Written for Unlimited Priorities and DCLnews Blog.
Crowdsourcing is a little like yelling a question at a very large crowd of people. If the crowd is big enough, chances are someone in there is going to have the answer—as long as you’re prepared to sift through a lot of junk responses in order to find it. And so it is with crowdsourcing, the phenomenon in which tasks or questions are outsourced to the masses in an open call.
The phenomenon (if not the word itself) predates the internet era, but as you may imagine the internet has played an integral role in precipitating crowdsourcing’s recent coming of age. With sites like Wikipedia relying exclusively on expertise provided by a vast community of internet users, crowdsourced knowledge has grown into something many people rely on every day.
With sites like Wikipedia relying on expertise provided by a vast community of internet users, crowdsourced knowledge is now something people rely on every day.
Crowdsourcing is changing the way we think about knowledge. Expertise is no longer the exclusive domain of experts.
When we look at digitized historical materials, we don’t always have the ability to respond. However, as more collections are digitized, expectations of those viewing and reading the documents will change. One driving force for expanded expectations is the Flickr Commons project.
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Knowledge Sharing on Flickr Commons
Flickr, of course, is a photo sharing website where anyone can upload their photos. The Commons is an extension of this idea, but with a historical bent; it focuses on photo collections owned by museums, libraries, and archives. It has 30 institutions participating, including the Library of Congress, National Library of Wales, British Library, National Library of New Zealand, Field Museum, Brooklyn Museum, Imperial War Museum (UK), Powerhouse Museum (Australia), Getty Research Institute, and Jewish Women’s Archive. Each uploads photographs from their collections, which have no known copyright restrictions, with the metadata and information they know about the photo. Then they throw open the floor to comments from registered users. The results can be extremely interesting, showing the value of crowdsourcing the expertise of ordinary people.
The first comment pointed to a biography of James Schoonmaker; the second pointed out that the photo did have a date. The third said, ‘I started a Wikipedia entry’
Not all the comments are as helpful as this one. Frequently, all they say is “nice photo” or words to that effect. Sometimes the photo sparks a question. This happened with the Jewish Women’s Archive’s photo titled “Sarah Brody in Germany, 1945,” which shows three women in front of an airplane (www.flickr.com). A posted comment asked, “Anyone know why there is holes in the windows? Air pressure issue maybe?” Ignoring the grammatical error in the question, another participant quickly answered, “The holes were for ventilation. C-47s usually flew below 10,000 feet, eliminating the need for cabin pressurization. The aircraft flew so slow that some pilots would actually open the cockpit window to get a breeze in on a hot summer day.”
The Commons allows other forms of community sharing besides comments. You can tag the photos, just as with other Flickr photos outside the Commons, and you can add notes. The notes pop up when you move your cursor over relevant parts of the photographs. One example is the photography of Gunner Thomas Harold Burton, 178 Brigade, Royal Field Artillery, from the Imperial War Museum’s collection on Flickr. Move your cursor over the box positioned on the insignia on his cap and you’ll see this question: “does anyone know what this means?” In the note just below that one is the answer: “Royal Artillery, British Army” and above it is a reference to the Wikipedia entry on Royal Artillery cap badges.
The idea of talking back regarding historic artifacts demonstrates the power of self-organized online communities. Jessica Johnston blogged about the George Eastman House’s experiences after one year on Flickr Commons. The statistics are impressive—almost 2 million views, 3,961 comments, 9.885 tags, 655 notes, and 26,008 favorites.
Talk Back to History (and History Talks Back)
What do talking back to your television set, commenting on a blog post or news article, and placing a note on a photograph at Flickr Commons have in common? Passion. When you feel passionately enough about something to add your voice, your opinions, your knowledge to an ongoing conversation, you’ve moved the discourse further along. You’ve added your expertise to the community.
The idea of talking back regarding historic artifacts demonstrates the power of self-organized online communities.
Validating the individual opinions, comments, notes, and supplemental posts on social media sites is a necessity. When you talk back to your television, local newspaper, or computer screen, it’s between you and that device. When you join a community formed around social media, it’s much more public. Those who monitor the Flickr Commons site for their participating institutions have learned that checking the veracity of the comments is time consuming. However, it’s a worthwhile endeavor, since most of contributed expertise contributes to our greater understanding of our shared past.
About the Author
Marydee Ojala edits ONLINE: Exploring Technology & Resources for Information Professionals and writes its business research column. She speaks frequently at information industry meetings and conferences.