The chorus not only results in a more complete understanding, but properly conceived and executed encourages more participation as well.

Mike Caulfield, Choral Explanations, May 2016

This flashmob can catch you a little off guard. The song is sung with such heart.

Amazing Flashmob (Library Singing)

Screenshot 2016-08-02 12.20.38
Image by Pat Demassy, details below

Back in May I read Mike Caulfield’s long post about the social architecture of participatory thinking. I can’t do justice to it in a snapshot, so just make a pot of tea and go read it. It’s really great. I felt myself get smarter with each paragraph, including the ones I had to go over several times. Why does Quora work? How do we explain things to ourselves and to each other? What happens if we have multiple explanations for a thing? How do use these handholds in understanding to lift ourselves up to the level we can achieve in grasping things? And of course, Wikity.

For me, the first thing is to understand is what brings us to the foot of the climb. There’s a world of difference between how you pursue something under obligation to a deadline, whether as a student or a scholar; and getting to grips with something because you really want to know. You want to know—or remind yourself—what a thing means, or how to do it, or how it turned out, or how to say it in French. Curiosity is an itch: for two days I’ve had a song in my head, and couldn’t place it beyond two words, a key, and a trace memory that it was sung by a chorus of voices. Because I was searching for it, I thought about it more intensively than I will now I’ve found it, although finding it taught me at least three new things about its history. (Bob Dylan, who knew? Most people, probably, but I didn’t.)

Here, listen to this.**

What happens next in the participatory web is that our solitary and wandering search trails can become visible, shareable and open. Of course, they also get fed into the algorithmic mincer in the hope that a drop of profit can be squeezed out of enthusiasms we might be part of. And of course, open is also always open to abuse. But whatever predatory or corporate interests have an eye on our pathways, the fact is that we make them first by ourselves, and then we make them socially. We answer one another’s questions, generating spin-off curiosities of our own. We follow another person’s line of thinking. We’ve always done this in conversation, in a way that leans on presence and familiarity, and we’ve always done it as scholars (at least, until we took a wrong, wrong turn into the citation farm). Now on the open web we do it asynchronously with strangers:  leaving a book on a bench, lemons on a fruit stand, a message under a bridge, a comment on a blog post, all for someone else to pick up.

Here, listen to this.

[soundcloud url=”″ params=”auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false&visual=true” width=”100%” height=”450″ iframe=”true” /]

This is the third step, where we organise our thoughts in collaboration with others. We write together and release an idea that has more than one voice behind it into the world. And very often this emerges from having the time and capacity to have a conversation among those other voices in the first place, so that you learn how they sound, and how you sound in their company. There’s much more backstage work here as everyone gets used to their part, to the thing they’re going to say. Collaborative writing is delicate, skilled, and really hard work. (As an aside: writing together is a practice that humanities research quantification calculates as representing less of an achievement than single authored work. It literally weighs less on the scale. Just ask musicians how ridiculous this is.)

So finally, the thing I wanted to share, that took me back to Mike’s post and this lovely passage:

It reminds me that the origin of “chorus” is thought by some to have been derived from the Ancient Greek for “enclosed dancing floor”, and although that’s just an accident of etymology, I can’t help but thinking of a chorus as individual agents we push into a bounded space; it’s really the bounding of that space — whether through harmony, melody, implied chord progressions, whatever, that allows us to see both the connectedness and the difference at the same time.

We write in bounded space, and in writing we make a bounded space that is bounded in the sense of bond, not border. We make a bonded space held together by thoughts that are working in collaboration with one another. We write ourselves into bonded spaces all the time, and we spin from one space to another. There’s chance, there’s intention, there’s call and response, and sometimes there’s full blown orchestration.

Here, watch this. Watch this bonded space get made. Watch the faces of the surprised, and the glances shared among the singers. What was this for, except to generate joy for others? What did it mean to be present, except to be astonished by the accident of timing? This chorus of voices, this profound gift of surprise and joy to strangers who happened to be there—it’s everything a library is meant to be.

Some things are dark, difficult and stuck just now—but just wait. We’re all here, and we know it.

(Thanks to you, Mike Caulfield. **And thanks to Frances Bell for letting me know that the first version of this song I linked to has been taken down. The web: so fragile, so quick to be respun.)

Image credit above: P4304311m (2011) is by Pat Demassy and shared on Flickr under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

6 Responses

  • I loved so much about this post…but what I want to respond to is this devaluation of collaborative scholarship in most disciplines (not all). It’s such a huge loss, isn’t it? Not only do you (potentially) create something infinitely better with others, but the process itself of working with others is intrinsically valuable. To discourage that in reward systems is baffling. Is it they worry about free-rider problems like ppl worry about it in undergraduate work? If so, that’s terribly sad and cynical. (I say this even as I know that here in Egypt that problem is REAL). Do you know the roots of why?

  • Kate Bowles

    Maha, this is such a key point for us all. I’m not sure if any research exists on the thinking behind it, and maybe someone can clear this up. But I’m guessing it’s because of the way research is being bent towards models of sporting excellence. So there’s a hierarchy there: individual pursuits over team pursuits. Singles tennis over doubles etc. etc.

    And then there’s hierarchy within teams, that translates to lead authors, lead grant writers etc. Very early in my career, a senior academic said to me, in a kind of weird confiding whisper, that “Bowles” was a good surname alphabetically, “You know, in case you write with people.”

    As I’ve spent my entire life having to spell B-O-W-L-E-S because no one can figure it out, I thought he was mad.

    But the thing is, he wasn’t wrong. We have an economy in higher education that assigns values to things, and we treat single authorship like the yellow jersey in the Tour de France, as if that person wasn’t lifted to the podium by a team.

    To me, the kind of collaborative call-and-response that we are now all learning to produce (including through an exchange like this) is a step in the direction of the more radical unauthoring that Mike proposes.

  • A lovely post and a wonderful tribute to those extraordinary happy accidents we celebrate each day on academic Twitter and blogs. I feel connected, inspired and educated, and I will read the original piece.

    Be careful what you wish for though. In the UK, single authored work is now being regarded as a possible signifier of ‘lack of collaboration and esteem’ as the science model of research publication continues along its hegemonic progress.

    • Kate Bowles

      Hi Liz, welcome. Yes, this flip on single authoring (which I think we will eventually see here) doesn’t value the true labour of collaborative composition which is mostly hidden. It seems to be a weird mutation of “doesn’t play nicely with others” and celebrity status. I think we’ll see some practices of collaboration co-opted by this discourse because that’s exactly what academia seems driven to do; and so championing this other thing that has the same name is a little like arguing for a model of professionalism, just not that one.

      Lovely to see you here.

  • If I had to list everything I loved in this post, I’d be commenting on every paragraph. But it was your “breakaway” from the bicycling metaphor to the climbing one, to the motivation at the foot of the cliff:

    There’s a world of difference between how you pursue something under obligation to a deadline, whether as a student or a scholar; and getting to grips with something because you really want to know.

    This is so overlooked when people champion a pure DIY approach, but we could even speculate what might even get you to the base in the first place.

    But there’s another part that speaks to me- maybe 20 years ago I did basic rock climbing with experience friends. There is no way I could do it solely from reading books or watching videos, taking on this challenge with others, with people I could trust, who would not do the climb for me, not hoist me up, but do just enough to get me to do my first awkward movements up, that to understand how to do this I needed to do it. That I needed to be in contact with rock.

    And later in life I am finding a third motivation in learning/climbing besides (a) to reach a specific point and (b) because its part of a required program to advance in life — (c) because interesting people are doing the same thing, and invite me along.

    I adored that library flash mob video, the gradient from curiosity to a sense of wondering to a relief from tasks at hand –a few people persisted heads down, but eventually could not ignore the happening; the lady behind the desk at one point still “doing her job” but by the end singing too.

    My first reaction at the end was some sadness at how quickly people went back to where they were. One young woman in black seemed to look around yearning for more. Back to work. Being productive. A day later, though, I get it- they shared a joyous, out of the ordinary moment- together. Only animated movie characters or those in musicals get to live their lives completely in those moments.

    To me, those brief moments together cannot help but have some effect on us, if we allow them. Our souls remember how light we felt if but for a few minutes. It gives us a touchstone to remember. And anything we can do to to keep those moments memorable or even cause others to have them? That’s where I want to be. Together.

  • Kate Bowles

    Alan, this is the most beautiful comment and I’m really honoured by its appearance here. What I love about the library crowd is the progress that they make from slight annoyance or puzzlement to really open-hearted delight and applause. I’ve been thinking about what it means to make yourself available to these experiences of delight should they come along — what it means that we try to keep our default expectation of strangers that their presence in our lives will be surprisingly good, instead of the other way around.

    I’m really drawn to your thought that we sometimes do things because people we like or trust or admire or whatever reach out and include us. We get invited along. So that made me think about inviting others along, not just in the formal sense of opportunity, but in this everyday sense of invitation to join a thought to another thought. This is something that’s taken me back to working alongside you in the first Federated Wiki experience, joining different pieces together. At the time it occurred to me often that this had to do with “Caminante, son tus huellas el camino, y nada más; caminante, no hay camino, se hace camino al andar. Al andar se hace camino, y al volver la vista atrás se ve la senda que nunca se ha de volver a pisar. Caminante, no hay camino, sino esters en la mar.” — we make the road by walking, and we make it differently in those moments where we fall in with each other on the road.

    (If I had to list one thing I loved in your comment, it’s the “breakaway”. I can’t tell you my delight when people succumb to the idea that everything in life can be explained with cycling metaphors.)


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