Interview: George Landow

George Landow, Professor of Art and History at Brown University, will be one of the two keynote speakers at WikiSym 2008.

George Landow

We interviewed him by e-mail to get more information on how he became involved with wikis and web-related issues, as well as information on his point of view on wikis and society nowadays.

Q: How did an English and History of Art Professor get involved with web and wikis?

Back in the 1970s and ’80s, I used Brown University’s IBM 3060 mainframe computer, which has what is now called word-processing capacities, to teach postgraduate students to edit unpublished manuscript material as a way of showing them how much standard print texts are subjective, collaborative products. I began to write my books and articles online and eventually, with the help of Alan Renear (now of University of Illinois, Urbana) to set them in type for major presses. Because of my then-unusual experiences, William Shipp, the founding director of Brown University’s Institute for Research in Information and Scholarship (IRIS) invited me to join the governing board of this computer institute and later to become part of the team developing and using IRIS Intermedia. I became increasingly involved in new media theory and practice, using Intermedia, Storyspace, DynaText, Microcosm, and other hypermedia environments. When the WWW came along, I moved much of the earlier material into HTML.Between 1991 and 2006, I published three books on hypertext and new media, three edited volumes, and one electronic version of Hypertext.

Q. Please explain how and why you started the Victorian Web project?

I use it to teach my course more effectively, placing much of the information on the web so the class meets can emphasize student discussion. The Victorian Web functions as a test bed to work with and experiment with various ideas about hypermedia and approaches. It also attempts to create new forms of scholarship, that see what academic writing will be in the future.

Victorian Web Website

Q. How adequate would be a wiki to support the Victorian Web?

Since the 37,500 documents and images in the Victorian Web ( already constitute a kind of moderated wiki, it should work fairly well if one had capacity to add links.

Q. What are in your opinion, the best features of a wiki and how have they changed the collaboration on the web?

It produces reader-writers, adding to debate and collaboration; it makes the movement to authorship much easier. In sites like Wikipedia, which records discussion and debate about editing, it reveals the nature of intellectual work as well as the state of knowledge on specific subjects.

Q. How can a wiki be managed in terms of user-agreement issues?

(a) use of a moderator;

(b) agreed upon policies;

(c) recording discussion about editorial policies and specific changes.

Q. If you have lots of contributors, how do you retain rigor and consistency?

Like print publications, the Victorian Web has a style sheet. Although the site largely contains work from advanced scholars, chiefly university professors, it also has many hundred documents by undergraduates, but since every document bears its author’s name, academic status (if any), and affiliation (if any), readers can see for themselves the level of authority of each author – and can judge for themselves if students might have better ideas than their more experienced teachers.

Q. What leads someone to write for a wiki or for something like the Victorian Web, instead of writing books and articles? Are wikis a sort of minor league for learning to publish scholarship?

For beginners, including undergraduates or recent Phds, it does serve as a comparatively easy and quick means of getting something published. Then, for many published professional writers and scholars, it provides far greater distribution – and a second life – for their out-of-print books and print articles. As for published professional writers and scholars, like myself, it provides other advantages: greater freedom of size and form of individual contributions, quicker publication, greater ability to work collaboratively, ability for continual revision and addition via linking. I’ve published more than a dozen books and chapters. Does the world need any more from me?

Q. You’ve been teaching students to write for online for 20 years. How has their writing changed? How has their READING changed?

As systems, hardware, and networks have changed, becoming increasingly faster and as we have encountered enormously greater memory, other media – images, sounds, motion, video – have entered the writing. With the coming of the WWW, many of the richer aspects of hypermedia have been lost. Writers have also increasingly worked in non-academic nonfiction as well as poetry and fiction.

Q. How do you think wikis will develop from now on?

I expect commercial, governmental, and other organizations will increasingly use them, as some US agencies do, to exchange information and debate policies.

Q. What are your expectations for WikiSym 2008, your first WikiSym?

To learn a great deal from widely different experiences in different languages, culture, and fields by skilled, active users.

Thanks for your time. Looking forward to meet you in Porto!

Alda Silva e Ana Ferreira. FEUP, Porto

One thought on “Interview: George Landow

  1. What I think is very interesting here is the way THE VICTORIAN WEB has the scale and openness of a wiki — thousands of topics, hundreds of contributors, twenty years of use — but that its editorial policies ensure some degree of cohesion. There’s an editor: everything is checked and approved.

    On the one hand, this is perhaps not the WikiWay. On the other hand, The Victorian Web is older than any wiki, and it’s never undergone an edit war or a GreatWikiMindWipe.

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