Github Fever

I just read Ben Werdmuller’s Git for Teachers, where Ben points out the numerous features of Github that, while making it great for collaborate coding, make it an awful platform for collaboratively writing non-code documents, like syllabuses, articles, and books.

Ben’s post reminded me of something I wrote nearly four years ago about Github. In it, I describe only vaguely the problems of Github for humanists— problems which Ben has now pinpointed with clarity. In the interests of placing my earlier critique of Github in conversation with Ben’s, I’m reposting it here. And I wonder, four years later, if my concluding prediction has turned out to be true or not. I called my piece, rather predictably for someone schooled in critical theory and comp lit, Github Fever

Github Fever has struck the digital humanities.

If you haven’t heard mention of GitHub, you likely will soon. It’s a source code management website that makes revision control and other tools for tracking changes and contributions to code repositories easily available to everyone. GitHub is free when it comes to sharing open source code (which any other user can “fork” to create his or her own branch of the code), while developers who wish to collaborate privately on proprietary projects must pay to play.

GitHub can serve as a repository for more than just code. John Fink at McMaster University houses his notes and presentations on GitHub. Karl Stolley at Illinois Institute of Technology likewise uses GitHub as a repository for teaching and research materials. The flexible, open, and collaborative nature of GitHub has attracted the attention of even non-programmers in the digital humanities. For example, my colleagues and I at ProfHacker have written several times about GitHub, most recently with me sharing my experience of putting a syllabus on GitHub. And over at DH Answers last week, Patrick Murray-John of the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media asked, How ready are DHers to use GitHub for non-code projects?

It’s a good question. The answers so far to Patrick’s question suggest that most humanists — digital or otherwise — are not ready to use GitHub. The learning curve is simply too steep, with no clear payoffs for non-code projects. There are simpler solutions for collaboration and tracking changes. Google Docs comes to mind, for instance.

Another reason for digital humanists to eschew GitHub for non-code projects — although I haven’t seen it articulated as such — may be that GitHub is a third-party service, with a fate beyond our control. History suggests that relying too much on a commercial service with interests that do not necessarily align with our own is no way to sustain the work of the humanities. The cloud is impermanent and owes us nothing. The cloud is not free, even when we pay nothing for it. The cloud is no place to build your digital castles.

And yet we keep hearing about GitHub. I’d like to suggest that the seeming ubiquity of GitHub in DH conversations has less to do with GitHub itself than what GitHub stands for. A culture of sharing, a generosity of spirit, and the bricoleur’s impulse to turn existing bits and pieces into something new. GitHub is — and will continue to be — symbolically central to the digital humanities, but in practice it will remain on the periphery, a fever and for most humanists nothing more.