Category Archives: new media & internet

Research on the cloud: my top study tools for humanities postgraduates

So this week I officially become a student again for the first time since I graduated in 2008. I now have a student number and a supervisor. Next week I’ll enroll and take possession of my student card, along with a printing quota and library access, it’s all very exciting.

In truth, though, this just formalises my research – I like to think that I’ll always be a student at heart, and I’ve been working on my current project for more than 6 months and across two hemispheres.

The challenges of researching while traveling have made me a serious convert to cloud-based tools. I’ve spent hours (and hours and hours) researching which tools are the best, and now work with a select group of systems that work really well.

Given the time it took me to sort the good from the bad, I thought it would be worth sharing my list of the best cloud-based research tools. It’s not a huge list, but that’s a good thing, because that means more information stored in fewer places.

These will be particularly relevant to humanities postgraduates, although most are applicable to all disciplines. Oh, and all of these are free, although most have optional upgrades involving small fees. Best of all they are in the cloud, meaning you can access them all over the place, and your data isn’t dependent on one machine.

1. Zotero: The bibliographical system of the gods

Zotero comes out of the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media. It’s core focus is a Mozilla Firefox add-on, in which users can maintain a library of resources (books, journal articles, webpages). Yes, EndNote does this, but Zotero does it way, way better.

My Zotero library

The Zotero magic is in its ability to suck metadata out of almost anywhere. EndNote will only talk to, and import citations from, library catalogues and journal databases. The end result is a LOT of manual entry of records. Zotero, on the other hand, saves data from the source directly. It’s hard to explain, but check out the tutorials to see this in action – it is almost too good to be true.

Zotero links in to most major word processing software with a neat ad-on, again meaning that you are working within the program itself – no toggling between your word processor and the bibliographical software.

It also stores all of your records, notes, etc on external servers, so that if your computer dies or you have to work on another machine, you can still access all of your records. Oh, and on the topic of notes, by keeping your notes on Zotero (as standalone notes or tied to a specific book etc) they are fully text searchable.

I’ve also just seen their latest news announcement, which includes information about a range of great updates. These include the expansion of the add-on to cover other web browsers (including Safari and Chrome), an update of the web-based interface to allow full read-write capability (i.e. for when you don’t have the browser add-on) and updated word-processor integration.

I use this to: Collect, store and cite references. Keep notes about references. Search through my notes.

2. Evernote: notes

Evernote is very simply an online notebook. I used it a lot more before I got into Zotero in a big way, but it is still a really useful tool for jotting down thoughts in a place that can’t be left on a bus or in the library.

Its big advantage is that it is supported across almost all platforms (Zotero requires a computer) so you can record a note from your phone, iPad, friend’s computer etc. It’s simple, but quick – just what you want to capture those scurrying thoughts or flashes of genius.

It also has a cute function where you can ‘clip’ webpages or material from the web and store it as a note, although for serious research I would prefer to put things in Zotero and store it as a proper bibliographical entry.

I use this to: Hoard random thoughts that might come in useful someday.

3. TimeGlider: Easy and elegant timelines

This is a very handy web-based timeline creator, which is perfect for building a record of the key events and dates associated with the historical moment of your research. I find this a fantastic way to visualise and connect events. By  overlaying the events specific to my research with the major political and economic events of the time, things start to fit together.

My timeline - early stages yet

This is web-based, so you can log-in and add entries from anywhere, and you can even print your timeline.

I use this to: Store information about major events. See how events connect and fit together. Check which came first, the chicken or the egg.

4. Dropbox: Backup, backup backup!

Dropbox is a new addition to my list, but as I get further with my research the risk of losing everything is getting bigger by the minute. Dropbox offers a simple backup system, with the added advantage of a one-month history of your files, so if you accidentally save over that amazing first draft, you can retrieve it.

I use this to: Backup important files.

5. Google Docs: Word processing on the cloud

A simple word processor that offers good collaboration tools and connectivity with Office. Its pretty basic, but in a good way.

I use this to: Work on files when I’m not at my own desk.

6. WordPress!

A blog platform probably isn’t the most typical research tool out there, but it does offer the research student some vital opportunities – namely the chance to workshop ideas, vent spleen, share links and generally connect. I looked at a lot of different blogging platforms and I’m really glad I took the plunge with WordPress.

I’m sure there are loads of other great tools out there, but these are my favourites, and I have to say they truly make my life easier. If anyone has suggestions get commenting!

J

Inn Taverns and E-Pubs: Storytelling today

**I wrote this essay for the Meanland blog contest while in the middle of shifting from Europe back to Australia. I even wrote some of it in Heathrow Airport (remember how much I love Heathrow?) While I wasn’t successful in scoring a regular gig for the Meanland blog, I was excited to be involved (even glancingly) in such an innovative way to seek out good ideas and those who have them. The first of the winning essays has now been published and is a very good read. Check it out for yourself at meanland.com.au. So without further ado, here is my essay on the topic of digital writing and oral storytelling.**

Have you ever heard someone tell a story in a tavern? For that matter, when was the last time you listened to someone telling a story—not about their weekend or their recent trip to Bali—a real story, a work of fiction.

If you’re anything like me you struggled with it, attention slipping, plotlines escaping, distractions getting the upper hand. In our fundamentally literary world, following an oral narrative can be hard work.

Oral storytelling (and story-listening) were central elements in ancient, medieval and early-modern popular culture. A cosy tavern on a cold northern night, filled with a community sharing stories, news or scandals is a quintessential image of medieval England.

Chaucer on his charger

The scenario is most famously depicted in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, where a motley group of pilgrims compete in a storytelling competition situated in the taverns they stop in along their route. The pilgrims come from a range of social strata, and the stories they tell vary from pious sermons to lewd yarns that would make a footy-player blush. This variation in theme and style highlights an important aspect of oral storytelling traditions—their variety. It is impossible to speak of one cohesive popular culture today, and the same goes for the entertainments of the past.

That said, there were clearly themes that were likely to be well received by a tavern crowd. Both manuscripts and other sources, such as the Canterbury Tales, are evidence of the widespread popularity of the romance genre. Medieval romances were stories of courtly love, adventure and magic: More Lord of the Rings than Georgette Heyer.

Dragons are always popular

In the oral tradition, the romances were populated by a set of familiar characters and plot lines—King Arthur and the Holy Grail, Gawain and the Green Knight, Tristram and Isolde. As Nancy Bradbury argued in her book Writing Aloud, medieval storytelling involved ‘a set of infinitely recombinable ready-made narrative episodes’. Thus, each re/telling involved a combination of borrowing and invention. The storytelling tradition was ‘built up out of a common stock of tough but flexible structural units’ that facilitated the activity of storytelling and helped people all over Europe find and create entertainment.

So where is storytelling today? As in medieval Europe it’s all over the place in a number of different forms and genres: from video or podcasts, to theatre performances, book readings and even tweets (see for example the 2010 Royal Shakespeare Company/Mudlark project Such Tweet Sorrow).

Rather strikingly, stories involving high adventure, dashing heroes and a good dose of magic have also lost none of their popularity since Chaucer’s time. It seems that humans still have a ‘thirst for the otherworldy’, as Daniel Mackay put it.

On this quest to trace storytelling culture to its modern home, then, I followed the path of the otherworldly to a little-known address in an internet byway. Here you can find the Running Stag Inn, where Burke tends the bar and serves a particularly multiracial clientele, including humans, elves, drow and gnomes. Of course Burke is a work of fiction, one among the characters who inhabit the fantasy role-playing website Faerun RP.

This Inn (an e-Pub?) is a modern gathering place, where a community of like-minded, if far-flung, members come together to create and tell stories.

Faerun RP is one among many fantasy role-play (RP) websites active on the internet. The homepage on another site, Mizahar, provides an introduction to the activity as a whole, describing itself as: ‘a fantasy roleplay forum in which a dedicated, friendly, and free community of roleplayers and artists gather to spin epic-level tales via collaborative storytelling.’

The storytelling on these websites involves a number of multimedia elements—from character avatars, to theme music and scenic photographs—all used to complement and flesh out the written stories.

The structural units of this environment are even more visible than those of the medieval oral tradition. Some, such as Faerun RP and The Legends of Krynn, are based on ‘campaign settings’ published by the megalithic Wizards of the Coast as part of the Dungeons & Dragons universe. These are the same rule books used in ‘table-top’ RP games, but on the RP website the focus is most-often on the storytelling, with dice and scoring rarely, if ever, used.

Unlike the examples above, Mizahar is proud to assert that it does not ‘borrow from mainstream Tolkien fantasy’. Instead it has its own universe, complete with 20 distinct races, numerous religions and all the other necessary structural elements.

Just as in the medieval oral storytelling tradition, these frameworks provide much assistance to the modern storyteller. By setting a story in a pre-defined world and using characters whose basic attributes are already familiar to the audience, writers are able to get on with the real business of the day—telling a rip-roaring story.

The differences between this storytelling environment and that of the medieval troubadours are numerous. The role-play website is an asynchronous environment, where teller and listeners share neither spatial nor temporal location. As the Mizahar introduction also points out, the stories in a role-play website are multi-authored. Outside of the ‘in character’ story forums there is a buzz of activity on ‘out of character’ forums, where plotlines are formed under the guidance of a central storyteller (otherwise known as a Dungeon Master). The extent to which this situation differs from the oral tradition is difficult to say, as a tavern environment is impossible to reconstruct from the historical sources.

Of course the most fundamental, inescapable, difference between the medieval storytelling tradition and the website communities is in the form of the words they use. In the medieval tavern the words were spoken and listened to, in the Running Stag Inn the words are written and read.

But the fantasy role-play website doesn’t really fit in the world of literature—even the more formal (book-form) expressions of fantasy writing are often rejected by the literary world. In this instance it is clear that the material substance of the stories is not the most defining feature of the activity. Rather the key is the purpose of those involved—entertainment, play, the whiling away of an evening in the company of friends: In a word, storytelling.

digest one

Andrew and I spent last weekend in Amsterdam. The trip and city were great, if a little soggy, and through the rain we discovered a beautiful and very sophisticated city. It’s a place that I’m sure we’ll return to – although we’ll definitely be aiming for summer next time!

Anyway a few days away from my subscriptions on Google Reader gave me a serious back-log to work through. I’ve been chipping away at the articles and posts over the last few days, flirting with the ‘mark all as read’ button. In the end I persevered and caught up, and I thought I’d share some of the best in a little digest.

My subscriptions are mostly related to digital humanities, academia, new media etc – and that’s the focus of the list below.

When eating I like to save the most delicious morsel for last, but in reading I take the opposite tack. Accordingly I’m going to start with the best, most original, piece that turned up in my reader this week – a piece that happens to be over a decade old.

Douglas Adams on the internet:

Via an article on the Australian if:book site I found this article written by Douglas Adams in 1999. It’s called How to Stop Worrying and Learn to Love the Internet and displays all of the usual insight and wit that make Adams one of my favourite authors.

This is particularly gorgeous and apt:

I suppose earlier generations had to sit through all this huffing and puffing with the invention of television, the phone, cinema, radio, the car, the bicycle, printing, the wheel and so on, but you would think we would learn the way these things work, which is this:

1) everything that’s already in the world when you’re born is just normal;

2) anything that gets invented between then and before you turn thirty is incredibly exciting and creative and with any luck you can make a career out of it;

3) anything that gets invented after you’re thirty is against the natural order of things and the beginning of the end of civilisation as we know it until it’s been around for about ten years when it gradually turns out to be alright really.

His comments on interactivity and the ‘aberration’ of twentieth-century mass-media in the history of cultural creation also seem spot on to this budding historian.

Other bits and pieces I enjoyed reading:

This article on ‘blurbing’ (the provision by eminent figures of positive quotes to adorn book covers). This is an inside view and will make you think twice before trusting those juicy quotes again.

Over on HASTAC there is an interview with Prof. Kathleen Fitzpatrick on e-books and the imperative of open academic publishing. Kirkpatrick’s recent book Planned Obsolescence is particularly worth looking at because it is built on an innovative (and open acess) digital publishing platform called Comment Press. You can read Planned Obsolescence here and find out more about Comment Press here.

Finally, two things that have been added to the ‘to read’ list this week:

The first is yet another future of the book book, but this time from the perspective of authors. It’s called The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books and caught my eye because of the creative take some of the authors appear to have taken on the issue. Read more about this at Google Books or check out the introduction at The Millions.

Last but not least, something a bit more academic: Jenna Newman, ‘The Google Books Settlement: A Private Contract in the Absence of Adequate Copyright Law’ in Scholarly and Research Communication. Vol 2.1. Open access.

Well that’s the first digest – I hope to make this a semi-regular feature here – not least because it really helps me sort through the mountains of stuff I read on a daily basis!

J

barbarians at the gate

I read a lot of articles on the effect of new media on culture and society. One of the best I’ve read in a while turned up this week at The New Yorker, and I wanted to shares some highlights from it.

In ‘The Information: How the Internet gets inside us’, Adam Gopnik offers a clear-sighted analysis of the current state of the debate. The article is a useful re-cap of where the main strategic positions are, and I particularly like his categorisations of the main contributors as either ‘Never-Betters’, ‘Better-Nevers’, or ‘Ever-Wasers’. He defines these groups as follows:

The Never-Betters believe that we’re on the brink of a new utopia, where information will be free and democratic, news will be made from the bottom up, love will reign, and cookies will bake themselves. The Better-Nevers think that we would have been better off if the whole thing had never happened, that the world that is coming to an end is superior to the one that is taking its place, and that, at a minimum, books and magazines create private space for minds in ways that twenty-second bursts of information don’t. The Ever-Wasers insist that at any moment in modernity something like this is going on, and that a new way of organizing data and connecting users is always thrilling to some and chilling to others—that something like this is going on is exactly what makes it a modern moment.

Prominent Never-Betters include Clay Shirky and John Tooby. Better-Nevers with recent publications are Nicholas Carr (The Shallows), William Powers, (Hamlet’s BlackBerry) and Sherry Turkle (Alone Together).

Ann Blair is cited as the ‘most ambitious’ of the Ever-Wasers. Gopnik reviews the main points in her recent book Too Much to Know: Managing Scholarly Information Before the Modern Age, which examines the techniques through which earlier generations of scholars, from the middle ages onwards, complained about and dealt with their own information overload. It sounds interesting and is now on my ‘to read’ list.

Gopnik finds that his hopes rest with the Never-Betters, his head with the Ever-Wasers and his heart with the Better-Nevers. The arguments of the latter also prompt the greatest fear, because if we become complacent Ever-Wasers we could end up overrun before we know it. Gopnik provides this parable to explain the point:

“Oh, they always say that about the barbarians, but every generation has its barbarians, and every generation assimilates them,” one Roman reassured another when the Vandals were at the gates, and next thing you knew there wasn’t a hot bath or a good book for another thousand years.

I have to say that I find the Better-Nevers much less appealing than Gopnik, and for me the Better-Nevers are more endearing, if only because they offer hope rather than endless prophecies of doom  ­̶  but that’s probably more about my natural optimism and experiences as a ‘digital native’ than any objective reaction to the debate.

One of the most interesting points in the article is Gopnik’s comparison between television and the internet. Gopnik notes that ‘everything that is said about the Internet’s destruction of “interiority” was said for decades about television’. Times and opinions have changed, and television never caused the kind of moral and social apocalypse that some commentators from the seventies predicted. For Gopnik ‘what made television so evil back when it was evil was not its essence but its omnipresence. Once it is not everything, it can be merely something.’ To force the same impotency on the internet, Gopnik suggests, we can start by simply walking away from the computer once in a while, if only to prove that we can.

You can read the rest of Gopnik’s article on the New Yorker’s website, and because I can’t help myself the full citation for the article is:

Gopnik, Adam. ‘The Information: How the Internet Gets Inside Us.’ The New Yorker, February 14, 2011. Online edition, accessed 14 February 2011.