Week 11: Kirschenbaum on MLA Commons (and the prediction of a DH apocalypse?)

Matthew Kirschenbaum’s talk, Distant Mirrors and the Lamp, considers the future of scholarly communication within digital humanities through a brief analysis of the development of the web and the humanist site, MLA Commons.

He argues that the World Wide Web is celebrated as β€œa liberating force, [and] a new paradigm” (Kirschenbaum), however, this is not necessarily true. According to Kirschenbaum, it would be more accurate to say that the web merely aspires to achieve liberation.

He explains how in the past, online scholarly communication relied solely on listserv email. Unlike today, β€œyou didn’t have to worry about how many followers you had or if you were popular or pithy enough to be retweeted. You didn’t have to ask someone else if you could be their friend in order to converse with them” (Kirschenbaum). When scholarship first began forming a presence online and one wanted to become part of that community, all you had to do was subscribe to become a member.

Kirschenbaum claims that making sites such as the MLA commons (Modern Language Association), leads to issues of power, risk, and time. As MLA commons becomes more and more popular, Kirschenbaum suggests, at what point should the site be monitored and made exclusive like we do to any other social media site, such as Facebook? Secondly, he explains how accessibility entails the risk of plagiarism. Because the web is designed for sharing and extracting information, we are more susceptible to plagiarism online. Lastly, Kirschenbaum argues that highly accessible sites require time. The more accessible MLA Commons becomes, the more time and effort goes into up-keeping profiles, contacts, comments, posts, etc. There will come a time, he argues, when the scholarly genre and platform will blur as we invest more time and effort into the social aspect of these websites. As a result scholarly websites for the digital humanities, such as MLA Commons, will feel like any other time-demanding social media site.

Can you recall any examples of a website that originally set out to serve a purpose and became more of a social media site? Would you say this was a positive or a negative change based on the purpose of the site? IMDB, for example, started out as an encyclopedia for film and later incorporated forums for people with a specialized knowledge to participate in meaningful discussion. Now the site is used by practically everyone, and as a result has become less of a space for sharing knowledge, and more for sharing opinions and interests. Although films are still reviewed, seldom the reviewer is a qualified film critic.


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