Discussion Reflection

These are the questions Ron and I came up with on the topic of crowdsourcing:
1. What is crowdsourcing, and how do you, as a historian, feel about crowd-sourced history?
2. In Leslie Madsen-Brooks’ blog, she talks about Consensus vs. Expertise in Wikipedia creating a “collision of cultures.” What does she mean? Do you think Wikipedia’s editorial policies are too democratic? Why, in the author’s view, are professional historians sometimes reluctant to contribute? What happened to Timothy Messer-Kruse and the Haymarket Trial?
3. Do you agree with Dan Cohen’s quote in the Rosenzweig article in which he states: “[sites like Wikipedia] that are free to use in any way, even if they are imperfect, are more valuable than those that are gated or use-restricted, even if those resources are qualitatively better”? What does this mean for the future of serious history on the web?
4. How does audience play into the creation, collection of materials, editing process and overall usage of sites like Wikipedia, Ancestry.com, the 911 Digital Archive, and the Hurricane Digital Memory Bank? [Ancestry.com is not a crowdsourced site.]
5. What are the negative implications of crowdsourced history? What are some ways that the process of crowdsourcing can be improved?
6. Are there certain times or projects when crowdsourcing is appropriate or inappropriate? Why?

I came to class last night expecting crowdsourcing to be a topic of hot debate, and I turned out to be right. I know that crowdsourcing is something most academics and especially historians have very strong feelings about, and I was pleased to hear a broad range of opinions from my colleagues last night. Between my co-leader, Ron, and myself, we only asked three of our six questions, although Jordan did try to bring the conversation back on track when he referenced one of our other questions. I wouldn’t attempt to claim that it was the questions I posed that engaged the class; rather, it was topic that was engaging. I think that crowdsourcing is one of those topics where we could have simply opened up the floor for discussion without any questions and someone would’ve jump-started the conversation for the night. Ron’s question regarding the consensus of expertise was incredibly insightful and brought up a valid point that got to the root of crowdsourcing and academics’ problems with it.

The lively discussion focused on many different aspects of crowdsourcing. We began defining crowdsourcing, how crowdsourcing is not necessarily ‘crowd’sourcing since the projects that utilize it attract a small cohort of volunteers, and when and in what projects or situations crowdsourcing can be helpful. Marion brought up the topic of gender inequality, which is something I found particularly troubling. I would have liked to have further discussion of how we can attempt to diversify Wikipedia and make it more attractive to potential female members, but the conversation quickly shifted to the broader implications of Wikipedia. Not surprisingly, most of my peers had negative feelings about Wikipedia. We discussed why academics are hesitant to spend time contributing to Wikipedia, even though that might make the site more credible and reliable. We also considered how the audiences for projects like the 911 Digital Archive and Transcribe Bentham are different, as well as what those projects are actually doing and how they’re using crowdsourcing.

The discussion made me think about crowdsourcing from the point of view of a historian, as opposed to a librarian. While I still consider crowdsourcing and Wikipedia to be invaluable assets to the academy and the general public, respectively, I was intrigued by my colleague’s opinions on the topic, and in what ways they have engaged in crowdsourcing or would find it useful in their research. What most sparked my thinking was one of the last comments of the night. Dr. Robertson stated that crowdsourcing turns our notion of audience on its head. Rather than writing a monograph towards a particular audience, we can now use the audience to do work, whether that is through having them transcribe documents or collect their photographs from a momentous occasion. We can use the crowd to further our own purposes, we need to appreciate our various audiences, and we need to understand how to connect with them.

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