After many months of holding you in suspense, it’s now time to show my CHI fellowship project and bid you all adieu with this final post as a CHI fellow.
To refresh your memory, the project I proposed last spring was called Corridor. It was a web application that would serve as a reference for academic conference hashtags while also helping to resolve the competing hashtags in play for the same academic conference. Proposed in the wake of some recent conversation about Twitter backchannels at conferences – particularly, what the use of it is, why people should join in, and how it could be made better. With the spotlight on the larger issue of scholarly communication, it seemed the time was right to try building a backchannel tool as a means of exploring the issues and questions at hand. Keeping the philosophy of the Cultural Heritage Informatics Initiative in mind, “building as a way of knowing,” I look back on this experience as one that extended my understanding of an increasingly more vital mode of scholarly communication. By the end of the fellowship, I was not able to build Corridor as I has intended it to be, however, the project was a success in that I gained some insight into the issues at play in the practice of tweeting academic conferences and how we might go about “building a better backchannel.”
The resulting product that I produced is a hypothetical model of Corridor (corridor.zenparty.org). It does not include some key functionality; in particular, it does not include any streaming content using Twitter’s API at this time. In addition, a generic function like site search is not available necessitating the use of a drop down menu where a search box would be more appropriate. This model fully implements Twitter Bootstrap. Though I use the default styling for Bootstrap currently, future development of Corridor would include a custom skin to avoid template fatigue as Bootstrap becomes increasingly ubiquitous. Other key goals for future development include the implementation of Twitter’s API, site wide search, streamlined submission, and more robust object profile pages. Because of the potential scale and reach of the project, I believe that Corridor would benefit from collaborative development.
My original learning goals were to develop a more organic understanding of PHP and MySQL databases, crack the Twitter API, and implement a third party HTML/CSS framework on Corridor. I succeeded at enriching my understanding of PHP and implementing Twitter’s Bootstrap framework; I gained some experience in working with APIs as well. Though the project outcomes are a little different than my proposed idea of Corridor at the outset, I feel as though I was able to accomplish a large part of my learning goals through this experience.
Recommendations for Further Pursuits in Building a Better Backchannel
In my research for Corridor, I developed four recommendations for future work with academic backchannel communication:
1. Theorize the Backchannel
What is meant by “backchannel” in academic contexts? Is it a place or is it a practice? Any project that undertakes the task of building a better backchannel will need to do the work of theorizing what a backchannel is in terms of scholarly communication. Notably, these underpinnings will go on to shape future understandings of “backchannel” as well, not only through explicit documentation, but also implicitly through digital interfaces.
2. Understand Hashtag Use on Twitter as Political and Strategic
Though conference communication is often subject to silos by the use of multiple hashtags for one conference and can thus inhibit a united discourse around the conference, sometimes these silos are indeed tactical. It is important for researchers engaged in building a better backchannel to understand that sometimes a redundant hashtag is not just an incidental inconsistency, but an intentional separation from what is considered the “official” or “endorsed” conference hashtag.
3. Avoid Technological Determinism about Backchannels
A determined less deterministic point of view would approach Twitter as the platform on which current backchannel practices take place and researchers would ask questions that address the needs of scholars and organizations involved in academic conferences rather than the constraints or rules of Twitter as a platform. Avoiding technological determinism involves putting end users first rather than privileging the technology in the design process. Future similar projects will consider avoiding deterministic attitudes about technology by adopting a research methodology informed by user-centered design.
4. Provide Best Practices Documentation for Conference Tweets
While the notion of what exactly a backchannel is in academia and how it can be better remains in contest, there are explicit moves that similar projects can make to help make a more inclusive backchannel.
Specifically, projects that engage with academic tweeting might consider including best practices documentation for new Twitter users or users new to using Twitter in the context of academic conferences. The notion that academics even need a better backchannel that suits their communication needs presupposes that there is a set of best practices involved with integrating Twitter into the conference experience. Although documentation would undoubtedly have the effect of formalizing backchannels, ultimately it would provide a point of reference for new backchannel participants and ultimately result in a more inclusive discourse.
Putting It Into Perspective
This project endured a few beginnings. Often, my eyes were much bigger than my stomach, so to speak; that is, I had bigger ideas than the range of my skills and time available to learn some new ones. Because of this, the project suffered – I hit walls, dropped some balls, and to put it bluntly, I sometimes failed. This was disappointing. For instance, I stumbled a great deal while working with Twitter’s API, particularly the Streaming API, and decided not to include it in the project. There are other aspects of the project that were underdeveloped, because I gave too much time to the pursuit of great big ideas that extended beyond the parameters of what I set out to do. The good thing is that now I know this about myself and I can account for it as I work toward my dissertation project in my PhD program over the next 4 years. The major lessons that I carry with me into my first year of my PhD program have to do with project management: make a plan and stick to it, set granular, achievable goals, seek feedback regularly.
To future CHI fellows and other graduate students who take on similar projects, I pass on this advice: failure is inevitable at multiple stages of your project, but it doesn’t have to be fatal. It’s an opportunity to learn about our own work processes and our areas of focus and use that experience to get better.
Thank you for sticking along for the ride this past year. For more information on Corridor or my other areas of interest, please touch base with me on Twitter @zenparty or check out my website, zenparty.org.