The open stage is set (cf. Meier-Vieracker 2021, Frick 2021), the Twitter timeline is waiting for material with which it can be automatically filled (cf. Hermes 2021), and a whole broad public is waiting to be involved in our research, while we are still just trying to find the path through the conceptual jungle of the Public Humanities (cf. Heinisch 2021). The previous posts in this blog series already show that Public Humanities is pushing into Digital Humanities and emerging as a field of activity that demands attention. After years of experience in social media communication – on my own channels such as blog, Twitter, Instagram, and most recently TikTok, as one of four Digital Humanities podcast hosts (Geiger et all. 2020), for the app development project efoto-Hamburg, and for the digital dissemination of the forTEXT (Gius et all. 2016) project via Twitter, YouTube, and Pinterest – I can say that it is a constant and never diminishing demand for attention. In this blog post, I want to explore the question of what challenges the public humanities pose for digital humanities researchers and how they can be overcome.
Public Humanities in the Digital Humanities – what is it anyway?
What Public Humanities are and how the term can be distinguished from similar expressions has already been considered in detail by Barbara Heinisch in her blog article “A Path through the Conceptual Jungle of Public Humanities”. She suggests that public humanities are a type of science communication that can aim to inform a broad public about research in the humanities. However, public humanities projects can also engage in dialogues and reflect on issues with people outside of academia. Public humanities can be used to show how relevant the humanities are to public life, so that their reputation is enhanced. Finally, Heinisch also mentions that public humanities can be a service, a service that the humanities offer to the public in order to let them participate in their content. (cf. Heinisch 2021)
The reason why I am summarizing Heinisch’s extremely readable article in such detail is that I see numerous points of contact here for the Digital Humanities. Basically, however, a second level of communication seems to be opening up in this field, and that is the dialogue with traditionally researching representatives of the humanities disciplines. This double level of communication – in the battle rhetoric that is quite common in the Digital Humanities, one could speak of “fronts” – creates a not inconsiderable need for communication. On the one hand, the Digital Humanities are eminently suited to raising the public profile of the humanities. They are innovative and use methods that are applied in many areas of digital public life. Research results are often visualized and research projects even sometimes offer entire digital portals that contribute to the exploration of humanities content. Digital humanities can offer the public entry points into the humanities disciplines and can appeal directly to technology-savvy young people in particular.
However, the digital humanities are not only good per se for cultivating the image of the humanities. The sometimes harsh criticism from humanities scholars working in a more traditional way (as an example, we refer to the relatively recent article “The Digital Humanities Debacle” by Nan Da (2019)) shows how much digital humanists are repeatedly challenged to show their own field of research in the best possible light. The crux of the matter is that this can only succeed if the methods, some of which deviate greatly from traditional humanities expertise and more than overlap with the field of computer science, are also presented as comprehensibly as possible. In addition, the Digital Humanities are becoming increasingly well-known and are arousing interest, especially among younger scientists. Whether from the general public, critically-minded colleagues in one’s own department, or interested young researchers and, of course, in one’s own teaching – researchers in the Digital Humanities are constantly being asked for explanations of digital methods or even the teaching of skills for the same. As the work in the forTEXT project shows, which was designed precisely for such requests, this type of demand is increasing significantly.
Forms of science communication in the digital humanities
Much has already been written about forms of scholarly communication in this blog series (cf. Frick 2021, Heinisch 2021), so here we will only briefly summarize which types of communication are relevant for the digital humanities. Of these, public humanities is only one form of scholarly communication. In addition, there is the discussion with more traditional researchers in one’s own field (science to science or rather digital humanities to non-digital humanities communication), the communication of methods to other researchers, the embedding of crowdsourcing or citizen science approaches in one’s own research, and finally also the exchange with colleagues in one’s own research field, which, in addition to formats common in the humanities, also very often takes place on Twitter or (currently still) somewhat more unusually, e.g., in the form of Shared Tasks. e.g. in the form of shared tasks (cf. Gius et all 2019, Reiter et all. 2017). Overall, DHs are equipped with at least five communicative interfaces:
- Humanities to Public (science PR)
- Humanities to Media (science journalism).
- Public to Humanities (Citizen Science)
- (Digital) Humanities to (Digital) Humanities (communication within the own community)
- Digital Humanities to non-Digital Humanities
More is more!
How can this not inconsiderable need for communication be met? The work of the forTEXT project has shown that regular, high-frequency, and heterogeneously positioned scholarly communication does indeed lead to increasing the reach for topics in the digital humanities (cf. Schumacher and Horstmann 2019). However, it has equally been shown that the need for further communication increases the more information is provided about the research field: The more interest in DH is aroused, the higher the demand for more information, which then often culminates in the desire for methodological competence mediation.
With more method competence mediation, not only the workload of communicators increases, but also the number of users of our tools and services. The sustainable operation of high-performance technical services becomes even more important. In addition, the form of science communication quantified above as 5. actually only promises success if it is conducted by researchers who themselves also work on intradisciplinary relevant case studies and investigations. If there is too much communication, there is not enough time for own research, if there is too much research, the demand for communication cannot be met. How can a way out of this tension look like?
80:20 or look for your niche
Actually, the solution to this dilemma is quite simple. According to the Pareto principle (see e.g. Wellmann and Zelms 1995), you can generate 80% of the attention you want with only 20% of the effort. Of course, this means that you have to give up 20% of your original target group. The best way to select these is to break off communication with those whom you either have difficulty reaching or with whom your efforts have no effect at all or only extremely slowly. Who exactly that is depends on your particular project. It is also recommended that you use channels that you like to play on and that you use them to communicate with people you like to communicate with. Simon Meier-Vieracker is absolutely right when he says in the title of his article that has already appeared in this series that “Science in social media should also be fun” (Meier-Vieracker 2021). This is the only way to make the use of public humanities methods worthwhile for you, too. So that you don’t have to start from scratch with your science communication planning across different channels, I’ll share some of my insights with you here.
Three years of digital dissemination work at forTEXT have resulted in the following:
especially suitable for 4th (Digital) Humanities to (Digital) Humanities communication
- most important channel for DH researchers,
- communication with their own community (digital Humanities to digital Humanities Communication) and occasionally with DH-interested, more traditional humanities researchers (Digital Humanities to non-Digital Humanities Communication),
- easy to integrate into the daily research routine
especially suitable for 1. humanities to public and 5. digital humanities to non-digital humanities communication
- here, asynchronous, sustainable methodological competence transfer via hands-on tutorials is very possible,
- Target group are users of tools and intrinsically motivated DH-interested people,
- Tutorial videos can be integrated well into teaching and can also complement workshop offerings,
- However, the production is time-consuming and not easy to integrate into the daily research routine,
- compared to synchronous workshop formats, a significantly higher dissemination of content is possible
own website or blog
especially suitable for almost all forms of science communication, possibly less suitable for 3. public to humanities communication
- probably the most sustainable and customizable virtual space for your public humanities and/or science communication,
- here you can place exactly the content that is close to your heart and that your primary target group needs,
- DH-interested people can find what they are looking for on their own and you can cleverly redirect inquiries here,
- however, creating high-quality content is time-consuming and cannot be easily integrated into your daily research routine.
especially suitable for almost all forms of science communication, possibly less suitable for 3. public to humanities communication
- the audio-only format is currently very much on the rise
- communicating in one’s own voice makes for very pleasant, personal communication, which means that listeners quickly get the feeling that they know the podcast host well and are happy to make personal contact.
- Particularly well suited for niches such as one’s own research community
- Depending on the format (single podcast, interview podcast, one-take recording, or edited audio), recording and editing a podcast is less time-consuming than creating videos, but takes more time than scheduling tweets, for example, which is why a podcast cannot be immediately integrated into everyday research.
especially suitable for 1. humanities to public communication
- the video platform is becoming increasingly popular among humanities scholars,
- You can reach young users of school or student age, who you can bring into contact with the topic of DH in an unusual, light-footed and funny way, a sowing of seeds, so to speak, which may or may not take root,
- as with YouTube, the same applies here: Video production is more involved than you might suspect, but the app makes it easy, and the video limit of 15 seconds, one minute, or three minutes keeps the effort in check.
- In addition to asynchronously usable formats, live streaming is also possible here (more on this in Frick 2021),
- the effort required for video production or preparation and execution of live formats can be well bundled, but is still not always easy to integrate into everyday research.
especially suitable for 1. humanities to public and 2. humanities to media communication
- the second largest search engine focuses on curated content and is growing in popularity, but it is still rarely used for academic content,
- the target group is therefore (still) small and not clearly defined,
- but the preparation of content for Pinterest is relatively easy to integrate into everyday research, as it is comparatively inexpensive,
- another advantage is that own articles can be linked here as well
Synchronous workshop offers
especially suitable for 3. public to humanities, 4. (digital) humanities to (digital humanities) and 5. digital humanities to non-digital humanities communication
- generating enthusiasm that might even make other researchers want to get really deep into DH is probably still best done in a face-to-face format like a workshop,
- in contrast to social media communication, for example, there are capacity limits here, workshop organization and implementation is time-consuming, and in the end you reach a maximum of 30 people, most of whom are very interested in the workshop topic; compared to the number of hits on websites or social media posts, this is vanishingly small, but long-term success is much more likely here,
- Workshops can only be integrated into the normal research routine in limited numbers.
especially suitable for 1. humanities to public and increasingly also for 4. (digital) humanities to (digital) humanities communication
- big hype, big effort with different formats (pictures, videos, stories, life circuits)
- growing but still not really large number of Digital Humanities people and posts (I’ve been monitoring the platform for about three years and in that time the number of #DigitalHumanities tagged content has increased from about 6,500 to about 18,000),
- the platform demands constant attention rarely offers contact with people with whom you do not also communicate via other platforms,
- my tip is therefore: forget Instagram (cf. Schumacher 2019).
limited suitability for 1. humanities to public and 4. (digital) humanities to (digital) humanities communication
- long said to be dead, now probably finally left behind by other platforms,
- so if you don’t need special features that you can only find here (e.g. group building) I recommend here even more strongly than on Instagram: Leave it behind!
What’s in it for us?
In summary, it can be said that public humanities are particularly important for the digital humanities, since communication at different levels is very important here. Above all, the communication channels of the (social) web under scrutiny here guarantee ranges that, in contrast to a few dozen reached with more traditional mediation formats such as workshops, encompass at least hundreds, in some cases thousands, and in rarer cases even tens of thousands of people. In the end, what helps to combat too many opportunities and needs is a precise plan that lays out which channels and forms of communication will actually bring about the desired effect. This plan is not set in stone, but can be dynamically adapted at any time. Everything can be tried out! What proves successful is continued, what brings in too little is dropped. In this way, the question “What’s in it for us?” can be answered with: Targeted science communication that is easy, fun, and fruitful because it is conducted with those who also want to communicate. Because there are many of them!
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