Text encoding as practiced in the digital humanities world sits at the juncture of humanities scholarship—textually nuanced, exploratory, and introspective—and digital technology, with its emphasis on formalism and upward scale. As such it is a foundationally collaborative technology: it presumes the need and the desire to make individual insight widely communicable in a form that permits its extension, critique, and reuse. But the mechanisms for achieving this result in practical terms are complex and require thoughtful balancing of the needs, respectively, of the individual and the community. Over the past 20 years, the research of the Text Encoding Initiative (TEI) and its user community has been centered on developing these mechanisms and thinking about their operation and consequences, not only in abstract terms but through specific tools and practices. Through an examination of these tools and practices and the history of their development, we can learn a great deal about how collaborative systems work in the context of digital humanities research.
This paper will examine the TEI's framing motivations and the specific mechanisms—intellectual, social, and technical—through which they have been realized during the course of the TEI's development. In particular it will consider the practice of customization, through which the TEI manages both the representation of the TEI language as a standard and the processes of dissent and expansion through which it is modified by its users. In an important sense, this customization mechanism encapsulates the central challenge of collaborative work, and even of language itself: that of how to balance the urge toward individual expressiveness with the mandates of public comprehensibility, the desire for individual agency against the need for community.