It's The Very Fabric of the Web

A major stake is the condition of the very fiber of the woven web itself. The Web (can you remember when it needed to be fully phrased as the “World Wide Web”?) is the grandest experiment in global collaboration, or as Clay Shirky  described it in Here Comes Everybody, it is "living in the middle of the largest increase in expressive capability in the history of the human race."

Sharing is multifaceted in sharing of content and property versus the inter-connectivity of information, data, but most importantly, the sharing of ideas. My students still enter creative classes with a mindset of "someone might steal my _______ and make money off it".  Our defaults are not open. For social media sites like Flickr, on new accounts the default license is All Rights Reserved or Google image search where it takes multiple clicks to search for content licensed for reuse.

Colleagues are reluctant to share unfinished work or nascent ideas for worry of the same or a concern of releasing less than scholarly. I see much head nodding to the mantra of not putting anything online which could tarnish a career. Embarrassing photos where common sense ought to prevail notwithstanding, the converse of this suggests our online personas show zero flaws, not one imperfection (some suggest the name of this place is "Facebook").

It's the aversion to sharing of ideas that worries me. The value of an ongoing, shared narration of the work we do suggested by Jon Udellremains a fringe activity among academics. Mingling of ideas in the shared space is the potential energy of innovation; or as David Wiley frames it, “openness facilitates the unexpected.

Let's reflect on the concept of the web proposed by Tim Berners-Lee. His earlier hypertext system, Enquire, so stressed the importance of the link that no node of information could not exist without being linked first from something within the space.  What emerged as the open web is not only the connection of information, but echoes back to Doug Engelbart's augmentation of human intellectas the means of solving our most complex problems:

The dream behind the Web is of a common information space in which we communicate by sharing information. Its universality is essential: the fact that a hypertext link can point to anything, be it personal, local or global, be it draft or highly polished. There was a second part of the dream, too, dependent on the Web being so generally used that it became a realistic mirror (or in fact the primary embodiment) of the ways in which we work and play and socialize. That was that once the state of our interactions was on line, we could then use computers to help us analyse it, make sense of what we are doing, where we individually fit in, and how we can better work together.

– The World Wide Web: A very short personal historyby Tim Berners-Lee May 7, 1998

Sharing via social media and content curation have connective value, yet now, as much as before, we need creators of content and ideas; we all ought to be makers of the web, not just passengers. This is a foundation of ds106 the open digital storytelling course I currently teach online at the University of Mary Washington (UMW).

Running on open source technologies, ds106 is not backed by venture capital or foundation money; in fact it was supported by the community it serves via a 2011 Kickstarter campaign.

And ds106 is not only open as in anyone can enter; everything in it is outwardly open back to web it is part of. As a syndicated network of individual publishing spaces, ds106 mimics the very fabric of the web itself.

The class of registered students I teach at University of MaryWashingtonare given and manage their own personal cyberinfrastructure- a concept promoted by Gardner Campbell and made concrete this year at UMW as a Domain of Ones Own. A student’s work is theirs, not the institution's, to shape and take with them. It is not a templated portfolio, it reflects the design and expression of an individual. Beyond learning how to create media such as animated GIFs, audio, video, remixes, ds106 students are weaving new web fabric-- the connective tissue type.

The challenge is helping students step out of their learned assignment mindset and focus on the end product. "Here's my assignment" is how many of them start out, seeing their sites as some sort of drop box. No, we want them to narrate the process, to write why they chose the assignment, what it means to them, to connect to what is relevant, to tell what the story is-- and to share how they made it. I ask them to share the equivalent of DVD extras, even out takes.

Perhaps what might illustrate the fabric of the web as being one of sharing is a small story of how ds106 and the open web work.  Colleague Jim Groom shared via twitter a Brain Pickings post describing the idea of six word visual memoirs. As we use the concept of the six word story as an exercise of creativity in a limited medium, Jim added it to the ds106 assignment bank- an open space where ds106 participants have created over 500 creative activities, now expanded by one with the Six Word Memoirs design assignment.

Stefanieis a ds106 open participant from Germany: we don't know why she participates nor her intentions in the course, but our site tracks the links to all of the work she has been doing, following the assignments for my class at UMW.

Her creation for the six word visual story, Creating Life,  elegantly mixed analog paint and digital editing, but it was the story she wrote with it that emphasized her message:

How would you tell your life’s story if you could only use six words?

This is the question which was asked in the ds106 assignment “Six-Word memoir”.

Yesterday I came back home right from a talk with a German official and they directly told me to rather give up hope to ever have a job in the creative professions. They want me to sell things or to work in a warehouse or maybe clean up other peoples dirt. I would die. I was just sad about this talk.

However, this was the right moment to create what is deeply true for my life.

Isn't this quite a bit more than an "assignment"? I was moved to shared it with Brain Pickings author Maria Popova. I do not know her, but found her contact info and sent an email message:

Your post on Six Word Memoirs inspired me to use as an assignment in an open course on digital storytelling. It reaches over the waters to an open participant in Germany who did the assignment writing with it:

Yesterday I came back home right from a talk with a German official and they directly told me to rather give up hope to ever have a job in the creative professions. They want me to sell things or to work in a warehouse or maybe clean up other peoples dirt. I would die. I was just sad about this talk.


However, this was the right moment to create what is deeply true for my life.

I'm sure your work reaches many people, just wanted to share one more story.

From a thankful reader

In 30 minutes Maria replied:


Oh Alan, what a wonderful story — thank you so much for putting a smile on my day!

Waving from Brooklyn,,

// maria

This is the nanoscopic but powerful sharing fabric of the open web- distributed, individually contributed, bending back, linking upon itself.

It's this potential for human connection not otherwise possible that is at stake, the very web fabric that can easily fray and disintegrate if we do not care for it, if we do not continue to be doing and cultivating the making of the web.


I really like the idea of ds106 (I just spent a good 20 minutes playing around on the site when I should have been working on a literature review...). Its mimicry of the web as a whole seems like it could be a good way to help students understand the infrastructure behind the Internet and how content on the web is not just born from the ether, but the product of rhetorical strategies (conscious or not).


Several years ago, I presented my case for incorporating 'zine production into the freshman composition course as a collaborative, capstone project. Additionally, this text would be digitally rendered as well as submitted to the university library for archiving purposes. I now see a few holes in this project but my intention was that, to appreciate the connectivity and essence of the digital composition, students should first experience the analog, the DIY, and the chaos that is embraced by the web's progressively undermined punk rock attitude.

In the courses, workshops, and seminars that I've participated in, it always seems that the assumption is, if we show students the techniques of maintaining a blog and explain what "rhizomatic" means, they'll be on the right path to enjoying a lifetime of self-publishing online. I don't believe that's true. During a Writing in Digital Spaces course, the professor included the writings of Jorge Luis Borges, William S. Burroughs, and tales of New York's art scene, Happenings and Yoko Ono performances. These texts helped describe the process by which the new media theory developed. Though many of these might be a bit advanced for first-years students, I hope that a comparable hands-on experience will help illustrate the more nuanced implications of our digital culture.

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