Editing Modernism in Canada


July 7, 2010

THATCamp London: Day 2

**Cross-posted from my blog.**

We’re back up and running for day 2 of THATCamp London. After yesterday’s rather haphazard note-taking, I’ll try to be a bit more coherent today. That being said, I’m still writing “on-the-fly,” so please forgive any grammatical errors or shifts in verb tense.

I’m so excited that this is really still just the beginning of the Digital Humanities extravaganza! The main conference starts this afternoon, and the programme is jam-packed with interesting sessions. I’m presenting on Friday in a panel entitled, “Understanding the ‘Capacity’ of the Digital Humanities: The Canadian Experience, Generalised” with Ray Siemens, Michael Eberle-Sinatra, Lynne Siemens, Stéfan Sinclair, Susan Brown, and Geoffrey Rockwell (you can view the abstract here).

But back to today’s festivities. I am very happy to be sitting in on two “social web” sessions.

Session 1: Critical Mass in Social DH Applications
A fascinating and stimulating discussion on how to achieve critical mass in social applications and how to build DH communities. We began by looking at some of successful projects (namely Zotero, which has roughly ~1.5 million users; 300,000 daily users, and–in the commercial realm–Facebook and Twitter). As academics, we don’t think about marketing, but maybe it is something we need to learn. Our discussion ranged from finding an audience, getting people to use our applications, and getting input / encouraging participation from a large community. We discussed the importance of openness, and the necessity for aggregation of tools and services (which seems to be an ongoing theme at #thatcamp, at least in the sessions that I am attending).

Our main question was how we achieve critical mass in Digital Humanities. We determined that there are a few important factors in even starting to build a community, including:
– small group sharing
– low barriers
– carefully choosing a platform that will support the community

I talked a bit about our experience with the EMiC Online Community. While we didn’t have a lot of success with the first iteration of the social network (using Drupal), we learned from our mistakes and the new site with the wordpress back-end is working beautifully (thanks to @jcmeloni for all of her help getting things up and running, and to our participants who are blogging up a storm!).

See the Google Doc for the session.

Session 2: Outreach and Engagement
This session dove-tailed nicely with the previous one. Dan begins by discussing the 9/11 Digital Archive, a site for the cultural-social history of the day (~35, 000 contributors) that includes digital photographs, stories, video. He talks about the success of crowdsourcing as well as some interesting usage patterns for the project (including students who used the 9/11 archive for school projects, a general audience, a scholarly audience: historians, unsurprisingly, but also linguists who were studying teenage slang in the year 2000). Sometimes your unanticipated audience becomes your most powerful user group.

The session focused mostly on the importance of being aware of your users and how one goes about establishing user needs. I provided the example of our EMiC group at the Digital Humanities Summer Institute (DHSI) this past June. On the Sunday before the DHSI, the EMiC participants gathered together for a pre-institute meeting. We set everyone up with user accounts and encouraged them to blog on the EMiC website and tweet (@emic_project; hashtag: #emic) as much as possible during the institute. On the final day, we held a lunch meeting and got feedback. We came out with some fantastic ideas about how to promote the community space, and I think that the EMiC user testing serves as a great example for how we might enable and empower, on a small-scale at least, DH communities.

I think that usability testing is a crucial part of the outreach process, but as a group we agreed that it isn’t done as much as it should be. There are a number of ways to perform user testing, and if you don’t have a handful of testers at your fingertips, you can still get it done using professional services, such as those provided at usertesting.com, trymyui.com, or with the Silverback app. We also discussed the tension between a simple (or dumbed-down) interface and high-level functionality. Looking back to our previous session, it emerged that we should adhere to the principle of, as Dan said, “low walls, high ceilings.” I think that Google provides a great example of this (a topic for another post).

So, here are some of the take-home messages for building outreach and engagement into DH projects and applications:
– Interface: fast and simple, at least to start. A unified point of search is important. [Again: Google model]. This links back to our discussion in the previous session.
– We discussed how laypeople may not understand the potential of the data for computational methods. Dan suggested that the provision of a “recipe book” (tutorial) might help users discover higher-level functionality.*
– Importance of anticipating user needs (and building in a plan for unanticipated needs).
– Start small with an easy, entry point. Build outwards.
– Be critical, be proactive: Why do we want to do outreach? Who is our audience? Remember there will be an intended and unintended audience. The key is knowing what users need.
– Possible outreach solution: tap projects into public school curriculum objectives; provide lessons plans for teachers as part of your project.

We finished with a short discussion on the topic of training users / scholars. Again, I think this is something that EMiC does really well.

Other projects we discussed, at one point or another:
Library of Congress Flickr Stream

*I think the recipe book, in particular, is a great idea, and I invite EMiC participants, as well as other editors, to write their own research recipe (as a blog post to our EMiC Online Community. To sign up for a blog account, please email me).

Day 2 Wrap Up:
I really enjoyed the discussions at THATCamp today. Now it’s time to move from the pre-conference conference to the conference proper. I’m very much looking forward to the next few days!

See my THATCamp: Day 1 Report

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