Week Nine Reading Blog: Crowdsourcing Might Get a Little Cramped

Of all the readings we’ve done this semester, I’m most ambivalent about the topic at hand, Crowdsourcing History, and its potential impact, both positive and negative, on the quality of digital history.  In my more than 30 years in the Army, I’ve had to conform to a very useful, productive approach to problem-solving and product development, in which teamwork  and collaboration proved essential in most cases. But I’ve also seen aberrations of this same approach, which I have pejoratively deemed “the group-think,” scuttle many efforts and produce less-than-optimum outcomes. In other words, too many “fingers in the pot,” and too many “chiefs” attached to those fingers, have resulted in potentially excellent results watered down to mediocrity in order to appease some larger group. In turn, these products, when presented to senior leaders for a decision, often obscured self-imposed disadvantages in favor of the fact that everyone had a hand in its creation and “could live” with the final outcome. I don’t want to belittle the power of collaboration in achieving excellent results, but I also want to ensure that the outcomes produced by singular personalities adhering to equally rigid standards don’t get kicked to the curb in favor of a particular methodology for producing digital history.

Roy Rosenzweig’s article on Wikipedia cuts to the core of my concerns, despite his enthusiasm for a medium that allows for the construction of historical knowledge based on a lot of “fingers in the pot.”  Although I find Wikipedia to be a useful tool, and I fully support ‘democratized’ history online, I don’t share Rosenzweig’s complete enthusiasm for the site.  The question that haunts me most is: If anyone can add to or revise historical entries on Wikipedia with the same  authority as a trained historian, then why have trained historians? Rosenzweig specifically takes aim at the fact that current historical scholarship is “characterized by possessive individualism” (Rosenzweig, 117).  Frankly, I don’t see a problem with a historian whose life’s work is defined by a specific historical topic, genre, or event. Without experts in specific subjects, who can police a crowdsourced site like Wikipedia effectively in order to strip out the errors and blatant misinterpretations?  Rosenzweig’s contention that most facts on Wikipedia, according to his own sampling, are generally correct and that Wikipedia’s real virtue rests in its capability for public revision are good points.   And yes, Wikipedia is an online encyclopedia that is not intended to replace individual historical scholarship; in fact,  I think that Wikipedia’s prohibition on original historical scholarship making its way onto the site is a pipe dream. I’ve seen it happening already on certain topic entries for which I have specific expertise, such as the Battle of the Bulge during World War II. Overall, I think we need to view how collaborative historical scholarship occurs online in a very specific way. We still need the “possessive individualism” that comes with a scholar taking ownership for his or her historical work and then using that special background to help ensure that others “get it right” online — or at least to make sure that those who do add their two cents do so in an informed manner.  We need that individual historical expertise out there to advocate both for the academy and for democratizing history online in order to sustain the balance necessary to doing good history, regardless of the medium.

But one theme surfaced in the readings regarding Wikipedia that left me flatfooted: the demographics of the site’s contributors. Perhaps the most puzzling aspect of Wikipedia’s participatory demographic is the fact that it contains mostly educated white men from the West. According to Leslie Madsen-Brooks, a 2011 study identified only 8.5 percent of the site’s editors as women. By contrast, she states, most users of genealogical Web sites (around 65 percent)are women.  These statistics puzzle me. I’m not sure why such a gender gap exists on these two sites. Do these gaps suggest that American (or perhaps Western) society have quietly, through overt practice,  accepted strictly defined gender roles when preserving some forms of history, such as women as the keepers of the family history? Does Wikipedia attract more men because men feel that they want to safeguard a historical record that perpetuates a certain gender-defined image of themselves — for personal or political reasons? Madsen-Brooks doesn’t seem to have an answer, and neither do I. Frankly, this whole discussion surprised me and has left me hanging. I’m stumped.

I am most enthusiastic, though, about the kind of “crowdsourcing” that Trevor Owens, Tim Causer, Justin Tonra, and Valerie Wallace describe. The fastest route to democratizing history through the digital medium is to get the primary sources out there on the Web as effectively, accurately, and efficiently as possible. I think the efforts to involve the public in this enterprise are on target, particularly in the case of the Jeremy Bentham archive. Causer and company, while outlining the pitfalls and frustrations inherent in getting amateurs and volunteers to transcribe primary sources into digitized text, are employing perhaps the best method for making the Bentham archive available. I happen to own hundreds of original Civil War letters (my hobby is collecting original World War II and Civil War documents), and I’ve transcribed all of them into Word documents. The process is tedious and aggravating, especially when the handwriting is poor or the text is faded.  I routinely had a fellow historian check my work to make corrections or to reinterpret some of the more difficult handwriting issues. But the fact that I had already done the “heavy lifting” by transcribing the bulk of the document with reasonable accuracy allowed him to concentrate on  those finer points requiring correction.

Granted, as Causer and company point out, the quality-control process did not really “[quicken] the pace of transcription” (Causer et al, 130). But what’s more important? Getting it right the first time, or getting it quickly? My vote is for getting it right the first time. Sheila A. Brennan and T. Mills Kelly faced this fact when they realized that, much to their chagrin, they had to allow time for Hurricane Katrina survivors to heal emotionally for a year or two before they (the survivors) could provide testimony that was of a high quality and useful. Thus, fast is not always good,  and “crowdsourcing,”  while effective, may not equal speed of output. Most importantly,  getting the public to help in producing digitized archives not only empowers the average person with the ability to help preserve for all time the intellectual fruits of his or her past, but it also helps to “democratize” history by making members of the public ‘intimate” with the primary sources. What better way to energize the public’s imagination and awareness of history than through the collective preservation of its treasured sources? I’m all-in for this type of crowdsourcing effort.

Steve Rusiecki

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