A recent debate on twitter was precipitated by a friend's decision to leave academia.edu, a social network designed for academics. Several people sympathised, saying that they had not really got very much out of it. This post is just a few thoughts on why I find it useful and where it needs improving. I've given no consideration to whether issues might be greater or smaller technical challenges.
Academia.edu - The positives
- Free advertising
The search engine optimisation on academia.edu is excellent. Even if your organisation provides you with a profile webspace it is unlikely to rank higher in searches than your academia.edu page. Further, if like many academics today, you aren't completely defined by the work you do with one institution you may find it easier to promote the totality of your activities outside the official webspace.
The you-have-been-googled notifications can induce paranoia in some (and have been used to insult me) but are particularly useful as they also index the papers you have uploaded. By uploading my BSc and MA theses I have had many more hits than my name would have got me and though some of those undoubtedly clicked off in frustration I have certainly had a few follows from it.
In general people are fairly professional but (unlike LinkedIn) people don't appear to be constantly on some sort of self-marketing binge! Answers to questions and personal messages are consistently polite and well meaning and most seem to be helpful.
- Access to articles
This is a very patchy area, but for several of my regular research topics (eg, Mesolithic studies) there are a fair number of papers that are difficult to access elsewhere. Some senior professors seem to have dumped large quantities of their own back catalogue on the site including material that they have digitised personally.
Because academia.edu is not reciprocal (based on follows of people or interests) it enables you to see research from those at all levels of the discipline (there are no issues of student/professor and so on). This contrasts particularly strongly with Mendeley where (I find) that making a contact request is a barrier to interaction. Similarly the closed groups on Mendeley rather than the open research interests on academia.edu create barriers to interaction.
Effectively this means that I only connect with people who are colleagues in real life: I do not go out of my way to follow the work of others that profess similar research interests and I can't see myself using it as a first point of contact. Academia.edu however I have used in preference to email for cold contact with several people, some of these have led to fruitful exchanges, all have been politely replied to.
Simple, clean, easy to use. Let's hope new features never lead it to look as vomit-inducing as LinkedIn!
Academia.edu - The negatives
By this I mean connectivity, not only between researchers (mentioned above) but also between a range of entities both within academia.edu and on external sites. Firstly, internal connectivity could be greatly improved by the ability to link multiple author's profiles to a single copy of a paper. It seems contradictory that a system designed to foster and emphasise collaboration doesn't do this. Further, the fact that the share buttons on papers only lead to Twitter and Facebook seems utterly self defeating! If I want to share a paper that's hosted on academia.edu with a contact who is also on academia.edu I can't! I have to tweet them, facebook them or ctrl-C a link into a good old email. With a similar share button it should be possible to suggest contacts to one another, welcome them onto academia.edu and so on.
Secondly, connectivity to external websites. Mendeley have (recently I think) created a widget that you can dump on external websites pointing to your profile - this would be a great start. Better still would be a 'Share on academia.edu' button that can appear on any website with academic content in the same way as Like, TweetThis and 1 buttons for Facebook, Twitter and Google. Maybe there could be a 'what I'm reading now' stream?
Many of the research interests are so broad that people from quite different backgrounds ask and answer questions with huge assumptions about the background. In my early experience of the service I found that the questions were dominated by examples that demonstrated either a complete lack of background knowledge or were so focused on the researcher's own work that they were essentially boasts phrased as questions. This was reinforced when I asked the question Is it inevitable that all questions on here will sound either pretentious, naive or both? which was immediately misunderstood! However, it actually led to an interesting discussion on the challenges of understanding a new medium as academics.
- New content types
It'd be great to be able to embed prezis, slideshares or videos of talks - ideally through a widget.
As a technophile I find twitter back channels incredibly useful at conferences but I can understand that syndicating such content to academia.edu could easily put off those less keen on such informal means of sharing. However, if academia.edu could introduce conference pages it could help foster digital connections that might be missed at conferences otherwise.
In fact, there is a golden opportunity to create a 'killer-app' for managing academic conferences. There is currently no obvious system that is functional, easy-to-use, integrated and in which academics feel safe. Eventbrite meets the Open Conference System?
The papers on academia.edu (or the other pages for that matter) seem to be lacking good machine-readable meta-data. It certainly doesn't seem to be dublin core or readable by Zotero.
Ten days ago (the 2-4 December) I was lucky enough to attend the Wikimedia hosted GLAMcamp Amsterdam (known colloquially on twitter as #iGLAMsterdam).
The three day event was (to quote the main page) "a workshop targeting a small group of community-focused and technology-focused Wikimedians to kickstart the key elements of the glamwiki.org project." GLAMwiki is a global wikipedia initiative designed to help Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums engage with and use Wikimedia projects for mutual benefit.
The Institute for Public Understanding of the Past ran a fantastic half day of talks titled: Archaeology and the material past in the public realm. Here is a little of the twitter chatter that took the conference beyond the (packed) room...
How should we be thinking about deep prehistory? What formats are suitable for what sorts of discussion? Are some formats better suited to engage with ideas or theoretical perspectives while others are more appropriate to presenting data, broad-brushed syntheses, detailed analyses and so on? How should we maintain links across period specialisms and interest in broader themes?
These questions have come to the forefront of my mind after two days attending the British Museum's regular Palaeolithic-Mesolithic conference (17-18 Nov 2011 - weirdly has no website!) and a morning spent at Grayson Perry's special exhibition at the British Museum - 'The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman
The overall impression I got at the Palaeolithic-Mesolithic conference (known as Pal-Meso) was one of an in-crowd. With no website or publicity (beyond a limited mailing list and word-of-mouth) the conference remains the preserve of those in-the-know. Despite this it has seen incredible growth - now regularly two days long and, in this instance, attended by nearly 200 people.
The programme was dominated by the Palaeolithic. Understandably this much longer period is better represented at the conference. The entire conference was dominated by the results of primary analysis using a diverse range of methodologies (lithic analysis, environmental/ecofactual analysis, remote sensing). A few papers looked at more synthetic topics such as entire periods/lithic technocomplexes and a very few looked at less frequently found evidence types such as art.
Talks were short (15 minutes) and timekeeping was rigourously maintained. The short periods for questions before each break were used primarily for technical questions and the odd suggestion.
I struggled to keep up with the middle and lower Palaeolithic papers, not only is it difficult to keep up with the endlessly redefined techno-complexes (Gravettian, Aurignacian....) the data-heavy focus of most of the papers made it difficult to assess the ideas behind them. I found myself constantly asking myself: Why is this important? Why should anyone care?
I wasn't alone in this feeling: though break-times were always buzzing with fruitful discussions, several colleagues felt similarly about many of the papers: Where are the people?
I realised that it was not that I felt that this use of data was inappropriate for archaeology but that it wasn't making the best of the conference as a forum for sharing ideas. For me, data is best presented where it can be scrutinised, unpacked and tested by the reader in their own time. A conference is an opportunity to present more challenging ideas and engage with theory, to bring perspectives together and make connections across peoples' work.
The conference felt atomised: though papers were grouped thematically there were rarely particularly strong synergies between them apart from geographic or chronological links.
There were exceptions to these trends: including personal highlights such as Jill Cook, Jessica Cooney and John Pipriani on upper Palaeolithic art, two presentations delivered by Matt Pope on La Cotte and Beedings, Alan Saville's look at new upper Palaeolithic evidence from Scotland and Radu Iovita's paper on a new Lower/middle Palaeolithic site in Romania. Most (but by no means all) of the Mesolithic papers were reasonably engaging (though I had the benefit of better background understanding for these).
I also noted that I was the only person to feel so strongly that an opportunity for discussion had been missed with many colleagues feeling that the information had been a useful way to keep up with neighbouring disciplines without having to do a lot of reading.
The contrast between the two day's of the conference and my experience at Grayson Perry's exhibition was dramatic. I went with one other archaeologist, a journalist, secondary school art teacher and an arts administrator. The exhibition is a mixture of objects from the British Museum's stores, works produced for the purpose by Perry and his older works. Acting both as artist and curator Perry has been able to build connections between objects across cultures from a vast range of periods and places. Grouping artefacts according to diverse themes such as violence, sex, forgeries, mapping and magic Perry has managed to bring new light to these objects and his overall themes. These broader themes were woven through the exhibit and considered pilgrimage, the biographies of objects, their contexts and our relations to them.
I felt that the playfulness and transparency with which this was done avoided the self-obsessed seriousness or obfuscation that is common in much contemporary art. This is not to say that Perry did not use his personal life - his childhood teddy Alan Measles is a motif throughout his work - or lay everything out completely explicitly, but a balance was struck between exposition and allowing the audience to build their own connections and impressions. More importantly the humour in the connections - an Asante crown paired with Perry's own 'Ancient motorcycle helmet' in the style of a Celtic crested helmet - brought welcome relief from the earnestness of most museums. It is rare to hear laughter as a reaction to material in the British Museum!
Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman
The final piece in the exhibit was the 'Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman' itself: a ship covered in casts of hundreds of objects from the museums collections and, on a central plinth on the deck, a real flint handaxe. This "tool that begat all tools" was given no archaeological context beyond its age: 250,000 years.
The contrast between this and the treatment given to almost identical objects in the conference was incredibly potent. All of a sudden an object that was not even produced by a member of our own species was being appreciated for its artistic integrity, for being the results of a person's efforts rather than as a dot on a map or graph showing cognitive development or raw-material transport.
I am not for a moment saying that data-rich approaches to any archaeological period are wrong or even inappropriate. Both approaches - dry detail and playful poetics - feed off one another but I feel that each is more suited to given platforms for presentation - the media should suit the message. If people are in a space together talking about archaeology is that not a more appropriate environment to be engaging in our ideas of the past and the people that made it?
I don't feel I have made my argument very well...... Maybe I need to talk to you about it?
Art, performance, landscape
On Sunday 9 October 2011 I and some friends attended Red Earth CHALK at Wolstonbury Hill near Brighton.
This performance/installation piece used the landscape of one of the highest hills in the South Downs. The piece drew on the fact that the site has Bronze Age earthworks of various kinds that some archaeologists suspect had earlier origins.
The Red Earth team is coordinated by Simon Pascoe and Caitlin Easterby but in this instance drew on the talents of Badamkhorol Samdandamba, a professional singer of traditional Mongolian songs and http://www.jinen-butoh.com/index.html a practioner of the Japenese dance-form Jinen Butoh. These were supported by musicians - Dirk Campbell, Paul Johnson and Vanessa Vine. Singers formed two choirs and students from Brighton City College assisted as stewards/performers.
We arrived to a lane full of cars and strolled up the hill to Chantry Farm. The large crowd, for such an esoteric event, was encouraging. We chatted for a moment as people assembled, the lovely late autumnal sunshine being countered by the noise of the A23 and the gusty wind.
A bell was rung and we gathered round two immense green flags which flanked Simon and Caitlin who explained that we were about to be taken on a journey 'into the enigmatic landscape of Wolstonbury Hill'. We were asked to resist the temptation to take photographs (hence the lack here - some are available on Flickr)and to maintain 'mindful silence' in order to maximise our appreciation of the experience.
We then walked up the hill away from the road and Atsushi appeared on the skyline above us. Dressed in billowing robes and walking with a shepherd's crook, his movement provided a focal point that helped the last few chatterers get into the performance.
As we approached the ridgeline the musicians began playing various forms of wind instrument (possibly French pipes?) and we arrived to find a small flock of sheep penned in one corner of the field in front of us. The sheep were released and as they ran down the hill in front of us bells round their necks clanged, adding another layer to the soundscape. The crowd thinned out to move on and we could see the landscape of Wolstonbury before us. The ridge which we had climbed continued to the left and right, curving away from us in a horseshoe shape and surrounding a bowl directly in front of our viewpoint. The highest point was to our left and the entire landscape was dotted with white flags, wooden posts and firebowls. In the centre of the hollow in front were two concentric circular hurdles made of wicker and surrounded by a ring of firebowls. This central work, known as FOLD had been constructed in the spring with local green-wood workers. This landscape was simultaneously familiar and strange - suddenly one considered a 'typical' piece of English countryside in a very new way.
As we turned right and moved slowly down the ridgeline, we could glimpse Atsushi who was moving in parallel to our procession. His movement was now spectacular - before the release of the sheep he had strode proudly - now he moved awkwardly, twisting painfully through every faltering step, without ever seeming to repeat a movement. As we descended I suddenly became aware that I could no longer hear the road noise and that the sounds were now almost entirely natural or created by the performance.
We gathered at the base of the ridge above a small group of trees and at this stop were treated to a traditional Sussex folk song The Shepherd of the Downs from the Brighton Steiner School Community Choir. This distinct moment of 'Englishness' provided an interesting contrast to the more exotic elements of installation and Atsushi's performance.
We then moved down a steep-sided chalk gully, doubling-back on ourselves toward the bowl with the hurdle. The path initially closed off our view of the rest of the landscape and the slippery chalk proved challenging as the crowd funnelled into a smaller and smaller space. Many of the performers spread out above us on the bank of the bowl but Atsushi had disappeared from view.
We gathered at a gateway as the performers began to play horns above us and once we had gathered it became apparent that the sheep were not the only group being shepherded! The gate was opened and bells, whoops and whistles chased the crowd through and into a circle around the hurdles in the centre of the bowls.
This space around FOLD was the main performance area and once we had gathered and (most people had) sat down The Brighton and Hove Russian Choir performed Oh So Vechora (Oh Since the Evening) and then were joined by the Steiner School Community Choir to perform Ahk ti Step' Shirokaya (Oh Broad Steppe). These rich, multi-layered pieces brought a sense of calm and expectation after the excitement of being shepherded, the sense that e were now audience of a 'performance' was reinforced by Polina Shepherd wearing an evening gown! They were followed by the first performance by Badamkhorol and the reappearance of Atsushi, now dancing his way to the centre of FOLD and beginning the next stage of his 'journey to the underworld'.
Badamkhorol's songs, and her traditional Mongolian costume, were incredible. She sang Flowers of the Yellow Steppe (recognised by UNESCO as one of the oldest 'Long Songs' in existence. The sounds, mixed with those of the wind, the flapping flags and the fires transported me straight back to Ladakh, where I had spent 6 weeks as a teenager amongst Yak herders in the Himalayan foothills.
Atsushi's dancing, got more and more intense and, as the other performers began to play drums and cymbals, he removed his shirt and began to pour white liquid - chalk dissolved in water - over himself. Immediately transforming himself into an ethereal, almost non-human presence at the centre of the ritual/performance.
Badamkhorol began parading around the circle throwing powdered chalk from a wooden bowl. As the pace increased the performers began to follow her with cymbals and invite audience members to pick up other sets of cymbals and join in. This led to a huge, frenzied climax point followed by a stillness that was almost as intense as the noise.
In this Atsushi lit a long torch and began to dance with this, seeming to fight off invisible spirits around the circle. After a few moments he began climbing out of the circle out toward the highest point on the ridgeline above. On the slope above the circle performers began to ring huge tubular bells that were suspended on frames.
With this the performance at FOLD ended. The spell was temporarily broken as we stood up, and followed the flag bearers up the steep slope at an angle from Atsushi and accompanied by Badamkhorol singing.
Once we topped the ridge again (now at the opposite side of the horseshoe from where Shepherd of the Downs had been performed) we found ourselves on a path marked by pairs of firebowls and climbing toward an incredible sunset in the darkening sky.
Atsushi and Badamkhorol were now at the centre of a procession of musicians that was moving more slowly than the flag-bearers leading the audience. This meant that we arrived and were in place on the banks of the henge to witness their arrival.
This final and climatic part of the performance used the henge as a setting and had performers playing gongs strung from frames around one half of the circumference. These were played with increasing ferocity as Atsushi made his way to the centre of the henge - silhouetted against the sunset and danced his way over the skyline.
Thoughts and reflections
Having admired Red Earth's work and been involved in a previous performance I was incredibly excited to finally be involved in a full-scale work performed in an archaeological landscape. Also, as an archaeologist, I had spent time thinking about and discussing the archaeological aspects of Simon and Caitlin's practise: the link to the landscape and earth works, the re-use of ancient spaces for performance/ritual and the engagement with the audience as participants were all things I was intrigued to see in-the-flesh. The one bias that this gave me when attending this particular performance was that I was less prepared for the overt and implied links made between the Sussex Downs - an artificial steppe landscape - and Mongolia - the epitome of steppe landscapes.
I thought the use of landscape was utterly incredible. When one hikes a route across a terrain, occasional stops serve to create moments of reflection on the views and topography. By circulating and stopping in one small piece of landscape one gained a vastly increased appreciation of the interrelations within it and the changes in the views to the territory beyond. This was greatly enhanced by the route chosen and the placement of the installations - toward the end we moved from the enclosed hollow to the summit of Wolstonbury with our view expanding across the entire landscape first to the east and north, then to the south and eventually to the magnificent sunset over the eastern horizon.
The sense of a journey, initially accompanying Atsushi but becoming increasingly invested as members of 'his flock' was also very strong. I had mixed feelings about how difficult it was to clearly understand the metaphors of this journey: Was the shepherd journeying to the underworld to make some sacrifice (of himself?) for his flock of sheep/people? Were we journeying through Sussex as a metaphor for journeying to Mongolia? Or using the connection to a Mongolian ideal to connect to a Sussex past?
As with so much art, all these interpretations and more are true. I have to admit that at times my sense of confusion interfered with my immersion in the performance and I certainly felt some elements (such as Badamkhorol's performances - especially her costume) created a sense of distance from the landscape rather than an embeddedness in it. Until I fully understood Red Earth's intention to make an explicit connection with Mongolia I had thought that 'otherness of place' was being used as a (not entirely successful) metaphor for otherness in time.
One fascinating aspect of the performance was the spectrum of engagement: from Simon, Caitlin, Atsushi and Badamkhorol at the centre, to the musicians, pyrotechnicians, choirs and students who had been rehearsed but had less influence in the planning. The largest group was the paid audience who's diversity in age, enthusiasm and appreciation not only affected their appreciation, but that of those around them. Finally, there were the intrigued outsiders, those out walking a dog or for an evening stroll or run. These people, faced with a strange set of sounds, sights and people on their local hill reacted in a variety of ways, some politely curious and some quite clearly disapproving from a distance.
Big ideas and future plans?
I find Red Earth's ideas, methods and practice extremely powerful and refreshing. For me, they have a very important message for archaeology. This is about the lessons that can be learned from experiencing ancient places in new ways. One cannot possibly have an authentic 'Bronze Age' experience of any landscape, but conversely, one cannot write (or read) oneself into anything but a detached understanding of a henge.
By experiencing abstracted rituals/performances in these spaces we can begin to build embodied understandings what it might mean to engage in large group activities, with layers of insider/outsider members. As long as one keeps the conclusions from such activities well within their limits they can profoundly affect one's personal understanding of the past.
I would very much like to see what Red Earth could do with the Mesolithic. With no 'sites' to work on and perhaps without metal instruments (is this aspect of authenticity important?) what would be possible? Would words or more overt narratives be required to achieve the basic cognitive understanding an audience would need before more immersive sensory appreciation could be effective?
Where to go from here?