Hist 696: Engaging the crowd

This weeks readings were largely straightforward, but interesting in the variety of strong opinions on that this topic often generates. From Wikipedia to Mechanical Turk to Flickr Commons, the major sites of crowd engagement and activity are covered in our readings, though the crowd-sourced elements of our own Papers of the War Department and transcription tool Scripto were conspicuously missing.

Rosenzweig‘s article on Wikipedia touches on many of the general points of contention over the value of the information on Wikipedia and the role of academic-types in the creation of wikipedia articles. The complaint and corresponding discussion of Wikipedia’s emphasis away from original research and toward the more bland encyclopedia entries confused me to some extent. Wikipedia is not set up as a publishing platform for historians’ latest investigations and explanations of historical events. Instead, it is a quick entry point into a subject matter. As Rosenzweig notes “Teachers have little more to fear from students’ starting with Wikipedia than from their starting with most other basic reference sources. They have a lot to fear if students stop there.” It would also be interesting to look at the concerns expressed in 2006 in relation to Wikipedia’s current state in 2011.

Mechanical Turk, covered in the Wired Article, is more troubling to me. While I agree that there are many inefficiencies in business that crowd-sourcing can help mediate, the huge disparities between what people will accept as pay for one-time work and full time employment are troubling. However, the idea of opening up Research and Development questions to a wider audience of enthusiasts is interesting and has proved very productive. But again there is an unfortunate separation between the problem-solvers and those that benefit from the solutions.

The write up on the Smithsonian decision to post pictures on Flickr Commons points both to the inefficiencies in convincing large institutions to share openly online (it took a long time for them to consider sharing) and the benefits of doing so. The comment that sharing through Flickr did not drive traffic back to the Smithsonian site was interesting, revealing a split between how organizations expect people to use the information and content online and the ways they actually interact with it.

Trusting the “general public” to create valuable content can be difficult, as seen in many of these debates and discussions. Groups can be both more intelligent than we allow, and more foolish than we hope. Creating ways for engagement that both bring the public in and allow them to surprise you, while still creating safeguards to ensure quality are two necessary ingredients for making crowd-sourcing productive.

Another approach not commented upon in these reading is the use of games to both encourage and control crowd-sourced contributions to larger projects. The Library of Finland has used games in a particularly successful way. (Read the write up here or play the game here) By playing the game, you correct the OCR of the nation’s newspapers. I find this to be a particularly promising mode of crowd-sourcing as both parties are providing a service – the game makes the work fun for users and provides a distraction while the players help make their national archive better – and it is geared toward the creation of a public good, not an individual company’s benefit. There is a lot of potential in crowd-sourcing, but also a number of ways it can be abused or used poorly, making it, like anything, a tool to be used with care and consideration.