I just saw the request for blog posts (from June 8th) from Alan Levine around the question ‘Why Domains’. I’m not especially timely, but I thought I’d give it a shot anyway. Here are my responses:

comic drawing of one dog seated at a computer explaining to another dog that on the internet no one knows your a dogWhat is your domain name and what is the story, meaning behind your choice of that as a name?

My domain is https://simulacrumbly.com. It’s a portmanteau of simulacrum and crumbly. I’m really conscious of my online self being a kind of limited, distorted version of my real-life self.  A simulacrum, and particularly a digital simulacrum, can only be a surrogate for any multi-dimensional person. This can be incredibly liberating sometimes (like when you’re really a dog).

Other times, I push up against the limits of my own ability to express myself fully and, more importantly, express myself honestly.  So, my response here on this blog is to try a little humor, and to remember that inside my browser, I’m made entirely of cookies anyway — the ‘crumbly’.

What was your understanding, experience with domains before you got one? Where were you publishing online before having one of your own?

I’ve worked on the web and with the web since 1998. I’ve had a hobby site of some kind since around 2000. But I’ve never been a frequent blogger. My main interest is in testing, building, and breaking things. So for me, having a web host was a way for me to learn and do stuff that could benefit me in my professional life. About three years ago, the college where I work rolled out a Domain of One’s Own initiative for students, faculty, and staff.

What was a compelling feature, reason, motivation for you to get and use a domain? When you started what did you think you would put there?

I like this question a lot. Before our Domains initiative at Muhlenberg College, I hadn’t really given enough thought to how I might use my online space for my own growth and my own self-expression. Perhaps because of how my professional work had framed the Web, I saw it transactionally — here’s a project, go build a website. The ethos of working openly, sharing freely, and seeking to belong within a community of practice hadn’t really been a big part of my work on the web.

About two years ago, I was lucky to attend a workshop conducted by some brilliant folks from Storycenter.org where I and several others made our own short, 2 or 3 minute digital stories. In the opening session, Daniel Weinshenker pointed out that for nearly a century, the medium of moving images was a one-way mode of communication. It was only with the advent of inexpensive, commercial-grade video cameras, and really only with the advent of inexpensive digital video editing software, that self-produced films became possible.  Daniel stated simply but powerfully that a democratic society requires two-way modes of expression.  And it hit me, unlike movie-making, the Web has been steadily and surely shifting from a primarily two-way medium to increasingly one-way.

My foremost motivation for my domain is to make it myself, host it myself, know how it works, how to fix it if I break it, and how to build it if I can’t find something out there that suits my purposes.  Right behind that, I want to share what I know, and I want to work openly and collaboratively.  A domain allows me to do all of these things, and mostly on my own terms.

What kinds of sites have you set up one your domain since then? How are you using them? Please share URLs!

Well, I wrote a blog post here about this fairly recently.  I’ve used my domain to set up a URL shortener that I host myself.  Also, I’ve set up a social bookmarking app (https://links.simulacrumbly.com), an RSS feed reader that lives on my domain, a “read it later” app like a self-hosted Instapaper using software called Wallabag, and other stuff like that.

But much of what I’ve done I eventually deleted because I either didn’t like it or didn’t need it anymore. But that is also kind of the point of my domain.  I can manage my digital footprint, and I can exercise a kind of info-environmentalism not afforded by hosted, extractive social media platforms.  So maybe one of the coolest parts of having my own domain is akin to my right to delete what I put on it.

Photo by Wonderlane CC BY 2.0

What helped you or would have helped you more when you started using your domain? What do you still struggle with?

I still struggle with graphic design and the visual aspects of this craft.  It’s just not where my strengths lie.  So after spending countless hours trying, I just decided that it’s not for me.  My aesthetic choices are simpler, perhaps a little plain even.  But that’s okay.  I don’t want a ton of image sliders or nifty animations.  While I appreciate visually beautiful blogs, going forward I’ll prioritize actually getting something written over a need to have it be both beautiful and done.  It would have been helpful to have someone else say this to me.  Your blog doesn’t have to be visually gorgeous or technically sophisticated.  Writing counts more.  Evidence of sound thinking counts more.  I wish someone would have told me this: Don’t look for excuses to not post something.  It’s enough to just write and hit the publish button.

What kind of future plans to you have for your domain?

This is really exciting for me to announce.  Building upon my Storycenter workshop experience, I’ve been studying and practicing and working toward getting my own radio program.  Muhlenberg is very fortunate to have a student- and community-driven educational broadcasting radio station — 91.7 WMUH, Allentown.  In the same way that independent filmmaking makes room for more of us to be both creators and consumers, I think radio is becoming too centrally consolidated.  So I am going on the air as a community broadcaster this summer!  I will have a program that airs locally between 4-6 a.m., and can be heard through WMUH’s livestream, or via Tunein.  In just a few weeks, I’ll be using my domain to post playlists, talk about the program, and to syndicate podcasts.   Wish me luck!

What would you say to other educators about the value, reason why to have a domain of your own? What will it take them to get going with their own domain?

I suppose I’d say that, just as I was welcomed and encouraged, there is already an incredible community of educators ready to meet you and assist you.  I’d say that the pedagogical rationale of Domain of One’s Own is sound, liberatory, active, and engaging.  I’d say that ‘open’ is an antidote to the slow-drip toxicant of neoliberal corporatization of education, particularly with respect to Ed-Tech.  I’d say that domains particularly and the Web more generally, is a solid platform for open educational practice —  where we can be makers, remixers, adapters, teachers, and learners.  I’d say please touch base, reach out, and let’s get acquainted!

photograph of stacked chocolate chip cookies

Platform:  digital infrastructure that positions itself between users and acts as the ground upon which their activities occur.  This positioning, therefore,  gives platforms privileged access to record and analyze the activities of users and between users. [Srnicek, N. (2017). Platform capitalism. Cambridge, UK ; Polity.]

Self-platforming: personally hosting one or multiple free/libre, open, web-based applications as an alternative to privatized web-based tools that almost always extract value from people and their labor through surveillance capitalist practices like  tracking and profiling.  For a collection of examples, see this awesome-selfhosted list by Edward Dickson (Kickball).

I see self-platforming as an expression of my own digital citizenship, and I also see it as my deliberate answer to the call for digital sanctuary.  The frequency and extent to which educators urge students onto extractive applications is of great concern.  Self-platforming offers opportunities to benefit from the collaborative, hyper-textual, asynchronous, and distributed qualities of the web, while diminishing the costs — often hidden to us — of working on proprietary and extractive platforms.

In the same way all benefit from a Domain of One’s Own, we may all benefit from building and configuring self-hosted applications upon a platform of one’s own.  Self-platforming may be best exercised by an instructor on behalf of students.  Instructors often hold leverage over students with respect to web-based applications.  Therefore, offering instructor-hosted alternatives to extractive web applications is ethically sound, considerate, and a generally more responsible course of action.

An clear example of an instructor-hosted alternative to an extractive platform is the deployment of a WordPress or Grav site for coursework and discussion instead of reliance upon a Facebook group.  But there are honestly dozens of potential opportunities when one stops to evaluate nearly any academic workflow.

What I mean by an academic workflow, I’ll confess, isn’t even entirely clear to me.  I tend to think of a start-to-finish process beginning with an idea and ending with some digital or tangible output (e.g., an infographic, a digital story, a paper map, a discussion board post or reply, an academic paper, a performance).  I also recognize that a lot of scholarly work is iterative and therefore less easily represented by the concept of a workflow.  An endeavor may fork, or may merge with another endeavor.  When multiple outputs generate from a single genesis is that one workflow or multiple workflows?  Please forgive in advance the imprecision of speaking about academic labor like this.  Still, I feel it is helpful to atomize my own working across the web, and sharing across and among web-based platforms, in order to find my various points of dependence upon extractive technologies.  This is especially important for experts who work within some gestalt of the web and may not be entirely aware any longer of the ways their tools are inter-connected, API’d, and sharing/collecting data.

An Example Academic Workflow

It’s better to work from examples.  For illustration, here is how I might think about something I’ll call my ‘Hot Topic‘ workflow.

Imagine that I co-facilitate a class that relies upon current topics in news and entertainment to address issues of power, privilege, and difference.  I’ll scan a lot during the week for potential dialogue starters in advance of a weekly class.

This Hot Topic workflow might look something like this:

a screenshot of an iPhone forwarding an article access within Twitter to the Instapaper app

Using my phone, I see an article shared on Twitter.

Scan the article quickly, and send it to Instapaper via my phone’s “activities”

While waiting in the checkout line later that day, open Instapaper, and read a bit more carefully.

Determine the article is very useful, and send it to Pinboard so I don’t lose track of it.

Two days later, sit down at my laptop to prepare for class.  Pull up Pinboard in my web browser, read much more thoroughly, and select the best 2 from among many recently pinned articles tagged #hot-topics.

Use the bitl.y URL shortener for both selected articles as a courtesy to my students.

Post the hyperlinked bit.ly URLs for the readings on a Canvas page.

Send out an alert through Canvas informing students to check the readings before class.

Shortened URLs

YOURLS administration area screen capture

In this example, much of the negotiation occurs across hosted web applications like Canvas, Twitter, Instapaper, and Pinboard.  Some applications are licensed by my institution for the benefit of instructors and students.  Others, like Pinboard, charge a one-time fee.  Instapaper and bit.ly offer ‘Freemium’ accounts and additional functionality for paying customers.  Twitter is ‘free’ but monetizes user attention by selling advertising and collecting user data that is utilized by Twitter and resold to 3rd parties.

Nearly all activity within my Hot Topic workflow is mine, by that I mean the instructor’s.  Terms of Service, mostly, apply to these various web applications and me.  Canvas and bit.ly are the two exceptions.

The privacy policies and terms of use for Canvas are negotiated at the institutional level by, likely, several administrative staff and among them likely a Chief Information Officer or equivalent role.  Bit.ly’s, ToS and Privacy Policies, however, are almost certainly not.  This is tremendously important, I think.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I admit to using bit.ly in the past.  I think shortened URLs are convenient and often polite to offer at conferences, for instance.  I appreciate this courtesy from others, especially when trying to type a URL on my phone.  But I also think it worth recognizing that bit.ly makes no apologies for the fact that it offers no way for customers to delete shortened URLs they have made.  This violates the principle of digital minimalism and a deliberate digital identity, at the very least.  But worse still, it corrals students (or others) into a grouping they likely can never leave.

Let’s think for a moment about what is associated with a shortened URL on a platform like bit.ly’s.  First, there is the digital item it references.  In this case, an article.  Second, through it’s service bit.ly can collect information about the referrer, in this case, Canvas.  Third, because I’ve shared these shortened URLs with our class, bit.ly can build a social graph.  We all share in common at least one thing — our interest in this link.  There are several other things that can be gleaned through accessing this shortened URL, including:  device type, browser type, quasi-locational data, time of day, and frequency of visits (if you click more than once).  Through 3rd party tracking cookies, even more data can potentially be collected about myself and my students.

The single most important consideration here is this:  students did not opt-in to use of bit.ly and as their instructor in the above scenario I never asked their consent.  The Terms of Service are between bit.ly and me, not bit.ly and these students.  Or conference attendees, or trail clean-up volunteers, or activists, or any other association of people clicking on a convenient shared point of interest.

I find the URL shortener to be very illustrative and helpful when talking about the choices instructors make, often unknowingly, on behalf of students all the time.  Well-meaning and, in at least one respect, considerate choices made by an instructor to advance a pedagogical objective have unconsidered consequences where surveillance capitalism is concerned.

One answer within my immediate control is self-platformed alternatives.  Within the Domain of One’s Own Installatron is an application call YOURLS: Your Own URL Shortener  (https://yourls.org).  It installs with one click, can live within a subdomain, and is really, really easy to administer and use.  Of course, the point of a shortened URL is to be shorter.  Acquiring a short domain name (I like name.com as a domain registrant) and dropping it on top of your DoOO makes a lot of sense, too.

I wish to provide a couple caveats:  First, shortened URLs have been used to direct the unsuspecting to malicious content on the web.  This is done by disguising the sketchiness of target with an innocuous-seeming short link.  I wanted to establish a trust relationship with my shortened URLs, so I acquired a domain name very similar to my Twitter handle (@floatingtim).  I’ve set up http://floatingt.im/ as my shortened URL domain, so if someone sees this shorter URL on Twitter or elsewhere, and knows about my Twitter handle, it will seem legitimate.

It warrants mentioning that YOURLS also collects minimal metadata on those accessing shortened URLs, but likely nothing to the extent of bit.ly or other similar services.   Unlike other services, I can decide when I wish to delete a shortened URL, and whether to make use of the administrative metadata at all (I typically don’t look at it).  Maintaining a URL shortener for myself and for use by those with whom I interact, means I can assure the minimum amount of data is collected, and can be disposed of as soon as possible.

Domain of One’s Own as a Platform of One’s Own

It’s possible for me to replace, without a great deal of effort, every web-based tool within the Hot Topic workflow except Twitter.  There are a lot of folks out there exploring ways to avoid or greatly limit reliance upon the LMS in favor of WordPress or Grav, so that likely isn’t new ground.  I’m pleased I managed to replace my Pinboard account with a self-hosted implementation of Shaarli.  It’s not within Installatron’s options, but installation was as simple as unzipping Shaarli’s directories and following a few configuration instructions.  I took some extra time to match Shaarli’s stylesheet to my blog’s, but that was mostly for the fun of it.  Bringing Shaarli into my blog means I can share publicly many of my pinned links while keeping others private.  Social bookmarking may seem like an outdated interest, but when the aim is to model scholarly behaviors and skills I think it deserves a place upon a scholarly platform of my own.  I installed my bookmarking app within the subdomain of https://links.simulacrumbly.com so check it out.  Or you can just click ‘Links’ in the menubar above.

I also replaced my dependence on Instapaper by installing Wallabag.  I did this outside of cpanel using the Cloudron solution now being evaluated by Tim Owens and Jim Groom at Reclaim Hosting.  A major motivation for replacing Instapaper is side-stepping the ad tracking and commodification of my reading habits by the Instapaper platform.  But other motivations include the potential to model sound information literacy practices (scanning, clipping, culling, tagging, categorizing, etc.).  Wallabag, like nearly all F/LOSS projects, invites feature enhancements by the community.  Beyond feature enhancements, I am afforded the option to customize my instance of Wallabag as I wish.  This could be hacking it’s data store or changing its look and feel.


We all construct our digital workflows.  Some I’ve observed are really damn impressive and reveal a mastery of craft.  Others are brutally inefficient and leave me hoping for an opening to offer some respectful alternative.  And most are somewhere in the middle — good enough to get things done but likely not the fastest or cheapest or simplest or safest or most extensible.  Periodically, I drift into “macro thinking” and dream of some IFTTT or Google Apps Script liberation.  But these are cruel and fickle gods, and they profit from your labor, too.  Instead, I see self-platforming as offering real possibilities for DIY while finding ways to work that are efficient and relatively free of web surveillance.  Consider, the power of the hosted extractive platform is derived in great part by our dropping our data right on their doorstep.  Contrarily, anyone who has ever tried to leverage cURL or wget, gone down a regex rabbit hole, or attempted to build a crawler or a scraper, knows that what makes these massive extractive platforms work is the free labor we, as users, provide to them while we stuff their databases with our behavioral traces.  Self-platforming, if nothing else, will make surveilling my work across the web more expensive and labor-intensive for those who wish to do it.

In the coming months, I’d like to closely analyze my work and document several of these scholarly workflows.  Next, I’d like to prioritize which platforms are the most egregious to use and support, either through analyzing their Terms of Service and Privacy Policies, or through other kinds of cost/benefit considerations.  Next, I want to ask if using and promoting these tools impacts:

  • only me,
  • only me and professional colleagues,
  • or me, my colleagues, AND STUDENTS

and based on this knowledge, prioritize self-platformed alternatives to anything students use or might use, like the URL shortener, for instance.

While I work, I will share what I learn along the way.  I’ll be writing more about the installation and configuration of Shaarli, Miniflux, and Wallabag in future posts.  If you are interested in working together, please reach out.  I’d love to read your comments and learn your thoughts, too.

Photograph by Rachel Strum CC BY-NC-SA


Throughout the spring of 2018, I have been supporting a cohort of outstanding faculty at Muhlenberg who are preparing online courses to run throughout this coming summer.  We began this learning community by carefully considering the Community of Inquiry model, and particularly building Social Presence within online courses.  Video production for students, from short lectures to daily messages, is one important area of focus.  But video production by students – as a means for students to co-create and collaborate with their instructors and fellow learners – is also emerging as something in need of support and experimentation.  This post will address use of Kaltura’s CaptureSpace Recorder tool available to all students and faculty at Muhlenberg.  I’ve begun this exploration with CaptureSpace Recorder because it is available for Windows and Macs, fairly easy to install and learn, and offers a tight integration with our Canvas LMS.  But I hope to continue this exploration in future posts where I will consider PlayPosit, VideoAnt, WeVideo, and wrap up with VoiceThread.  If you have other suggestions, please let me know and I’ll try to work them in, also.

CaptureSpace Recorder

Essentially, anything on your desktop can be recorded.  Our Zoom application has some similar affordances, but the real strength of CaptureSpace Recorder is likely how easily it integrates into each individual My Media area of Canvas.  Many of us have used VoiceThread as a way to collect and deliver personal introductions.  I’d be curious to see if CaptureSpace Recorder might serve a similar purpose.  The presenter could select a single image to place either as a desktop wallpaper or opened within a simple image viewer (Preview for Macs, Photo Viewer for Windows, Web Browsers, Skitch).  The explication could happen over the image either as voiceover, or with the talking head situated in a corner by utilizing a webcam.

This personal introduction can serve to acclimate participants to the tool, which could then be used to present practically anything from slide decks to video commentary.

Here’s a quick walkthrough with screen shots.  Please take a minute to install the desktop client.  Practice opening something on your workspace and recording yourself.  Again, I’m really curious to learn how this might be incorporated into your courses.

Setting it up

First, click on the My Media area of a Canvas course.  Then the blue Add New button, and then select CaptureSpace

This will present the option of either downloading the Windows or Mac desktop client OR launching the CaptureSpace Recorder if the client is already installed.


Once the software is installed, recording your screen with your microphone and/or camera is pretty easy.

You’ll see a short countdown, and then you have the ability to pause and resume your recording.  There is also a whiteboard option for diagraming and sketching.  Whatever you have active on your desktop will be recorded.  This could be YouTube or Netflix, or a slide deck, or just about anything.
Warning:  Whatever you have active on your desktop will be recorded.  I have a trick for easily disabling alerts, email, etc., and I’ll share it if you like.

When you’re done, you click the Done button and the video will render.  Then, it’s an easy matter of uploading the video to your My Media space in Canvas.

​ ​
This is a personal store.  In other words, these videos aren’t shared with the Canvas class yet.  That happens in the next step.

After the video has been uploaded, and is listed in an instructor’s or student’s My Media area of Canvas, you can insert the video from the text editor tool that is common across many aspects of Canvas.

There is a small blue chevron in the text editor, right beside the YouTube button.  This expands the menu, and here you’ll find theEmbed Kaltura Media option.  Once selected, an instructor or student can pick from the videos stored within their My Media.​  This can be done in assignment submissions, in Discussion Board posts, or even on Canvas pages shared to the entire class where students are given edit permissions (I’ve used this a lot).
Reach out and let me know how this goes, if you like.  I’ll work up similar posts for the other video platforms mentioned above in the coming days.

Throughout this academic year, fourteen colleagues and I are engaging in a faculty/staff learning community investigating open scholarship.  This fall semester we have built our shared understanding and our co-constructed meaning around this concept of open.  During the spring semester ahead, we will pivot toward more practical and applied work in the form of individual projects.

As this semester speeds toward its end, I admit to a difficult time finding my footing.  Our collective undertaking is admittedly broad, but even so I believe my difficulty lies with the stubborn ambiguity of ‘open’ and my slow recognition that ‘open’ is a problematic and unfortunate framework for discussing accessible scholarship and participatory publics.  So I offer this post as a way for me to catch up to other participants already doing their great work, and to reconsider my understanding within the time that remains.

I have experienced, to greater or lesser degrees, six broad areas of professional and scholarly engagement around some notion of open:  open standards (which I’ll sideline here, as they are perhaps the least ambiguous), open source software, open access publishing, open data (and here primarily open geospatial data and statistical data), open educational resources (OER) and what are  called open pedagogies and/or open educational practices.

Within any of these broad areas, negotiation of terms and concepts is necessary.  For example, understanding the nature of openness of open source software necessitates qualification and classifying distinctions, with both ‘open’ and ‘free’ concepts accommodated within a F/LOSS detente.  The same holds for any comprehensive assessment of open access (OA) resources, resulting in the cumbersome and not especially helpful classifications of Green OA, Gold OA, and Black OA to signify which party might be responsible for securing or relinquishing access rights, or in the case of Black OA, a principled ignoring of rights.  Consideration of Open Access materials is further complicated by a differentiation between ‘gratis’ access — signifying immediate, persistent, and free access to OA resources, versus ‘libre’ OA — signifying immediate, persistent, and free access along with rights to reuse, modify, and redistribute OA resources.     

With respect to Open GIS, complexities converge.  An Open GIS community of scholars and researchers need negotiate both open source software ambiguities, as well as those akin to open access resources whenever access and reuse rights apply to geospatial data use, redistribution, or resulting publication.

Within the disciplinary sphere of Education, ‘open’ perpetuates all of these negotiations and introduces new ones.  Open Educational Resources (OER) may narrowly mean an open (immediate, persistent, and free) alternative to proprietary texts.  But OER may also mean materials designed upon and for use within hypertextual environments.  OER may emphasize a community of practice and shared authorship and oversight.  One expectation of OER may be a living work, as opposed to a work updated through the release of printed editions, each supplanting its predecessor.  OER may be oriented toward the learner (e.g., textbooks), or the practitioner (lesson plans, assignments, assessments).  I find openness as applied to OER is especially ambiguous.  

The nature of Open Educational Practices and their relationship to and distinction from Open Pedagogies is a matter I hope to address in a future post.  In brief, I feel it is safe to assert that considerable ambiguities arise around a notion of ‘open’ classrooms, learning environments, and assignments.  The positioning of the instructor in relation to the learner, the positioning of one learner in relation to another, and the position of either with respect to time and/or distance are all greatly complicated by imagining the practices of teaching and learning while ‘open’.

This is all to establish that when I read or hear ‘open’ I’m often not sure what to do with the word.  Even placed adjacent to scholarship, I struggle for a toehold.  I’ve felt that my business within this learning community could not proceed until I had a more fixed understanding of what I mean when I use ‘open’ to represent one or more inter-related concepts.

Open as Keyword

For help, I turn to Raymond Williams and specifically to his book, Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society.  Williams did not write directly upon the subject of ‘open’.  Instead, I borrow from his practice of critical etymology (perhaps cultural philology?) and look very carefully at ‘open’ as a way to organize and understand the many and increasing ways in which it is used.  I also scan many other derivative works to see if anyone has given ‘open’ keyword treatment.

When Williams returned to Cambridge University after his studies were interrupted by World War II, he and other students sharing that experience found it difficult to engage around particular words and concepts.  Williams states he felt these two groups of students, those who participated in the war as soldiers and those who did not, seemed to almost speak different languages.  Certain words, as symbols of important or contested concepts, seemed to glow brighter than others.  It was this recognition that prompted Williams to begin assembling a vocabulary of terms he felt had shifted, in part due to the great cultural and social upheaval of a world at war.  That work would culminate in the publication in 1958 of Culture and Society 1780-1950, a cornerstone of the emergent field of Cultural Studies.  In his introduction to that work, Williams identifies five words, in particular, requiring careful attention.  These are industrydemocracyclassart, and culture.  Keywords initially was intended to be both preparation for and an appendix to Culture and Society.  It was published as its own expanded work in 1976.  

I am quick to state that I don’t possess the training or capacity to apply a rigorous philological analysis of the word ‘open’ as Williams might.  But I did find referencing the OED to be tremendously helpful to me.  The first thing I observed about the word is its entry requires ten 3-columned pages!  Open is a workhorse of a word, and one borrowed from Old German as oppen in early Old English .  ‘Open’ or some progenitor has been with us for a very long time. The Proto-Germanic *uppa, and a Proto-Indo European root,*upo, both signify taking something from below, where it is concealed, to above, where it might be seen.  It is from this directional primitive — moving upward from where an object is underneath and concealed, past a barrier, onto a plane where an object can be observed — that all other senses of ‘open’ derive.  

There are dozens of OED entries extending back to early Old English representing verb, noun, and adjective parts of speech.  The usefulness of ‘open’ is tough to match in English.  Some prime senses of ‘open’ include:

a cavity or pocket within earth or rock (cave opening); navigating through obstruction to emerge in cleared space (opening in the woods); acts of parting, fanning, or expanding something hinged (open the gate, the fan); a state (of mind) that is receptive or clear (open to suggestion); to establish a new thing or to permit entrance to it, (school is open, opening night); use of the senses or body faculties, (open your mouth, opened arms, keep your eyes open); manipulating an object (physical or digital) to reveal what is concealed (open an envelope, open the software program).  Obviously, there are many others, but these senses of ‘open’ allow sufficient specific understandings of its uses, and help to emphasize the directionality of ‘open’.

In this way, ‘open’ is almost as central to English as its many prepositions.  But unlike prepositions that have relinquished a degree of semantic absorbency in favor of their syntactic operation, ‘open’ remains available to proliferating associations and applications.  In fact, what makes ‘open’ problematic is not a sense of semantic re-assignment, as Williams observed about ‘culture’ and ‘society’.  Rather, ‘open’ in our current context seems almost too yielding and accommodating.     

Williams ably traces the evolution of his selected keywords through their appearances in writing, while considering cultural and social changes of the times during which the ‘great’ works were produced.  Across everything, Williams applies a Marxist lens, evaluating the production of cultural and social artifacts (within and beyond the English language) as expressions of markets or under influences of class structures.  I have not fully reconciled this reliance upon the OED’s high cultural canon with Williams’s New Left sensibility.  For that reason, I’ve often wondered what Williams might have made of Information Age tools and methods possible with the ascendence of computation.  An analysis of language, and the possibility of informing the creation of keywords using a vast corpus, machine learning, and computational linguistics might have permitted Williams other methods for evaluating relationships between language and culture through time.  Specifically, I wonder what Williams might make of tools like WordNet, and FrameNet, or what he might think of the visual representations made possible by tools like the Google Books NGram Viewer.

Google Books NGram Viewer

The Google Books NGram Viewer counts the occurrences of individual words, and plots them over time based upon the publication date of the works in which the appear.  It is basically an enormous bag of words with some light treatment, like part of speech tagging, given to each word.  The Viewer interface allows for the plotting of the frequency occurrence of a particular word, or the comparison of multiple words over time.  It even allows for queries indicating when one word occurs within n-positions of another (‘open’ within one place of ‘source’, for instance).  Below, I’ve embedded a couple explorations of ‘open’ in the NGram Viewer as manipulatable frames.  Please play around and see what you learn.

snapshot of NGram Viewer of Nouns for open

snapshot of NGram Viewer of Adjectives for open

The datasets underlying the NGram Viewer are free (available for download, reuse, and manipulation), and covered by a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 license.  While there are concerns about using the Google Books NGram data sets for cultural or lexical analysis due to the nature of the corpus (an overabundance of scientific texts, among other factors), I still wonder what Williams might think of our present ability to visualize term frequency distribution.  Here, I love to imagine how these tools might have proven useful to Williams in his analysis of culture and society through his careful consideration of language through time.


WordNet (https://wordnet.princeton.edu/) is a lexical database engineered to permit both human and computer uses.  WordNet is open (immediate and persistent) and freely available (does not cost money and permits repurposing via a BSD software license).  A search of Github for ‘WordNet’ reveals 897 repositories, each a distinct project or connector incorporating the WordNet database into a natural language processing undertaking.  Machines may use WordNet as a traversable network of word meanings for natural language processing.  WordNet is particularly helpful for word sense disambiguation tasks such as determining which sense of ‘open’ might be understood by a machine within text or spoken utterances.  WordNet organizes not only individual words, but treats word pairs like ‘open up’, for instance, as single entries within its lexical database.  These combinations of words are given linkages to other related senses of a word or words, thereby creating a web of semantic relationships that can be traversed by decision-making algorithms.  In the same way that second language acquisition reveals eccentricities of meanings, traversing the entry for ‘open’ in WordNet reveals relationships with the ‘heart-to-heart’ (adj), the ‘surface’ (v), and the ‘broadcast-area’ (n) synsets.  Where the OED extracts word senses from a canon of classical and contemporary texts, WordNet permits engagement at the corpus level.  I wonder what Williams might make of a chance to see how various keywords are used in real time, across, for instance, millions of tweets a second.


FrameNet (https://framenet.icsi.berkeley.edu/fndrupal/) is a project that generates a lexical database useable to both humans and machines.  By creating hierarchical semantic frames around actual texts, FrameNet aims to aid machine learning and computational text analysis.  Tasks like word-sense disambiguation, for instance, are aided by this network of semantic frames.  For instance, when a machine encounters the term ‘key’, evidence of the ‘sound’ frame (the proximity of words like music, listen, pitch, tone, etc.) can help disambiguate from the ‘access’ frame (with instead its adjacent words like lock, closed, door, etc.).

FrameNet is particularly difficult to link to, but I’ve inserted a screen capture of the ‘open.a‘ lexical term contributing to the openness frame.

screen capture of the open annotation data on FrameNet

For the purpose of this post, it is less important to understand how FrameNet works.  Instead, the nature of the project (collaborative annotation by humans for the benefit of human and machine understanding), and the open and free availability of its data, are most relevant.  Additionally, it becomes evident after exploring the platform that ‘open’, as we see in WordNet and the OED, requires a lot of attention due to its flexibility and utility.  What is also important, I believe, is the semantic grounding of ‘open’ or ‘openness’ in the higher-order concept of access.

Williams, Keywords, and the growth of a literary genre

This tour of tools is useful in illustrating various ways in which ‘open’ is applied to the field of Computational Linguistics, and is likely consistent with most 21st Century scholarly contexts in its leveraging of communities of interest and the Internet.  However, it may be similar or quite different from other scholarly cultures’ principles of attribution and permissible re-use.  In the same way Williams was interested in a small cluster of words and ideas (society, industry, culture, democracy, class, and art), I believe a better understanding of ‘open’ demands similar careful critique and analysis of related words and concepts.  Particularly, I believe open, cannot be sufficiently understood without coordinate investigation of access(ible), free(dom),  and commons/community, and public.  Second-order consideration should be given to the terms softwareattribution, and license. 

While much of this work seems necessary for my clarity, there is one area where I especially hope this kind of careful consideration may prove illuminating.  I am interested in the extent to which access around ‘open’ initiatives is enforced within various economies.  Like Williams, I believe grounding analysis in response to mostly market-based factors will be the best and most fruitful course. I believe ‘open’ undertakings are, at their core, a response to markets and economic class constraints.  Further, I imagine the various communities and publics forming around and across open initiatives serve to regulate access to the commodities of open labor.  Lastly, I believe an examination of ‘prestige’ will help advance understanding around ‘open’ production and its associated gatekeeping.  This can take the form of ‘glamour publications’ and the various economies that emerge around scholarly publication.  This can also emerge through the performance of production within Open Source Software communities, where some work is privileged, such as writing code, over other labor, such as writing documentation or maintaining community bonds.  One or more posts related to this are forthcoming.

Meanwhile, I thought it would be helpful to scan for evidence of an ‘open’ keyword suitable for borrowing or expanding.  Since its initial publication, Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society has spawned an entire genre of Cultural Studies works.  Today, titles address keywords for fields as seemingly disparate as Police Administration, Romanticism, Software Studies, and Sound.  Most works preserve some degree of Williams’s linkages between related entries, but few preserve as thorough a reliance upon any one work as did Williams on the OED.

Of the many derivatives, a popular editorial choice is to invite individual submissions from authors possessing a particular expertise (see:  Keywords for Radicals: The Contested Vocabulary of Late-Capitalist Struggle;  Digital Keywords: A Vocabulary of Information Society and Culture; Critical Terms for Media Studies; New Keywords: A Revised Vocabulary of Culture and Society).  These titles from NYU Press, are even published as a series.

Some, such as John Pat Leary’s Keywords for the Age of Austerity and the University of Pittsburgh’s Keywords Project are born digital, affording search and hypertextuality not possible in 1976.  But Williams, in his own right, presupposes an interrelationship among his selections through cross-referencing and ‘see also’ classifications within entries.

While Digital Keywords contains a placeholder entry for ‘Open’ within its Appendix, only one initiative (also born and maintained online), provides a completed entry for ‘Open’.  The MLA Commons project entitled, Digital Pedagogy in the Humanities: Concepts, Models, and Experiments contains 60 keywords generated and written via a community authorship approach.  It is here, finally, where specific attention to Open as keyword can be found, thanks to Michael Roy.

In this entry, ‘open’ is a means toward democratic access to knowledge.  It requires the open nature of the standards and technologies that comprise the Internet.  Ultimately, ‘open’ exists as a form of stasis between oppositional forces such as open versus private, fixed versus rewriteable, and authoritative versus crowdsourced, among others.  While orienting ‘open’ towards its implications for pedagogy, I find these three forms of tension to be helpful more broadly.

In Software Studies: A Lexicon, an open source’ entry describes a distinction between source code that is human readable and typically maintained within a text file, and compiled or machine code which is expressed in binary code read by machines.  Source code is more accessible than machine code, as it permits direct modification by its original or subsequent developers.  Open source code, by extension, is twice more accessible than compiled software.  While the first level of closedness is a constraint of the translation of binary code into electrical signal, the second level of closedness is a constraint of the market.  The less common usage of the term ‘closed source’ means fee-based or otherwise proprietary access to the use of particular software that does not also convey access to its human-readable non-compiled code (Fuller & Fuller, 2014).  

It seems fairly evident that a quality of openness extends to the source code, and only by extension to the whole software.  Less clear is whether the relationship between source and machine code (together becoming a software) is metonymy or synecdoche.  In other words, is the desire for access driven by a want of the thing, or by a want to revise and thereby refine the thing.  This fundamental uncertainty is at the heart of the need for disambiguation of the related concept of free(dom), and the frequent need for qualification through the use of accumulated descriptors free libre and open source (F/LOS).

I find it revealing that in Fuller’s entry for source code within Software Studies: A Lexicon, while extolling the capacity for open source code to enable artistic and creative modes of self-expression within code, Fuller is also quick to include as an example of this creativity the International Obfuscated C Code Contest  as well as other instances of software creators using deliberately exclusionary or quasi-proprietary practices in order to complicate various kinds of access.  These may include use without attribution or use without sufficient comprehension of how things work.  Whether a knowing wink to another cognoscente, or an act of ironic expression, these means of boundary enforcement serve as another form of closedness and exclusionary practice that reifies a kind of artificial scarcity similarly created within the marketplace as perpetuated by licensing and other kinds of access policing.

Beyond these: a placeholder for a future entry within Digital Keywords, the pedagogy-focused entry within Digital Pedagogy in the Humanitiesand the ‘source code’ entry within Software Studies: A Lexiconmention of ‘open’ is notably lacking.  Several works within the vein of Keywords address one or more related concepts, such as ‘access/accessibility’, for instance.  But effort to tease apart varying and nuanced applications of the word ‘open’ is insufficient.  ‘Open’ as a descriptive concept is problematic in part because of the broad utility of the word.  Openness exists within an ‘Access’ semantic frame and therefore strengthens an argument that much thinking and work around ‘open’ can be understood as a response to markets and class structures.  While some degree of access might be mitigated through ‘open’ strategies and constructs, other forms of access control, such as prestige and obfuscation, arise to put new or similar constraints upon the commons.

Four years ago, I submitted a session proposal to a local THATCamp held at Lehigh University.  I had grown pretty enamored in 2012-2013 of Linode’s StackScripts and I was eager to talk with others about automated installation scripts for server ‘stacks’.  I knew they could be adapted and shared with other education technologists and librarians.  I’d seen it happening with hobbyists wanting to run their own Minecraft servers, for instance.  I’d used StackScripts for prototyping library web applications, and sharing what I know about web development with students and staff. Experiencing that, I really felt that these scripts could support broader use of open source platforms suitable for digital learning, librarianship, and digital humanities.  I also thought that the relatively recent emergence of cloud-hosted virtual servers with low costs and metered billing would permit exciting new uses for folks typically locked out by institutional risk aversion, limited staffing, general mistrust, or just plain disinterest of those holding the keys to the server kingdom.

My proposal is still available to read  and its central aim holds up fairly well.  It aligns closely with work I do now around Muhlenberg’s Domain of One’s Own.  In 2013, I was unaware of what awesome stuff was happening at University of Mary Washington through the work of Martha Burtis, Jim Groom, Tim Owens, and others as they originated Domain of One’s Own and found a solid solution to the same essential problem.  My proposal anticipated by a month or so the official release of Docker and the explosion of containerized applications on sites like Digital Ocean that make having your own server(s) easier and cheaper than ever.

Something else happened that day in 2013, too, and it’s really what I want to write about.  Looking back I blame the cheeky tone I take in my proposal announcement regarding campus IT security. I see now, in hindsight, how I was really asking for trouble.  But I’ll never know why my post brought mean spirited, unsought attention.  Just as THATCamp Lehigh Valley was gearing up, THATCamp’s severs were grinding to a halt.  When they came back online 30 minutes later, a hacking collective’s animated splash page pulsed and spun and taunted.  The whole conference website was brought down, and THATCamp (due to its unconference-like design) is particularly reliant upon its website to make the day work.

I felt really embarrassed and responsible.  I had suspicions it was my fault, but I couldn’t prove them.  I still can’t be entirely sure, but a comment posted to my proposal (since removed), erased most of my doubts.  And here is the worst part – because I felt responsible and began the day back on my heels, I was a terrible version of myself all day.  I did all the things I do when I feel insecure.  I spoke too loudly and beyond my knowledge.  I didn’t listen to what was being shared by others.  I stretched, I generalized, I assumed, and I tried too hard in all my interactions.  Because I felt responsible for the day’s poor start, for the embarrassment (real or perceived) of the event organizers, and all kinds of other stuff brought on by the hack, I think I acted like a big jerk.

Over the following weeks, I pretty much decided to take my professional life off the web.  I had maintained my own website for almost a decade (not a blog, but it functioned much like one), and I shut it down.  I also stopped maintaining my feed reader, and I flipped my public bookmarks on pinboard to entirely private.  My personal online life shifted fairly quickly and exclusively to social media platforms like Facebook which I locked down to a circle of well-known friends and family.  I was kinda done maintaining my own web presence, and with engaging strangers online.

Looking back, this was a significant turn. Since my high school days, I thought of the Internet primarily as a way to engage widely and deeply with folks I met there. From Citadel BBS and dial up, through undergrad usenet through IRC and the early web – online meant mixing it up, exploring, and making new acquaintances. It was in the same moment that I joined hosted, proprietary platforms like Facebook that I also began to limit my interactions online. My bad experience during THATCamp Lehigh Valley occurred right when I pivoted onto extractive platforms and toward a kind of insular online experience.

I am reversing those choices.  I’m reconsidered ‘where’ and how I wish to be online, and I see new reasons to move away from large social media platforms and toward my own, self-managed and personally maintained strand of the web.  More importantly, I feel a need to take accountability for myself online. There are things I believe it is very important to share, precisely because my de-platforming means others may access my shared content without fear of my exploiting or monetizing them as they do so. I see this renewed interest in working and sharing publicly as a way to counter robotized disinformation. Part of the new web I wish to engage is a web of trust, credibility, and accountability.

In future posts, I’ll walk through my sense of ‘right action’ as it pertains to working and being on the web, and why I feel it too important to sit it out as I have been. I’ll share what I discover, particularly when I can accomplish something useful upon the Domain of One’s Own platform. I am prioritizing those things I’ve done online that pertain to scholarly work and digital learning, but there may be other stuff, too.

I sincerely appreciate your taking interest in this. Comments are enabled, but I will review before publishing them. Feel free to reach out with questions or suggestions. Thank you!