The Scholarly Edition Goes Social

Latin lolcat by Laura Gibbs

Ok, so you’re the scholarly textual edition. You’re a venerable and useful genre. You’ve got some years on you, but you still look good. You have a lot of friends, even some fans, and people respect you. But you were born too early to understand this whole social media craze. You want to be connected, and it’s good to keep in touch with your family. But why do people seem to feel the need to be constantly sharing all this quotidian detail? Many people you really admire won’t have anything to do with social media. And yet, it feels lame to be left behind. After all, you’ve still got it, you’re still relevant, right? Question is, scholarly edition, should you break down and join Facebook?

It is in fact your destiny to embrace social media, according to a new article by a team of researchers published December issue of Literary & Linguistic Computing: “Toward Modeling the Social Edition: An Approach to Understanding the Electronic Scholarly Edition in the Context of New and Emerging Social Media.” The authors, Ray Siemens, Meghan Timney, Cara Letich, Corinna Koolen and Alex Garnett, are associated with the Electronic Textual Cultures Lab at the University of Victoria, British Columbia. The article itself is behind a pay wall, but a pre-print version is available here.

They propose that digital textual editions have gone through three phases so far, and are about to enter a fourth. The early stages of digitization (in the 1980s) made possible the “dynamic text,” in which readers could search, retrieve, and analyze in a way impossible in print media, treating the text with the flexibility of a database. This sped up all kinds of academic tasks. Shortly thereafter (in the 1990s) arose the “hypertextual edition,” which uses linking to give access to the various types of apparatus (textual, critical) that sometimes accompany print scholarly editions, and to even more in the way of images, parallel texts, and other linked resources. The third phase saw the development of a combination of the first two, the “dynamic edition,” in which the user can both interact with the text itself, change it, slice and dice it, and have access to various scholarly annotation and apparatus via hypertext. One promise of the dynamic edition, which they admit is not fully realized in practice yet, is that algorithmic processes can be used to start to automate some of the scholarly activities of textual scholarship. If we can “automate the process of formalizing the associations we take for granted in current editions,” they write, “such an edition has the ability, in effect, to annotate itself.”

The fourth phase, into which we are currently hurtling, is characterized by the application of social media tools and crowd sourcing to scholarly editorial practices. Siemens and collaborators point out that social tools enlarge the knowledge-building community beyond the traditional realm of academic scholars, and tap into the category of citizen scholars, not affiliated with academic institutions, in addition to the usual pools of academic labor. Siemens et al. identify five new modes of engagement with digital objects using social tools:

  1. Collaborative annotation (e.g. Diigo, digress.it).
  2. User-derived content (the Library of Congress Flickr stream, NINES).
  3. Folksonomy tagging, in which users add metadata in the form of keyword tags for shared content (English Broadside Ballad Archive, Flickr, Twitter, Del.icio.us).
  4. Community bibliography, in which users collect and catalogue references by means of academic citations (Zotero, reddit, StumbleUpon).
  5. Text analysis, which involves “algorithmically facilitated search, retrieval, and critical processes.” (E.g. the open source electronic role-playing game for educational use called Ivanhoe, based on the Walter Scott novel).

But beyond the various tools involved, they claim to identify a fundamental shift in the sociology of knowledge that drives the fourth phase. They see an inevitable move from the editor as a single, quasi-omniscient authority to the editor as a kind of impresario who can “facilitate interaction among the communities of practice they serve.” This community building is the essential thing that current self-contained digital editions do not do. The new social edition editor does not set himself or herself up as the arbiter of text and annotation, no matter how dynamic. These new editors coordinate contributions from many sources and oversee “living” editions.

At this point the rhetoric of the article begins to evoke the Reformation, with an added touch of Marxist revolutionary idealism. The old-style print-based scholarly editor is a “mediator” between the text and reader, “determines and shapes what is important to the reader,” and “exerts immense control over what the reader can engage.” The new social edition undermines these self-appointed authority figures that come between text and reader, thus “challenging current notions of personal and institutional authority, and the systems in which they are perpetuated.”

But in my view it is far too simple to say that the expert editor must now simply yield to, and facilitate, the crowd. For one thing, the use of the word “edition” in this discussion is misleading, and blurs distinctions between very different types of intellectual labor, some amenable to crowd-sourcing, some not. On the one hand there is textual editing in the strict sense: the examination, transcription, and collation of archival documents to produce a readable and reliable text with reports of variant readings. The people who do this kind of work are hardly constricting interpretive possibilities. They are making material available to the community, often at considerable risk to their eye-sight and domestic happiness. This is not the same thing as annotation, the equipping of texts with relevant information about its historical and literary contexts (which can be much more ideologically loaded), and linguistic explanations (which need to take into account very specific audiences). A third distinct area is the application of digital tools in computational analysis of textual data and the crafting of interpretive perspectives on that basis.

The article lumps all this together in the notion of “edition,” but in each area there is a different dynamic at work when it comes to the relationship between the expert scholar and a reading, and potentially contributing, community. And more importantly this relationship varies markedly with different types of texts, something ignored completely in the article. Take annotation, for example. Classic texts with highly developed academic cultures surrounding them, like Thomas More’s Utopia, do not readily elicit crowd annotation. We know this because it’s being tried at the site Open Utopia. The user-generated comments are not numerous or impressive, and much of the material represents the work of its editor, Stephen Duncombe, as Associate Prof. at NYU, who published a book based on the site. My own experience trying to develop a wiki community around Caesar’s Gallic War yielded similarly unimpressive results.

By strong contrast, in the case of a set of contemporary texts with little or no existing scholarly commentary, the novels of Thomas Pynchon, elaborate fan wikis  have developed which comprehensively annotate just about every page of his extremely long novels. Like the burgeoning and sometimes hilarious electronic literary genre of Amazon.com product reviews, crowd sourced commentary and annotation successfully grow up to fill a vacuum of trusted information, not replace trusted expert-made resources.

The same can be said of other types of editorial labor. Nobody wants to reinvent the wheel. The fascinating thing about the social media and self-publishing revolution is not that citizen scholars can now seize the tools of production and dethrone the academics (as desirable as that might in some cases be), but that independent scholars can now contribute in their own ways, and serve new audiences with new texts and new genres of edition. In my field there are many examples, including Evan Milner’s massive archive of textual, video, and audio Latin materials, Laura Gibbs’ excellent work with fables and proverbs, and, delightfully, her new genre of the Latin lolcat, a combination of proverb text and feline image. There are innovative pegagogical texts begin edited and published outside the normal channels by Justin Schwamm and Peter Sipes, among others. Then there are the apps being created by non-academic computer programmers such as Nick Kallen, Paul Hudson, and Harry Schmidt, apps that deliver Latin and Greek texts with the tools to read them. These are resources that people want, but academics will never be rewarded for making, and publishers generally won’t bother with. Social media means we all benefit from this new energy.

The “social edition” is thus not a box created and overseen by an academic impresario, and filled with content by a crowd of lesser contributors. It is a totally unpredictable new thing, driven by the creativity and desire for credited publication on the part of highly trained, but non-tenure track, scholars. Rather than distributing traditional academic labor, social media enlarges the pool of publishing scholars. Rather than prompting the re-making of old scholarly editions, it identifies and fills needs that the academic establishment can’t even see, much less satisfy.

So my advice, scholarly edition, is not worry, to do what feels right. Find the mix of social media and good old fashioned expert editorial authority that works in each case. Stop worrying about the trends, and think hard about the users and what they need.

–Chris Francese

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