I think we can all agree that any story that helps people in general and policy makers in particular more aware of the importance of nuclear deterrence is important. It was a great pleasure then to be interviewed by Adam Lowther, host of the NucleCast podcast, about how stories work, and how scientists, scholars, engineers, and others involved in nuclear deterrence can get better at tellings stories that matter to us all.
ResearchGate recently notified me that I had reached a milestone: my research items had reached 1,000 reads. Ignoring for a moment the awkwardness of “research items,” which we can, I think, chalk up to ResearchGate making it possible to publish a variety of materials, I want to think about what “reads” means here, because in the age of citometrics et alum these kinds of quantifications may eventually play more of a role than any of us might wish.
As a member of a department personnel committee, I recently enjoyed reviewing the work of three terrific junior faculty members, all of whom I will note here deserve to be tenured and promoted without delay. All three offered not only impressive vitas and compelling portfolios of materials for personnel committee members to peruse, but also had very polished slide decks, each of which featured various composite scores of semesterly SEIs (Student Evaluation of Instruction). All three are smart enough to know that SEIs are biased in a variety of well-documented ways and, when they consist of 7 fairly subjective questions, offer little of statistical significance. They are also smart enough to know that the same institutions that don’t invest in faculty also tend to think things like SEIs are acceptable forms of assessment and even development. (The kind of professional development I have in mind would not only include funding for travel to conferences but also funding a teaching resource center staffed by people with a real focus on educating college-aged students as well as funding of teaching pairs and training for faculty on how to be better assessors of their own, and their colleagues’, approaches to teaching.)
So add up some scores, calculate an average, and include that in graphic on a slide. Put another way, it doesn’t matter how meaningful, or meaningless, the number is, so long as it is a number.
And that probably reveals my attitude toward a milestone like 1000 reads, because … is it? Is it really 1000 reads? Or is it 1000 downloads? Or 1000 views of a page from which you could download the text, which is how Academia.edu seems to work. (More on that later.)
Google Scholar seems to hew to the more conventional approach to counting things by counting only citations. However it is not entirely clear how they are arriving at those counts: is it only from materials also deposited in/with Google Scholar? I ask because, to be honest, the portfolio of my materials with Google Scholar is not complete. Nor is it complete with ResearchGate nor Academia.edu. Perhaps worse: the make-up of the portfolio on each is different, with Google Scholar having older materials, Academia having more conventionally humanities materials, and ResearchGate getting more computational materials.
In all honesty, there was no principled division of materials because I have never been quite sure which one was worth investing the effort to upload everything, and, really, my goal was to put everything in a GitHub repository. (I’m still working on this.)
In a better world, researchers could post their open access, or otherwise being made accessible, materials in a repository of their choosing and then these sites/services would simply index things there. That has not happened and it’s my guess that that is not going to happen. Academia wants you eventually to invest in a premium membership, like LinkedIn, and Google simply wants to keep you in the GooglePlex. ResearchGate seems to be able to remain in the “if you get enough users the money question will answer itself” phase. Their “About Us” pages hints at perhaps eventually rolling out a job search service or … something.
In the mean time, we got numbers. And I guess you could put them in a slide deck. Or an annual performance evaluation. Or something!
Earlier today I was watching a documentary on a climactic event in the middle ages that, as they so often do, changed the course of history. The documentary’s argument relied heavily on one particular scholar, who was quite compelling, but early in the film’s diegesis it pans across the books in his study as a way of establishing his bona fides, as if to say: “Look here. He’s read all these books. He must be smart.” It’s a trope really, one that the past two years of video conferencing has made commonplace. I tend to kinda zone out during these moments, but the glazing of my eyes was halted when the camera panned to the complete set of Stith Thompson’s Motif Index of Folk Literature. (I think they are out of order.)
Well, you don’t see that every day, and I was delighted and paid that much more attention to what followed.
Later, I noted what I had seen to fellow folklorists on the social media platform where we gather, and which is now relentless in its delivery of ads. Of late, a number of those ads have featured decks of storytelling cards or “storyteller tactics.” I can’t comment on the content of these things, because they are extravagantly priced: Fabula’s Storytelling Cards retail for $150 and Pip Decks’ Storyteller’s Bundle starts at $190 for just the digital deck and goes to $250 for the physical deck to be included. (For more, see Fabula and Pip Decks.)
What I can say is that folklore studies missed the boat when it comes to commoditizing the indices.
I was recently asked to present to graduate students in our program some ways to develop their “net presence.” Given the many possibilities, and how fragmented the internet feels, I decided to distinguish between three categories/sites of activity:
sites that feature or index your work as a scholar/scientist
sites where you communicate more personally and directly about yourself and the reason for your work
sites where you network
There are perhaps, probably, other categories or kinds of sites, and if anyone has any recommendations, please feel to make revision suggestions or create your own list and let me know to point people your way.
Sites that Feature or Index Work
There are a lot of (too many) places that collect scholarly work either for direct distribution (Academia.edu or ResearchGate) or to point to places where it can be found (Google Scholar or ORCid). In the case of the first two, they offer ease of use, centralization, and tracking and compiling of download statistics: both are fond of telling you how often you have been searched (and found) or how often a paper has been downloaded or cited. This is much more feedback than you get from a site you host yourself, or even from a lot of journals (at least in the humanities).
Sites that Offer a More Personal or Direct Vision
As convenient as indexing cites are, they are not great places to host things like personal, research, teaching, and inclusivity statements. Some may let you post a vita, but you will need to update that and upload it regularly. And while many of the sites provide you a place to have contact information, they often prefer to keep you inside their walled garden. Finally, few of them offer you the chance to explore possibilities like making other kinds of materials available, like blog posts.
When it comes to personal websites, academics have a built-in SEO advantage: by having a university point to our website, it gets a bump in most page rank algorithms. With a little enterprise, one could link to a website from a Twitter account or an Instagram account or some place like Medium. Speaking of Medium, one could easily post there, and it might even be possible to build a small portfolio site there. (I have no idea how well that would work, but I wouldn’t be surprised if someone on Medium has written about using Medium as a kind of web host.)
Once upon a time, and to this day, I pay for a shared hosting service that allows me to run a custom WordPress site – the software is freely available from WordPress.org, but most people I know use WordPress.com. It’s free for a basic site, but if you want to own your own domain, things begin to get a bit expensive. There are other services like WordPress, e.g., SquareSpace, that offer a fairly easy user experience and a kind of one-stop shop for functionality. (WordPress has, I think, achieved the Microsoft Word moment in software where it can do almost anything well enough but at the cost of doing anything really well.)
There are alternatives to WordPress: if I were starting over, I would look closely at Tumblr. I know Tumblr has a reputation for weirdness, but the fact is that it is now run by the same people who run WordPress, and you can point a custom domain at your account and you can actually present a custom website (or at least a customized one).
I haven’t explored it yet, but the Humanities Commons lets you create a site of some kind. If you’re a member already, you would be a fool not to try it out. It could be everything you need.
Finally, if you want to geek out, there is the option that I used for this website (and this blog), GitHub pages. Editing markdown files isn’t for everyone, but there is a certain satisfaction in knowing that everything you create is contained in plain text files and easily downloaded. You could even create files within the GitHub repo interface in your web browser. (I’m working on notes on how I set up this site and my teaching site that I will post a little later this spring.)
Sites Where You Network
And then there’s always establishing a presence in some sort of venue like Twitter or Mastodon (default to hcommons.social if you think you’re going to stay in the academy) for microblogging. (I suppose Instagram and/or TikTok have their academic regions as well, I’m just not familiar with them.) If you are thinking about leaving the academy, or even if you aren’t but you like to have your bases covered, setup an account on LinkedIn. It’s klugey, to my mind, but it seems to have a steady presence in the corporate world. (And remember to link to your website!)
What to Present …
That’s a whole lot about where you can go, and it assumes that you already have a variety of what’s to present: essays, papers, syllabi. But as my colleague Maria Sever notes, “Thinking about how to target [a] site to multiple audiences (academic and non-academic) is [a] struggle.” To be honest, I have changed directions on what exactly I publish on my blog a couple of times.
When I first began back in the mid-aughts, I published anything and everything that came to mind. I used it like a blog. I captured not only research notes but also things my kid had said or done. I enjoyed the cross-talk between academics and technologists, but those “bloggy” conversations dried up as social media platforms emerged and became easier for more people to use and also as blogs themselves became places where people made a name for themselves and/or became publishers. As that happened, I posted less personal stuff and more professional stuff. A lot of my early experiments with Python got picked up by places like CNRS or Duke Library. I began to consider my words more carefully before I posted them, and soon my publishing stream dwindled.
I let the website lie fallow for a while, especially after I get by a copyright claim — a fallacious one that eventually got dropped (I’ll tell that story one day), but as my time with Army drew to an end and I knew I wanted to get back to academia, I also knew that I wanted to have as many conversations as I possibly could, and I wanted to try things out that I could then show others how to replicate. For that reason, I decided to shift from WordPress to GitHub pages.
But in keeping with what I thought was the best part of keeping a blog, all those notes, I decided to still keep a blog, but just do so internally. I bounced around a number of apps, but in the end I decided I would go with an app I already had and used, Devonthink. I had recently decided to pare down the number of apps I use and focus on using them more deeply. Devonthink is just one of those apps that rewards you for your investment. (I tried Obsidian and a bunch of the other currently hot PKM apps, but Devonthink offered me the least friction and the most functionality — web clipper? Check! Markdown editor with preview? Check. Easy import of files? Check! Easy export? Check. Done.)
So, for now, I have an internal bloggy kind of note-taking setup, and an external GitHub blog-like public site. I post to Twitter and Mastodon now and then. I can’t keep up with all the networking sites. I don’t know about you, but I have things I want to read, ideas I want to explore, and explorations I want to write about.
I don’t know that the term enshittification adds anything to the debate, but I understand why Cory Doctorow is trying to come up with a term that encapsulates most of the dynamics of platform capitalism – a term I had not encountered before but find really useful. The essence of Doctorow’s argument is that platforms begin by being “good to their users; then they abuse their users to make things better for their business customers; finally, they abuse those business customers to claw back all the value for themselves.”
Most readers are familiar with the idea that “if you aren’t paying for it, then you’re the product.”1 Doctorow builds on this idea to demonstrate how, repeatedly, platforms like Amazon, Facebook, Youtube, and now TikTok have first ensured a user base; then captured businesses seeking to sell to those users – or, in a Russian doll moment, influencers seeking to build a following so that they can sell themselves to businesses; and then having captured the entire ecosystem, proceed to raise the rent on the now-dependent businesses. In Amazon’s case, they actually auction off placement in search results, driving up business costs, which raises prices to consumers, but then allows Amazon, which sees all, to offer their own products in the more profitable segments at lower prices precisely because they do not charge themselves for placement.
Doctorow’s hope is that eventually this amounts to self-strangulation. My take is that, like Mark Twain, the news of Facebook’s imminent demise is exaggerated. Moreover, as it dies, and for however long it dies, Facebook will still make an enormous amount of money.
I wanted to credit the originator of this truism, if there was one. Like a lot of such sayings, this one does appear to have an origin but it has been, like any folklore artifact, been refined over the years. According to Quote Investigator, the saying began as “Television Delivers People,” the title of a short video by Richard Serra and Carlota Fay Schoolman which pointed out that television “consumers” were in fact what was consumed by advertisers. In an interested development, Claire Wolfe wrote “Little Brother Is Watching You: The Menace of Corporate America” in 1999, where she anticipated the rise of surveillance capitalism: “Perhaps because you’re not the customer any more. You’re simply a ‘resource’ to be managed for profit.” Readers of Doctorow will, I think, note that the title of Wolfe’s essay is also the title of one of Doctorow’s most successful novels, Little Brother. (For more from Quote Investigator: https://quoteinvestigator.com/2017/07/16/product/. And, FTR, 1973 is also the year that Soylent Green came out, for those familiar not only with the plot and its most famous line, the resonance with Serra and Schoolman’s project will be quite compelling.) ↩
A friend of mine pointed me to reporting by Futurity on the discovery of Ajami, a form of Arabic script modified to capture local spoken languages in Africa. It has apparently been in use for quite some time, and undermines claims by colonial operatives that natives were illiterate. Far from it, as it turns out! Across West Africa people had taken the Arabic script that came with the spread of Islam and used it to capture the sounds of the languages they spoke, thus making it possible to record a variety of information. Even better: it appears that the effort to document Ajami has been institutionalized. (My training in linguistics is largely autodidact, so I don’t know what the technical term is for this. A kind of creole perhaps? At the very least a hybrid written language?
I’ve seen a number of almost/somewhat generic researcher positions that I think humanities majors with some computational abilities could not only manage but make a real difference. The convergence of quantitative and qualitative approaches not only to the research which is often the focus of these jobs but also the ability to communicate that research and to adapt to changing circumstances is something we could be really developing in university programs.
Here’s one such position with the details of the particular organization removed, but I have seen so many positions like this that this almost feels like a template that’s been adapted:
The Researcher position supports the execution of research initiatives in support of organizational objectives and to the progression of the HR profession by producing content for publication online and in print. This position is focused on researching all things work, worker and workplace and may include topics such as human resources, workplace economic impacts, diversity, equity and inclusion, racial injustice, and worker benefits.
Research & Data Analysis
Conduct primary and secondary research on work, worker, and workplace topics
Design and execute concurrent research studies from start to finish, including defining objectives, developing research plans, designing, and programming surveys, analyzing results, summarizing findings, and creating final deliverables
Adapt research practices to meet business needs
Produce well-researched content for publication online and in print in compelling and creative ways to foster and elevate customer understanding and help achieve product and/or business impact.
Develop related content for multiple platforms, such as websites, email marketing, product descriptions, videos, and blogs.
Utilize industry best practices and familiarity with the organization’s mission to inspire ideas and content.
Project Management, Collaboration, & Communication
Organize schedules to complete drafts of content or finished projects, collaborating with team members within deadlines and ensure timely delivery of materials.
Act as a brand ambassador, ensuring that all projects fit the client’s style and voice
Communicate and collaborate internally and externally to support the research functions to bring high quality proposals, reports, deliverables, presentations, etc. to fruition and help bridge alignment within and across diverse teams to meet business objectives.
2 years of professional experience in research, project management, or data analysis
Proven time management skills, including prioritizing, scheduling, and adapting as necessary
Proficiency with computers, especially writing programs, such as Google Docs and Microsoft Word, Excel, Outlook, and PowerPoint
In “The End of Social Media and the Rise of Recommendation Media,” Michael Mignano describes the transformation of many so-called social media platforms into recommendation media platforms (Mignano 2022). He also argues that this is for the better: it will give users a better experience. Many responses to his essay point out that Mignano, like a lot of tech wonks, misunderstands what ordinary people saw in social media: they were interested in the social dimension, with the media piece being interesting because it made it easier to share a variety of forms of information.
There are a couple of things to add to this discussion, I think, the first of which is that one wonders what social media might have looked like if it wasn’t based on the usual American media model of being funded by advertising. What if Facebook had been a subscription service like Netflix? The need to generate revenue by being able to sell users to advertisers meant that businesses had to make “sticky” content. To compete in a media landscape that can only be described as over-saturated, almost all those businesses found that fear and anger worked … or at least provide easy on-ramps, after which they could use a myriad of technologies developed by decades of market-focused psychological research to create addictive experiences.
All of this in an effort to turn social users into media consumers, which means that people like Mignano are really just in the same old business, it’s just got a lot more levers to pull, uses a lot more data, and has as much interest in making us better people or a better nation of people as bad old industries like big oil and big tobacco.
The lead article in this news-roundup isn’t about ChatGPT at all, but rather about the current trend among state governments to ban TikTok on state-issued devices and for public universities, usually in the same states, to ban TikTok on their wifi networks. The ostensible, and perhaps actual, reason for doing so is because of the data that TikTok can, or does, collect on its users with the additional factor of TikTok’s unclear relationship to/with the CCP-run Chinese government.
To be clear, governments, and their publics, should be concerned about data collection by social media platforms, as well as all other businesses and organizations, including themselves.1 Given the amount of data currently already available, what more the Chinese government, or any other entity, needs to know about each individual American citizen is really a matter of finer strokes of the brush.
Here’s a partial account of the data already out there:
Instagram, TikTok, YouTube
profile name, real name, profile photo, likes, age, gender, +
IDs, names, phone numbers
IDs, comments, likes, “reaction data”
533 million in 106 countries
IDs, phone numbers, “other info”
full names, email, phone numbers, workplace information, +
Given this data, and the ability for an entity with the will and means to do so – and the means to do so amounts to sufficient computational power and data storage, each of which still gets cheaper every year – the ability to generate custom material that addresses a user with the correct form and content to get inside their information bubble is now entirely not only imaginable but feasible.
When you add in the ability to run A/B testing to see what works, and how well it does (and to whom the user passes on the package), and what does not work, functionality which already exists on almost all social media platforms, you have the ability to deliver with remarkable precision exactly the package you want delivered.
This is something I explored with the Army over the last two years, but with the rise of ChatGPT, and other generative AIs, it has begun to creep into public discourse that we are facing a new landscape, even now, as glimpsed in a recent report for Yahoo Finance, which notes “90% of online content could be generated by AI by 2025.”
For the record, I think Kevin Roose, also writing for the NYT has the right approach: it makes me feel a little sorry for younger people that so much of the world as they will encounter it will be generated for them, but not necessarily of their choosing.
The mantra, which should be a policy (or even a law?), for any organization should be not to collect any data you are not prepared either to spend inordinate time and sums of money protecting or are prepared to lose. ↩