An interesting discussion starting on Public History Weekly on the (unmet?) promises of the web as the end of hierarchies of knowledge and the power of the digital dissemination – and impact – of research.
It’s relatively easy to point to the digital world as a democratising environment – but, in the case of academic research, do new media really disrupt how knowledge is made and interpreted? Or do they just offer new platforms for broadcasting the products of research, where the process is still held tightly within the confines of the universities and research institutes? Here are the comments I added:
What are the implications of working in an environment in which the new media play a powerful role (however we conceive of how they relate to, coexist with or complement ‘analogue’ scholarship) for the process of scholarship itself? Crowd-sourcing of data and pattern-identification isn’t that new in the sciences, and in the humanities, projects such as Trove in Australia are drawing in thousands of users to correct texts, tag items, upload content and contribute to the interpretation of material.
Nonetheless, old hierarchies, as Valentin Groebner notes – the book, the journal article – persist. Crowd-sourcing doesn’t change where the ‘real business’ of scholarship happens; it out-sources some of the graft involved to volunteer research assistants in cyberspace. Crowd-sourcing is valuable; it undoubtedly has an impact on research and on the circulation of knowledge. But does it fundamentally transform the process of knowledge creation? Mills Kelly is undertaking some impressive, and impressively radical, work with his students that is enabling them to move into the space of making and re-making history. Can we extend this from the classroom and into our core work, and identity, as historians – without that implying a compromise in intellectual rigour?
Public history talks the language of co-production of knowledge (and co-curation in museums is an emerging concept) and, in certain forms, the involvement of people as the subjects and audiences of historican enquiry is taken seriously. I think we can be more ambitious, however. There are some excellent public history platforms out there; the Old Bailey Online is a pioneering example, and even relatively simple platforms such as WordPress and HistoryPin are allowing students, community groups, heritage organisations and many others to contribute to historical knowledge. But what is the next stage? How can the scholarly conversation be opened up – as opposed to just scholarly knowledge? How can both ‘new’ and ‘old’ media, and the blurring of the boundaries between them, help create a much broader community of enquiry, not just a wider audience?
But we also need to think about how this might happen. ‘Follow the money’ is one of the tips we give to our public history students. The trend in recent UK funding policy is to restrict access to research money to fewer and fewer universities – the principle of ‘excellence wherever it’s found’ doesn’t always translate into practice – and those universities are often the least attuned to external engagement, at least outside the big corporates (let alone small community groups). Some funding is now flowing for forms of public engagement in the humanities, but could that end up creating a divide between ‘real research’ and the ‘soft stuff’ of collaboration with community groups and other users and audiences? Any such divide would allow for a ready ‘reprioritisation’ of funding in the event of further reductions in the overall research budget.
So while there might be as yet unrealised potential for using social media to break down some of the divides in terms of ‘making’ knowledge, whether that happens depends in part on whether we value – and fund – the academic work that takes collaboration seriously.