June 15th, 2009
Alternative title: Block That Metaphor
I’ve been working on a presentation that is supposed to give some sense of our own dear CUNY Academic Commons to the outside world, and I have to have the requisite visuals. I thought it might be worthwhile to give folks a sense of what I came up with, though this was with more than a little help from Matt Gold et alia.
First, I wanted to show what the Commons is not. Well, not altogether, anyway. There were competing conceptions that did not quite capture all that we wanted the Commons to be.
Competing Conception #1: A Repository of Stuff. For that, I came up with
and, because Borges’ piece is very much about endlessly receding taxonomies (“To locate book A, consult first book B which indicates A’s position; to locate book B, consult first a book C, and so on to infinity …”), also this:
Few things could suggest, better than these paired images, that the twin challenges of categorization and location for such a “repository of stuff” are dizzying. But if that conception is not the “right stuff,” neither is the whole-hearted focus on social interaction.
Competing Conceptions #2: The Gathering Place, the Agora, the Hub
It’s not enough to bring people together. Even and especially if you do manage to do that, you may only have a crowd.
Too much lollygagging? Maybe. Alternatively, I pictured it as part marketplace, part traffic jam.
The Commons is not (or not just) a place to come, hang out, interact. This is a more contemporary conception than a static repository, but it does have the enormous challenge of getting people to come and also structuring that activity without getting in the way of it. The watchword for such sites is often “If you build it, they won’t come” — and then what are you going to do?
Well, you could go organic. What these conceptions don’t take in is notions of growth, development, evolution — each a different way of framing the summum bonum of what we wanted the Commons to be and have.
Better Metaphor #1: Roots and Branches. Matt sent me this picture of a well-rooted tree as a possible image for the Commons:
Lots of roots, but just one trunk — which reminded me that a stand of trees is often a clonal colony, that tree roots can beget new trunks in rhizome-like fashion. The great example is Pando [from the Latin for "I spread"] — aka the ”Trembling Giant” of Utah (a clonal colony of aspen trees with an interconnected root system that may be the world’s largest organism). I found a picture of those aspens on Wikipedia:
These Quaking Aspens may quake and tremble, but we probably want a better suggestion of activity than that.
Better Metaphor #2: The Beehive.
Matt also sent me Jim Groom’s post “WPMu as Beehive,” which featured this image.
That, strictly speaking, is not a beehive but a honeycomb — though what better visual way to drive home the point that you could have an organic image/metaphor that foregrounded storage? What I wanted was just such an image, but with some activity in it — some busy bees:
The idea of the beehive is especially useful because it helps to stress that, if you feel forced to choose between the repository and the hub of activity, you’re submitting to a false disjunction. As the beehive reminds us, you can have your storage and your activity too, your honey and your buzz. Social networks are about stuff as well as interaction. Facebook has become the largest collection of photos in the world, for instance. What might a Facebook for academics become?