Originally posted on the Scholars’ Lab blog on February 27, 2019.
Healthy, diverse online learning communities depend on the labor of community design: unseen and often stressful work such as moderation, shaping discussions, and encouraging positive community behavior. As more opportunities emerge for learning online as part of a virtual community, how can we:
I write from my experiences moderating both my digital dissertation project Infinite Ulysses (a social platform for annotating/commenting on James Joyce’s novel) and the Digital Humanities Slack I started (a set of themed chat rooms with over 2,000 digital humanist members; co-moderated by Alan G. Pike, Sam Abrams, Alex Gil, Brandon Walsh, Ed Summers, Paige C. Morgan, Jeremy Boggs, Eleanor Dickson, Liz Rodrigues, and Erin Pappas). It’s been exhilarating using technology to collaborate with folks I don’t know: if you’ve taught DH, think of the students who respond to your lessons like “DH is exactly what I want to do, I just didn’t have a term for it before”, but expand to include folks from all over the world and more diverse walks of life. But it’s also been a significant source of anxiety, balancing my responsibility to the community with my desire to help folks learn to be more positive influences on that community. That stress was half of why I moved Infinite Ulysses from a Drupal site allowing commenting, to a static archived version without commenting (the other half was some serious thinking about how I could best contribute to the DH I want to see, and realizing that just for me personally, I need to move away from Joyce and Modernist studies to best accomplish that).
I do want to note that the challenges of moderating online DH and other academic/professional communities are, at least for me, privileged through my ability to choose my level of work (or opt out completely) without hurting my livelihood or family; compared with the pain, lack of compensation, lack of respect, and more evils experienced by folks like those who moderate YoutTube and Facebook, working with smaller communities that have some norms (though inequitable) and professional consequences (though often used as a weapon against rather than a protector of folks with marginalized identities) are less pressing problems.
This post is largely drawn from a non-successful IMLS pre-proposal I PI’d (Spring 2018) for an NLG planning grant to explore, identify key challenges, and plan pilot community experimental approaches to aid the foundational labor of moderators underpinning online learning communities, titled “A Moderate Proposal: Recognizing and Reinforcing Online Community Moderation to Benefit Diverse Learners” and co-designed with colleagues Jeremy Boggs, Katherine Donnally, Shane Lin, Laura Miller, and Brandon Walsh. (If you like the title pun, you may also appreciate that our proposal drafting GDoc was titled “DigitalHumanities.club”, after the domain that I own because it’s awesome, but that I was also using to explore Mastodon and Mattermost for better communities.)
I finally got around to this post due to cool stuff two DHers are up to:
I’ve only skimmed Newton’s piece, but I’ve read and admired Sarah T. Robert’s more longstanding work in this area:
Thanks to Scott and Ammon for being awesome scholars doing work collaboratively and in public!
Community design requires moderation and scaffolding. Moderation is both the work of controlling spam and intentional harassment in a community, as well as designing and implementing a code of conduct (e.g. working behind the scenes with a community member whose words impact others negatively, but who wants to become a better community member). Scaffolding is the work of maintaining and nurturing a community: suggesting conversation topics, encouraging community member involvement, amplifying marginalized voices, and otherwise enacting strategies to grow a healthy and active community. Creating the technical platform for an online community is relatively simple, given existing open-source versions of popular social media platforms. Rather, the challenge to improving moderation is a social project: habituating community members to behavior that reduces harassment, encourages real accountability to others in your community, distributes the stress of moderating, and recognizes/credits/rewards people who moderate and otherwise advance positive community design.
I’ve focused on Twitter, Slack, and Mastodon as text-heavy platforms with public and frequent use by digital humanists, plus Civil Comments and the Mozilla Coral Project as technical solutions to online community challenges. I’m also interested in these past or current DHy communities and the scholars shaping them: DH Q&A, Humanities Commons, DHthis, DH Commons, the DLF Forum, DH Slack, HASTAC, DHNow, the AADHUM Slack, and the Documenting the Now Slack.
We’ve since updated our thinking and planning, but when I submitted our grant preproposal a year ago, we imagined the following activites and outcomes:
The project team would identify and invite 10 experts in online learning community-building, with diverse representation of gender, race, and other identities, from libraries, archives, museums, and academia. Our initial work draws on a symposium with these advisors to spark collaborations, identify key challenges, and plan out steps for piloting and assessing improvements to social systems of moderation:
We will identify project staffers with expertise in ethical design practices, and charge them with holding our focus on improving online communities for marginalized identities, while also documenting and publishing the conversations and findings occurring through the planning phase to ensure others can build on our work. During this grant’s planning phase we will create:
Experimental approaches may include:
If anything in this post interests you (future collaboration?), overlaps with your current work, or could benefit from my reading and citing you or others, please let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you!
Thanks to colleagues Jeremy Boggs, Katherine Donnally, Shane Lin, Laura Miller, and Brandon Walsh for co-designing of the grant proposal, and to Ammon Shepherd for helping me think about the technical sustainability aspects of better online moderation experiences.