The following panel discussion took place at the Encyclopedia’s Civic Partnership and Planning Workshop, held April 16-17, 2009, at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Please join the discussion by adding your comments below.
The first speaker of the afternoon panel, Robert Cheetham of Avencia, Inc., started by saying that he was presenting as both a Philadelphia citizen and business owner, rather than as a historian. His business focuses on recording city life via geography and maps. Some of the projects that his business has helped to create are www.phillyhistory.org, www.connect211.org, and the Mural Arts Program’s MuralFarm.org. With each of these projects, one of the chief goals is to have everything geographically tagged and searchable.
The speaker then turned to the topic of publishing in the digital age. He argued that today “publishing” involves more formats than just books and includes: online maps, Twitter, blogs, websites, wikis, forums, email, Facebook, Myspace, and Kindle. And this range of activities will continue to proliferate for some time. He asked the question, what makes this proliferation possible? He listed positive and negative aspects of digital media as a platform for publishing. On the good side, digital media is active, personal, and connective (all knowledge is inter-connected and people are connected to other people which, in turn, creates connections to the physical world by creating communities). Furthermore it is interactive (slidebars on maps, for example, are tactile, manipulative, and customizable) and empowering (everyone can contribute, giving people a sense of personal power). Cheetham continued by explaining that digital media can be self-correcting (errors can be changed) and transformative (by changing the way we interact socially it gives a new meaning to the phrase “customer service”). Lastly, he argued that is the web has grown quickly because HTML was easy (it is an open format that anyone can learn), cheap (once you have the material, duplication has low costs), and democratizing (the low cost of distribution makes publishing an activity that anyone can perform).
The speaker then described how there can be flaws with digital media publications, too. They can be anonymous, isolating, ephemeral (web sites and content comes and goes), overwhelming, deceptive (it’s just as easy to publish garbage as good material), rigid, exceedingly complex, expensive to initially create, and used as a tool for control. To contrast this list he explained that there are certain qualities of print media that are not associated with the digital format, namely that print media is tactile, portable, authoritative, semi-permanent, and requires no electricity.
Cheetham then went on to describe what a digital version of an encyclopedia should look like. He argued that it should be interactive (so that people could manipulate it), participatory (which would enable people to engage the contributions), and self-correcting. Also, it should be self-sustaining (especially financially), trustworthy, and represent a balance between authority and democracy. Finally, it should strive to be geographic yet local (location is profoundly important to people), mobile (include the next generation of digital platforms such as the iphone and notebooks), and intimately personal (so that viewers can make it their own).
He noted that there will be challenges specific to a digital format that may not be as problematic to a print version. Many of these issues involve licensing and intellectual property, but also include vandalism, interpretation, and finding a model of sustainability. Also, one of digital media’s greatest assets is a large drawback: a balance between authority and openness must be found that allows both to coexist. Furthermore, Cheetham suggested that we are currently involved in a revolution of similar scale to that of publishing in 1500. And just as it was not clear in 1500 how the printing press would change the world, it is not clear to us today how digital media will evolve to replace and transform our current institutions. We face a situation in which it is clear that the old technology is broken and obsolete before it is clear what will be put in its place. Quoting a recent blog by Clay Shirky (http://www.shirky.com/weblog/2009/03/newspapers-and-thinking-the-unthinkable/ ), the speaker argued the current concern about “how do we replace newspapers?” is actually a demand that new methods of news reporting be created before the old, printed methods die, and that this may not be a realistic expectation. No one knows what publishing will look like in the near future.
What does this mean for a digital version of the encyclopedia? The speaker urged the audience to not be afraid to experiment with different ideas and methods, but to be careful to do so ruthlessly – try many small experiments over several years, but don’t be afraid to let them fail. He closed by challenging the creators to not just create a great encyclopedia, but make it a revolutionary encyclopedia.
Following Robert Cheetham, Amy Hillier of the University of Pennsylvania commented that one of the risks of digital media is that it is very easy to get lost in the technology itself. She argued that consideration must be given to how technology facilitates discussion. She explained that one of the challenges of talking about digital media is having to convince people that it is, in fact, scholarship because there is a tendency to see print media as for scholars while websites are relegated to everyone else. To combat this inclination, one should try to view the encyclopedia as a marketplace of ideas and a place to build upon ideas, therefore including any digital formats of the project.
Hillier reminded the audience that digital media publishing is a way to make primary sources available on a large scale and that it is dynamic because it can be supplemented, live, and grow. Furthermore, it gives the user the ability to create their own world. Finally, the speaker encouraged the creators of the project to remember that the process is ultimately as important as the product and that digital tools should be used to facilitate participation from the diverse communities of Philadelphia.
Speaking last, Elizabeth Nash of the Reinvestment Fund suggested that a way of imagining the project digitally is to see it as a type of policy map. A policy map inherently involves the voice of the community (who we involve and what we have available is crucial to the finished product). Furthermore, any policy map must include a detailed system of linkages that provides the user to navigate from one idea to the next with ease. As an example of a good effort with some bad results, Nash used the recovery.gov website to illustrate that, although it provides a great deal of transparency (so that the community feels empowered), it is overwhelming in the sheer number of linkages it contains (there are simply too many links and it becomes difficult to return to previous information).
Focusing on the content of digital media, the speaker argued that they provide an avenue of historical and cultural documentation as well as political and policy research. These sites provide consistent indicators and incorporate user-generated content because building communities involves the sharing of information. Furthermore, a good piece of digital media should include interactive maps; something that people enjoy looking at and therefore enjoy contributing to, which ultimately leads to the establishment of a legacy project. Incorporating the above criteria insures a greater coverage of the information.
Regarding the medium of such a project, Nash argued that it will provide a user-experience along with a scope of geography to help show trends. Furthermore, it should include static and interactive maps at the same time along with thematic data. Lastly, the speaker explained that a successful digital project must be searchable and therefore should include thorough indexing, tagging, and highly intuitive search functions.
Dialogue: Following the three speakers the Q&A moderated by Chris Satullo of WHYY began with a question asking how it will be possible to find authors/contributors to provide both interactivity and authenticity (accuracy)? The panelists answered that there must be some combination of structure and interactivity and conceded that this will be complicated to achieve. The argued that although such a task is context-sensitive a product like Wikipedia may not be the best model in comparison. However, they argued that it isn’t a choice between one extreme or the other (authority and interactivity). They suggested that perhaps a network of “community advisors” would be a workable model. This way, they would not just provide authoritative tours of the site, but provide tools to create your own personal tours.
The second question raised the issue of a non-profit organization as a risk-adverse organization: How do we implement a model and how do we keep it going? No direct response was offered by the panelists.
A question was then raised about documentary evidence (such as newspapers) versus audience-owned material. How would a sustainable model with different purposes and different audiences be sustained? The panelists suggested that with such a long-reaching project it becomes necessary to accept that the structure will change throughout its existence. As an example of a workable model the panelists offered www.pacivilwar.com as a site that has three levels of authorship, with all levels available for public comment.
Lastly, a final question returned to the issue of authority and interactivity and if there will be some separation of them in a digital format. The panelists answered that the encyclopedia must have both and explained that these are not separate issues for the audience. The stressed that the appeal of an encyclopedia is that it provides middle ground or an intermediate level of knowledge with shorter articles that provide the foundation and starting ground for future pursuits. One panelists described an encyclopedia as “digestible middle ground.”