I am late in posting this response. For the past two weeks, whenever I have had the chance to work on this assignment, I have been wrestling with a disagreement with Audrey Watters, and I have had to restart my response every time I sat down to write it. I do not like how she presents A Domain of One’s Own in her piece “Why ‘A Domain of One’s Own’ Matters (For the Future of Knowledge),” but I struggled to articulate my disagreement without sounding like a contrarian. (I am a contrarian.) I doubt that I succeed here.
I have to agree with Watters at the start. A website is “pretty special.” Having one’s own website affords one a certain level of participation in the Web that not having one does not. I admit that I was hesitant to create a website for myself—why should I merit such attention?—except that I was required to create one for my first ONID course. And I have been happy to have and use that presence on the Web ever since. In the democratic realm of the Web, a website is individual sovereignty and agency in a way that a user profile on a network—social, professional, or scholarly—is not.
Watters appeals to Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s vision for the Web and his worries about its present course. I read Sir Tim’s open letter at The Guardian. While Watters lists his three main points accurately, I read a linking concern in his article that Watters glosses past, to go onto her rewording: the relationship between personal data and money needs to be changed so that people have more control over how their personal data are used and what they see on the Web. Berners-Lee’s second and third concerns flow directly from the first. And a Domain of One’s Own can do very little to address them; in fact, in the present climate, a Domain of One’s Own might exasperate the problem.
Watters focuses the discussion back onto education with her own restatement of Sir Tim’s three issues and then announces, “By providing students and staff with a domain, I think we can start to address this.” She might be right, but where she goes from there is where I start to disagree, ever so slightly.
That scholars learn and begin to think about digital technologies is incidental to a Domain of One’s Own: scholars are using these technologies to further scholarship. Watters places that scholarship wholly online, but scholarship does not exist only online. Scholars are not engaging the Web. Scholars are engaging each other, using the Web, just like a classroom or a lecture hall or a coffeeshop.
Watters goes on the discuss the freedom in a Domain of One’s Own. There are no requirements. Each scholar can set up their own domain however they see fit. They can then share their content in the “for-profit, ad-based venues” of Facebook, &c. Watters still sees the use in those platforms, but derides VLEs (which I had to look up, because I have always heard them called LMSs). I don’t see the difference: LMSs are specialized networks, and they have their uses. Students will need to be able to navigate arbitrary online systems in their careers, so navigating a LMS is a useful skill, even if you wouldn’t put it on your résumé. The skills to set up and customize a Domain of One’s Own are marketable, not that skills are the end-goal. Watters notes that this is not a campaign to get academics to “learn to code,” but a certain level of Web literacy is inherent. (Perhaps that’s what she meant above, where I first disagreed with her.) The beauty and purpose of a Domain of One’s Own, ultimately, is that is provides a home-base for one’s online identity and for projecting one’s ideas onto the Web.
Watters’s closing paragraph sums up her argument and my reaction to it quite nicely. She writes,
And that’s the Web. That’s your domain. You cultivate ideas there—quite carefully, no doubt, because others might pop by for a think. But also because it’s your space for a think.
If I go online “for a think,” it will be to visit others’ domains, to see how their thoughts might interact with mine. Although I put some thought into my own site, I never go there “for a think,” but I hope others might. And that is why having a Domain of One’s Own is important: so that we can visit each other online and see each others’ ideas, not just have our own ideas echoed back to us by an algorithm.
Berners-Lee, T. (2017, March 11). I invented the web. Here are three things we need to change to save it. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com.
Watters, A. (2017, April 4). Why ‘a domain of one’s own’ matters (for the future of knowledge). [Blog] Retrieved from http://hackeducation.com/2017/04/04/domains.