The Hacker Way

On December 21, 2012, Blake Ross—the boy genius behind Firefox and currently Facebook’s Director of Product—posted this to his Facebook page:

Some friends and I built this new iPhone app over the last 12 days. Check it out and let us know what you think!

The new iPhone app was Facebook Poke. One of the friends was Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder and CEO. The story behind the app’s speedy development and Zuckerberg’s personal involvement holds lessons for the practice of digital humanities in colleges and universities.

Late last year, Facebook apparently entered negotiations with the developers of Snapchat, an app that lets users share pictures and messages that “self-destruct” shortly after opening. Feeding on user worries about Facebook’s privacy policies and use and retention of personal data, in little more than a matter of weeks, Snapchat had taken off among young people. By offering something Facebook didn’t—confidence that your sexts wouldn’t resurface in your job search—Snapchat exploded.

It is often said that Facebook doesn’t understand privacy. I disagree. Facebook understands privacy all too well, and it is willing to manipulate its users’ privacy tolerances for maximum gain. Facebook knows that every privacy setting is its own niche market, and if its privacy settings are complicated, it’s because the tolerances of its users are so varied. Facebook recognized that Snapchat had filled an unmet need in the privacy marketplace, and tried first to buy it. When that failed, it moved to fill the niche itself.

Crucially for our story, Facebook’s negotiations with Snapchat seem to have broken down just weeks before a scheduled holiday moratorium for submissions to Apple’s iTunes App Store. If Facebook wanted to compete over the holiday break (prime time for hooking up, on social media and otherwise) in the niche opened up by Snapchat, it had to move quickly. If Facebook couldn’t buy Snapchat, it had to build it. Less than two weeks later, Facebook Poke hit the iTunes App Store.

Facebook Poke quickly rose to the top of the app rankings, but has since fallen off dramatically in popularity. Snapchat remains among iTunes’ top 25 free apps. Snapchat continues adding users and has recently closed a substantial round of venture capital funding. To me Snapchat’s success in the face of such firepower suggests that Facebook’s users are becoming savvier players in the privacy marketplace. Surely there are lessons in this for those of us involved in digital asset management.

Yet there is another lesson digital humanists and digital librarians should draw from the Poke story. It is a lesson that depends very little on the ultimate outcome of the Poke/Snapchat horse race. It is a lesson about digital labor.

hackerMark Zuckerberg is CEO of one of the largest and most successful companies in the world. It would not be illegitimate if he decided to spend his time delivering keynote speeches to shareholders and entertaining politicians in Davos. Instead, Zuckerberg spent the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas writing code. Zuckerberg identified the Poke app as a strategic necessity for the service he created, and he was not too proud to roll up his sleeves and help build it. Zuckerberg explained the management philosophy behind his “do it yourself” impulse in the letter he wrote to shareholders prior to Facebook’s IPO. In a section of the letter entitled “The Hacker Way,” Zuckerberg wrote:

The Hacker Way is an approach to building that involves continuous improvement and iteration. Hackers believe that something can always be better, and that nothing is ever complete. They just have to go fix it – often in the face of people who say it’s impossible or are content with the status quo….

Hacking is also an inherently hands-on and active discipline. Instead of debating for days whether a new idea is possible or what the best way to build something is, hackers would rather just prototype something and see what works. There’s a hacker mantra that you’ll hear a lot around Facebook offices: “Code wins arguments.”

Hacker culture is also extremely open and meritocratic. Hackers believe that the best idea and implementation should always win – not the person who is best at lobbying for an idea or the person who manages the most people….

To make sure all our engineers share this approach, we require all new engineers – even managers whose primary job will not be to write code – to go through a program called Bootcamp where they learn our codebase, our tools and our approach. There are a lot of folks in the industry who manage engineers and don’t want to code themselves, but the type of hands-on people we’re looking for are willing and able to go through Bootcamp.

Now, listeners to Digital Campus will know that I am no fan of Facebook, which I abandoned years ago, and I’m not so naive as to swallow corporate boilerplate hook, line, and sinker. Nevertheless, it seems to me that in this case Zuckerberg was speaking from the heart and the not the wallet. As Business Insider’s Henry Blodget pointed out in the days of Facebook’s share price freefall immediately following its IPO, investors should have read Zuckerberg’s letter as a warning: he really believes this stuff. In the end, however, whether it’s heartfelt or not, or whether it actually reflects the reality of how Facebook operates, I share my colleague Audrey Watters’ sentiment that “as someone who thinks a lot about the necessity for more fearlessness, openness, speed, flexibility and real social value in education (technology) — and wow, I can’t believe I’m typing this — I find this part of Zuckerberg’s letter quite a compelling vision for shaking up a number of institutions (and not just “old media” or Wall Street).”

There is a widely held belief in the academy that the labor of those who think and talk is more valuable than the labor of those who build and do. Professorial contributions to knowledge are considered original research while librarians and educational technologists’ contributions to these endeavors are called service. These are not merely imagined prejudices. They are manifest in human resource classifications and in the terms of contracts that provide tenure to one group and, often, at will employment to the other.

Digital humanities is increasingly in the public eye. The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Economist all have published feature articles on the subject recently. Some of this coverage has been positive, some of it modestly skeptical, but almost all of it has focused on the kinds of research questions digital humanities can (or maybe cannot) answer. How digital media and methods have changed humanities knowledge is an important question. But practicing digital humanists understand that an equally important aspect of the digital shift is the extent to which digital media and methods have changed humanities work and the traditional labor and power structures of the university. Perhaps most important has been the calling into question of the traditional hierarchy of academic labor which placed librarians “in service” to scholars. Time and again, digital humanities projects have succeeded by flattening distinctions and divisions between faculty, librarians, technicians, managers, and students. Time and again, they have failed by maintaining these divisions, by honoring traditional academic labor hierarchies rather than practicing something like the hacker way.

Blowing up the inherited management structures of the university isn’t an easy business. Even projects that understand and appreciate the tensions between these structures and the hacker way find it difficult to accommodate them. A good example of an attempt at such an accommodation has been the “community source” model of software development advanced by some in the academic technology field. Community source’s successes and failures, and the reasons for them, illustrate just how important it is to make room for the hacker way in digital humanities and academic technology projects.

As Brad Wheeler wrote in EDUCAUSE Review in 2007, a community source project is distinguished from more generic open source models by the fact that “many of the investments of developers’ time, design, and project governance come from institutional contributions by colleges, universities, and some commercial firms rather than from individuals.” Funders of open source software in the academic and cultural heritage fields have often preferred the community source model assuming that, because of high level institutional commitments, the projects it generates will be more sustainable than projects that rely mainly on volunteer developers. In these community source projects, foundations and government funding agencies put up major start-up funding on the condition that recipients commit regular staff time—”FTEs”—to work on the project alongside grant funded staff.

The community source model has proven effective in many cases. Among its success stories are Sakai, an open source learning management system, and Kuali, an open source platform for university administration. Just as often, however, community source projects have failed. As I argued in a grant proposal to the Library of Congress for CHNM’s Omeka + Neatline collaboration with UVa’s Scholars’ Lab, community source projects have usually failed in one of two ways: either they become mired in meetings and disagreements between partner institutions and never really get off the ground in the first place, or they stall after the original source of foundation or government funding runs out. In both cases, community source failures lie in the failure to win the “hearts and minds” of the developers working on the project, in the failure to flatten traditional hierarchies of academic labor, in the failure to do it “the hacker way.”

In the first case—projects that never really get off the ground—developers aren’t engaged early enough in the process. Because they rely on administrative commitments of human resources, conversations about community source projects must begin with administrators rather than developers. These collaborations are born out of meetings between administrators located at institutions that are often geographically distant and culturally very different. The conversations that result can frequently end in disagreement. But even where consensus is reached, it can be a fragile basis for collaboration. We often tend to think of collaboration as shared decision making. But as I have said in this space before, shared work and shared accomplishment are more important. As Zuckerberg has it, digital projects are “inherently hands-on and active”; that “instead of debating for days whether a new idea is possible or what the best way to build something is, hackers would rather just prototype something and see what works”; that “the best idea and implementation should always win—not the person who is best at lobbying for an idea or the person who manages the most people.” That is, the most successful digital work occurs at the level of work, not at the level of discussion, and for this reason hierarchies must be flattened. Everyone has to participate in the building.

In the second case—projects that stall after funding runs out—decisions are made for developers (about platforms, programming languages, communication channels, deadlines) early on in the planning process that may deeply affect their work at the level of code sometimes several months down the road. These decisions can stifle developer creativity or make their work unnecessarily difficult, both of which can lead to developer disinterest. Yet experience both inside and outside of the academy shows us that what sustains an open source project after funding runs out is the personal interest and commitment of developers. In the absence of additional funding, the only thing that will get bugs fixed and forum posts answered are committed developers. Developer interest is often a project’s best sustainability strategy. As Zuckerberg says, “hackers believe that something can always be better, and that nothing is ever complete.” But they have to want to do so.

When decisions are made for developers (and other “doers” on digital humanities and academic technology projects such as librarians, educational technologists, outreach coordinators, and project managers), they don’t. When they are put in a position of “service,” they don’t. When traditional hierarchies of academic labor are grafted onto digital humanities and academic technology projects that owe their success as much to the culture of the digital age as they do to the culture of the humanities, they don’t.

Facebook understands that the hacker way works best in the digital age. Successful digital humanists and academic technologists do too.

[This post is based on notes for a talk I was scheduled to deliver at a NERCOMP event in Amherst, Massachusetts on Monday, February 11, 2013. The title of that talk was intended to be “‘Not My Job’: Digital Humanities and the Unhelpful Hierarchies of Academic Labor.” Unfortunately, the great Blizzard of 2013 kept me away. Thankfully, I have this blog, so all is not lost.]

[Image credit: Thomas Hawk]

One Week | One Tool: Interim Report

As promised on Twitter, I’m sharing the report (with a few minor copyedits and corrections) I submitted this week to NEH on One Week | One Tool. This is an interim report, which means there are plenty of questions that remain unanswered. The grant continues for another year, during which time the One Week | One Tool crew will be working to support and extend their work together. I’m sure I’ll be blogging about their progress as we go, but at the very least I’ll post again with the final report next summer.

Executive Summary

One Week | One Tool represents a groundbreaking experiment in digital humanities training and digital humanities tool building. Culminating with the institute held July 25 – July 31, 2010 at the Center for History and New Media (CHNM) at George Mason University and the institute participants’ successful construction and release, in seven days, of a completely new open source software product, One Week | One Tool has made significant strides in proving its central claims: 1) that learning by doing is an important and effective part of digital humanities training; 2) that the traditional NEH summer institute can be adapted to accommodate this kind of practical digital humanities pedagogy; and 3) that digital humanities tools can be built more quickly and affordably than common practice would suggest. The second year of the project will seek to reinforce these claims and continue to advance participant learning through ongoing engagement and further development of the tool that was built during their week at CHNM—Anthologize.

Recruitment

The first task of the One Week | One Tool team was to publicize the institute. After dates were chosen, we developed a simple website in the style of an Old West poster to call for proposals. The call for proposals was issued in early February and closed in mid-March. To publicize the call, we leveraged CHNMs extensive outreach networks among digital humanities bloggers and on Twitter, where the announcement generated significant attention and excitement. Applicants were asked to answer three questions: 1) What skills/experiences/interests you think are most important to building a successful tool? 2) Which of these skills/experiences/interests you will bring to the barn raising? 3) What you think you will get out of attending that will help you in future pursuits? From this call, we received 48 formal applications and approximately another dozen serious expressions of interest.

The selection process was remarkably difficult. At least 35 of the 48 applicants were perfectly qualified to attend. To differentiate among them, we stuck to the criteria we outlined in our original proposal and laid out in the call. Applicants were chosen not on the basis of specific qualifications (e.g. a higher degree or particular skill set), but on evidence of teamwork, patience, flexibility, and resourcefulness (such as a history of picking up a programming language on one’s own). We were also looking to assemble a diverse group who together would possess the entire range of skills necessary to conceive, manage, build, and disseminate a tools project. The final group represented a broad range of scholars, students, librarians, museum professionals, developers, user interaction designers, bloggers, and project managers. They were also relatively diverse in terms of gender (4 women, 8 men) and seniority (ranging from a recently graduated college student to a tenured faculty member). Given the importance of intra-team dynamics to the success of software development projects, we took pains to introduce participants to one another via Twitter in the weeks after their acceptance so that they could begin establishing a sense of camaraderie ahead of their intense week of working together in July.

The Institute

Institute participants arrived on Sunday, July 25, 2010 for a kick-off meeting at George Mason University’s brand new Mason Inn and Conference Center, which served as the participants’ home away from home during One Week | One Tool. Participants’ transportation and lodging were arranged and paid ahead of time, with an additional $1000 stipend provided to each participant as an honorarium and to cover any incidentals. After a round of personal and professional introductions, project director Tom Scheinfeldt provided a brief introduction to CHNM and some of the core values CHNM brings to its open source software development work. Particular emphasis was placed on the value of "use," that the best measure of a tool’s success is its uptake and actual use by its intended audience. The first evening concluded with a brief discussion of participant and organizer expectations and an exhortation to get a good night’s sleep.

Monday was originally designed as the "teaching" phase of One Week | One Tool, during which CHNM staff members would provide participants with some lessons in software development best practices. This was ultimately the least successful portion of the program. Although introductory talks on technical aspects of software development (Jeremy Boggs), outreach mechanisms and community building (Trevor Owens), and the state of the art of digital humanities tools (Dan Cohen) were well received, participants were eager to get down to brass tacks, and we made a strategic decision to cut short the lectures and begin brainstorming tool choices a half day early on Monday afternoon.

Brainstorming continued through Monday evening and into Tuesday morning. By mid-morning on Tuesday, the group had proposed dozens of possible directions for the week’s tool building. By lunchtime, it had distilled those ideas down to six possible candidates. Over lunch, the group asked followers on Twitter to vote on the six choices. Well over 50 outside observers recorded their preferences. Taking this outside feedback into account, the group conducted two rounds of voting of its own, making a final consensus decision by mid-afternoon on Tuesday.

Work then turned to choosing roles and responsibilities. With guidance from CHNM staff, by Tuesday evening, participants had arranged themselves into three teams: Development, User Experience, and Outreach. Work began immediately, with developers making choices about encoding and architecture, user experience team members outlining potential use cases, and outreach staff researching the competitive marketplace and writing website copy.

Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday were each long days of code, design, and writing. The group quickly established a daily routine, which started with an all-project check-in meeting at CHNM’s offices at 10:00 a.m., was punctuated by a return to the Mason Inn at about 6:00 p.m., and ended with yet more work
at the hotel bar, usually until well past closing. Communication, leadership, and even membership among the teams were fluid, with teams spontaneously reconfiguring as particular skills were required for particular tasks. Moreover, throughout this "doing" phase, Tom, Dan, Jeremy, and Trevor encouraged additional CHNM staff—including Sharon Leon, Sheila Brennan, Ammon Shepherd, and John Flatness—to be available to help participants solve problems and make tough decisions. By Saturday morning, the One Week | One Tool team had designed and built the software; established an open code repository, a ticketing and bug tracking system, and a set of open source community development channels; and mounted an outreach and marketing campaign that consisted of an original name, logo, and website, as well as promotional bookmarks and stickers, a CafePress storefront, a formal press release, a media contact sheet, a set of public use cases, an FAQ page, and other end-user support channels.

During the course of the week, several members of the team "live blogged" and Tweeted (using the hashtag #oneweek) about this process, but they did so without giving away the final choice of tool, which served to create a buzz about the launch among potential users in the digital humanities community. Between July 25th and August 1st, hundreds of tweets were tagged #oneweek, mostly by outside observers, a measure of the extent to which One Week | One Tool captured the imagination of the digital humanities community. The tool the group produced, Anthologize, was launched on Tuesday, August 3, 2010 with a live video episode of CHNM’s popular Digital Campus podcast. More than 125 people took time out of their work day to tune in to the live announcement. In the days following the announcement, One Week | One Tool and the Anthologize were featured by Atlantic.com, Read Write Web, the Chronicle of Higher Education, and dozens of digital humanities blogs. As one external commentator put it, Anthologize and One Week | One Tool experiment had "set the DH world abuzz."

Anthologize

Anthologize is a free, open-source plugin that transforms WordPress 3.0 into a platform for publishing electronic texts. Anthologize lets users grab posts from their WordPress blog, import feeds from external sites, or create new content directly within Anthologize. Users can then outline, order, and edit their work, crafting it into a single volume for export in several formats, including PDF, ePUB, and TEI. Among Anthologize’s projected users are scholars (to edit anthologies of thematically related blog posts or publish conference proceedings), teachers (to edit student class work into e-portfolios or organize course reading packs), and cultural institutions (to publish exhibit books or donor gift books). Directions for future development include additional export formats, improved importing of external web content, footnote support, and integrating blog comments into the Anthologize editorial workflow.

Learning Outcomes

We are still collecting survey responses and assessing the results, but early on it is clear that One Week | One Tool was a positive learning experience for the participants. Unlike many curriculum-based institutes, the experiences and therefore the learning outcomes at One Week | One Tool varied widely among the participants depending on their team membership and on the skills they brought to the institute. Nevertheless, an initial analysis of participant survey responses reveals some commons themes. Among them:

  • Most participants responded that they learned about collaboration, leadership, and team building. Doug Knox pointed to the "self-taught lessons in group dynamics for a team of pragmatic collaborative autodidacts" he took from One Week | One Tool. As one participant responded, those lessons included "the kind of flexibility, trust, humility, and perseverance that is necessary to take on a relatively big project in a short period of time." In a post titled "Unexpected leadership," Boone Gorges echoed these lessons, writing "leadership doesn’t work without humility and trust." Effie Kapsalis described that same lesson plainly on the Smithsonian 2.0 blog: "Trust. Period."
  • Related to this were the lessons in decision making and calculated risk that most participants said they took away. As one participant wrote, "the experience really made me understand how much fear of acting alone can stall development and how trusting the emergent properties of the system can really lead to fantastic results." Jana Remy wrote in a related vein on her blog, "…one of the most important things we’ve learned through this workshop is the importance of calculated risk. It’s risky to forge forward with a digital project without months of planning, coding, and testing. It’s risky to trust near-strangers to deliver on such a tight deadline…. Our team selected one of the more daring choices available for our project. We were ready to be bold and to dream big. Even if the rest of the world doesn’t see our tool’s potential to be as earthshaking as we do, the process of manifesting our vision for this tool has been a valuable lesson in and of itself, and will certainly carry through to our future endeavors."
  • Several participants responded that they learned about outreach methods, marketing, and dissemination of digital humanities products. As one participant said, "I really found the information on how to manage publicity and outreach extremely useful, and I was completely stunned by the results…."
  • Several participants said they learned particular technologies (e.g. WordPress and Git) and practical lessons in open source software development best practices: "I also think I came to understand a bit more about how agile methodologies really work," remarked one participant.
  • Some participants pointed to their improved understanding of "what constitutes a full end-to-end development cycle." Experienced programmers and project managers, even those who entered the week with hundreds of thousands of lines of code under their belts and long track records of successful digital humanities work, responded that they learned about the differe
    nces between building a tool "from conception to roll-out" as they did at One Week | One Tool and the ad-hoc or task-specific development they do in the normal course of their work.

Every participant that responded to our survey said that One Week | One Tool met or exceeded his or her expectations, that it met its stated goals, that the experience would advance his or her career objectives, and that the model of learning by doing was effective. There were, however, at least two criticisms that were repeated by several participants. First, as mentioned above, most participants would have preferred to cut the Monday lecture portion of the program shorter, something we addressed on the spot and will keep in mind for any possible repeat events. Second, at least two people wanted to see more learning from fellow team members. The fast paced development cycle too often forced participants to keep their noses to the grindstone and opportunities for cross-pollination and peer-to-peer learning were sometimes missed. In any repeat performance of One Week | One Tool we will take seriously one participant’s observation that "…the group itself would have benefited from a more concerted effort to mix up knowledge multilaterally. There was some tension between working in small teams to get work done and making sure we had informal chances to share a sense across groups about the state of progress and the development of our sense of purpose. There were in fact essential unplanned lateral communications in all directions, and the bar was especially important in that. It worked, but there could be room to make it a more reflective process. We should have been teaching our strengths as well as contributing them, and apprenticing in our less-strong areas."

Yet in discussing One Week | One Tool’s learning outcomes, it is also important to note that, perhaps unlike more traditional institutes, the learning appears to have extended well beyond the twelve participants who traveled to Fairfax. This possibly unique aspect of One Week | One Tool results from the fact that: 1) it was an event, and 2) it produced a product for widespread distribution and use. As Tim Carmody posted on Snarkmarket, One Week | One Tool was a "generative web event," an "ongoing communal broadcast." Because it took place over a limited and clearly delineated time period, because it posited a provocative, easy-to-grasp, and unlikely challenge (academics build something in a week?), because it maintained an air of secrecy, and because it was widely publicized, One Week | One Tool was able not only to create "buzz" but to provoke conversation and discussion of serious issues among a broad range digital humanities scholars who could use their common experience of One Week | One Tool as a touchstone for debate. Two examples of this kind of broader discussion are ongoing exchanges about the nature of electronic writing and its relationship to the printed page and about the relative merits of pre- versus post-launch user studies.

Next Steps

Over the next year, the original group of twelve participants will continue to develop the tool from remote locations around the country, forming the core of an open source developer and user community that they will build and support. Indeed, the team has already developed and released a "point release" version 0.4 in the time since they left Fairfax. During the next ten months, the group will fix bugs in the software and add new features. It will continue to disseminate the software through online outreach and in-person conference presentations. As part of the group’s training in digital humanities software sustainability, it will also work with staff at CHNM to write grant proposals for additional funding and implement cost recovery mechanisms where appropriate. In June 2011, the group will travel back to Fairfax for THATCamp 2011 to assess the progress of the past year, gather additional feedback from community members, and make decisions about future development and support of Anthologize.

Conclusion

Overall, we are pleased with the progress of the One Week | One Tool project. The main learning objective of the project was to teach software development and deployment skills to a group of diverse group of digital humanists. As explained to participants on the first evening of the institute, we believe the best measure of the success of a tool is its use by and usefulness to its intended audience. By extension, the best measure of whether a group of people have learned to build successful tools is whether the tool they built is actually useful to and used by its audience. Early indications are good. In less than ten days the Anthologize website has received 232,000 hits, 75,000 page views, and 13,000 unique visitors, and the Anthologize software has been downloaded more than 2,500 times. We have high hopes for the coming year, and we will continue to keep track of these numbers and follow the projects that use Anthologize.

Lessons from One Week | One Tool – Part 2, Use

For all the emphasis on the tool itself, the primary aim of One Week | One Tool is not tool building, it’s education. One Week | One Tool is funded by NEH under the the Institutes for Advanced Topics in Digital Humanities (IATDH) program. IATDH grants “support national or regional (multistate) training programs for scholars and advanced graduate students to broaden and extend their knowledge of digital humanities.” Thus training is the criteria by which One Week | One Tool will ultimately be judged.

A key argument of One Week | One Tool is that learning digital humanities consists primarily in doing digital humanities, that digital humanities is a hands-on kind of thing, that to learn tool building you have to do some tool building. At the same time, we recognize that there’s a place for instruction of the hands-off sort. To that end, the first 18 hours or so of One Week | One Tool (essentially from Sunday night until mid-afternoon on Monday) were reserved for presentations by CHNM staff. Jeremy offered a practical introduction to software development best practices and tools. Trevor described the range of outreach strategies we have employed on projects like Zotero, Omeka, and the National History Education Clearinghouse. Dan provided the view from 30,000 feet with thoughts on the state of the art and near future of digital humanities software development. I kicked things off on Sunday with a brief introduction to CHNM and our tool building philosophy. Several strains of thought and practice inform our work at CHNM—public history, cultural history, radical democracy, dot.com atmospherics, and more—but to keep things simple I summed up our tool building philosophy in one word: use.

Here is more or less what I told the crew.

At CHNM we judge our tools by one key metric above all others: use. Successful tools are tools that are used. The databases of Sourceforge and Google Code are littered with interesting, even useful, but unused open source tools. Academic software projects are no exception. Every year NSF, NIH, and now NEH and IMLS award grants for scholarly software development. In recent years, the funding guidelines have stipulated that this software be made freely available under open source licenses. Much of the software produced by these programs is good and useful code. But little of it is actually used.

There are several reasons for this. Many efforts are focused narrowly on the problems of a particular researcher or lab. While the code produced by these researchers proves useful for solving their particular problems, even when released, it hasn’t been designed to be generally applicable to the needs of other researchers in the field. It is, in effect, a one-off tool released as open source. But open source code alone does not constitute an open source project.

Other projects build generalized tools that may be of potential use to other researchers. But few make the necessary investment in outreach and, yes, marketing to make potential users aware of the tool. It is for this reason, among others, that we see so much duplication of effort and functionality in scholarly software projects.

Building a user community is the first prerequisite to building a successful open source software project. The success of software is judged by its use. The universal assessment that iTunes is a hit and Zune is a flop is not based on the quality of the code or even the elegance or potential usefulness of the experience. It’s based on the fact that everybody uses iTunes and nobody uses Zune. This is not to say that software has to have millions of users to be successful. But it is to say that successful software is used by large swath of its potential users. To be sure, the total population of potential users of cultural heritage mapping tools is much smaller than the total population of potential users of digital media playback software. But any open source software project’s goal should be use by as many of its potential users as possible. In any case, we should aim to have our software used by as many cultural heritage institutions and digital humanists as possible.

Moreover, a large and enthusiastic user base is key to a successful open source software project’s continued success. If people use a product, they will invest in that product. They will provide valuable user testing. They will support the project in its efforts to secure financial support. They will help market the product, creating a virtuous circle. Sustainability, even for free software, is grounded in a committed customer base.

Related to building a user community is building an open source developer community. Some number of users will have the inclination, the skills, and the commitment to the project to help on the level of code. This percentage will be very small, of course, less than one percent, which is another reason to build a large user base. But this small group of code contributors and volunteer developers forms the core of most successful open source projects. They find and fix bugs. They provide end user support. They write documentation. They add new features and functionality. They provide vision and critical assessment. They constitute a ready-made pool of job candidates if a core paid developer leaves a project.

This developer community is a project’s best chance at sustainability, and collaboration at the developer level, rather than collaboration at the institution or administrator level, is usually key to a scholarly open source project’s lasting success. Getting provosts, deans, and directors from partner institutions to commit FTE’s and other resources to a project is very welcome—we’d love some commitments of this sort for the tool we built last week. But it’s not where the strength of a collaboration will be located. Individual developers, who commit their time, effort, ideas, code, heart and soul to a project, are the ones who will keep something going when money and institutional interest runs out.

A developer community does not develop on its own, of course. It requires support. First and foremost, a developer community needs open communication channels—an active IRC channel and listserv, for example—something which, in the case of a university of library-based project, means a group of responsive staff developers on other end. Community developers need profitable access to the project’s development roadmap so they know where best to contribute their efforts. They need well-documented and thoughtfully-designed APIs. They need technical entry points, things such as a plugin architecture where they can hone their chops on small bits of functionality before digging into the core code base. Most importantly, community developers need a sense of community, a sense of shared purpose, and a sense that their volunteer contributions are valued. All of this has to be planned, managed, and built into the software architecture.

This philosophy of use is core to CHNM’s vision of open source software for scholarship and cultural heritage. The tool the crew of One Week | One Tool developed—like Omeka and Zotero before it—should be case in point. It was chosen with clear audiences in mind. It was built on approachable technologies and engineered to be extensible. It’s outreach plan and feedback channels are designed to encourage broad participation. When it’s released tomorrow, I think you’ll see it is a tool to be used.

#oneweek #buildsomething

Open Source Community and the Omeka Controlled Vocabulary Plugin

I love open source. Why? Here’s a fairly representative example.

Following Patrick Murray-John’s excellent post and bootstrapping of a new AjaxCreate plugin for Omeka, I speculated on the Omeka Dev List about whether some related technologies and methods could be used to power a plugin to handle controlled vocabularies and authority lists, something Omeka currently lacks and our users (including internal CHNM users) really want. After some back and forth among developers at three institutions—and some very important input from a non-technical but very smart (and very brave!) member of Omeka’s end user community—we were able 1) to determine that AjaxCreate probably wasn’t the right vehicle for managing controlled vocabularies, and 2) to lay out some informal specs for a separate, lightweight ControlledVocab plugin. Patrick then set to building it and today introduced an alpha version of ControlledVocab to the dev list.

All of this happened in less than a week. Through the combined efforts of developers and users, the Omeka community was able to identify, describe, and make some ambitious first steps toward pluging a hole in the software. The moral of this story is get involved. Whether you’re a developer or an end user, go download some open source software (Omeka would be a nice choice), test it out (how about the ControlledVocab plugin?), post bugs and feature requests to the forums or dev lists, and see what ensues.

Often it’s something marvelous.

Benchmarking Open Source: Measuring Success by "Low End" Adoption

In an article about Kuali adoption, the Chronicle of Higher Education quotes Campus Computing Project director, Kenneth C. Green as saying,

With due respect to the elites that are at the core of Sakai and also Kuali, the real issue is not the deployment of Kuali or Sakai at MIT, at Michigan, at Indiana, or at Stanford. It’s really what happens at other institutions, the non-elites.

Indeed, all government- and charity (read, “foundation”)-funded open source projects should measure their success by adoption at the “low end.” That goes for library and museum technology as well; we could easily replace MIT, Michigan, Indiana, and Stanford in Mr. Green’s quote with Beinecke, Huntington, MoMA, and Getty, Though we still have a long way to go—the launch of Omeka.net will help a lot—Omeka aims at just that target.

E-Book Readers: Parables of Closed and Open

During a discussion of e-book readers on a recent episode of Digital Campus, I made a comparison between Amazon’s Kindle and Apple’s iPod which I think more or less holds up. Just as Apple revolutionized a fragmented, immature digital music player market in the early 2000s with an elegant, intuitive new device (the iPod) and a seamless, integrated, but closed interface for using it (iTunes)—and in doing so managed very nearly to corner that market—so too did Amazon hope to corner an otherwise stale e-book market with the introduction last year of its slick, integrated, but closed Kindle device and wireless bookstore. No doubt Amazon would be more than happy with the eighty percent of the e-book market that Apple now enjoys of the digital music player market.

In recent months, however, there have been a slew of announcements that seem to suggest that Amazon will not be able to get the same kind of jump on the e-book market that Apple got on the digital music market. Several weeks ago, Sony announced that it was revamping its longstanding line of e-book readers with built-in wifi (one of the big selling points of the Kindle) and support for the open EPUB standard (which allows it to display Google Books). Now it appears that Barnes & Noble is entering the market with its own e-book reader, and in more recent news, that its device will run on the open source Android mobile operating platform.

If these entries into the e-book market are successful, it may foretell of a more open future for e-books than has befallen digital music. It would also suggest that the iPod model of a closed, end-to-end user experience isn’t the future of computing, handheld or otherwise. Indeed, as successful and transformative as it is, Apple’s iPhone hasn’t been able to achieve the kind of dominance of the “superphone” market that the iPod did of the music player market, something borne out by a recent report by Gartner, which has Nokia’s Symbian and Android in first and second place by number of handsets by 2012 with more than fifty percent market share. This story of a relatively open hardware and operating system combination winning out over a more closed, more controlled platform is the same one that played out two decades ago when the combination of the PC and Windows won out over the Mac for leadership of the personal computing market. If Sony, Barnes & Noble, and other late entrants into the e-book game finish first, it will have shown the end-to-end iPod experience to be the exception rather than the rule, much to Amazon’s disappointment I’m sure.

UVA Scholars' Lab Working to Connect Omeka and Fedora

The Scholars’ Lab at the University of Virginia is working on a new plugin for Omeka that would connect an Omeka frontend to a Fedora repository backend. An early version of the code can be downloaded from the Omeka SVN repository. Any questions or comments on the plugin should be directed to the Omeka Dev list. We’re very grateful for the hard work of our friends at UVA, especially Wayne Graham, the Scholars’ Lab’s head of research. We hope this comes as further demonstration of the growing strength of Omeka’s open source community and the flexibility of its technology.

Briefly Noted: FOSS Culture; Digital Humanities Calendar; Guardian API; WWW Turns 20

GNOME Foundation executive director Stormy Peters has some advice on bridging the gap between institutional and open source cultures. Useful reading for digital humanities centers and cultural heritage institutions looking to participate in open source software development.

Amanda French has posted a much-needed open calendar of upcoming events in Digital Humanities, Archives, Libraries, and Museums.

The Guardian newspaper unveils an open API to more than 1,000,000 articles written since 1999.

20 years ago today: Tim Berners-Lee produced his first written description of the Web.

Brand Name Scholar

Scholars may not like it, but that doesn’t change the fact that in the 21st century’s fragmented media environment, marketing and branding are key to disseminating the knowledge and tools we produce. This is especially true in the field of digital humanities, where we are competing for attention not only with other humanists and other cultural institutions, but also with titans of the blogosphere and big-time technology firms. Indeed, CHNM spends quite a bit of energy on branding—logo design, search engine optimization, cool SWAG, blogs like this one—something we view as central to our success and our mission: to get history into as many hands possible. (CHNM’s actual mission statement reads, “Since 1994 under the founding direction of Roy Rosenzweig, CHNM has used digital media and computer technology to democratize history—to incorporate multiple voices, reach diverse audiences, and encourage popular participation in presenting and preserving the past.”)

In my experience, branding is mostly a game learned by trial and error, which is the only way to really understand what works for your target audience. But business school types also have some worthwhile advice. One good place to start is a two part series on “personal branding” from Mashable, which provides some easy advice for building a brand for your self or your projects. Another very valuable resource, which was just posted yesterday, is the Mozilla Community Marketing Guide. In it the team that managed to carve out a 20% market share from Microsoft for the open source web browser Firefox provides invaluable guidance not only on branding, but also on giving public presentations, using social networking, finding sponsorships, and dealing with the media that is widely transferable to marketing digital humanities and cultural heritage projects.

It may not be pretty, but in an internet of more than one trillion pages, helping your work stand out is no sin.

(Note: I’ll be leading a lunchtime discussion of these and other issues relating to electronic marketing and outreach for cultural heritage projects later today at the IMLS WebWise conference in Washington, D.C. I’ll be using #webwise on Twitter if you’d like to follow my updates from the conference.)

New Omeka Support Resources

Omeka Team Omeka has been hard at work. Not only are we preparing for a 1.0 alpha release in early March, we have also been working with the Omeka community to improve support for the steadily growing numbers of institutions and individuals using Omeka to display their collections and build exhibitions in rich narrative and visual context. A few of the latest developments:

  • A new series of Omeka “playdates” (informal training sessions) launched last week with a well-attended even at Omeka HQ in Fairfax. A second playdate, to be held on Thursday, April 2 before the start of the National Council on Public History annual meeting in Providence, was just announced. A third, again in Fairfax, will fill the Friday between the close of Digital Humanities 2009 and the start of THATCamp on June 26. We will be announcing additional dates in the weeks ahead. Visit the Omeka Events calendar for more information, to sign up, and to see a list of upcoming papers and presentations by Omeka staff members.
  • By now many of you are already following @omeka on Twitter. Do you also know that you can track changes to the Omeka trunk on Twitter by following @omekatrac?
  • The Omeka development team and development community are always available to answer questions about theme and plugin development, receive bug reports, and accept code contributions via the Omeka Dev Google Group. Now the community is also available via IRC at irc.freenode.net #omeka. Check in at 2:30 EST on Fridays for the weekly developers’ meet-up.

As always, new or prospective Omeka users should play in the Sandbox and visit the getting started sections of our open, editable documentation. In coming weeks, we will be convening a community documentation working group to improve our support resources in advance of the 1.0 release. Let us know if you’d like to get involved.