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"The Ivory Tower and the Open Web": Dan Cohen at CNI

Cohen gave reasons for why he believes that the the web way–serendipitous experimentation that occasionally creates something great–and the academic way are very different. Illustration

The Ivory TowerWashington, DC Dan Cohen, Director, Center for History and New Media, Associate Professor of History at George Mason University and Chief Zoteron at, believes that most folks, particularly in the humanities, don’t yet understand the power of the Web as a locus of creativity. They also do not yet see it as a place for scholarship.

Cohen shared his views in the closing plenary lecture at the Coalition for Networked Information (CNI) Fall Members Meeting held in Washington, DC December 13-14, 2010 in an address entitled, “The Ivory Tower and the Open Web.”

Cohen looks forward to a new understanding of the Web as a vast network and what it can do for us over the next 20 years “The vernacular Web is the web that is out there,” he observed. To illustrate this idea he did some on-the-spot research into the term “Burrito” on the open web.

He used The Burrito Bracket ( as an example of trying to “get” the web by doing business online with cobbled together, open and easy-to-use tools that all together create an on-the-fly, interactive web site. On the way to doing business the Burrito Bracket unknowingly created a knowledge community of people in the Chicago area who were anxious to share experiences and information about cooking and eating Mexican food.

Cohen's view is that the Web way–serendipitous experimentation that occasionally creates something great–and the academic way are very different in psychology and attitude.

He highlighted a hybrid example of a collaborative scholarly exchange, “Layer” ( The back and forth comments on ideas and images is a new kind of intellectual and graphical “debate” that is made possible by trading edited photoshop layers online. Cohen believes that unexpected new genres like this one are likely to emerge as information exchange moves beyond flat text and into media and sophisticated forms of annotation.

Surprising Uses of Content

The September 11, Digital Archive (, for example, holds—150,000 digital objects from 30,000 people now curated by the Library of Congress. Cohen explained that many lingusists have done text and data mining at the collection site studying origins of slang terms like “OMG.” This research is out of the context and origins of the collection. “Part of the DNA of the web is that people will make use of content in surprising, out of context ways,” he said

He gave Wordpress—with 30 million  blogs and an example of an open source technology which deals well with unexpected use cases.

He also discussed Zotero (, which is “A free, easy-to-use tool to help you collect, organize, cite, and share your research sources."  By providing pragmatic language localizations. many more non-technical people have gotten involved in the project and feel like contributors.

Slides from Dan Cohen's presentation at CNI may be downloaded here: