Week 5 Reading Reflection

This week’s readings have me intrigued with the crowdsourcing concept.  And thank you to Prof Leon for organizing the articles in such a way that one seemed to flow into the next.

Howe put things in terms that I could understand.  He identified 4 different types of people involved in crowdsourcing, along with some thought-provoking pros and cons.

The Professional – I felt badly for the professional photographers who lost money and business from IStockPhoto.  However, I could not help marvel at the internet again, and  be glad that something like IStockPhoto had made photo access easier and cheaper for organizations like the National Health Museum.

Also, is this not just another example of how capitalism works?  A new idea and/or technology comes along to replace an old process or technology.  Then, some people lose jobs and/or money, while others benefit in the near term.  In the long term, everyone benefits (theoretically).

The Packager – This one made me laugh, as it seemed to take advantage of people’s desire and willingness to make their lives even more public.

The Tinkerer – How fantastic!  I love the idea that someone can pursue his or her passion on the side, have fun discovering solutions to scientific (or other) problems and make some money in the process.  The idea of “crowdsourcing/outsourcing” your R&D to tinkering scientists was my favorite aspect of this new concept.

The Masses – Here, I admit, I lost a bit of enthusiasm.  The value in something like Mechanical Turk seems apparent, but harnessing that capability remains a challenge.  I enjoyed Owens’ comparison of Human Computation to Wisdom of Crowds.  It helped break things down for me, and helped me to see the value in both (though I admit I still think the “wisdom of crowds” is a bit suspect.  How much “wisdom” can crowds really have?  I keep thinking of the saying that “A person is smart; people are stupid”.)

So, I see the validity, but it leads to my next point.  Owens and Holley agree that crowdsourcing can be productive, and is a tool which libraries, researchers and public historians can use to their benefit.  Wikipedia, the New York Public Library using librarians to transcribe old menus and us CLIO I students transcribing a document off the Papers of the War Department website all qualify as amateurs, motivated and dedicated individuals seeking to improve and expand the knowledge base in some way.  But, there are risks.

Wikipedia at least attempts to address one of these risks, namely, who is checking all our work?  Wikipedia’s editors may eventually get to my new (!) entry on training women in the Marine Corps in World War II.  When they do, they will find a verifiable source to which they can refer.

However, are librarians and researchers doing this for everything?  How much checking is involved?  How can researchers ensure that what amateurs put on the World Wide Web is credible?  Where is peer review or simple double-checking?  Or are we really counting on everyone’s public service motivation to do the right thing?  I may trust that foodies in NYC want to get the menus right, but I do not trust the NYC public school system to have taught them grammar and punctuation.

Alternately, is the fact that the work is getting done “good enough”?  Are we getting enough simply because we are gaining access to documents previously untouched by archivists with too much to do and too little time?

My project proposal idea about oral histories touches on this idea.  Oral history recordings often go unused, simply because researchers do not have, nor do they want to take the time, to listen to an oral history that may or may not add value to their project.  And currently there is no better way to gain access to oral histories than to listen to the actual recording.  If crowdsourcing could be used (or is being used) to make some of these histories accessible by transcribing them (hence, making them key word-searchable), then any mistakes made in the actual transcription can be overlooked, or corrected later.

I can see both sides, and certainly as we get better at harnessing “the masses”, understanding their motivations and better matching talents with tasks, we will continue to see real benefit.

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