Category Archives: mediacommons

major news: IFB and NYU libraries to collaborate

A couple of weeks ago, I alluded to a new institutional partnership that’s been in the works for some time. Well I’m thrilled to officially announce that the we are joining forces with the NYU Division of Libraries!
From Carol A. Mandel, dean of the NYU Libraries. “IFB is a thought leader in the future of scholarly communication. We will work together to develop new software and new options that faculty can use to publish, review, share, and collaborate at NYU and in the larger academic community.”
Read the full press release: NYU Libraries & Institute for the Future of the Book Announce Partnership to Develop Tools for Digital Scholarly Research
A basic breakdown of what this means:
-? NYU is now our technical home. All IFB sites are running out of there with IT support from the NYU Libraries’ top-notch team.
-? Bob, Dan and I will serve as visiting scholars at NYU.
-? With recently secured NEH digital humanities start-up funding (along with other monies yet to be raised), we will work with the NYU digital library team, headed by James Bullen, to develop social networking tools and infrastructure for MediaCommons. This will serve as applied research for digital tools and frameworks that NYU is presently developing.
-? We will work with NYU librarians, with the digital library team, and with Monica McCormick, the Libraries’ program officer for digital scholarly publishing, to create forums for collaboration and to develop specific projects and digital initiatives with NYU faculty, and possibly NYU Press.
Needless to say, we’re tremendously excited about this partnership. Things are still being set up but expect more news in the weeks and months ahead.

youtube purges: fair use tested

Last week there was a wave of takedowns on YouTube of copyright-infringing material -? mostly clips from television and movies. MediaCommons, the nascent media studies network we help to run, felt this rather acutely. In Media Res, an area of the site where media scholars post and comment on video clips, uses YouTube and other free hosting sites like Veoh and to stream its video. The upside of this is that it’s convenient, free and fast. The downside is that it leaves In Media Res, which is quickly becoming a valuable archive of critically annotated media artifacts, vulnerable to the copyright purges that periodically sweep fan-driven media sites, YouTube especially.
In this latest episode, a full 27 posts on In Media Res suddenly found themselves with gaping holes where video clips once had been. The biggest single takedown we’ve yet experienced. Fortunately, since we regard these sorts of media quotations as fair use, we make it a policy to rip backups of every externally hosted clip so that we can remount them on our own server in the event of a takedown. And so, with a little work, nearly everything was restored -? there were a few clips that for various reasons we had failed to back up. We’re still trying to scrounge up other copies.
The MediaCommons fair use statement reads as follows:

MediaCommons is a strong advocate for the right of media scholars to quote from the materials they analyze, as protected by the principle of “fair use.” If such quotation is necessary to a scholar’s argument, if the quotation serves to support a scholar’s original analysis or pedagogical purpose, and if the quotation does not harm the market value of the original text — but rather, and on the contrary, enhances it — we must defend the scholar’s right to quote from the media texts under study.

The good news is that In Media Res carries on relatively unruffled, but these recent events serve as a sobering reminder of the fragility of the media ecology we are collectively building, of the importance of the all too infrequently invoked right of fair use in non-textual media contexts, and of the need for more robust, legally insulated media archives. They also supply us with a handy moral: keep backups of everything. Without a practical contingency plan, fair use is just a bunch of words.
Incidentally, some of these questions were raised in a good In Media Res post last August by Sharon Shahaf of the University of Texas, Austin: The Promises and Challenges of Fan-Based On-Line Archives for Global Television.

commentpress and the communications circuit

So much to say about this but for the moment I only have time for a quick link. Our close friend and colleague Kathleen Fitzpatrick just published a must-read paper on MediaCommons, in conjunction with the Journal of Electronic Publishing. The paper is about CommentPress, but it’s a lot more than that. It’s a deep look at how Internet-based technologies hold the potential for a large-scale shift in scholarly communication toward a more communal model, taking CommentPress as just a small intimation of things possibly to come. What’s particularly gratifying for this reader is how Kathleen puts CommentPress in the larger context from which it was developed-?in particular, the rise of blogs and the move in some wired circles of the academy back to something resembling the coffeehouse model of scholarly conversation.
Two years ago we held an informal meeting of leading academic bloggers to discuss how this new Web-based conversation perhaps contained the seeds of broader change in scholarly publishing. Out of the ideas that were thrown about in that meeting grew our series of blog hacks that we loosely termed “networked books,” which, in turn, eventually evolved into CommentPress (not to mention MediaCommons). Kathleen’s paper brilliantly draws it all together.
Of course, CommentPress represents only the tiniest step forward. But perhaps out of Kathleen’s elegant, lucid argument we can draw the idea for the next experiment. To that end, I urge everyone to spend time on the CommentPress version (always nice when form engages so directly with content) and to continue the conversation there.
p.s. -? also feel free to look at an earlier version of this paper, which Kathleen workshopped in CommentPress.

learning from youtube

Alex Juhasz, a prof at Pitzer College and member of the MediaCommons community, has just kicked off an exciting experimental media studies course, “Learning From YouTube,” which will be conducted on and through the online video site. The NY Times/AP reports.
The class will be largely student-driven, developed on the fly through the methods of self-organization and viral production that are the MO of YouTube. In Juhasz’s intro to the course (which you can watch below), she expresses skepticism about the corporate video-sharing behemoth as a viable “model for democratic media,” but, in the spirit of merging theory with practice, offers this class as an opportunity to open up new critical conversations about the YouTube phenomenon, and perhaps to devise more “radical possibilities.”

Over on the MediaCommons blog, Avi Santo provides a little context:

…this initiative is part of a long history of distance learning efforts, though taken to another level, both because of the melding of subject matter and delivery options, but also the ways this class blurs classroom boundaries physically and conceptually. We need to acknowledge this history, both innovative and failed, if we want to see Juhasz’s efforts as more than an interesting experiment, but as one emerging out of a long tradition of redefining how learning happens. As media scholars, we are on the forefront of this redefinition, able to both teach about and through these technologies and able to use our efforts to both critique and acknowledge their uses and limitations…

six blind men and an elephant

Thomas Mann, author of The Oxford Guide to Library Research, has published an interesting paper (pdf available) examining the shortcomings of search engines and the continued necessity of librarians as guides for scholarly research. It revolves around the case of a graduate student investigating tribute payments and the Peloponnesian War. A Google search turns up nearly 80,000 web pages and 700 books. An overwhelming retrieval with little in the way of conceptual organization and only the crudest of tools for measuring relevance. But, with the help of the LC Catalog and an electronic reference encyclopedia database, Mann manages to guide the student toward a manageable batch of about a dozen highly germane titles.
Summing up the problem, he recalls a charming old fable from India:

Most researchers – at any level, whether undergraduate or professional – who are moving into any new subject area experience the problem of the fabled Six Blind Men of India who were asked to describe an elephant: one grasped a leg and said “the elephant is like a tree”; one felt the side and said “the elephant is like a wall”; one grasped the tail and said “the elephant is like a rope”; and so on with the tusk (“like a spear”), the trunk (“a hose”) and the ear (“a fan”). Each of them discovered something immediately, but none perceived either the existence or the extent of the other important parts – or how they fit together.
Finding “something quickly,” in each case, proved to be seriously misleading to their overall comprehension of the subject.
In a very similar way, Google searching leaves remote scholars, outside the research library, in just the situation of the Blind Men of India: it hides the existence and the extent of relevant sources on most topics (by overlooking many relevant sources to begin with, and also by burying the good sources that it does find within massive and incomprehensible retrievals). It also does nothing to show the interconnections of the important parts (assuming that the important can be distinguished, to begin with, from the unimportant).

Mann believes that books will usually yield the highest quality returns in scholarly research. A search through a well tended library catalog (controlled vocabularies, strong conceptual categorization) will necessarily produce a smaller, and therefore less overwhelming quantity of returns than a search engine (books do not proliferate at the same rate as web pages). And those returns, pound for pound, are more likely to be of relevance to the topic:

Each of these books is substantially about the tribute payments – i.e., these are not just works that happen to have the keywords “tribute” and “Peloponnesian” somewhere near each other, as in the Google retrieval. They are essentially whole books on the desired topic, because cataloging works on the assumption of “scope-match” coverage – that is, the assigned LC headings strive to indicate the contents of the book as a whole….In focusing on these books immediately, there is no need to wade through hundreds of irrelevant sources that simply mention the desired keywords in passing, or in undesired contexts. The works retrieved under the LC subject heading are thus structural parts of “the elephant” – not insignificant toenails or individual hairs.

If nothing else, this is a good illustration of how libraries, if used properly, can still be much more powerful than search engines. But it’s also interesting as a librarian’s perspective on what makes the book uniquely suited for advanced research. That is: a book is substantial enough to be a “structural part” of a body of knowledge. This idea of “whole books” as rungs on a ladder toward knowing something. Books are a kind of conceptual architecture that, until recently, has been distinctly absent on the Web (though from the beginning certain people and services have endeavored to organize the Web meaningfully). Mann’s study captures the anxiety felt at the prospect of the book’s decline (the great coming blindness), and also the librarian’s understandable dread at having to totally reorganize his/her way of organizing things.
It’s possible, however, to agree with the diagnosis and not the prescription. True, librarians have gotten very good at organizing books over time, but that’s not necessarily how scholarship will be produced in the future. David Weinberg ponders this:

As an argument for maintaining human expertise in manually assembling information into meaningful relationships, this paper is convincing. But it rests on supposing that books will continue to be the locus of worthwhile scholarly information. Suppose more and more scholars move onto the Web and do their thinking in public, in conversation with other scholars? Suppose the Web enables scholarship to outstrip the librarians? Manual assemblages of knowledge would retain their value, but they would no longer provide the authoritative guide. Then we will have either of two results: We will have to rely on “‘lowest common denominator'”and ‘one search box/one size fits all’ searching that positively undermines the requirements of scholarly research”…or we will have to innovate to address the distinct needs of scholars….My money is on the latter.

As I think is mine. Although I would not rule out the possibility of scholars actually participating in the manual assemblage of knowledge. Communities like MediaCommons could to some extent become their own libraries, vetting and tagging a wide array of electronic resources, developing their own customized search frameworks.
There’s much more in this paper than I’ve discussed, including a lengthy treatment of folksonomies (Mann sees them as a valuable supplement but not a substitute for controlled taxonomies). Generally speaking, his articulation of the big challenges facing scholarly search and librarianship in the digital age are well worth the read, although I would argue with some of the conclusions.

sketches toward peer-to-peer review

Last Friday, Clancy Ratliff gave a presentation at the Computers and Writing Conference at Wayne State on the peer-to-peer review system we’re developing at MediaCommons. Clancy is on the MC editorial board so the points in her slides below are drawn directly from the group’s inaugural meeting this past March. Notes on this and other core elements of the project are sketched out in greater detail here on the MediaCommons blog, but these slides give a basic sense of how the p2p review process might work.

MediaCommons paper up in commentable form

We’ve just put up a version of a talk Kathleen Fitzpatrick has been giving over the past few months describing the genesis of MediaCommons and its goals for reinventing the peer review process. The paper is in CommentPress — unfortunately not the new version, which we’re still working on (revised estimated release late April), it’s more or less the same build we used for the Iraq Study Group Report. The exciting thing here is that the form of the paper, constructed to solicit reader feedback directly alongside the text, actually enacts its content: radically transparent peer-to-peer review, scholars talking in the open, shepherding the development each other’s work. As of this writing there are already 21 comments posted in the page margins by members of the editorial board (fresh off of last weekend’s retreat) and one or two others. This is an important first step toward what will hopefully become a routine practice in the MediaCommons community.
In less than an hour, Kathleen will be delivering the talk, drawing on some of the comments, at this event at the University of Rochester. Kathleen also briefly introduced the paper yesterday on the MediaCommons blog and posed an interesting question that came out of the weekend’s discussion about whether we should actually be calling this group the “editorial board.” Some interesting discussion ensued. Also check at this: “A First Stab at Some General Principles”.

MediaCommons editorial board convenes

Big things are stirring that belie the surface calm on this page. Bob, Eddie and I are down on the Jersey shore with the newly appointed editorial board of MediaCommons. Kathleen and Avi have assembled a brilliant and energetic group all dedicated to changing the forms and processes of scholarly communication in media studies and beyond. We’re thrilled to be finally together in the same room to start plotting out how this initiative will grow from a rudimentary sketch into a fully functioning networked press/community. The excitement here is palpable. Soon we’ll be posting some follow-up notes and a Comment Press edition of a paper by Kathleen. Stay tuned.

making MediaCommons

Back in July, we announced plans to build MediaCommons, a new kind of scholarly press for the digital age with a focus on media studies — a wide-ranging network that will weave together various forms of online discourse into a comprehensive publishing environment. At its core, MediaCommons will be a social networking site where academics, students, and other interested members of the public can write and critically converse about a mediated world, in a mediated environment. We’re trying to bridge a number of communities here, connecting scholars, producers, lobbyists, activists, critics, fans, and consumers in a wide-ranging, critically engaged conversation that is highly visible to the public. At the same time, MediaCommons will be a full-fledged electronic press dedicated to the development of born-digital scholarship: multimedia “papers,” journals, Gamer Theory-style monographs, and many other genre-busting forms yet to be invented.
Today we are pleased to announce the first concrete step toward the establishment of this network: making MediaCommons, a planning site through which founding editors Avi Santo (Old Dominion U.) and Kathleen Fitzpatrick (Pomona College) will lead a public discussion on the possible directions this all might take.
The site presently consists of three simple sections:

1) A weblog where Avi and Kathleen will think out loud and work with the emerging community to develop the full MediaCommons vision.
2) A call for “papers” — scholarly projects that engagingly explore some aspect of media history, theory, or culture through an adventurous use of the broad palette of technologies provided by the digital network. These will be the first round of texts published by MediaCommons at the time of its launch.
3) In Media Res — an experimental feature where each week a different scholar will present a short contemporary media clip accompanied by a 100-150 word commentary, alongside which a community discussion can take place. Sort of a “YouTube” for scholars and a critically engaged public, In Media Res is presented as just one of the many possible kinds of collaborative, multi-modal publications that MediaCommons could eventually host. With this feature, we are also making a stand on “fair use,” asserting the right to quote from the media for scholarly, critical and pedagogical purposes. Currently on the site, you’ll find videos curated by Henry Jenkins of MIT, Jason Mittell of Middlebury College and Horace Newcomb of the University of Georgia (and the founder of the Peabody Awards). There’s an open invitation for more curators.

Other features and sections will be added over time and out of this site the real MediaCommons will eventually emerge. How exactly this will happen, and how quickly, is yet to be seen and depends largely on the feedback and contributions from the community that will develop on making MediaCommons. We imagine it could launch as early as this coming Spring or as late as next Fall. Come take a look!

perelman’s proof / wsj on open peer review

Last week got off to an exciting start when the Wall Street Journal ran a story about “networked books,” the Institute’s central meme and very own coinage. It turns out we were quoted in another WSJ item later that week, this time looking at the science journal Nature, which over the summer has been experimenting with opening up its peer review process to the scientific community (unfortunately, this article, like the networked books piece, is subscriber only).
180px-Grigori_Perelman.jpg I like this article because it smartly weaves in the story of Grigory (Grisha) Perelman, which I had meant to write about earlier. Perelman is a Russian topologist who last month shocked the world by turning down the Fields medal, the highest honor in mathematics. He was awarded the prize for unraveling a famous geometry problem that had baffled mathematicians for a century.
There’s an interesting publishing angle to this, which is that Perelman never submitted his groundbreaking papers to any mathematics journals, but posted them directly to, an open “pre-print” server hosted by Cornell. This, combined with a few emails notifying key people in the field, guaranteed serious consideration for his proof, and led to its eventual warranting by the mathematics community. The WSJ:

…the experiment highlights the pressure on elite science journals to broaden their discourse. So far, they have stood on the sidelines of certain fields as a growing number of academic databases and organizations have gained popularity.
One Web site,, maintained by Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., has become a repository of papers in fields such as physics, mathematics and computer science. In 2002 and 2003, the reclusive Russian mathematician Grigory Perelman circumvented the academic-publishing industry when he chose to post his groundbreaking work on the Poincaré conjecture, a mathematical problem that has stubbornly remained unsolved for nearly a century. Dr. Perelman won the Fields Medal, for mathematics, last month.

(Warning: obligatory horn toot.)

“Obviously, Nature’s editors have read the writing on the wall [and] grasped that the locus of scientific discourse is shifting from the pages of journals to a broader online conversation,” wrote Ben Vershbow, a blogger and researcher at the Institute for the Future of the Book, a small, Brooklyn, N.Y., , nonprofit, in an online commentary. The institute is part of the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Center for Communication.

Also worth reading is this article by Sylvia Nasar and David Gruber in The New Yorker, which reveals Perelman as a true believer in the gift economy of ideas:

Perelman, by casually posting a proof on the Internet of one of the most famous problems in mathematics, was not just flouting academic convention but taking a considerable risk. If the proof was flawed, he would be publicly humiliated, and there would be no way to prevent another mathematician from fixing any errors and claiming victory. But Perelman said he was not particularly concerned. “My reasoning was: if I made an error and someone used my work to construct a correct proof I would be pleased,” he said. “I never set out to be the sole solver of the Poincaré.”

Perelman’s rejection of all conventional forms of recognition is difficult to fathom at a time when every particle of information is packaged and owned. He seems almost like a kind of mystic, a monk who abjures worldly attachment and dives headlong into numbers. But according to Nasar and Gruber, both Perelman’s flouting of academic publishing protocols and his refusal of the Fields medal were conscious protests against what he saw as the petty ego politics of his peers. He claims now to have “retired” from mathematics, though presumably he’ll continue to work on his own terms, in between long rambles through the streets of St. Petersburg.
Regardless, Perelman’s case is noteworthy as an example of the kind of critical discussions that scholars can now orchestrate outside the gate. This sort of thing is generally more in evidence in the physical and social sciences, but ought too to be of great interest to scholars in the humanities, who have only just begun to explore the possibilities. Indeed, these are among our chief inspirations for MediaCommons.
Academic presses and journals have long functioned as the gatekeepers of authoritative knowledge, determining which works see the light of day and which ones don’t. But open repositories like ArXiv have utterly changed the calculus, and Perelman’s insurrection only serves to underscore this fact. Given the abundance of material being published directly from author to public, the critical task for the editor now becomes that of determining how works already in the daylight ought to be received. Publishing isn’t an endpoint, it’s the beginning of a process. The networked press is a guide, a filter, and a discussion moderator.
Nature seems to grasp this and is trying with its experiment to reclaim some of the space that has opened up in front of its gates. Though I don’t think they go far enough to effect serious change, their efforts certainly point in the right direction.