YEARN: An Application for the Recovery of Meaning

A social network that builds relationships around critical thought and reflection.

High Concept, Low Threshold

Yearn is designed to probe two important boundaries in what I have termed “participatory thought.” The first boundary is the line between the “traditional” humanities and the digital humanities. Yearn does offer a critique of the digital humanities for their lack of definition and most importantly, their frequent lack of depth. However, it rests its critique on the premise that there is nothing inherent to digital spaces that prevents humanist work – rather, the larger framework of cultural approach is responsible for the false dichotomy which asserts that the digital is to breadth as the analog is to depth, and therefore, that breadth at the expense of depth is inherent to the digital humanities. Yearn is attempting to recover a digital space for meaning, which is arguably the main product of the humanities. I use the word “recover,” as opposed to “invent,” because Yearn follows in the footsteps of digital spaces that came before it, and borrows ideas from digital spaces that currently exist.

The second boundary is between intuitive thought, often associated with user experience, and participatory thought, often associated with democracy. “Participatory thought” is not necessarily intellectual, although intellectual work is necessarily participatory. In this context, participate means “to engage in meaningful decision making,” where meaningful is meant to distinguish between decisions that substantially affect oneself or others and more trivial decisions, like what color of pants to buy. Voting involves meaningful decision making, it is the obvious example. However, this paper will assert that meaningful decision making happens on smaller scales constantly. There are two important points to keep in mind about the user/participant divide – the first is that it is applicable to the public at large and not just any one demographic, and the second is that the divide pits worldviews against each other, and not discrete decisions or events. The user and the participant are essentially contradicting conceptions of self.

Finally, we cannot move forward without acknowledging that nothing about Yearn is a critique of breadth in and of itself. There is merit in projects that take a broad view, if only to remind us that connections exist at broad levels. And while most digital humanities theory is embroiled in discussions of definition, some projects have admirably represented the humanities – particularly those that take a humanist approach to data[1] and those which seek to examine digital processes humanistically.[2] All of which is to say, Yearn is a critique of an extremist trend within a field that has much potential value.

Predecessors and Contemporaries

Yearn is heavily informed by a number of other digital and physical spaces. Among the digital spaces, question answering services like Quora and Yahoo Questions represent a significant contingent, as well as more foundational frameworks found in many digital spaces – like the “log in,” and the “user profile.” It also takes some ideas from “casual gaming,” in that various features can be “unlocked,” after certain actions are completed or levels are reached, and from familiar tropes about resistance (I had to resist using “the force” as a metaphor). In addition, it is influenced by the oldest social forum on the internet, The Well, which boasts membership by some of the great thinkers about digital community, including Stuart Brand and Mike Godwin of Godwin’s Law. I will spend some time in this section talking about the various ideas that were stolen borrowed and to what end they were used in Yearn.

Yearn’s main mechanic is the question. This is both an easy way to invoke the process of thinking and also a cute pun – humanists often refer to a body of thought as “The X Question,” where X is the subject. I don’t think that “The Question Question” is a particularly good name for a web app, but The Question Question is at the heart of Yearn – what does it mean to the participant to ask and answer a question? Quora[3] and Yahoo Answers[4] work similarly in that one user asks a question, e.g. “How many licks does it take to get to the center of a tootsie pop?” and other users give direct answers, e.g. “the world may never know.” Yearn, however, is designed to take a more humanist view of the question, and so instead of answering the question with a direct answer, the users respond with annotated bibliographies. The underlying concept is that a question does not necessarily have a direct answer, and an answer that is derived through reflection will be more comprehensive, if more complex.

During the process of designing Yearn, one of the challenges that came up was community building. Other social media platforms – like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Tumblr – reward users for base line interaction: friending, following, and connecting, by providing more complex social interactions and using hidden algorithms to increase the percentage of content users see from each other based on their interactions with each other. Yearn doesn’t have any of that, and in drawing from Camus’ definition of intellectual, its main functions could not be hidden to begin with. Camus defined an intellectual as “someone whose mind watches itself.”[5]

From a purely pragmatic point of view – that of feature design, I had to consider other approaches to building relationships between users. I ended up borrowing some features from casual games, such as games for the smartphone and for Facebook. The process of adding game features to an app that is not a game is called gamification. The first thing I did was invoke the idea of “character class.” In a game, a user might be an elf or a goblin or a dragon or a human – or in the case of, say, an online game of Risk – might represent a demographic. In Yearn, users choose to represent themselves as descendants of particular thinkers, each of whom represents a particular discipline. Each user can choose one thinker/discipline to begin with, and may “unlock” any other by asking at least three questions to the same descendant of the other discipline — essentially, finding a mentor. Users answer questions asked to descendants of the thinker they chose, and may answer for new disciplines as they unlock them. In addition to this form of leveling, there is a leveling of user-to-user social relationship, wherein asking the same user questions unlocks the ability to see their contact info off site. Ideally, each user will both be mentor to some and student to some. I found after I had built this model that I lacked a sufficient reward for the role of the mentor – who wants, of course, to know how his or her student feels after consuming media from the annotated bibliography that constituted the answer. This feature, called “Synthesize,” is optional — it allows the querent to respond to the answer with her thoughts about how she is now thinking about her own question. This is a little more intimate, and is really designed so that the querent may choose whom he or she wants to move forward with. It is in the mode of a “reply.” While users must be logged in to see content, all questions and all answers are viewable to all users. Names are not public though, each user has a username, and his or her contact information is only available to designated “philoi.” [6]

The decision to go all-access with the content was complemented by the decision to implement an invite-only system, so that all registered users must have been invited by other users, and

the number of invitations each user has to give out is based on how active she is on the site.

Lastly, I drew on The Well, and older senses of the digital community to create an implicit movement within that lost narrative. Another thing Yearn attempts to recover is an older conception of what it meant to connect with other people online. To do this, I created a particular overarching narrative about joining the resistance, and I cited historical figures of import as having fought for our right to participatory thinking. I present the users as the inheritors of this legacy, and I assert that their mission – should they choose to accept it – is to take up this legacy and transform from mere users into true participants. This way of thinking was pervasive in the sixties in digital political culture, and that mentality was represented on The Well.

Finally, I developed a syntax for Yearn that was unique unto it, in the same way that Facebook has “friend,” “poke,” and “timeline,” or Twitter has “tweet.” These words include “Resist” (register), “think” (log in), and “philoi” (friend/connection). By creating this syntax, I hope to help create a somewhat closed context – the beginning of a way of communicating that might be specific to the Yearn community.

In the next section, I will discuss the intellectual underpinnings of Yearn, and the sources that contributed to them.

Critical Basis

As mentioned in the introduction, Yearn exists primarily to explore the relationship between the analog and the digital humanities, as well as the tension between digital cultural cornerstone of user experience and the humanist cornerstone of participatory thought. Several works have informed my design of Yearn, beginning with discussions about what the digital humanities are, but also including theorists and and classic intellectual works.

Matthew Kirschenbaum, at the University of Maryland, suggests that the digital humanities are about understanding how the humanities disciplines affect computing and conversely, how computing affects humanities disciplines.[7] The definition Kirschenbaum provides specifically mentions an interdisciplinary approach, referring to what one assumes must be computer science and the humanities. This definition is confusing for a couple of reasons: in the first place, while it may be interesting to understand how the humanities and computing intersect, this is not an accurate representation of the humanities, nor is it even a good representation of current explicitly self-identified digital humanities projects. In the second place, the humanities – which constitute several different disciplines – have been interdisciplinary long before computing was affecting them. But perhaps most astonishing of all is his apparent use of the percentage of humanities scholars using twitter as an example of evidence that the digital humanities are important. In describing Twitter, he mentions that the 140 character limit “has less to do with attention spans than Twitter’s origins in the messaging protocols of mobile devices,” which immediately prompts the reader to wonder why the founders of Twitter made this decision. We understand that Twitter is a for-profit company, and so we must ask what monetary gain there is in the 140 character limit imposed by cell phones, and the answer could very well be that the mobile is affecting our attention spans. That is not to say that it certainly is, but how strange for a humanist to suggest that the 140 character limit has its origins in process free from human politics. Kirschenbaum concludes by asking who wouldn’t want the 24-7 digital life online in one’s English department? Yearn is the response to that question, it poses this answer: The person who would not want the 24-7 digital life online is the person who prioritizes certain values over ubiquity, and speed, and those values might include depth and caution. Above all else, Kirschenbaum’s definition of the digital humanities is not cautious enough, given the course the humanities are going – which is rather unlike a humanist.

Indeed, the intellectual basis for Yearn began largely with Johanna Drucker’s discussion, where she asks one of Yearn’s essential questions, “Have the humanities had any impact on the digital environment? Can we create graphical interfaces and digital platforms from humanistic methods?” This is an essential question in the digital humanities, indeed it may be that the future of the humanities lies in the answer. She answers her own question this way: “The challenge is to shift humanistic study from attention to the effects of technology (from readings of social media, games, narrative, personae, digital texts, images, environments), to a humanistically informed theory of the making of technology (a humanistic computing at the level of design, modeling of information architecture, data types, interface, and protocols).”[8] Drucker’s point is unique and strong, within the various discussions of the digital humanities, insofar as it cannot be stated strongly enough there is a lot to say about the meaning of the choices that are made in the processes of creating digital technologies, and that humanists are absolutely the ones to do it. This is precisely the issue that Kirschenbaum failed to address when he spoke of Twitter. However, the project I ended up developing – that became Yearn –diverged from Drucker because her initial discussion of the ways the digital affected humanities work assumed the direct translation of the analog to digital. She only briefly gets into whether distance reading and other methods of quantitative evaluation of text can be useful to the humanities before she gets into the question of how the humanities might affect the digital. Since her article, digital humanities have emerged – if nothing else – as obviously making use of digital methods for evaluating text. Yearn is interested in seeing whether there can be a digital space for humanist methods of evaluating text. Drucker essentially suggests that this is occurring with library databases and Microsoft Word already – and so Yearn expands this to ask whether it can be done in the social-digital space, which all digital space may soon be.

Both Trevor Owens, at the Library of Congress, and Christof Schöch, at the University of Würzburg in Germany, talk about the humanist approach to data. Owens and Schöch agree with Drucker that humanities scholars can focus on more than simply the effects of technology, they can focus on the design and implementation of technology, they can use humanist methodologies to analyze digital methods. But they inform Yearn in a different way than Drucker does – Yearn takes from the discussion of the humanist approach to data the obvious fact that that which is produce on Yearn is both text and data, that being a space for humanist methodologies does not make it less susceptible to anything that data is susceptible to. For that reason, Yearn has an invite-only model but complete internal transparency for all participants.

Ultimately, then, Yearn is informed by the insufficiency of the definitions of the digital humanities to date. Either they do not account for the humanities well enough, as in the case of Kirschenbaum, or they do not account enough for the digital, as in the case of Drucker. Rather, Yearn is also informed by theorists and authors including Manuel Castells, Albert Camus, Thomas Jefferson and Aristotle.

Castells writes – movingly – “The project informing this book swims against streams of destruction, and takes exception to various forms of intellectual nihilism, social skepticism, and political cynicism. I believe in rationality, and in the possibility of calling upon reason, without worshipping its goddess. I believe in the chances of meaningful social action, and transformative politics, without necessarily drifting toward the deadly rapids of absolute utopias. I believe in the liberating power of identity, without accepting the necessity of either its individualization or its capture by fundamentalism. And I propose the hypothesis that all major trends of change constituting our new, confusing world are related, and that we can make sense of their interrelationship. And, yes, I believe, in spite of a long tradition of sometimes tragic intellectual errors, that observing, analyzing, and theorizing are a way of helping to build a different, better world. Not by providing the answers – that will be specific to each society and found by social actors themselves – but by raising some relevant questions.”[9]

Here Castells discusses what Yearn is most interested in: the way The Question of the Question relates to participation, and – as Castells so beautifully says, a “different, better world.” The boundaries between user and participant, and digital and analog humanities are areas of interrelation that Yearn explores as well.

Thomas Jefferson also defended participation when he wrote, “I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man,” in a letter to Dr. Benjamin Rush in 1800.[10]   Jefferson consistently argued for the education of the common

people that they might be better members of a democracy, and Jefferson informed the decision to make Yearn a platform for the public, as opposed to housing it within an academic context,

as the digital humanities traditionally are.

When I began looking up definitions of intellectual, Camus’ appealed to me the most: “An intellectual is someone whose mind watches itself.” Since reflection was a core part of what I wanted Yearn to encourage in its participants, and because I wanted specifically to use a definition that wasn’t limited to academia – that is, that could be applied to the public intellectual and to an intellectual public – I adopted this view in my construction of Yearn, and attempted to infuse this watching of ones’ own mind into all of Yearn’s features, and all of its language. By adding text to the buttons that were action oriented like “RESIST,” and “THINK,” and by creating explicit functions which force both the user and the querent to approach the question in an intellectual manner, I attempted to bring about the intentionality Camus references. Lastly, I borrowed Aristotle’s concept of “Philoi,” which he explicitly defines as two people who are both aware that they love each other in a non-romantic way. In other places Aristotle uses philia to describe all kinds of non-romantic love, in fact the only thing that is absolutely sure about it is that it isn’t romantic. Philoi, as opposed to philia, also definitely involves both parties being aware of the love. However, in Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle uses a definition I am particularly fond of, in which he discusses philia as being a friendship that has matured into the kind of closeness where each wants the best for the other for the other’s sake, where the each friend’s happiness contributes to the other’s. This is why I used the word “philoi” instead of friend – and instead of adding a friending mechanism, I created a buildup of actions between participants that will result in their gaining the status of philoi.

Despite the amount of reading that went into creating the design of Yearn, some ideas did emerge I simply didn’t have time to incorporate, and there were some ideas I had after the fact. I talk about what a Yearn 2.0 might look in the next section.

Future Considerations

It wasn’t until after I finished putting the new layout together that it occurred to me that I should switch all mentions of the word “user” to “participant.” I did remember to remove the “user” from “username,” but the function that allows users (or participants, as it could be) to search for each other, and the examples all have “user” in them.
In many ways, Yearn sympathizes with Jean Baudrillard’s “Ecstasy of Communication,”[11] but Yearn often uses “digital” to refer to what Baudrillard calls communication, and this might be painting to broad a stroke. It may be useful in future iterations of this app to take into account more explicitly the process by which people have substituted content with what Baudrillard calls “signs.” Certainly the annotated bibliography is meant to do reverse that process, but it is not stated explicitly that this reversal is occurring, and to follow Camus’ conception of the intellectual, it must be.

The introduction text has gone through a lot of iterations but it is still not done. In the very first iteration, which predates this project as it began as an essay, the role of technology was analogized to the role of Pagan Gods, and human relationships with each. This critique of faith- based worship moved from religious zeal to capitalist zeal but it never fully matured into the approachable critique of the anti-democratic nature of American culture’s current relationship with technology that I was hoping to develop. In part, this was because I did not have the time to really distinguish “technology” from “approach to technology,” which would have been necessary, and in part, this is because is truly also a larger discussion of the problems of neoliberalism and its disdain of the community member in favor of individualism, flexibility and mobility. There are some areas of this critique that are academic, or at the very least, not easily accessible.

Lastly, this web app has little to no marketable scaffolding, and yet, the essential idea can be seen as fun – learn about anything you want, from casual or domestic things to hobbies to big existential questions; join a community of curious, energetic and thoughtful people; remember the advantageous bits of slowness, often referred to in phrases like “slow food” and “slow travel,” one might call this “slow consideration.”

Conclusion

Yearn: An Application for the Recovery of Meaning is a social media platform designed to connect participants around reflection and thought, but it is also a platform designed to help users connect with each other socially in a unique way that ultimately moves outside of Yearn. Thus one of the goals of Yearn is not only to challenge its participants to be active on the webapp, but also to be better participants in the world. This is more important, in many ways, than all the critiques and challenges Yearn presents of the digital humanities and of the user experience. Essentially, Yearn’s thesis, if it were to write a paper of its own accord, might be that it is possible to be thoughtful about anything it is possible to be thoughtless about, and it is possible to think in depth about something while not dismissing the value of the broad view. In this case, the digital humanities are just one example of what could potentially be occurring at any time, in any situation.

But equally importantly, Yearn is about public intellectualism, not about anti-intellectualism. It therefore emphasizes evidenced based thinking as a path forward, while suggesting simultaneously that this is a way to feel less lonely in a neoliberal society: by seeing the evidence of one’s argument as having been written or created by one’s community, to see oneself as the continuation of a narrative of many people, to find freedom in place, instead of in motion.

It has always been the job of the humanities to deal with what something means, and Yearn is designed to remind us of the value of meaning, indeed: to recover it.

 

 

[1] See for example: Trevor Owens. “Defining Data for Humanists: Text, Artifact, Information or Evidence?” Journal of Digital Humanities, March 16, 2012 and Christof Schöch. “Big? Smart? Clean? Messy? Data in the Humanities.” Journal of Digital Humanities, November 22, 2013. I go into more detail about this in the “Critical Basis” section of this essay.

[2] See for example: Wardrip-Fruin, Noah. “Essay on the Digital Humanities’ Data Problem | Inside Higher Ed.” Essay on the Digital Humanities’ Data Problem. March 20, 2012 and Johanna Drucker, “Humanistic Theory and Digital Scholarship,” in Matthew Gold, ed., Debates in the Digital Humanities(Minnesota, 2012). See “Critical Basis” section of this essay.

[3] “Quora – The Best Answer to Any Question.” http://www.quora.com.

[4] Yahoo! Answers. https://answers.yahoo.com/.

[5] Camus, Albert. Notebooks, 1942-1951. Vol. 394. Knopf, 1965.Albert Camus, Notebooks (1942-1951).

[6] See “Critical Basis” section for explanation of term.

[7] Matthew G. Kirschenbaum. “What Is Digital humanities and What’s It Doing in English Departments?” ADE Bulletin, 150. 2010.

[8] Johanna Drucker, “Humanistic Theory and Digital Scholarship,” in Matthew Gold, ed., Debates in the Digital Humanities (Minnesota, 2012).

[9] Manuel Castells. “Prologue” in The Rise of the Network Society. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010.

[10] Rowe, C. J., and Sarah Broadie. Nicomachean ethics. Oxford University Press, 2002.

[11] Baudrillard, Jean, and Jean-Louis Violeau. “The ecstasy of communication.” (2012).