“If Hippos be the Dude of Love…”: Serendip-o-matic at Digital Humanities 2014

On 10 July 2014, I had the great chance to present a paper at the Digital Humanities Conference in Lausanne, Switzerland, “Play as Process and Product: On Making Serendip-o-matic.” The paper was a collaboration between four of the 12 team members from One Week | One Tool: Amy Papaelias, Mia Ridge, Scott Kleinman, and myself.

Amy, Mia, and I wrote the proposal in October 2013, just two months after we had finished our work at George Mason University. When Scott discovered that he would be able to join us in Lausanne, we were glad to add him and his ideas to the presentation, especially since Amy learned in the meantime that she wasn’t going to be able to join us at the conference because she was having a baby!  While Amy wasn’t with us in Lausanne, she did contribute greatly to the talk. She produced slides for the presentation that maintained the look and feel of Serendip-o-matic. She was wonderful enough to field any request we threw at her, including a feverish moment in which I told her that I wanted “a bureaucratic hippo.” The results were stunning and a clear vindication of what Bruno Latour said in his opening keynote: everyone should have a designer on their team.

What follows here is the final one-third of our talk. Scott spoke first, about how the process was playful. Mia spoke second, about how playfulness informed the design and architecture of Serendip-o-matic. And I went last, covering the results of a playful process. Scott and Mia blogged their portions of the talk that same day; I’m the only laggard on this team, I’m afraid.


I’m going to wrap up our presentation by focusing on what we gained and what challenges we faced when working in a very playful manner.

Two Outcomes of Play

This form of work was high pressure and draining. But as Mia has said, it led us to trust one another and get a sense of what we could do. This led to members of the team knowing each other’s super powers that they could draw on in case of hippo attacks…


…or further collaborations.


A number of different projects came out of the One Week | One Tool team. The most obvious is this paper, which Amy, Mia, Scott K., and myself have collaborated on. But Scott K. also was able to hire Amy to do some design work on a grant. Amy wrote a grant that included Mia and Tom (which unfortunately didn’t get funded). And Scott Williams was perhaps the most practical of us all and actually re-used portions of the code that was written during OWOT for his work in the Yale Art Gallery.

So all this play and screwing around led to additional collaborations. But it also points to a larger accomplishment: a fulfilling of digital humanities prophecy!

In 2010 Stephen Ramsay’s wrote an essay, “The Hermeneutics of Screwing Around; or What You Do with a Million Books” (PDF). In that essay, Ramsay describes what it’s like to browse in a library:


“I walk into the library and wander around in a  state of insouciant boredom. I like music, so I head over to the music section. I pick up a book on American rock music and start flipping through it (because it’s purple and big). There’s an interesting bit on Frank Zappa, and it mentions that Zappa was way into this guy named Edgard Varèse. I have no idea who that is, so I start looking around for some Varèse. One look at the cover of his biography—Varèse with that mad-scientist look and the crazy hair—and I’m already a fan. And so off I go. I check out some records and discover Varèse. […] This is browsing.”

Ramsay closes his essay by asking how this sort of browsing might be recreated with digital collections as opposed to structured searching, like with Google or most library catalogues:


“Is it possible to imagine this kind of highly serendipitous journey replacing the ordered mannerism of conventional search?” This is precisely what we did with the Serendip-o-matic.


It’s not for search, it’s serendipity! So mark that one fixed, Steve. Send us our X-prize check!

Two Challenges of Playful Projects

Play made it possible for us to envision working with each other beyond the course of the week and to propose a solution to the challenges of search-based overload. But there were other challenges that we faced due to our play-based work.


One of the problems with playfulness is that is sometimes hard to measure. The idea of measuring play is to a certain extent self-contradictory: assessment implies consequences for making or missing the bar, which breaks the magic circle of play. But universities in a late-capitalist environment thrive on assessment. A challenge that a playful project faces, then, is figuring out how to get our work to “count” for promotion, tenure, or annual reviews. You certainly might feel wary about telling your chair that you spent X number of weeks “screwing around,” regardless of whether you get that Steve Ramsay prize or no.

What the Serendip-o-matic team decided to do was perhaps predictable: we found new avenues to make our work countable.


This took a number of different forms:


Writing. Many of us blogged during OWOT but many of the team members have continued to write about the tool and what we learned in making it. A notable example is co-project manager Meghan Frazer who contributed a chapter, “A Mashup in One Week: The Process Behind Serendip-o-matic” to the forthcoming volume More Library Mashups: Exploring New Ways to Delivery Library Data.


Presentations. I think almost all of the OWOT team members have given a talk about Serendip-o-matic, certainly at our home institutions and at other locations as well. Indeed, the desire to provide “countable” experiences is part of what led us to propose this talk for DH 2014.


Teaching projects. Serendip-o-matic has been a feature that many of us have used in our pedagogy. After giving a presentation about Serendip-o-matic in the Fall, Amy Papaelias was approached by a colleague in Computer Science at SUNY New Paltz. This led to a cross-class project that had the CS students working on image-to-text recognition software and Amy’s students doing the visual design for the imagined app, Exposure.


User feedback. We’ve paid close attention to people talking about Serendip-o-matic on social media and other locations. We’ve especially appreciated learning that some researchers have found new primary sources thanks to our hippo-powered creation.


Watching for citations. We’re also on the lookout for people talking about the tool in publications. Indeed, there are three other papers here at DH 2014 that draw on Serendip-o-matic as evidence of “the next big thing.” (Hey, you said it, we didn’t!) We try as best as we can to capture those comments as evidence of our play’s utility.


Fame and fortune. We shamelessly nominated ourselves for the 2013 DH Award for “Best use of DH for fun.” We campaigned hard, and we won. And now it’s on our CVs.

Play is wonderful and important. And universities should give us the room to be playful.


But until that’s more easily done, you need to convert your play into work.


Along with making the work of Serendip-o-matic count in one form or another, the other difficulty that we have faced over the last year is maintaining the tool. Despite having a rough road map for further development on the site and several team phone calls, we haven’t made much progress on developing Serendip-o-matic.

In many ways, this is to be expected given the circumstances. The team was together for less than a week and after our break from reality we all had to go back to our regular jobs that didn’t actually involve hippos (more’s the pity). Even Rebecca Sutton Koeser and I, who work at the same institution, didn’t find much time to talk about Serendip-o-matic after our first week back.

The lack of attention to the hippo is also to be expected given what Bethany Nowviskie and Dot Porter found in 2009 in their survey “Graceful Degradation,” and which they reported on at the 2010 Digital Humanities Conference in London.


It turns out that many digital humanities projects get less and less attention over time.

But there’s one other factor involved: maintaining a tool simply isn’t “playful.”


Maintaining a tool involves things like documentation, usable deployment scripts, and a regular release schedule. Those are all wonderful, valuable things. They should be done. But they’re not about play; they’re about regimentation. And for our project, it didn’t fit the mood.

This raises the question of preservation of the playful and the experimental. Is such preservation worth doing? Unquestionably. Does doing it change the nature of the project. Yes, I think so.


In the end, it’s fair to say that we didn’t specifically plan to have a playful experience at One Week | One Tool. It’s just something that happened. The team and our hippo continue to face specific challenges that arose directly out of our having been lighthearted in our work. But what we gained—both in the final product and in what we learned—more than make up for this.

Perhaps, then, Shakespeare’s Duke Orsino had it right after all: “Play on!”