An Annotated Domain of One’s Own

A Domain of One’s Own

Yesterday, I crossed off one of my 2016 New Year’s Resolutions in a single afternoon: “Register my own domain.” I registered “jeremydean.org” and installed WordPress at jeremydean.org/blog, where you are likely reading this post. I even started a little experiment with Scalar, the book publishing platform out of USC, which I’ll discuss in a future entry. It’s nothing pretty to look at yet — it’s only January, after all! But it’s a start and I want to talk about that start here, why I wanted to do this and why it might be useful/interesting to others.

I’m late to the party here as I have been with lots of neat tech things over the years (iPods, iPhones, Facebook, Harry Potter). This is of course how the early bloggers did it, and for several years now there’s been a kind of reclamation movement around that lost infrastructure and philosophy. Many of us (and I genuinely include myself here) are happy posting our thoughts online through systems owned and managed by others, mostly for-profit companies who retain rights to our cultural production and make it very difficult for us do anything else with that content besides share it within their platforms.

This blog is addressed more to those like me that may not have thought fully about this stuff or acted upon it, rather than to any old school open web activists who might happen here. I think there’s a larger group of folks that would align with the politics of the open web if it were a little more fully and simply articulated. I like to think of having a domain of one’s own as the backyard gardening — or better, the community gardening — of the Web. If you like the idea of growing your own vegetables or owning your own chickens, then I think you might also like owning and cultivating your own domain.

One major strand of that larger reclamation movement has been led by Jim Groom and Tim Owens, who started a project called “A Domain of One’s Own” when both were at the University of Mary Washington Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies. Probably the best single piece written on the work that I’ve found is Audrey Watters’ “Beneath the Cobblestones…A Domain of One’s Own.” Here’s how she sums up the significance of the project, since expanded to other universities:

The Domain of One’s Own initiative prompts us to not just own our own domain — our own space on the Web – but to consider how we might need to reclaim bits and pieces that have already been extracted from us.

It prompts us think critically about what our digital identity looks like, who controls it, who owns our data, who tracks it, who’s making money from it. It equips us to ask questions — technical questions and philosophical questions and economic questions and political questions about and for ourselves, our communities, our practices — knowing that we have a stake as actors and not just as objects of technology, as actors and not just objects of education technology.

Basically the original idea was to help students and faculty register their own domains in the interest of giving them more control over their online identities, or as Gardner Campbell calls it, their “personal cyberinfrastructure.” It’s a valuable exercise in web literacy — again, the digital equivalent of learning to garden with all the attendant knowledges necessary to do so, about seasons, soil, etc. But it’s also a political statement about how our content is managed online — whether by us, according to our rules, or based on the terms of service of proprietary platforms, whether we sign up for them willingly ourselves or are forced to because of where we go to school, teach, or work.

I won’t be adding much to the ongoing and important conversation happening about “Domain of One’s Own” or broader issues around the politics of the open web except to make two simple points — again, mostly for folks new to this stuff.

One, it’s super easy and super cheap!

And two, not only can you blog and host content at this new site you own, but you can annotate that stuff as well using hypothes.is. Which is to say that you can own your own Medium.com — a slick blog with some badass interactive functionality. (And if it’s exposure you are going for you can easily syndicate your blog to Medium, which I’ve done here.)

Indeed, the reason why I decided to dive into this little experiment yesterday was because Gardner Campbell Tweeted a link to a Dave Winer blog:

To which I replied:

And then I figured I had to actually do it.

How To

So, here’s how easy it is to get set up with your own locally hosted WordPress blog with the hypothes.is plugin activated:

Go to Reclaim Hosting — Jim and Tim’s start-upy spin off of their UMW work with A Domain of One’s Own — specifically go here, to their shared hosting services. Sign up for a personal plan for $25 a year.

You can install WordPress easily using the Installatron — great name, right? It’s pretty clear that these Reclaim guys are deep into cultivating web literacy in a real way when they offer a simple definition like this for “web application” to help a humble school teacher like myself navigate this brave new world:

WordPress is right there under Content Management apps:

I’m not going to walk through the whole process of getting set up with WordPress, but I’ll just say that, it didn’t take me very long to have a live front page at jeremydean.org/blog to which I could add a cool picture. Mostly you just click through the installer in Reclaim and then once installed you go to the admin portal for your WordPress install and you’re in WP:

I had some experience using WordPress, so it wasn’t hard to put up my first post, but WP makes it real easy for you to get started, presenting you with a cute little mock-up post that you can then edit. And here’s one of their tutorials on publishing a post just in case you can’t figure it out yourself:

An Annotated Domain of One’s Own

I will, though, briefly show how easy it is to add hypothes.is to a WordPress install like the one I describe setting up above. You can find the hypothes.is plugin by searching under “Plugins” in the WP admin dashboard menu. Click through to install and activate it. Then you need to go to Settings > Hypothesis and configure hypothes.is to appear where you want it to — everywhere in the blog or only on certain posts or pages (identified by the ID number shown in the URL when editing the post or page). I choose to activate hypothes.is on all my blog posts for now — and I also disabled page-bottom comments, because they’re so 2006:

So then I wrote a brief microblog as my first post and annotated it using hypothes.is in the tradition of authors far far better than I playing with annotation not as the margin but as the center of a text, as J.G. Ballard does in his “Notes Toward a Mental Breakdown.”

Outside of taking control my own online identity and cyberinfrastructure, a major reason for this experiment has been to think through with my hands, as director of education at hypothes.is, how an educator can make use of this combination of technologies for their classroom.

While hypothes.is allows you to collaboratively or individually annotate any page on the Web, sometimes teachers like to have their course content in one place. And sometimes the content they want students to annotate isn’t already online somewhere and they need to host it themselves. A WordPress install is a great solution to both problems, not to mention issues around privacy (though hypothes.is has a groups functionality for that too). And with hypothes.is embedded in WordPress, then teachers don’t have to guide students through installing and activating the hypothes.is browser extension or bookmarklet, because maybe they know what a browser extension is, but bookmarklet?!

An inspiration for me here is Larry Hanley, a professor at San Francisco State who showed up unsolicited in the hypothes.is content stream early last semester with students annotating a very cool WordPress site for his American lit course that had the app natively embedded thanks to our WP plugin — he was even using RSS to generate a feed of annotations by his students at the site. Larry calls Ralph Waldo Emerson “the original Edupunk” for his idea of “creative reading,” which Larry believes has found a 21st century manifestation in collaborative annotation. (Below Larry talks about his experiences using hypothes.is in the English classroom.)

I hadn’t done what Larry did with WordPress + hypothes.is until yesterday, but now I can show other teachers how to leverage these technologies, cheaply (possibly even freely) and easily, in order to create their own annotated and/or annotatable anthologies or course readers.

With the hypothes.is plugin installed on my WordPress blog, it feels a lot like Medium. When a reader selects text, they are given the option to make a note or highlight. The note can be public or private. Unlike on Medium, I as author don’t have curatorial control over what annotations get published. You can annotate my blog whether I like it or not using hypothes.is. While the Medium authorial feature makes a lot of sense, it also works against the more open, decentralized concept of the Web in which individual self expression is not censored by content producers and distributors.

Highlighting and note-taking with hypothes.is
Highlighting and note-taking options on Medium

It made my 2015 when Audrey Watters included hypothes.is in her year end round up of “Top Ed-Tech Trends,” which positioned Jim and Tim’s work with A Domain of One’s Own at the center of an “indie ed-tech” movement. We have some work to do to fully develop it, but I believe hypothes.is is thinking about and working with users and infrastructure in the right way so as to empower annotators to own and manage their content however they so choose. It made my 2016–I know, I’m already having quite a year–when Adam Croom, Director of Digital Learning at University of Oklahoma, and another inspiration here, started shipping WordPress installs with the hypothes.is plugin in the OU institution of Domain of One’s Own. Personally and professionally, I will continue to aspire and conspire to be a part of this movement in ed-tech and on the web more broadly.

Note: I want to just quickly add that at some point I tried to get a little fancy and change the URL for my WP blog and messed something up, getting a 500 error. I reached out to support at Reclaim and Tim Owens responded almost immediately, helping me move my stuff over. They may be even faster on the draw there than the good folks at education@hypothes.is.


Also published on Medium.