Making Publics: Social Networking, Sustainability and the Future in Digital Humanities


In anticipation of its final conference, taking place at McGill from March 18 – 20, 2010, I thought it might be useful to say a few words about the technologically innovative Making Publics (MaPs) project as it has unfolded over the past five years.

Beginning in 2005 and funded through a Social Science and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) Major Collaborative Research Initiatives grant, the project has brought together academics from an array of disciplines in order to ‘illuminate the artistic, intellectual, scientific, religious and political culture of Britain and Western Europe’ and to develop ‘an interdisciplinary methodology’ through a commitment to accessibility and innovative modes of learning.   

Looking at the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries through the lens of ‘publics’ or voluntary modes of association and directly influenced by both a reading and critique of Jurgen Habermas’ The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, Making Publics has utilized the full gamut of digital technologies in order to unite the efforts of scholars from universities as far afield as the University of California at Santa Barbara, MIT and The University of British Columbia.

17th Century English Coffeehouse (Wiki Commons)

Past accomplishments in this regard have included discussions over Skype, the use of TeamViewer for real-time sharing of computer screen perspectives and Marratech for videoconferencing. In utilizing technology, MaPs has taken the interesting step of placing the aim of social networking first among its guiding principles while also striving to afford a balance between public and private content in respect to current research.

One of the most immediate advantages of this project and other web-based initiatives is the immediate and widespread application of a peer-review process. In making so much of its content public and easily accessible, a huge number of both academic and non-academic consumers/participants have been drawn into the process of steering the project’s ultimate achievements.

As MaPs winds down, a major issue confronting it is the process of archiving information for the future.  In light of John’s recent post on the problem of technological sustainability in the digital humanities, how should a project nearing completion look to preserve its contributions to scholarship? In light of the ‘social networking’ aim of so many initiatives in digital humanities, I find it somewhat ironic that they might crumble after completion. But with web-based visual and interactive media updating almost daily, this poses a serious problem for finite projects with limited funding.

Another issue that I found was the ongoing participation of individual collaborators or associates in reading groups or ‘conférences’ that discussed issues as diverse as social networking visualization and civil society. While comprehensive in their aim and potential contribution to this year’s theme of ‘networks’, many became bogged down and dwindled to a trickle of dialogue.  Indeed, one of the most pervasive problems facing digital humanities is how to create a self-sustaining online discussion community among academics faced with an already imposing workload. Why should historians care about digital projects when so much value (and prestige) is still placed upon producing printed media?

One of the ways that the Making Publics project negotiated this problem was the production of two volumes from the work of MaPs researchers: Making Publics in Early Modern Europe: People, Things, and Forms of Knowledge (Routledge, forthcoming) and a second forthcoming volume on spatiality and publics. Another has been the integration of traditional modes of presenting academic work (conference papers, seminars) with digital components such as a web-based anthology of primary sources that includes images and audio files.

In 2007, MaPs also brought together collaborators, associates and the wider history community through the use of podcasts and online discussions in relation to a workshop on Michael McKeon’s Secret History of Domesticity. By successfully integrating digital humanities with the ‘carrot’ of publications, presenting conference papers and collaboration on related print media projects, MaPs has been able to broaden both participation and appeal over the course of its five-year mandate.

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2 Responses to “Making Publics: Social Networking, Sustainability and the Future in Digital Humanities”

  1. research AND writing | method AND narrative « History Compass Exchanges Says:

    [...] last November. No great surprise: elements of “digital humanities” feature prominently. But “digital humanities” is a pretty big umbrella and in this case it occludes more than it describes. Experiments with [...]

  2. Of Rockets and Humanities : The Digitized Heart Says:

    [...] -Making Publics [...]

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