Scholars, It’s Time to Take Control of Your Online Communities

-Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Director of Digital Humanities at Michigan State University, Project Director for Humanities Commons

A couple of years ago, I got a bit fed up with the ways that certain for-profit networks were purporting to provide scholars with opportunities to share their work openly with one another, and I decided that it was time to mouth off about it a bit: about the fact that their “.edu” address was deceiving many into believing that they were an academy-driven initiative, about the ways their uncertain business model endangered the future of the work being shared there, about the damage that network was doing to genuine open access.

Not long after, Sarah E. Bond issued a direct call to action: “It is time to delete your account.”

And many scholars did, taking their work to networks like Humanities Commons. And they told their friends and colleagues to do so as well. Since that time, Humanities Commons has come to serve more than 16,500 scholars and practitioners across the humanities and around the world. Those members are building their professional profiles, depositing and sharing work via the repository, and creating a wide range of websites to support their portfolios, their classes, and their other projects.

But where we’ve been less successful has been in attracting groups of scholars to engage in active discussion and collaboration. The Commons has a robust groups structure, permitting communities of a range of types and sizes — from private committees to public subfields, and everything inbetween — to host threaded discussions, to share files, and more besides. But that feature of the network remains somewhat underutilized, despite the extent to which many scholars today want to be able to communicate and collaborate with one another online.

The heart of the issue, I’m pretty sure, is that those scholars already have communities that seem to be functioning pretty well for them, a ton of them on Facebook. And the problem is, as I noted in my original Academia-not-edu post, is the gravity that such existing groups exert, especially when, as with Facebook, everybody is already there. (Or so it often seems, at least. People who are not on Facebook might be quick to tell you how annoying it is when we assume that everyone can be reached that way.)

If it’s hard to convince individual scholars to change their ways of working and take up more equitable, open, and transparent systems, it’s all but impossible to convince groups of scholars to do so.

And yet: it’s time.

Part of the argument I made for abandoning in favor of non-profit, scholar-governed alternatives, alternatives that were not out to surveil or data-mine their users, was based on my assessment that “everything that’s wrong with Facebook is wrong with, at least just up under the surface, and so perhaps we should think twice before committing our professional lives to it.” The inverse is even more true: everything that’s wrong with is wrong with Facebook, and then some.

I’ll leave it to Siva Vaidhyanathan to delve into the details, but it should be apparent from recent headlines that Facebook is at the root of a tremendous amount of personal unhappiness, violent conflict, and political turmoil today. The company has routinely sold its users’ data to advertisers, to companies, and to highly damaging political agents like Cambridge Analytica. Facebook engages in deep surveillance of users and their activity both on the network and elsewhere on the internet, an activity that is not just being exploited by corporations but also by governments. Given that Facebook’s entire business model depends on selling us — our presence, our information, our clicks — to other entities, every interaction we engage in there supports that model, whether we like it or not.

Most of us know this already, and yet we use the network anyway, even if begrudgingly. Our distant family members and friends are there, and we don’t know how we’ll keep up with them otherwise. And our scholarly communities, too: there are active discussion groups on Facebook that we’d miss if we left. So we watch our privacy settings and try to be careful with what we share — and yet no amount of such prophylaxis can really protect us from malfeasance. Assuming that our ostensibly private groups are actually private is setting ourselves up for abuse.

On top of which, working in proprietary spaces like Facebook does ongoing damage to the scholarly record; we cannot control, preserve, or migrate the archives of our discussions as desired.

It’s extremely difficult to move an entire group of people, I know, but I hope that some of you might be willing to try. There are other non-profit scholarly networks grounded in academic values available out there, of course, but if you’re in or adjacent to the humanities, I hope you’ll consider moving your discussions to Humanities Commons. And if you’re not in the humanities, maybe come join us anyhow? We want to open the network up to all fields in the near future, and your involvement would help us chart a path toward doing so.

3 Replies to “Scholars, It’s Time to Take Control of Your Online Communities”

  1. OK, my turn to mouth off a bit – although I’m saying this as a long-term friend and ally. So please see it in this spirit, Kathleen. (Just came across the link to your post on the ad for the Humanities Commons Twitter Conference.)

    One of things that attracts many people to for-profit platforms such as Facebook and, surely, is that they’re international. So if we really want to build a humanities commons, I wonder if we don’t need to be a little more equitable and open in recognizing the work of scholars outside of the U.S., not least with regards to those we reference and cite?

    Arguably, this is a bigger issue than this post. But we could start here with the likes of Guy Gentler and Alex Rushforth, both of whom wrote about leaving and the Facebookization of academic reputation in 2015.

    For those interested in the history of this debate, not long after the above interventions Janneke Adema and I put together a collection of writings on for-profit academic social networking sites (which of course includes your ‘Academia.Not Edu’). Called The Academia_edu Files, it’s available here:

    1. Thanks so much for this, Gary. You’re absolutely right, of course: we aspire to being as broadly welcoming and international as possible, but (like many of us) I am guilty of seeing what’s most immediately around me most vividly. Thanks much for these reminders and connections, and I’ll look forward to pressing them forward in our ongoing conversations.

  2. As an academic based in Japan, just hearing about HC, it sounds good in principle, and scholars in other countries can find a niche here if the word spreads that the site works easily and efficiently for academic purposes. Its sustainability should be assured. Another issue is whether scholars should choose one among the repositories in a sort of battle, or whether it is justifiable to post copies of published writings under our control to more than one repository. I used to be a stickler that there should be just one copy of an article in a certain medium to guard the original source. Now I wonder if the original source in a header or footer excuses more promiscuous sharing. I do think there is room to offer services not available elsewhere, to have groups in various modern languages if the word spreads, and thus to go where the Web reaches. What do you think?

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