Closed Bots and Green Bots
Two Archetypes of Computational Media

The Electronic Literature Organization’s annual conference was last week in Milwaukee. I hated to miss it, but I hated even more the idea of missing my kids’ last days of school here in Madrid, where we’ve been since January.

If I had been at the ELO conference, I’d have no doubt talked about bots. I thought I already said everything I had to say about these small autonomous programs that generate text and images on social media, but like a bot, I just can’t stop.

Here, then, is one more modest attempt to theorize bots—and by extension other forms of computational media. The tl;dr version is that there are two archetypes of bots: closed bots and green bots. And each of these archetypes comes with an array of associated characteristics that deepen our understanding of digital media. Continue reading

Followup to the Ever-Expanding Classroom Discussion

Last week I was a guest of the Davidson College Teaching Discussion Group, where I was invited to talk about my pedagogical strategies for teaching large classes. I mostly focused on how I use technology to preserve what I value most about teaching smaller classes. But many of the technique I discussed are equally applicable to any class, of any size.

For participants in the discussion group (and anyone else who is interested), I’ve rounded up a few of my ProfHacker posts, in which I describe in greater detail how I incorporate technologies like blogging and Twitter into my courses.

Blogging

Twitter

[Crowd photograph courtesy of Flickr user Michael Dornbierer / Creative Commons Licensed]

Twittering N+7

Magentic Poetry At the risk of alienating my readers on Twitter—something I’m likely to be doing anyway—I’ve been playing an old Oulipo game with my tweets today: N+7. It’s quite simple: replace every noun in a text with the noun that follows it seven nouns later in the dictionary. The results are often nonsensical, occasionally revelatory, and always evocative.

I began by N+7ifying yesterday’s tweets in reverse chronological order (avoiding tweets with @ replies for some reason). A few tweets in, I switched over to N+7ifying my most popular tweets of the past few months, as measured by the number of retweets or replies the status update had. I’ve been doing this all day, and I’ve now got two dozen or so bizarre revisions of earlier tweets.

Why do this?

Isn’t the answer obvious?

I had nothing else to say.

You could call it boredom. Or more generously, writer’s block. Whatever you call it, this fact remains: when you have nothing left to say, artificial constraints and deterministic algorithms will give you something new to say. Boredom leads to constraints, which leads to creativity. This is the nature of play. This is the nature of language. This is the nature of meaning.

Magnetic Poetry image courtesy of Flickr user surrealmuse / Creative Commons License]

Twitter is a Happening, to which I am Returning

I quit Twitter.

White Noise and Static

Or, more accurately, I quit twittering. Nearly three weeks ago with no warning to myself or others, I stopped posting on Twitter. I stopped updating Facebook, stopped checking in on Gowalla, stopped being present. I went underground, as far underground as somebody whose whole life is online can go underground.

In three years I had racked up nearly 9,000 tweets. If Twitter were a drug, I’d be diagnosed as a heavy user, posting dozens of times a day. And then I stopped.

Most people probably didn’t notice. A few did. I know that they noticed because my break from social media wasn’t complete. I lurked, intently, in all of these virtual places, most intently on Twitter.

White Noise at 10 Percent

In the weeks I was silent on Twitter I read in my timeline about divorce, disease, death. I read hundreds of tweets about nothing at all. I read tweets about scholarship, about teaching, about grading, about sleeping and not sleeping. Tweets about eating. Tweets about me. Tweets with questions and tweets with answers. And I thought about how I use Twitter, what it means to me, what it means to share my triumphs and my frustrations, my snark and my occasional kindness, my experiments with Twitter itself.

White Noise Static at 20 Percent Opacity

For the longest time the mantra “Blog to reflect, Tweet to connect” was how I thought about Twitter. The origin of that slogan is blogger Barbara Ganley, who was quoted two years ago in a New York Times article on slow blogging. Ganley’s pithy analysis seemed to summarize the difference between blogging and Twitter, and it circulated widely among my friends in the digital humanities. I repeated the slogan myself, even arguing that Twitter was the back channel for the digital humanities, an informal network—the informal network—that connected the graduate students, researchers, teachers, programmers, journalists, librarians, and archivists who work where technology and the humanities meet.

White Noise Static at 30 Percent Opacity

My retreat from Twitter has convinced me, however, that Twitter is not about connections. Saying that you tweet in order to connect is like saying you fly on airplanes in order to get pat-down by the TSA. If you’re looking for connections on Twitter, then you’re in the wrong place. And any connections you do happen to form will be random, accidental, haunted by mixed signals and potential humiliations.

I’ve been mulling over a different slogan in my mind. One that captures the multiplicity of Twitter. One that acknowledges the dynamism of Twitter. One that better describes my own antagonistic use of the platform. And it’s this:

Blogging is working through. Twitter is acting out.

White Noise Static at 40 Percent Opacity

Twitter is not about connections. Twitter is about acting out.

I mean “working through” and “acting out” in several ways. There’s the obvious allusion to Freud: working through and acting out roughly correspond to Freud’s distinction between mourning and melancholy. A mourner works through the past, absorbs it, integrates it. A mourner will think about the past, but live into the present. The melancholic meanwhile is prone to repetition, revisiting the same traumatic memory, replaying variations of it over and over. The melancholic lashes out, sometimes aggressively, sometimes defensively, often unknowingly.

It’s not difficult to see my use of Twitter as acting out, as rehashing my obsessions and dwelling upon my contentions. Even my break from Twitter is a kind of acting out, a passive-aggressive refusal to play.

But I also mean “acting out” in a more theatrical sense. Acting. Twitter is a performance. On my blog I have readers. But on Twitter I have an audience.

White Noise Static at 50 Percent Opacity

To be sure, it’s a participatory audience. Or at least possibly participatory. And this leads me to another realization about Twitter:

Twitter is a Happening.

I’m using Happening in the sixties New York City art scene sense of the word: an essentially spontaneous artistic event that stands outside—or explodes from within—the formal spaces where creativity is typically safely consumed. Galleries, stages, museums. As Allan Kaprow, one of the founders of the movement, put it in 1961,

[quote]Happenings are events that, put simply, happen. Though the best of them have a decided impact—that is, we feel, “here is something important”—they appear to go nowhere and do not make any particular literary point.[/quote]

Happenings lack any clear divide between the audience and the performers. Happenings are emergent, generated from the flimsiest of intentions. Happenings cannot be measured in terms of success, because even when they go wrong, they have gone right. Chance reigns supreme, and if a Happening can be reproduced, reenacted, it is no longer a happening. And if it’s not a Happening, then nothing happened.

White Noise Static at 60 Percent Opacity

Whether it’s a Twitter-only mock conference, ridiculous fake direct messages, or absurd tips making fun of our professional tendencies, I have insisted time and time again—though without consciously framing it this way—that Twitter ought to be a space for Happenings.

If you’re not involved somehow in a Twitter Happening—if you’re not inching toward participating in some spontaneous communal outburst of analysis or creativity—then you might as well switch to Facebook for making your connections.

Because Twitter is a Happening that thrives on participation, there’s something else I’ve realized about Twitter:

Twitter is better when I’m tweeting.

White Noise Static at 70 percent OpacityIf you are one of the nearly four hundred people I follow, don’t take this the wrong way, but Twitter is better when I’m around. I don’t mean to say that the rest of you are uninteresting. But until I or a few other like-minded people in my Twitter stream do something unexpected, Twitter feels flat, a polite conversation that may well be informative but is nothing that will leave me wondering at the end of the day, what the hell just happened?

I suppose this sounds arrogant. “Twitter is better when I’m around”?? I mean, who on earth made me judge of all of Twitterdom?? And indeed, this entire blog post likely seems self-indulgent. But I didn’t write it for you. I wrote it for me. I’m working through here. And besides, I’ve been criticized too many times by the people who know me best in real life, criticized for being too modest, too eager to downplay my own voice, that I’ll risk this one time sounding self-important.

There’s one final realization I’ve had about Twitter. For a while I had been wondering whether every word I wrote on Twitter was one less word I would write somewhere else. Was Twitter distracting me from what I really needed to write? Was Twitter making me less prolific? And so here it is, my most coherent articulation of what led me to break suddenly from social media: I quit Twitter because I wished to write deliberately, to type only the essential words of my research, and see if I could not learn what Twitterless life had to teach, and not, when I came up for tenure, discover that I had not written at all.

Or something like that.

It only took a few days before I knew the answer to my question about Twitter and writing. And it’s this: writing is not a zero sum game.

I write more when I tweet.

This is not as self-evident a truth as it sounds. Obviously every tweet means I’ve written everything I’ve ever written in my life, plus that one additional tweet. So yes, by tweeting I have written more. But in fact I write more of everything when I tweet. I have learned in the past few weeks that Twitter is a multiplier. Twitter is generative. Twitter is an engine of words, and when I tweet, all my writing, offline and on, private and public, benefits. There’s more of it, and it’s better.

And so I am returning to Twitter. While I had experimented with tweeterish postcards during my break from Twitter—what you might call slow tweeting—I am back on Twitter, and back for good. Twitter is a Happening. It’s not a space for connections, it’s a space for composition. I invite you to unfollow me if you think differently, for I can promise nothing about what I will or will not tweet and with what frequency these tweets will or will not come. I would also invite you to the Happening on Twitter, but that invitation is not mine to extend. It belongs to no one and to everyone. It belongs to the crowd.

White Noise and Static

Maps and Timelines

Over a period of a few days last week I posted a series of updates onto Twitter that, taken together, added up to less than twenty words. I dragged out across fourteen tweets what could easily fit within one. And instead of text alone, I relied on a combination words and images. I’m calling this elongated, distributed form of social media artisanal tweeting. Maybe you could call it slow tweeting. I think some of my readers simply called it frustrating or even worthless.

If you missed the original sequence of updates as they unfolded online, you can approximate the experience in this thinly annotated chronological trail.

I’m not yet ready to discuss the layers of meaning I was attempting to evoke, but I am ready to piece the whole thing together—which, as befits my theme, actually destroys much of the original meaning. Nonetheless, here it is:

One Week, One Tool, Many Anthologies

Many of you have already heard about Anthologize, the blog-to-book publishing tool created in one week by a crack team of twelve digital humanists, funded by the NEH’s Office of Digital Humanities, and shepherded by George Mason University’s Center for History and New Media. Until the moment of the tool’s unveiling on Tuesday, August 3, very few people knew what the tool was going to be. That would include me.

So, it was entirely coincidental that the night before Anthologize’s release, I tweeted:

I had no idea that the One Week Team was working on a WordPress plugin that could take our blogs and turn them into formats suitable for e-readers or publishers like Lulu.com (the exportable formats include ePub, PDF, RTF, and TEI…so far). When I got a sneak preview of Anthologize via the outreach team’s press kit, it was only natural that I revisit my previous night’s tweet, with this update:

I’m willing to stand behind this statement—Twitter and Blogs are the first drafts of scholarship. All they need are better binding—and I’m even more willing to argue that Anthologize can provide that binding.

But the genius of Anthologize isn’t that it lets you turn blog posts into PDFs. They are already many ways to do this. The genius of the tool is the way it lets you remix a blog into a bound object. A quick look at the manage project page (larger image) will show how this works:

All of your blog’s posts are listed in the left column, and you can filter them by tag or category. Then you drag-and-drop specific posts into the “Parts” column on the right side of the page. Think of each Part as a separate section or chapter of your final anthology. You can easily create new parts, and rearrange the parts and posts until you’ve found the order you’re looking for.

Using the “Import Content” tool that’s built into Anthologize, you aren’t even limited to your own blog postings. You can import anything that has an RSS feed, from Twitter updates to feeds from entirely different blogs and blogging platforms (such as Movable Type or Blogger). You can remix from a countless number of sources, and then compile it all together into one slick file. This remixing isn’t simply an afterthought of Anthologize. It defines the plugin and has enormous potential for scholars and teachers alike, ranging from organizing tenure material to building student portfolios.

Something else that’s neat about how Anthologize pulls in content is that draft (i.e. unpublished) posts show up alongside published posts in the left hand column. In other words, drafts can be published in your Anthologize project, even if they were never actually published on your blog. This feature makes it possible to create Anthologize projects without even making the content public first (though why would you want to?).

From Alpha to Beta to You

As excited as I am about the possibilities of Anthologize, don’t be misled into thinking that the tool is a ready-to-go, full-fledged publishing solution. Make no mistake about Anthologize: this is an extremely alpha version of the final plugin. If the Greeks had a letter that came before alpha, Anthologize would be it. There are several major known issues, and there are many features yet to add. But don’t forget: Anthologize was developed in under 200 hours. There were no months-long team meetings, no protracted management decisions, no obscene Gantt charts. The team behind Anthologize came and saw and coded, from brainstorm to repository in one week.
[pullquote align=”left”]The team behind Anthologize came and saw and coded, from brainstorm to repository in one week.[/pullquote] The week is over, and they’re still working, but now it’s your turn too. Try it out, and let the team know what works, what doesn’t, what you might use it for, and what you’d like to see in the next version. There’s an Anthologize Users Group you can join to share with other users and the official outreach team, and there’s also the Anthologize Development Group, where you can share your bugs and issues directly with the development team.

As for me, I’m already working on a wishlist of what I’d like to see in Anthologize. Here are just a few thoughts:

  • More use of metadata. I imagine future releases will allow user-selected metadata to be included in the Anthologized content. For example, it’d be great to have the option of including the original publication date.
  • Cover images. It’s already possible to include custom acknowledgments and dedications in the opening pages of the Anthologized project, but it’ll be crucial to be able to include a custom image as the anthology front cover.
  • Preservation of formatting. Right now quite a bit of formatting is stripped away when posts are anthologized. Block quotes, for example, become indistinguishable from the rest of the text, as do many headers and titles.
  • Fine-grained image control. A major bug prevents many blog post images from showing up in the Anthologize-generated book. Once this is fixed, it’d be wonderful to have even greater control of images (such as image resolution, alignment, and captions).
  • I haven’t experimented with Anthologize on WordPressMU or BuddyPress yet, but it’s a natural fit. Imagine each user being able to cull through tons of posts on a multi-user blog, and publishing a custom-made portfolio, comprised of posts that come from different users and different blogs.

As I play with Anthologize, talk with the developers, and share with other users, I’m sure I’ll come up with more suggestions for features, as well as more ways Anthologize can be used right now, as is. I encourage you to do the same. You’ll join a growing contingent of researchers, teachers, archivists, librarians, and students who are part of an open-source movement, but more importantly, part of a movement to change the very nature of how we construct and share knowledge in the 21st century.

The MLA in Tweets

I’ve learned from following several digital humanities conferences from afar the past year (including Digital Humanties 2009 and THATcamp 2009) that the Twitter archive of a conference back-channel can be unreliable. Twitter’s default search stream for any hashtag is extremely ephemeral, and that impermanence poses a problem for conference participants and observers, as well as future scholars, students, and journalists who might want to browse, search, extract, and data-mine what can be a rich, though niche, historical record.

So in anticipation of the Modern Language Association’s 2009 conference in Philadelphia, I set up a TwapperKeeper archive of all posts on Twitter marked with the hashtag #MLA09. I also began archiving the material on my own computer, using a program called The Archivist. (I’m into redundancy, especially when it comes to backing up data.) Anybody can export the collected tweets from Twapperkeeper as a compressed file, but I’m also posting here my own archives.

The first is an XML file of the over 1,600 tweets marked with the #MLA09 hashtag, dating from November 28, 2009 all the way to just about midnight on December 31, 2009: #MLA09 (I’ve zipped the xml file for easier downloading).

Second is an Excel version of the file, which has stripped away some of the XML tags, but is a more reader-friendly document: MLA09.xls

There is also a Google Docs version of the file:

I hope people find these archives useful. You can easily create some superficial data visualizations, such as the word cloud pictured above [larger version], but I imagine some more sophisticated analysis can be done as well. Even a simple pie chart [larger version] can reveal user activity at a glance:

My own high visibility is mostly due to the satirical “tips” about the MLA I posted in the days running up to the conference. And notice that two of the most active Twitterers were only virtually present at the conference: Brian Croxall and Amanda French, who both made substantial contributions to the intellectual discourse of the conference even with — or, more accurately, because — of their absences.

Pairing Brian’s bleak analysis of what the profession is now euphemistically calling “contingent” faculty with Amanda’s vision of a grassroots movement to amplify scholarly communication through social networking suggests that the MLA conference has the potential to be more diffuse, more rhizomatic, more meaning making in the future, something I’ll be proposing a few ideas about soon.