My case for moving beyond a printed senior thesis

Traditionally, and to my knowl­edge exclu­sively, Politics majors at Whitman College writ­ing their senior the­sis have been required to present the fin­ished prod­uct as a nicely printed, dou­ble spaced, hard copy. This copy is turned in to your the­sis read­ers but most likely never moves beyond those read­ers and the student’s close fam­ily and friends. If you com­plete Honors the the­sis is archived in the Penrose Library but still does not move beyond the Whitman com­mu­nity. I’m propos­ing some­thing dif­fer­ent for my senior the­sis on web com­mu­ni­ca­tion tech­nolo­gies and polit­i­cal participation.

I pro­pose to take advan­tage of the tech­nolo­gies that are the focus of my the­sis. I aim to craft a spe­cial sec­tion of this site for the project and to present the con­tent online and more impor­tantly, online only.

Background on the project

At this point my research ques­tion is: To what extent is the greater acces­si­bil­ity of web tech­nolo­gies cre­at­ing a rad­i­cally dif­fer­ent def­i­n­i­tion of polit­i­cal par­tic­i­pa­tion and par­tic­i­pants in United States politics?

In order to answer this ques­tion I’m propos­ing to inves­ti­gate the effects of var­i­ous tech­nolo­gies that have grown around a desire to bet­ter com­mu­ni­cate infor­ma­tion. The project has to be 9,000 to 11,000 words in length. I am plan­ning on writ­ing an intro­duc­tion and con­clu­sion that will pro­vide unity to 3 par­tic­u­lar parts, each of 3,000 words, that will focus on spe­cific aspects of com­mu­ni­ca­tion on the web.

These 3 aspects will be:

  • Twitter and the “real­time” web - This piece will look at the polit­i­cal ram­i­fi­ca­tions of com­mu­ni­ca­tion through Twitter. In addi­tion, it will focus upon the rapid­ity with which this com­mu­ni­ca­tion can take place. As part of this I will dis­cuss the polit­i­cal ram­i­fi­ca­tions of hav­ing this com­mu­ni­ca­tion take place under the guise of a com­pany ver­sus a dis­trib­uted sys­tem like the loosely cou­pled 140 char­ac­ter net­work, oth­er­wise known as RSS Cloud, that Dave Winer is building.
  • WordPress and the rise of self-publishing - The abil­ity to self-publish con­tent on the web is at the heart of par­tic­i­pa­tion in my mind. Among other tools, WordPress has made this abil­ity open to mil­lions of peo­ple in the United States and world­wide. This cre­ates a com­mon, open-source plat­form, through which peo­ple of vary­ing sta­tuses can come together to com­mu­ni­cate about issues large and small. The soft­ware that is pow­er­ing every­thing from mass media pol­i­tics sites to hyper-local blogs that focus upon issues rel­e­vant to a com­mu­nity is freely avail­able to any individual.
  • Layered and acces­si­ble data - This por­tion is less devel­oped at this point, but what I want to inves­ti­gate are the ram­i­fi­ca­tions of being able to layer data sets on the web. From both a geo­graphic per­spec­tive and a media per­spec­tive I think that this has inter­est­ing pos­si­bil­i­ties for polit­i­cal par­tic­i­pa­tion. For exam­ple, only on the web can you present mul­ti­ple forms of media along­side one another in such a way that allows for the infor­ma­tion in each to over­lap in a read­ily appar­ent way. One very basic exam­ple of this is tak­ing infor­ma­tion from Twitter about swine flu and over­lay­ing it with a Google Map of the loca­tion of the tweets.

Why post only online?

The ques­tion I get more than any other when explain­ing this project is “why not just turn in a printed copy as well?” It is pos­si­ble but in my view a project pro­duced specif­i­cally for the web has the poten­tial to be far more pow­er­ful, rel­e­vant, and con­tex­tual than any­thing that can be done with the same project in print.

One way to visualize information on the web is as a series of subway stations. Credit: Information Architects

One way to visu­al­ize infor­ma­tion on the web is as a series of sub­way sta­tions. Credit: Information Architects

First, the abil­ity to link to sources is a tremen­dous advan­tage to writ­ing online. The real­ity is that most peo­ple (yes, even stu­dents at col­leges like Whitman) do not read foot­notes; thus, most read­ers are not see­ing the cita­tions and sources that make up an inte­gral part of any lengthy piece. Writing for the web allows these sources to be placed directly in the text by link­ing to them. Since many of my sources are avail­able online this means that I will be able to direct read­ers to the original.

Merlin Mann writes that there are users of the web:

who have that itch to share lovely bits of the world that come over their tran­som through­out the day.

I expe­ri­ence that same itch and because of that I want to make it as fric­tion­less a process as pos­si­ble for read­ers to find the full, orig­i­nal source that I cite. Context is key in any argu­ment, par­tic­u­larly one that will be over 9,000 words. What bet­ter way to pro­vide that con­text than to rely upon some­thing as sim­ple as clicking?

The printing press, is it still the best we can do?

The print­ing press, is it still the best we can do?

Second, the print medium inher­ently does not han­dle non-print sources very well. Videos, pod­casts, and other non-print forms of sources must be man­u­ally typed in a browser. One can ven­ture a guess that aca­d­e­mic papers which ref­er­ence a video most likely do not suc­ceed in hav­ing the reader actu­ally view that video in its entirety. The real­ity is that there is too much fric­tion involved in hav­ing to go to a com­puter, type in an address care­fully, and then watch the video. Posting con­tent online allows for these other forms of media to be placed inline with the text which will be impor­tant for my project as I plan on ref­er­enc­ing a sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of video and audio sources.

The greater con­text and like­li­hood of view­ing sources means that the project will more read­ily accom­plish the goal of sources: act­ing as a fil­ter of wider infor­ma­tion sets. Scott Karp writes of the read­ing expe­ri­ence online:

When I read online, I con­stantly fol­low links from one item to the next, often for­get­ting where I started. Sometimes I back­track to one con­tent “node” and jump off in dif­fer­ent direc­tions. There are nodes that I come back to repeat­edly, like TechMeme and Google, only to start down new branches of the network.

This type of jump­ing from node to node is exactly the type of curios­ity and engage­ment that I would hope to stim­u­late. It is cer­tainly valu­able for peo­ple to sit down and read a 1000+ word piece from begin­ning to end. However, it is also a tremen­dous learn­ing expe­ri­ence if that orig­i­nal piece moti­vates a series of links that lead the reader through an explo­ration of the topic that they would not have oth­er­wise expe­ri­enced. That explo­ration through a series of links is an expe­ri­ence that only the web can provide.

Let the com­mu­nity in

By post­ing this project online I hope to open it up to involve­ment from those out­side of the tra­di­tional Whitman com­mu­nity. A piece as long as this the­sis will truly gain trac­tion in the hands of the read­ers. By expand­ing the pool of poten­tial read­ers and par­tic­i­pants I hope to bring in voices and cri­tiques that I would not oth­er­wise hear.

This project will allow oth­ers to com­ment on the pieces out­lined above. It will pro­vide a source that oth­ers can link to should they feel compelled.

Furthermore, by open­ing up the end result of this project I believe that I will cre­ate a bet­ter prod­uct. Marco Arment writes that because of the abil­ity for any­one to see what you post online:

I start feel­ing oblig­ated to raise the aver­age qual­ity of what I post

Knowing that what I cre­ate will be seen by a far wider audi­ence than the tra­di­tional hard copy the­sis will moti­vate me to put even more thought and effort into the con­struc­tion of my thoughts. It is a phe­nom­e­non that I have a dif­fi­cult time explain­ing. The real­ity, though, is that when I know my work will be seen by peo­ple (at least the 100+ who are sub­scribed to this site via RSS) out­side of my imme­di­ate social cir­cle I feel com­pelled to pro­duce some­thing of qual­ity. They would be tak­ing time out of their day to read what I have to say and because of that it needs to be made worth their while. This is not to say that print the­ses are not thought­fully crafted but in my expe­ri­ence the larger the audi­ence the greater the amount of time and thought a project requires.

Why now?

Finally, I would be hyp­o­crit­i­cal were I to be writ­ing about the polit­i­cal poten­tial of web com­mu­ni­ca­tion only to have the fin­ished prod­uct take the form of print, a style of com­mu­ni­ca­tion that has existed for the last 500 years.

I strongly believe that the for­mat of my project should reflect the claims I will be mak­ing. By cre­at­ing a print prod­uct as the end result I would not be jus­ti­fy­ing my claims; instead, I would be inval­i­dat­ing those claims by prov­ing that print com­mu­ni­ca­tion is still the dom­i­nant force and that the web is merely an afterthought.

The real­ity is that the com­mu­ni­ca­tion on the web hap­pens faster, reaches more read­ers, and is inar­guably the future of writ­ing. Most impor­tantly, the mat­u­ra­tion of online pub­lish­ing tools rep­re­sents the biggest par­a­digm shift in pub­lish­ing since the cre­ation of the print­ing press in the 15th-century.

This is a shift in tech­nolo­gies that many media out­lets have already begun to real­ize, work­ing toward an expan­sion of polit­i­cal cov­er­age and orga­ni­za­tion. In many ways pub­lish­ing on the web rep­re­sents the ful­fill­ment of the polit­i­cal process. It is the abil­ity to speak to a poten­tial audi­ence of mil­lions and to leave open the pos­si­bil­ity of those read­ers com­ment­ing and in some sense cre­at­ing the fin­ished product.

Every idea and the­sis is sim­ply one view­point. A sin­gu­lar view­point neces­si­tates the engage­ment of oth­ers in dis­course around that topic. Without a web com­po­nent this inter­ac­tion with the final prod­uct would be con­fined to a min­i­mal audi­ence within the exist­ing Whitman College com­mu­nity. Posting the project online engages more opin­ions and view­points with the work and cre­ates a com­mu­nity that incor­po­rates greater diversity.

Ultimately, Andrew Sullivan says it best when he writes of pub­lish­ing online:

It was obvi­ous from the start that it was rev­o­lu­tion­ary. Every writer since the print­ing press has longed for a means to pub­lish him­self and reach—instantly—any reader on Earth.

The tech­nol­ogy exists to bring any reader on Earth into our polit­i­cal dis­cus­sions, the ques­tion is: will we use it?

15 thoughts on “My case for moving beyond a printed senior thesis

  1. One rea­son we may want to view hard copies is that errors are eas­ier to detect in print than when pre­sented on a screen, at least for many of us.

    I know for a fact in my own writ­ing I can spend hours going over the text on-screen and believe I have caught every sin­gle small typo or incor­rect word, and then, low and behold, once I print the darn thing out, and take a red pen to it, guess what? Yeah…I do real­ize I do have per­fec­tion­is­tic ten­den­cies, but, hey, why not go for perfect?

    However, the argue­ment for hav­ing an online option does have some merit if that is some­thing to do with intel­lec­tual prop­erty rights and the abil­ity to dis­trib­ute information…but so is the plaugerism problem…if every­one pub­lishes every­thing online it is much eas­ier for it to become taken and passed off as original.

    Originality, in many respects, is the pri­mary mea­sure of value, I think…although I must admit, this is a quick and dirty assess­ment here, and I am, as I typ­i­cally do, mak­ing this crap up as I go along…


    • Jess, to counter your claim con­cern­ing pla­gia­rism: I think that by hav­ing things posted online aca­d­e­mic integrity would actu­ally be eas­ier to main­tain. The rea­son I say this is that were works to be posted online it would be even eas­ier for a pro­fes­sor to take parts of the text and search for other occur­ances of them online.

      Also, there would be noth­ing to stop a pro­fes­sor from print­ing the pages out and edit­ing them that way. Online only does not mean that no one can cre­ate a print copy, it just means that the work is not depen­dent upon print.

      Thanks for the comment!

  2. Here here! Please let us know how it goes. The irony of acad­e­mia being a hot spot of inno­va­tion and a strong­hold for archaic prac­tices still sur­prises me.

  3. When schol­ars from the year 2059 look back on the cur­rent state of aca­d­e­mic research and the dis­sem­i­na­tion of knowl­edge, they surely will mar­vel at the fact that so much of it remained ori­ented toward printed words on paper.

    If you can con­vince your pro­fes­sors and peers to come around, that will be a really help­ful step to pro­mot­ing online pub­lish­ing in academia.

    • I couldn’t agree with you more Ian. The notion that acad­e­mia is still cre­at­ing hot beds of inno­va­tion while remain­ing within a cen­turies old form of knowl­edge dis­tri­b­u­tion has con­founded me since Freshman year.

  4. An online-only ver­sion would be fan­tas­tic. A real-time stream of infor­ma­tion is dif­fi­cult or impos­si­ble to accu­rately rep­re­sent, other than as a post-mortem, in phys­i­cal paper form. Glad to see impor­tant peo­ple push­ing towards an online-only the­sis distribution.

    Given that you’re push­ing an online-only approach, you should make your Twitter account more vis­i­ble on your site. Having your RSS feeds at the bot­tom of each post is fine, but hav­ing your Twitter account linked next to it would be better.

    • Thanks for the com­ment Sol. I totally agree that Twitter should be more vis­i­ble. I only just fin­ished up this iter­a­tion of the design last night. In the next few days I’ll be shift­ing some ele­ments around and will prob­a­bly replace the pho­tos in the footer with Twitter.

  5. Badass. I look for­ward to read­ing the inter­me­di­ate and final ver­sions of your the­sis. One tech idea: it would be really cool to enable graf by graf com­ment­ing, such that it’s eas­ier to react to spe­cific points you make in your final piece. In addi­tion, it would be really sweet if you had the abil­ity to curate those com­ments and reac­tions to your final piece, whether they’re com­ments at the end of the the­sis, com­ments on indi­vid­ual grafs, or posts peo­ple write on their own blogs in reac­tion to your work. Great start!

  6. This is awe­some. I love that you aren’t sim­ply con­form­ing to the old mind­set but aren’t merely grum­bling about it either. Recognizing oppor­tu­ni­ties is one thing… the abil­ity to actu­ally fig­ure out what to do and then make a case for it will be more impor­tant than any other skill in the near future, imo.

    Btw I hadn’t heard of Feedback by Paragraph before… looks interesting.

    • Thanks Brian. I agree that it’s def­i­nitely time to start mov­ing from dis­cus­sions of oppor­tu­ni­ties and change to the action part. I think we’ve reached a point where most of the impor­tant dis­cus­sions about what to use the web for have been had; it’s now time to fig­ure out what works by doing.

      I haven’t used Feedback by Paragraph since it was ini­tially released so I’m hop­ing the bugs that were present at that point have been ironed out.

  7. Pingback: Testing the power of the medium – my final case for a web-only thesis « Andrew Spittle

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