How Delicious is Changing Academic Research
As of a recent post on Google Books and the research of History, our quiet little blog here on academic history, activism, and spirituality has suddenly gotten more notoriety than it's accustomed to. Hi world! Thanks for stopping by. To carry on with the thread of how information travels for academics, and what the 'net is doing, let's talk about another of my favorite sites for research, del.icio.us.
Delicious is the Rome, Jerusalem, and Paris of my existence as an academic these days. It's where I make my friends, how I get the news, and where I go to trade. All this from a little server that does nothing but share bookmarks in public.
Why? Two reasons it's cool. 1) It sorts things. 2) it makes them public.
1) it sorts things.
For two years I've been using Delicious as an information organizer. It's produced an impressive encyclopedia of the most interesting information, images, articles, citations, books, and subjects on the internet to which I might want to refer. Consider my dissertation tag, under which are a wide variety of online images and google books that I'll be using for my research. Not only can I come back to them, but I can also find related subjects -- dissertation material related to walking -- navigating seamlessly from one to another. As an improvement on the index card system, or on my own terrifying piles of articles (even now ornamenting my bookshelf), or even on the folders within folders within folders of word documents, this represents a definite improvement.
I've been building a taxonomy -- the way some people use wikis, the way my boyfriend uses that utterly cool personal software, "the brain;" the way my father uses his vertical file, the way my DC friends use their rolodexes -- so I sort out all the information I take in, annexing technology to memory, sorting factoids and spare threads and notable evidence in neat, interlocking piles where I can find information again, draw connections, and create new connections.
The result is a navigable taxonomy of my thoughts. If I want to find my stuff on the history of "walking," the taxonomy already knows that my material on walking is associated with other categories of knowledge which I've tagged nearby.
After a year of using delicious for my own bookmarks, helping other people find things becomes remarkably easy. Many of the link lists below are simply cut and paste over from delicious. Lists of citations for colleagues are cut and paste from delicious into email. The forty American history students I teach are instructed to go to my delicious page for writing help, research help, maps, and images relating to the class.
Second reason delicious is cool:
2) it makes things public.
Not only can you look at your own bookmarks, but you can also look at others'. When you find something noted to be queer and interesting, you can find out what other topics that same person thinks to be queer and interesting.
What's rapidly happening with these shared tags is academics finding each other in rapid numbers. I have some twenty people in my network, at least half of whom I've never met in real life. They include:
* Javier Arbona, a graduate student in Geography who's also at the University of California, Berkeley
* Travis Brown, a graduate student in literature
* LeahB, an editor at Cabinet Magazine, my favorite periodical
* bibliparis4, a librarian at one of the public universities in Paris
Each of these is another intellectual putting together rarified connections about strange pieces of thought somehow related to my world.
I found them because they were, like me, publicly tagging with some arcane tag that I also use. c19 -- the nineteenth century tag. vernacular -- a tag used by other people who work with ephemera.
Every morning, I log into my delicious network and read the links that my small army of admired, clever, canny, eccentric brains has put together for me.
What's more, I'm developing what I'd consider an actual working relationship with these other scholars. A few of them have added me to their own networks. Day to day, I watch their reactions to Bush, I get a sense of where their research is going, and they get a sense of mine. It's low-level, low-commitment hanging out with high levels of information exchange.
And this is something different than the social activity I know anywhere else on the internet.
Normally, if you want to meet people on the internet, the connections are typically time-limited and action-specific. You want a date, you want sex, you need a friend of a friend for networking in Argentina. You meet up online and then you meet in real life. Or you meet online at Myspace and then, unless you have a crush on the person, forget to ever go back again. But my scholars are folks I'm seeing on a regular basis in the course of my regular research. This is the nearest thing to running into someone else at the card catalog yet.
I don't check in with them. I don't have, nor do I really need, the capacity to send email to them. Some of them I may actually encounter at academic conferences later, and we'll share more of a bond, through our years of doing collaborative research, than many scholars who have labored through the years in adjoining offices.
As Hannah Arendt understood, the modern democratic state happened when people in public spaces began interacting, and thus began taking action together. For this reason, she identified the medival carnivals and fair days of Europe as the seat of literature, culture, debate, and politics. The rule goes like this: make a public, get action. Today, Delicious does for the internet what open-air markets did for medieval society. Low key, high-information, continuous-formation community building.
All hail the bookmark market.