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The Ivory Tower Just Got a Little More Crowded
Still Water social networks "crowdsource" academic research
John Bell and Jon Ippolito at Harvard's Berkman CenterJULY_2008. More people than ever will be able to access and contribute to academic research and development, thanks to tools built by Still Water faculty and Fellows to help creative thinkers share their work. Recently showcased at Harvard's Berkman Center, in the Chronicle of Higher Education, and soon to appear in Leonardo magazine, these new networks may change the way creative and scholarly research is recognized by universities across the world.

Still Water's John Bell and Jon Ippolito presented two of these tools, The Pool and ThoughtMesh, in a talk given at the Berkman Center for the Internet and Society at Harvard University last July. The Pool focuses on the creative process, stimulating and documenting collaborations among artists and programmers. ThoughtMesh focuses more on sharing the products of academic research; its auto-generated tags connect essays on similar themes drawn from different sites across the Web.

The Pool logo

ThoughtMesh logo

The Berkman Web site features a video of the talk and this description:

John Bell and Jon Ippolito at Harvard's Berkman CenterThe Internet both attracts and repels art institutions. Curators wonder who could possibly ensure quality control in a world where 50,000 videos are added to YouTube each day. Fortunately, artists themselves were crowdsourcing long before the Internet: composer John Cage laid out the principles fourteen years before Richard Stallman founded the Gnu project and twenty-nine years before the term 'open source' was coined. In addition to collaborating on their own creative projects, artists have helped to build the very recognition networks necessary to find the Leonardos among the LOLcats. This month saw the public release of two social networks, The Pool and ThoughtMesh, designed to help collaborators and critics find and evaluate each other. Unlike existing publishing systems such as blogs and wikis, these networks aim to give ordinary users a 'big picture' as well, and include graphical and lexical tools that can help answer such questions as how networked creativity is enhanced or hurt by licensing choices, the number of contributors, and project lifespan.

The Berkman Center presentation followed on the heels of the May 30 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education showcasing The Pool, ThoughtMesh, and John Bell's Re:Poste distributed review network as potential mechanisms for discovering and appraising academic work. Now that The Pool is open to the public at large, writes Chronicle reporter Andrea Foster, academics are considering using its emergent trust metrics to recognize new media research:

Re:Poste, a Web application that encourages academics to pick apart online articles from the mass media, is only in its infancy. But the program has already generated buzz on a social-networking Web site called the Pool....

Re:Poste is one of 600 creative works-- games, art, and more -- by new-media students and faculty members, most of them on the Orono campus, described in the Pool, which also contains about 2,000 reviews of those works. Starting in June, the Pool will have a much wider reach, as people in general will be invited to add material to the site, rate others' projects, build on their ideas, and find collaborators for their own projects.

The Pool, as yet little known, could provide a new avenue for new-media scholars to do their jobs. Eventually it could play a role in their tenure and promotion as well.

The numbers and influence of such scholars in academe are growing, and they are looking for new ways for their institutions to evaluate them. Books and journal articles alone are a flawed measure of their productivity, new-media professors say, because many of their accomplishments exist only as Web sites, interactive games, or multimedia presentations. The Pool, they suggest, can be one measure for judging their work.

Adding to the evidence that a sea-change may be brewing for how higher education evaluates its researchers, MIT's prestigious Leonardo magazine of art and technology will be publishing the official promotion and tenure criteria of the U-Me New Media Department in early 2009. The magazine will publish these criteria along with a white paper entitled "New Criteria for New Media," which argues for the redefinition of traditional criteria for excellence in the age of networked scholarship.

Written by U-Me faculty Joline Blais, Jon Ippolito, and Owen Smith in collaboration with Steve Evans and Nate Stormer, the criteria and white paper underscore the potential of crowdsourcing networks such as The Pool and ThoughtMesh to provide alternative evaluation mechanisms for academics:

Peer-evaluated online communities may invent their own measures of member evaluation, in which case they may be relevant to a researcher who participates in those communities. Examples of such self-policing communities include Slashdot, The Pool, Open Theory, and the Distributed Learning Project. The MLA pins the responsibility for learning these new metrics on reviewers rather than the reviewed.[17] Given the mutability of such metrics, however, promotion and tenure candidates may be called upon to explain and give context to these metrics for their reviewers.

ThoughtMesh review systemAs if to reinforce the conclusions of the white paper, ThoughtMesh co-developers Craig Dietrich and John Bell have just launched a commenting system internal to the ThoughtMesh network with the provocative heading of "peer review." Unlike the relatively uncontrolled comments at a site like YouTube, however, ThoughtMesh's reviews are subject to a rigorous trust metric. Each reviewer must claim a level of expertise before rating an article, and the software holds them accountable in a way that goes beyond even the rigorous method of peer reviewers for academic journals.

As might be expected, a review by someone claiming expertise will have more effect on the overall rating of the essay than by someone who claims none. However, those who claim expertise have to live up to it. If an academic makes exaggerated claims and is then trashed by her peers, her credibility will plummet faster than if she claimed no expertise in the first place.

The Pool and ThoughtMesh are free and open to anyone to try. For more information, please contact John Bell, Craig Dietrich, or Jon Ippolito.

Pool contributorsThoughtMesh was built by Craig Dietrich and Jon Ippolito with John Bell; The Pool was conceived by Joline Blais, Jon Ippolito, and Owen Smith and built by John Bell with Matt James, Jeremy Knope, Justin Russell, and Mike Scott.

ABOVE: John Bell and Jon Ippolito at Harvard's Berkman Center; ThoughtMesh review system by John Bell.

RIGHT: Pool co-founders Owen Smith, Justin Russell, Matt James, Jon Ippolito, and Joline Blais.

Updated: 2008-09-03 by Jon Ippolito
Posted 2008-09-03 07:55:09 by Jon Ippolito
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