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Amanda Visconti’s NULab Lecture on Participatory Interface Design

By Liz Polcha

Last week the NULab community at Northeastern University was fortunate to welcome Amanda Visconti as an invited guest and speaker. As a graduate student taking part in this semester’s NULab Practicum led by Professor Julia Flanders and Professor Elizabeth Maddock Dillon, my fellow graduate students and I also had the chance to speak with Visconti more informally as she joined our practicum discussion.

Visconti’s dissertation project, a digital, annotated edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses entitled “Infinite Ulysses,” was of particular interest to graduate students in the practicum because of its non-traditional composing process, which involved writing code and engaging in user testing. Building “Infinite Ulysses” allowed Visconti to explore questions of participatory interface design by experimenting with the ways users annotated and interacted with the digital version of Joyce’s text. Visconti explained to the practicum group that digital projects like “Infinite Ulysses” “rarely happen in a vacuum,” as they often rely on already existing code. I was struck by Visconti’s scrupulously documented work and research process, as she emphasized the importance of blogging regularly about her dissertation as well as sending weekly check-in emails to her advisor about her progress and goals.

After chatting with faculty and graduate students in the NULab practicum and in DH Open Office Hours, Visconti delivered a lecture on participatory design in the public humanities titled, “Literature Together: Participatory Digital Editions, Social Annotation, and the Public Humanities.”Visconti opened her lecture with a quote from Lindsay Thomas’ blog post, “Open Access and Digital Humanities,” in which Thomas clarifies that “making something freely available online does not necessarily guarantee that thing is public, or that it will be used as a public resource.” This quote grabbed my attention because of my own work on digital archives (such as the Early Caribbean Digital Archive), and my interest in the ways that different online communities engage with digital projects. According to Visconti, it is necessary for users to be involved in the design and testing of a digital project in order to draw-in—as well as retain—a user community. She also suggested finding ways to reward users for participating in the project, such as borrowing user-focused social strategies (such as upvoting) from non-academic community platforms like Yelp and Reddit.

Regarding the types of annotations users are creating on “Infinite Ulysses,” Visconti is interested in learning from both the academic, scholarly annotations as well as the less critical annotations. For example, Visconti showed a more playful annotation that a user hashtagged “#TeamMulligan” in support of the Ulysses character Buck Mulligan. Visconti noted that the project aims to include every type of reader/annotator, even if they aren’t following a more academic model of engagement with the text.

In the Q&A after Visconti’s lecture, NULab postdoctoral fellow Moya Bailey asked Visconti a question about how community building worked within the project. Visconti explained that users will be able to build profiles and create groups on the site, but also that she is concerned about recreating the echo-chamber algorithm effect seen on sites like Facebook, where users are not interacting with different groups.

For more information about Amanda Visconti’s digital dissertation, check out:dr.amandavisconti.com/. You can also find her on twitter@Literature_Geek.

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