Building and Testing Connections: Global Mitford and THATCamp Pittsburgh

This has been quite an exciting, even frabjous week, full of the making and testing of connections! In preparation for our Digital Mitford workshops, to connect with three participants in Reading, England, Los Angeles, and Boston who can’t come to Pitt-Greensburg in person, we’ve been testing Microsoft Lync, because it’s the digital network connection software officially recommended by my university. I’d tested it semi-successfully earlier this month with people on PC-compatible machines, but noted lots of bugs and serious challenges–I doubt I’d be able to efficiently run a workshop and be quite sure of what I’m doing in Lync. (And apparently I’m not alone in my assessment.) It was very easy to break connections in Lync.  Sharing programs online was laggy, and watching someone remotely scrolling through a shared file was a recipe for nausea. I now have two versions of Lync installed, Lync 2013 and Lync 2010, to test the functionality of each–and this week I am relieved to say that we are NOT using it! This is absolutely liberating!

We are not using Lync because it is practically incompatible with Mac users, unless they can afford or have access to Office 365 software and can purchase Lync 2011 for Macs. It seems a shame that Microsoft could not design a more robust and interoperable web interface, particularly since a much better solution exists in Google Hangouts. (Evidently there’s a running feud between Google and Microsoft, and we may begin to see who’s winning…) The only slight drawback is that my project team needs to set up Google Plus accounts for us to hold live meetings and share destkops and programs. Having tested it today with at one point five people, though, we have demonstrated seamless interoperability, with an occasionally laggy connection that can be restored momentarily. People don’t have to restart software, aren’t missing parts of an interface,  and best of all, we can forget the technology and simply meet–and don cartoon pirate hats and funny faces. Compared to the whimsicality and ease of Google Hangouts, Microsoft Lync seems a grim and fragile interface at best.

Our Digital Mitford group  has now experienced its first international meeting–and in the same week I’ve been meeting more colleagues practicing Digital Humanities around me in the Pittsburgh, PA region and discovering wonderful new things to learn and try! A group of faculty, librarians, and students from Chatham, Pitt, Carnegie Mellon, Duquesne, Seton Hill, Washington and Jefferson College, the Mattress Factory archive, and elsewhere met at the Heinz History Center to plot strategies for THATCamp Pittsburgh–the very first THATCamp for our region. Many of us (including this digital Romanticist) are new to THATCamp culture, and discovered the challenge of planning for unscripted spontaneity! I found this a wonderful meeting of minds and was delighted to meet colleagues from Duquesne and Carnegie Mellon who are keen to swap knowledge: In return for my sharing an introduction to TEI XML and autotagging,  I’m delighted to learn from my colleagues more about social network analysis! A most impressive example of this is the Six Degrees of Francis Bacon project at CMU.

Both Digital Archives and Pacific Cultures and our Digital Mitford project would seem to provide excellent bases for social network analysis, and as we develop our personographies for both projects, I look forward to learning how to visualize graphically their connections to each other and to understand more of the statistics involved. My own brief research leads me to want to try Philip Leifeld’s Discourse Network Analyzer (with the compelling acronym DNA): DNA seems especially suited for charting how people are connected, based on shared ideas and frequency of interaction. Of course, we need more coded texts… I’m glad my Mitford project team is as eager to begin work as I am!

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Elisa Beshero-Bondar

Associate Professor of English http://about.me/ebbondar

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