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

  1. Mike Barnes says:

    I believe you have a fantastic idea here. I like that you and Daniel are embracing technology in ways that my earlier anthropology teachers would never have. I still remember a lecturer who use to give us handwritten essay topics, and that was in the early 2000s. With my background in both computing and anthropology I would have loved to have put my hand up for this proposal. But I find I am getting increasingly involved in my potential research of professional ballet dancers and I haven’t even formally started anything yet :-)

  2. John Hawks says:

    I agree completely about the needs: more formal recognition for online engagement, and more opportunities to get wide readership for the long-read type of post that represent such a substantial investment of time and expertise.

    I think a blog network or aggregator for anthropology is not the solution. People who are reading blogs are already reading us. An aggregator can help readers to discover new voices, but we already link each other — and we haven’t really managed to keep the Four Stone Hearth carnival going.

    Someone like Bora is incredibly energetic, but has hits and misses. The conference, ScienceOnline, makes a huge impact in building and supporting a community. The entire process around the Open Laboratory volume also makes an impact, as does the Research Blogging platform. But I don’t know how many readers these two projects draw in, who wouldn’t already be reading blogs anyway. I don’t see a lot of evidence that the scienceblogging aggregator has made any impact.

    Thinking about it, what I think we need is a magazine. A periodical compilation of the best blog posts, selected by an editor, formatted, and put into e-book and PDF format. A post selected for such an anthology would then have CV-cred, and a good blogger could aim higher than one lucky post per year, possibly scoring several. Having a likely outlet would encourage more people to try for a good long-read article. Most important, these posts could reach a different (and broader) audience than people who already read and follow our blogs.

    I would be willing to work toward something like this. I don’t see any reason why there shouldn’t be many different periodicals of this form, catering to different interests within anthropology. The limiting factor is good writers, and it would be useful to assess how many quality posts per month the anthroblogosphere is really generating.

    • First off- great idea Greg and Daniel. I and a college were discussing doing something similar, apt for a smaller audience of just archaeologists. Though like you it is behind several other projects.

      I might have to disagree with you John on one point, I think a aggregator would be very good as an introduction tool and worth the effort to develop. There are countless blogs that are not on the radar as it were. I have a list of about 150 arch blogs the majority of which do not cross link or even mention the other bloggers. An aggregator might be a great way to encourage more blogging and build community for those outside of the inner link circle of anth blogs.

      It would also be a great way to introduce new people to blogs. Yes there are groups of people who read blogs regularly but there are probably many more who don’t. Most of them have a conception of blogs as someone writing about how cats make them feel and not serious work. An aggregator would be a great way to get people interested in reading blogs. I for one only started reading blogs less then a year ago and there are plenty of people like me who only by chance got involved in blogging. I think there is lots of potential that an aggregator could tap into.

      I do like your idea of a magazine and there is no reason both could not work together. A magazine to pull people in and the aggregator to do the work of finding and following blogs for them and keep them interested between publications. Just a thought.

  3. Perhaps @DHNow as a model?

    • Jason Jackson says:

      Ethan beat me to it, but the recent relaunch of Digital Humanities Now, using PressForward is a crucial instance.

      • While there is some custom programming (or modding of existing platforms), rolling something similar for Anthropology wouldn’t be that difficult. I bet it is also something that various professional societies might be interested in supporting in one way or another (though, I would very much like to see it as an independent undertaking not beholden to a particular society)

      • might even go so far as we might approach the PressForward people (specifically Tom and Dan) to see if they would want to collaborate on something like this (in terms of them being the “publisher”)

  4. gregdowney says:

    These comments are great, exactly the conversation that I wanted to have! The comments are helping me to realize that I’m really trying to solve several problems at once, and they may or may not be compatible. Here’s the three problems as I see them:

    1. Getting recognition for anthropology bloggers in their hiring, tenure and promotion processes;
    2. Better organizing and promoting anthropology blogging so that it is more accessible and visible, both inside the field and outside it (themselves two separate issues); and
    3. In particular, finding a way to recognize what I called ‘long form,’ but we might just refer to as ‘more academic’ anthropology blogging, make it easier to cite, and transform it into a separate genre.

    I think DHNow is probably an excellent model, with both an ‘editor’s choice’ main column and an ‘unfiltered’ feed through. Ethan, I don’t know Tom and Dan, but it would be very interesting to talk with them about their experience. Like you, I don’t think that I would want the amalgamator effort too tightly tied to an academic or professional society, but you would think that one of them would at least be interested in trying to help promote the effort and recognize it (of course, I’ve been profoundly wrong about what institutions will do in the past).

    I can see a system like this being a very low cost way to generate traffic and good will for any organization or institution that would support it, and, with the right set-up (automated ‘unfiltered’ feed and perhaps a small group of ‘curators’ for different sorts of anthropology for the ‘editors’ choice’ section), the effort might not be too onerous for any individual.

    John, I know what you’re saying about reading each other’s stuff, but I also suspect that there are things going on out there that I miss. Some of the blogs that I used to follow closely have sort of gone dormant (or blogs that I used to write for), and I would really like to get a platform that would help us to discover and promote new voices. One of the frustrations of blogging for those of us who are not as consistent as John is that we don’t want our efforts to shrivel and die just because we can’t blog as much as we’d like, either due to professional or personal commitments or the vagaries of life (ask me about multiple hernias, for example). An amalgamator site, especially one like Digital Humanities Now, would allow our own individual projects to exist independently, but would also make it easier to find that shared community, seamlessly pulling together the sometimes inconsistent production of individual blogs.

    On the other hand, John is spot on: just moving online content from one site to another is not likely to really increase readership (although it could). Certainly, for someone like John, who has a blog with an established public, I’m not sure an amalgamator would offer much that he didn’t already get.

    That’s where the amalgamator could be something more. There’s no reason why the ‘editors’ choice’ section couldn’t form the infrastructure, the first cut, for an electronic magazine. Linking the two – amalgamator and magazine – would help to sharpen the writing ability of online writers; getting picked as an ‘editors’ choice’ would indicate that the work might be good enough for inclusion in an electronic magazine. I mean, essentially, Open Lab is kind of what John’s talking about, except that Open Lab is an actual book, whereas an emagazine, lets say a collection of the 15-25 best long-form blog posts from our fledgling ‘AnthroNet,’ might actually reach a new public.

    Like John, I’d be interested in getting involved. I don’t think I’m ready to say, ‘Right, I’m in charge,’ primarily because I have NO CLUE how one creates something like DHNow (although I think I’m going to be prowling around online to try to figure it out).

    • Wow, thanks again Greg for pushing these discussions in such interesting directions, both in terms of inside-and-outside academia as well as inside-and-outside the anthropology blogosphere.

      I have a couple of crazy ideas. First, I recently had the experience of having a post picked up by I had no idea about this site, but being up there for a few days meant over 600 direct visits and lots of sharing, adding up to about 2000 visits over three days, a huge increase. So, I can see how an aggregator could drive visibility and traffic. If we could push subscriptions–especially out to those people at the “core” of the discipline who don’t read blogs–it seems like it could increase readership, materials assigned in courses, and references across the discipline. The DH Net model looks similar and may be a good place to start.

      Second crazy idea: As I’m sure you know, typing in sends the browser to the Anthropologie store. They also seem to have bought up, as this re-directs to their “blog” called “The Anthropologist” which seems to support “inspiring” artists (I didn’t see any anthropologists). Anyway, I’m thinking of drafting an open letter to the Anthropologie store to ask for our .com brand back. They have profited from the authenticity-and-exotic label anthropology confers: they should give us back for the aggregator. Maybe we can still run ads to their store–with commissions of course…


    • Apologies….”Tom and Dan” refer to Tom Scheinfeld and Dan Cohen, Managing Director and Director (respectively) of the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media (http:// They are the primary minds behind DHNow, which is now under the umbrella of PressForward (, which was founded ” to explore and produce the best means for collecting, screening, and drawing attention to the vast expanse of scholarship that is currently decentralized across the web or does not fit into traditional genres such as the journal article or the monograph.” Its a fairly ambitious undertaking – funded mostly by the Sloan Foundation.

      I’m also working on an open access, digital publishing initiative with University of Michigan ‘s MPub focused on archaeology (both anthropological and humanistic). The idea behind this initiative is to create a publication umbrella under which a broad variety of different types of things could live: “traditional” monographs, journals, shorter “kindle single” types of works, re-publication of works that have fallen out of copyright or whose copyright has reverted to the author, and possible shorter form works…all open access (with a very liberal CC license) and all completely digital.

  5. daniel.lende says:

    A couple comments. I do think we have a couple aggregators out there, where it is antropologi’s “anthropology blog newspaper” or the Anthro.collected model. Or on an individual basis, people can use Google Reader and similar rss feed organizers to access the blogs and news they want. So I am not sure an aggregator alone will do, first because we have some models, and second, because a lot of what’s discussed above is about how to have a “value added” impact through bringing together the collective efforts of many people online.

    There is not a lot of value added in one massive feed, as it becomes hard to know what information is relevant and also to get to the “good stuff” (however defined) quickly. One lesson I learned from doing the Best of Anthro 2008 collection is the importance of providing multiple ways to access the overall compilation. So an overall list is a first step; then it’s important to find ways to make use of that information and to categorize. For example, a listing of blogs by different types of sub-field as well as a collection of some of the top overall blogs both offer value added by narrowing the overall flow of information.

    I also want to emphasize the idea of “curation,” and that there is someone who takes charge of doing that curation and in doing that curation, aims to build the same sort of trustworthiness that Bora has spoken about with science blogging. In today’s digital age, we visit sites we trust, ones that build a reputation over time. That means going beyond a “collection” model to a “curation” model.

    In the best of all worlds, the “someone” will actually be more than one person, though it is still likely to be a small group.

    The Digital Humanities Now looks like a good example. It provides news and tweets, alongside a selection of blog posts from different sites. It has “value added.” And the PressForward approach backing up Digital Humanities looks to be important, with its explicit goal to foster scholarly communities online.

    I think there are some other potential models out there that represent variations on the curated model, though without the same emphasis on community building.

    3 Quarks Daily delivers a consistent feed of good posts from a very wide palette of selection. Their crucial difference from a straight-forward collection approach is that they often select a relevant part from the post or news article, rather than simply the beginning. They also have an artful image accompanying almost every selection.

    A more editorial driven site is Mind Hacks, which not only offers selections from important writing and ideas online, but also provides succinct summaries of the research and many times, incisive and critical commentary.

    As John says, for most people online, a simple aggregator online won’t do it. Providing value added information, through curation, highlighting, and commentary, offers a robust model. That model also requires people to get behind it.

    Recognition also helps. An editor’s selection might get that sort of recognition, something that a person could be on a cv. A little image, with a common piece of code, like the Research Blogging image, might help with some brand recognition – something that people could put on their own sites. And providing an overall list of “editors’ selections” (a condensed list for easy and rapid viewing) will help facilitate people getting to the good stuff quickly, rather than having to go through page after page of a normal blog format.

    Awards also help. The Best of Anthro Blogging 2008 Prizes worked fairly easily in concept, though it took a lot of work. I reached out to bloggers and asked them to submit their most popular post and their “best” post from the past year, relying on them to identify the material that proved important on their site. That was really the heart of the collection. Adding as much humor as possible to the awards then made it something entertaining for people as well.

    Adding on a smaller end-of-the-year collection, like the Open Lab process does, then raises that a level. Suddenly, there has been peer review, and also a tangible recognition through inclusion in a final product. That can also help.

    An Open Lab effort might dovetail with a curated collection approach; or they might be two different things. But as everyone says here, there is good potential here to raise the profile of anthropology online through this type of collective editorial approach.

    • ryan a says:

      “Providing value added information, through curation, highlighting, and commentary, offers a robust model. That model also requires people to get behind it.”

      Ya, I agree Daniel. There has to be more than just compilation of different content–and this requires active participation and engagement.

  6. Jeremy T says:

    So it sounds as if the DHNow site is what everyone is after, perhaps with an added “hard copy” publication. The question that remains is, who’s going to do it and how? Has anyone made progress on this?

    Does anyone know how automated DHNow is? That is, how much work do the actual editors have to do to keep things moving on the site?

    For the “hard copy” publication, maybe we should talk to existing journals (Human Org, Practicing Anthropology, Cultural Anthropology, come to mind) and see if they’d be willing to publish a short section in their journals for one or two blog posts. How would they be chosen? Just doing some brainstorming here, but why go to the trouble and expense of starting a whole new publication and building a readership when we could instead latch on to an existing publication with an existing readership? It might be a tough sell, but not impossible, I think.

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