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).