The Generosity of Social Media


Utility, Ubiquity, Unselfishness
A few months ago Neal Stimler, media visionary and digital specialist at the Met in New York, spoke on The Commons and Digital Humanities.  “Utility, Ubiquity, Unselfishness,” he said, must be the qualities for the future of the digital humanities.  In this post I’d like to acknowledge just these characteristics in a couple of social media initiatives I’ve come across.
This morning I sat at my desk and attended a useful, inspiring webinar on how to improve conference presentations. I know I’ll use what I learned not only in presenting at meetings but also in my teaching.  When I saw a few weeks ago that the Museums and the Web 2013 conference was offering two how-to webinars for conference registrants, I briefly considered registering just to get the training even though I knew I couldn’t make the meeting; but I didn’t have to take that drastic step.
Instead, I was delighted to learn that MW2013 decided to put these seminars online  for anyone who can get online to watch. Perhaps it was always the plan–to present to registrants first and then open it up; or perhaps it was because some of the presentations began to go viral anyhow. Whatever the reason, just think about it: when has any organization that sponsors a conference provided this kind of in-depth training for its participants?  It’s a great idea; it has been really well implemented; and now MW2013 has offered it free of charge to all.

I’ve seen all of the first and part of the second session, and they are absolutely excellent. Anyone who presents at conferences, especially using Powerpoint or other types of visual presentations, will profit from a look.   Each of the experienced presenters practices what s/he preaches with brief, interesting, extremely practical suggestions.  Each webinar, featuring two or three presenters, lasts about an hour–I know that seems like a lot of time–but remember, it’s free, and you can attend in your pajamas! (By the way I have no connection to this organization.)

A second useful offering was recently posted by Steven Lubar, Director of the Public Humanities Program at Brown University. Steve attended a course by information graphics guru Edward Tufte on presenting data, tweeted its main messages, and then Storified them for wider use.  The tweets are easy to follow, and they capture key ideas on how to present data in ways that are interesting and understandable to a broad audience, not just the in-crowd of one’s particular discipline.
There are no doubt many more examples of this kind of generous approach to knowledge, so different from the impetus to guard one’s professional secrets in order to beat out the competition.
It’s a Two-Way Street
Just a couple more thoughts about this culture of utility, ubiquity, and unselfishness.  I think this is one of those situations where a human impulse and a technological system work in synchronicity to create a whole greater than its parts. Anthropologists say that collaborative tendencies have always been with us, and are most adaptive in creating and sustaining societies and cultures. The creation of the World Wide Web, wikis, creative commons, and many other aspects of the digital revolution stem from this innate tendency; but in turn they inspire and make it possible. The museum colleagues who had the idea to share also had the technical means to do it, capabilities not available even a few years ago. They might have decided to share for a fee, but the available technology, I believe, encourages free sharing.   And I could in turn learn about the existence of these resources through free social media such as Twitter and LinkedIn.
There are more than enough invasive, intrusive, and greedy uses of digital technology to complain about, but today I was inspired by these museum colleagues’ gifts of time, expertise, and technical proficiency. They’ve made the ideas of Utility, Ubiquity, and Unselfishness come alive for me.

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