Not So Bad After All: Crowdsourcing History

In library school we had many discussions about crowdsourcing and the perils of Wikipedia. One of my professors thought Wikipedia was an undeniable evil, creating and promoting inaccurate information for everyone to see and access. Another professor thought Wikipedia was fantastic since it involved people in the production and promulgation of knowledge. I tend to agree with the latter much more than the former. The internet exists: why not use that power to build a crowdsourced encyclopedia? Obviously Wikipedia cannot be used as a source for any academic work since it is not a reliable, authoritative, or accurate site. Despite these shortcomings, Wikipedia should still be used for non-academic purposes. The authors of this week’s readings commenting on Wikipedia never seem to take into account Wikipedia’s audience. Wikipedia was designed to be used by everyone and anyone, but the people who read Wikipedia are not generally academics, nor are they reading for purely academic purposes. People do not use Wikipedia and expect to read a fully academic account of a historic event or person. There is nothing wrong with Wikipedia not accepting primary source research in their articles, since encyclopedias are not the place to present such research.

Crowdsourcing is not an apt term, as Owens points out. Madsen-Brooks states that 65% of Wikipedia editors are men, and Causer et. al. detail how Transcribe Bentham relied on seven dedicated volunteers who produced more than 70% of the transcripts. Crowdsourcing usually relies on a small cohort of interested volunteers, which makes “crowd” inaccurate. While Owens objects to using both crowd and sourcing, I think the implications of the former term are more important. The historical sites on Wikipedia are generally being written by middle-aged men in white-collar professions. We can never seem to correct the trope that history is told by and reflects the experiences of fairly well-off white men, and excludes the experiences of marginalized people. Wikipedia needs to take pains to correct this error, and needs to make their site a more welcoming place for women, both as contributors and as a place for women’s history.

There are other negative aspects of crowdsourcing. As the efforts of Transcribe Bentham showed, crowdsourcing can be very expensive and time-consuming. Sometimes crowdsourcing projects have to develop their own transcription tool, which takes time and money in the forms of programming, infrastructure, and digitization. Once the transcription process is over, workers have to correct errors, which can be a lengthy process. The project needs to publicize their efforts or it will not garner as much attention as wanted or needed to sustain it. Transcribe Bentham only got off the ground after the New York Times published an article describing the project. Workers on the Hurricane Digital Memory Bank passed out swag during Mardi Gras to raise awareness of the site. Money is always an issue, and without a continuous source of funding projects can burn out.

The positive outcomes of crowdsourcing heavily outweigh the negatives. At the heart of crowdsourcing is the democratization of knowledge. More people are accessing more and more information thanks crowdsourced projects like Wikipedia. The converse is also true: more people are contributing more and more information to crowdsourced projects. Efforts like the 911 Digital Archive seek to collect the histories of people’s experiences that would otherwise be lost or forgotten. Crowdsourcing can, and should, reach diverse audiences, and garner the stories of marginalized peoples.

As historians, we should accept crowdsourcing, contribute to projects when we can, and treat the expansion of knowledge and access to that knowledge as one of the greatest outcomes of the digital age. The information online will not always be accurate and history will often be decontexualized, as seen by the @HistoryinPics Twitter account and others like it. In spite of this, we need to understand that though crowdsourcing is a flawed method, it is often used as a last resort. When computers, an individual, or a group cannot complete the task, then we turn to crowdsourcing. It is a way to engage with a wider audience, and anything that promotes the appreciation of history can only have positive effects.

Week 9 readings

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