Academic journal article The Mailer Review

Project Mailer 2015

Academic journal article The Mailer Review

Project Mailer 2015

Article excerpt

Since I began attending The Norman Mailer Society conference in 2006, I have been interested in two seemingly separate areas of teaching and scholarship. "Mailer Studies" in a traditional academic sense, and digital culture's influence on the Humanities have been my primary research interests. While I have addressed both in conference presentations, journal articles, and course offerings, Phillip Sipiora's 2012 paper on the "legacy power" of Norman Mailer inspired me to combine my two interests.

"Project Mailer" (PM), a Digital Humanities (DH) project that I outlined at the 2014 conference of the Norman Mailer Society, has begun modestly. This year has seen the start of The Mailer Review's online presence; two informal sister publications: "Norman Mailer" and "Teaching Norman Mailer"; the NMS Podcast; a renewed emphasis on the Society's social media presence; and (hopefully by the time you read this) the digital publication of the "Works" section of Norman Mailer: Works and Days. In addition, the Project Mailer web site has been designed to act as a hub to support new projects undertaken by the Mailer community. Two strategies provide the foundation for the design of PM: the project should be as future-proof as possible, that is employ the most current strategies for coding, digitization of artifacts, archiving, and accessing content, but it should also be simple and elegant, providing easy and unrestricted access to those who most need it. Therefore, it seemed the best way to approach the project was to employ a distributed DH model one that chooses the best platform for the content and makes that content the most accessible for the Society members.

DISTRIBUTED DH: THEORY AND PRAXIS

"The street finds its own uses for things."
                       --William Gibson,"Burning Chrome"

Michel de Certeau notes in The Practice of Everyday Life that inherent in the design of urban spaces is an imposed method of action structures that attempt to control behaviors. Sidewalks provide sanctioned places for walking, benches for sitting, offices for working, houses for living. Yet, everyday life often ignores the sidewalks and wears a dirt path through the grass symbolizing a tactical rebellion by citizens. When given sanctioned ways of behaving, people often rebel by creating their own paths to walk regardless of the original intent.

In the digital world, designers and systems architects often give us gadgets and platforms that attempt to direct how we work and play. Yet, unlike the concrete and glass of the urban landscape, the digital is much more malleable to the desires of users. The digital often provides a faster and more direct mode of feedback. Platform designers and their users have immediate means for feedback, response, and revision. There might even be a correlation between the success of a platform and how developers respond to user needs. In my experience, newer platforms are very interested in what users have to say, and they often show alacrity in implementing these suggestions. Users, therefore, have a say in how they want to work influencing platform development. However, once a platform reaches the stage of metonym, it changes the users, rather than users changing it. Think Google, Apple, Facebook with Instagram and Twitter on the rise. Even when Facebook makes an improvement to its platform, many users resist because they had gotten used to the older functionality.

This idea has made me rethink my approach to building DH projects. Why build from the ground up when pre-made platforms will likely do the work we need?

In a 2008 study that evaluates several DH projects, Claire Warwick, et al., note that users are influenced by "switching costs" and will resist learning a new interface even if it's an improvement (389). They observe that the most well used DH projects are also the most long lived. There might be several reasons for this, but it may also have to do with platform programming users: since little option was available at the time, users learned an unfamiliar interface so they could access the information within. …

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