DH as a social phenomenon

Hold on loosely; or, Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft on the web.

I want to try a quick experiment.

The digital humanities community must …

If that sounds like a plausible beginning to a sentence, what about this one?

The literary studies community must …

Does that sound as odd to you as it does to me? No one pretends literary studies is a community. In the U.S., the discipline becomes visible to itself mainly at the spectacular, but famously alienating, yearly ritual of the MLA. A hotel that contains disputatious full professors and brilliant underemployed jobseekers may be many interesting things, but “community” is not the first word that comes to mind.

“Digital humanities,” on the other hand, frequently invokes itself as a “community.” The reasons may stretch back into the 90s, and to the early beleaguered history of humanities computing. But the contemporary logic of the term is probably captured by Matt Kirschenbaum, who stresses that the intellectually disparate projects now characterized as DH are unified above all by reliance on social media, especially Twitter.

In many ways that’s a wonderful thing. Twitter is not a perfectly open form, and it’s certainly not an egalitarian one; it has a one-to-many logic. But you don’t have to be a digital utopian to recognize that academic fields benefit from frequent informal contact among their members — what Dan Cohen has described as “the sidewalk life of successful communities.” Twitter is especially useful for establishing networks that cross disciplinary (and professional) boundaries; I’ve learned an amazing amount from those networks.

On the other hand, the illusion of open and infinitely extensible community created by Twitter has some downsides. Ferdinand Tönnies’s distinction between Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft may not describe all times and places well, but I find it useful here as a set of ideal types. A Gemeinschaft (community) is bound together by personal contact among members and by shared implicit values. It may lack formal institutions, so its members have to be restrained by moral suasion and peer pressure. A Gesellschaft (society) doesn’t expect all its members to share the same values; it expects them to be guided mostly by individual aims, restrained and organized by formal institutions.

Given that choice, wouldn’t everyone prefer to live in cozy Gemeinschaft? Well, sure, except … remember you’re going to have to agree on a set of values! Digital humanists have spent a lot of time discussing values (Lisa Spiro, “Why We Fight”), but as the group gets larger that discussion may prove quite difficult. In the humanities, disagreeing about values is part of our job. It may be just one part of the job in humanities computing, which has a collaborative emphasis. But disagreeing about values has been almost the whole job in more traditional precincts of the humanities. As DH expands, that difference creates yet another layer of disagreement — a meta-struggle over meta-values labeled “hack” and “yack.”

But you know that. Why am I saying all this? I hope the frame I’m offering here is a useful way to understand the growing pains of a web-mediated academic project. DH has at times done a pretty good imitation of Gemeinschaft, but as it gets bigger it’s necessarily going to become more Geselle-y. Which may sound sadder than it is; here’s where I invoke the title of this post. Academic community doesn’t have to be impersonal, but in the immortal words of .38 Special, we need to give each other “a whole lot of space to breathe in.”

This may involve consciously bracketing several values that we celebrate in other contexts. For instance, the centrifugal logic of a growing field isn’t a problem that can be solved by “niceness.” Resolving academic debates by moral suasion on Twitter is not just a bad idea because it produces flame wars. It would be an even worse idea if it worked — because we don’t really want an academic project to have that kind of consensus, enforced by personal ties and displays of collective solidarity.

On the other hand, the values of “candor” and “open debate” may be equally problematic on the web. Filter bubbles have their uses. I want to engage all points of view, but I can’t engage them all at one-hour intervals.

An open question that I can’t answer concerns the role of Twitter here. I’ve found it enormously valuable, both as a latecomer to “DH,” and as an interested lurker in several other fields (machine learning, linguistics, computational social science). I also find it personally enjoyable. But it’s possible that Twitter will just structurally tempt humanists into attempting a more cohesive, coercive kind of Gemeinschaft than academic social networks can (or should) sustain. It’s also possible that we’ll see a kind of cyclic logic here, where Twitter remains valuable for newcomers but tends to become a drain on the time and energy of scholars who already have extensive networks in a field. I don’t know.

Postscript a few hours later: The best reflection on the “cyclic logic” of academic projects online is still Bethany Nowviskie’s “Eternal September of the Digital Humanities,” which remains strikingly timely even after the passage of (gasp) three years.

By tedunderwood

Ted Underwood is Professor of Information Sciences and English at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. On Twitter he is @Ted_Underwood.

13 replies on “Hold on loosely; or, Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft on the web.”

Thank you for this Ted; it’s only part of the longer post I’ve been eagerly awaiting on the affordances of Twitter (along with, but it hits squarely at what a lot of people have been dancing around on twitter and in blog comments for some time. As opposed to many secondary discussions of research that happens in the DH(Blago/Twitter/This-o/Now-o)sphere, this discussion is central to a (field/discipline/confederacy/etc) like ours which places its multimodality central in its identifying rhetoric.

The next DH conference CFP is coming up; perhaps it’s time to more seriously address the discussion of the affordances of online communication in the DH community in the form of a cross-party panel, or similar? As can’t afford to go, I am in no way volunteering, but this seems like an important time for solidifying this discussion.

I would be happy to join forces with folks to do a panel on DH scholarly communication & community. Considering the nature of my dissertation (DH scholarly communication on blogs) I might have a thing or two to say about this at next year’s DH conference.

If anyone is interested in putting a panel together please contact me via twitter (@mcburton) or email (

I will also repost here a comment that I recently left on Michael Widener’s blog in the context of the DH/NSA discussion. I’ve edited it lightly:

“. . . the reality is that most online “conversations” these days are composed of at least three medial strata of interactions–

— (Often) an originating blog post, news item, or (more rarely) scholarly article or other discurvisve text.

— A public Twitter exchange around that piece of writing. Often aggregated as comments or mentions on the originating blog post.

— A backchannel of varying degrees of openness and insularity (DMs, email, fragmented @replies, Facebook w/ FB Friends, Google Docs, or other platforms).

I mention this because I think acknowledging the fullness of the media landscape is incumbent upon us as people who vest themselves with a critical vantage point, and because I don’t think we can, or should, arguably segment or privilege or demote any strata of that interactive model. That is, the conversation is _all of those parts equally_, their interactions and . . . ramifications.”

On that note, it’s worth echoing something Matt Burton and I were discussing earlier, namely that not everyone interacts at every level equally, or even at all. Many DHers have no or little public online presence, and these online conversations occasionally garner such rhetorical dominance as to distract the participants from the larger social landscape. Discussions in these strata undoubtedly affect the rest of the big tent, but may shift focus entirely, or be subsumed by other conversations.

Yes, I would add that some presences are a function of reputation/platform, while others are a function of who is explicitly invited/included (given read/write permission) and who is not. Both kinds of affordance shape the resulting interactions.

Matt, Scott — I think I roughly agree with both of you. I’ve left a couple of comments on blogs in the last few weeks where I was strongly skeptical about the affordances of Twitter. But that was probably an overreaction, and I’m trying to be more balanced here. On the other hand, Scott’s of course right that some people are just not on Twitter. (If we missed that point before, @sramsay has made it really clear.) So I feel like the relative importance of different media is up in the air right now. It’s not inconceivable to me that DH could end up recreating a version of traditional academic dialogue, where intellectual conversation takes place mainly in peer-reviewed article-length pieces, or at conferences, and social media play a minor role. I don’t really expect that to happen, but I don’t think it’s impossible.

Thank you for the intelligent and articulate examination of community formation at work (if it is working). I’ve come to think of the use of social media in general, and Twitter in particular, through the lens of a classic psychological developmental model. DH is a bright and thoughtful adolescent (discipline) that is eager to define and represent itself and uses social media as a space and tool to achieve those goals. And it’s probably not a coincidence that the most active Twitter users I know after my humanities friends are my seventeen year old kid and her friends, all busy trying to construct both themselves and their cohort. So my lens is handy, but I don’t know if it leads to anything prescriptive. I’m certainly not anxious for more adult supervision, but self-awareness is always good; and reflections such as yours encourage that.