Category Archives: digital humanities

Project Reclaim

Update: I have begun aggregating these posts at

Lately I have been feeling increasingly uneasy about the state of my digital affairs. I am a leader on a number of open source software projects that pride themselves on, among other things, their ability to enable users to “own their own data”. Moreover, I am trained as a philosopher, and have spent a pretty fair amount of time reading and thinking carefully about the nature of data and our relationships with it. If anyone is in a position to develop and advocate for good models of digital independence, I am.

Yet, when I look around my digital world, I see instance after instance where I am, to a greater or lesser extent, completely reliant on the good will of commercial entities and their propietary systems. To wit:

  • My Twitter account is a big part of my online identity
  • The last five years of my private correspondence, personal and professional, is in Gmail
  • I use Dropbox for syncing documents between devices (like my blog_sandbox.txt file, where I’m writing this post!)
  • I use Picasa Web Albums to back up and share photos
  • I have a Mozy account to back up the rest of my important files
  • Until recently, I had an iPhone. I still use a Mac
  • I use Remember The Milk for task management
  • I store source code for all my projects in Github

Some of these are products; some are services. Some are free; some of them I pay for. And – for sure – some of the companies behind the products and services listed above are more evil than others. So I don’t want to pretend that my reliance on each of them is equally bad. But each item on this list plays a crucial role in my digital life, and each one of them operates in a way that is beyond my control, both literally (I can’t modify the source code) and more figuratively (questions about ownership, exportability, transportability are icky).

I’m planning to extricate myself.

Project Reclaim

In order to make it sound a bit fancier, I’m giving my project a name: Project Reclaim. ‘Reclaim’ because it’s a manifestation of my desire to fight the inertia that leads us to give up control over our computing experiences, my desire to reclaim control and ownership. ‘Project’ because this will be hard, and ongoing. And why give it a name at all? I’m hoping that, by being public about it – putting my experiences in a series of blog posts and tweets under a common tag – that I’ll be able to hold myself accountable, and hopefully guide others who are hoping to reclaim their lives a bit as well.

In short, Project Reclaim is the process of weaning oneself off of digital platforms that are closed source and/or under the control of others.


How will Project Reclaim actually work?

  1. Assess the situation I’ll first need a way of figuring out which systems and platforms are worth moving away from, what their replacements should be, and in what order I should effect the transition. I’ve got a few rules of thumb.
    • Open source is better than closed source. I write open-source software for a living. I believe that, on balance, it makes better software. And I believe that using software where one has access to the source code is a necessary component of maximizing one’s digital autonomy. Thus: if the third-party system I’m currently using is also a benefactor of open-source communities (like, say,, it makes it less urgent to move away. And, when selecting replacements, select open source if at all possible.
    • Paying is better than getting something for free This might seem like a contrast to the previous rule, but I don’t think it is. When you use a free service, somebody’s paying the bills. Usually that means targeted advertising – think Facebook and Gmail. Paying service fees, on the other hand, and agreeing to the contract that comes with it, generally has the effect of making the relationship more transparent. Of course, this is far from absolute, but it seems reasonable in a broad sense. Plus, I like to support developers and services that are truly valuable.
    • Go for the low-hanging fruit In cases like email, there are well-established, straightforward (though not necessarily easy…ugh) ways of fending for yourself. No need to invent the wheel. On the other hand, some of the areas where alternatives are less obvious – social networking-type data springs to mind – also happen to be areas where I have some expertise and leverage. So, in those cases, it might be worth innovating.
    • Get the important stuff first My email history is more important to me than my Twitter history; the convenience of Github is more valuable to me than the convenience of Dropbox. Plan the Reclaim accordingly.
    • Get the vulnerable stuff first Recent statements by Twitter have made me think that the way I interact with the services is more subject to change in the upcoming months than, say, the way I interact with Gmail. That’s frightening. The more profit-hungry the company is – and, thus, the more disinclined to have the customer’s freedoms in mind – the more urgent it is to pull yourself out.

    Clearly, some of these considerations are at odds with each other. But they give a rough framework for deciding whether, when, and how to carry out the mission of Project Reclaim.

  2. Make the switch Here’s where the action happens: I do what I need to do to move myself to the replacement.
  3. Write about it This weekend I spent an afternoon on the problem of Twitter, and I ran into a ton of technical problems that remain unresolved. I imagine that there will be similar hurdles for each part of the project. I’m hoping that, by writing about the problems (and, where they exist, the solutions) I can help other people to take some of the same steps themselves, or even to spur someone really smart to come up with better solutions than the ones that currently exist.

What I expect from myself

My goal, ultimately, is to move away from third-party, closed-source services and platforms altogether. It might take some time. So I’ll make some interim goals: by the end of 2011, I’m hoping to have my email moved, my microblogging federated, my own backup system on my own server space, and my computer running an open-source OS.

Even if I manage to meet this goal, there’s a very real sense in which Project Reclaim will necessarily be an exercise in futility. I’ll always have to buy server space, and who’s to say that Amazon or Slicehost won’t go berserk tomorrow? I’ll always have to connect to the internet, which leaves me perpetually at the mercy of the ISPs, who are IMO more evil than all of the other service providers put together. It’s a depressing state of affairs: the kind of autonomy I want might be impossible given the way that the economy works. I take some solace in the fact that philosophers have spilled much ink over the problem of free will without coming up with a clear formulation of exactly what kind of autonomy would be worth arguing for. At least I’m not alone in my delusion.

That said, it’s a fight that I feel I have a responsibility to fight. If I’m going to continue to argue for the use and development of open source software, I have to start putting my money where my mouth is. And so, to me, Project Reclaim is less about my being a paragon of virtue, and more about my wanting to sleep a bit better at night.

Do I think that everyone should do this? People should prefer open solutions to closed ones, all things being equal. But generally, all things are not equal. Most people don’t have the time to write their own software, to run their own servers. For those people, decisions about their digital life are (rightly, I think) made more on the basis of aesthetics and convenience than lofty concepts like Autonomy and Ownership. But there are a few considerations that are perhaps relevant for the kinds of people who read my blog:

  • Open source developers who tout the importance of data ownership and other such freedoms have a special responsibility to model best behavior in these areas.
  • Academics, more than anyone, should be sensitive to the dangers of leaving the crucial pieces of one’s online self in the hands of corporate entities. That’s true for personal artifacts like email, but perhaps doubly so for scholarly work that ought to be part of a public trust.
  • Educators, like open source developers, should model best practices, encouraging students to take control over their digital identities.

So, while I wouldn’t belabor the point for the average Joe, I do think that people who consider themselves members of one of these groups – as most people reading my blog probably do – that they should think carefully about their relationship with the tools and services that enable their digital existence.

To freedom!

Anthologize 0.4-alpha is released

The Anthologize team has been hard at work over the last week, fixing bugs behind some of the most commonly reported problems, and adding features to make Anthologizing easier and more fun. We’ve just tagged version 0.4-alpha in the WordPress repository. Visit your WordPress Dashboard’s Plugins page to upgrade.

Read more about the changes in 0.4-alpha.

Questions or thoughts about Anthologize? Visit the Anthologize home page or the Anthologize users group.

Introducing Anthologize, a new WordPress plugin

The moment has arrived!



The product of One Week | One Tool, a one week digital humanities tool barn raising hosted by CHNM and sponsored by the NEH Office of Digital Humanities, is Anthologize. Anthologize is a WordPress plugin that lets you collect and curate content, organize and edit it into a form that works for you, and publish it in one of a number of ebook formats.

As I said in my last post, I was the lead developer for Anthologize. This stemmed from the fact that, for reasons of market penetration and ease of use, we’d chosen WordPress as a platform, and I was “the WordPress guy”. As such, I was the natural person to oversee the various parts of the development process, and to make sure that they fit together in a neat WordPress plugin package. It was an incredible and humbling experience to work with a group of developers who were, to a person, more talented and experienced than I am.

Anthologize PDF output

Anthologize PDF output

Today, the plugin is shipping with four different formats for exporting: PDF, ePub, RTF, and a modified version of TEI that leaves most content in HTML form. None of these export processes are perfect. Some require that certain libraries be installed on your server; some do not offer the kind of layout flexibility that we like; some are not great at text encoding; etc. This release is truly an alpha, a proof-of-concept. The goal is to show not only what a group of devoted individuals can conceive and develop in six short days, but also to provide the framework for further development in the world of independent authorship, publishing, and distribution.

As such, the plugin is designed, and will continue to be developed, with an eye toward maximum flexibility and modularity. Content can be created in WordPress or pulled in by RSS feeds, providing for greater choice of authoring platform. Export formats are generated by translators that work not with native WordPress data, but with an intermediary layer structured with TEI metadata markup. That means that you don’t have to know anything about WordPress to build a new export translator for yourself – you only have to know some PHP and XSLT. And we’re working on expanding Anthologize’s action and filter hooks to allow for true pluggability in the manner of WordPress itself.

I’m hoping that Anthologize will be a useful tool that draws development interest from folks who might not otherwise be interested in WordPress or web development, especially those who are working in the academic, cultural heritage, and digital humanities worlds. Get involved by checking out our Github repository at, our development list at, or stop in and chat with the dev team at #oneweek or #anthologize-dev on freenode.

Unexpected leadership: preliminary thoughts on One Week | One Tool

One Week | One Tool just finished, and it proved to be among the most challenging and most rewarding weeks of my professional life. I have a feeling that I’ll need a few go-rounds to really decompress – if for no other reason than that the tool we produced isn’t being announced until Tuesday, so I can’t talk details – but I thought it’d be worthwhile to jot down some thoughts while they’re still fresh.

There’s much to blog about regarding my experience at One Week, much of which I’ll be able to divulge more fully after the veil of secrecy has been officially lifted. (Yikes! So secretive.) One of the things I can talk about now is the workflow of the team over the course of the week, something Jana has already discussed nicely in her blog.

Whiteboard spoilers!

Whiteboard spoilers!

We arrived at CHNM with no idea what we were going to build over the course of the week. Monday was spent getting to know each other, hearing from the CHNMers about they develop and sustain open source software, and brainstorming ideas for our own project. By the end of the day Tuesday, the project had been decided and teams had been divided up. I didn’t sleep very well that night, both from excitement and from nerves: the tool we’d decided to build would rely on a set of technologies that would make me the de facto lead programmer.

And therein lies the first remarkable thing about the event. By many objective accounts – breadth and depth of knowledge and experience – I was, at best, the fifth or sixth most talented developer in the group. (Not trying to be overly humble here: one look at the One Week “People” page and you can see that the deck was stacked with incredible talent, folks with whom I’m happy to be in even the same ballpark.) Differently-focused projects require different kinds of talent, and it so happened that this very focused project required just the sort of skills that I possess. So the first lesson I take away from One Week is that leadership doesn’t necessarily follow, or require, the greatest technical skill or experience. It might be that the notion of “best leader” reduces to “best leader right now”, which is to say that “best” is highly relative to particular needs and circumstances. It’s a realization that highlights how leadership roles are not (or maybe should not) be merit badges gifted to those who have “earned” them, but instead are necessary aspects of a structure – like the One Week crew – aiming to acheive an independent goal.

My second One Week lesson is closely related to the first: leadership doesn’t work without humility and trust. The way we built our tool was like digging the Chunnel: developers at home with one part of the tool’s functionality (like the British on British soil!) tunnelled toward developers who were digging from the other direction. I was in charge of making sure that the several tunnels met in the middle to make for a navigable whole. But, as you’d expect, there’s no way that one person (even one as dashing and wonderful as I am) could really know what was happening in all parts of the project at the same time. There were simply too many technical details to keep track of. Making sure that the tunnel got built, and our code got merged, meant putting a good deal of trust in the diggers, and accepting – even embracing – those moments when their work was beyond my ability to understand technically.

All this is to say nothing of the equally crucial folks who were not writing code, but we doing what we called “user experience” and “outreach”. In those cases even more trust was required: the dev team trusts the outreach team not to write checks that the code can’t cash; the UX team trusts the dev team to remain true to the needs of the end user; and so forth. Here too, in a less technical but no less accurate way, we were digging a tunnel from opposite directions. The outreach and UX teams were developing an increasingly detailed vision of what the tool needed to do, and the dev team was cranking out code that would fulfill that vision. There was a magical moment when, on Thursday afternoon, Jason and Scott from the UX team – coders by trade who had found themselves in a non-coding position in our particular development project – merged in a totally organic way with the dev team to flesh out some of the UX that they’d been conceptualizing for the previous two days. That too demonstrated a kind of trust between One Weekers, where team boundaries were mutable when circumstances required it, and no one blinked an eye when two more people started committing code to the repo.

Much more to come, I’m sure.