when Jhave posts the text.

Hans Kristian Rustad is currently working on the influence of the camera on literature, including digital literature, and I have heard others speak about the ways in which the technology of the camera affects our ways of thinking about and representing the world, visually of course, but also in other modalities. One of Hans Kristian’s recent articles is about the Norwegian poet Hanne Bramness’s 2010 book Uten film i kameraet (translated to English in 2013 with the title Without Film in the Camera) where photographs, some by famous photographers, some by amateurs, are described in words.

I love that Jhave’s #1YearNoCam is not just about how we see the world as photographs but also about a sort of asceticism in refraining from taking photographs. The title clearly follows on from last week’s #1WkNoTech project (a netprov led by Mark Marino and Rob Wittig where participants pretended to abstain from technology for a week while tweeting about it to support each other) and can similarly be read as a sort of critique of the idea of digital detox. I’ll be following the project over the next year – and I’ll probably find myself writing these little snapshots of my world in my mind, as well. Maybe I’ll imagine some written photographs I haven’t actually seen, as well.

1YearNoCam-jhave_hayles-hand

 

20. November 2014 by Jill
Categories: Digital Art, Electronic literature | 2 comments

How the Narrative Clip utterly fails to document my life

I was excited to receive my Narrative Clip this spring. It’s the first consumer lifelogging camera: you clip it to your clothes and it silently takes a photo every 30 seconds. Then you connect it to your computer. It uploads photos to the Narrative server, processes them, and  a while later I can view the photos in my Narrative iPhone app.

“Remember every moment,” the website urges. This device, the website promises, will become your memory. It will capture the moments that are really important to you:

Capture the moment as it happens, without interference. Complement your staged photos of majestic scenery with the intensity of the small moments that matter the most.

narrative-clip-website-image

The assumption that technology can do a better job at capturing human experience than humans can (“without interference”) is a classic example of the dataism I wrote about in my book, and that I talk about in my TEDxBergen talk, “What Can’t We Measure in a Quantified World?” Still, the idea of capturing everyday moments we might not have thought to photograph is intriguing. I was interested to see what my days looked like seen from the perspective of this little camera.

Unfortunately, the Narrative Clip fails utterly at capturing the small moments that matter the most. It doesn’t actually document my life at all. Like all technology, it sees what it sees, not what I see.

Here’s a timelapse video of the 77 photos taken on a Tuesday in Chicago this spring between 15:47 and 17:29. 166 photos were taken in total: these are the photos that the Narrative software thought were the most interesting. The time-lapse video is pretty close to the way you can scan through the still images in the app on your phone.

As the camera was snapping these photos, I was walking with my six-year-old daughter from her school to her ballet class. She was hungry and there were no parks or benches on the way, so we sat down on a low fence that happened to face a wall covered with advertisements. You’ll notice that these are the only faces in the camera, and the algorithms have decided that they must therefore be the most important photographs, using the ads as the cover image for the sequence. Jessie decided she would like to wear the camera during her ballet class, and we thought perhaps the images would be more exciting – all those mirrors and beautiful dancers, you know? But as you see, the camera really didn’t capture anything very memorable about the ballet class either.

It turns out to be really hard to get the Narrative Clip to capture any images of my children, because the clip is worn at chest height and my children only reach up to my waist. So I tried fastening the clip to my jeans pocket instead. Not much better.

According to the website, the software selects the most significant photos using a “momentification” algorithm.

narrative-clip-website-blurb

 

“Momentification” is the process where all your photos are uploaded to the company’s cloud servers, analyzed, sorted and sent back to you with the system’s best guess as to what the most important photos are. Based on my experiences, human faces, even on billboards or on stranger’s faces at the table next to you at a café, are given high priority, which makes sense. Photos that are similar to each other tend to be left out of the time-lapse views of your “moments” so that you get more variety instead of a hundred photos of the same wall.

In my case, the momentification highlighted things that were not important to me, like the advertisement on the wall. Just as importantly, the camera itself did not capture the things that are important to me, like my children. The camera’s fixed position on my chest or jeans pocket gives it a very limited view. Perhaps Google Glass would do a better job, as its camera would move with your head. But even if a camera could perfectly capture what my eyes see, would that really capture my experience satisfactorily?

I wrote more about the Narrative Clip in chapter four of my book Seeing Ourselves Through Technology: How We Use Blogs, Selfies and Wearable Devices to See and Shape Ourselves, comparing it to other forms of life logging. You can buy the book in print or download it for free.

And if you’ve used the Narrative Clip, I’d love to hear how you experienced it.

14. November 2014 by Jill
Categories: Visualise me | Leave a comment

If the digital present is already history, what is the future?

I’m at Le sujet digital in Paris and just heard Tim Barker give a fascinating talk about time and the digital, which also happens to be the title of his book which I’m looking forwards to reading. He talked about how technology is changing the way we experience time, from a linear idea of time, suited to narrative and the written word, to today’s time where the present is stored and then processed or rendered or represented almost-instantly but not quite instantly – leading us to think of the present as already the past. He started and ended his talk by showing this video from 1974 of a woman experiencing the echo in her voice that used to come with long-distance telephone conversations.

Electronic circuits delay and briefly archive the present in order to process it, or at least, to process the data captured that represents the present. Thus, Tim Barker argued, today we experience the present as past, as already-archived. He relates this to Boris Groys who sees history as a “series of processional presences” as well as to art historian Terry Smith‘s ideas of “living in a condition of contemporaneity”, with pasts that keep returning, as well as to media archeology’s work on analyzing the material basis for our experiences with technology.

Another example of an artwork that plays with this is Mark Hansen and Ben Grusin’s Moveable Type, an installation in the lobby of the New York Times building, which rummages through the archives of the newspaper (history) as well as search terms and comments entered on the newspaper’s website in real time by readers (the present). The present becomes history, is mixed into history.

In Tim Barker’s words: “The present is continually delayed, given the same material existence as the past so it can become signal for the computer that is indistinguishable from the signal the computer receives from the archived data.”

There were lots of references to theorists and philosophers in the talk (Flusser and Kittler were key but there were many others), and I’m guessing Tim Barker’s book contains a wealth of material for anyone interested in time and the digital.

I found the idea of the present as already past quite fascinating, but wonder about how this might affect our experiences of the future, if we see the present as already history. Is the future also compressed into a sense of history?

Predicting the future through data about the past and the present is increasingly common and apparently desirable. I’ve previously wondered whether we really want to predict election results as Nate Silver did using data, and I’ve been fascinated by Barabasí’s startlingly accurate predictions of where people will go next based on their earlier movements as tracked through mobile phone data. The baby trackers I wrote about in Seeing Ourselves Through Technology, and briefly in a blog post, also claim to be able to predict when your baby will wake up or be ready for a nap or be hungry, all based on historical and real time data. Indeed, the main point of the Quantified Self movement is to improve yourself, to control your future by understanding your past and present through data.

I’m not entirely sure that the experience of the present as already past is only a digital phenomenon. Surely diary-writing would have the same effect? Or writing a letter, knowing that the present you are writing in would be the past by the time the recipient received it, or even as you yourself reread it a moment later? How different is that to the echoes and delays of the present in the 1974 video of an echoed voice?

Data’s promise that we can use the past and the present to predict the future can also be read as a linear, teleological experience of time. The future becomes visible through “objective”, data-driven predictions.

13. November 2014 by Jill
Categories: Digital Art | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

My TEDxBergen talk: What Can’t We Measure in a Quantified World?

A few weeks ago, I gave a talk at TEDxBergen about wearables, the Quantified Self movement, dataism and all the things we cannot and might not want to measure. The talk is a shorter version of chapter 5 in my new book Seeing Ourselves Through Technology (which you can buy in print or download for free) and tells a story about my own questions about what we can and cannot measure, using some of my own logs as well as looking at examples of apps like Spreadsheets and thinking about the relationship between quantified personal data and reality. Here’s the talk!

I really enjoyed the other talks at the event as well. Linn Søvig spoke about her passion for games, and her work translating between game developers and a general audience. Brad Berens spoke about Shakespeare’s business strategies as a model for contemporary businesses. Nico Rose spoke about luck and how to create it. Pellegrino Ricardi spoke about cross-cultural communication, and Sergey Medvedev told us about the many, many walls that have been built between countries since the fall of the Berlin wall.

12. November 2014 by Jill
Categories: Visualise me | 2 comments

Academic outreach as click bait: new genres of scholarly social media

buzzademia

How should academics communicate their research to the general public? Maybe through memes, quizzes and click bait?

If you’ve read Chris Rodley’s two part Buzzfeed posts on Post-Structuralism Explained With Hipster Beards you might actually nod and think that might not be such a bad idea. And here is an example of post-publication peer review for that particular piece, snatched from a comment in the Buzzademia Facebook group:

“The post-structuralist via hipster beards list was a powerful piece that was both funny/engaging and helped me better understand post-structuralism. It’s the perfect example for what Buzzademia can and should do!” — Dr. Cheryl E. Ball, Kairos Editor.

Anne Cong-Huyen, Wendy Hsu, Kim Knight, Mark C Marino, Amanda Phillips, Chris Rodley have decided to go for this academic click bait and launch Buzzademia, which is “a peer-reviewed journal 4 Buzzfeed-style scholarship”.  Here is the Facebook group, where scholars are discussing how to make quizzes about which feminist theorist you are (here are instructions for creating a quiz on Buzzfeed – and here are other tools for creating Buzzfeed content, which anyone can do) and using Pokemon to understand Deleuze (A thousand Pikachus: Capitalism and Transmedia) And here is the manifesto, published on Buzzfeed as a listicle, of course: 10 Reasons Professors Should Start Writing Buzzfeed Articles.

Mark Marino wrote that listicle, and is also interviewed by the Chronicle, where he explains: “My dream for this is that you eventually get locked in a click-bait loop of scholarly arguments, rather than articles about Disney princesses and what to do in your 20s,” he said.

The internet has of course brought other novel genres of research dissemination. There’s Dance Your PhD (“The dreaded question. “So, what’s your Ph.D. research about?” You take a deep breath and launch into the explanation. People’s eyes begin to glaze over… At times like these, don’t you wish you could just turn to the nearest computer and show people an online video of your Ph.D. thesis interpreted in dance form?”) Here’s one of my favourites from this year’s finalists:

There is standup research, or Forsker GrandPrix, where researchers have four minutes to present their research and a jury picks the best – which I suppose isn’t really an internet thing, but does seem aligned to the soundbites that we share in social media. We could say TED talks and the like are a related genre.

And of course there is blogging and tweeting, which is what I do. But you can also do blogging and tweeting in a way more attuned to a non-academic audience, like Sunniva Rose’s “pink blog” about fashion and nuclear physics. There’s Oxford University Press’s rather excellent Tumblr, which works even better when each post is sandwiched into your Tumblr-feed than when viewed as a standalone blog. My own university has a pretty good Instagram. I’m reading a book by Deborah Lupton right now, and she has wonderful Pinterest boards gathering visual examples of the practices she discusses in her research. She also wrote a blog post about using Pinterest in research.

Any other good examples?

28. October 2014 by Jill
Categories: Academia, social media | Leave a comment

How we pose in photographs: hand signs and cultural differences

One of the highlights for me from the Association of Internet Researchers conference (#IR15) in South Korea last week was the extra-curricular learning. About many things, but in this post let me focus on what I learnt about selfie culture and visual, digital self-representations. I watched how people use selfie sticks and learnt how to use one myself. I got to see Seoul through the eyes of k-pop fan Kristine Ask, who could explain all the cardboard cutouts of ridiculously good-looking young men outside the cosmetics stores and the lengthy schooling that goes into the very media-convergent profession of k-pop star. And as we sung karaoke into the night Crystal Abidin, an expert on Asian commercial blogging, taught us how to take selfies with the appropriate hand signs. Here is a video she sent us showing a whole pile of “cute” hand signs (cuteness or Kawaii as the Japanese call it is important throughout Asia) demonstrated by a cute Australian girl lip-syncing to a Korean song.

I started thinking about the many different ways in which we pose for the camera. Pierre Bourdieu writes a bit in Photography: A Middle-brow Art about how important it is to pose when somebody takes your photo. It’s a way of acknowledging the ritual. Even the way we tend to face the camera is part of this ritual:

Honour demands that one pose for the photograph as one would stand before a man who one respects and from whom one expects respect, face on, one’s forehead held high and one’s head straight. (page 82)

So the way you pose for a photograph is a way of establishing a relationship with the viewer. Your pose says something about how you relate to the viewer and how you expect the viewer to relate to you.

Obviously the way we pose for portraits and for selfies has changed over time – just think of the stiffness of Victorian portraits (although there are also examples of very irreverent Victorian portraits). When we see an old portrait where the subject poses in what we think of as a modern way – as in the photobooth portraits I wrote about a few months ago,

There are also cultural differences in how we pose. Some are geographic, as the cuteness hand signs in Asian culture. Showing the v-sign when someone takes your photo or in a selfie is pretty constant in Korea, it seems (and there’s a whole history to it), but not so common here in Norway. Here’s a list of 29 ways to use your hands to look cute, or kawaii. These US hand signs as explained to mothers of teenagers are clearly very different from the Asian hand signs. Rude seems more the goal than cute. THere’s also the suburban gang sign thing that goes on in some US photos, though it’s often unclear whether people in the photos actually intend their hand signs to be gang signs or just think they look cool.

You can find lessons too. Here’s a tutorial clearly aimed at people outside of Asia who want to learn how to do cute Asian poses:

I’m wondering about what other styles of pose there are. In Chicago I noticed another kind of posing where you twist your hips for full body shots in what to me looks like the style of a photo model. Sort of like the fashion poses sketched below. These poses were being struck almost identically by women and children alike. I wonder whether this is a more Hispanic style of posing, or perhaps it’s simply inspired by fashion shoots and, for children perhaps, by shows like Toddlers and Tiaras.

Fashion figures drawn by tyleramato at Deviant Art.

Obviously I pose in a culturally specific way just as anyone else does. Some of my pose is about trying to look as “beautiful” as possible and to hide features I dislike, which is probably a pretty universal drive behind poses. Over time I’ve learnt some ways of smiling and holding my chin that work better than others in the hide-the-imperfection game, although I constantly make mistakes and end up hating the photo anyway. I often wonder what to do with my hands, so having some hand signs might help – but unless done with mock irony with other selfie scholars I worry they would make me seem unprofessional. And there’s such an uneasy balance between trying to make my photos seem professional yet hip, serious yet approachable. I usually fail ;)

It’s harder for me to see the cultural specificity of the way I pose though. We (as in the group of people I try to fit in with – mid-career Westerners? Mothers who like technology? Blogging academics? How to define “we”?) say “cheese” and smile and look straight at the camera. We don’t do hand signs, unless they are ironic. We try to act “natural” while clearly acknowledging the camera. I will have to watch “us” more to learn more.

If you know more about poses and hand signs for portraits and selfies around the world I’d love to hear about it. And if some scholar somewhere has actually done research on this, please let me know!

Update: This post by Jolynna Sinanan on posing in Instagram photos in Trinidad and the UK is very closely related to the thoughts in this blog post – go read it! 

27. October 2014 by Jill
Categories: Visualise me | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

The #IR15 Selfie Pedagogy Workshop

I’m in Korea at the Association of Internet Researchers’ annual conference, and having a great time. I bought a selfie stick in Seoul and the Twitter hashtag is hopping and I’m loving having the chance to talk face to face with all these fascinating people doing fascinating research on the internet, which fascinates me.

The selfie pedagogy workshop today was FABULOUS and if you teach and have the slightest interest in using selfies in your teaching, you should really take a look at the wonderful assignment ideas the participants came up with today. I would recommend reading while watching the video of the groups presenting the assignments. The presentations of the assignments begins at 59:40 minutes into this stream and take about 25 mins total. The verbal presentations captured on the video really add to the way you’ll be able to understand the ideas behind the assignments, and were all very well thought out beyond the words that the groups had time to write down.

The topics the participants chose were selfies and 1) friendship, 2) policing and norms, 3) political economy of selfies, 4) technology, access and connectivity, 5) historicizing the selfie and 6) representing gender fluidity. Do feel free to use or build upon any of these assignments. Thank you so much to everyone who was involved, online and offline!

Oh, and before we got to making new assignments, the participants did Alice’s celebrity selfie assignment, with some wonderful results! Here are a couple of my favourites.

Obama funeral selfie

#wearekpopstarnow #withnomakeup?!

Obama funeral selfie

21. October 2014 by Jill
Categories: social media, Teaching | 1 comment

How I Published My Scholarly Book With an Open Access CC-BY License

[Open Access Week in 2014  is October 20-26.]

Have you noticed that scholarly books are getting more and more expensive? It’s not just the journals that are exorbitantly priced. Yesterday I didn’t buy a really interesting anthology in my field because it cost over $100. More and more of the monographs I’m interested in cost £50 or £60 or even £80.

You can download Seeing Ourselves Through Technology for free. Actually, you can download it, remix it, mash it up, buy or borrow the print book, photocopy it as much as you like, and even make tea towels or a corset out of it and resell it at a profit without asking permission. It’s published with a CC-BY license, which means you can do whatever you like with it so long as you mention that I wrote the original version.

image

I decided a while ago that I didn’t want to publish any more books that were closed access. I’m a public employee, so my research is paid for by ordinary peoples’ tax money. It makes sense that my taxpayer-funded research should be accessible to everyone. Not just to scholars in rich institutions in rich countries that can afford to paid skyrocketing prices for scholarly journals and books.

So when I saw that Palgrave, which is known for publishing quality scholarship, had set up a system for open access books, I was interested. Palgrave’s model is pretty simple. You pay. You pay quite a lot. My book is a Palgrave Pivot, which is a series of short books (mine is 40,000 words or about 100 pages) that are published in just 12 weeks after the manuscript is completed. (That in itself is reason enough to publish with them – I hated waited a year or two for my other books to actually be available.) To make your Palgrave Pivot book open access, you pay Palgrave a fee of £7500. Longer books cost up to £11000.

I’m fortunate enough to work at the University of Bergen, which established an open access publishing fund last year specifically to pay for fees like this. The pay-to-publish model was not familiar to me. It’s more common in the natural sciences, where closed access journals will allow you to make your article (but not all articles) openly available for a fee. I don’t think UiB’s open access people had specifically considered funding open access books as well as articles, but they loved the idea when I asked whether I could apply for money to make a book open access. Certainly the Norwegian Research Council’s open access funding specifically mentions articles, not books. In the UK, as far as I can see, you can get this kind of funding if you have a RCUK grant (apparently the funding is distributed via the universities, so see for instance Bristol‘s or Oxford‘s policies), which is, I assume, far more common in the sciences than in the humanities, and of course it is in the humanities that the book is a common form of publication. Some journals, like the prestigious Nature Communications, are going fully open access using author paid fees of up to €3700 per article, though they will give waivers to authors from low-income countries, and a list of links to ways scholars in different countries can get funding for this purpose(Note on Oct 21: I initially incorrectly wrote Nature is going open access, it’s actually Nature Communications.)

I hadn’t heard about the idea of authors (or their institutions) paying for open access publishing until fairly recently. I’m familiar with another model that is quite common in the humanities, or at least in the digital branches of it: open access, online-only journals run by academics with no publisher involved. Game Studies, Kairos, the Electronic Book Review, Dichtung Digital, Fibreculture, Surveillance & Society and Digital Humanities Quarterly are just a few of the excellent journals I read that have been run for years in this way. Truth be told, I prefer this way of funding open access scholarship to the author-pays model – but we need to realise that this also has its costs. Editors and peer reviewers work for free – indeed, so they do at the closed access and author-pays journals, so that isn’t too remarkable. But there is also the work of designing and maintaining a quality website and of copyediting and proofing, and these things are often not so easy to find funding for. As universities and research councils begin to fund open access publishing more explicitly we need to make sure it’s not all on the terms of the commercial publishers: there are other, perhaps more sustainable ways of doing this. But we do need to actually fund them.

Open access book publishing is a lot less common. Open Humanities Press is the only scholar-run, peer-reviewed effort I know that publishes all its books online and open access. They also allow for non-traditional content in their books. I think publishing a book is a far more time-consuming task than publishing journal articles – and yet books are key in the humanities, and for good reason: there are lines of thought that simply need more space than a journal article.

Sometimes scholarly presses will publish individual books open access without fees. Danah boyd talked her publisher into allowing this for It’s Complicated, and Nick Montfort, Patsy Baudoin, John Bell, Ian Bogost
Jeremy Douglass, Mark C. Marino, Michael Mateas, Casey Reas, Mark Sample, and Noah Vawter did the same with their book 10 PRINT CHR$(205.5+RND(1)); : GOTO 10 on MIT Press. But these are sort of sleight of hand events. They’re exceptions, and if you approach MIT Press or Yale University Press you can’t expect to be able to make a similar deal – although you could certainly try. These books also come across as sort of half-hearted open access, at least from the publishers’ standpoint. In neither case did the publisher promote the book as open access. If you try to buy the book at an online bookshop or from the publisher you will see both the paper and digital editions are for sale and there is no information about a free digital edition also being available. (Update Oct 21: See Nick Montfort’s comments below – and I should also add that both danah boyd’s and Nick Montfort et.al.’s books clearly state they are CC-BY on the “copyright” page in the front of the print and digital books.) You need to go to the author’s website to find the free copy. In danah boyd’s case, she was required to not go public about the book’s being open access until a week after publication, presumably because they were worried that sales would drop. Cory Doctorow famously requires his publishers to make his novels openly available, but even so, publishers sometimes drag their heels. His Norwegian publisher did sort of release the translation of Little Brother freely, by adding a note to the online catalogue stating that if you email the publisher they would send you the PDF. But that note is now gone and there is absolutely no indication on the website that the book is supposed to be open access. (update Oct 21: Thomas Brevik writes a bit more about this in the comments.) Perhaps the individual editor Doctorow worked with was the only person aware of the agreement. And you can see why the publishers would be leery of giving away books when selling books is their business model. Maybe they’ll sell more books if they give the digital version away, as Cory Doctorow argues. But they can’t be sure of that.

What finally sold me on using Palgrave’s open access model was the way they promote the works so clearly as open access. When I saw the (to my knowledge) only other open access book Palgrave has published in the Amazon store, I was thrilled: it states very clearly that you can pay so and so many dollars for the print book, and the Kindle version is explicitly listed as free. $0. That’s what I wanted for my book – and I got it.

seeing-ourselves-kindle-book-zero-dollars

Yes, my university paid Palgrave quite a lot of money for my book to be open access. But because of that very explicit exchange I have a contract that very clearly states that the book is published under a CC-BY license, and Palgrave have done a great job of showing that clearly in the catalogue text and when distributing to bookshops (although Google Books apparently doesn’t read the CC-BY license and treats it as closed). It’s not half-hearted open-access-but-don’t-tell-too-many-people-about-it, Palgrave is unabashadly proud to be publishing an open access book. I’m sure they’d love to publish more, because this is a model that might be sustainable for them as well as for me.

Paying for open access is not without its controversies. Melissa Terras wrote an empassioned blog post last November explaining why she refused to edit a book series on the digital humanities for an unnamed publisher (maybe Palgrave?) that had a fee structure just like Palgrave. She’s right, of course, that today most academics don’t have systems in place to fund these kinds of fees. When the ability to pay for open access is unevenly distributed, as it clearly is today, we risk building a two-tier structure where scholars who have strong institutional backing or are independently wealthy can pay for open access and thereby simply be read more than other scholars. I’m sure some will argue that I am buying into this unfair system – and Melissa argues strongly that we should boycott it by not publishing with such publishers and not even doing peer review for them.

Obviously I disagree. I chose to publish my book open access for a fee because I think the alternative systems for publishing monographs in the humanities are just as unfair and iniquitous. If the cost of not paying an author fee for open access is that any would be reader has to pay £80 to read the book any better? What about early career academics and scholars and students from low income countries who in practice have no access to humanities scholarship because the books all cost a fortune? Palgrave’s attempt to find sustainable models for open access publishing is a good faith attempt to build something that might work. On their website they also write that they’re working on figuring out how to make the author-pays system work for scholars from low income countries. Perhaps there are ways it could work. It doesn’t seem unreasonable that fees for rich countries like Norway might be higher in order to help subsidize open access publication for other countries. For such a system to work, though, accounting for how the money is spent should be far more open than it is today. Another perhaps fairer option might be international funds for open access scholarship, for instance financed by the EU and others, where a portion is specifically for low-income countries’ scholars.

Another possible danger of an author-pays models for open access publishing is that it could devolve into vanity publishing or predatory publishing. I wasn’t worried about that with Palgrave because they have such a well-established reputation, and the peer review process was completed and the book accepted on its own merits before we signed the open access contract. Palgrave would have published the book without the money from UiB, but they would have sold it for £50 or maybe more for each copy.

Somebody needs to pay for the work involved in publishing a scholarly book. And there’s a lot of work involved, not just for the author and the peer reviewers. Peer reviewers at Palgrave get £60 or twice that in books, which is a fairly typical rate of pay in my experience, so obviously most of their actual time spent is not paid for by the publisher but by their universities or they are donating it from their leisure time. But although peer review is immensely important, it is not the only work involved in getting a book published. The most obvious points on the list would be

  • the editor’s knowledge of the field, which takes time to build and involves lots of experience, time, going to conferences, reading – this is the same kind of work that academics do, I imagine, and is necessary.
  • coordinating peer reviewers, assessing the reviews
  • selecting manuscripts
  • editor’s professional feedback – this varies. When I wrote Blogging the editor (Andrea Drugan at Polity) not only asked me to write a proposal, she worked closely with me on the details of it. With the World of Warcraft anthology we had far less direct feedback from the editor (Doug Sery at MIT Press), but we also had a far more complete proposal when we approached the publisher.
  • copyediting and proofing
  • layout
  • cover design
  • the index (the author does most of this but page numbers are adjusted)
  • contracts
  • organising the ISBN and DOI and so on
  • distribution to bookshops and direct sales of print book
  • electronic formats, distribution of ebook to bookshops
  • website that is well put together and search engine friendly
  • marketing

Maybe I forgot something. I’ve never worked at a publisher’s, and although Palgrave states that the open access fee only covers costs and doesn’t leave them a profit, they don’t provide a specified bill breaking down actual costs. I would like to see that kind of accounting, actually.

I don’t get any royalties from Seeing Ourselves Through Technology. At first I thought I should get royalties from sales of the print book, but Palgrave insisted there was no profit to them from it and so there wouldn’t really be any money for my royalties to come from. I didn’t realise, at first, that the price of the print edition of the book would be much lower than other books in the series. My book costs £20 in print, whereas other Palgrave Pivot books are priced anywhere from £45-£65. That’s a big difference!

Royalties are pretty meagre for most scholarly books, anyway. No doubt some superstars get a nice chunk, but my royalties for Blogging and for the World of Warcraft anthology have amounted to an annual check of about $70-80 for the anthology and between £80-£200 for Blogging. The £200 was last year, when the second edition came out. Apparently Blogging sold quite well, well enough that Polity wanted to do a second edition, anyway. But ”quite well” in academic publishing apparently means a thousand copies or so over several years. Not that I actually know what others are selling. I’m sure if you write a popular textbook you’ll do much better than I have on royalties.

Given that researching and publication are already part of the job I’m paid to do, I don’t need royalties. Obviously this would be very different for a literary author or a non-fiction author who is not already being paid by a university to write and publish. I don’t think everything needs to be open access. But publicly funded research should be.

We may come up with alternative systems than peer review and publishers for ensuring that scholarship is sound. Figshare is one example of a possible alternative model: a site where you can publish your research data and findings freely, and metrics like how often its retweeted or cited are supposed to give readers an indication of its quality. Open peer review is another and probably better idea: publish scholarship in a journal or system where your peers can discuss and vet the work openly. And of course, once a work has been peer reviewed and published we use citations as an indication of how influential it is (although some fields cite so much more than others that it is difficult to read citations as value in any absolute sense).

For now, though, I think we need to try out models like Palgrave’s.

19. October 2014 by Jill
Categories: University politics | Tags: , , | 15 comments

Cerebrally sincere? Why the humanities need to address dataism.

original-ideal1

Katie Warfield posted a link to this fascinating study of what people think they look like, or wish they look like or to be more accurate, which of a series of photoshopped versions of a photograph of their face they have the most positive response to, as measured through their brainwaves. The image on the left is one of the original portraits, and on the right we see the manipulated version of the portrait that the subject felt the most positive about: their “cerebrally sincere self-image” according to the voice-over in the beautiful video created by photographer Scott Chasserot, who led the project.

Let’s stay with that term for a moment. “Cerebrally sincere.” It carries with it an idea that there is a deeper truth inside of us that we are not consciously aware of, but that technology can reveal. This is becoming an increasingly common idea, even ideology, in contemporary culture. Think of the British Airways Happiness Blanket, where customers flying in first class were given blankets that measured their brainwaves and lit up red or blue LEDs on the blanket to show flight attendants (and viewers of the commercial) whether they were happy or nervous. Or look at the work of the Dutch team of researchers who developed a tool to automatically log unconscious emotions by analysing physiological data. We need technology to measure our unconscious emotions, the researchers argue, because: “To offer capabilities that are superior to diaries, lifelogging applications should try to capture the complete experiences of people including data from both their external and internal worlds” (Ivonin et al., 2012).

remember-the-word-dataism

At TEDxBergen last Saturday I gave a talk called “What Can’t We Measure in a Quantified World?” (a shortened version of chapter five of my new book, Seeing Ourselves Through Technology, which you can download for free from Amazon or the publisher) where I used José van Dijck’s very useful term dataism, from an article she published this spring in Surveillance Society

I think dataism describes something very important that we need to think carefully about as we develop technologies that are more and more able to gather vast quantities of data and to analyse that data. Today we are also seeing a shift in what kinds of data we collect. Data isn’t just objective information any more. It’s interpretations of our emotions, translated into numbers and graphs and rendered more reliable – more cerebrally sincere – than our own thoughts.

Jill-at-TEDxBergen-dataism

Others have written about dataism without using the word. Johanna Drucker proposed in 2011 that we call data capta rather than data, which would emphasise a constructivist approach: capta is taken from reality, while data is conceived as given, objective. In an article published last year, Annette Markham notes how the meaning of the term data ‘”gradually shifted from a description of that which precedes argument to that which is pre-analytical and pre-semantic. Put differently, data is beyond argument. It always exists, no matter how it might be interpreted. Data has an incontrovertible ‘itness.'” In a study of lifeloggers published this year, Minna Ruckenstein noted that “Significantly, data visualizations were interpreted by research participants as more ‘factual’ or ‘credible’ insights into their daily lives than their subjective experiences. This intertwines with the deeply-rooted cultural notion that ‘seeing’ makes knowledge reliable and trustworthy.”

Back in 1973, Susan Sontag noted something similar of photography. She wrote, “Photographed images do not seem to be statements about the world so much as pieces of it, miniatures of reality that anyone can make or acquire” (On Photography, page 4). I think the ease of filtering and photoshopping photographs today makes us far less susceptible to this delusion than we were in the 1970s, before we had smartphones with cameras and image editing software in our pockets. But our general literacy about data is at about the same stage as our photography literacy was in the 1970s. Most of us have seen data visualisations in newspapers or elsewhere. Some of us have activity trackers or lifelogging apps, and can view representations of our personal data according to preset templates over which we have very little control. Very few of us know how to actually gather, download and analyse or visualise data ourselves. And not many of us have expertise in any of the methods required to really analyse data well: we don’t know much about statistics or about reliability and uncertainty. And the visualisations and the software and the gadgets generally hide the uncertainties of data from us. They present our data to us as “miniatures of reality,” as The Truth.

Jill-at-TEDxBergen-Sontag

I think the word dataism is one that might actually make sense to the general public. Because despite humanities scholars and digital humanists debating the shortcomings of big data is useful, this is a topic that is increasingly important for the public, for everyone. If a computer’s analysis of my unconscious emotions or “cerebrally sincere” ideal self-image is going to be seen as more genuine than my own report of my feelings and ideas, what does that do to me? To us? To the way we see each other? Is this the true post-human?

This is a topic that the humanities and the digital humanities in particular needs to address. We need to discuss what data is and what it represents academically and carefully as scholars, and we also need to talk with the general public about what data can and can’t do.

Dataism is a societal challenge that cannot be understood without the humanities. Computers are wonderful tools for measuring and counting anything and everything. But we need to think about what measurements can tell us.

08. October 2014 by Jill
Categories: Visualise me | 2 comments

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