Is it too crowded in here? The history discipline and the rise of “crowd sourcing”

Since Chris, Clare, and I are your esteemed leaders for this weeks discussion of crowdsourcing, I will structure this post a little differently then my usual musings.  I will offer some outline of the readings, interweaving some of my own questions and analysis throughout the post.  This will ensure that everyone who didn’t get through all the readings can have an easy way to pretend that they did will have some time to consider these questions in light of their own thoughts, thus making for a stimulating class discussion.

In The Rise of Crowdsourcing, Jeff Howe outlines several key ways that crowdsourcing is currently shaping the creation of content, and what it means for various industries such as stock photographers, TV, and R&D for companies such as Colgate.  Howe’s article began what was to be a constant theme for this weeks readings: the Star Wars principle, or the light side and dark side of crowdsourcing.  Howe’s first example was iStockphoto, a “marketplace for the work of amateur photographers,” which charges between $1-$5 for the license to a basic image, thus drastically cutting the price for stock photo’s.  Naturally, of course, this dries up what was once a considerable source of labor for independent photographers, but obviously allows institutions and businesses operating with narrow budgets not to sacrifice quality for quantity.  The television network VH1 has also had mixed results with crowdsourcing, as Web Junk 2.0 produced some solid ratings, but “users still need to become more proficient and the networks better at ferreting out the best of the best.” Perhaps the most compelling part of the article was on InnoCentive, which allows companies to post R&D problems that “solvers,” or ordinary “hobbyists” can take a crack at solving for a tidy fee. Linking broad ranges of “information, knowledge and experience”  with the “strength of weak ties,” or creative distance, the technique is “creating a whole new paradigm” for large scale R&D.

The paper on Smithsonian Team Flickr detailed how the Smithsonian collaboration with Flickr Commons is helping the sprawling institution “learn what content is desired by the Web 2.0 world, how to bring crowd-sourcing into professionally curated collections, and how to bring diverse institutional skills together in a collaborative project.”  What I am curious to ask the rest of my classmates is, what do think about the goals/lessons learned section? Specifically, was their anything in that particular section that you would change or add? why?  Is there anything that the Smithsonian could be doing differently that would enhance their ability to achieve these stated goals?  Also, a quick aside: did anyone else notice the two that read “The initial thinking was there would be a measurable redirection of audiences from the Flickr Commons back to Smithsonian sites. Early statistics, however, have shown that there has been very little traffic in this direction;” and then wonder why they didn’t elaborate further on the reasons why that was the case?

Perhaps the piece I enjoyed the most was “Grappling with the Issue of Radical Trust,” which posited the not-so-simple question of “what are your thoughts on radical trust?” to professional working in history organizations.  I have to say, that after reading the responses and the comments that followed, I feel compelled to ask: Does reading the comments section giving something of a false impression about the general sense of radical trust among people in historical organizations?  In other words, are the people who are most likely to respond in an online comments section almost garuanteed to favor, in some degree, the concept of radical trust? I was personally surprised that more people in the comments section did not engage James Gardners point about the need to maintain a barrier between historical working professional and the general public.  I personally happen to disagree with his premise that giving people a forum to express their opinions “validates” them, nor do I share his somewhat overblown worries about separating fact from opinion.  Nevertheless, we are all working towards advance degrees in history, so where do you all see yourselves fitting into the radical trust equation? Working at a small historic site that has embraced the concept of radical trust via the use of facebook, twitter, and the comments section on our website, I happen to agree that radical trust enhances the opportunity for informative, offers generally constructive feedback, and gives our site a great opportunity to engage with our visitors and foster a greater connection not only to the site itself, but to history in general.

The final reading for this week was an excellent article by Roy Rosenzweig  entitled “Can History be Open Source? Wikipedia and the Future of the Past.”  Rosenzweig does an excellent job of rehabilitating the image of Wikipedia, pointing out that, broadly speaking it is close to being on par with Encarta and Encyclopedia Britanica online.  I wonder how many of my classmates had the same reaction I did, namely that no matter how many virtues Wikipedia contains (and it has more than I thought), that it has been thouroughly drilled into my head never to use Wikipedia–even as the entry point for further research.  I also think that issues that Rosenzweig treats somewhat superficially–that Wikipedia’s breadth and scope of content is much greater for Western history than other areas pose a greater problem than he can admit.  Yet Rosenzweig is correct to sound a clarion call for the potential of Wikipedia: transcription projects such as the NYPL’s menu collection, “collaborative textbooks that would be free to all are students;” these are just two examples of the profound implications that Wikipedia could hold for the future of the historical discipline.



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2 responses to “Is it too crowded in here? The history discipline and the rise of “crowd sourcing”

  1. I am also curious about the comments section of a site. Can we discern anything about those more likely to comment? Certainly the fact that they read enough (and did not just skim and move on) indicates that the commenter may have some vested interest in making and stating an opinion. My limited experience with comments tells me that the site content is probably the best means of weeding out those who want to qvetch from those who want to add to the discussion. I’m not too sure about the underlying principles behind “liking” comments – does this validate the commenter as some form of pat on the back? Or does it mean that the comment adds significant value to the discussion? What I really am asking is how seriously do we take the comments and can any institution staff a full-time comment checker? Certainly if there is some sort of moderation process, then the whole objectivity and “voice of the people” approach to gathering comments is rather skewed from the start if only comments acceptable by the moderator are allowed to be posted. Freedom of speech – yes – but does that mean there is an expectation that all opinions should be posted? Where do we draw the line between freedom of speech and moderation when soliciting support from the crowd?

  2. Pingback: Wikipedia – History’s Red-Headed Step Child | History Wired

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