Promotional Considerations

Can we promote public knowledge without getting caught up in promoting ourselves?

May 1, 2014

I’ve just been noodling around ideas about libraries drawn from my very limited knowledge of the digital humanities and find myself bumping up against the issue of “impact.”

As Jeffrey Schnapp describes digital humanities, it’s an array of practices that are often collaborative, project-based, and public-facing. Libraries, archives, and museums can be both classrooms and laboratories for this collaborative project work and can support making work public. As he writes in his Short Guide to the Digital_Humanities, these cultural institutions are make spaces for inquiry.

Much as in a natural science laboratory, students involved in Digital Humanities projects learn by making and doing, working within this extended classroom under the guidance of expert curators, archivists, and researchers, and in the company of peers. Whereas traditional models of humanistic training view the acquisition of skill-sets and disciplinary training as preconditions for the transition to becoming engaged in the creation of original scholarship, Digital Humanities work accelerates this apprenticeship, inserting students into research communities from the start.

He adds, “the promotion of public knowledge is a core value of digital humanities.” It's also what libraries are for.

But “promotion” is one of those weirdly charged words. It picked up a charge, one I would consider a negative charge, from its use in marketing. Promoting knowledge so often gets tangled up with promoting ourselves or promoting a brand. 

We have the same problem when we talk about impact. We want our work to benefit people, but we also want it to make a splash, get attention, get cited a lot because it will benefit us. Attention is a form of currency in our hyperconnected, hypersocial age. We know Journal Impact Factors were never designed to rank individual scholars, but we use them anyway because – impact! We now can develop all kinds of altmetrics to count attention paid to our work in different ways, but that, too, strikes me as problematic. Attention is not the same thing as impact, and impact is not the same thing as insight.

The History in Pics Twitter stream is an interesting case in point. Its popularity is proof that people find history fascinating. That’s great! But unfortunately it makes a dog’s dinner of history. As Alexis Madrigal pointed out in an Atlantic profile of the two teens behind it, they aren't actually interested in history. The whole point is getting attention, because attention is a key commodity traded online. The young entrepreneurs plan to build an audience so that they can sell it, something they do regularly. No need to credit the source of the images. No need to check for accuracy or provide context. It’s all about attention.

That’s a problem. As Sarah Werner writes, “history is not a toy. It’s not a private amusement.” Nor is knowledge a commodity to be sold or to be used for personal gain. That’s not just a moral harrumph, there are practical reasons to resist the commodification of knowledge. When we insist that it have measurable impact, we tend to work with too short a timeline. Some ideas are depth charges that don’t go off for decades. Or they may not appear to have any obvious value. Take the case of Richard Feynman. In Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman, he describes how he was in a funk for a while, trying to decide what physics problem he should be working on. He decided he was burned out and wouldn’t amount to anything, but instead would simply play with physics and not worry about whether what he did was important or not. When he saw someone throw a plate in the air in the university cafeteria, he noticed the medallion on it was circling faster than the wobble of the plate. He decided to work out why. And though there was no obvious value to thinking about that plate, he says that idle thought contributed to the Nobel Prize that he won in 1965.

We each have to decide where to put our energies, and as a society we have to decide where to put our funding for the greatest good. But impact as we measure it isn’t a very good measure of the value of ideas, whether that impact is determined by how many times recent articles in a journal get cited or how many followers you attract on Twitter. Somehow, we need to promote public knowledge without getting caught up in how much publicity promotes us. 

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