A Commons Federation

The CUNY Academic Commons is, at heart, a tool of federation. The colleges of CUNY are diverse in mission, history, and character. This diversity, supported by systems that allow campuses to manage their affairs more or less independently, is part of what makes CUNY a rich place to study and work. But there’s a fine line between independence and isolation. The Commons is one of the institutions of the University that aims to bind us together, while recognizing and respecting the inherently distributed nature of our institution.

It’s only natural, then, that the Commons In A Box project would have the notion of federation close to its core. The vision, in brief, is for universities (and other similar institutions) to use the Commons In A Box software to start their own independent communities on the model of the CUNY Academic Commons, and then to federate with like-minded universities on terms dictated by the federating members. So, for example, a CUNY faculty member who is also a member of the MLA might opt to share her profile data or activity stream from the CUNY Academic Commons to the MLA Commons. As the Commons In A Box software is used more and more broadly, an installation of CIAB will be able to federate not just with other installations of the same software, but with various community platforms.

This kind of federation is important. Commons In A Box will give institutions total control over their community sites, from the server where it’s hosted, to the features they enable, to the visual designs they choose. Thus, each Commons will be tailored for the specific mission, history, and character of its institution. Contrast this with the homogeniety and lack of control typified by catch-all social networks, like Facebook or academia.edu.

Yet, as in CUNY, there’s a fine line between independence and isolation. Students, faculty, and staff are mobile between institutions. My “primary” work affiliation is with one institution, but I have several almae matres, and I have taught at a number of other colleges – and all of these affiliations are a crucial part of how I identify myself as a member of the broader scholarly community. Federated social networks provide a framework for academic vagabonds like me to represent themselves in a more accurate and complete way.

A federation of Commons sites promises, in this way, to be a more accurate mirror of the shape and state of the scholarly world. Institutions may have walls, but in reality those walls are porous. The networks arising out of scholarly practice are affected by, but do not conform to, institutional boundaries. The online spaces where academic work is done, like the Commons, should reflect and encourage these structures; federated community spaces, like those built with Commons In A Box, promise to do just that.

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