“You got some kind of food or something, that just teleports you right back home, make you feel all warm and fuzzy?”
– Ted Lasso, Season 1, Episode 2
Inspired by the way that hands-on science centres playfully introduce children and adults alike to the curiosities and complexities of our biological, chemical, and physical world, the Virtual Realizations, Playable Archives project, emerging from the Implementing New Knowledge Environments (INKE) Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) partnership’s Community cluster, is exploring strategies to interactively engage broader publics with the wonders and challenges of humanities knowledge, research, and research communication. Collectively, the purpose of these humanities discovery prototypes is to inform, engage, and inspire—to explore ways to involve communities in playful, participatory scholarship while modelling and promoting critical perspectives, responsibility, and methodological rigour. Most importantly, these prototypes will collectively argue that joy and play are essential aspects of innovative and inventive open social scholarship (OSS) practice. This paper’s focus on Chowdr, one prototype example from the Virtual Realizations project, is intended to initiate larger critical conversations about play, community, and OSS values by using a food-based social networking app. This prototype is designed to create meaningful engagement among users by having them share their personal recipes for seafood chowder and, in doing so, playfully connect with their community and their food culture.
Joy is the pleasure we experience during moments of discovery and surprise, but it is not just a reaction—it is also a perception, practice, and attitude, and an approach to the world that often abates as novelty gives way to repetition and motivation turns from curiosity to pragmatics. However, joy is an attitude that “attunes us to being open to new possibilities for relating to our circumstances and perceiving them in a new light” (Johnson 2020, 6); it is something that can be incorporated as part of a way of being or—more importantly—a method of research or inquiry. Happiness is a fleeting and conditional emotion, an outcome that has been packaged and sold as a commercial product, promise, and expectation, but joy—as an inherently anti-capitalist praxis—involves selflessness, gratitude, and generosity. Joy as method can thus be interventionist and radical, an instrument of playful critique within and against systems and standards. It involves a poetic defamiliarization of the mundane as a provocation towards a curiosity and desire for critical understanding, as a way of moving beyond simple, passive enjoyment.
Although OSS has serious political implications and motivations via its interventional interruptions and unconventional approaches, it is constituted by a playful spirit, and this spirit is the pathway to the kinds of joy the Virtual Realizations project hopes to inspire. Play is a powerful activity that is “grounded in the concept of possibility” (Csikszentmihalyi and Bennet 1971, 45). Miguel Sicart extends such possibility into social contexts, discussing the social value of play as a “way of being in the world” and making sense of it (2017, 18), observing that "playing is a form of understanding... of engaging with others" (1). This is similar to Brian Sutton-Smith’s assertion that play is a form of cultural formation and “bonding, including the exhibition and validation or parody of membership and traditions in a community” (2001, 91). Our aim throughout this project is to create a space that rejects the commodification and competition applications of play, and instead facilitate the growth of knowledge, which can be achieved through collaboration and community. To this end, we align more towards the ways that Miguel Sicart advocates for moving beyond play as a specific, sanctioned activity towards a broader spirit of playfulness (2017, 22) that “reambiguates the world” (28), as a method that “brings the essential qualities of freedom and expression to the world outside play” (30). Sicart advocates for playful system designs that downplay authority (31), and that promote critical disruption (29) and creative expression (30). Such practices are formalized by Mary Flanagan in her book Critical Play, which uses play as a critical method to examine “social, cultural, political, or even personal themes” (2009, 6).
In a playful and politically charged effort to move away from conventional perceptions and practices of humanities scholarship that facilitate exclusive or hierarchical connections and communications, we are working to ensure that Virtual Realizations prototypes reflect our own community-aligned values and commitments as researchers, academics, and community members. At the heart of OSS is the establishment and acknowledgement of inclusive and engaged communities, not audiences, and this focus reinforces OSS values that resist quantification and commodification in favour of collaboration. Community members are not just listeners, but are empowered contributors who form a network of shared relationships (Spinks 2017).
Chowdr, the specific application prototype that we have been working on, aims to establish a platform for a digital community that encourages people to modify, share, and experiment with seafood chowder recipes while also prompting users to critically reflect on the social and political facets of food culture, economics, and security. The skills encouraged by this prototype are not limited to the kitchen. It is our intention to facilitate an experience in which users will be able to use a food-based social network to become more curious about the contexts of and connections between recipes and people. To accomplish this, we utilize a “bait and switch” strategy for learning, inspired by Randy Pausch in The Last Lecture (2007). By providing users with familiar interfaces and tools that have been repurposed to provoke unique and self-reflexive engagements with their culture, users are able to view their world from a new perspective without the pressures of traditional learning strategies. In order to do this, Chowdr parodies the dating apps Tinder, Grindr, and Plenty of Fish due to their accessible and simplistic interfaces, as well as their main goal of connecting users. Parodying dating apps is an intentional strategy of playful poetic defamiliarization. Our prototype initially appears as a casual and low-stakes experience with a familiar interface that allows users to feel more at ease even as participation leads them to responses and interactions that are designed to facilitate a greater critical consciousness about the relationships between food and communities. Unlike social media platforms that are typically about staying connected with people you already know, dating apps encourage new connections. Earlier versions of these dating apps connected people through location, and this remains beneficial to our prototype because one of our goals is to connect individuals who are geographically proximate in order to create regional communities who can reflect on their local food networks. More recently, dating apps have additional ways to connect including the ability to specify interests, relationship goals, and lifestyle specifications. These profile details connect users with individuals who express similar predilections. Our in-progress prototype similarly allows users to include their own recipe highlights such as dietary specifications, low-budget options, and family-specific secret ingredients they wish to share. This gives users the control to discover profiles that contain the ingredients and specifications they want to include in their recipe.
Unlike these dating apps, though, our prototype’s profiling feature is not representative of the user. The main focus is the recipe the user wishes to share and the user’s experience is determined by what they are willing to bring to the collective table, rather than who they are as an individual. Given that recipe features and profile prompts within the prototype are the foundation for the experience of the user, these have been implemented with careful consideration to the kinds of foundations and values our digital community will be built upon. For example, our prototype foregrounds sharing and storytelling over competition and commodification, so there is no system in place in which users are able to rank one another or their recipes. In merging existing social media functions with playful and critical reflections, we intend to eliminate reflexive self-commodification practices demanded by corporate social media applications like Tinder, Instagram, and TikTok. In doing so, this prototype and the experience it delivers acts as a broadly experiential critique of closed, competitive, and commodified social systems. By foregrounding a community of open exchange that resists self-commodification, we redirect the reductive functions of shallow dating apps towards an encouragement of shared passions and respectful understanding. By relinquishing authorial power and authoritative focus while shifting motivations away from cultural commodity towards a communal curiosity about process, Chowdr’s dynamic recipe archive is intended to encourage users to engage critically with the ideas of food and recipes. Our overall aim with this social network is to make a critical scholarly experience more accessible to more people by engaging the curiosity of users in unique ways, exposing them to academic research, self-reflexive critical thinking, and community-building communication practices through an unexpected interface.
By using food as the vehicle for critical engagement, the Chowdr app enables users to ground abstract social and political ideas in the tactile and familiar experience of cooking. In Evocative Objects: Things We Think With, Sherry Turkle details the ways in which people learn through interactions with the objects in their lives. She argues that through repeated interactions and growing personal connection with a familiar object, “evocative objects help us bring philosophy down to earth” (2007, 307–8). By physically engaging with objects, one can bring abstract theoretical thinking to the realm of the concrete—making such theories easier to understand and more immediately relatable to the individual. In the section entitled “What Makes an Object Evocative,” Turkle demonstrates the pedagogical opportunities objects present through the power of play. Essential to the pedagogical potential of play is the concept of bricolage, introduced by Claude Levi Strauss. Bricolage is defined as “a style of working in which one manipulates a closed set of materials to develop new thoughts” (2007, 308). Our Chowdr app, and indeed the process of creative and experimental cooking itself—especially with something as flexible as chowder soup—operate on similar bricolage principles, encouraging and leveraging cooking’s tactility to empower users to engage critically with abstract notions of classification, functionality, and cultural values.
This prototype focuses on facilitating critical thinking, problem solving, and playful experimentation skills, which can be developed through cooking, food preparation, and scholarly curiosity. In an interview with CBC, American nutritionist and academic Marion Nestle is quoted as saying, “I am hard pressed to think of a problem in society that can not be understood more deeply by analysing the role of food” (Nestle 2022). By facilitating connections with one’s community members and guided by questions posed by the app while creating and shaping one’s own recipe profile, users will be able to consider their food networks on a personal, local, and provincial scale as well as how these networks are shaped by politics, environment, and economics. These features link our efforts with broader conversations focused on “platform studies,” a field of research exploring the ways that digital platforms like social media applications and video games influence and are influenced by the communities that coalesce in their virtual spaces. On the one hand, platforms “play a major role in governing the forms of creativity and social interaction that take place through them. They set rules about what content and behavior are allowed, even amplified, and what content and behavior are not allowed or discouraged” (Burgess 2021, 24). On the other hand, platforms “are also partly built, shaped, and influenced by creator communities and the various creative practices and social norms they have developed. In fact, many of the features and conventions of social media platforms were collectively created by users and only later implemented by the platform” (24). This confluence results in a shared authority, a communal flexibility and agency that inherently define platforms as open social spaces and as digital commons.
Following this decentralized communal potential even further, the Chowdr prototype is a platform that focuses on a universal, common denominator between all potential users: food. Because food is a basic necessity, there is a level of familiarity already baked into the prototype. As Marion Nestle states: “there is something about food that is concrete, it’s extraordinarily intimate because it is something you put inside your body and people relate to it in ways that they find very difficult to relate to other things in quite the same way” (2022). Cooking and food preparation allow users not only to be playful and creative with their recipes, but also to be able to critically engage with issues, ideas, and values pertinent to their community. Picking a recipe that many people are already intimately familiar with allows us to expedite the bricolage process, opening the floor for individuals to critically engage with and explore the social and cultural values traditionally associated with the dish. We chose seafood chowder as the main recipe for our prototype due to its connection to and long history within Nova Scotian culture. Recipes for seafood chowder can vary based on location, family, as well as personal preference. The diversity that can be found within seafood chowder recipes is what makes it an ideal medium for our prototype, due to its ability to be customized. We wanted to use a recipe that represented not only the uniqueness of the individuals of Nova Scotia, but also the ingredient diversity we are able to cultivate from our geographic space and local food networks. The goal of our prototype is to take people beyond commodified touristic experiences—such as those provided by the Chowder Trail, an initiative of the Taste of Nova Scotia province-wide marketing program—by asking our users to question connections between food, family, community, culture, the problematic idea and ideals of authenticity and identity, and the way in which geographic space and industrial food networks influence and impact that understanding of identity. The concept of recipe is metaphorically and allegorically pertinent to the essence of flexibility, of play, of the bricolage aspects of OSS, and thus we are exploring new recipes for digital spaces that model potential communities via a critical method of engagement that includes joy and play.
A unique affordance of the digital medium is that it allows for the recipe to become a social situation in and of itself. As we invite users to interact with the format of the recipe, it is transformed from a static set of rules to a dynamic, inhabitable, and, most importantly, a playful space. Similar to the interactive exhibits in science centres or museums, the chowder recipe becomes a socially activated digital avatar that facilitates curiosity and engagement with others as compatible variations, modelling a critical relational approach that can be realized in and extended to other situations. Through the transformation of the recipe from a static archival record to a dynamic social experience, users will be encouraged to engage in curious, critical play with other traditionally static objects, collaboratively contributing to a dialogue of evolving recipes and reflections.
The Chowdr prototype additionally mimics elements of the peer-review process, a feature in academia in which individuals can collaborate on projects by adding suggestions based on their own interests or specialities in order to benefit the final product. This enhancement however is purely subjective: the final product is a benefit but not the actual purpose for our app. Instead, focus is shifted to the process through which chowder is made as both a recipe and an established but adaptive social and cultural tradition. Creating an app that promotes collaborative socialization rather than competition facilitates a positive social networking system that functions like a successful and balanced recipe. The theoretical goal of this prototype is to shift the focus from valuing results to valuing an engagement with process; we are not simply inviting users to the consumerist table, but instead are inviting them into a collaborative digital kitchen space to be a part of the full experience of preparation, generous exchange, playful exploration, and critical reflection. This feeds back into the larger goals of the Virtual Realizations project: to explore a science-centre model of critical making and hands-on experimentation that facilitates wonder, curiosity, joy, and critical thinking.
A critical approach to prototype development requires a consideration of this project’s potential limitations, challenges related to implementing OSS values, and reflections on the ways that our own process needs refinement. Inviting users onto a networked digital platform carries with it some potential drawbacks. While it would be easy to assume that internet-based applications inherently enable OSS practices and are the most effective ways of communicating and collaborating with diverse and dispersed communities, it is important to acknowledge the ways that exclusive corporate interests have mapped much of the internet’s current use and functionality. Early enthusiasm about digital computer networks celebrated the internet as a tool that could radically democratize the means of communication. By transferring the capacity to communicate from strict state and corporate controlled channels, programs, and networks to an open, public network, early digital utopianists believed that the multidirectional flow of information would be “impervious to censorship, [resist propaganda, and as a result] existing institutions were going to be changed for the better” (Foster and McChesney 2011, 2). However, in the face of mass deregulation and powerful corporate lobbying, “[digital technology] enables a colonization of social relationships—a valorization of social activity and human behavior—as well as the substitution of immaterial production based in semiosis for productive activity and human behavior” (Betancourt 2015, i-ii). In an ironic reversal of original ideals, the internet has become a space where communication is now shaped and saturated by corporate influences. This is especially true when it comes to applications on mobile devices. Because contemporary mobile phones run on proprietary operating systems, any mobile application, like the Chowdr app, is beholden to the regulation of a corporate power in order to gain access to their app store and a community of users. Thus, our capacity to promote and instil OSS values through our Chowdr app—which is designed to resist commodification and closed social practices—is thwarted by the privatization of the most popular and accessible access points to the internet. While our prototype acts to reorient users away from the conditioned desire to commodify the self by parodying and subverting the dating app form, there is no easy answer to the broader corporate structures that frame digital culture in limited and limiting paradigms of interaction.
Additionally, designing an application that relies exclusively on user-generated content exposes such an environment to a lack of quality control and the difficulties of exercising effective and constructive moderation to encourage OSS values. In the case of our prototype, we run the risk of encountering disinterested users whose playful intentions are anti-social and destructive. One of the struggles that came from the theorization of building a safe digital community was how best to approach respectful and balanced moderation for users without becoming the overarching authority figure that OSS attempts to reject. Given the time and financial constraints that come with employing student research assistants working under grant funding, it is unrealistic to guarantee long-term moderation options. This is a common obstacle for academic research projects that rely on short-term funding.
Another option for moderation would be to rely on community moderation. This is a practice often used with larger websites such as Reddit, Twitch, Discord, and Facebook groups (Cullen and Kairam 2022). With community moderation, members would “apply their contextual understanding of a group’s values and goals in order to shape and monitor communities” (Cullen and Kairam 2022, 1). This form of self-moderation would allow users to collaborate in the creation of their own digital community and allow us to relinquish authoritative power. However, we opted not to rely on community moderation for a few reasons:
We did not want to create authoritative hierarchies among users. Giving users power over others could lead to a silencing of voices, which we did not want to have unless those voices were inherently harmful to others.
We did not want to rely on the unpaid labour of others to help build a digital community while we ourselves received compensation. We felt that this would ultimately be exploitative and not in line with our values.
This project continues to exist within its prototyping stage, and that means we do not know the size to which the community could grow and therefore can not predict the level of need for moderation. Community moderation works on large platforms that have constant usage and teams of community members, and we are unable at this time to theorize whether that would be feasible for this project.
Rather than allowing this to hinder the prototype development, though, we allowed it to inspire new strategies for facilitating community connectivity, without actually allowing users of the protype to engage directly with one another in ways which would require moderation. We felt that the best way for our “bait and switch” method to work is if the user feels that they have creative freedom while using the prototype.
Thus, we must ask ourselves: how can we cultivate an open and inviting space where people are comfortable with sharing their personal history? Further, if we maintain the idea that it is our job as OSS researchers to create and maintain such communities, do we run the risk of working against the kinds of community-driven momentum that OSS enables? In the service of OSS values, how comfortable are we with letting go of ownership and control or taking a peripheral role in similar projects in the future? More abstractly and fundamentally, what is an ideal OSS community and what are the necessary conditions and shared values that determine such a community? In response to these concerns, we would suggest that the simple act of engaging in thoughtful, creative, and self-reflexive analysis—regardless of the academic rigour—should be a satisfactory end for users in and of itself. By virtue of being in a community determined by intrinsic motivation and driven by an essential curiosity, users will ideally be inspired by something other than the desire to get a good social media rating or publish in an esteemed journal. As with cooking, we hope that the joy comes from the process of engaging and experimenting with the material, rather than consuming a final product or achieving a certain social status.
We recognize that with food costs rising all over the country, the ability to experiment and play with cooking has become a privilege not all can afford to take part in. However, once an individual understands the experimental science behind cooking, a skill which our prototype is designed to encourage, they will have more opportunity for creativity without the risk of food and financial waste. More essentially, though, economic realities make parts of this digital prototype untenable in relation to sustainability, maintenance, moderation, and longevity beyond the duration of research funding. The greatest lesson that this team has learned from the conceptualization and development of the Chowdr app is how SSHRC-funded, public-facing projects that rely on platform development face specific and often frustrating vulnerabilities in relation to ongoing maintenance and overall sustainability. This has been and remains a concern for many digital humanities projects and publicly funded arts initiatives more generally, and it reveals the unique challenges facing academic researchers whose output includes research creation initiatives and the development of community platforms, regardless of whether these are web-based, take the shape of more traditional media, or rely on actual, physical space and locations. The Chowdr app prototype, as an attempt to model and engage more broadly with OSS values, occupies a liminal space between exclusive, academically focused, publicly funded research and initiatives that rely on more commercially aligned strategies for development and longevity. Currently, it remains a philosophical prototype, which is as far as we can take it in relation to the limits of SSHRC funding models, research cycles related to SSHRC Partnership grants, and SSHRC values and priorities. The easiest way to take Chowdr to the next level of development and implementation as a useful and sustainable platform that encourages continuous public engagement would be to seek commercial sponsorship and/or corporate partnership. However, the fundamental tensions are obvious between OSS values and this kind of financial backing, and incompatibilities between public accountability and responsibility associated with SSHRC research and the different kinds of priorities associated with commercial, for-profit application development make such options uncomfortably problematic at best. How can unique differences in development resources and sustainability funding be bridged between publicly funded initiatives and more advantaged private efforts? Better yet, how can the inherent inequity between private and public investment in a project idea be levelled to better empower not-for-profit endeavours, and how can this be guided by OSS values and principles? Returning to the science centre model might be useful here, as corporate sponsorship and partnerships have resulted in some spectacular and memorable experiences for curious guests. However, in these situations, guests also pay to play in spaces that are designed to frame scientific curiosity as a means to support industry, which is not compatible with the values that motivate the Virtual Realizations project and INKE more generally.
Reflecting upon our research creation process, we recognize that there is still room to improve. Our prototype holds immense potential for establishing and engaging a community in playful critical thinking practices and prioritizing community knowledge through thoughtful anecdotes. Nevertheless, it preserves existing hierarchies between academic researchers and community members. The design process of this prototype did not involve collaboration with community members to build and share knowledge; it was a top-down process in which the Virtual Realizations team imaginatively designed a space in which members could interact with each other. In other words, this prototype's design team consisted solely of academic researchers. If we are to move towards further engaging with and enabling community knowledge, we must endeavour to collaborate with community members on a more fundamental level. In the future, we hope to transition away from this division towards a model of OSS that involves community members in all stages of the research creation process.
By planning, prototyping, and actualizing various iterations of OSS-related work and values, our explorations critically encounter what it means to participate in OSS while also engaging in more foundational questions about what is required to encourage and sustain OSS in critical practice. In spite of the logistical impossibility of bringing this application prototype to a useable state given the above-mentioned lack of funding for continued project sustainability and lack of resources for adequate moderation, we still consider this project a success from the perspective of valuing the kinds of knowledge gained through an attention to process over product and a thinking-through making approach. Inspired by Owen Chapman and Kim Sawchuck’s article “Creation-as-Research: Critical Making in Complex Environments,” we consider the development of our Chowdr prototype as a creative-critical act of “the cultivation of knowledge and insight through doing” (2015, 50), as a fruitful process of creation-as-research and critical making. The challenges and achievements encountered through the design process of the Chowdr app have successfully generated a critical knowledge about OSS practices and a practical critique regarding project sustainability that will greatly benefit future Virtual Realizations efforts.
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