Saturday, April 28, 2007

MIT's Media in Transition: Authorship and Attribution

I went to a good panel this morning at MIT's Media in Transition conference, The Name of the Author. I am increasingly interested in attribution as a substitute for monetary compensation and control in copyright, and the panel offered some nonlegal perspectives that also had direct relevance for me as an academic blogger.

Andy Dehnart, The Death of the Link: Does Attribution Still Matter?

Dehnart suggested that linking is a dying art, despite its centrality to conceptions of the internet. There are different forms of copying. Outright theft, often for splogs/spam blogs or plagiarism – people copying others’ diary entries as their own. RSS feeds and aggregators also detach content from source, though there is some attribution left. People also copy and paste, sometimes with attribution and sometimes without – for the former, sometimes to allow people to read content without registering at, say, the NYT website. And sometimes people copy and put in a link that is just the word “source,” which can be pretty unclear. Sometimes people get the source wrong – A links to B, C links to A and credits A.

Motivations: theft, desire to share, laziness (technological uncertainty with linking), lack of permanent links, failure to care about sources (the mistaken idea that Wikipedia and scholars are all the same), the idea that giving credit decreases your own contribution (apparently a common attitude among students), social media technologies that allow people to detach things from sources (YouTube, which allows both linking and embedding; embedding is cool and exciting but also removes attribution information unless you click through). Results: people may not care about source or have a distorted idea of the source. Dehnart told a great anecdote about someone who copied something from his blog, but when contacted angrily denied that she would ever copy without attribution because she had copied from an email from a friend rather than directly from the blog.

Problems: denial of attribution, inability to update or correct information in the original, denial of ability to evaluate or discuss others’ work in context. (If you’re discussing a A’s post in B’s blog, your conversation is unlikely to influence the larger discussion of A’s point.) News gets out and has no attribution associated with it – he gave the example of a spoiler for Dancing with the Stars that he first reported, but then AP picked up without attribution to him. Verifiability deteriorates, and it's even more problematic when verifiability and credibility are detached from one another. Are journalistic ethics decaying because of interaction with blogs? The original source, and the ability to question it, are lost.

Kim Middleton, Pseudonymous Blogging and New Functions of Authorship

Is there a crisis in scholarly publishing? There’s a vicious circle of collapse of monographs and inability to sell monographs, which makes it much harder for scholars to (a) get hired/tenured and (b) write things that speak to specialists as opposed to generalists. What should authors themselves, as opposed to institutions, do in response?

Academic blogs are discussing what defines an academic and what they’re allowed to write. Both the academic blogosphere and the AAUP are concerned with the same things, but bloggers are considering how their identity is linked to their scholarship. So what about people who blog under pseudonyms/pseuds? Pseudonymity is always suspect because it threatens accountability and authority; it affects the reader’s ability to trust the author. Pseuds can help us stay safe as writers, but pseudonymity also threatens the academy – one’s name is built upon one’s writing. Writing by unidentifiable authors, who refuse authority, responsibility and identity but still claim to participate in academic discourse, destabilizes the system.

Blogging isn’t the answer to the publishing crisis, but pseudonymous blogs operate as a new way to publish ideas that is as yet undertheorized as to the connection between pseudonymity and the academic enterprise. The academic blogger creates a persona to write, expanding available writing practices – including both subjects of writing and subjects who write.

Middleton discussed the Chronicle of Higher Education blowup involving “Ivan Tribble” (a pseud!) who posted an article saying he’d never hire a blogger because of the risk s/he’d air departmental dirty laundry. In this account, there’s an injunction against creating a written record that shows that you are a person beyond your disciplinary boundaries, whether or not your thoughts are analytic or scholarly. This climate has made academic blogs less playful and less willing to experiment, according to some.

The response by those who sympathize with Tribble's concerns: rhetoric has consequences, and if you write a lot about your body people may judge you as a narcissist. The broader questions: What narratives of identity are institutionally sanctioned? Is it possible to challenge governing concepts of scholarly identity with new concepts of blogging identity?

One specific response to Tribble by Bitch, PhD: this is why I don’t blog under my real name. She takes the threat really seriously, and also considers the pseud “not a real name.” Her critique focuses on committee members as bad readers of blogs, misunderstanding how a scholar can be a person as well. Theoretically these people on the hiring committee read for a living, but blogs aren’t their texts. Is it any wonder bloggers use pseuds? Tribble also thinks it’s okay to publish pseudonymously in the Chronicle – certain kinds of authority allow you to be pseudonymous without consequence.

(My thought: several of these applicants may have been hurt by the somewhat bizarre convention that our resumes have an "interests" or "hobbies" section; we are and have been for decades in the midst of cultural ferment about to what extent our professional selves should be seen to be "whole persons," even as it is impossible for anyone to present as a "whole person" in any one context, especially the academic one.)

The development of a critical insider stance: Bitch, PhD places herself within the academy, but wants to stay outside as well, and the pseudonym allows both. The pseud develops cultural capital of its own – it is not interchangeable with the real name even though it refers to real life.

A final observation: academic blogging talks more about the process of research and less about the outcome than previous forms of academic writing. So we can learn more about what goes on behind the curtain – the constraints on real academic lives, the operations of power within the academy. This is not obviously good or bad, just different.

Virve Sarapik, Signification and Naming

Sarapik discussed the role of titles in art as serving related purposes to the artist’s name, allowing distinction and interpretation, though numerous schools have deemphasized the relevance of titles. Thus, the prevalence of “untitled” works of art. Naming is an exercise of power over the object, but also a recognition of the object as one of importance.

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