Having just finished Clay Shirky’s (@cshirky) new book Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age, I keep thinking about how his work applies to HASTAC. If you haven’t read his book yet, here’s a brief review. It’s a quick read and makes a lot of points that seem obvious... after he explains them. He starts by noting that, for the last fifty years or so, we’ve had historically unprecedented amounts of free time. To what have devoted that time? Television.
Rather than give a summary of his main points, however, I want to draw attention to some advice he gives at the end about building a strong digital community, advice that’s pertinent to HASTAC. We already have a vibrant community, which I think is best captured by our Scholar Forums. There we get tens of thousands of reads, hundreds of thoughtful comments, and a great wealth of resources and ideas. There’s also a high barrier to entry. The serious, often erudite nature of our discussions makes up much of the appeal of the forums, but it also (I suspect) keeps more people from joining in. Shirky notes that, to have an active community, you need to provide opportunities for sharing at all levels. A Scholar Forum requires a lot of time and thought to make successful, as anyone who’s hosted one or contributed to one knows. A HASTAC blog post, too, is a significant outlay of effort.
Where, then, can we engage our lurkers, our currently passive consumers of HASTAC? We must provide opportunities for people to contribute that are small. Think of fixing a typo on Wikipedia. That’s easy to do, requires very little work, yet adds up to a massive value. What if we harnessed the cognitive surplus of HASTAC more efficiently by promoting those sorts of contributions, too? To that end, I have a couple of suggestions.
First, we should emphasize Twitter more. We have a box on the front page, true, but you have to scroll down to see it and it’s not very large. Digital Humanities Now is a great example of how to aggregate Twitter posts. What if we had a similar service, but one made up entirely of HASTAC members? We could, also, more actively promote Twitter to our members as another way of contributing to HASTAC.
Second, we have a wiki. I’ll be blogging shortly about it in detail, highlighting the usefulness of the different sections, but wikis are an ideal place for the aggregation of small contributions. Just by adding your name to the list of scholars in a given region, for instance, you will make possible locally-organized meetings and other activities. That’s a tangible example of how seemingly small outlays of our cognitive surplus can quickly add up to something much larger.
What I’m asking us to do is to adapt to our growing size. The forums and blogs are excellent, but we need to provide more opportunities for members to contribute to this community. Let’s make it possible for the little things to add up.