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Aggregate This!

Aggregate This!

July 12, 2006

“You’re either part of the solution,” as Eldridge Cleaver put it in 1968, “or part of the problem.” It was the one Black Panther slogan that appealed to Richard Nixon. He repeated it four years later, while running for re-election. A catchy saying, then. But also a risky one, in regard to the tempting of fate. (There is always a chance that you are just making the problem worse, simply by assuming you are solving it.)

Over the past few columns, I’ve pointed to some opportunities and difficulties created by emerging forms of digital publishing. In particular, the item from last week – the one suggesting that university presses might benefit from working out a modus vivendi with academic bloggers -- has generated interest and discussion. The space available online for the discussion of new books is, for all practical purposes, boundless. Meanwhile, the traditional forms of mass media place pay ever less attention to books. The avenues for making a new title known to the public get slimmer all the time. Literally slimmer, in some cases. Recently the San Francisco Chronicle cut its review section from eight pages to four, hardly an unusual development nowadays.

But will urging university presses to think more seriously about blogs (and other new media forms) really offer a solution? Or does it just compound the problem? Hearing from readers over the past week, I’ve started to wonder.

Many presses have very compact publicity departments – often enough, a single person. The work includes preparing each season’s catalog, sending out review copies, and working the display booth at conferences.

“So now,” the weary cry goes up, “we have to look at blogs too? Just how are we supposed to find the right one for a given book? There seem to be thousands of them. And that’s just counting the ones with pictures of the professors’ cats.”

Fair enough. Life is too short, and bloggers too numerous. And let’s not even get into podcasting or digital video....

The great strength of emergent media forms is also their great weakness. I mean, of course, the extreme decentralization that now characterizes “the broadband flatland.” It is now relatively easy to produce and distribute content. But it also proves a challenge to find one’s way around in a zone that is somehow expanding, crowded, and borderless, all at once.

With such difficulties in mind, then, I want to propose a kind of public-works project. The time has come to create a map. In fact, it is hard to imagine things can continue much longer without one.

At very least, we need a Web site giving users some idea what landmarks already exist in the digital space of academe. This would take time to create, of course. More than that, it would require a lot of good will.

But the benefits would be immediate -- not just for university presses and academic bloggers, but for librarians, students, and researcher within academe and without.

My grasp of the technology involved is extremely limited. So the following proposal is offered -- with all due humility -- to the attention of people capable of judging how practical it might be. For it ever to get off the ground, a catchy name would be required. For now, let’s call it the Aggregator Academica, or AggAcad for short.

Assuming a few people are interested, it might be possible to start building AggAcad rather soon. I imagine it going through two major rounds of improvement after that. Here’s the blueprint.

AggAcad 1.0 would resemble the phonebook for a very small town -- with one column of business numbers and another of personal. It would provide a rather bare-bones set of links, in two broad categories.

There would be an online directory of academic publishers, similar to the one now provided by the Association of American University Presses. But it would also have links to the Web sites of other scholarly imprints, whether from commercial publishers or professional organizations.

The other component of the start-up site would be an academic blogroll – perhaps an  updated version of the one now available at Crooked Timber, divided broadly by disciplines.

My assumption is that the initial group would be ad hoc, and assemble itself from a few people from each side of town. They would need to work out criteria for each list: the terms for deciding what links to include, and what to exclude. (Perhaps it is naive to place much trust in the power of collegiality. But it might be worth risking a little naiveté.)

The lists would be updated periodically. Meanwhile, the AggAcad team would need to go hunting for the storage space and the grant money required for the next stage of development.

AggAcad 2.0 would provide not just directories but content from and about scholarly publishing. As academic presses make more material available online -- sample chapters, interviews with authors, etc. --  the site would point readers to it. (This aspect of the site might be run by RSS or similar feeds.) Likewise, visitors to the site would learn of the more substantial reviews in online publications, including symposia on new books held by academic bloggers.

At some point, the whole site might be made searchable. (We can call this the 2.5 version.) A reader could type in “Rawls bioethics” and be given links to pertinent books, podcasts, blog entries etc. that have been referred to at the site. The total number of results would be smaller than that returned via Google -- but probably also richer in substance, per hit.

As AggAcad became more useful over time, it would presumably attract scholars and publishers who valued the site. Working on it might begin to count as professional service.
 
AggAcad 3.0 would incorporate elements of Digg -- the Web site that allows readers in the site’s community to recommend links and vote on how interesting or useful they prove. For an introduction to “the digg effect,” check out this Wikipedia article.

By this stage, AggAcad would provide something like a hub to the far-flung academic blogosphere (or whatever we are calling it within a few years). Individuals would still be able to generate and publish content as they see fit. The advantages of decentralization would continue. But the site might foster more connections than now seem possible.

Information about new scholarly books could circulate in new ways. It would begin to have some influence on how the media covered academic issues. And -- who knows? -- the quality of public discussion might even rise a little bit.

Assuming any of it is possible, of course. I sketch this idea with the hope that people better placed to make that judgment might take the idea up ... or tear it to shreds. Is it a solution? Or just part of the problem? Hard to say. But of this much I am certain: Thanks to AggAcad, there is finally an expression even uglier than “blog.”

Bio

Scott McLemee writes Intellectual Affairs each week. Suggestions and ideas for future columns are welcome.

 

 

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