The Commons at Five

It’s been a bit of a whirlwind, having this 5th birthday celebration for the Commons come so soon on the heels of Thanksgiving and Giving Tuesday, but the coincidence of these events has had me thinking about the many many aspects of this project and its development for which I’m grateful, and the ways we’re hoping to mobilize our resources, and our community, to transform the development, sharing, and preservation of knowledge in and around the academy.

We’ll be sharing some of the numbers in other posts — the growth in our membership, the flourishing of our repository, and more — but I want to focus a bit on our path to sustainability. As we originally noted in our plan for Sustaining the Commons, we migrated the platform to Michigan State University in order to have a secure home base from which to begin a program of expansion that we believe will lead us to both technical and financial sustainability in the years ahead. That expansion is supported by an Infrastructure and Capacity Building Challenge Grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, a program which has challenged us to raise $1.5 million in order to release $500,000 in federal matching funds. Thanks to a generous change capital grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and a wide range of gifts from groups including the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, the Open Society Foundations, and Digital Scholar — not to mention, of course, community members like you — we are nearing our goal, with only a bit over $200,000 to go. The combined fund created by all of these gifts provides us with a five-year runway to establish the business model that will enable us to be fully sustainable.

We’ve begun that work by investing in our team. Earlier this year, we hired Mike Thicke as our full-time lead developer. Mike has been working hard on remediating some of the technical debt that accrued over the last few years. This work includes getting our underlying software updated and squashing up some long-standing bugs, but also updating our workflows to make them more sustainable. Our project manager, Bonnie Russell, has been a key collaborator in that process, as has our graduate assistant, Katie Knowles. Our work is backed by the rest of the team at MESH Research, including Brian Adams, Kelly Sattler, Scott Schopieray, and has been made possible in the first place by the fantastic team at the MLA, past and present, who got us to this point, including Eric Knappe, Anne Donlon, Nicky Agate, Katina Rogers, Nelson Alonso, and more.

Additionally, we’re in the process of bringing on board two more Commons team members who will help our community grow: a community development manager charged with bringing in the new organizations and institutions whose investments in the platform will be the basis for our future financial sustainability, and a user engagement specialist who will work to ensure that individual users are successful in their goals for using the platform. And we’re also searching for a couple of technical folks: an AWS-oriented systems architect and administrator, and (posting soon!) an identity management engineer.

This expanded team will allow us to do the thing that we’ve all been hoping for: to move beyond a non-stop round of Whack-a-Mole with the most immediate day-to-day issues, to instead focus on the platform’s future. That future includes significant expansion, as we not only bring on new partner organizations but also add hubs for the social sciences and STEM fields to the Commons constellation. It also includes creating new forms of interoperability with other key scholarly tools, allowing your Commons account to serve as a hub for a wide range of online collaboration and communication activities.

Beyond the financial and the technical, however, lies another category of sustainability, one that we believe makes the others possible: social sustainability. This form of sustainability arises from the commitment of a community not just to working together on a particular project, but to the idea of building the conditions for that togetherness in the first place. We’re working to enable this social sustainability by implementing a governance model that gives our partner organizations and institutions a voice in the platform’s development, and that draws on the insights and goals of our users in establishing that development path. To that end, our Participating Organization Council — the equivalent of a governing board for the project — has appointed members to two new groups: a Technical Advisory Group and a User Advisory Group. We’ll be meeting with those groups in January, and we’ll keep all of you posted on how you might connect with them to provide your input into the future of the Commons.

All of this work has been made possible by the support that we have received from our host institution, Michigan State University; from our partners, the Modern Language Association, the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies, the Association of University Presses, and the Society for Architectural Historians (plus a few more soon to be announced!); from our funders; and most of all from you. We’re enormously grateful to all of you, and very much looking forward to what we might do together in the next five years.

Misinformation and the Commons

My birthday fell earlier this week, and brought with it the usual delightful overflow of Facebook greetings. It was always my favorite part of that platform, and it managed to draw me out of the semi-boycott I’ve been conducting to say thanks to everyone.

My semi-boycott means that while I haven’t deleted my account because I still lurk a bit in order to see pictures of my nieces and nephews and so forth, I don’t post or interact with others’ posts. This decision has largely been driven by the enormous damage the platform has wrought in recent years, at levels from national politics to individual health and well-being. I miss some of my interactions there, but the nausea I feel when I consider contributing my time and attention to that company is just too much to squelch.

I bring this up here because this morning we discovered a new CORE deposit filled with highly problematic claims about the spread of COVID-19 and the effects of vaccines. We don’t — and can’t — review deposits for soundness, and yet we bill ourselves as a scholarly network, where work with some measure of academic authority can be found. Because of this, I believe we have a responsibility to prevent, or at a bare minimum not contribute to, the spread of harmful misinformation.

As a result, we’ve removed the deposit, and we will remove any similar deposits that we uncover.

We want, however, to develop the best policies and processes we can in order to ensure our network — whose openness we are committed to — does not risk becoming another vector for damaging misinformation. We’d very much appreciate your thoughts about this work; please leave your ideas and concerns in the comments. We’ll keep you posted as our work continues.

We Need Your Input

The questions that have recently surfaced for us around community, safety, and trust have made clear the extent to which we on the Commons team need ongoing feedback and advice from our users. Our network governance model, recognizing that need, provide for two advisory groups: a technical advisory group and a user advisory group. Members of each are to be named by the Participating Organization Council, and each group will bring the concerns and ideas of the Commons community to the team for discussion and integration into our project roadmap. (See our bylaws for more details.)

We are currently seeking nominations for each of these groups. If you would like to join us, please email a brief statement of interest, along with a link to your Commons profile, to hello@hcommons.org.

Let us know if you have any questions — we’ll look forward to hearing from you.

Community, Safety, and Trust

Earlier this month, the Modern Language Association held its annual convention, and our team hoped that we would be able to engage with attendees, helping them continue their conversations with one another via the Commons. Instead, we found ourselves fending off what initially looked like a bot attack: a massive influx of new account creation attempts with a few shared characteristics that made clear that there was orchestration involved. We put some measures in place to attempt to ensure that the majority of these attempts did not succeed, and spent several days playing whack-a-mole with the few that did.

In the process, it gradually came to seem that we might not be dealing with bots, but with humans: bad actors who were trying to find ways into the Commons community. To what end, we weren’t sure. But given the visibility of the MLA Convention, we really, really did not want to find out.

Things have gotten a bit quieter since the convention ended, but the suspicious account creation attempts continue. And fighting off this attack has taken all of the time that might have gone into the work we’re trying to do to improve and advance the platform, and it’s left our very small team exhausted. So we’re discussing some longer-term options, options that raise a few key questions we’d like to open up for discussion with the Commons community.

The most important question is this:

How do we balance our commitment to ensuring that the Commons is open to anyone — regardless of credentials, memberships, employment status, language, geographical location, and so forth — with our commitment to ensuring that the members of our community are safe and free from harassment? We’ve all seen much too graphically of late the costs of a hands-off approach to open social networks, but even within a more local academic frame of reference, we’ve seen what can happen when virtual events get Zoom-bombed or otherwise disrupted. We absolutely do not want members of our community to be threatened in any way that unsettles their ability, not to mention their willingness, to engage in the shared collaborative work that they’re undertaking here. We’re grateful that the Commons has managed to avoid such incidents up until now, but we’ve achieved a size and a visibility that has led us to become a target. As a result, we need to take action to protect the network and its members.

Should we establish some kind of verification requirement before new accounts are permitted to use some of the network’s features? We imagine that we might restrict new, unverified user accounts in ways that prevent such accounts from sending direct messages to other community members, for instance, or from creating unwelcome groups and sites within the network. This might work something like the trust levels model that Discourse uses, relying on a demonstration of good-faith engagement to gradually open up features to new accounts, though we may need something a bit lighter weight as we get started.

If we establish such a requirement, what paths toward verification should we enable? We could imagine verification happening as part of account creation if the new user uses an email address that demonstrates a connection with a trusted institution or organization, or if the new user links their account to another trustworthy scholarly data system such as ORCiD. But we also want to ensure that independent scholars and practitioners who may not have institutional credentials or established publication records can join us as well. Should we take the arXiv approach of having established members of the community vouch for new members, or does that run the risk of clubbiness? How do we preserve access for good actors while minimizing the damage that bad actors can do?

We welcome your thoughts on these questions, and we look forward to discussing the path ahead with the community as a whole.

Infrastructure and Capacity Building

I was delighted this week to be notified that the Humanities Commons team has received an Infrastructure and Capacity Building Challenge grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

This grant is the foundation of a long-term sustainability strategy for the Commons, which includes hiring two new full-time staff members to join the team and contribute to the build out of both our technical infrastructure and our community and governance models.

Of course, being a challenge grant, it comes with significant responsibilities on our part: chiefly, the raising of a 3:1 match to augment the federal funding. But we are excited about the prospects, and looking forward to getting started.

Another aspect of this plan includes migrating the Commons’s hosting and fiscal sponsorship to Michigan State University. The MLA has committed enormous energy and resources to getting the Commons off the ground and will continue to contribute to the network as the founding member organization and a key development partner. A research university, however — and particularly one as focused on public-facing research and scholarship as MSU — can provide certain kinds of long-term stability for our growing network.

You’ll be hearing more from us about all our plans in the weeks ahead. In the meantime, I want to thank the NEH for their ongoing support for this project, and thank all the members of the Humanities Commons community for getting us to this point. We look forward to serving the future of your work for years to come.

Building Community

Brightly colored bunting

When we launched Humanities Commons three years ago, our user base consisted of the 5,000-ish pre-existing members of MLA Commons. With generous support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, we expanded the network to include Commons sites for our first-round pilot partners, CAA, AJS, and ASEEES. Perhaps most importantly, though, we also opened the Humanities Commons hub to any interested user who wanted to join us, regardless of institutional affiliation, society membership, disciplinary home, employment status, or geographic location.

Continue reading “Building Community”

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 Academia.edu 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 Academia.edu 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 Academia.edu, 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 Academia.edu 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.

This Year

cake

It’s been a year.

I find myself saying that a lot lately, for reasons that you can probably imagine. Much about the last year has been disheartening, infuriating, anxiety-producing.

But a few good things stand out, and one of them has been the extraordinary first year of Humanities Commons. Continue reading “This Year”