The past couple of years have made it clear that organizing groups online using new digital tools has become easier than ever. Many people (paradigmatically Clay Shirky) have examined the way in which groups form and act when the cost of connecting with each other approaches zero. One thing which people have not focused on quite so much, however, is the way in which the lowered cost of group formation works against the creation of new groups.
How would making it easier to connect people make it harder for people to connect? When tools make the cost of connecting zero, the only thing that is required to get things done is to actually do them — when you can create a blog with a click, and a wiki with a double click, you suddenly realize that the only thing that is keeping you from producing a blog full of witty insights is that you must actually write them. When everything other than your time is provided, you realize just how little time you and everyone else has.
I mention this because of three recent projects in open access anthropology which have had only lackluster success: the ‘modulation’ of Chris Kelty’s book Two Bits, the Open Access Anthropology website and the recent group interview Anthropology In/Of Circulation which has got a fancy website in which we can all complexly engage in dialogue about (and read) a piece which recently appeared in Cultural Anthropology.
None of these projects has been particularly successful, and not — I insist — because they are particularly uninteresting. Rather, people’s lack of engagement with these project arise from the fact that all of us barely have time to read these pieces, much less ‘modulate’ them.
This fact in itself should not surprise us — anyone who has ever written anything has realized just how difficult it is to get people to read our work. Mostly we rely on people whose relationships with us are deeply caught up with their own sense of self (partners, spouses, advisors), or their self-interest (editors, etc. who will sell your work for money). If anything, the greatest power the Internet has is to reveal just how little people care about what we write. Of course, without the Internet, people would still not care about our work, but the Internet really makes this fact universally visible.
Now, of course these sites should stay up, and we never know what the future holds — it may be that in the future there may be a huge surge of interest in the Anthropology In/Of Circulation and it is right and proper that the site stay up. But if people do come to the site and see that no one has worked on it… isn’t that in itself a disincentive to participate?
I think that this speaks to wider issues in Open Access — the physicality of a book, I think, is a major reason that people downplay the value of online-only publications. Moreover, I think the fact that someone is willing to sell your work makes people treat their work seriously — not because they are out for filthy lucre, but because the very fact that someone takes their work seriously enough to try to make money off of it is a sort of existential endorsement of its worth.
And finally, I think that a movement often develops by slowly overcoming the costs of organizing and (in the case of open access) actually getting something done. That is to say, when people start small and get invested in something — a road they are building, a weblog they all read, a print-on-demand collection of their poetry — it makes them eager to take the next step and produce the next stage in their project. Just throwing a complete OA journal editing system online and telling people “get to it!” may actually working against the accumulating solidarity that overcoming barriers to group formation provides.
This isn’t meant to be a cynical or negative diagnosis of these projects (although it is designed to instill guilt in you if you haven’t read or commented on these works!). Its just a reflection of where we are and where we are going as we move towards AAAs and think about these and other projects moving forward, and just how much attention we can ask of ourselves and others.