Serious Sharing: Crowds to Count on



Crowdsourcing: what about it?

Crowdsourcing nowadays is a popular, widely applied phenomenon. Popular examples are Wikipedia, 99designs, and Kickstarter. There is plenty of online discussion about the functionality of this tool, stemming from a variety of online forums. Here you can find an extensive overview of the various ways in which crowdsourcing is applied and different kinds of reactions to it. An example of a highly negative view on crowdsourcing is for instance expressed by Dan Woods, as noted by Brabham.

D. C. Brabham himself attacks the negative depiction of the crowds involved in crowdsourcing. He argues against the condescending manner in which most media describe the participants, namely with the derogatory term ‘amateur’. Brabham urges for an active change in this approach: participants should be taken seriously and their contribution to projects rewarded. Underestimation of the public involved in crowdsourcing projects is too common and not empirically correct, as Brabham argues by providing evidence from his own research. Often, in fact, participants are professionals in the field themselves or at least highly informed about the topic.

 Crowdsourcing in Digital Public History

The discussion on crowdsourcing focuses on the commercial application of the tool, but it is worth thinking about how the concept links to digital public history. One main connection is the perception of the public. As Brabham points out, when involving unknown participants in projects, it is often the case that wrong assumptions are made about what kind of people they actually are. However, understanding one’s crowd is of prime importance, especially when it’s involved in the collection (or even interpretation) of sources. This relates to a key concern in digital public history, namely the selection of qualitative data collected online for historical research. To what extent can, and should, the crowd participating in public history be trusted with its contributions? To what extent is shared authority desirable or applicable in digital public history projects, and how democratic can or should such a process of collecting material online be?

In my view, shared authority is definitely an effective and most of all progressive concept, especially in a digital age when it’s relatively easy to share the search for sources for historical projects. I agree as well with Brabham’s position that the crowd, so the non-academic participants, should not be seen in a condescending way, and actually be taken seriously as potentially highly able to contribute in a qualitative way to public history projects. Before judging out of a certain prejudice and consequent expectation of what kind of contributions will be made to a certain online project, there should be room for the crowd to prove itself serious and able to participate. This does not mean that the interpretative procedure should be fully left out of the historians’ hands: a balance is always important. Eventually the historians behind the project should curate the sources, but only after an open-minded approach has been applied concerning the potential value of sources and interpretations from the online crowd.

 Selected Crowds

‘Crowd curation’ could solve some of these issues pertaining to crowdsourcing. It is meant to ensure an apt selection made early on in the crowdsourcing process, in order to increase the level of quality of contributions and decrease the quantity of irrelevant information received. Perhaps this approach is less democratic than crowdsourcing could be, but then again, it’s not always desirable to have everyone able to influence a research project. The curation of a crowd could enhance the usefulness of crowdsourcing and its output.

The digital platform of Museum Het Schip provides a clear example of this approach. Online participants can add sources to the collection of the museum, therewith increasing the knowledge on the architectural movement of the Amsterdamse School – the focus of the museum. A selection of the crowd is made: not anyone can simply add to the database. One must first register, and after the submission of a source plus interpretation, another control is carried out by the editors of the database. The people behind the initiative have told me they see the project as successful. Interesting is that as part of the explanation on how to participate, it is clearly pointed out that professionals are part of the crowd too: it is not just made up of ‘amateurs’. The crowd is acknowledged and valued for its diversity!

‘Serious sharing’, as I call it, is something to strive for in digital public history. It can help the field further, adding to it different types of perspectives and sources.


Camilla Nieman