An online anthropology compiler (& nominations for Open Lab 2011)

Daniel and I had a chance to get together in LA this weekend and talk about our ambitions for Neuroanthropology and joint projects over the coming year. We’ll have lots more to talk about in the near future, and hope that our regular readers will be interested in coming along for the ride.  But some of the projects we discussed are not ones that we could do, so I think I’m going to start giving them away, just talking about how I would like to see online anthropology as a virtual public sphere change, starting with the need for an online ‘anthropology compiler’ of anthropology blogging.

This idea starts with one thing that I had not mentioned, in part because I’m aware that I haven’t been posting with sufficient regularity: I have three pieces nominated for Open Laboratory 2011, the ‘annual anthology of the best writing on science blogs,’ edited by Bora Zivkovic and Jennifer Ouellette. Daniel’s threatening to write a post about it, and I think he’ll be even more embarrassing to me than if I just do this myself.

Bora has placed a list of all 721 nominated pieces at the Scientific American website; the list is astounding, and it goes to the discussion that we’ve been having about the role of online writing in science communication.  The three pieces that I have nominated are:

If any one of these three posts are included in Open Lab 2011, I’ll be both humbled and extremely happy, but even being nominated is a real honour (especially because, as I look down the list of 721, I see some pieces that really knocked me out over the course of the year).  Looking through the list, however, I’m profoundly realistic about my chances of being included in the final collection.  The champagne is certainly not on ice, nor am I hanging the plastic tarps up in the locker room, that’s for sure!  (btw: YAAAAAY, Cards!)

But I do think that the nominations highlight that long-form science blogging is valued, at least by whoever nominated these posts.  These three posts are not light reading, as anyone who has looked at them will know.  They’re long, especially in one case, and fairly comprehensively referenced.  Admittedly, I always strive to blog in a bit more loose and engaging voice than in my academic writing (and increasingly, I’m finding that my academic writing is being influenced by my online writing), but that’s a separate discussion.

There’s nothing stopping anthropologists from doing what Open Lab does, from recognizing the best writing online.  A few years ago, Daniel went to the trouble of compiling a massive ‘best of’ anthropology blogging for 2008: it was a MASSIVE undertaking, and Daniel, quite reasonably, has not sought to duplicate the effort.  But there’s nothing stopping us from doing the same.

Someone could easily call for nominations for an online collection, Open Anthropology 2011 (just taking off from Open Lab; no hint to the folks at Open Anthropology Cooperative… no hint at all), putting together a curated list of the best online writing.  Daniel was pretty accepting (he said it himself, ‘prizes for everyone!’).  But there’s nothing stopping whoever does it from being a bit selective, making inclusion widespread but also a bit of an honour.

My dream is that a ‘best of’ blogging would be part of any ambitious open access anthropology journal, or it could become some resource provided through the AAA website or the website of another major anthropology organization.  Inclusion would act as a kind of endorsement, and would just give the bloggers a bit of recognition and encouragement.

Or we could create an open ‘anthropology compiler’ that reposted the best or most popular posts being put up elsewhere, something like for progressive writing or boingboing for culture, science, technology and other stuff (or techcrunch or gizmodo or mashable or any one of the influential compiler sites).

Personally, I think that the ‘anthropology compiler’ —let’s call it AnthroNet (no relation to SkyNet, of course) — would have more credibility and be higher traffic if it was a bit selective, maybe posting just a couple or handful of the best stories of the day. And I believe that anthropology bloggers would be both a) happy to see their stuff reposted on AnthroNet if they were credited, acknowledged and linked back to, and b) willing to see only a small fraction of their stuff get reposted if the overall effect was to increase visibility and traffic for their work.  There are a few automatic anthropology blog compilers, including the one at that I frequently use, but a curated site with the content appearing (like Alternet) would probably have a greater impact and add the luster of selection to being included.

Admittedly, the online anthropology world does not have anyone quite like Bora Zivkovic, widely recognized both as a blogger in his own right, but also as a tireless advocate for better online science writing and blogs, but there’s no reason we couldn’t produce one to head up AnthroNet (and those of us online could probably compile a short list to give to the headhunter tasked with finding one).  Any organization (hint, hint, AAAs) that did this would likely find traffic to their site soaring and the online writing community genuinely grateful for the recognition and formalization.  Any open access journal that put together AnthroNet, well, they’d get the same stuff…

The impact on anthropology blogging could be quite large.  I know that when my post on ‘amphibious humans’ was featured on Boing Boing, traffic soared.  Obviously, AnthroNet isn’t going to reach the audience of Alternet or Gizmodo, but even putting such a compiler together is likely to make the scattered anthropology blogscape a hell of a lot easier for others to track, including journalists and compilers on more heavy traffic sites, making it more likely that the things we write will crack through to show up in even more prominent places.

If you’re a young, enthusiastic anthropology grad student out there, please understand that I DON’T MEAN YOU when I’m saying ‘someone’ needs to put AnthroNet together.  Part of what I find irritating is that the hidebound organizations in our field who have the resources at their disposal to do this sort of thing, to hire someone, for example, to put together a ‘best of’ annual site or an ongoing ‘best of’ anthropology blogging compiler like AnthroNet, are sort of asleep on this one.

When I’ve seen the idea brought up at a business meeting for a national anthropology association that I frequently attend (and which shall remain nameless), the more traditional anthropologists in the room suddenly turned into barristers and Queen’s councilors, spouting about libel law and  worrying aloud about potential legal implications. (Mind you, some of the same people are more than happy to throw potentially libelous comments at each other on listservs.)

What makes my frustration more acute is that an anthropology compiler like AnthroNet would be a relatively low capital way to a) leverage already existing content, and the labour that goes into it, b) encourage more anthropologists to write online, c) make anthropology more visible to those outside our field, d) make online anthropology more visible to those inside our field, and e) earn massive karma and mana and goodwill and other intangible benefits for any organization bold enough to do the obvious.

So the pride and humility that I’m feeling about being nominated for Open Lab is tempered by my frustration that we aren’t doing the same thing in our field that Open Lab is doing for science writing.  Any open access journal or professional organization that were to get serious about providing this service (hint, HINT) could grow its own online presence while simultaneously providing a remarkable resource for our field.

But like I said, I don’t want to do it, so I’m just going to give the idea away… free.  For you to pick up.  If you’re one of these organizations. Hint…

Credit: Illustration ‘Design by connection,’ by Dave Gray, Creative Commons licensed on Flickr.

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