Surveilling your colleagues for fun and profit with Wunderkit

Facebook, Academia.edu, OpenAnthropology.org, ResearchGate — in a world full of social networking sites for social scientists, what is the point of registering for one more? In the past month or so I’ve had very good results using Wunderkit to surveil both my students and myself, and although the system is far from perfect, I think its useful enough to blog about for others who are interested.

Wunderkit is basically Facebook for Getting Things Done: Like Facebook you log in, create a profile, and friend your friends. But Wunderkit offers a twist as well: your homepage features a ‘dashboard’ where you post status updates like in Facebook, but it also has a to-do list attached, as well as an area where you can create notes (more features are apparently in the works). And — this is the kicker — you can create ‘projects’ which have their own homepage, complete with task lists and notes. Then people working on the project with you can friend the project and you can all collaborate.

In an academic context, projects can range from dissertation proposals under way to articles you are coauthoring to creating comps lists to working on edited volumes. The genius of the system is that once you are on it with your friends, it becomes a cheap and easy way to collaborate on tons of different things without having to start from scratch every time you want to get something up and rolling.

I’ve had very good success so far using Wunderkit with my students to work on class projects and so forth. It takes a bit of habituation, but it is really great to be able to log on once a day and find out that someone has read an article you asked them to read, or has created a to-do item that you have to fulfill — the act of advising stops being nebulous and turns into a concrete series of next-steps and progress updates.

So that is awesome, at least for me. But the really exciting thing for me is the way that Wunderkit allows me to institute my beloved ‘article a day’ philosophy.

You see, I don’t have to fill my status updates with the newest latest about what I ate for lunch of how much it sucks that Maurice Sendak died. I already have Facebook and Twitter for that. Because this social network is for work only, my status updates are what article I read that day and a one sentence summary of that’s article’s main claims. For instance: “read ‘Ontologically Challenged’, James Laidlaw’s review of Morton Pederson’s book. An concise and convcing critcism of the unecessarily baroque VdC-style theory of perspectivism.”

Posting article-a-day status updates is really pretty amazing. First, it forces you to actually read an article a day, a habit that might otherwise be more often honored in the breach than in the observance. Second, because you know you will have to summarize your reading, you really end up focusing on your reading and developing the extremely valuable skill of boiling down an article to its essentials. Third, it makes note taking easy because you can cut and paste your status updates into your notes database. And finally, when everyone in your personal network starts doing this, you feel like your intellectual life is getting rich, exciting, and communal.

There are a number of drawback to the system as I currently use it. First, Wunderkit is still in beta and you really feel that working with the site. Sometimes it stops working altogether. At other times it works but items occasionally disappear from various sidebars where they are supposed to live. Even when Wunderkit does work, the development team is still working on usability issues: it is often confusing where status updates are supposed to be made and where they will appear when they are made. Often I miss important updates from the people in my network because I didn’t drill down to their personal homepage to check the status updates.

But — hopefully! — these things will improve. And in the end the real value of Wunderkit is only partially tied to its affordances. In a world of mandatory enrollment in social networking sites is undertaken just to maintain your Google juice, it’s nice to have a place where you can get down to work with your friends and colleagues in private. I’m hoping that the people at Wunderkit can refine the service to let that happen. But even if they don’t, having a place where you can surveil yourself and feel like you’ve gotten credit for reading something is reward enough. I love Wunderkit and look forward to seeing how it can be further bent to our nefarious anthropological purposes.

Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at rex@savageminds.org

3 thoughts on “Surveilling your colleagues for fun and profit with Wunderkit

  1. Hi Alex,

    I get the updates from Savage Minds and always find something interesting to think about or discuss. Recently I have turned down several ‘invitations’ to participate in faculty social networks etc because I was honestly getting a little bored of the whole genre. But I gave this one a go and so far it seems pretty cool. I especially like the ‘reading an article a day’ motivation suggestion.

    Take care

    Hannah

  2. Do you have a hashtag you use on twitter or wunderkit for your article-summary sentences? I’d love to start doing this and to be able to easily find others’ updates!

  3. I thought about trying to do this on Twitter but the character limit is too restrictive. Also, because I do this as part of the advising process, I wanted something that was private so that my students didn’t have to broadcast their progress to the world just to please me. And you know frankly, I spend so much of my life in public I felt I deserved a little bit of privacy, at least in my reading habits.

    If someone else did want to get it started on Twitter, I’d be willing to publicize it — I think the idea of Article-A-Day as a mass movement is a great idea.

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