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?