Clio Wired: Week 5 Reflection

What I thought of the reading:

The key concept of this week’s readings is crowdsourcing.  The authors explore how the power of the crowd can be harnessed in order to create and improve history content on the web.  This decentralized method of doing history involves many complex issues in the realms of scholarship, human psychology, and technology:  Can crowdsourced history be high quality?  How can we motivate users to perform large amounts of tagging or transcription?  How do institutions learn to trust anonymous users?  How can we create intuitive, effective, and easy-to-use tools for a projects’ volunteers?

For me, the most useful reading this week is by Trevor Owens, whose blog addresses many of these questions.  Owens very usefully breaks down the term “crowdsourcing,” emphasizing that users are not really an undifferentiated crowd, but rather engaged, enthusiastic volunteers and amateurs–in other words, the type of people that museums and libraries have been relying on for years.  Moreover, “sourcing” should not be defined as labor or exploitation, but as meaningful work.  Importantly, the main motivator for users is that the task speaks to their personal identities and gives them a sense of purpose.  Rose Holley, in addition to addressing users’ feeling of purpose, speaks about more concrete types of motivation, such as progress bars, top user rankings, rewards, leveling-up, etc.

Motivational tools on oldweather.org

Motivational tools on Old Weather

Owens also makes an important distinction between types of crowdsourcing projects:  “Human Computation” projects require users to perform short, discrete tasks which are more easily accomplished by a human than a computer. “Wisdom of Crowds/Why Wasn’t I Consulted” projects, on the other hand, require users to present knowledge in a more free-form manner, like in the encyclopedia project Wikipedia.  In my mind, the major distinction between these types of projects is that the former improves access to existing content, while the latter creates new content altogether.  From the projects I’ve sampled this week, I have gathered that Human Computation projects tend to deal with primary source materials provided by a centralized, authoritative institution, while Wisdom of Crowds projects create secondary historical content in a democratized fashion.  The article in History News on “radical trust” presents reactions from institution employees on letting go of some authority by soliciting crowdsourced data; while some interviewees seem thrilled by the prospect, others wished to hold more tightly to the reigns of authority.

The discomfort that some institutions might feel in allowing anonymous users to provide metadata for their digital collections is echoed in scholarly concerns about the validity of Wikipedia.  This debate over Wikipedia has been raging for a long time now.  Wikipedia’s problems (errors, inconsistent coverage, bias toward the subject at hand, and poor writing) are perhaps old news at this point.  However, as Rozensweig points out, Wikipedia’s model of open access and collaboration provides an important example for future digital history projects, and challenges traditional scholarship’s insistence on individualism and hiding behind a pay wall.  Rosenzweig makes a very shrewd recommendation when he implores those who despise Wikipedia to make their own content as easily accessible to users.

Trying it out myself:

I tried my hand at many of the crowdsourcing projects mentioned in the readings this week.  Some like NYPL’s What’s on the menu? and GalaxyZoo are fun and quick.  The tools are easy to use, and the actual transcribing or identifying does not require much skill or practice.  The experience of transcribing Papers of the War Department felt like a completely different animal.  In fact, I consider the experience a bit high stress!  Deciphering handwriting is not an easy task and can by very time-consuming; also, for this project in particular, I felt a lot of responsibility.  Since these letters are of Great Historical Importance, it feels like making a mistake would be doing a very terrible disservice to American history.  On the other hand, if I mistakenly identify a disc-shaped galaxy as round, life will probably go on.

Easy transcription tool on NYPL's "What's on the menu?"

Easy transcription tool on NYPL’s “What’s on the menu?”

Although editing Wikipedia is also a big responsibility, at least I have complete control over what I write and there isn’t much chance of making an accidental mistake.  I can also see how for a scholar, editing or creating a Wikipedia page might not hold much appeal, since Wikipedia’s NPOV policy and prohibition against original material prevents adding anything much beyond factual or commonly-known information.

Public history website review:

Cleveland Historical lets users explore Cleveland’s history in a non-linear, non-narrative fashion.  The site’s informational content in presented in the form of Stories, which also make up various Tours.  A Story consists of a specific location, like Hough Bakery, while a Tour like “Cleveland Food Traditions” points users to Hough Bakery, and other food locales.  There are two ways to access Stories and Tours from the homepage:  Either from the left column list of Tours, or from the navigation bar across the top which offers direct access to both Tours and Stories.

Cleveland Historical homepage

Cleveland Historical homepage

The ability to access Stories through a unifying Tour or from a list offers the user many options for exploring the site.  A framing narrative like “Cleveland Food Traditions” might appeal to some users, while being able to browse and stumble upon information on Hough’s Bakery might appeal to others.

The site’s blue and gray palette, fonts, and graphics are attractive, as is the layout of its Tour and Story pages.  These pages have a clear and logical three column format, with informational text sandwiched between two columns of photos, audio files, and tags.

Cleveland Historical story page

Cleveland Historical Story page

These pages make each Story not only approachable but rich in content.  Being able to read a reasonable amount of text and then having the option to view photographs and listen to oral histories allows the user to customize his or her learning experience.   The Geolocation map is a unique feature, which should jive well with the mobile versions of the site.

The self-guided aspect of the site and the casual feel of the design makes it fun and entertaining.  The user feels in control of the experience, while at the same time, one’s trust in the site’s scholarly credentials is not lost.  This site reflects more modern conceptions of presenting history to the public.  Rather than presenting a one-path, one-perspective, all-encompassing grand narrative, Cleveland Historical lets users play in a historical sandbox, following their own interests and drawing their own conclusions.  My only criticism of the site is that it does not allow users to add their own comments or content.  It would make more sense for a historical site with such a sandbox feel to gives users the opportunity to share reminiscences, opinions, photos, etc.  This would not only give users even more ability to control their experience with this site, but would also enrich the content by drawing on crowdsourced (and of course moderated) material.

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5 Comments

Filed under Reading and practicum reflection

5 responses to “Clio Wired: Week 5 Reflection

  1. I found what you wrote about the PWD really interesting and I think it has important consequences for digital history and crowd sourcing. Like you said PWD compared to “What’s on the Menu?” is in many ways more intimidating and you feel anxious that you might make a mistake. It seems like there’s a tension between “meaningful work” and making transcribers feel like they are a part of an important project on the one hand and making the project accessible and inviting to as many volunteers as possible.

    In reality, I don’t think (although I’m not sure) any volunteer needs to worry too much about not doing a good job even for a site like PWD. The reason these sites need to be transcribed by volunteers is that there’s so much work that it can’t be done by paid staff. Even if I do a bad job transcribing a letter for PWD (1790 [undecipherable] [undecipherable] [undecipherable] [undecipherable] 1798) I haven’t made it worse because the text was already invisible to researchers and text miners. A sub par transcription doesn’t add to the overall mission but it doesn’t subtract from it either.

    • Good points. I suppose the transcription increases access through making the document text searchable and of course it helps to have a guide to the text, but any serious researcher should try to read the original anyway.

  2. The Cleveland Historical site does look very interesting. I honestly had a little bit of difficulty figuring out how it works, but once I did, I found it to be a great tool in learning about the history of Cleveland. I particularly like ready made citations for each entry.

    I also found the WMD project to be rather difficult. I am assuming transcribed documents can be edited for better accuracy. If not however, that is probably something worth adding to ensure the most accurate transcription possible. It’s expecting a little too much to only allow one person to transcribe a particular document.

  3. Mislabeling a galaxy’s shape may seem minimal to those of us concerned with objects of Great Historical Importance, but I assume professional astronomers would think the same thing about papers from the War Department from the late 18th century.

    • Good point. I didn’t mean to discount the importance of Galaxy Zoo’s project. I suppose I’m biased, but maybe it also seems less serious because of Galaxy Zoo’s somewhat lighthearted interface and the fact that the interaction with the site takes only a few moments, whereas when transcribing the PWD, you are agonizing over the document for a very long time.

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