The Anthropology of Knowledge: From Basic to Complex Virtual Communities in the Arts and Humanities

  1. 1. Stuart Dunn

    King's College London

  2. 2. Tobias Blanke

    King's College London

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An online community may be defined very simply as any group
of people who collaborate regularly and/or formally using
internet technologies. Such communities are becoming
increasingly important in arts and humanities research. They
include blogs, wikis, mailing lists and other such fora. The
Jiscmail and Listserv services (<http://www.jiscmail;>), and the availability
of well-known open source wiki and blog software (e.g. <ht
tp://> and
<>) have made it so easy to establish
online communities that most projects in the digital and
humanities now have one of some kind or another. However
such fora are founded on relatively basic technologies. The
various arts and humanities e-science and cyberinfrastructure
programmes underway in many countries offer huge
opportunities to enable online communities in ways that go far
beyond what is generally available now. These approaches will
be based on incomparably more complex tools, methods and
technologies such as Virtual Organizations (VOs), Virtual
Research Environments (see <
uk/briefing-paper>) collaborative virtual workspaces,
and Semantic Web. If these tools, methods and technologies
are to be exploited by practice-led arts researchers and
humanists to the greatest effect, they will need to be grounded
in a strategic, rigorous and systematic understanding of the
behaviours of current online communities, as complex online
systems will clearly evolve from collaboration tools currently
in use. The proposed paper will offer an overview of current
usage of various online fora, and propose a high-level mapping
from that overview onto the capabilities of the e-science-based
collaborative systems of the future, such as MyVocs (<http
Of immediate importance to the humanities are VREs, as they
help geographically dispersed research groups to come together
in virtual laboratories that allow modelling and experimentation
as much as discussion of research results. The e-Science concept
of a Virtual Organisation on the other hand is seen as a set of
institutions and/or individuals defined by resource sharing
policies. 1 A VO is a community with the will to share resources
and information across the internet, while VREs enable VOs
by adding tools and methods that help the community to work
together and share resources in a secure manner. VREs attempt
to bring together researchers across disciplines and
administrative boundaries. Many argue that humanities
computing in general constitutes such an attempt, where the
‘glue’ is to find ‘methodological commons’2 to present the
disciplinary kinships among different disciplines in the
humanities and in computing. A hi-tech VRE for arts and
humanities computing could therefore make these computational
methods the subject of online discussions enabled by advanced
information discovery technologies. As a case study, this paper
will report on our efforts to set up such a VRE.
The Arts and Humanities e-Science Support Centre (AHESSC)
is in regular and direct contact with many online communities,
and is in an excellent position to offer an overview. We will
present findings from detailed research on the recent history of
a range of existing discussion fora. These will include both
moderated and unmoderated groups critically and qualitatively
assessing the difference this makes, and extrapolate an agenda
for the management systems needed for VREs. We will examine
both direct and indirect links between messages, semantic
commonalities, disciplinary vocabularies and threading patterns,
and hyperlinking behaviour. We will also examine other
well-established wiki and blog communities of relevance to the
humanities in much the same way. The paper will draw out
commonalities, identify points of conflict and the reasons
underlying them, the implementation and practice of
“netiquette’ codes, and the importance of sustaining archives
and maintaining access to them. We argue that regardless of
the technology, these are essential questions if the adoption of
advanced collaborative tools is to be a success. A key remit of
AHeSSC itself is to help develop a community of e-science
‘early adopters’, and the research presented forms a central part
of this mission. We believe that more complex collaborative
technologies will not only enable the transmission of
‘traditional’ scholarly communication in the form of text and
images as in the current basic systems; but also they will
facilitate access to large scale, complex and fuzzy data, and
allow scholars to work together in real time with that data. For
example, instead of sending a complex dataset as an email
attachment to a group whose members then manipulate it
according to their expertise and locally available software, and
then send it back to the originator, the new architectures will
allow two or (many) more to work on it in real time, to discuss
it, expose it to analytical tools, and to annotate it online, whilst
preserving a complete record of the workflow. We will show
how close critical analysis of the existing lo-tech systems should
inform the design of such architectures. This will be illustrated by considering a VRE for arts and
humanities computing methodologies for which funding is
currently being sought. This project will continue the
community building efforts of the UK’s AHRC ICT Methods
Network (see <
k>), with a taxonomy of computational methods developed by
the Arts and Humanities Data Service (see <http://ahds
nomy_v1_3_1.pdf>). This is seen as a first step to build a
semantically enriched VRE, using the taxonomy as the
foundation of an ontology. The taxonomy will be verified
against papers from online databases or websites presenting
tools and methods. Ontological approaches are used that allow
not only the semantic integration of different text and
multimedia resources, but also the tracking of exchanged
arguments that help users better understand decisions about
methodologies. Our paper will illustrate the evolutionary
relationship between an advanced environment such as this,
and the basic environments with which we are all familiar. 1. Foster and C. Kesselman, The Grid 2: Blueprint for a new
computing infrastructure, (Morgan-Kaufmann, 2004).
2. See Willard McCarty Humanities Computing, (Basingstoke:
Palgrave McMillan, 2005).

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Conference Info


ADHO - 2007

Hosted at University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

Urbana-Champaign, Illinois, United States

June 2, 2007 - June 8, 2007

106 works by 213 authors indexed

Series: ADHO (2)

Organizers: ADHO

  • Keywords: None
  • Language: English
  • Topics: None