A (Very Brief) History of HASTAC (2002-2023)


A very quick and sketchy summary of HASTAC (Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Alliance and Collaboratory” or HAYSTACK), what an NSF reviewer has called “the world’s first and oldest academic social network,” 2002-the present, on the opening of our 20th anniversary conference, “Critical Making and Social Justice,” at Pratt Institute, Brooklyn, June 8-10, 2023.

NOTE: This was written quickly, without access to the HASTAC.org archives, from memory–and we know how faulty that can be. Please use the “Comments” to add names, insights, anything you wish.–CND

On this very smoky morning, as I get ready for the 20th “advisory board” meeting of HASTAC at what has shaped up to be an absolutely amazing 20th anniversary conference, “Critical Making and Social Justice,” held at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, I thought I’d take few moments to reflect on HASTAC’s history. We were cofounded by a number of scholars across Duke University (where I taught), the University of California Humanities Research Institute (directed by David Theo Goldberg and with Kevin Franklin as HASTAC’s technology lead), USC (Tara McPherson and Anne Balsamo), the University of Washington (Kathleen Woodward), Stanford (Jeff Schnapp and Tim Lenoir), Cornell (Tim Murray), Wayne State (the late Julie Thompson Klein), and a host of others I’m forgetting. I love you all and forgive me for leaving you out of this crucial early narrative. (Please use the Comments to add in names, dates, anything you remember!) The HASTAC.org archives now live in the Duke University Rare Book and Manuscript Room. Unfortunately, they live literally on a computer that one accesses on site, the way one might, say, the Gutenberg Bible. Someone sure better write a dissertation on what NSF has deemed “the world’s first and oldest academic social network.”

Anyone registered to HASTAC.org can post on HASTAC. It’s a user-generated organization. At the same time, no trolls are allowed. Registering means signing on to very clear community values based on HASTAC’s founding principles of equality, inclusion, social justice, anti-racism, gender equity, anti-homophobia and anti-transphobia, and other progressive, equitable missions—so abundantly needed (as many scholars in HASTAC and beyond have documented) in the tech sector. Amazingly, even when we were at 15,000+ registered HASTAC users, we almost never had to fight trolls, perhaps a handful since we launched our first website in 2002-03 [before the Way Back Machine and Internet Archive existed, btw.] We had to spend a lot of time (as in many hours every week–one reason we moved to the Humanities Commons!) bouncing commercial spammers off the old HASTAC.org Drupal site, but we have had very few actual ideological trolls, perhaps because of our clear “terms of service” and “community standards” registration requirement. When you sign on to HASTAC, you sign on to a community with a mission and a vision.

We’ve had conferences all over the US and in Peru, Costa Rica, Canada (Ontario and British Columbia), held one distributed “In/Formation Year” across at least 15 institutions, and even did one international conference in partnership with a relatively young organization called “Google” on an experimental communications tool called “Google Wave.” (See: https://support.google.com/answer/1083134?hl=en) We put that tool through its paces and Google withdrew it when we found all its bugs—probably saved them billions and, well, we had fun talking (even if it sounded pretty Darth Vader-ish) to one another in countries all over the world.

HASTAC’s first official funding and meeting (and eventual name) came when the inimitable Ruzena Bajscy (born 1933), then head of the Cyberinfrastructure division of the National Science Foundation, invited us all to DC for a convening as part of the “collaboratory” movement. A collaboratory is an institution without walls, designed to facilitate research and creativity across boundaries of physical and bureaucratic institutions, disciplines, and everything else. HASTAC stands for “Humanities, Arts, Sciences, and Technology Alliance and Collaboratory” pronounced (this is very much the way scientific acronyms are created) “HAYSTACK.” We began, actually, as an “Advanced Collaboratory” because that was the initiative where we received our first NSF funding.

HASTAC has never in its history collected dues. It’s been entirely supported by institutions (currently Graduate Center CUNY and Dartmouth), grants from many foundations and government agencies, huge projects (like David Theo Goldberg and I co-directing the Digital Media and Learning Competitions as part of the DML Initiative at the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation for many years), and thousands and thousands of hours of volunteer activity. (NB: Nikki Stevens and Molly Morin have created a “weaving” data visualization art installation of HASTAC’s voluntary labor for this year’s HASTAC conference). We’ve had as many as 200 HASTAC Scholars–about 80% graduate and 20% undergraduates–each year–conducting Digital Fridays, writing collaborative reviews of books, creating panels and papers and projects together, year after year, thousands of HASTAC Scholars.

In 2022, and under the leadership of a team led by HASTAC Co-Director Jacqueline Wernimont, originally at ASU and then moved to Dartmouth College, HASTAC.org moved its very rickety and antiquated Drupal site to the Humanities Commons to become HASTAC Commons. We continue to be co-directed by Jacque at Dartmouth and the Graduate Center CUNY, with myself as cofounder and codirector and Dr. Adashima Oyo as HASTAC’s Director of Programs and Administration) and also by the leadership of the Humanities Commons, directed by Kathleen Fitzpatrick and her incredible team.

Our conferences have always been hosted by a guest institution. Yes, we’ll be putting out a call again for the next one. The topics are chosen by the host and all the arrangements are made by the host, with constant meetings with HASTAC’s central administrative team. They are ALWAYS ambitious, always changing. 2019, the last conference before the pandemic, was in the Long House at the University of British Columbia, co-directed by Jentery Sayers (University of Victoria) and David Gaertner (Institute for Indigenous Critical Studies, UBC). This year Chris Alen Sula is the conference director and host of “Critical Making and Social Justice” at Pratt Institute—and we are beyond capacity! A great problem to have!

The image for this very hasty and impartial post is from 2013. I was asked to teach one of the first ever MOOC’s, a Coursera course on “The History and Future of Higher Education.” Instead, I offered to teach a HASTAC-driven and inspired “Meta MOOC,” a deconstructive MOOC across three universities (Duke, UC Santa Barbara, and Stanford) with our physical classes meeting together online for several sessions and then all students from all campuses serving as “mentors” for an 18,000 person Coursera MOOC where our students ran seminars and office hours literally 24/7. (Enrollment eventual was well over 100,000–wherever I travel I meet “former students” who were in this MOOC.) We did such collaborative global projects as “A History of Higher Education from the Beginnings (probably in Fez, Morocco, 800 BCE or so) to the Present and Future.” Thousands of entries, thousands of contributions worldwide. All very, very HASTAC!

Who knew we’d last 20 years! A programmer at HASTAC recently told me, “I went back and watched all the HASTAC videos, all the way back to the beginnings, 2007.” I said, but, wait, we began in 2002. He answered, “Yes, but YouTube wasn’t invented yet.” True! True. Indeed, Kevin Franklin and others took us to meet a guy with a desk in what was basically a shed to together plan HASTAC’s first “Wiki.” We launched and later that year that guy, Jimmy Wales, launched Wikipedia. Facebook didn’t exist yet–nor did its predecessor MySpace. Pioneers! We’re pioneers! And, as the vitality of this conference on “Critical Making and Social Justice” makes clear, we still have a long way to go and, with the newest panic about ChatGPT and AI looming, we have lots more work to do. Join us!

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