(Funny Chris should mention it. This is my submission for an essay competition held by the American Anthropological Association about AnthroSource. The topic is basically: “For the first time in its 103 year history, the AAA’s complete legacy of periodical publications is becoming available in a single digital resource… The AnthroSource Steering Committee challenges users and would-be users of AnthroSource to consider the current and future impact of this new resource on the scholarly enterprise.” Please feel free to debug my spelling, grammar, and ideas. and remember — it’s written for non tech-savvy anthros.)
It is easy to get too excited about technology. As Rousseau once remarked in a different essay competition, the progress of the Arts and Sciences isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. Here I’ll argue that anthropological research is already being transformed by digital genres, and that while AnthroSource has the potential to bring the anthropological community together in deeply productive ways, there is a good chance it will not transform anthropological scholarship at all. Eric Raymond — Rousseau’s contrarian hacker reincarnation — famously argued that centrally organized and scrupulously planned “cathedral” style software development is less effective than “bazaar” schemes in which loose collections of projects coalesce into constellations of stupendous utility. AnthroSource, I’ll argue, has spent too much of its time decorating altar frontals when it should be leasing storefronts.
It is simply not true that AnthroSource is somehow new or interesting because it is digitizing anthropology’s textual patrimony. Compared to the natural sciences — or even political science — anthropology has been behind the curve in moving to digital distribution of content. In fact, the biggest thing holding content-aggregators like JSTOR back from slurping up all AAA texts into one gigantic database is the AAA’s (very proper) insistence on reserving its rights to its own journals for AnthroSource. So Voltaire’s quip about God is equally true of AnthroSource — if it did not exist, we would invent it.
In fact, we already have. A “bazaar” of web applications of the sort that Tim O’Reilly has labeled Web 2.0 — site like del.icio.us, bloglines, Amazon, CiteULike, Google Scholar, and Jstor — have developed a method of browsing that revolutionizes scholarship. Here’s how:
Today most blogs, newspapers, and yes, academic journals, use RSS feeds. They use RSS to send you updates automatically when they’ve added new content and send these stories to you so you don’t have to visit the website to see them (tech-savvy readers will notice I’m simplifying). And RSS (unlike email alerts) lets you sort and organize information in new and powerful ways.
One of the most popular things to do with feeds is ‘aggregate’ them so you can browse through tons of them at once. For instance, I subscribe to a popular free web site called bloglines. Every morning I get up, turn on my computer, and read 116 different news sources. This includes the table of contents of the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, Law and Society Review, History and Anthropology, and Annual Review of Anthropology.
If I find a webpage I like I bookmark it using del.icio.us, a free website that lets me manage my bookmarks by tagging them — classifying them by keyword. If I find a citation I like, I add it to CiteULike, a free bibliography website which takes a book or article from amazon.com or jstor and automatically sucks its citation into its database. I can tag and sort my digital library based on keyword, I can export the data to endnote, and since CiteULIke is a website I can work with my PDFs and citations on any computer that has a net connection from Peoria to Port Moresby.
It gets better: these bookmarking services are social — I can read the tags of people I like to discover new articles, or I can discover new colleagues by paying attention to who has been tagging the same things I have. Best of all, these tags and authors themselves have an RSS feed. So every morning I don’t just read the table of contents for new journals — I read an RSS feed of all the article that people have tagged as ‘anthropology’ to get some sense of where the discipline’s attention is.
Here’s how we AnthroGeeks do research:
At a conference I heard someone mention “Rabinow and Rose’s new paper on biopower.” I went to scholar.google.com, typed in “Rabinow Rose biopower” and the article popped up. I saved the PDF to CiteULike to read later. An anthro blog with an RSS feed reported that Donna Goldstein’s Laughter Out Of Place won the Margaret Mead Award For Applied Anthropology. I bookmarked Goldstein’s CV on del.icio.us and her book on CiteUlike. If the Mead Award homepage had a feed I’d have subscribed to it so I could be updated about new winners. I was browsing through books when Amazon recommended Thinking from Things by Alison Wylie to me. I taged the book on CiteULike, googled her homepage, and bookmarked it on del.icio.us.
This bazaar-like information ecosphere makes research heart-stoppingly powerful and precise. I’m a Melanesianist who studies kinship but now I’m able to keep up with trends in anthropological theory, learn about ethnography in areas outside my speciality, and keep in touch with the four fields without having to go to the library. As a newly minted Ph.D. trying to make the transition from specialized reasearch to generalized teaching at a liberal arts college, this sort of power surfing is invaluable.
AnthroSource works with a small number of journals. It lets me bookmark articles, but it doesn’t let me tag them or share them. It sends me emails about new content, but if it had an RSS feed I could aggregate it in bloglines or export it to endnote. In comparison to my anthropological infomation bazaar, AnthroSource’s centralized, cathedral-style service is clunky and unlovable.
But what could it become?
Put it this way: Why join the AAA at all these days? You can usually get the journals online or from the library, the kerfufle about the 2004 meetings had something to upset everyone, and, believe it or not, some of us just aren’t interested in talking about the Yanomami any more. But AAA is where hiring happens, so people join because they have to, not because they want to.
I believe that AnthroSource can best be developed by taking its rich, peanut buttery center of digital content and wrapping it up in a delicious chocolatey coating of socialy-oriented web applications. I think that AnthroSource, reconceived, could be a positive reason for people to reconnect to the AAA community. AnthroSource could be a place people will want to come if it allows them to connect both to digital content and each other.
How do we do this? There are, of course, issues of budget, privacy, and institutional politics. But let me mention some things that are technically feasible and have proven successful elsewhere.
First, AnthroSource must ‘open up and let go.’ These days, web sites become de facto standards by making themselves indispenable, not by locking users in. AnthroSource must give away as much free content as possible in as many forms as possible to make people hunger for what is behind the membership wall (we could even investigate open access scholarship). RSS feeds for every journal, author, and keyword in existence. Multiple ways to access abstracts. APIs so people can write new programs to interface with and extend AnthroSource’s functionality.
Second, learn the lessons of successful socially-based web applications and make AnthroSource “a cooperation amplifier. Create multiple ways for users to organize information in their accounts. Then let them share that information with other users. Let them rate, reccomend, and tag articles, authors, and journals. Make friends lists and groups they can join. By creating technology that enables cooperation you create a network that increases in value everytime a new user joins.
Third, make AnthroSource a true portal for anthropology. Integrate it with AnthroCommons and the AAA homepage. Have AnthroSource, like CiteULike, index existing RSS feeds of interest to anthropologists — like IngentaConnect’s RSS feeds for journals — and include them in the journals that AnthroSource tracks. Offer free or discounted hosting for journals from third world countries to give them a voice. AnthroSource needs to become a nexus which integrates not just AAA related websites, but all freely available information on the web that anthropologists care about.
Fourth, and most ambitious, establish an optional webpresence for your users. Let them have a profile page where they can share information about themselves such as publications, preprints, and some form of public CV. If I found a journal by an author I liked, I could visit their homepage, learn more about them, and even see if they are giving a paper at the next AAA. Giving people a place where they can simply and effectively manage their online identity if they choose in the heart of the professional association of their discipline will increase our sense of connection.
The essay competition has always been a genre that institutions with a certain breathless enthusiasm use to simultaneously spread the word and figure out where they’re headed. Here I’ve tried to help AnthroSource do both. I’ve claimed it is in danger of reinventing the wheel, and possibly even creating a version with corners. However, if AnthroSource manages to learn from other virtual communities and integrates its role as a provider for digital data with its role as anthropology’s professional organization, it could play a vital role in the production not just of anthroplogical research, but anthropological community. Build it (well) and they will come.
(My God people — This is the internet. There is no bibliography. Follow the links!)