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Poster: DHAnswers: Building a Community-Based Q&A Board for the Digital Humanities

Gilbert, Joseph, University of Virginia, joegilbert@virginia.edu

Meloni, Julie, University of Victoria, jcmeloni@gmail.com

Nowviskie, Bethany, University of Virginia, bethany@virginia.edu

Sinclair, Stéfan, McMaster University, sgs@mcmaster.ca


Genesis and Motivation

In late September 2010, the Association for Computers and the Humanities (ACH), together with ProfHacker, a technology and productivity blog hosted by the Chronicle of Higher Education, announced the launch of “DHAnswers,” a community-based question-and-answer board, at http://digitalhumanities.org/answers/.

With DHAnswers, the Outreach Committee of the ACH sought to address both an opportunity and a problem we detected with existing communication venues for digital humanists, such as Twitter, the long-standing Humanist discussion list, and individual blogs. We identified a need for DHAnswers after observing the burgeoning and helpful “big tent” digital humanities conversation happening on Twitter—and the frequency with which answers to questions posed by members of that community exceeded Twitter's 140-character limit for tweets, or required near-impossible sharing of a code snippet. Other exchanges resulted in extended and hard-to capture conversational threads, generally lost in a matter of weeks as older tweets were purged from search engines. We also noted that many questions asked on Twitter were more specific than those generally asked on the Humanist discussion list, or were more basic than a newer member of the DH community might feel comfortable posing on specialist mailing lists for software or standards.

A small team from ACH and ProfHacker worked behind the scenes (with most software development and extension undertaken by the University of Virginia Library's Scholars' Lab and stemming from work on a Spatial Humanities gateway site [http://spatial.scholarslab.org]) to create a useful communication platform, with pre-defined topic categories (enriched by input from the Executive Council of the ACH) to help filter and focus discussion. In addition to a viable, open-source platform for discussion, however, this project needed people. We therefore recruited approximately 25 digital humanities colleagues from around the world, working in different disciplines and with differing areas of expertise to test and cultivate the system. We were mostly concerned with having a friendly group of people helping to pre-populate the site with sample questions and answers, who could be at the ready in the first months after release, to monitor the various notification features we had set up (RSS feeds, email options, and automatic Twitter messages) to ensure that questions were answered promptly and the proper communities were alerted to relevant discussions. We also asked these volunteers to help us keep the discourse on DHAnswers positive and friendly. Thanks to the efforts of this group, we were able to launch the site with a small amount of content present in each of the following categories:

  • Applications, Tools, Formats
  • Databases & Data Structures
  • Interfaces, Design & Usability
  • DH in the Classroom
  • Markup & Metadata
  • Programming
  • New Media & Games
  • Project Management & DH Professions
  • and “About DHAnswers”
  • Reaction to the public release of DHAnswers was enthusiastic. Within a week, nearly 200 people had registered for accounts and created nearly 300 responses in the site's question-and answer threads. One month in, it is rare to see a question go unanswered for more than a few hours—and thanks to Twitter integration, many questions garner immediate response.

    Technical Implementation

    DHAnswers leverages an open-source bbPress platform, which employs PHP and MySQL and is related to the popular WordPress content management system. With a flexible system for creating new stylistic themes and adding new functionality through plugins, bbPress allowed us to create a custom set of features built upon a supported and extensible base architecture. To keep the site as lean and usable as possible, and in the hope of creating a self-explanatory service, we simplified or removed altogether a number of features from the out-of-the-box bbPress application.

    Given a strong digital humanities presence on Twitter, integrating DHAnswers with that target community was deemed imperative to the site's success. We introduced purpose-built plugins to broadcast new questions from the @DHAnswers Twitter account, giving both DHAnswers members and non-members alike a real-time peek into the ongoing conversation. Initially, we enabled even deeper integration with Twitter: site members could tweet a message to the @DHAnswers account in order to create a new question on the DHAnswers site. In the end, we realized that the complexity of rules and procedures for this connection would require a lengthy, nuanced explanation to each user. The added Twitter functions thus ran counter our goal of a straightforward tool that scholars could easily integrate with their normal communication methods, and we removed them.

    To facilitate fast-paced conversation, we created email notifications and RSS feeds for all questions and/or for a selection of “favorite” topics. To reward regular user involvement, the Scholars’ Lab create a new plugin to add various “badges,” small medal-like symbols that indicate a certain number of posts made or questions answered, to user profiles. We feel certain that the robust notification system and subtle reward mechanism for constructive behavior on the site spurred rapid growth and a quick response time for new questions.

    Response from the DH Community

    The multiple broadcast methods (Twitter, RSS, email) for new questions and answers helped bring together what some feel are disparate groups within the digital humanities: those who are on Twitter and those who are not. Although Twitter integration is a key feature of DHAnswers, Twitter participation is not required of DHAnswers users. Instead of relying solely on the segment of the DH community on Twitter, and thereby narrowing our audience rather than expanding it, DHAnswers has focused on building its own community: the multiple broadcast methods, our "reward" badges mentioned previously, the ability for users to select "favorite" posts within the system, and our administrative caretaking have all worked to create a community of sharing and mentoring. On more than one occasion, a new user has come to DHAnswers to ask a question, never having set a virtual foot within the initial Twitter community that inspired it (and never intending to), and has found himself or herself surrounded by senior members of both the DHAnswers community and the broader digital humanities community, ready to answer questions from all. Contrary to initial expectations, conversations on DHAnswers have centered on pedagogical and institutional questions, such as building a Digital Humanites center or designing a curriculum, rather than technical inquiries on specific processes. Also, unexpected disciplines, such as archaeology, have established lively running conversations whereas more explicitly digital fields—like media studies—have had relatively limited involvement.

    One of the differences between user interactions in the DHAnswers forum and within other social networking spaces is that the inherent expectation of asynchronous responses allows for fruitful participation by more users and according to their own terms of time management. Instead of constantly filtering an incoming information stream via Twitter, in which a response more than a few hours later is viewed as out of date and nearly useless, DHAnswers participants understand that a threaded discussion will remain in plain sight for several days, thus providing the mental space for better discussion. When comments are added to the thread, the “freshness” of the thread—as well as the notifications in place throughout the system—continue to keep the information in view; this process extends the life of the question and, in turn, the visibility of the answers. In addition, we find that users are taking advantage of the ability to “tweet this question”—re-posting questions of interest to them on Twitter—and therefore are helping to ensure that questions get useful answers and important discussions remain in the public eye.

    Analysis

    In the spirit of ongoing attempts to define and describe the Digital Humanities community (see for instance Svensson’s “The Landscape of Digital Humanities” in Digital Humanities Quarterly vol. 4 no. 1, Summer 2010), DHAnswers provides an interesting opportunity to gather insights about who digital humanists are and what they do, or at least some of who they are and some of what they do (see also Bethany Nowviskie’s article “DH Answers by the Numbers” in the Chronicle of Higher Education’s ProfHacker blog for December 8, 2010). The value of such insights is of course moderated by the specific circumstances of the site, an English-only resource sponsored by two predominantly North American organizations (ACH and ProfHacker), with strong links to an existing Twitter-based community.

    In its first month of its existence (essentially October 2010), DHAnswers recorded over 19,000 pages viewed by some 5,575 visitors from 64 countries (these data have been collected by Google Analytics and only include traffic to the main site, not RSS and Twitter feeds). The geographical distribution indicates a predominance of visitors from the USA, but also reveals emerging digital humanities regions such as Australia and Japan.

    Figure 1

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    Similarly, the geographical distribution of site visits within the United States can be revealing of regional activity in digital humanities.

    Figure 2

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    Also noteworthy is that in the first month over 250 users have registered to DHAnswers and there have been nearly 600 posts. The most frequently visited page, after the home page, is a topic on defining digital humanities, which further reinforces the community’s desire to understand itself.

    Figure 3

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    In addition to further analysis of the web logs, we will spend some time analyzing and interpreting the actual content of the DHAnswers posts. For instance, the graph below, generated by Voyeur Tools, shows that the word “like” was the third most common content word in all of the posts, and fairly consistently present across the corpus (the trend column, which indicates relative frequency by topic). The word carries several meanings, of course, but a closer examination of the usages suggests a notable predilection of digital humanists to express preferences and make comparisons.

    Figure 4

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    References:

    Meloni, Julie “Announcing Digital Humanities Questions & Answers (@DHAnswers), ” ProfHacker: The Chronicle of Higher Education, 2010 (link)

    Nowviskie, Bethany “DH Answers by the Numbers, ” ProfHacker: The Chronicle of Higher Education, 2010 (link)

    Svensson, Patrik “The Landscape of Digital Humanities, ” Digital Humanities Quarterly, 4 1 2010 (link)