Open on Whose Terms?

I’m planning to teach a course with a big digital literacies component next semester inshallah, and as part of the brainstorming of that course, I plan to do some exercises related to having students reflect on Terms and Conditions and privacy policies of various apps before we use them. This was inspired by Jason Jones’ recent post about how was selling customer data to Uber, a link shared by Christian Friedrich written by’s co-founder, and a lesson idea for integrating Terms of Service into the class from Jade Davis I’d read a while ago).

Among the tools I hoped students would use during my class is which has a relatively “readable” Terms & Conditions. Audrey Watters recently blogged “Unannotated” (April 26), explaining why she has blocked annotations from her site. Audrey doesn’t have comments open on her site, one of the reasons being that in the past she has had to deal with quite a lot of harassment, and moderating comments was not worth her time. I remember some time ago, I used to annotate a post of hers without paying attention to how doing so might violate her decision not to have comments on her site. She explains her reasoning further in this podcast episode. The point is, authors should have a right to control whether their work gets annotated on their own domain or not. It should be an interesting class discussion to decide when we need to ask permission for things like this and when not (e.g. some spaces like Hybrid Pedagogy have native installed so you know they welcome annotation). Could be useful also to discuss different options for how to go about annotating something even if author wants it not on her domain. Even though the annotations actually reside on, they appear as if they’re on the author’s domain. Are they more like sticky notes (as Joe Dillon asked on Twitter) or mote like pencil/ink annotations that are harder to remove (I asked)?

It would also be interesting to discuss the gendered nature of this issue of author agency online beyond annotation, and how women have suffered in the past from online abuse and threats. It was good to know that initiated a year ago (May 2016) a discussion on involving authors in the extent to which their own sites are annotatable. I hear some progress is happening on this front (e.g. flagging abusive annotations) but nothing launched yet.

Audrey’s post also resonated with me for two reasons. One is that because Virtually Connecting is a team led by 3 women, we are also somewhat vulnerable to abuse (we have loads of high profile men and women on the team but abuse can be personal to the co-directors) and awhile ago when people started annotating our peer-reviewed article we had concerns over possible abuse (this didn’t materialize but was justified based on a few incidents in the past). We also don’t have open licenses on the recorded videos of our sessions. We are finalizing the text explaining this: YouTube only allows CC-BY or Standard YouTube license. We want ours to be CC-BY-NC-ND to protect people in the hangout from having their informal utterings used out of context without their permission. We don’t care that YouTube doesn’t offer this option. In a recent hangout from #ccsummit with Cable Green (and others), director of Open Education at Creative Commons, he agreed that something like Virtually Connecting can (and does) have an open ethos all around but be justified in using more limiting licenses for these reasons. This is also what I mean about openness on whose terms. It is contextual when opening or closing something makes sense. Closing comments on one’s site to protect from abuse? I empathize. Closing comments because you don’t want to engage in conversations? I’m not sure, on the fence, until I understand reasoning.

The second reason Audrey’s post resonated is again gender related. It still irks me when people talk about emulating open source values or Wikipedia without mentioning how both of these spaces are male-domimated and not neutral. As a computer scientists who left the field, it is important for me that people not lose sight of this. And as someone hoping to do some Wikipedia editathons with my students next semester, I hope to again have these conversations with them so they are aware of what could happen to their work on Wikipedia after it’s published. I got some suggestions at the#oecharter session at #ccsummit (which I attended as a virtual participant) to work with students offline and privately before going live on Wikipedia, because, as someone reminded us, open doesn’t always have to be public.

The more vulnerable we are online, the more imperative it is for us to be able to control our online existence/presence on our own terms, not anyone else’s. We owe it to our students to empower them to do do this. We owe it to ourselves to constantly question how the tools we and others use contradict or complement our ethos and values. In her podcast, Audrey likened unwanted annotation to someone entering your house and writing on your walls without invitation. Similarly, we entrust so many social media apps with our data in ways we would not entrust our close friends and family. And this data can be sold to other corporate entities or used to surveil us. And some of us are more vulnerable when faced with this. What are we going to do about it?

Do you have examples to share that highlight the importance of being open on our own terms? Tell us in the comments!

Thanks to many people who think about these issues better and more than me who directly or indirectly helped with ideas in this post: Audrey Watters, Christian Friedrich, Jade Davis, Chris Gilliard, Autumm Caines, Kate Green, Rajiv Jhangiani, Frances Bell, Catherine Cronin, Robin DeRosa, Jesse Stommel, Kris Shaffer, Sean Michael Morris).

["Happy Ramadhan, Eid Mubarak - عيد فطر مبارك" by Hamed Saber is licensed under CC BY]

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