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Everyone’s an Expert: The Crowdsourcing of History

Written for Unlimited Priorities and DCLnews Blog.

Marydee Ojala

Marydee Ojala

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.

Indeed, crowdsourcing is changing the way we think about knowledge. Expertise is no longer the exclusive domain of experts; now John and Jane Q. Public have a say, too. The internet gives a platform to anyone who can type—and plenty of those who can’t—so anyone with an opinion can post a comment and be satisfied that they will be heard. It may be easy to forget, but it wasn’t always like this; if you wanted to say your piece, you had to be published, or else land an interview in a newspaper, TV, or radio. So until recently, most reactions to media and other forms of information occurred in a vacuum. The only people to hear your opinions were those in the room with you.

Crowdsourcing is changing the way we think about knowledge. Expertise is no longer the exclusive domain of experts.

But news on the Internet has an immediacy that changes the dynamic of “talking back.” You can read a story on a newspaper website and immediately express your opinion in a comment box. You can also use social media to correct an article’s facts and give your view of the situation. You might write a blog post for a lengthy response, or limit yourself to the 140 characters of a Twitter tweet. You could call attention to the story’s deficiencies in a Facebook status update. Not only are you getting your ideas out in public, you’re starting a conversation.

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.

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’

One example is a photograph of J.M. Schoonmaker that the Library of Congress (LOC) added to Flickr Commons (www.flickr.com). The LOC included the phrase “unverified data provided by the Bain News Service on the negatives or caption cards” and noted it came from the George Grantham Bain Collection. The first comment pointed to an online biography of James Schoonmaker; the second pointed out that the photo did have a date (6/25/1913) and that date coincided with the publication of a book about Schoonmaker. The third comment 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.

On the flip side, you should recognize that you could be wrong. So could the other people commenting. A news item asserts, for example, that company A bought company B in 1963. You’re convinced it was 1972. And say so—in public. Then you research the company history and realize the 1963 date is correct and that 1972 is when company A bought company C. Although I’d like to believe that the wisdom of crowds is worth considering, I’m not about to accept that every single correction of a fact is valid. I can get just as annoyed with incorrect ‘corrections’ as with incorrect ‘facts.’

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.

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