Walking (Coding?) the Talk: MediaCommons

The digital peer-to-peer publishing and reviewing system that Kathleen Fitzpatrick describes in Planned Obsolescence sounds pretty incredible: she carefully considers all aspects of the system for their potential strengths and limitations (with particular regard to helpfulness— a value that, as Fitzpatrick shrewdly notes, is often dismissed in the academic world) and, moreover, she addresses the potential pitfalls in a refreshingly candid and useful way. When I read, particularly when I read about something I find engaging, I am usually a pretty prolific annotator. But as I read Fitzpatrick, I found myself without much at all to say. I realized eventually it was because it’s a little hard to imagine what these digital environments might actually look like, and how such a good idea might actually translate into a (digital) reality.

Fortunately for all of us, Fitzpatrick isn’t just talk—she is actively testing out these theories and trying to build something collaboratively that really works. Have you guys actually checked out MediaCommons? I have to just start by saying: it is, quantitatively and objectively speaking, pretty damn cool. I only explored two subsets of it in any depth: In Media Res and MediaCommons Press, and I was pleasantly surprised in both cases.

In Media Res is a project that has different scholars “curate” (i.e., find and repost) a short video clip, and they write a short (300-350 word) “impressionistic response” text to accompany it. Each posting is then opened up to comments/response from anyone in the community. It actually rather reminds me of the kind of blog post/commenting work we’re doing in 685dw. While I certainly value the development of ideas over a period of time, I think forums like In Media Res and the 685 blog offer a completely different and complementary type of intellectual exercise. The “impressionistic response” format seems to encourage an idea of writing that is not to have the definitive last word, but to write suggestively in ways that open up new possibilities for others to take up. It is concise, engaged, and timely work, and I think we need more venues for these short, lively bursts of intellectual exchange.

The MediaCommons Press is a very basic model of the peer-to-peer review system Fitzpatrick describes in her book, in that it is simply a venue for scholars to get feedback on their texts. It does not yet include any kind of “review of the reviewers” (38) as Fitzpatrick theorizes in her book, but it sounds like something along those lines is in development.

A couple of thoughts on this “press” system. First, I think that what’s great about this is the super easy, intuitive interface for commenting on specific portions of the text. And it seems that people are indeed making use of it, albeit perhaps less than in an ideal world. But you can really see the potential for allowing others’ thoughts to actually impact your work, to shape and change your thinking, and (of course) to change the product itself.

With that said, within MediaCommons Press, I’m not totally sure I understand where the line is on when such documents are “published.” Fitzpatrick might say this is a good thing, that the new motto in the digital age needs to be “publish-then-filter” (38). But I guess what’s not clear to me is how or whether the original authors are changing their text in response to the feedback they receive. As it stands, there doesn’t seem to be a place for making note of such work in MediaCommons Press. To feel like the labor of commenting is valuable, it seems to me that there needs to be some way of communicating these changes.

Something else occurred to me as I was browsing through some of the documents that have been opened to peer feedback. As the system is currently used, there don’t seem to be more than 10 comments per paragraph of any given text. But even this is quite a lot of feedback to take into account. And what if the system really catches on an draws the users it hopes for? Sometimes as a writer, getting too much feedback can be a really bad thing. I’m thinking of students who have come to the writing center over and over again with the same piece of writing, seeking out feedback from as many different tutors as they can. I completely admire the drive and vulnerability that this requires, but these students almost inevitably seem to drive themselves crazy, since no tutor is ever simply going to say, “It’s perfect. Go with what you’ve got.” With writing, there’s always more we can do, more we can revise. But at some point, we have to decide when to let projects go. Getting too much feedback can be a real hindrance to getting work done. So in that respect, I wonder if the MediaCommons Press model is really scalable.

With regard to the full-blown version of this publication system as described by Fitzpatrick: I’m not entirely sure why, but some part of me wondered if maybe we need to resist the urge, in constructing these digital environments, to try to control and account for everything. I think Fitzpatrick is smart in her analysis of why other online academic publishing sites (like Philica) have failed, and that she makes a strong case for the need to provide some mechanisms for “reviewing the reviewers.” But I found myself a little skeptical about what she calls “pay to play” systems, such as points as internal currency, or changing your “karma” through your own contributions/publications, as Slashdot does. I guess I’m a little wary of over-engineering the system.

Some part of me wants to believe that if people find a site useful, they’ll use it—that if we need to contrive an artificial internal economy, it may be an indication that we’re compensating for real value in some way. But it’s also very possible “some part of me” is just being naïve about the need to create buy-in and reward before these digital academic communities can really function as we’d like them to. Another theory/practice gap here—it will be really interesting to see how MediaCommons decides to handle this problem (or if they decide that it doesn’t need to be ‘handled’ at all).


7 thoughts on “Walking (Coding?) the Talk: MediaCommons”

  1. Kiley,

    What I’m curious about, and what you get at towards the end of your post, is how exactly Fitzpatrick would like to entice users to try out the different interfaces she describes. From the way she describes them, some of them sound potentially rewarding, while others sound like a mess, especially when we look at the screenshots she provides. Here I’m thinking specifically of the *GAM3R 7H30RY* page—so many text boxes on top of text boxes on top of others! I can’t even imagine trying to sift through all of them in any sort of logical or productive way.

    So, I guess what I’m trying to get at is this: is simply describing the benefits of a certain interface, like Zotero for instance (which is admittedly super clunky, confusing, and not worth the effort, IMO), enough to get academics to want to use it? And I feel like Fitzpatrick kind of assumes that most academics all share an equal willingness or eagerness to make the necessary shifts from print to digital.

    Also, just a short blurb to close out my comment: today I used the research question of “How does social media change the way we construct or create texts?” to model idea mapping for my E110 class. After putting “final product” in scare quotes, I find myself stumbling over the notion of saying something is “published” online, and I’m not sure that “publish-then-filter” is accurate either. What are your thoughts on using something like “make it live” (as in live TV) as a way to think about putting a new text out there on the web? Does this phrase capture the sense of interactivity and review as well as it can/should? I’m not sure that it does, but I kind of like it nonetheless!

  2. Chris,

    I’ll admit I’m not nearly as far along in _Planned Obsolescence_ as I’d like to be, so I just peeked at the GAM3R 7H30RY screenshot you mentioned, but I don’t know how she is using it as an example yet. I think I understand and agree with your point in any case: a good idea in theory can turn out to be a technical mess in execution. And no, I don’t think just “describing” it is enough to draw people in. It might draw a few in, but unless it is deeply *functional* digital space, that people use and find productive for their own thinking and writing, it’s never going to work. It’s not “if you build it, they will come,” it’s something like, “if you build it WELL, AND if you frame the project to your colleagues in an enticing way, they MIGHT come.” Sigh.

    When these experiments fail because they’re clunky to use, it’s likely because humanities scholars aren’t necessarily the most proficient in stuff like web page design or user interfaces (because, well, we’re not trained to be). This seems like a place where we might need to partner with people who really know what the hell they’re doing– who understand how users interact with digital environments. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel all by ourselves, do we? There are people out there, in our own universities I suspect, who specialize in exactly this kind of web development. How do we get those people on our team??

    “Going live” is a cool metaphor– I do think it captures the interactive nature of peer-to-peer review, and also suggests a kind of responsiveness on both sides (author and reviewers). But I’m not sure it totally solves the “publication” issue for me. It could be that I’m holding myself back conceptually, but at some point I want to think of a text as a finished, stable product that goes out to the world. We need to be able to quote and paraphrase a text to use it, right? Which means that at some point, we need to be reasonably sure the author isn’t going to alter it. But at what point are the authors actually done making changes to their text in MediaCommons Press? For that matter, ARE they even making changes to their text in response to the peer feedback? Right now, I can’t tell at all, which seems like a problem to me.


  3. Kiley–

    I very much appreciate your insightful comments on MediaCommons–I had indeed not checked it out yet before you suggested it! In Media Res certainly is interesting–and is perhaps a compromise between the (perhaps incompatible) genres I was proposing to mash together in my post.

    I wonder, though, how many scholars are a.) aware of, and b.) actually using this interface. While on the one hand, a smaller demographic presumably offers a greater sense of a close-knit scholarly community, might there not also be the potential that conversations might get a little stale as well? And, if this is more a forum for floating half-baked ideas rather than one of more “serious” review and collaboration, is there the impetus to turn anything posted there into something more/else?

    To be clear, I am not pooh-poohing MediaCommons and what I have read so far on In Media Res has been fascinating. I was even tempted to bring up the just-out Veronica Mars Movie in response to this post: http://mediacommons.futureofthebook.org/imr/2014/03/20/actually-needs-happen-daria-movie-trailer

    Maybe I still will.

    1. Warning: this comment has nothing to do with Fitzpatrick.


  4. Petra,

    I’m really glad you pointed out the potential for staleness and insularity in digital spaces like MediaCommons. I did notice as I browsed that there were a few scholars who showed up over and over again in the comments. I totally agree, and think that this is a bit of a catch-22 for scholarly digital spaces. On the one hand, as Fitzpatrick argues, these spaces need a “disciplinary focus” in order to be relevant (40), and they need a community in which “individual members… know each other, at least by reputation” (41) in order to facilitate ‘review of the reviewers.’ On the other hand, if that community is *too* small, it just ends up being a forum for a handful of voices who won’t generate enough productive friction.

    I suspect there might be an individual impetus expand on work from In Media Res *if* it receives attention and interest from the community. I have absolutely no evidence to back this up, though– I’m just imagining what would make me want to do so.

    Lastly, you should for sure comment about Veronica Mars! 🙂 I’ve only watched a couple of episodes (because, as with everything else, I’m late to the party) but it sounds like a really clear example of the kind of “budding 90s nostalgia” the curator is talking about.


  5. Okay, first of all, I am super glad you identified the impressionistic response thing, since one of the things I often find most productive (and the reason I carry a 17th century-style folio notebook and index cards EVERYWHERE) is that I find that sort of brief idea-factory writing to be incredibly useful in academic work. I’m frequently surprised that, with all the other field standards and practices we get, there seems to be no advised system for doing this sort of writing–every scholar has their own way, and no one really talks about it. I fondly recall the few times one of the now-gone members of my cohort would use her own method (which involved a diary and a lot of weird drawings) while I was watching, because it’s like watching someone smart think in realtime.

    Still, my wonder at why we don’t have a standard, widely discussed way of doing this as a field is probably me wanting to over-engineer the experience, which (as you point out with the desire to assess and account for everything) kind of defeats the whole purpose. So I’m glad you brought that up too, because nothing creates “staleness and insularity” faster than a fixation on assessment, control, and procedures, and blinders that keep us from seeing ourselves doing that.

  6. “With writing, there’s always more we can do, more we can revise. But at some point, we have to decide when to let projects go. Getting too much feedback can be a real hindrance to getting work done.”

    We’ve touched on this in class a bit, but I wonder if this speaks to a change (?) in the way we think of texts: a move from “completion” to an never-ending sense of revision. I think part of peer review is getting rid of the shiny gloss that makes a text seem “finished” in order to open it up and reimagine it–if we make peer review a more open and necessary process, I think it also adds to a change in the way we think of the writing process.

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