“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.


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Day 5 of OWOT: We Did It! (Can We Do It Again? Please??)

As you might have gathered from the Twitter storm that barreled out of Fairfax, Virginia, this afternoon, we released and launched the fabulous, amazing Serendip-o-matic. One of the great things about living in the 21st century is that we have a ton of materials open and available to us in digital formats that have been collected in sources like the Digital Public Library of America, Europeana, and Flickr Commons. But since things are digital we don’t find them like we used to. Search makes it possible to pinpoint the exact thing that we’re after, as Shawn Graham nicely points out. Such precision is a bit problematic, however, as it leads us to miss the surprise of finding that unexpected book in the stacks or that item in the archives. Serendip-o-matic is designed to recreate that discovery process. After all, there’s so much stuff out there, if you only get exactly what you’re looking for then you’re missing out on some of the best stuff! Search is great, but this isn’t search: it’s Serendip-o-matic.

The Serendip-o-matic Hippo logo

That’s the pitch, at least, and at this point in the day I think I’m finally starting to get it where I want it to be. Hopefully people are excited to learn more about it in the coming days. We did write the Today Show, so I think we can plan to be coming to your living room by Tuesday.

So what was it like on the ground? Crazy, more or less. I think everyone was on the move by 8am, with some of the design / dev team logging commits by that point. I started my day meeting with the Outreach team, working on their schedule for the day and talking about the press release. This may have involved arguing about parentheses and angle brackets.

Jack Dougherty showing pointy brackets

Once we got over to CHNM, I spent most of the day dodging back and forth between rooms. I helped Outreach workshop some of the final language for the press release, once again focusing on the story we wanted to tell. I dodged over to help file issues on the design / dev team for the dev server of Serendip-o-matic. I bug checked responsive design on mobile, tablet, and web versions, as well as catching other pieces of human-readable content. I put my head down for 20 minutes once I got a request from the Chronicle of Higher Education for an interview request. (Thank goodness for my MLA media training which taught me this technique.) After the interview, it was on to drafting the press release email and identifying a few names from our media contact list to get an early warning email. Then it was dashing around again.

As we got closer and closer to what Mia had determined would be the “code chill” leading up to the “code freeze” at 2pm in expectation of the 3pm launch, we planned for the live launch broadcast while contending with continued difficulties in the Zotero integration and mass, multiple edits of text, CSS and design, and code at every level of the process. At one point, I found myself standing in the room where all the dev/design team was working and all I could think of was to run to get people food or make sure they were plugged into power. In the end, I think I took a picture.

The dev/design team

In the end, we only got to a code freeze and final deploy around 2:55pm. Everyone erupted into cheers and applause, and we tweeted our teaser image. Our fearless leader Tom poured drinks.

Tom and Sharon pour champagne

But then it was a quick dash to the computers for the live launch. Jack had done a great job not only of setting up the technology for the 4-way Google Hangout, but also scripted everything. We had written questions and practiced a bit of what we were going to say, but what I was most nervous about was my live demo of the site. If I had been thinking more clearly when I was doing it, I might not have showed off the Zotero integration. Halfway through to clicking the “Go” button, I suddenly wondered if it would crash. That would have been terrible during a live demo. But fortunately Eli’s fixes held, and everything went perfect. We were genuinely surprised when Dan Cohen was able to join us and very much appreciated both his involvement and that of Brett Bobley and Jen Serventi from the NEH’s Office of Digital Humanities. Even better, we were able to highlight the many different types of work that the members of the team did. If for some reason you missed the video broadcast, and want to relive the heady excitement of it all, well, we pressed the “record” button ahead of time.


After we clicked “end” on the video, there was even more cheering and shouts of acclaim. Someone might have done some streaking. Everyone more or less collapsed into a cluster and started watching comments roll in via social media.

The team on their computers

I can’t tell you how gratifying it is to have made something and immediately be able to present it to them to look at and play with. We heard from bloggers who were using it find images and users who were finding new sources for their work. Most of all, the general enthusiasm of the digital humanities community and the rings of Internet that surround them were appreciated. Thanks, all of you, so much for being willing to play a part by paying attention to what we’ve been doing this week.

Amazingly enough, the design / dev team almost immediately got back to work resolving some of the issues we still had outstanding for the code base. (The repo is open and public now. Go ahead and fork away!) We probably hung out in this pattern for an hour or 90 minutes, just soaking in the accomplishment. I think we were all reluctant to break out of the magic circle of the moment because we knew that it would mean that the experience was beginning to end. We had done what we set out to do, but it also means that we’re saying goodbye to each other in less than 18 hours. Some people will even be gone before I wake up.

It’s strange to think that I won’t be seeing these people next week. That we won’t be building Serendip-o-matic any more. Sure, we’ve got a long way to go on improving it, and we have plans for how to expand on the One Week | One Tool experience, but…  Well, let’s just say I’m already looking forward to seeing everyone again at THATCamp next year for the #owot reunion.

The One Week | One Tool team
Picture by Sharon Leon

What lessons do I have to extract from today? First, when you’re going to be doing something in front of other people, you really do need to practice. I didn’t give as good an interview on the phone as I would have liked simply because I didn’t get a chance to talk it through with someone. But I was so much further ahead by having written down my talking points. The second point is related and spins off the work of the fabulous outreach team: when you want people to pay attention, it helps to keep telling a story. It was the week’s worth of tweets and blog posts that gave enough information about what was happening that led to people being willing to spend some time with us on a Friday afternoon. Third and last of all, design matters. There is no way around it.

I’ve got at least two more OWOT posts coming, I think. So at least for you and me, dear reader, it’s not over yet.

Day 4 of OWOT: Stay Gold, Ponyboy

All right. You know the drill. Let me just say that today’s been a long day. We’re so close that I think we’re all super excited, but we know there’s still quite a bit of work to get done. Which explains why it’s not just me who’s awake at this point.

As I start blogging, Mia, Rebecca, and Scott “West” are wrangling some badly merged commits on the GitHub server and I’m seeing messages roll in via Growl. I’ve just finished looking through the list of issues we have outstanding in the repo, on Mia’s request to see if everything lined up with Meghan and my perception of prioritization. About an hour ago, we were looking at some final glyph designs that Amy had cooked up for our onboarding experience. And before that, Ray and I were hitting the email contact list spreadsheets to make sure we have everyone lined up for our press release tomorrow.

Ray Palin hitting the email spreadsheets

You wouldn’t believe how difficult some schools have decided to make this. Before that, Jack (who travels with his own projector?!), Meghan, and I were putting the finishing touches on the plans for the Outreach team tomorrow, including the live broadcast of the tool announcement. It’d be pretty convenient if I could tell you when that would happen…but I don’t know anything about that. Prior to that, people were passing out high fives to Eli for cracking a really knotty OAuth issue which he had been hammering away on for much of the last two days. Not to mention congratulating him for being able to eat a burger roughly the size of his head.

A picture of Eli eating a ridiculous burger

Before that, well, we were looking at some of the other designs that Amy had. That gets us back to about 8pm this evening. Of course, we all started the day around 9am.

So what did we do the rest of the time? Well, I’ll be honest to say that it’s getting hazy at this point. We really started with a consideration of the logo and site design that Amy came up with the night before. (This is such the wrong way to tell this in a grok-able manner, but I’m at the point, I think, where I’m writing how it feels, man, rather than anything else. Consider this an ethnography.) Mass applause and enthusiasm ensued after which point we had some discussions about the larger information architecture for part of the tool. We were pleased to be joined by Jennifer Serventi, our intrepid and amazing program officer from the NEH. Jen carried on the NEH tradition of bringing love in the form of carbs and calories.

A box of muffins with a postit note that says,

But she also stuck around for about five hours, listening and generally taking in the vibe of what was happening. She took the time to meet individually with a number of different team members, the PIs, and each of us project managers. I often think that I have what it takes to be a program officer; and then I run into one of them and am blown away by their ability to listen.

OWOT Team presentation with NEH officer listening

These are the friendliest and most empathetic people that I think I’ve met in my entire professional career. I appreciated the fact that Jen wanted to hear not only about what I thought about the OWOT event so far but also what I thought it would allow me to take back to Emory. And it was great to have her sitting in with Jack and I as we worked on micro-copy for the website, struggling with the word counts and tone to make sure we hit the message as best we could.

Two other moments from the day are worth mentioning. First, on Tuesday Tom had told Meghan and I that we needed to be thinking about future vision for the project, about ways that it could live on beyond this particular week. I’ll be sharing our ideas in a coming blog post so as to avoid spoilers. But suffice it to say that after several days of feeling like we wouldn’t be able to deliver on this particular assignment, we’ve got the seed of something that all three of us are excited about. Happiness.

The second moment isn’t quite so happy but instead represents a learning moment for me as a project manager. After seeing the presentation on the website first thing in the morning, the Outreach team decided to get working on the micro-copy for the home page. In the mid-afternoon, when we brought them back together with the Dev and Design team, we discovered that the latter had iterated a few more times on the home page design in such a way that the work that eliminated the need for that text. What could have been a very testy situation was handled with grace by everyone that was involved, but it really came back on the project managers not communicating clearly with all of the teams. It’s an easy thing to do when we’re all running around trying to get something off the ground while not yet having a server or a logo and “ZOMG! what happened to our wifi connectivity?!” So I’m glad to catch the lumps for this one.

So. Lessons learned? First, visions aren’t just something that happen in the Old Testament. But like we see in scripture, they sometimes require waiting for. Such idling in the wilderness is okay—and should probably be expected. And if you happen to be a bit like Jonah and would rather be free of such visions, well, you might be in the wrong business. Second, well, don’t drop the ball. You’d have thought I learned this back in little league, but it turns out that I was a terrible right fielder. I probably should have copped to this in my OWOT application.

Finally—and not for the final time, I am sure—let me say publicly how thrilled I am to be working in an environment with such great and strong individuals. Everyone is pulling their weight and looking for places where they can help someone else at the same time.

List of assignments on a whiteboard

It really does feel more like a barn raising that I would have thought possible. And at the end of the day, what we’re building is not so much a tool as a posse. I’ve got their back, and they’ve got mine. Watch out, #owot rolls deep. Especially, y’know, around 3-5pm EDT tomorrow.

EDIT: Don’t miss Jack’s post on day 3. And day 4 posts by Amrys and Mia, both of whom also talk about camraderie. I especially love what Mia writes in her post about creation of “rapid trust” alongside rapid prototyping. Glad to discover I’m not the only one feeling the love.

Day 3 of OWOT: Of Names and Stories and Gophers

Two hours ago, I had to ask someone what day it was. But now that it’s almost midnight, I’m finding myself drawn once again to the blank page of the blog post. Or rather, I appear to be treating the idea of blogging every day of One Week | One Tool as some sort of dare with myself. What follows is an account that is perhaps more trees than forest; if you want to get to the larger arboretum of what I’ve learned today, skip to the end.

As I promised at the end of yesterday’s post, today found the OWOT team putting their heads down and getting earnestly to work on a lot of the different parts of the project. And at this point, it’s hard to believe that we didn’t know what we were building 36 hours ago. The dev / design team continued forging ahead on the path that they had identified for themselves yesterday, working pretty solidly from the morning until the end of the day when they showed the whole team a working demo to thunderous applause.

Mia prepping us for the demo

The Outreach team decided to start producing text: press release materials, lists of people that we will be peppering with the announcement come Friday. Perhaps even more important—and much more difficult—they worked to come up with the name for our tool. But wait…I’m not necessarily on either of those teams. So what did I do all day?

Largely, my day of project management has consisted in moving back and forth between teams, working on different tasks. The Outreach team yesterday came up with a couple of user scenarios to help us all make better sense of how the tool would be used. I volunteered to translate the scenarios and the different conversations that I had heard in conversations with the dev/design team. After managing Networking Belfast, Views of Rome, and other DiSC projects, I’ve found that I kind of enjoy writing user stories, making sure that I’m making something that is testable as well as covering all of the aspects of the tool development that we’re going to need to have to produce the experience that all of the team has imagined. Mia, the lead of dev/design team and I then sat down and talked through the different stories, prioritizing and ruling some of them as likely out of scope.

After this, Meghan and I sat down to talk with Tom Scheinfeldt, Patrick Murray-John, and Sean Takats about software licenses. CHNM tends to use the Affero General Public License (AGPL). At Emory we’ve tended towards Apache, so it was good to learn about other options that exist. Meghan and I got to work sussing out the different software libraries that are being used by our development team. I also took on a task from Mia to begin stubs for the documentation we’ll need to add to our GitHub repo.

Somewhere in here, we got some amazing Bolivian salteñas for lunch.

A salteña

…although come to think of it, Sean brought in the food, so we clearly couldn’t talk about licenses until after lunch. Hmm. Let’s move on, shall we?

Before lunch the Outreach team had provided an overview of both the names that they were considering for the tool as well as metaphors that they were trying to use to understand the whole experience and that were guiding selection of the name. After lunch, they turned their attention to trying to finish off one of the press releases. They had decided that in addition to the press release for the product launch that OWOT’s emphasis on process over product might be of interest to certain media outlets. In his role as head of Outreach, Jack Dougherty had drafted this text, and that team and Meghan and I workshopped it down to hone the message. Simultaneously, we were talking about what press outlets might be interested in this particular angle. It turns out that thanks to my work with ProfHacker I knew a lot of the people that Ray Palin had identified as worth reaching out to. After finalizing the press release and getting it posted in one version to the CHNM website, I started pounding out emails, both formal and informal. There may have been some curse words thrown when my I couldn’t connect to my email server and when my keyboard suddenly refused to type. But eventually they got moving.

While we were working on all of this, the Outreach team had returned to working on names. Although the team had spent a lot of time so far, Amrys Williams was up for the challenge.

An exasperated Amrys

More metaphors, more stories, and more throwing hippos at walls to see if they would stick. And you know what, we finally got it. It took 121 name ideas—including, somehow, “Croxalizer” [sic]—but we’ve got a name! We bought some domains, we registered some email addresses and got a Twitter account. We’re getting ready. That said, while the name was being centered on was the moment of my maximal email frustration. So the moment didn’t feel as victorious as I would have liked.

We then broke for dinner at a great Thai place where we found some amazing objects that are far more connected to our tool than we could have ever guessed.

Mia and *The Teddy Bear Book*

We then repaired to the Mason Inn, where we broke into teams and planned our schedules for tomorrow. Meghan and I acted as go-betweens on both teams, seeing who they would need from the others in order to get their work done in a timely fashion. I wrapped up the evening sitting down with Mia and half of her team, looking again at the user stories to see what was done and what was now out of scope, as well as reviewing other lists of still to be accomplished tasks. In there, I did what I could to take tasks off of Mia’s plate, to make sure everyone had water and power, and to ping Rebecca Sutton Koeser every 15 minutes about going to bed rather than continuing to code.

So that’s a lot of detail about what I’ve done today. What does it all add up to? First, I think it’s safe to say that a big part of tool development ends up being about stories. Coming up with a name requires thinking about the story that that name ties into, about the experience as a whole. The press release is also about a story. Jack did a great job coming up with a rhetorical angle for pitching the process as something that is just as interesting to report on as the final product. And of course there were those user stories. These are different from the other stories and are exercises in precise descriptive prose. In some ways, I think I am drawn to these activities given my training in literature. I like thinking about what words can do and how they convey meaning, and then I like trying to pin those words down in such a way so that my meaning is clear to those with whom I’m communicating.

I also think that building a tool depends in some parts on gophers. In our role of project managers,  Meghan and I are doing what we can to take care of the needs of the different teams. One of those needs is of course managing the to-do list. But it also meant hunting down a new computer for a team member or doing that aforementioned “it’s bedtime” pinging. What this experience is helping me realize is how deeply satisfying I find it to be helpful to other people in these ways. It’s more than simply feeling useful (when I’m not a coder and when I’m clearly not the most experience project manager when compare to others on the team); it’s about building a team through considerate interaction. Making a project, it turns out, is just as much about building a team as it is about anything else. 

That might not be a profound insight; it is, after all, 1:10 am as I finish drafting this. But it’s a new one to me, and I will say that it alone makes this whole experience worth it. We’ve got a lot more work to do tomorrow. See you in 24.

(By now I’m guessing, dear reader, that you’re canny enough to know not to click on that link above to our GitHub repo. Still, I couldn’t resist.)

EDIT: Just to be sure you’re not missing anything, there are other OWOT members blogging on a daily basis. Check out posts on day one from Jack, Mia, Amanda, and Amrys; day two from Jack, Mia, and Amrys; and day three from Mia and Amrys (more to come, I’m sure).