Introducing our revitalized user advisory group!

A decorative image with text reading "User Advisory Group: Applications are due on Thursday, February 22nd"

At Humanities Commons, one of our core values is cultivating community. Bringing together people with multiple perspectives and backgrounds enables us to work toward deeper collective understanding, enriching our connections to one another and to the world. In this spirit, we’re excited to announce we’re revamping our user advisory group! 

This group has existed in various forms since 2021, but we’ve decided to make a few changes to the current structure in order to create more opportunities for us to directly engage with our users. The primary goals of this group are to:

  • Empower our users to have a larger say in the development of the Commons
  • Create opportunities for our users to connect with our team and within the Commons community
  • Communicate directly with users whose values align with those of the Commons
  • Provide space for the open exchange of knowledge and ideas between the Commons team and our users

What Participation Looks Like

As part of the user advisory group, the two main modes of participation will be quarterly Zoom meet-ups and a special Commons group for participants. The meetups will take place four times per year–March, June,  September, and December–and will last for approximately an hour and a half. These meetups will include a brief update on current project updates from the Commons team, and then will transition into more informal discussion on current events or opportunities to network with other participants. At times, this might be a formal presentation from one of our power users, and at others it might be an open-ended discussion on a theme our team has been thinking about. Envision this as a space where you’ll get a first look at the ways our team is changing the academic landscape, and also meet other users with similar interests to yours.  Although participation and attendance at these meetups is not mandatory, you must attend at least two of these meetups in order to receive a formal letter of participation and some bonus Commons merch.

If attending meetups isn’t possible for you at the moment but you really want to participate in the group, there will be other opportunities to connect with the Commons team. We’ll be creating a Commons group exclusively for participants to start conversations, connect with each other, and chime in on discussions moderated by our team. From time to time, we’ll reach out about opportunities to provide feedback on upcoming projects and initiatives, including UX testing on some of the new features we’ll be rolling out in the near future. This might include things like an invitation to join a focus group on a new feature for Commons profiles, or answering a short survey on the upcoming redesign of our CORE repository. Completing two of these activities will also make you eligible to receive a letter of participation and some Commons merch!

Perks of Participation

If you’re accepted as a member of the group, you’ll receive:

  • Recognition on the Commons website
  • An exclusive Commons group to network with other advisory group users
  • First look and priority beta testing of new features on the Commons
  • Invitations to shape the future of the Commons through surveys, focus groups, and other opportunities

If you attend at least two of the quarterly meetings and/or participate in two of the user activities during your year as a user advisory member, you will also receive: 

  • A special package of Commons merch
  • Certificate and formal letter confirming participation

Joining the Group

Anyone can apply to be part of the user advisory group! If you’d like to apply, please select the button below to fill out our application form, where you’re asked to provide some basic information about yourself and how you currently use Humanities Commons. The application deadline is Thursday, February 22nd. If you’ve been selected to join the group, you’ll hear from us via email by mid-March.

FAQs

When are the meetups taking place?

Meetups will be held once quarterly, with the first taking place in late March or early April. The subsequent meetups will be held in June, September, and December. Because our team and community is spread across many time zones, please indicate the time zone you currently reside in as part of your application. Once we get a sense of where our users are located, we’ll send a follow up poll to find a time where as many participants can attend as possible. 

How long does participation last?

All user advisory group participants are committed to one year of service, with the option to continue in the group for a second year. If you choose to stay, great! You won’t need to re-apply. 

When will I receive my merch? 

Near the end of your year as part of the group, you’ll hear from us if you’ve met the criteria for receiving merch. As a reminder, you won’t receive merch unless you attend two meetups and/or participate in two engagement activities as specified.

I can’t attend the meetups, so what can I expect as the time commitment for the other engagement activities? 

Engagement activities that can earn you a formal letter and merch will range in terms of scope and time commitment. Some of these might be surveys that won’t take you more than a half hour, while others might be focus groups or other more wide-ranging activities. The invitations to participate in these activities will specifically state a time commitment. 

I was part of the previous user advisory group. Can I still participate?

If you would like to continue on as a member, we’d be thrilled to have you! Just email us at hello@hcommons.org and we’ll send back a short form.

I have more questions. Who can I contact?

Email us at hello@hcommons.org with any questions about the application process or group.

Exploring Accessibility and Extended Reality at CES2024

This post does not represent the views or opinions of Humanities Commons or Michigan State University. Additionally, mention of products, services, individuals, or companies within this post do not indicate support or preference. 

Written by Stephanie E. Vasko, User Experience Researcher for Humanities Commons

As a Senior User Experience (UX) Researcher in Mesh Research and the College of Arts and Letters, my goals are to create the best experiences for those who use the products and services we provide. When I’m not running UX research activities, I think it’s important to continue to keep up with emerging technologies as a way to plan future improvements and develop methods of providing support using these tools and for those using new technologies. 

In this vein, I recently attended CES 2024, a trade show highlighting emerging technologies and products, using my professional development funding. With 135,000+ attendees and over 4300 exhibitors, in addition to a variety of talks and panels, experiencing the entire breadth and depth of CES would be impossible. Instead of getting overwhelmed, I made a plan to visit and see specific talks and areas focused around key aspects of my current and former daily work: accessibility and extended reality.

Accessibility

Accessibility is one of the most important considerations for me given any product or service. Professionally, I am interested in making sure all of our users have seamless experiences with our services and that we at HC are committed to considering accessibility throughout our workflow. Personally, my own limited mobility has caused a shift in my thinking, use of technology, and day-to-day life. My primary goals at CES were to learn about accessibility best practices, explore how companies are engagIng with accessibility, and delve into technologies that may be coming to the market (especially those with applications in academic and research settings). 

I attended a variety of panels around accessibility and inclusivity, including  “The Future of Inclusive Design,” “Driving Innovation Through Inclusive Design,” and “Building an Accessible World with Intel.” The biggest takeaways, for me, from these panels were 1) the importance of building and maintaining relationships with partners for accessibility and 2) including different voices and perspectives in the process from the beginning. These are takeaways I have brought to the Humanities Commons team meetings and hope to build on as a team as we create new features and improvements. 

From a products perspective, one area that was particularly interesting were devices and software that allow for input or control in expansive ways. Examples I saw of this included Cephable (I tried their demo which allowed me to change slides by moving my head), Augmental (a mouthguard-style device that allows for tongue-based interfacing), and the Lotus ring (not pictured, allows users to control devices with point/click on a ring).

An open Macintosh laptop open displaying a slide with blue background and white text. In the upper right corner, there is a smaller window with controls for Cephable and an image of the author in those controls. 
The author changing slides using the Cephable software and the position of her head
(Image used with permission from author)
Two hands display a clear mouthguard with electronic components
A close up of the Augmental device
(Image used with permission from author)

Extended Reality (XR) and Related Tools

Within extended reality (XR), I am specifically interested in augmented reality (AR) from both research and user perspectives. As someone who works on creating phone-based AR experiences, I saw relatively few of these at CES. One trend that stood out to me was that companies at this year’s CES clearly took style into consideration. I tested several soon-to-market AR glasses  including the XREAL2 (currently pre-order only) and RayNeo X2 (Indiegogo Launch in Feb 2024)

In my previous work on AR, I used photogrammetry to create models for AR-based experiences. At CES, I was able to try several 3D capture and photogrammetry solutions including RebuilderAI and VRIN3D. I look forward to seeing what our users do in this space as more tools become available and 3D capture becomes readily available and integrated into experiences and research.

Two hands hold a phone that is capturing images of orange drawstring bag on a dark grey table on light grey carpet
VRIN3D in action, the purple squares on the phone indicate spaces that VRIN3D has already captured (Image used with permission from author)

Tying back to accessibility, within XR, I focused more on exploring AR devices because I am prone to VR motion sickness. For this reason, I mostly limited my experiences with these products to those that also had a haptic feedback component, and in some cases got just a taste of the experience rather than a full-length demo. We’ve come a long way from rumble controllers; but my CES experience with haptic devices left me thinking that there is still a lot of work to be done in this area. Many of the haptic devices I had the opportunity to try still lacked nuance to the feedback, with little disambiguation between haptic feedback for different events*. One of the most interesting ones I tried was from HaptX, where I strapped on a backpack, gloves, and a VR headset and was able to walk around in a demo environment and try tasks like petting a cat, moving a cup, or writing with a pen. My experience suffered a bit due to only large gloves being available, I would definitely be interested in how it changes given smaller gloves.  

A brunette woman dressed in all black is holding black VR goggles to her face, has a haptic glove on her right hand, and is wearing on her back on a grey box with black cords
The author trying out the current generation HaptX device
(Image used with permission from author) 

Final Notes

This post barely skims the surface of the information and experiences at CES 2024. CES provides ample opportunities to hear from experts, engage with product and company representatives, and talk to individuals with different perspectives. From a research perspective, this could be a space that could spark new research ideas or collaborations. From my own perspective, I came away with ways to expand my network and considerations for future iterations on product and process within my work at MSU. 

* I did not get to try Razer’s Project Esther haptic cushion. 

What we learned about managing a Mastodon server in the first year of hcommons.social

A network of blue, green, and white icons

Written by Dimitris Tzouris, Infrastructure Developer for Humanities Commons

In November, we celebrated one year from the launch of hcommons.social, our Mastodon instance. As of today, more than two thousand members have registered, with new ones joining daily.

Mastodon is a free, non-profit and open source social network and microblogging service that can be self-hosted. It is part of the fediverse, a collection of federated services that communicate and interact with each other using the ActivityPub protocol.

The impetus that set hcommons.social in motion was the rapid downturn Twitter had taken after the changing of its ownership in late 2022, which resulted in many users leaving the service. It was a turbulent time for social media, with connections breaking and people losing networks that had taken many years to build and foster. Therefore, hcommons.social had to be born in order to provide a safe alternative, not just for academics and scholars, but also for anyone with an active interest in research and education looking for refuge – a place to begin again. As people were flocking to various other social networks, hcommons.social started as a trusted shelter for anybody looking to reconnect with their online peers in a safe space and down the road, it has become so much more. What follows is a look behind the curtains at how hcommons.social came to be and what goes into running and maintaining it.

Not the smoothest rollout

For us, rolling out the new service came with some bumps. We started out using a pre-built version of Mastodon, provided as a one-click install by a cloud computing service called DigitalOcean. Unfortunately, the specific version of Mastodon was old and we ran into all kinds of problems when we tried to update it. It turned out that everything the service was running on was old, so we had to do a complete rebuild from the ground up. Migrating from the original version database to a newer one was extremely challenging, but thanks to Steve Ramsey’s support, we got it stabilized. At that point, we had chosen to switch to a Mastodon fork called Hometown and its author, Darius Kazemi, provided some key help. What made Hometown stand out for us is that it provides the ability to restrict publication of a post to just the hcommons.social community. This means that followers registered on other Mastodon instances are not able to see a post and hcommons.social users are not able to repost it on other instances. This provides an additional layer of safety and protection for our users.

The lag

As new members started joining daily and the total number of registered and active members kept increasing, people using Mastodon started experiencing slowdowns. With the situation at Twitter becoming more dire week after week, this became a regular challenge for the influx of new users. The reason for the lag was the way a service called Sidekiq is set up by default. Sidekiq is an open source service that handles scheduled tasks that run in the background. Mastodon uses it to send emails, push updates to other instances, forward replies, refresh trending hashtags etc. All these tasks are placed in different queues and they are handled by separate processes, based on the type of task. Each process has a number of threads, which makes it possible to run tasks in parallel.

By default, Sidekiq was set up with only one process handling all queues using 25 threads. This meant that all background tasks were handled by the same process, thus creating a bottleneck.

A screenshot of the Sidekiq database showing one listing for hcommons.social

This caused lag when there was increased activity, sometimes resulting in posts getting pushed hours later. Users’ feeds were slow to update and the posts were from much earlier.

To deal with that, we had to reconfigure Sidekiq. The new setup would include the scheduler and mailer queues in their own process and three other processes which would deal with all other queues in parallel. Each process now has 10 threads, which are more than enough with our existing database infrastructure. 

A screenshot of the Sidekiq database system showing 4 listings for hcommons.social

Which brings us to another major issue.

The database

At first, a 30-GB managed database on DigitalOcean sounded like more than enough storage, along with additional object storage for files. Well, 12 months and 2050 users later, the database storage we were using had ballooned to 42 GB. The reason for this rapid size increase  is the way the fediverse works. When people follow accounts from other Mastodon servers, the local instance caches the posts, along with all the attached media. To deal with the increased storage demands, we did two things:

  • Each day, we started cleaning up about 15 GB of old cached media on the server, using a shell script that runs with a cron job (a tool that executes commands at specified time intervals.) This recovers some space on the server.
  • We periodically run pg_repack (an extension for table management) on the database to reduce the size of the tables. This has only helped us regain a limited amount of storage space.

This is what the disk usage chart looked like after we ran pg_repack on the ten largest tables of our 60-GB database and got disk usage down from 69% to 51%.

A screenshot of a disk usage chart showing where storage bumps were hit within the system

Since then, we have had to bump the storage twice, first to 80 GB and a few months later to 100 GB. We are currently using 52% of that database storage space. The statuses table alone has ballooned to 19 GB. Another thing we had to do is reduce the temporary file limit in order to contain the data growth.

Apart from all that maintenance and tuning, we’ve been steadily improving hcommons.social by applying the regular Hometown updates. Our latest update was in late September and we’re super excited for the next one, which will introduce Mastodon 4.2 features, including a revamped search experience that will allow searching of posts.

All of this work was not easy, but the Mastodon community was there to help along the way. Mastodon, as an alternative to commercial social media platforms, is only viable thanks to its users and supporters. By supporting Mastodon, we have access to the Discord server, where admins and developers can share ideas and help each other. We are thankful to them and we are committed to contributing to the community as we move forward.

What’s next?

Last year as part of our #GivingTuesday campaign, we asked for funds to support site hosting, site maintenance, and establishing a moderator community for hcommons.social. Over the course of the year, as you can see, a lot of technical work has gone towards supporting our server. And so far, moderation has not needed the same amount of attention, as there has not been a large influx of reports as hcommons.social has continued to grow. Our current moderation process relies on internal review within our small team, and although we regularly receive and respond to reports, to date, we have not sought additional support on this front. To be frank, more work would be required to establish and support a moderation team than what it takes to handle things as we do now, and as a small team with big dreams we have to be judicious in where we deploy our resources. However, as our team continues to monitor reports and assess the number of reports we receive on a regular basis, we will pursue additional moderation options as we see fit. We count on your trust to make these decisions and if you see signs that our current system isn’t meeting your expectations, we very much hope you’ll let us know. Our DMs are always open. 

What are your thoughts on how we’re handling moderation? If you think we should bring in more external voices, let us know! 

Open Infrastructures and the Future of Knowledge Production, part 2

In my last post, I unpacked some of the reasons why open infrastructures matter for the future of knowledge production, and I talked a bit about how Humanities Commons and hcommons.social strive to live out their principles of community governance that truly open infrastructure requires. But I ended on a less cheerleadery note: We aren’t a perfect alternative to the corporate platforms by which we’re surrounded. And this is where we need to dig down into the dirty underside of digital infrastructure. As Deb Chachra points out, the term “infrastructure” literally points to those systems that are hidden, in our walls, under our floors, and buried underground. If we are going to mitigate the inequities created by and sustained through our infrastructures, we have to get busy unearthing those systems and finding ways to build new ones. 

And so: We need to take a hard look at the fact that the infrastructure that Humanities Commons is built upon is AWS, or Amazon Web Services. As you might guess from the name, AWS is part of the Greater Jeff Bezos Empire, and every dollar that we spend to host with them helps to keep that empire running. And run it does! Amazon’s revenue derived from AWS passed $80 billion-with-a-b in 2022, and as of August 2023, AWS hosted 42 percent of the top 100,000 websites, and 25 percent of the top one million (ironically enough including BuiltWith, the site from which these data are made available).

Why has Amazon become such a powerful force in web hosting and cloud computing? Largely because they provide not just servers but a powerful and wide-ranging suite of tools that help folks like us not just make our platform available but also help keep it stable and secure and enable it to scale with enormous flexibility. AWS provides connected equipment and tools that would be more than a full-time job for someone to maintain in-house, and it enables redundancy and global reach at speed, and it’s relatively easy to manage.

So… it works for us, just as it works for 42,000 of the top 100,000 websites across the internet. But I’m not happy about it. It’s not just that I hate feeding more money into the Bezos empire every month, but that I know for certain that our values and Bezos’s do not align. And every so often I have to stop and ask myself how much good it does for us to build pathways of escape from the extractive clutches of Elsevier and Springer-Nature, only to have those pathways deliver us all into the gaping maw of Amazon?

AWS has a stranglehold on web-based platforms of our size, as we’re too complicated for a server kept under the desk, too big for a smaller hosting service, and too small for our own data center. And if you don’t want to deal with the risks and costs involved in owning and operating the metal yourself, there just aren’t many alternatives, and certainly not many good ones.

Our host institution, Michigan State University, like most institutions its size, operates both a large-scale data center through our central IT unit and a high-performance computing center under the aegis of the office of research and innovation. The latter can’t really help us, as it’s focused pretty exclusively on computational uses and not at all on service hosting. And the former comes with a suite of restrictions and regulations in terms of access and security – pretty understandably so, given recent attacks and exploits such as the one that caused our neighbor to the east to disconnect the entire campus from the internet on the first day of classes – but nevertheless restrictions that make it impossible for us to be flexible enough with our work.

In fact, central IT strongly encourages projects like ours to make use of cloud computing, given the complexity of our needs and the risk-averseness of the campus. And we have our pick! AWS, Microsoft’s Azure, and Google Cloud Services.

I just can’t help but think that it’s a Bad Thing for academic and nonprofit services like ours – services that are working to be open, and public, and values aligned with our communities – to be dependent upon Silicon Valley megacorps for our very presence. We need alternatives. Real alternatives. And I fear that we’re going to have to invent them, because as the example of open access publishing demonstrates, waiting to see what commercial providers come up with is certain to increase our lock-in, and increase the level of resources they extract from our campuses.

So what might it look like if our infrastructure for the future of knowledge production and dissemination was community-led all the way down? What might enable the Commons to leave AWS behind and instead contribute our resources to supporting a truly shared, openly governed, not-for-profit cloud service? Could such a service be collaborative, with all member research institutions and organizations paying into a shared, professionally staffed data center?

King’s College London and Jisc think so – they established the first collaborative research data center in the world nine years ago, precisely in order to help UK institutions achieve economies of scale, to increase energy efficiency, and to reduce costs. Of course, it’s a lot easier to get all the UK institutions of higher education on board with such a centralized initiative, partly because there are fewer of them and partly because they are all centrally funded.

But what if Internet2, for instance, instead of restricting its areas of interest to networking and protocols, and instead of offering to connect member institutions with corporate cloud services, instead provided a real alternative – one that was not just developed for the academic community but that would be governed by that community? What if each member institution or organization agreed to contribute its existing infrastructure, along with its annual maintenance budget, to a shared, distributed, community-owned cloud computing center? Could excess capacity then be offered at reasonable prices to other nonprofit institutions or organizations or projects like mine, in a way that might entice them away from the Silicon Valley megacorps? Would our institutions, our libraries, our publishers, and our many other web-based projects find themselves with better control over their futures?

None of what I’m suggesting here would be easy, and a lot of the questions I’ve just asked fall – at least for the moment – into the realm of the pipe dream. But if we were to be willing to press forward with them, we might find ourselves in a world in which the scholarly communication infrastructures on which we build, develop, design, and publish our work can help us foster rather than hinder social and epistemic justice, can empower communities of practice by centering their needs and their work to meet them, and can enable trustworthy community governance and decision-making in support of truly open, public, shared infrastructures for the future of knowledge production.

Open Infrastructures and the Future of Knowledge Production, part 1

I’ve been thinking a good bit lately about the ways that the future of knowledge production depends upon the openness of the infrastructures that support our work. For a lot of people, the word “infrastructure” triggers a yawn reflex, and not without reason. As Deb Chachra points out in her brilliant new book, How Infrastructure Works, the best thing that infrastructure can do is remain invisible and just work. But as Chachra also argues, the shape of our entire culture is dependent on our infrastructure, and where inequities are part of those systems’ engineering, they constrain the ways that culture can evolve. Infrastructure matters enormously, and the scholarly communication infrastructures on which we build, develop, design, and publish our work have deep implications for our abilities to foster social and epistemic justice in our knowledge production and communication practices, to empower communities of practice and their concerns in the development and dissemination of knowledge, and to enable trustworthy governance and decision-making that is led by the communities that our publications and platforms are intended to serve. Our team is far from alone in thinking about these questions right now. We’re seeing the idea of “open infrastructure” pop up a lot lately, in no small part because folks are recognizing that a commitment to open, public infrastructures is necessary to ensure that scholarly communication can become actually equitable.

What do I mean by “actually equitable”? How might that sense of equity intersect with the aims of the open-access movement? Over the last twenty-plus years that movement has worked to transform scholarly communication, arguing in part that if our work could be read more openly by anyone, it might both have more impact on the world at large and create a more equitable knowledge environment. It’s of course true that open access in its many present flavors has done a lot to make more research available to be read online. But the movement toward open access began as a means of attempting to break the stranglehold that a few extractive corporate publishers have established over the research and publishing process – and in that, it hasn’t succeeded. The last decade in particular has revealed all of the resilience with which capital responds to challenges, as those corporate publishers have in fact become more profitable than ever. Not only have they figured out how to exploit article processing charges in order to make some work published in their journals openly available while continuing to charge libraries for subscriptions to the journals as a whole, but they’ve also developed whole new business plans like the so-called “read and publish” agreements that keep many institutions tied to them, and they’ve developed new platforms and infrastructures like discovery engines and research information management systems that serve to increase corporate lock-in over the work produced on campus.

For all these reasons, the 20th anniversary statement of the Budapest Open Access Initiative took on a slightly different focus, noting that “OA is not an end in itself, but a means to other ends, above all, to the equity, quality, usability, and sustainability of research.” In order to achieve those ends, the statement proposes several key recommendations – and chief among them?

Host OA research on open infrastructure. Host and publish OA texts, data, metadata, code, and other digital research outputs on open, community-controlled infrastructure. Use infrastructure that minimizes the risk of future access restrictions or control by commercial organizations. Where open infrastructure is not yet adequate for current needs, develop it further.

This recommendation recognizes that the control of the infrastructure by profit-seeking entities cements inequities – and this is true even where the large corporate publishers purport to create opportunities for the disadvantaged by offering fee waivers and discounts on their publishing charges. Those discounts only serve to normalize a culture in which it is considered correct for those who produce knowledge to pay corporations to host and circulate it.

What scholarly communication needs today, more than anything, is a broad-based sense of accountability to scholars and fields and institutions rather than shareholders. Hence the call in the 20th anniversary Budapest statement for hosting open access research on open infrastructure: infrastructure that is led by us, and accountable to us.

This is the fundamental orientation and driving purpose of Humanities Commons. Our goal is to provide a non-extractive, community-led and transparently governed alternative to commercial platforms. We also want to encourage our users to rethink the purposes and the dynamics of publishing altogether, in ways that might allow for the development of new, open, collective, equitable processes of creating and sharing knowledge that re-center agency over the ways that scholarly work develops and circulates with the scholars themselves. As a result, we have put in place a participatory governance structure that enables both individual users and our institutional sustaining members to have a voice in the project’s future, and we have developed network policies that emphasize inclusion and openness. We are committed to transparency in our finances, and most importantly to remaining not-for-profit in perpetuity.

We are also working to build and sustain the kinds of new platforms and services that will allow for rich conversations among members of our community and between that community and the rest of the world. A year ago, seeing the handwriting on the wall for the platform formerly known as Twitter (and frankly having suffered through quite a number of unhappy years there before the beginning of the end), we launched hcommons.social, a Hometown-flavored Mastodon instance, in the hopes of providing a collegial, community-oriented space for informal communication among scholars and practitioners everywhere. We currently have more than 2000 users on our instance who are connecting with users throughout the Fediverse, and we support those users through a strong moderation policy and code of conduct. We also work to ensure that new policies and processes are discussed with that community before they’re implemented.

This kind of openness matters enormously, not just to ensure that we’re living up to the values that we’ve established for our projects, but to ensure that there’s a worthwhile future for them. Cory Doctorow has written extensively of late about what he has famously called the “enshittification” of the internet, a process in which value is sucked out of the community and into the pockets of shareholders. Users are left with no control over the platform, or the content they’ve provided to it. And this, he notes in a post on the new corporate platforms seeking to replace Twitter, remains true even if their C-suite is populated by good actors, because they’re still walled gardens.

The problem with walled gardens is partly about their ownership, but largely about their governance. It’s not just that the owners of any particular proprietary network might turn out to be racist, fascist megalomaniacs – it’s that we have no control if and when they do. Choosing open platforms means that we as users have a say in the future of the plots of ground we choose to develop. This is especially true for the kind of work, like knowledge production, that is intended to have a public benefit. It’s incumbent on us to ensure that those gardens aren’t walled, that they don’t just have a gate that management may one day decide to unlock to let select folks in or out. Rather, our gardens must be open from the start, open to connect and cultivate in the ways that we as a community decide.

As Doctorow notes, Mastodon is far from perfect, and as much as I love our own instance, hcommons.social is far from perfect. But we’re doing our best to ensure that we’re running it in the open. And operating in the open, both for the Commons and for hcommons.social, means for us that we are accountable to our users and responsible for safeguarding the openness of their work. Together, those two ideals undergird our commitment to provide alternatives to the many platforms that purport to make scholarly work more accessible but in fact serve as mechanisms of corporate data capture, extracting value from creators and institutions for private rather than public gain.

But, as I note, we aren’t a perfect solution to the problems of corporate control in scholarly communication. More on why in my next post.

Threads

Some months back, when Meta first launched Threads and announced its plans to federate with Mastodon (and, one supposes, other Fediverse properties), we polled the membership of hcommons.social to gauge their feelings about whether we should be prepared to block, allow connections to the Threads server, or take a wait-and-see position. Based on the results of that poll, and given that there was no imminent threat of that federation actually coming to pass, we waited.

We are now starting to see. Though federation with Threads/Meta isn’t complete, we have taken pre-emptive action to block threads.net. In part this action is inspired by numerous Fediverse activists, including are0h, who are working tirelessly to make the Fediverse safe for its BIPOC users. We do not want to allow any kinds of connections that would make our most at-risk users less safe.

Additionally, we have presented the work of the Commons over the years as being “values-enacted,” and supporting the work of Meta in any way — even as seemingly innocuous a way as allowing their users to follow and send messages to ours — would put the lie to that position. There is direct evidence, as Erin Kissane has written about at length, that Facebook knowingly played a key role in the Rohingya genocide in Myanmar. Facebook has also been a key contributor to radicalizing the far right in the United States (see here, here, and here, among many other potential references).

It’s not hyperbole to say that Meta has blood on its hands. And there is all but zero concern for user safety and moderation of hate speech on Facebook and other Meta properties. As a result, we do not feel that we can adequately protect members of our community from potential attacks from anti-LGBTQ+, anti-Black, anti-academic, or other extremists who can freely create accounts and sow hatred on Threads unless we block the server.

Waiting to take action after such an attack takes place requires at-risk individuals in our community to be willing to put themselves on the line in support of our desire to be neutral. And because of that, we do not believe that there is such a thing as neutrality in this situation. Moreover, our own server rules and our existing block list are a demonstration of our commitment to a harassment-free community, not a community that takes action once harassment has occurred.

As a result, we have made the decision to block threads.net. We understand that this may disappoint some of you, and that you may wish to seek another instance that will allow you to communicate more freely with your friends on that network. We completely understand that – we have Threads and Instagram users that we very much wish we could connect with as well. We’d be happy to help you with the process of migrating if you so choose.

But we’d also be happy to help your friends come join us instead. Just let us know.

The Pets of the Commons

This holiday season we thought we’d showcase some of our part-time team members. As a distributed team spread across two continents and three countries we generally meet online. One of the best part of virtual meetings is having our furry teammates show up and hang out. We’d like to introduce you to a few of them.

Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Project Director

Millie perched on top of a chair, looking longingly at the camera. Probably wanting a treat.

This is Millie, my sister’s family’s dog. She is a super chunk and did an excellent job of keeping me from falling out of my reading chair.

Annabelle Miller, Graduate Assistant

Han (left) and Athena (right). Han is a seven-year-old Plott Hound/Black Mouth Cur, and Athena is a six-year-old Pitbull mix. They love each other.

Han and Athena laying on a sofa, leaning on one another. Cozy.

Bonnie Russell, Product Manager

Mitro, a very cute cat, gazing thoughtfully into the camera.

Mitro (MEE-tro) is estimated to be about 12 and spent quite a bit of time outside before being rescued last year. His foster found him trying to find shelter during a thunderstorm and gave him the name Mitro as a play on the Assyrian word for rain, mitre. I adopted him in February and he’s a sweet and loving cat. If you have room in your home and heart consider an older cat. They have a lot of love to give.

Dimitri Tzouris, Infrastructure Developer

Mocha (left): Our first rescue dog. 7-yo female. Likes to cuddle and hates going out in the rain. Sleeps with us under the covers, no matter how heavy.

Zoe (right): Our second rescue dog. 3-yo and also a female. Still scared a lot when outside in an urban environment, but really enjoys running in the forest, during her daily walk with Mocha. She is full of energy and never says no to an extra treat.

Cookie: Our 9-yo female cat. Also a rescue. She likes company, but not too much. Looks puzzled when Zoe wants to play with her.

Mocha and Zoe, good girls who enjoy hanging out. Cookie, an orange cat, perched in a cardboard box.

Shel Vilag, Developer / User Experience Design

Torbjorn and Penny sitting on a sofa looking cozy.

Penny is a 10-year-old Pitbull who loves snuggles. Her special ability is being able to tell when food is done and letting her humans know. Torbjorn is a 4-year-old Corgi who is very good at playing fetch. He has very good hearing and loves to bark, especially at the furnace when it kicks on.

Zoe Wake Hyde, Community Development Manager

Meet Puck. He’s a sweet little rascal. Puck loves shoes, cuddling and assuming the loaf position in seemingly random spots around the house. The only human food he’s interested in is chips. He has been a constant companion throughout the early pandemic and several years of working from home, making his presence known in most video calls, demanding scritches. Zero notes. Perfect boy.

Puck, a big black cat laying on a shoe.

Larissa Babak, User Engagement Specialist

A Christmas wreath with a platypus stuffed animal perched amongst pine cones and poinsettia flowers.

The platypus is a native of Australia, but this platypus wandered all the way to the Detroit suburbs. Our team mascot has a penchant for anything that can be even vaguely categorized as “festive,” and despite the fact most platypuses build burrows near rivers, this one has created a much more merry home. In her spare time, she enjoys staying in touch with Millie, Han, Athena, Mitro, Mocha, Zoe, Cookie, Penny, Torbjorn, & Puck, as well as raising awareness for platypus conservation.

We’d love to see your furry team mates! Feel free to share them in the comments.

Channel Yourself in a Personal Site

The TL;DR

  • As a student, representing yourself on a personal site can be challenging! It’s important to not get overwhelmed and, instead, try to focus on what you already love and are passionate about. 
  • Any visitors on your site, especially future employers, want to learn about you. Instead of being a perfect yet unrecognizable version of yourself, try to lean into making your site authentic.

A personal website or portfolio can be a great way to begin recording your learning journey as a student. You can keep track of your accomplishments, share your thoughts with the world, and practice writing about your work. This also makes it a valuable resource to show to a future employer, who can begin to understand you as a person. 

Capturing Yourself Online

Before you embark on creating that personal site, first take some time to reflect on how you would like to present yourself online. If you had to write an introduction to yourself and your website, what would you say? Here are some guiding questions to help you think:

  • What am I passionate about?
  • What are my values?
  • What do I spend my free time doing?
  • What are my goals for myself? For the future?

It can be challenging to write about yourself! Don’t worry about making it sound perfect, instead try to focus more on being authentic. What makes you you? Maybe you have a unique hobby of coin collecting or have always had an incredible love for outer space. Whether it’s future employers or fellow students, everyone loves to know bits and pieces that showcase you as a real human being on the other side of the screen. 

Developing Your Visual Identity 

Once you’ve spent some time reflecting on yourself through words, the next step is to think about the visual appearance of your website. Think of this as another extension of yourself! What colors do you enjoy? Color can be an incredible medium for subtly communicating information about yourself. For example, perhaps you are incredibly passionate about the environment, so you utilize blues and greens on your website to reinforce that passion.

A Linear RGB color wheel
What colors do you enjoy? What do those colors say about you? (Image: 8-leaf clover, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons)

After narrowing down some colors you enjoy, think about how they go together! The website Coolors is a great platform for generating and visualizing color palettes. It also has a helpful Color Contrast Checker tool that helps you determine the contrast ratio of text and background colors. This ensures that your text is legible and accessible to your audience. Using these tools will help indicate how your colors fit next to one another or on top of each other, giving you a better sense of what your actual website will look like.

Curating Your Featured Works

Now that you have a written and visual identity for your personal site, start to think about what you’d like to showcase to your audience. A good way to begin is by writing an informal list of things you’ve created or worked on, no matter how “small” these might feel. Whether it was a lengthy paper you wrote in high school or a club you helped put together, keep track of these important accomplishments! Even if something feels insignificant, I can guarantee that you can find a unique way to display them and talk about your thinking behind them.

Once you’ve created this list, start to select some projects you are particularly proud of. What projects embody what you’ve already said about yourself? Maybe you already mentioned a personal passion for musical theater—why not showcase a paper you wrote analyzing a play? Try to be selective in order to display your best work that lets your skills, abilities, and passions shine. 

Writing about Your Work

After you select your featured projects, the final step is to narrate the “behind the scenes” of your work. As one approach to writing about your work, you can follow the acronym POWER.

Project: What was the project? What was special or unusual about it?
Objective: What were you aiming to do? What was your role on the project?
Work: What work did you do? Why did you do your work in this manner?
End result: What did you achieve? What were the outcomes?
Reflection: What did you learn? What will you do differently in the future?

Adapted from UserFocus, “How to create a POWERful case study for your UX portfolio”

By focusing on your contributions and lessons learned, the POWER approach automatically allows you to turn your work into a meaningful narrative. Your audience gets to learn about your thinking process and how you might work as a future employee, student, or peer. 

Student Features

For more insight and inspiration, check out these featured student portfolios on the Humanities Commons!

An Update from the Commons about our Generative AI Use

In September, Mesh Research, including the entire Humanities Commons team, met for a one-week, in-person retreat at Michigan State University (more on our retreat to come!). 

At the retreat, we spent some time thinking and discussing our use of Generative AI (GAI). GAI tools like ChatGPT, Midjourney, and Bard are increasingly part of a multitude of tasks in our daily lives. We want to let you know how we are currently using generative AI (GAI) in our workflows and how we are thinking about it for the future. As the Commons is sponsored, hosted, and developed at Michigan State University, we’ve taken our initial guidance from the MSU Interim Guidance on Data Uses and Risks of Generative AI. Currently we are not using GAI in the creation of content (images or written) or user experience data collection. We do use GAI to assist in authoring code, using tools such as GitHub Copilot, though always interactively with a human developer. In the spirit of our value of experimentation, we are also starting to investigate the use of GAI, such as ChatGPT, for data analysis. 

Whenever possible, we will use tools or versions of tools that do not train on or learn from our usage. You can always count on us to have a human in the loop; any code or content generated by AI is reviewed by a member of the team before its use. We do not intend to use GAI to outsource our work, but to enhance it.

We will continue to discuss GAI in our meetings and revisit tools and techniques at least quarterly. When and if we do move forward with GAI in other parts of our operations, we are committed to letting you know here on the blog and in the newsletter. We’d also love to hear from you about ways you would like to see HC engage with GAI in the future!

Reviewing, Editing, & Publishing: Open Access and the Public Philosophy Journal

As part of our celebrations building up to Open Access Week from October 23 – 29, we’re featuring a guest blog post authored by Shelby Brewster, the Associate Editor of the Public Philosophy Journal (PPJ). Humanities Commons and PPJ are MESH projects with generous support from Michigan State University’s College of Arts & Letters and MSU Libraries. If you’d like to learn more about PPJ, follow them on Facebook, Twitter, and Mastodon.

Like the Humanities Commons, the Public Philosophy Journal supports open access scholarly communications. The PPJ is an open access, digital-only journal that offers a forum for the curation and creation of accessible scholarship that deepens understanding of, deliberation about, and action concerning issues of public relevance. The theme of this year’s Open Access Week, “Community over Commercialization,” captures many of the ways that openness manifests in the PPJ. In contrast to many conventional publishing models, at the PPJ community is the foundation of our practices, from review to editing to publishing.

In Review: Community over Competition

At the PPJ, articles go through our Collaborative Community Review process (CCR). CCR sees the relationship between authors and reviewers as one of community rather than competition. In the collaborative review process, all parties come together as colleagues to enrich the work in question. Together with a Review Coordinator who facilitates the process, authors and reviewers engage in a constructive dialogue in which all parties are known to one another. The CCR process is completely open, recognizing that our positionality is part of our scholarship and encouraging a sense of thick collegiality for everyone involved. CCR does not serve a gatekeeping or purely evaluative function. Instead, review is rooted in mutual respect, a shared effort to advance scholarship to make a better world.

In Editing: Community over Elitism

Openness extends into our editorial policies and vision. As we explain on our website, “too often scholarly publishing engages in and reinforces exclusion rather than fostering the diversity of authors, readers, and issues in public and academic communities. Revising outdated ideas of who counts as a scholar and what counts as scholarship requires collective re-envisioning of how knowledge is developed, evaluated, and circulated through peer review and post-publication processes.” And so we maintain an open definition of expertise, recognizing that members of multiple communities that are not necessarily “academic” as such have perspectives and knowledge that benefit scholarship oriented toward the public good.

In Publishing: Community over Commercialization

All PPJ publications are open access, published in accessible formats, and available for reuse under the Creative Commons CC BY 4.0 license. We work to make our content easily accessible by communities both within and outside academia, and those that sit in between.

We also carefully consider which tools we use to create our work, as we acknowledge that these too should be aligned with our values. For publishing, we partner with Manifold, an open source publishing platform created by both publishers and scholars. Scholar-led infrastructure, like Manifold and the Humanities Commons, is an important way to value, support, and emphasize community in an ever-increasingly commercial publishing landscape.

To expand our commitment to community and support others who also wish to do so, the PPJ has been working on a new platform for values-based peer review, Pilcrow. In collaboration with Mesh Research and with the support of the Mellon Foundation, PPJ members and a development team have created an environment for a collegial review process that allows publishers and scholars to develop scholarship that aligns with their values, as well as openness and community. In the coming months, Pilcrow will be available, open source, for anyone looking to further integrate a commitment to community into their writing and publishing practice. So openness is an integral part of how the PPJ envisions community, in review, editing, publishing, and beyond. Community-led research infrastructure has the potential to not only give scholars more control over their data, but also support and facilitate innovative scholarship. Alongside our colleagues at the Commons and elsewhere, we’re committed creating community to support “scholarship as a series of collective acts toward advancing a just world.”