dissertation summary

My dissertation, Conventions of the Commons: Technical Communication and Crowdsourced Digital Publishing, traces the digital publishing history of the audiobook archive LibriVox.org, examining how its volunteers manage, control, and negotiate procedures and policies for their ongoing collaborative work. The brief handout that accompanied my dissertation defense can be viewed here.

Crowdsourcing[1] projects and commons-based peer production models are becoming increasingly supported in professional and non-professional contexts. Decentralized digital technologies and networks allow more openness, access, and much more inclusive, collaborative, public action than traditional, institution-bound processes. Scholars in rhetoric and composition have noted these shifts in scale and connectedness and the potential they bring to the ways our work can be managed and shared. Demand for digital curation skills is growing rapidly, along with recognition of the economic value and societal benefits such skills can provide. The influence of crowdsourced digitization and public knowledge-making efforts have formed the basis of much research and critique in writing studies and elsewhere. Much of the value of such social production and digitization stems from the collaborative learning opportunities these practices allow and the complex, often transient, extra-institutional communities that emerge around the activities of sharing knowledge (Wenger, White, & Smith, 2009; Kimball, 2016; Spinuzzi, 2016; Phlugfelder, 2017). I build on this and other research in order to extend what we know about technical communication in public, open, volunteer spaces. How we organize and preserve content—whether old, new, or re-imagined—matters to how we and others access and use that content, both now and in the future.

With this project I aim to understand and articulate both the practical and theoretical value of a project like LibriVox. I interrogate how old and new conventions of digitization and sharing have come into being, and explore what LibriVox is and does as a multifaceted assemblage. In surveying the pasts and presents of the LibriVox community, I identify technological, ideological, social, and cultural traces that persist through the networks/meshworks[2] of LibriVox, documenting how messy, ad hoc processes have (and have not) congealed into a more stable, yet still idiosyncratic, protocol. I find, for example, that the Librivox community and publishing project has grown and evolved in surprising ways. The project’s clarity of purpose and open, welcoming processes become potentially useful models for future collaborative, online media projects, and the implications of this successful, sustainable, commons-based, digital publishing model may help prompt important, democratizing shifts in the future of open scholarly publishing.

Because the LibriVox project is so open and inviting to all potential volunteers, I have been able to engage with its community and artifacts as both researcher and as participant. I employ a combination of ethnography and autoethnography, immersing myself in LibriVox processes in order to more readily recognize their patterns and nuances (Boellstorff, Nardi, Pearce, & Taylor, 2012; Hine, 2015; Adams & Thompson, 2016). Parts of this dissertation include reflections on my own experiences engaging with and volunteering for Librivox.

My opening chapters introduce and situate LibriVox.org and recount its histories within various existing systems and meshworks, including other crowdsourcing projects, digital archives, volunteer movements, and instances of online technical communication. I follow public, open source projects and the movements behind those projects, highlighting the interests and roles technical communications scholars might take up within them. This work establishes LibriVox as an example of how the digital preservation and circulation of media, history, and culture involves responsibilities that matter to technical communicators and technical communication scholars. Whether made by professionals or amateurs, consciously or unconsciously, decisions about how public media projects like LibriVox are managed make a difference to the ultimate shape and accessibility of knowledge in digital forms.

In Chapter 3, I explore the development and evolutions of LibriVox’s infrastructure, artifacts, and discourse over time, in order to understand the evolving workflows of the project. Through surveying the pasts and presents of the LibriVox community, I identify technological, ideological, social, and cultural traces that persist through the project and document some of how LibriVox’s initially ad hoc processes have (and have not) congealed into a range of more stable, yet still idiosyncratic, protocols. To focus this exploration, I take up the example of L. M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables and use eight LibriVox versions of this story as stages through which to trace the processes by which the artifacts of LibriVox come into being. This tracing begins to make visible the ongoing negotiations of standardization within the community, noticing the values present in and those potentially omitted from the subtly shifting ethos of the LibriVox project.

The fourth chapter distills insights from my survey of several examples of LibriVox’s scattered and diffuse documentation. I find that the artifacts of technical communication created by and for the audiobook-making users of LibriVox not only provides technical instruction but also guides volunteers in choosing and navigating the multiple roles available to them within the community. I argue here that digital documents and artifacts, when preserved and circulated in ways that align with community values, become especially important for stewarding sustainable and resilient digital communities of practice.

My concluding chapter opens up potential avenues for future research into other crowdsourcing projects and digital volunteer communities. I invite additional questions about how we might best understand the value of so much labor, time, and creative output undertaken voluntarily across multiple digital spaces, and I suggest more nuanced ways of categorizing the kinds of labor that go on within the various facets of LibriVox and projects like it. I also emphasize in this chapter the importance and value of open, decentralized models of cultural production. Inclusive and sustainable models of publishing are attainable and important for preserving, distributing, and making accessible as many human cultural artifacts as possible.

 

Volunteers at LibriVox are digitizing and preserving certain types of available human culture in particular ways that afford near limitless access, re-distribution, and re-use. The ways LibriVox and other archives, digital curation projects, and public collections manage themselves make a difference for how (and perhaps whether) cultural knowledge is preserved, not only into the future, but for access now, across platforms and across user groups with varying abilities. I contend that investigating the example of LibriVox and what it means for how we conceptualize and make use of human culture and knowledge can help us in formulating and answering important questions about the lasting value of LibriVox and of other open knowledge projects.

 

references

Adams, C.  & Thompson, T. L. (2016). Researching a Posthuman World: Interviews with Digital Objects. London, UK: Palgrave/Macmillan.

Boellstorff, T., Nardi, B., Pearce, C., & Taylor, T. L. (2012). Ethnography in virtual worlds: A handbook of method. Princeton University Press.

Hine, C. (2015). Ethnography for the Internet: Embedded, embodied, and everyday. New York, NY: Bloomsbury Publishing.

Ingold, T. (2011). Being alive: Essays on movement, knowledge and description. New York, NY: Routledge.

Kimball, M. A. (2016). The Golden Age of technical communication. Journal of Technical Writing and Communication 0(0), 1–29.

Latour, B. (2007). Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. Oxford University Press.

Pflugfelder, E. H. (2017). Reddit’s “Explain Like I’m Five”: Technical descriptions in the wild. Technical Communication Quarterly 26(1), 25–41.

Spinuzzi, C. (2015). All Edge: Inside the New Workplace Networks. University of Chicago Press.

Wenger, E., White, N., & Smith, J. D. (2009). Digital Habitats: Stewarding Technology for Communities. Portland, OR: CPsquare


[1]. Definitions of the term crowdsourcing have been somewhat contested and its usage controversial. I approach the potential ambiguities of the term with openness toward a more popular usage and connotation, rather than adhering to a more precise but limited definition.

[2]. Both Bruno Latour’s (2007) and Timothy Ingold’s (2011) conceptualizations of human social activity are useful for interpreting the intricacies of LibriVox’s multifaceted work and community.