is digital scholarship a medium?

The theme of this week’s readings is the future (or lack thereof) for “traditional” or linear narrative. In response to this theme, I began reading with a greater than usual degree of skepticism – which is saying something.

I’ve been online regularly since 1997, and intermittently for a few years before then. I have seen blogging/publishing platforms come and go, and slapped together more than a few website assignments. Most “innovative” online scholarship presentations are overblown, hard to read, hard to navigate, often impossible to save or cite, and generally frustrating. Yet in reading the following, I finally found the real reason for my knee-jerk instinct to roll my eyes at the premise of non-linear, “futuristic,” “Web 2.0” or “interactive” scholarship:

“Our presumption that readers would want to engage with our article in the way we intended was probably misplaced.”

Respected historian William Thomas wrote this rather damning line in the excellent essay on the development of his digital history project (with Edward Ayers) “The Differences Slavery Made.”

The traditional journal article or book layout is not just a narrative construction; it is a collection of powerful signaling devices that indicate (at least to an experienced reader) what the “important” pieces of a piece of writing are. We have also been trained, over the last 25+ years of the World Wide Web, to look for certain importance markers online, like logos, certain consistent phrases (contact, about us, FAQ). A great deal of digital scholarship, in my experience, fails to effectively use the signals of either the print antecedents or the active web, leaving users to flail about helplessly or, potentially, give up without learning anything.

Communication theorist Marshall McLuhan famously argued that “the medium is the message” — he says:

“…[T]he content of any medium is always another medium. The content of writing is speech, just as the written word is the content of print, and print is the content of the telegraph. If it is asked, ‘What is the content of speech?,’ it is necessary to say, ‘It is an actual process of thought, which is itself nonverbal.”[1]

I confess I still don’t understand what the content of Thomas and Ayers’ project is. What is the content or medium of this?


(Illustration of “the article’s linkages and structure” from Thomas’ essay, linked above.) In what way is this an article? What understanding or knowledge must the reader come to the table with to be able to read this site?

Scholars – and librarians, and archivists, and museum specialists – are well-trained in their respective crafts, to the point where they can develop a curious reversed myopia about what other people can see in their own work. It is important to keep in mind that the web’s potential for non-linear narration give us new and more powerful ways to completely fail to connect with the people we are attempting to communicate with.

[1] Marshall McLuhan. “The Medium is the Message,” in The Anthropology of Media, ed.  Kelly Askew and Richard R. Wilk. (Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell, 2002), 18.

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