By Andy Stuhl on December 19, 2014
In mid October, a transatlantic group of scholars gathered in New York City to present their research into more than a century of French theater and to discuss the tool that had helped them examine this history. This tool was a faceted browser, developed by HyperStudio as part of the Comédie-Française Registers Project (CFRP).
Under the guidance of Jeffrey Ravel, a professor of history at MIT and the principle investigator of the project, the HyperStudio team has developed ways to catalog, browse, and visualize the contents of thousands of register pages—the hand-written ledgers in which the ticket sales of every performance had been meticulously recorded since the Comédie-Française’s opening in 1680. The faceted browser, the latest of these tools, was made available to this group of scholars a few months prior, and the workshop in New York marked the first time they had convened to discuss their work with CFRP data. In preparation for this meeting, scholars used the faceted browser to examine the dates of the workshop (October 14th and 15th) throughout the theater’s 300-year history. From that launching point, each presenter crafted a research question and probed it through the faceted browser. At the conference, the scholars shared the impressive array of findings from their research, as well as their insights into the design of CFRP tools.
It quickly became clear that researchers drew on the flexibility of the faceted browser in a myriad of ways. For some, screenshots of the faceted browser’s register entries and responsive filters, as well as of the built-in time wheel data visualizer, ably illustrated their arguments. These presentations often relied on juxtaposition—for example, showing the difference in attendance between Molière’s plays and of Voltaire’s during the 1781-1782 season. For others, the browser served as a method by which they could generate data that could be entered into outside tools, allowing them to create additional visualizations. This latter category reminded us as developers of digital research tools how users will always incorporate additional tools into their projects. Accordingly, tailoring for every possible use should take a back seat to enabling smooth transitions of data from HyperStudio’s platform into others.
As we go about bringing CFRP tools to a wider scholarly audience, one priority is to develop case studies to familiarize viewers with the interface, while also showing compelling stories about its usefulness. Reflecting on their experiences of learning to use the CFRP faceted browser, many scholars at the workshop noted that such case studies would be very helpful to new users. Their presentations, meanwhile, provided invaluable examples of the stories we might build these studies around and indicated paths toward an interactive design for the case studies. Building on the thorough documentation of related digital humanities tools such as the French Book Trade in Enlightenment Europe, we are working to design a model for web-based CFRP case studies that will inspire readers to jump straight from the page into the data with their own questions.
The need to continue to craft engaging entry points to the Comédie-Française data was driven home by the workshop’s final discussion, which raised questions about the use of CFRP and similar tools in the classroom. Damien Chardonnet-Darmaillacq of Paris West University Nanterre La Défense discussed his introduction of CFRP and the faceted browser to a group of high school students, who enthusiastically took it up in launching their own investigations into French theater history. The students’ excitements and frustrations with the tool demonstrate both the rewards and the challenges of opening a still-developing project to pedagogical use. Chardonnet’s students, he noted, were quick to take on the data-based research approach and to become adept with its tools.
It’s always tempting with large-scale data projects to think that the body of data offers a neat and tidy representation of the underlying texts and events; the workshop’s discussions reminded all that the data from the registers is thoroughly embodied in the history and the physical space of the theater itself. For example, participants raised challenging problems of defining the different categories of seats within the theater and of understanding how these definitions changed across the troupe’s movement into a new theater building in the 1780s. Some called for a visualization tool that would evoke the three-dimensional space of the theater itself in representing data trends. Projects in the digital humanities bring along with them strong and complicating connections to the materiality of texts, performances, and spaces; yet the digital humanities also provide unique approaches to harness this materiality in digital representations through thoughtful design. When the presentations had concluded, participants headed uptown for a performance of a Voltaire play, tying the workshop’s ventures into the realm of data, queries, and visualization back into the lively theater tradition that inspired them.
By Desi Gonzalez on October 21, 2014
I recently celebrated my one-year-anniversary as the author of h+d insights, HyperStudio’s weekly newsletter that shares the latest news, projects, resources, and fellowship and conference opportunities related to the intersection of technology and the humanities. (Subscribe here to stay in the loop!) That’s 52 weeks of combing through blogs, tweets, videos, slide shares, and news articles to find the most pressing issues in the field of digital humanities.
This responsibility (and privilege) has afforded me a unique perspective on DH: what’s happening to the field, what the current controversies are, and where the most exciting and cutting edge work is happening. Here, I highlight a few trends I’ve noticed over the past year.
1. What happens in the world affects digital humanities. While humanists often study the past and its artifacts, current events influence the work we do all the time. In April, net neutrality—the idea that Internet service providers and the government should allow equal access to all content and applications, without favoring specific products or websites—was threatened in the U.S. with the announcement that the Federal Communications Commission was considering changes its policies. Digital humanists immediately responded, recognizing how net neutrality could affect the type of work—often open-access and done with little funding—we do. Adeline Koh explained the implications: “Imagine this: an Internet where you can access Apple.com in a fraction of a heartbeat, but a non-profit activist website would take five minutes to load.” A group of leaders in DH penned an open letter urging the FCC to protect “the fundamental character of the open, non-discriminatory, creative, and competitive Internet.” Hybrid Pedagogy hosted a discussion on the implications of net neutrality for educators and learners, which turned out to be a riveting discussion.
Others are recognizing the importance of creating digital archives of major events happening now so that scholars may be able to use them in the future. For example, Ed Summers advocated for the documentation of the aftermath of the Michael Brown shooting and the subsequent protests in Ferguson, Missouri. He wrote a blog post sharing the process he used to archive tweets from the event.
2. Universities are evolving. DH continues to be placed at the center of heated and often hyperbolic debates about the so-called demise of the humanities. No matter which side you land on (or, if you’re like me, if you believe these debates are asking the wrong questions), it is clear that there are certain, very real changes happening in academia right now.
The Modern Language Association undertook the daunting task of producing a comprehensive report on the current state of doctoral education in the humanities. The report’s executive summary offers many recommendations, including redesigning the doctoral program to fit with “the evolving character of our fields,” providing support and training for technology work, and reimagining what a dissertation might look like. (In fact, a few months prior Cathy Davidson had reflected on what it means to write a digital dissertation.)
And speaking of dissertations, Mark Sample’s Disembargo project challenges the concept of the academic embargo, in which dissertations are withheld from being circulated digitally for up to six years. Every ten minutes, a character from his dissertation manuscript is added to the project website—published under a Creative Commons license—at “an excruciating pace that dramatizes the silence of an embargo.”
Finally, more and more scholars are opting for #altac (alternative academic) and #postac (post-academic) careers—paths outside of the traditional tenure-track route, which is increasingly becoming more untenable. Sarah Werner considered the relationship between #altac work and gender and shared her advice on pursuing an untraditional career.
3. Digital humanities is happening in the public sphere. As the #altac movement shows, digital humanities is often happening outside of the university. Crowdsourcing continues to be a popular strategy to involve the public in the development and execution of DH projects. Letters of 1916, for example, recently celebrated its first anniversary. Within the past year, families (in addition to cultural institutions, libraries, and archives) have donated letters penned during the Easter Rising in Ireland. Others have considered how the potential of crowdsourcing can be further enhanced: Mia Ridge outlines cultural heritage projects that combine crowdsourced data with machine learning, while Trevor Owens imagines crowdsourcing being used in tandem with linked open data.
Additionally, museums, archives, and libraries outside of academia are spearheading some exciting technology initiatives. Open data from museums and libraries allows broad audiences to do DH in their own homes. Nina Simon highlighted some of the data visualization projects that resulted from the Tate releasing an API of its collection. A consortium of museums involved in the Getty Foundation’s Online Scholarly Catalogue Initiative are reimagining what art publications look like in the 21st century. The Walker Art Center, for example, challenges the notion of what is a page in the digital age.
The above are just a handful of the ideas and projects flowing through the digital humanities community. A blog post can’t do justice to all of the fantastic work being done in the field; to keep up with the latest, I recommend that you follow the #DH hashtag on Twitter and subscribe to h+d insights. I’m excited to see how the next year shapes up!
Image: visualization of the digital humanities community on Twitter by Martin Grandjean (source)
By Rachel Schnepper on September 18, 2014
After an exceptionally busy summer, we are thrilled to be able to announce the release of Annotation Studio 2.0. The new version of Annotation Studio offers the following features:
- Anchored annotations that correspond to the text currently visible
- Touch capability so that Annotation Studio can be used on mobile devices
- Upload of very basic PDF files
- Slide-in menus with context aware tools
- Private subdomains (e.g., MassU.annotationstudio.org) hosted by HyperStudio
- Improved annotation sidebar
- Wider document view
- Breadcrumb navigation
- Expanded help forum at support.annotationstudio.org
User feedback has been incredibly important to determining which features were added to Annotation Studio 2.0. We have listened carefully to what the Annotation Studio community was saying, what both instructors and students liked and disliked about Annotation Studio. Accordingly, we have endeavored to preserve what users like best about the application, namely its simplicity and ease of use, while nonetheless adding the features and functions they wanted.
In the weeks to come, we will continue to add new features, including increased functionality to the PDF uploader. As we do so, we hope to continue to hear back from the Annotation Studio community. We encourage you to make use of the Annotation Studio support forum, where users can learn from one another. We hope you continue to share with us how you are using Annotation Studio, like the subjects of our pedagogy case studies. Our goal is to make a tool that reflects the user’s needs, and we can’t do that without your feedback.
Please check out the new version of Annotation Studio here!
By Liam Andrew on August 27, 2014
Books and manuscripts are an archivist’s bread and butter, respectively. Librarians have honed techniques for storing, maintaining, and retrieving their contents for millennia—go into any stack in the library, organized by call number, for ample evidence. But newer media artifacts often don’t fit into old ways of storing and finding information. Digital media brings this problem into full relief, but centuries ago, the newspaper might have been the modern archivist’s first challenge.
Today, archives face the challenge of digitizing their collections, an issue of particular importance for us at HyperStudio, as our research focuses on the potential for digital archives to provide new opportunities for collaborative knowledge creation. For archivists, the digitization of newspapers raises unique questions when compared to their traditional stock. At the DH2014 conference in Lausanne, Switzerland, one panel in particular addressed historical newspaper digitization head-on.
Newspapers are rich archival documents, because they store both ephemera and history. The saying goes that “newspapers are the first draft of history,” but not all news becomes history. In a typical paper, you might find today’s weather sitting next to a long story summarizing a major historic event; historians have traditionally been more interested in the latter. Journalists sometimes divide these types of news into “stock” and “flow”. Flow is the constant stream of new information, meant for right now (think of your Twitter feed). Stock is the “durable stuff,” built to stand the test of time (for instance, a New Yorker longread).
For archivists, everything must be considered “stock”: stored forever. Some historians may be in search of ephemera in an effort to glean insight from fragments of local news snippets, advertisements or classifieds—so everything is of potential historical importance. The Europeana Newspapers project has digitized over 2 million pages with the help of a dozen key partner libraries around Europe, but by their calculations, 90% of European culture is not digitized. The project anticipates reaching 10 million records by 2015, along with metadata for millions more, but it is still a small fraction of Europe’s newspapers.
It is also no surprise that many biases exist even in this wide net of 10 million records. The 10% of culture that is digitized generally consists of culture’s most well-known and well-funded fragments. The lamentable quality of OCR (Online Character Recognition—a technology that turns scans into searchable text) likewise means that better image scans lead to better discovery. Moreover, groups like Europeana must work across dozens of countries, languages, and copyright laws; some of these will inevitably be better represented and better funded than others. So it seems you’re much more likely to find a major piece in a highbrow English paper than a blurb in the sports section of an obscure Polish daily.
Even taking as a given that everything is potentially important, newspapers present a unique metadata challenge for archivists. A newspaper is a very complex design object with specific affordances; Paul Gooding, a researcher at University College London, sees digitized newspapers as ripe for analysis due to their irregular size and their seriality. A paper’s physical appearance and content are closely linked together, so simply “digitizing” a newspaper changes it massively, reshaping a great deal of context.
Seriality and page placement also extend the ways in which researchers might want to query the archive. For some researchers, placement will be important (was an article’s headline on the first page? Above or below the fold? Was there an image, or a counterpoint article next to it?). Others could be examining the newspaper itself over time, rather than the contents within (for instance, did a paper’s writing style or ad placement change over the course of a decade?) Still others may be hoping to deep-dive into a particular story across various journals. Each of these modes of research requires different data, some of which is remarkably difficult to code and store.
In order to learn more about how people use digitized newspaper archives, Gooding analyzed user web logs from Welsh Newspapers Online, a newspaper portal maintained by the National Library of Wales, hoping to gain insight from users’ behavior. He found that most researchers were not closely reading the newspapers page by page, but instead searching and browsing at a high level before diving into particular pages. He sees this behavior as an accelerated version of the way people used to browse through archives—when faced with boxes of archived newspapers, most researchers do not flip through pages, but instead skip through reams of them before delving in. So while digital newspapers do not replace the physical archive, they do mostly mimic the physical experience of diving into an archive; in Gooding’s words, “digitized newspapers are amazing at being digitized newspapers.” Portals like Welsh Newspapers Online are not fundamentally rethinking archive access, but they certainly let more people access it.
The TOME project at Georgia Tech is aiming to rethink historical newspaper analysis from a different angle. Instead of providing an interface for qualitative researchers to dive in, TOME hopes to facilitate automatic topic modeling and entity recognition, to quickly get a high-level glance of a vast archive with quantitative methods. They are beginning with a set of 19th-century American newspaper archives focused on abolition. The project simplifies statistical analysis tools into a visually compelling interface, but at the risk of losing the context that seriality and page placement provide.
Perhaps the biggest challenge is how to present such a vast presence — and such a vast absence — to historians, curious researchers and individuals, all of whom may be after something slightly different. Where Gooding divided queries into three types — “search,” “browse,” and “content” — the TOME group follows John Tukey’s divide between “exploration” and “investigation”—or those who know what they want, and those who are looking for what they want. A good portal into a newspaper archive requires all of these avenues to be covered, but it remains to be decided how best to turn news into data, to visualize troves of ephemera, and to represent absence and bias.
Important books and manuscripts — the “great works” that line history books — tend to present a polished and completed version of events. Newspapers offer another angle into history, where routines, patterns, and debates are incidentally documented forever. Where a book is usually written for posterity, the newspaper is always written for today, reminding the archive diver of history’s unprepared chances and contingencies. The historians who mine old newspapers — and the archivists who enable them — have many new digital tools at their disposal to unearth promising archives, but much effort remains to fairly represent news archives, and determine how we might best use them.
By Rachel Schnepper on July 3, 2014
In recent years, academic professional organizations have adopted guidelines for evaluating scholars’ work in the digital humanities. The MLA, for example, after exploring the challenge in a series of articles in a 2011 issue of its journal Profession, adopted a series of guidelines in 2012 that encourages digital humanists to be “prepared to make explicit the results, theoretical underpinnings, and intellectual rigor of their work.” The same year, the AHA acknowledged that with the continued growth of digital humanities, history departments needed to “establish rigorous peer-review procedures to evaluate new forms of scholarship.” How to evaluate and assess the work of digital humanists continues to be an thriving discussion on an international, multi-disciplinary scale, with special issues of the Journal of Digital Humanities devoted to it and countless columns in The Chronicle.
As digital humanities scholarship grows, so too does teaching with digital humanities tools and methods. Just as the monograph as the preferred presentation of research is being challenged with digital humanities projects, so too is the traditional term paper with multimodal work. Increasingly, new technologies, media, and tools are being integrated into classrooms, producing a lively and expanding discourse on digital pedagogy in forums such as HASTAC and the Journal of Interactive Technology and Pedagogy.
Just as new forms of scholarship require new approaches to assessment, so too do innovative digital pedagogies. Unfortunately, even as the discourse on evaluating digital humanities projects as scholarship for tenure continues to grow, the same cannot be said of evaluating the effects of using digital tools as pedagogical resources. In the lush landscape of literature on digital humanities, this is a glaringly depressing bald patch.
This is precisely the challenge we at HyperStudio face as we scale-up the use of our digital anntotation tool, Annotation Studio, in classrooms from local high schools to national and international universities. When Annotation Studio was in use exclusively in classes at MIT in 2012, we conducted a preliminary assessment investigation using surveys, focus groups, and interviews. The results of this research revealed that most students, despite a lack of experience with both analog annotation and online annotation, were extremely interested in using Annotation Studio. By the end of the term, students readily acknowledged the value of annotating, crediting Annotation Studio with helping them collect evidence from the texts to then construct better arguments in their papers.
The results of our initial assessment were encouraging.
But we want to know more.
One of HyperStudio’s goals in all our projects is to enable users to have a more meaningful experience with, to dig deeper into, whatever form of media they are engaging with. This is true whether it is a document from Mohammed Khatemi’s presidency in Iran from our US-Iran Relations Project or a piece of art. With Annotation Studio, however, in order to develop a tool that provides this deeper, more meaningful experience, we need to fully understand how instructors and students are using it in the classroom.
Consequently, HyperStudio is conducting an ongoing and intensive inquiry in several classes at MIT. We are beginning with extended discussions with faculty members who are using Annotation Studio in their classes, going over reading and writing assignments that use Annotation Studio. Instructors have identified the promotion of collaborative learning and evidence based classroom debate, careful examination and incorporation of textual evidence in writing assignments, and foreign language reading comprehension as some of the specific performance tasks they have used Annotation Studio for. By pinpointing the exact pedagogical purposes the instructor had in mind when assigning Annotation Studio, we can better evaluate the tool’s effectiveness through classroom observation, surveys, focus groups, and interviews with students.
While this past semester we conducted assessment with writing and foreign language classes here at MIT, we also recognize that Annotation Studio is increasingly being used in classes outside of MIT. Accordingly, we were excited to talk with professors from Yale University and the University of Washington about their experiences with Annotation Studio as well.
Our goal in conducting these assessment exercises is twofold. First, feedback from instructors determines the directions and priorities of our development of Annotation Studio. At HyperStudio, we believe that the functionality of the application should not determine its pedagogical uses. Rather, the pedagogical uses of Annotation Studio inform its development.
Second, we are committed to uncovering and enhancing student learning. If we want students to become more sophisticated and critical readers, learn how to work with textual evidence when writing essays, and develop enduring skills to increase understanding, then it is vital that we appreciate how these processes are taking place when students use Annotation Studio.
We are eager to unpack and analyze the results of our assessment this spring, to learn how Annotation Studio is transforming and enhancing student learning. As we move through the summer, we are developing with instructors an even more extensive assessment strategy to begin at the start of the fall.
Beyond evaluating the students’ transferability of the skills cultivated through Annotation Studio and their endurability, we are also examining the analytics data the tool generates. We are capturing the stats and metrics of student use of Annotation Studio, including timestamps on annotations, the use of tags, private versus public annotations. This data provides users of Annotation Studio with unqiue insights into how students are reading texts and interacting with one another in the social environment of Annotation Studio. With this data, we can produce visualizations of the reading process, which reveal trends in the reading process, the evolution of interactions with passages in the text, and provide practical feedback for instructors.
As we do learn more about Annotation Studio, we look forward to sharing our research. We intend to share the results of our research with instructors, so they can refine their assignments and improve their pedagogy. We intend to share the results of our research with students, so they can understand better their own learning processes. And, finally, we intend to share the results of our research with the growing Annotation Studio community, so they can be inspired.
By Liam Andrew on May 13, 2014
The first thing that struck me about I Annotate 2014 was the setting: unlike the standard stuffy, windowless conference hall, the event was held at the Fort Mason Center in San Francisco, a historic, bright, and beautiful space overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge. Given the impeccable weather, the location was one consolation for staying indoors, but what really kept all of us there was a drive to annotate the world’s knowledge.
Organized and run by Hypothes.is, the second annual conference demonstrated how far the annotation community has come in just a year, making inroads in a wide variety of industries and research groups. Whenever you find Wolfram Research next to Rap Genius on a conference attendee list, you know it’s going to be interesting. Attendees represented research labs, startups, foundations, and organizations. They showcased tools, tricks and platforms ranging from HyperStudio’s own Annotation Studio, to Harvard’s edX and H2O, to semantic initiatives at the BBC, Financial Times, and the OpenGov Foundation. Scores of other projects and tools came from academia and industry, such as Rhizi and PeerLibrary. The W3C was also in attendance, in their effort to further the incorporation of annotation into the next generation of web standards. Based on the wide range of attendees and uses, they have their work cut out for them.
Most conference presenters did not try to pose a singular, overarching definition of annotation, instead showcasing their own projects and related examples. To me, this seemed wise; otherwise, we might have argued for days about what annotation is. When we talk about annotation, we are talking about many different practices couched in one ambiguous term. We were all gathered to advance the ways in which media can be published and discussed online, whether in the humanities, sciences, finance, law, or rap music. Each of these fields has different uses for annotation, and the one thing that we all had in common was a single word with many meanings.
It does seem clear that annotation tools provide a way to make online texts “read-write” rather than just “read.” Whether providing peer-review of scientific texts or analyzing your favorite rap lyrics, when you annotate you are providing feedback, complicating communication on a technical as well as social level. You are also forging connections between texts, making content both more discoverable and more nuanced. Much discussion revolved around whether annotations themselves should be annotatable, or even publishable (bringing up questions of copyright). Is annotating an archival act, or a discursive one? This adds a complex layer to the web, but gives unprecedented priority and weight to everyday users, and encourages more focused interaction with a text than a simple comment or published response.
There was also much discussion about possible new frontiers in annotation. How can we give people the ability to annotate images, audio, video, and scientific data? What about more complex media, like video games, or even real-world experiences? Does this stray too far from what “defines” an annotation? Some naysayers suggested what couldn’t or shouldn’t be annotated (perhaps we can go too far in archiving and explaining). Others claimed that the focus was in the wrong place: perhaps an annotation platform should be framed as a social network, with precedence placed on building communities rather than technologies.
In the end, all of these claims are probably true for some of the platforms and less applicable to others. There was a wide breadth of tools in many disciplines, using annotation in myriad different ways—the conference was exploring a technique and architecture rather than an industry, a horizontal instead of a vertical. This made it vary in relevance, but always focused and utterly unique. Conference breakout sessions ranged from the technical to the philosophical, and allowed for those with aligned interests to interact after the presentations.
The proceedings were followed by a two-day hackathon, where a handful of coders worked on expanding the open-source Annotator library (which also powers Annotation Studio) and its community to new ends. It was a fitting conclusion to the conference: after talking, it was time to make.
Liam Andrew is a graduate student in Comparative Media Studies and a research assistant in HyperStudio.
By Desi Gonzalez on April 14, 2014
In the digital humanities, we often talk about how we can use technology and big data to accomplish what Franco Moretti calls “distant reading” of literary, historical, and artistic texts. But Wyn Kelley uses Annotation Studio, our web-based, collaborative annotation application, to engage her students in close reading and writing.
Over the last few months at HyperStudio, we’ve been busy at work with Annotation Studio . Last summer, we received an Implementation Grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities’ Office of Digital Humanities. With this support, we are further developing new features that will create a more user-friendly experience. For example, in January we released a new version of Annotation Studio that enables users to navigate through a central dashboard, upload their own Word documents, and create annotations using a new, easy-to-use Annotation Editor that allows for styled text, web links, and online images and video. Check out our new website, www.annotationstudio.org, where you can learn more about the tool, find user testimonials, and get started with your own annotations.
We’re also taking on another challenge: exploring and assessing how this tool can be used for even more pedagogical purposes. Wyn Kelley, senior lecturer in Literature at MIT, has been using Annotation Studio (and its predecessor Miximize) to teach undergraduate reading and writing since 2011. Working closely with the HyperStudio team, Wyn uses her classroom as a laboratory for the many ways digital annotation can enrich a student’s understanding of a text. In this video, she describes two case studies in which she used Annotation Studio to encourage close reading and to support students in their own writing process.
If you would like to use Annotation Studio in the classroom or otherwise, please let us know! We would love to hear your feedback as we continue to develop Annotation Studio.
By Liam Andrew on November 25, 2013
Think of the word “algorithm” and you might picture a data scientist crunching numbers in front of a terminal, analyzing functions and equations that you can’t begin to understand. If they’re building models of weather systems, you might be right (I can’t help you there). But recommendation systems are another story. The algorithms can be complex, but the output tends to be very simple: a list of some news articles, movies, or other content you might like.
Recommendation science is not rocket science, but it has always been the realm of the engineer. There’s no doubt that a good engineer can hone and chisel a recommendation algorithm to near-perfection (whatever that means), but first you have to choose the type of stone. Each recommendation system has certain methods and assumptions baked into it, and determining what kinds of inputs belong can be more of an art than a science.
Recommendation systems are generally divided into two types: collaborative filtering, and content-based filtering. Content-based filtering focuses on the product itself, like a traditional library classification system. Netflix provides one example: after culling their records down to several thousand movies and TV shows, they hire freelance film buffs to tag content with delightfully contrived categories like “Mind-Bending Romantic Foreign Movies” or “Understated Detective TV Shows” (though they also match you to similar users). While these are more fun than generic, automated tags (and Netflix deserves credit for using humans), these categories are still boxes; they place cultural products into certain discourses and implicitly exclude others. Tagging systems are inherently stale and lacking in dynamism, and folksonomies aren’t always feasible and come with their own problems.
One attempt to sidestep classification is via collaborative filtering, which looks at the user, their past behavior, and similar users or social networks for clues into what the user might like. Consider Amazon, who uses this model extensively; given the massive scale of products on offer, many from third parties, it is more manageable to leverage machine-learning algorithms that watch what you buy and browse, rather than attempting to infer the properties of thousands of new products a day. A user-history based approach maximizes efficiency but at the sake of variety, assuming that you want to keep seeing more of the same.
If it’s looking to your social networks, it feeds you what’s already most popular, stifling individual preference and shepherding audiences into identical routes. If you were to sit around a table with “users like you” and start a conversation, would you rather have seen everything they’ve seen, or something a little different? If you’re all on the same pages, how would anyone bring anything new to a discussion? What about all the possible treasures out there that haven’t been discovered yet? Collaborative filtering may work when shopping for consumer products, but it creates a filter bubble for art and culture.
The challenges and limitations behind each of these models is very different, and they point to a need to focus on the objects and users of recommendation systems, rather than the algorithms. As taste plays more of a factor in recommendation, this becomes even more crucial. If you click away from a product on Amazon, maybe it’s because you didn’t like the price, the quality, or the reviews. Regardless, the company assumes something about you. It gets even more complicated with art or music. Art has ever-changing material, cultural, and discursive properties; which ones are most important to a given viewer? Do they like being challenged and broadening their horizons, or prefer staying in their comfort zone within a certain style or mood? If so, is it worth trying to change their mind?
This brings up another variable that goes underserved when the focus is on the algorithm: what is the metric for a “successful” recommendation system, and how does that change from company to institution? Industry tends to give people more of what they want, with the end goal of a click or purchase. Cultural institutions like ours can break convention here, and at HyperStudio we hope to challenge users by making unique connections and new introductions, so long as users are ultimately delighted and informed. Unencumbered by industry demands like growth and scale, we can maintain a very different metric for success, and it could be unique to each project or user.
We also hope to open up further discussion about these systems and their limitations. The extreme secrecy behind companies’ proprietary algorithms and the domain’s traditionally engineering bent make the recommendation system something of a black box. Given the extent to which automatic recommendations affect what we read or hear about, it’s important to understand what can go into them. HyperStudio and other open-source initiatives can play a role in making them more transparent: creation and discussion of recommendation algorithms could lead to insight about the decisions computers are making for us and their assumptions about what we want. Perhaps in our effort to improve them, we’ll discover some ways in which proprietary algorithms are failing us.
Regardless, I should hope that people have a different relationship to art than to a product or piece of information, and cultural institutions should treat their audiences differently from companies. It’s important to devise recommendation systems that avoid reducing cultural objects to the level of products, and museum audiences to consumers. At the heart of the collaborative and content-based systems is the notion that more personalization leads to higher quality, and that existing networks, discussions and canons are there to be reinforced. These are meaningful and important signals, but they need not be the only ones. While quality is always important, categories should be fuzzy, as should networks of people; the most important signals are often the nodes that link them, and we hope to surface these new connections. When it comes to art and culture, looking past the current limitations of discovery will be vital for generating new ideas and conversations.
Liam Andrew is a graduate student in Comparative Media Studies and a research assistant in HyperStudio.
By Kurt Fendt on November 20, 2013
We are looking for a part-time Communications Officer to coordinate HyperStudio’s outreach activities, specifically for our NEH-funded Annotation Studio project. Please see the job description and requirements below. Applications will be accepted through MIT’s Human Resources website (link below).
Job Number: 10653
Functional Area: Communications
Department: Comparative Media Studies
Location: Cambridge, MA
Employment Type: Part-Time Temporary
Employment Category: Exempt
Visa Sponsorship Available: No
COMMUNICATIONS OFFICER, Comparative Media Studies/Writing (part-time, 45-50%), to provide outreach and project support to the HyperStudio – Laboratory for Digital Humanities. Will plan and coordinate interactions with educators and developers within and outside of MIT to help them adopt and use HyperStudio’s Annotation Studio web application; work closely with the studio’s team members to develop and implement outreach and adoption strategies for other HyperStudio projects; coordinate the development and assessment of curricular modules for Annotation Studio and organize workshops and additional outreach activities for educators and developers; and maintain public project websites and develop social media strategies for Annotation Studio and other HyperStudio projects.
REQUIRED: strong interpersonal, communication, writing, analytical, and organizational skills; accuracy and an eye for detail; strong computer skills that include experience with web, social media, and cloud-based tools; ability to work both independently with limited supervision and as part of a team; flexibility and resourcefulness; and the ability to multitask. Must enjoy contact with students and teaching staff and be able to use discretion, sensitivity, and tact in all interactions. Humanities and/or education background a plus. Job #10653-P
Schedule to be determined, but will include working 15 to 20 hours/week. The initial appointment is for one year, with the possibility of renewal.
In addition to a CV, please submit a cover letter explaining your qualifications, experience, and reasons for interest in the position; the names of three references; and links to relevant samples of your work. References and links may be included in your cover letter or resume.
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By Desi Gonzalez on October 11, 2013
Artist Sherrie Levine is best known for her 1979 series, After Walker Evans, in which she rephotographed Depression-era images by Walker Evans and presented them as her own. With this series, she posed questions about authorship and originality that would remain central to her art production: What is an original work of art? What is a copy?
To me, Levine’s work hints at another interesting idea: How do we learn about art? Levine grew up and attended college in the Midwest, miles away from the mainstream art world. In a 1985 interview the artist revealed that her early experiences with art involved “seeing everything through magazines and books.” To create After Walker Evans, she didn’t take snapshots of the original Evans photographic prints, but instead photographed the images from an exhibition catalog. While museums and galleries allow us to experience art directly, much of what we learn about art is indirect. Most people can recognize da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring without ever having traveled to Paris or the Netherlands.
Today, in addition to magazines and books, we also learn about works of art through the internet. A spate of recent websites and mobile applications, such as Artsy, ArtStack, and Curiator, allow users to aggregate virtual collections of art. The missions behind such websites often have a democratic impulse, making works of art accessible on the web and transforming users into art collectors. As a museum educator, I am all for democratizing the art experience, but I wonder if we’re asking the right questions. What the internet affords us is a wealth of art images at our easy disposal, and web projects like Artsy allows us to cull through them in one place. But how, then, do we create meaningful experiences from these images? How do we get people to look closely, think critically, and engage in conversations with others about a work of art? Additionally, the majority of the works of art being shared, collected, followed, and Tweeted on these platforms were intended to be experienced in person. While the internet can be a great tool for first forays into learning about art, it doesn’t replace witnessing an artwork firsthand. How can our online art dabblings connect us to onsite art experiences?
These are some of the issues I’ve been thinking about as a new research assistant in HyperStudio. Digital media can provide new ways to discover art, but the best experiences are the ones that put you in direct contact with a work of art. And that’s why we’re starting local. I’m working with the HyperStudio team to develop a digital tool that provides an easy way for Boston-area residents to access information about artworks, exhibitions, and events. But we also want to be more than a mere listings or image-aggregating website, instead asking: what are the as-of-yet-unearthed art threads happening in the Boston area? For example, let’s say you see the print Under the Wave off Kanagawa by Hokusai at the Museum of Fine Arts and are immediately enamored. Our tool might connect you to a workshop on woodblock printing led by a local artist or inform you about a lecture at Harvard about Edo period Japan.
The principles underlying this new project is a concept that runs through many HyperStudio endeavors. For example, Annotation Studio is an open source web tool that aims to enhance the ways a student interacts with a text. A student can add multimedia annotations onto a text, search and link to other content, and ultimately engage in a more active reading of the text. The digital tool doesn’t overshadow the original text, but is instead an avenue to dig deeper into it. Like Annotation Studio, the goal of our new project is to privilege engagement with the art first.
Over the next few months, we will be researching into how digital tools might allow us to create meaningful art experiences through out the Boston area. We have started by looking into what examples are already out there, from event listings to museum collection guides. Ultimately, we want to go from looking at images online to fostering rich, direct experiences with art. For Sherrie Levine, books and magazines were a medium through which she experienced art, far away from art world centers. Here in Boston, we’re lucky; we have many world-class museums and intellectual centers at our disposal. We hope that our tool will be a way to connect the community to these onsite experiences. Like Levine’s books and magazines, this project will be a first step to learning about art—but it won’t be the last.