Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Link to class blog

I'm teaching Language, Technology, and Culture again this term. Some of the students have posted terrific things on the blog, so I thought I'd provide a link to it.


Taking a big Web 2.0 step--joining Facebook

I have taken a big Web 2.0 step. At the urging (and downright pressuring) of my 9 brothers and sisters, I have finally joined Facebook. We are having our first family reunion this summer since our parents died--it will be in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee, near where my sister Leni lives. Leni set up an Ede Family Reunion group on Facebook, and I am now part of it.

I've only been on Facebook a day, but it's definitely been an interesting experience. The best thing is that somehow some former students and colleagues and found and "friended" me. It's wonderful to learn what they've been up to.

Recent Pew Internet Report

The Pew Internet Research Project recently released a report on how different generations use the Internet and Web. Here's a summary of the report published by the Pew Foundation.

Contrary to the image of Generation Y as the "Net Generation," internet users in their 20s do not dominate every aspect of online life. Generation X is the most likely group to bank, shop, and look for health information online.
Boomers are just as likely as Generation Y to make travel reservations online.
And even Silent Generation internet users are competitive when it comes to email (although teens might point out that this is proof that email is for old people).

The web continues to be populated largely by younger generations, as over half of the adult internet population is between 18 and 44 years old. But larger percentages of older generations are online now than in the past, and they are doing more activities online, according to the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project surveys taken from 2006-2008.

Teens and Generation Y (internet users age 18-32) are the most likely groups to use the internet for entertainment and for communicating with friends and family. These younger generations are significantly more likely than their older counterparts to seek entertainment through online videos, online games, and virtual worlds, and they are also more likely to download music to listen to later. Internet users ages 12-32 are more likely than older users to read other people's blogs and to write their own; they are also considerably more likely than older generations to use social networking sites and to create profiles on those sites.

Compared with teens and Generation Y, older generations use the internet less for socializing and entertainment and more as a tool for information searches, emailing, and buying products. In particular, older internet users are significantly more likely than younger generations to look online for health information. Health questions drive internet users age 73 and older to the internet just as frequently as they drive Generation Y users, outpacing teens by a significant margin. Researching health information is the third most popular online activity with the most senior age group, after email and online search.

For the full report please visit:

About the Pew Internet & American Life Project: The Pew Internet Project is an initiative of the Pew Research Center, a nonprofit "fact tank" that provides information on the issues, attitudes and trends shaping America and the world.
Pew Internet explores the impact of the internet on children, families, communities, the work place, schools, health care and civic/political life.
Support for the project is provided by The Pew Charitable Trusts. The project's Web site: http://www.pewinternet.org rnet.org>

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Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Syllabus for my Language, Technology, and Culture class

This term I am teaching ENG 495/595 Language, Technology, and Culture for the third time. This is an incredibly exciting class to teach--both because of its content (which we can only begin to scratch the surface us) and because I learn so much from the students. By way of context, I'll note that as in the past this class is about 1/2 advanced undergraduates and 1/2 graduate students. Having said that, I'll just paste in the syllabus. I'd be interested in any responses, suggestions for readings the next time around. I'm sorry that this text lost its formatting when I imported it. I just don't have time to go back and reformat.

ENG 495/595 Winter 2009
Language, Technology, and Culture Dr. Lisa Ede
MWF 2-2:50PM
125 Callahan Hall

English department office: Moreland 236 (737-1636)
English department office hours: MWF 3-4PM
Center for Writing and Learning (CWL) office Waldo 125B (737-3710)
Email address: lisa.ede@oregonstate.edu

Please note: As Director of the CWL, I’m on campus a good deal during the week, typically at my Waldo Hall office. So if you have problems making my regularly scheduled office hours, feel free to stop by my Waldo Hall office or to schedule an appointment there at another time. Students are my first priority, so I’m always happy to talk with you.

· Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore, The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects (1967; reprinted 2001)
· Lisa Gitelman, Always Already New: Media, History, and the Data of Culture (2008)
· James Paul Gee, Good Video Games and Good Learning: Collected Essays on Video Games, Learning, and Literacy (2007)
· Henry Jenkins, Convergence Culture: When Old and New Media Collide (2008
· Selected readings available on closed reserve at the library, including several chapters from Knobel and Lankshear’s 2007 edited collection A New Literacies Sampler, Lankshear’s and Knobel’s coauthored 2003 New Literacies: Changing Knowledge and Classroom Learning, and Lindquist and Seitz’s 2009 The Elements of Literacy.

Course Description
What are the effects of developments in communications technologies on the ways we think and learn? How can we best understand what media historian Lisa Gitelman refers to as the “data of culture”? And why would Gitelman, whose book Always Already New: Media, History, and the Data of Culture we will be reading have felt compelled to co-edit another collection of essays titled New Media 1740-1915? (Yes, you’ve got those years right.)

In considering questions of language, technology, and culture, we’re reading and working at the intersection of a number of related fields: rhetoric and writing, literacy studies, education, anthropology, internet studies, new media history, etc. We can only hope to scratch the surface here. But what an interesting surface it is to scratch!

Major Assignments
Informal writing and learning activities (20% of final grade)
Literacy and technology autobiography (20% of final course grade). Your essay should be no longer than one single-spaced, double-sided page. Students’ essays will be compiled into a class publication, which will serve as an additional text for our course.
Entering-the conversation essay. To be frank, this assignment represents an intervention into your writing/researching process, for you cannot successfully complete this assignment if you have not done a considerable amount of work on your seminar project. Whereas the first assignment encouraged creativity and flexibility, this assignment really is a report on the progress you have made toward completing your seminar paper. Students sometimes resist this assignment—but at the end of the term they always tell me that they’re grateful they did it. (20% of final course grade). The minimum page length for undergraduates is 5-7 double-spaced pages; for graduate students, 7-9 double-spaced pages.
Final project, topic and approach open. The minimum page length for undergraduates is 10 double-spaced pages; for graduates, 15 double-spaced pages. Students who wish to do so may pursue non-traditional projects in a variety of media—but please consult with me ASAP if you’d like to try this option.

Please note: You have the option of collaborating with one or more students in our class on your final project. If you’ve not written collaboratively, I encourage you to take advantage of this opportunity to do so. If you have questions about this option, please don’t hesitate to raise them in class or in conference. (Students who collaborate on final projects will also work together on a single entering-the-conversation essay.)

There will not be a final examination for this course.

On Distinctions between Undergraduate and Graduate Student Work
The major distinction in this class between undergraduate and graduate student work involves differing page-length requirements for the final two major writing projects. In addition, I expect particularly strong engagement on the part of graduate students in the informal writing and learning activities that comprise 20% of the final grade for this course. I also expect graduate students to be regular and lively contributors to our class blog.

On Our Class Blog
Advances in social media software are a key feature in contemporary communications. The development of blogs has provided new opportunities for ordinary people to “publish” their ideas on the Web. What are the consequences of this and related developments for communication? In our class, we’ll take a stab at answering this question via a class blog.

Course Attendance, Due Dates, and Plagiarism Policies
Because our class will function as a seminar, attendance is important. If you have three or more unexcused absences, this constitutes grounds for lowering your final grade one letter.

Assignments are due on the day indicated. Unless you request (and receive) an extension in advance of the due date, I cannot accept late work unless your situation represents an emergency, as would be the case with a serious health problem, accident, etc.

University policies involving plagiarism apply in this course, as do university and federal policies pertaining to students with documented disabilities. Students with documented disabilities who may need accommodations should make an appointment with me as early as possible, and no later than the first week of the term. Class materials will be made available in an accessible format upon request. I will also work with the office of Services for Students with Disabilities to make other relevant accommodations for students with documented disabilities.

Revision policy
You can revise any formal writing assignment for this class. If your revision merits a higher grade than your earlier draft, the new grade will entirely replace the former grade. Please note, however, that if you plan to revise an essay, you must resubmit it to me no later than two weeks after I return your graded draft to you. Only in special circumstances will I accept revisions after two weeks has passed.

Student Learning Outcomes
The academic discipline that has come to be referred to as literacy studies is profoundly interdisciplinary and includes research in such areas as history, classics, sociology, psychology, education, anthropology, English studies, rhetoric and writing, and internet studies. For this reason, it is unrealistic for students to expect to “master” research in this field. Rather, students can expect to gain an understanding of basic issues and questions at stake in the interactions among language, culture, and technology. More specifically, students will be able to demonstrate an understanding that:
Literacy is not a decontextualized, materially and ideologically neutral skill but rather is embedded in specific political, cultural, economic, and ideological contexts;
The consequences for literacy of developments in information and communication technologies are complicated and can not easily be predicted.
Developments in communications technologies raise important ethical, political, social, cultural, and economic questions that educators, politicians, and citizens need to consider.

Students will demonstrate this understanding in the following ways:
By participating thoughtfully in class discussions (and on the class blog) of course materials.
By writing several essays that reflect on important questions about language, culture, and technology.

Changes to Our Syllabus
A syllabus is always a work in progress, so changes to our syllabus can—and probably will—occur as the term progresses. I will always announce changes to our syllabus in class, and also via email. If you miss class, be sure to check with me or a classmate to see if there are any changes in assignments. I will also announce changes over email, using Blackboard’s email function. If you have multiple email accounts, be sure to check your ONID account regularly.

Week # 1
Monday, January 5
Class introduction
Discussion of class blog
Literacy and technology narrative assigned

Wednesday, January 7
Julia Lindquist and David Seitz, “Introduction” (from The Elements of Literacy)

Friday, January 9
Lindquist and Seitz, “Literacy and Technology” (from The Elements of Literacy)

Week # 2
Monday, January 12
McLuhan and Fiore, The Medium is the Massage
Entering-the-conversation essay and seminar projects assigned
Portfolio self-evaluation assigned

Wednesday, January 14
Continued discussion of The Medium is the Massage
Baron, “From Pencils to Pixels: The Stages of Literacy Technologies” (from Hawisher and Selfe’s 1998 Passions, Pedagogies, and 21st Century Literacies)

Friday, January 16
Porter, “Why Technology Matters to Writing: A Cyberwriter’s Tale” (from Computers and Composition 2003)

Week # 3
Monday January 19
Gitelman and Pingree, New Media, 1740-1915 TOC and introduction (xi-xxii)
Martin, “The Culture of the Telephone” (from Hopkins’ 1998 edited collection Sex/Machine)

Wednesday, January 21
Gitelman, Always Already New: Media, History, and the Data of Culture 1-22

Friday, January 23
Gitelman, Always Already New 26-86

Week # 4
Monday, January 26
Gitelman, Always Already New 89-155

Wednesday, January 28
Stubbs “Telegraphy’s Corporeal Fiction” (from Gitelman and Pingree’s New Media 1740-1915)

Friday, January 30
No assigned readings. Today we’ll reflect on what we’ve read so far, and look ahead to future readings. We will also talk about the topics that you are researching for your entering-the-conversation and seminar papers.
Literacy and Technology Narrative due. Please bring enough copies for me and for your classmates. We’ll assemble them into a class book, Literacy and Technology: Reflections, Questions, and Speculations, today.
“Valentines” assigned today. Between now and Monday, February 8th please read all the essays in our class book. In addition, please write 2-3 sentences of response to each essay included in our book. There are two stipulations: 1) Your response should be specific, concrete, and genuine; 2) Your response should be positive. We will distribute your “valentines” in class on February 8th and discuss the process of reading your peers’ work and responding via “valentines.” As you work on this project, please think about the specific technologies (of all sorts) included in this assignment. You have almost certainly been asked to respond to the writing of peers before, but how often have you been asked to respond only with praise? Also please consider the material form that you want your response to take. In the past this has varied from hand-written comments on small index cards to word-processed comments that have been composed and printed in one file and then cut up and distributed to various efforts to approximate something like traditional valentines. Please note: do not feel that this is a competition to determine who can be the “best” responder/creator of valentines. (Why is it that so much in education involves competition?) Just engage yourself with the process of reading and responding in a brief, authentic, and positive way to your peers’ work. Here’s one thing that past experience tells me I can promise you: the day that we distribute—and you read—your valentines it’s going to be a lot of fun.

Week # 5
Monday, February 2
Avrich, Johnson, Koster, and Zongotita, “Grand Theft Education—Literacy in the Age of Video Games” (from the September 2006 Harper’s)
Gee, Good Video Games and Good Learning 1-17
Midterm portfolio self-evaluation due

Wednesday, February 4
Gee, Good Video Games 18-45

Friday, February 6
Gee, Good Video Games 46-82

Week # 6
Monday, February 9
Gee, Good Video Games 83-128
Discussion of our class book, Literacy and Technology: Reflections, Questions, and Speculations, and distribution of our “valentines”

Wednesday, February 11
Gee, Good Video Games 129-173

Friday, February 13
Possible guest speakers and/or day for reflection
Entering-the-conversation essay due

Week # 7
Monday, February 16
Lankshear and Knobel, “Sampling `The New’ in New Literacies” (from their 2007 collection A New Literacies Sampler)

Wednesday, February 18
Leander, “`You Won’t Be Needing Your Laptops Today’: Wired Bodies in the Wireless Classroom” (A New Literacies Sampler)

Friday, February 20
Stone, “Popular Websites in Adolescents’ Out-of-School Lives: Critical Lessons on Literacy” (A New Literacies Sampler)

Week # 8
Monday, February 23
Thomas, “Blurring and Breaking through the Boundaries of Narrative, Literacy, and Identity in Adolescent Fan Fiction” (A New Literacies Sampler)

Wednesday, February 25
Lankshear and Knobel, “New Ways of Knowing: Learning at the Margins” (A New Literacies Sampler)

Friday, February 27
Class is cancelled. I will be at Appalachian State University giving a talk. Please use this day to work on your seminar paper.

Week # 9
Monday, March 2
Jenkins, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide 1-58

Wednesday, March 4
Jenkins, Convergence Culture 93-130

Friday, March 6
Jenkins, Convergence Culture 169-205

Week # 10
Monday, March 9
Jenkins, Convergence Culture 240-260 plus afterword
Lunsford, “Writing, Technologies, and the Fifth Canon” (Computers and Composition 2006)

Wednesday, March 11
There will be no new readings for today. Instead, we’ll spend the class engaged in a closing conversation.

Friday, March 12
Class is cancelled. I will be in San Francisco attending the Conference on College Composition and Communication.

Your seminar paper is due no later than noon of Wednesday of finals week. I would really appreciate it if you would bring your seminar paper to my Waldo Hall office, rather than Moreland Hall. If you are willing to allow me to share your seminar paper with future students, please also email me an electronic file of your essay as an attachment.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Here's the Humanities Center talk--sorry!

Technical malfunction: Sorry. I'm trying again to paste in my Center for the Humanities talk. (Apologies for the loss of formatting.) My residency was in 2004-05, so be forewarned that this is dated.

Lisa Ede
Center for the Humanities

From the Monthly Review to Amazon.com Customer Reviewers:
Popular Culture, Technology, and the Circulation of Cultural Power

Who are Harriet Klausner, Henry Raddick, and Danny Yee? They are ordinary citizens who have achieved considerable cultural authority via unpaid online book reviews posted on Amazon.com and on personal web sites. Klausner, currently the top-ranked reviewer at Amazon.com (with over 9000 reviews), has been featured in articles in The Wall Street Journal, Wired, The New Yorker, and The New York Times, among others. Knopf publicity director Nicholas Latimer currently sends Ms. Klausner every fiction title his house publishes because he “likes her to weigh in” (Kaufman 2). Latimer does this despite the fact that Klausner’s sole claim to fame is her top-ranked reviewer status at Amazon.com. In her real, as opposed to her virtual, life, Klausner is a retired librarian who works as a paid columnist for two national magazines, Porthole Cruise Magazine and Affaire de Coeur. Klausner lacks the credentials typically required to publish reviews in such journals as The New York Times Book Review or The Atlantic Monthly. Yet her reviews are highly valued by those who visit Amazon.com and by many in the publishing industry.

Why should scholars in the humanities care about reviews written by ordinary individuals like Klausner, Raddick, and Yee? Perhaps the most obvious reason is this: online book reviews provide new opportunities for citizens who lack the cultural cachet of, say, a reviewer for The New Yorker or The New York Times to disseminate their ideas to a potentially broad audience. As such, they represent a powerful challenge to cultural hegemony. They also represent a potentially rich data set for scholars interested in popular culture; literacy; reception studies; the consumption of culture; rhetorical analysis; the history of authorship, publishing, and the book; and the sociology, psychology, and economics of taste and of consumer behavior.
Later in my talk I will look at online citizen book reviews in the context of the history of authorship, publishing, and the book; doing so highlights the significance of these reviews, which are the first major challenge to the traditional system of print reviewing since this system was developed in the 18th century.[1] I will also have more to say about potential lines of research on online citizen reviews in the humanities. For the moment, however, I want to situate online citizen reviews vis-à-vis such related phenomena as weblogs (or blogs), vlogs (or video blogs) and podcasts (do-it-yourself radio broadcasting), for all of these forms present direct and significant challenges to cultural hegemony.

Probably everyone in the audience today is aware of the extent to which weblogs (or blogs) have exploded on the communicative scene. In case you’re unfamiliar with blogs, however, I’ll quickly note that blogs are personal Web sites where writers can post whatever thoughts they want to share with whatever readers come their way. Posts on blogs are presented in reverse chronological order. Most blogs have functions that encourage responses to postings; most also enable bloggers to link to other sites.

Blogs would not exist if software developers like Corvallis’ own Paul Bausch had not seen the need for programs that would enable ordinary citizens to share their views on the web. Paul Bausch helped to develop Blogger, the first blogging program. This program enables people with no knowledge of HTML to set up web sites in a remarkably brief amount of time. I know because a year ago I used Blogger to set up my own blog, The Writing Way, in less than 5 minutes. To do so all I had to do was set up a blogger account, choose a title and template for my blog, and bingo: I had a blog. My blog is very simple. Here are two much more sophisticated blogs. The first is Paul Bausch’s blog, onfocus.com. The second is culturecat.net, a blog hosted by Clancy Ratliff, a Ph.D. student in the rhetoric department of the University of Minnesota.

As you may be aware, in the last several years, blogs, blogging, and bloggers have received a huge amount of attention in the popular media. In fact, blogs are proliferating so rapidly throughout the world that it is hard to track them. Technorati, an online site that describes itself as “the authority on what’s going on in the world of weblogs” is trying very hard to do just that, however. As of this past September 20th, Technoratti, noted that its real-time search engine was watching 17.5 million blogs and tracking 1.5 billion links (“What’s happening on the Web right now”). Two years earlier, it notes in its “About Technorati” pages, it was watching only 100,000 weblogs.

From 100,000 blogs to 17.5 million blogs in two years: that’s quite a jump. But there are other key developments in online communication that are equally significant. In the last year or so, for instance, vlogs (video weblogs) have gained in popularity. Indeed, when well-known blogger Glenn Harlan Reynolds reported on the spring 2005 BlogNashville blogger conference, he predicted that “within a year or so we’ll see videobloggers beginning to compete with television news operations—especially local television news operations—in quite a few places.”[2]
And then there’s podcasting. Just as blog software allows anyone with minimal technical know how to produce and disseminate videos, so too does podcasting software, such as Ipodder, allow anyone to produce their own radio show. The Dawn and Drew show, for instance, (which is currently the third-ranked show on Podcast Alley) is hosted by a couple who live on a rundown farm in Wisconsin. Once a week they sit down in their diningroom and podcast whatever comes to mind. Not all podcasters are as successful as Dawn and Drew in getting their ideas out to the public. Already, however, some podcasts have as many as 10,000 subscribers and San Francisco’s KYCY-AM recently became the first radio station to convert to an all podcast format under the new call letters KYou-Radio..[3]

I’ve digressed a bit from my specific topic of online citizen reviews. But I hope the logic of this digression is apparent: online citizen reviews are part of a much larger phenomenon, one that is making it possible for ordinary citizens to not only to “publish” their views but also to challenge the norms of high culture and the authority of conventional expertise.[4] For just as online citizen reviews represent a challenge to the conventional system of reviewing, so too do blogs, vlogs, and podcasts represent significant challenges to the traditional Big Media, who are (hardly coincidentally) rushing to incorporate and commodify them.[5]

Before we exclaim “O Brave New World” and formulate utopian and dystopian visions of the future—visions that exist aplenty in the world of digital communication—it might be good to spend a moment gaining some historical perspective. While I am clearly arguing that online citizen reviews and related forms of online communication such as blogs, vlogs, and podcasts represent new developments in contemporary communication and thus are significant and worthy of study, it is important to recognize that for centuries tensions between high and popular culture, between those who claim authority and expertise as artists and intellectuals and ordinary people, have existed—just as gossip, satire, and parody have existed. Think of Nathaniel Hawthorn’s disdain for the “scribbling women” writers of his time or of Matthew Arnold’s lament for the decline of art and taste in Culture and Anarchy.

Not surprisingly, ordinary readers have often responded to this disdain by declaring the concerns of reviewers and critics irrelevant and have happily read—and written—texts that they find interesting. Contemporary fan fiction is a good example of this willingness to ignore—and even get in the face of—high culture. If you want to get a sense of just how many people are writing fan fiction, take a look at fanfiction.net. When I checked this site last week, I discovered that the site included not only spin-offs or parodies of the Harry Potter series—209,702 of them to be precise—but also of Homer, Jane Austin, Charles Dickens, and the Bible. Though online citizen reviews differ in intent and nature from fan fiction, they participate in and continue this tradition of resistant reading and writing—if only by asserting that ordinary people are perfectly well qualified to summarize and evaluate the books that they read.

So how can we best understand and evaluate the nature and consequences of online citizen reviews and related forms of communication? Many who attempt to address this question are drawn to either utopian or dystopian narratives. In so doing, they are (often unconsciously) participating in a long tradition of extremist commentaries about the consequences of new communication technologies. Remember how suspicious Plato is of writing in The Phaedrus? In the 18th century, the French scholar Diderot was so alarmed by the rapid increase in the number of printed books that he feared that “the world of learning will drown in books”(Rudenstine A48).[6] Much more recently, in 1956—when some of us in this room were in or entering school—educator Gerald Thorsen complained that students at that time were lost “to a world of mass media: tv, radio, motion pictures, newspapers, and comic books.” As a result, he said, “the cultural uses of language have been excluded. We have forgotten about books” (Crowley 105).[7]

What is true of new technologies of communication is equally true of such online developments as citizen reviews, blogs, vlogs, and podcasts, all of which depend on what is sometimes termed social media software. Some contemporary commentators agree with Dan Gillmor, author of We the Media: Grassroots Journalism by the People, for the People, that the texts generated through this software—Gillmor’s particular focus is on blogs—holds the utopian potential of overturning big media and bringing something resembling democracy to culture and communication.[8] Others fear that blogs, citizen reviews, and pod casts will weaken already threatened standards for knowledge, culture, and taste. They wonder, as well, if customer reviews on Amazon.com and other commercial Web sites represent not a laudable resistance to cultural hegemony but rather the ability of capitalism to coopt and commodify individual acts of self-expression and communication. (There’s a reason, after all, why Amazon.com calls its reviewers customer reviewers.) Those who hold this view are quick to point out the key role that customer reviews play in Amazon.com’s business model and the speed with which Big Media, business, and industry have attempted to capitalize on the blogging phenomenon by establishing their own blogs.

A few moments ago I indicated that online citizen reviews hold the potential to challenge cultural hegemony, and I’d like to take a moment to provide some historical context for this statement. To do so, I need to invoke the literary ferment that existed in Great Britain in the wake of the collapse of patronage. As Frank Donaghue notes in The Fame Machine: Book Reviewing and Eighteenth-Century Literary Careers, “literary production in [Great Britain in] the eighteenth century existed in a kind of limbo, between an age of substantial aristocratic support and the fully developed literary market of the nineteenth century” (1). As a result, during this period “authorship became increasingly defined in popular criticism. . .[so that] from 1750 onward, literary careers were chiefly described, and indeed made possible, by reviewers” who published their reviews in such periodicals as the Monthly Review (founded in 1749) and the Critical Review (founded in 1756).[9]

Since that time, this system of expert reviewing has spread throughout much of the West. In the United States, reviews published in such established venues as The New York Times, The New York Review of Books, The Atlantic, The New Yorker and so on have played a key role in demarking the boundaries between high and popular culture. While many ordinary citizens demonstrate their indifference to these distinctions by choosing not to read these and similar publications, those who wish to be (or to appear to be) educated consult them regularly. And even if they don’t read these publications as often as they feel they should—even if they subscribe to The New Yorker as much for the cartoons as for its reviews and commentary—their sense of the different values accorded to “serious” literature versus such genres as romance, mystery, and fantasy novels reflects the power that reviews written by those credited with cultural authority have to shape and inform taste.

The mere fact that the publicity director of Knopf currently sends Harriet Klausner every fiction title his house publishes simply because she is the top reviewer at Amazon.com suggests that this balance of power may be shifting. It is certainly the case that with the rise of the Internet and of social media software ordinary citizens are asserting their right to produce, as well as to consume, content. A 2004 Pew/Internet study of “Content Creation Online” reported that, based on a national phone survey between March 12 and May 30, 2003, more than “53 million American adults have used the Internet to publish their thoughts, respond to others, post pictures, share files, and otherwise contribute to the explosion of content available online” (2). Many more persons have joined this group, of course, in the years since. A later report published in October, 2004 by the Pew Internet and American Life Project indicates that “Twenty-six percent of adult Internet users in the U.S. have rated a product, service, or person using an online rating system.” As examples of Internet sites that use online review, rating, reputation, or feedback systems the report cites Amazon.com, EBay.com, Epinions.com, Google.com, RateMyProfs.com, and INDb.com (or the Internet Movie Data Base).

As these examples suggest, just about anything can be—and probably is being—reviewed online. In my research and in my talk today, however, I am focusing primarily on online citizen book reviews. I do so because book reviews play a particularly powerful role in the academy, and in the transmission of literary and intellectual norms in the general culture. As such, book reviews make it particularly clear how much might be at stake when ordinary citizens claim the right to critique books—particularly when these citizens attract the attention of a diverse and substantial audience.

This is the moment, I think, when I should be sure that we’re all on the same page in terms of our understanding of just what online citizen book reviews are. Citizen reviews are reviews written by unpaid volunteers that are published on the Web. Reviews can be of any length, though you will probably not be surprised when I say that most online citizen reviews are briefer and less analytical than reviews featured in such venues as The New York Times Book Review. Perhaps the best known online citizen book review site is Amazon.com—but there are many, many others, including AllReaders.com (where citizen reviewers fill in a seven page form organized according to genre)[10], DearReader.com, BookReporter.Com, and Blether.com.

Many individuals also host personal book review web sites—some of which have garnered considerable public attention. When I was writing the proposal for my Humanities Center project, for instance, I typed the words “book review” into Google. The first five sites that Google presented included online sites for The New York Times Book Review, The New York Review of Books, Booklist, Bookwire—and a site titled “Danny Yee’s Book Reviews.” On his home page, Yee identifies himself as a Eurasian living in Sydney, Australia who supports his book-reviewing habit by working 20 hours a week as a computer systems manager for the Department of Anatomy and Histology at the University of Sydney. His personal Web site includes reviews for over 800 books. According to Yee’s humorously titled “Infrequently Asked Questions” web pages, in 2002 alone Yee’s site had “2.4 million page views by perhaps 900,000 people, [excluding, Yee assures readers] robots and other automated accesses as far as is possible.” Yee also maintains two mailing lists with 1500 subscribers who regularly read his reviews.

Yee is hardly the only ordinary citizen to host a personal book review Web site. There are literally hundreds, if not more, of these sites on the Web. Some sites, such as Steven Wu’s Book Reviews, Kristen’s Book Reviews, and Steph’s Book Reviews are straightforward book review sites. Others, such as Bob Corbett’s Book Reviews, Virtual Marginalia, and the Brothers Judd are mixed sites that include reviews as well as other kinds of texts.
Given the phenomenal growth of blogs, it’s hardly surprising to learn that there are an increasing number of blogs that include citizen book reviews. Some of these blogs are a mix of reviews, personal updates, and pretty much anything the blogger wants to post. Examples include Moorishgirl.com, The Elegant Variation, and Bookslut. A particularly interesting blog is The Litblog Co-op. This is a cooperative of literary bloggers who come together four times a year to choose a book to review, which they review both on the co-op’s blog and on their own blogs. This is definitely an effort to influence opinion and sales, especially since the members of the co-op intend to “pick a book from obscurity, an overlooked literary gem” to review.

If you’re like me, you may be feeling a bit exhausted—if not stunned—by all this writing. Talk about self-sponsored acts of literacy: the Internet is full of them! But why do ordinary people choose to write and read reviews of books and other products on the Web or send their thoughts out into the blogosphere via personal blogs, vlogs, and podcasts? And what are the consequences of their decision to do so?

There are several ways to address the first question. One is to look at a report published in spring 2005 under the title “Trust `MEdia’: How Real People Are Finally Being Heard” and was characterized by its authors as being “The 1.0 Guide to the Blogosphere for Marketers & Company Stakeholders.” According to this report, “peoples’ trust has shifted from authority to figures to `average people like you.’ “In fact, 56% of Americans trust only the opinions of physicians and academicians more than they trust the opinions of people like themselves” (2).[11]

The trend documented in his survey may help to explain why so many people consult online reviews when they are deciding whether to read or purchase a book or some other product.[12] But why would so many people be willing to spend so much time writing unpaid citizen reviews—particularly when many others have already reviewed a work? (Several weeks ago I checked Amazon.com to see how many reviews of Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible—a title I chose at random—appear on that site. The number at that time was 1297.) A quick answer might call attention to the role that personal gratification and social approval play in this process. (Those who write fan fiction sometimes refer to this as “egoboo” or egoboost [Rheingold120].)[13] As you are probably already aware, “egoboo” is merely shorthand for a much more complex and situated phenomenon—one that sociologists and psychologists might find intriguing to study.

But given the enormity and intentional redundancy of the Web, how might scholars who wish to study online citizen book reviews—or online reviews of any kind—begin? Amazon.com strikes me as a particularly promising site to undertake such analysis. I don’t know how many of you have noticed how rich this site is—how hard it works to create a space where a community of like-minded citizens can flourish. I know that I didn’t until I began my study. Since I want to leave time for questions, my comments about Amazon.com will be brief, but I want to point out that it’s hard to overestimate the richness of this site for scholarly work. Since Amazon.com is always changing, it’s also important to acknowledge the potential frustrations and difficulties that scholarly study might entail.

The first thing to note about citizen reviews on Amazon.com is that they are part of Amazon’s evolving business plan. As James Marcus describes in Amazonia: Five Years at the the Epicenter of the Dot.Com Juggernaut, when Amazon opened, Jeff Bezos hired credentialed writers and journalists to write reviews of books they sold.[14] As part of Bezos’ plan to, in his words, “monetize” customers’ “eyeballs,” Bezos eventually substituted customer reviews for expert reviews (130). Initially reviewers were required to be anonymous; Amazon now encourages what the site refers to as a “Real Name” policy. For some time now, Amazon has made it possible for readers to rank reviews, and it publishes the rank of every single reviewer on its site.[15] If you find a reviewer whose writing and “take” on books you like—Henry Raddick, perhaps, the British reviewer whose witty commentaries have earned him a fair amount of celebrity—Amazon.com makes it easy for you to find and read all his reviews. If that reviewer has also contributed “Listmania” lists or “So you’d like to….guides” to Amazon.com you can easily locate these as well. (In case you’ve not noticed, these lists and guides generally appear in the left and right hand sides of web pages on Amazon.)

The next time you go to Amazon.com, you might want to take some time to look around, if you haven’t already, and do so with an eye toward its community-building features. If you’ve visited Amazon recently, you’ve probably noticed that it’s collecting post-Katrina collections for the American Red Cross, just as it collected political contributions during the last presidential election. In February, 2005 Amazon announced a new award for innovative nonprofit organizations. As the announcement for the award states, Amazon customers can participate in the competition for the award by “vot[ing] with their pocketbooks” (“Amazon.com Announces New Award).[16] In these and other ways, Amazon endeavors to create a profoundly personalized yet also multi-layered, multi-purposed community that embeds its primary mission—selling products and making money—in a rich social context. Central to this community is the ability for customers to contribute content freely and directly to Amazon.com. (Have you noticed, in that regard, that as of about six months ago customers can not only write reviews but also post images on Amazon.com?)

I’ve really just begun to scratch the surface of the riches that exist on Amazon.com’s site.[17] And this is just one site on the Web—though admittedly a large and complex one—where online citizen reviews are posted. It is the major burden of my talk today to argue that online citizen review sites represent a powerful and thought-provoking opportunity for scholars in a variety of disciplines in the humanities. A significant advantage they offer to scholars is their dependence on written text: we’re talking serious data here.

As far as I have been able to ascertain, scholars have largely thus far failed to take advantage of the rich opportunity for scholarly work that online citizen reviews provide. After a year of study, I have been able to locate only two research projects on online citizen reviews. The first was undertaken—prepare to be surprised—by a group of physicists. These physicists were interested in the physical movement of complex systems and thought they might learn something about this movement by studying the sales histories and reception of various books, as recorded at Amazon. I don’t fully understand the complexities of their research, which was reported in the journal Physical Review Letters, but I can say a bit more about it during the question and answer period if anyone is interested.[18]

The second research project of which I am aware is grounded in the humanities. Mikhail Gronas, the scholar who has undertaken this project, is a Professor of Russian Language and Literature at Dartmouth. Gronas is engaged in an ambitious effort—one that is still very much in progress—to develop a quantitative measure of the literary taste of ordinary readers. To do so he is analyzing the number of stars assigned by readers to books on Amazon.com. He is also analyzing the personal commentary provided by readers who post reviews on this site. Gronas characterizes his research as an effort to develop “a palpable, probabilistic approach to literary criticism” (Dartmouth College Press Release)l

As you have undoubtedly already noted, the two projects I have just described are grounded in quantitative studies of the data on Amazon.com—though both studies do attend to qualitative or interpretative issues as well. In the time remaining, I’d like to suggest some ways that scholars whose primary methodology involves textual interpretation might engage the corpus of citizen reviews that exist on the Web. One line of research is, I hope, fairly obvious, for online citizen reviews should be of intrinsic interest to scholars in cultural and Internet studies. I can easily imagine a study of citizen reviewers that would follow in the tradition of Henry Jenkins Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participating Culture, a thought-provoking account of the culture of television fan culture and fan fictions.

Another related scholarly project is Rosa Eberle’s Citizen Critics: Literary Public Spheres. Eberle is a scholar of rhetoric and communication at Penn State. In her book, she looked at letters to the editor of newspapers generated by the publication of such controversial novels as James Joyce’s Ulysses and Easten Ellis’s American Psycho. (And, yes, my use of the term citizen reviewer’s is indebted to to Eberle’s study.) Eberle’s work engages research on publics and public spheres—something I’ll talk more about in a few moments—but it is also grounded in the longstanding tradition of rhetorical analysis. Her methodology could easily be extended to online citizen book reviews. As I have read these reviews, I have been intrigued by the various and often innovative ways that those writing citizen reviews deploy ethos, pathos, and logos in their writing. It could be quite interesting, for instance, to analyze the rhetorical strategies employed by the more than 2800 citizens who contributed reviews of Unfit for Command: Swift Boat Veterans Speak Out Against John Kerry to Amazon.com.

Another potential area of research is reception studies, a field that ranges from Heidi Brayman Hackel’s historical and literary research on the reading practices of early modern women readers to Janice Radway’s ethnographic research on female readers of romances and of the Book-of-the-Month Club. Online citizen book reviews represent an exciting opportunity for those interested in studying the reading practices and responses of ordinary citizens. Since the huge number and diverse nature of online citizen book reviews, the challenge for this kind of research will be to develop methodologies and data sets that allow scholars to approach and limit their research is realistic ways.

I mentioned earlier in my talk that online citizen reviews represent the first major challenge to the traditional system of print reviews since this system appeared in the 18th century. As such, these reviews—and the persons who write them—should be of interest to those studying the history of the book, authorship, and publishing. What does it mean that so many ordinary citizens are claiming the authority—and I hope you hear the word “author” in authority—needed to publish their work on the Web? How are online citizen reviews influencing the marketplace of ideas? What new topoi—to echo an issue that Rosa Eberly discusses at some length in Citizen Critics—might scholars discover if we undertook extensive analyses of reviews posted on Amazon.com and other sites?

Those engaged with the work of Jurgen Habermas and related projects might also find that online citizen reviews provide a thought-provoking object of potential study. In his study of the formation of the development of “a polite and informed public in the early modern period,” Habermas makes special note of the role that “coffee-houses, private salons, newspapers, journals, book clubs” etc. played in this process (Bermingham 9). According to Ann Bermingham, co-editor of The Consumption of Culture 1600-1800, Habermas viewed literary reviews and institutionalized art criticism as “typical inventions of the day” (10). Online citizen reviews, and the sites that sponsor them, are, I would argue, similarly “typical inventions” of the 21st century. What kind of publics are being formed among the community of readers who write, consult, and rank reviews at Amazon.com? And what can we learn about the consumption and production of culture by studying the reviews that appear at this site?

Online citizen reviews could also provide compelling data for those who, like Pierre Bourdieu, are interested in those activities and “systems of classification which structure perception of the social world and designate the objects of aesthetic enjoyment” (Bourdieu xiii-xiv). In Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, Bourdieu attempts to inquire into what he terms the “economy of cultural goods” (1) via a materially grounded analysis of the “conditions of existence, habitus, and life-style” (170). [19]

There are other sites where ongoing scholarly projects might intersect in productive ways with online citizen reviews. The issues raised by Michel de Certeau in The Practice of Everyday Life—where de Certau argues for a shift of scholarly attention from the producer and the product to the consumer—is one such site. But for now I hope that I have demonstrated that online citizen book reviews pose a rich resource for scholars in the humanities. Like blogs, vlogs, and podcasts, online citizen reviews are providing new opportunities for ordinary people to share their views with others. We may not always like what we read when we read, hear, or view what our neighbor—or someone halfway around the world—has to say. But the opportunity to do so is unprecedented. I hope that scholars in the humanities will take advantage of these new opportunities to listen to the world.

[1] I use the term “citizen book reviews” to distinguish reviews written by ordinary citizens from professionally written reviews. I also do so to acknowledge the important role that Rosa Eberly’s Citizen Critics: Literary Public Spheres played in my research and analysis.
[2] Currently I know of at least one television show that relies heavily on vlogs submitted by ordinary citizens. It is titled “Zed” and airs on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

[3] Adam Curry’s “Daily Source Code” is an example of a podcast that has gained a wide readership. Curry developed the first podcast software, which he then released into the open source community, which further refined it.

[4] Another obvious example of such a challenge is the Wickipedia, which advertises itself as “the free-content encyclopedia that anyone can edit.” As of June 28, 2005, Wickipedia—which was started in 2001—had 612,301 active articles.
[5] Organizations like Our Media and Creative Commons are attempting to resist Big Media’s effort to discipline and commodify these grassroots efforts—but the extent to which they will be able to do so is open to debate.
[6] A t roughly the same period, “a German treatise on public health warned that excessive reading induced `a susceptibility to colds, headaches, weakening of the eyes, heat rashes, gout, arthritis, asthma, apoplexy,’ and a host of other disorders, indluding ‘hypochondria and melancholy.’ Fresh air, frequent walks, and washing one’s face periodically in cole water were prescribed for solitary readers” (Rudenstine A48).

[7] For an extended discussion of a utopian narrative see Tom Standage’s The Victorian Internet.
[8] I do not mean to suggest that Gillmor is naïve about the dangers that those he refers to as “citizen journalists” face (xvi). Moreover, Gillmor “walked the talk” of his book in two ways. He and his publisher limited copyright from the current term (the life of the author plus 75 years) to 14 years. They also published his book Web and made it available for free downloading.
[9] In The Birth of a Consumer Society: The Commercialization of Eighteenth-Century England, Neil McKendrick, John Brewer, and J. H. Plumb argue that just as literary culture was transformed during this period so too was there “a consumer revolution in eighteenth-century England” (1).
[10] Reviewers on AllReaders.com can earn some money for their reviews. This appears to be determined by how useful others rate their review. I couldn’t determine how much money one might possibly earn by reviewing.
[11] This report was sponsored by Edelman, one of the world’s largest advertising and marketing firms, and Intelliseek, a company that specializes in “consumer-generated media.”
[12] It also jibes with common sense. People have always turned to friends, neighbors, and family when making important purchases. “How has your Chevy held up?,” they might ask. Or “Was that new Grishom mystery a good read? I’m been thinking of reading it myself.”

[13] Ranking reviews and reviewers is one obvious stimulus to “egoboo.” Recently, Amazon.com added another, spotlight reviews. Customer reviews on Amazon are usually posted in reverse chronological order, with the most recent reviews appearing first. But these are often preceded by what the site terms spotlight reviews, reviews that have been identified as exemplary in one or another way. (It is not clear how these reviews are selected.) Amazon.com now also includes badges that appear next to the name of highly ranked reviewers. Such badges include the following: # 1 reviewer, top 10 reviewer, top reviewer.
[14] At what Marcus refers to as “The Golden Age of Content at Amazon” (117) the company had a staff of twenty-fire editors. Marcus makes it clear that the shift from a paid editorial staff to customer reviewers was not the result of an effort to cut salary costs. Rather, it reflected Bezos’ understanding that , as Adrian Chan, an analyst for the marketing firm Gravity 7 observes, Amazon.com customer reviews “work by creating the mirror world of social value: reputations, desires, comparisons, and other kinds of associations reflected on the surface of social relations” (Chan)

[15] How many persons have written reviews for Amazon.com? Like many other trade secrets of the company, it is difficult to impossible to know. For one thing, multiple reviewers regularly share the same rank. (Amazon.com has not shared the method it employs to determine rankings.) On December 6, 2004 I spend several hours scrolling through Amazon.com’s rankings. On that day, the last ranking level that I found was the rank of 1,449,043. Thirteen reviewers shared this rank.

[16] According to the article that appeared online on February 15, 2004, “Beginning July 19, 2005, the 10 nonprofit finalist organizations will be profiled on the Amazon.com site, where customers and visitors will be able to make direct online contributions to their favorite organization or organizations. Donations will be accepted through September 30, 2005. The organization that receives the largest total contributions from Amazon customers will be awarded the 2005 Amazon.com Nonprofit Innovation Award, along with a matching grant from Amazon.com. The 2005 honoree will be announced in October 2005” (“Amazon.com Announces New Award”).

[17]In spring of 2005, for instance, Amazon joined with the Tribeca Film Festival (which is dedicated to the revitalization of lower Manhattan after 9-11-2001) announced the debut of the Tribeca Screening Room on Amazon.com. This enabled millions of Amazon.com customers to view and rate as many short films as they would like using the Amazon.com star rating system. The announcement stated that Amazon undertook this project because it “seeks to be the Earth’s most customer-centric company” (“Amazon.com and the Tribeca Film Festival”).
[18] These physicists became interested in this topic when one of their books made a sudden leap in sales rankings on Amazon.com. This raised the more general question of the ways in which various books achieve success. What they discovered is that “top sellers tend to reach their sales peak in one of two ways. . .[M]any get there because of. . .exogenous shocks: a major media announcement, a celebrity endorsement, a dignitary’s death.” In these cases, the instant rise in sales is followed by a fairly quick decline. Other books, such as Rebecca Wells’ Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, inch their way to the top over many months, helped by tiny “endogenous shocks,” such as a friend’s recommendation.
[19] Bourdieu observes that the habitus is “internalized and converted into a disposition that generates meaningful practices and meaning-giving perceptions” (170). The habitus is the reason why academics as a whole prefer high culture—with the occasional popular culture passion thrown in—and why waitresses and truck drivers generally do not.

The project that got me interested in digital and online literacies

I've just posted some thoughts on Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything. I was sure that I had notes on a variety of other books I read on saabbatical, but I can't find them in my files.

Memo to self: be more organized when saving electronic files!

So I thought I'd post the project that first got me interested in digital and online literacies, a study of what I'm calling online citizen reviewers. I had a residency at Oregon State's Center for the Humanities several years ago to study this topic. I'm pasting in the talk that I gave reporting on my research.

Some thoughts about Tapscott and Williams' Wikinomics

Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams
Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything

I thought I’d write a few comments about this book, while it’s fresh in my mind. I was pretty skeptical when I started reading it. While this book does focus on collaboration and Web 2.0, it’s clearly in the line of popular books designed to help business execs adapt to changing times. There are definitely elements of hype, and there is definitely not enough critical reflection on the potential or real negative consequences of changes in the workplace. The authors say, for instance, that “The days of lifelong employment and pensions are already long gone” (265). I bet they have nice pensions, however. Tapscott, by the way, runs the New Paradigm think tank and consulting company and is the author of 10 books, including the bestsellers Paradigm Shift, The Digital Economy, Growing up Digital, The Naked Corporation, and Digital Capital. He teaches in the School of Management at the University of Toronto. Williams is research director at New Paradigm.

But back to the book. Despite its limitations, this book documents some pretty profound changes in the workplace. In so doing, it supports the point that Knobel and Lankshear make in their work—that new literacies involve both new technology stuff and new “ethos stuff.” Tapscott and Williams don’t use this language, but they are definitely talking about new ethos stuff in the world of work when they talk about wikinomics.

They do talk in interesting ways about their collaboration, which happened mainly via Skype (with Don in Canada and Anthony in England). They posted sections of the book on the web at Wikinomics.com and solicited reader feedback. They include, for instance, the subtitles that readers suggested for the book. And they conclude the book with a final chapter called “The Wikinomics Playbook” that has this single sentence: “Join us in peer producing the definitive guide to twenty-first-century strategy at www.wikinomics.com” (291), where they have a blog.

The following are some examples and notes from my reading of the book:
They begin with the Goldcorp Inc story, which has appeared in every study of Web 2 and convergence culture that I’ve read this year. Rob McEwen, the CEO of Goldcorp, a mining company, did the opposite of what most CEO’s of mining companies do. Rather than protecting the company’s proprietary information, he made it all available on the Web and offered $575,000 in prize money for folks who analyzed the data and suggested places to mine that proved successful. Ultimately, 1000 virtual prospectors from 50 countries participated. Over 80% of the targets they identified yielded substantial quantities of gold. “McEwen estimates the collaborative process shaved two to three years off their exploration time” (9).

They have a lengthy discussion in multiple places in the book of how Procter & Gamble has moved from doing just about all its R&D internally to using web-based programs like InnoCentive. InnoCentive matches “scientists to R&D challenges presented by companies in search of innovation” (13). According to the authors, 90,000 scientists have registered with InnoCentive to provide solutions to companies such as Boeing, Dow, DuPont, P&G, etc. (98). Innocentive works somewhat like EBay. “Companies—or `seekers’—anonymously post R&D problems on the InnoCentive Web site, while `solvers’ submit their solutions in a bid to capture cash prizes ranging from $5000 to $100,000 (98-99). The idea is to allow companies to easily find the persons who are best suited to solving a particular problem, which vastly expands their R&D possibilities (and also saving them permanent labor costs). There’s a similar company called Encore, which recruits retired scientists.

They say there are four principles of wikinomics: openness, peering, sharing, and acting globally and argue that these are “very different from the hierarchical, closed, secretive, and insular multinational [model] that dominated the previous century” (30).

They discuss Cory Toctorow, one of the hosts of Boing Boing (one of the most popular and high trafficked blogs), who is also a writer of science fiction. He gives his books away for free (as downloads) on his Web site—so he can sell more books on Amazon.com. “Readers in developing companies can even resell them [his books] at a profit” and that’s fine with Doctorow, who says his “problem isn’t piracy, it’s obscurity” (35).

There’s a lot of discussion of blogging and of citizen journalism. In general, this is much less nuanced and helpful than Clay Shirkey’s discussion in Here Comes Everybody.

A fascinating example of peering on the Web is a site called TakingITGlobal. It’s both a social networking and a political action site run by a small staff of 15 people who manage core functions and work with volunteers from around the world. Currently, folks on this site are working together to develop “a set of tools and curricular activities that will get students collaborating with other students in other countries to complete projects, and learning through active projects that make a difference in their communities” (51).

Of course there’s lots of discussion of Wikipedia and of Linux. Something that I learned about Linix is that though it started as all volunteer “a growing number of people are paid to participate in Linux by the companies they work for” because Linix is now so huge as a software program (70).

There is a lengthy discussion of how IBM, which was failing as a company, joined early on with Linux and reversed its decline as a business. This required an almost complete change of business culture for IBM, which the authors say “has become a champion of peer production and a leader of the open world” (78). The authors say: “Giving up so much control is unconventional to say the least, but the rewards for doing so have been handsome. IBM spends about $100 million per year on general Linux development. If the Linux community puts in $1 billion of effort, and even half of that is useful to IBM customers, the company gets $500 million of software development for an investment of $100 million. `Linux gives us a viable platform uniquely tailored to our needs for twenty percent of the cost of a proprietary OS’” says someone in the company (81).

Another interesting project: The California Department of Education has developed a project called The California Open Source Textbook Project. Currently, teachers are volunteering their time to “create a world history text for tenth-grade history classes” (69). The authors say that this project is slated to save California taxpayers $400 million per year (281).

There are all kinds of examples of companies that use Linux to provide free Web-based services. One example is Pentaho, which provides open sources business intelligence that “competes with commercial applications provided by Cognos and Hyperion” (85). They give their baseline software away for free: “Like other open source vendors, it generates revenues from support, training, and consulting to customize the software for a company’s specific requirements” (85). No one is obligated to ask for this help, however, and they can fully use the software for free.

Another example is a company called Spike Source that tests and integrates new open source applications and updates. They crunch over 30,000 tests nightly and provide an integrated solution or “stack” every day. “Downloading the stack is free. Spike Source makes its money providing customer service and support” (88). Evidently the free service they provide is incredibly important to the open source community.

Companies are beginning to deal with patents differently. P&G used to strictly protect its patents. Then it did an audit and discovered that “it was spending $1.5 billion on R&D, generating lots of patents, but using less than 10% of them in its own products” (103). So they’ve opened up their patents and made “every patent in its portfolio available for licensure to any outsider” (with a very few restrictions) (103). As a result, they’ve seen a huge increase in the profit they make from licensing their patents.

“Virtually all companies with sizable patent holdings are now busy mining their portfolios” (104). This is a huge reversal of previous practices, which was to protect patents at all costs.

There’s a whole chapter on “prosumers,” consumers that blur the gap between producers and consumers. Second Life is a paradigmatic example, but they give many others. When BMW wanted to redesign their cars, the “company released a digital design kit on its Web site to encourage interested consumers to design them” rather than designing internally (129).

There’s a chapter on what the authors call science 2.0. As an example they cite OpenWetWare, “an MIT project designed to share expertise, information, and ideas in biology. . . .Twenty labs at different institutions already use the wiki-based site to swap data, standardize research protocols, and even share materials and equipment” (161). The Human Genome Project is another example.

There’s a really interesting chapter on open platforms, such as exist on Google, Amazon, and EBay. Open platforms mean that developers not only can but are encouraged to go in and build new applications with these site’s code. Paul Bausch write a book that is part of the O’Reilly Hacks series on using Amazon’s open platform, creating mash ups, etc. The authors argue that this has hugely increased these site’s business and reputation. They say that Amazon alone has “975,000 active seller accounts, 140,000-plus developers, and third-party sales generating 28% of Amazon’s revenues in the second quarter of 2005” (194). Amazon pays no money for this (other than the $ spent developing the basic open platform) and earns a lot from it. Amazon gives “developers carte blanche to build any application they see fit. No one has to ask for permission or await approval” (195).

They also discuss open platforms created by non-profits that perform valuable civic roles. Scorecard gathers and provides access to information about pollution. You just have to type your zip code into a box on their site, and you get lots of info about pollution in your particular area. Another example is Neighborhood Knowledge California, which was developed at UCLA’s Center for Neighborhood Knowledge as a participatory research project. Citizens and community organizations use its online databases “to look for properties with tax problems, code violations, or other difficulties. . . .that could be precursors to abandonment and deterioration in their neighborhood” (204). They use this information to undertake activist projects.

There was a fascinating discussion of a computer called Geek Squad that “helps consumers navigate the increasing complexity of electronic gadgetry” (238). The CEO had a pretty wikinomic-centered philosophy from the start, but he learned something when he set up a wiki to encourage communication and collaboration. It didn’t take off, and when he asked a manager about it the manager admitted that workers throughout the US kept in touch by playing Battlefield 2 online during work hours. In the midst of playing, they exchange all kinds of helpful tips and info. The CEO learned a lot, he said, from this. He is happy to have workers/agents play on company time, and he says he now sees himself as “serving his agents’ agenda” rather than imposing his own (243). I won’t go into details but there are some wonderful, and at times funny, examples of how “Geek Squad agents have even come up with some of the company’s most successful PR stunts” (244).

In their conclusion, they talk about the kind of threat to the Internet and Web that recent telecom giant proposals represent. They are trying “to create a tiered Internet with different levels of service akin to first class, business, and coach” (273). The authors say that this works against the golden rules of the Internet as established in its basic design: “Nobody owns it, everybody uses it, and anybody can add services to it” (273). I just got a copy of Jonathan Zittrain’s The Future of the Internet And How to Stop It (Yale UP, 2008), and the entire book focuses on these kinds of threats to the basic architecture of the internet. There’s a quote from Lawrence Lessig on the back cover. He says this book will “define the debate about the future of the Internet.”

They are also careful to say that while open source communities value openness, freedom, flexibility, spontaneity etc. “All successful open source communities today deploy highly structured and hierarchically directed processes for managing the tedious, tiresome work of joining together all of the fragmented pieces and contributions” (280). They say this balance between self-organization and hierarchical direction is essential for success.

I thought I’d close with the final wikinomics design principles that the authors articulate.

--Take cues from your lead users
--Build a critical mass
--Supply an infrastructure for collaboration
--Take your time to get the structures and governance right
--Make sure all participants can harvest some value
--Abide by community norms
--Let the process evolve
--Hone your collaborative mind (286-289)

As I said earlier, at times I was a fairly resistant reader of this book. There is some hype and not enough critical reflection for what this means for the least empowered workers. But finally I found the sheer accumulation of examples pretty darn compelling. When companies as big and established (and notoriously set in their ways) as Xerox and Procter and Gamble make such significant changes in their business practices, that seems noteworthy.

Trying to restart the blogging habit

Well, it has been almost two years since I posted anything to my blog. Sorry about that! I was on sabbatical in 2007-08, and though I spent a huge amount of time during that year reading about digital and online technologies I'm afraid that I neglected this blog. This shows, I know, the extent to which I am NOT a digital native.

During the year, for instance, I wrote up a number of reflections about various books that I read. I wrote them up in Word, and I could have easily posted them here--as my friend and former student Michael Faris (now in the Ph.D. program in rhetoric and writing at Penn State) gently suggested a number of times. Somehow I always managed to find a reason to put that off to another day.

It's not that I didn't want to post my thoughts--it's just that I never really made this blog a natural, recurring part of my writing life.

To be truthful, I don't know if I can make that happen. But this weekend I am gearing up to teach ENG 495/595 Language, Technology, and Culture, and I feel the need to try to reimmerse myself in--and reactivate--this blog.

(I don't get many visitors to this blog, which is not surprising given how seldom I post, but if you don't already know me I teach at Oregon State University in Corvallis OR.)

I guess this post will serve as my reintroduction of myself to the blogosphere. Now I think I'll see if I can find some of those summaries/responses to books I read on sabbatical and post them.

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Interesting article on Academic Blogging from The Chronicle of Higher Education

This article appeared in the January 30, 2007 Chronicle of Higher Education.

Blog Overload
By Kara M. Dawson

I have a friend whose personal blog about her plight with breast cancer as a stay-at-home mother of two led to her job as an official blogger with the Cancer Blog. She majored in journalism. I have a colleague whose blog about the potential of social software in teaching and learning has attracted international recognition among edu-bloggers. He is a former English teacher.

Sure, blogs have changed the face of communication, and brought new opportunities, new relationships, new forms of recognition, and even new earning potential to many people. But not to everyone.

Certainly not to my two classes of graduate students who ended the fall semester blogged down and blogged out. In the past, when I had required students to write blog postings in my courses, the assignment was at least a novelty. But last semester, it just seemed a snore.
In some courses, I use a single blog on which all students are expected to post comments. In other classes, I require students to create individual blogs and to visit their fellow students' blogs through RSS feeds. Typically I expect students to write at least one posting a week and to comment on several others' blogs. Sometimes I require students to post on a particular topic, and sometimes I leave it open-ended. Whatever the approach, I found last semester that many students fell victim to blog overload.

I began to feel overloaded, too. Don't get me wrong. I love blogs. I have my RSS feeds set to a number of blogs that help me stay current on personal and professional interests. But the key difference is that I am not forced to read any of those blogs. None of them were created because of someone else's course requirement.

Frankly, the blog postings I required my students to write were just not very interesting. Those students are bright, insightful, frequently opinionated, and, as a whole, a pleasure to be around. Their blogs were not.

With few exceptions, the blogs would sit inactive until about 24 hours before our face-to-face class meetings (or 24 hours before the assignments are due in my online class) when a flurry of posts and comments would erupt. Then, I would spend an excessive amount of time reading and commenting in the hours before class. Some students did the same while others didn't bother to comment at all. Effective teaching and learning? I think not.

I have been using blogs for about seven semesters. On average, out of a class of 25 students, two to three post to their blogs once the course ends. Most of those who continue post personal vendettas, funny stories, or links to personally relevant resources. Their blogs have a known audience, such as family members or a group of interested colleagues. Few have readership outside the students' face-to-face network.

So I admit it. I got caught up in all the hype about blogs -- about their potential for communication, for creating global connections, for expressing oneself, for extending face-to-face discussions, and for building community in online environments. In most cases, my initial excitement has not borne fruit.

I don't fault my students. I am the instructor. And given my background in pedagogy and education, I should be a good leader. But when it comes to blogs, I have not been.
Still, I am not going to give up on blogs. What I am going to do is become a much more critical user. And so I offer some thoughts as I prepare to revamp the integration of blogs in my courses.

Keep a Blog Yourself
I have a blog. I just don't use it. I am too busy reading other people's blogs, responding to student postings, and writing for outlets that may one day secure me a full professorship. How can I expect my students to devote time to something that I don't find important enough to do myself? So if you're going to require students to create a blog, you should probably have an active one, too.

Recognize Individual Learning Styles and Preferences.
I find it funny that I would have to remind myself of that, given that I am expert in pedagogy. Before blogs came along, I offered my students multiple options for demonstrating their knowledge. Some created concept maps, others audio-recorded their thoughts (prior to podcasts), many kept individual journals, and others created movies or presentations. All students were responsible for demonstrating their interaction with class content from week to week and sharing the results. In retrospect, that is not such a bad plan. I can simply offer blogs as another possible option.

Encourage Bloggers to Produce More than Just Text
When I included a requirement that all students integrate at least three forms of multimedia in their blogs by the end of the semester, I envisioned creations like podcasts and Gliffy concept maps. What I got was links to YouTube videos and pre-existing podcasts and images. Clearly, the use of blogs has unintentionally decreased the way my students interact with course content. I need to recognize that. I need to be more explicit in my expectations for the use of blogs.

Recognize the Nature of the Beast
The most effective blogs provide important and cutting-edge information (e.g., Tech Crunch), communicate deeply personal experiences through narrative (e.g., the Cancer Blog), or write to a specific audience (e.g., chemistry teachers). Most people with successful blogs are deeply committed to posting, for personal reasons, such as a passion for their subject, the satisfaction of reaching a wide audience, or the ego boost associated with having others find their narratives important enough to read. Many people with successful blogs also have an innate slant toward the writing profession.

I need to recognize all of those facts, and redefine my expectations and purposes for using blogs in the classroom.

Don't Forget "Old" Technologies
Since the advent of blogs, I had moved away from online discussion forums. I viewed them as clunky, passé even. Now I realize they still have merit. It is very difficult to have an extended conversation within blogs. By their very nature, they position one person at the helm of all activity. The threaded format of discussion forums allow for multiple interactions among multiple individuals. It also allows subtopics to flow from a broad topic.

Don't Be Afraid to Punt.
I should have ceased -- or at least modified -- the way I used blogs last semester. I asked my students for their opinion on the topic but few responded. I am very open to student suggestions but know that is not true of all faculty members. My students may have feared retribution. They may have just not cared enough to comment. So from now on, blogs will be a socially negotiated addition to my coursework.

While some readers may take my comments as an attack on the merit of using blogs in teaching and learning, I still believe they have a definite role to play -- especially given what we know about the importance of metacognition and social interaction in the learning process. My hope in sharing these insights is merely to help others consider what that role might be in their own classrooms.

Kara M. Dawson is an associate professor of educational technology at the University of Florida.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Web 3 is on the way!

I'm just getting used to the idea of Web 2, and now they're saying that Web 3 is on the way.

Here's an article from today's (November 12th) New York Times on this subject.


Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Reuters has set up a real news site on Second life

Well, it's real in that a real reporter is doing the reporting. But it's virtual in that the reporter appears via his avatar.

This really does blur virtual and material reality. Check it out--and thanks to Michael Faris for posting this.


Friday, September 29, 2006

An interesting and moving project I just learned about

A friend just sent me the URL for a project called Common Ties. Here it is.http://www.commonties.com/
This is a project undertaken by a brother/sister team. They've gotten a small grant to travel around the northwest to collect people's stories--and they've set up a blog to document their travels and the stories they collect. If you've got time, you might explore the blog. I listened to several very interesting podcasts where ordinary people told stories about their lives.