Week 3: Practicums

Hello everyone and welcome to this weeks practicum. In this post I explore three sites, Wikipedia, Flickr, and Beyond Words. Although these sites vary significantly in purpose they each share a major trait, they are comprised entirely of user generated content.

Wikipedia

Wikipedia needs no introduction. It is a massive site intended to emulate the encyclopedia as an online resource. Wikipedia contains information on countless topics and is only ever increasing in scope and detail as users create topics or submit revisions to existing topics.

Wikipedia is collaborative in nature, anyone that has knowledge regarding a field or a topic is able to create an account and contribute to a page as long as they conform to Wikipedia’s content policies. First, Submitted information can not be original research. Original research is susceptible to bias and can lead to the propagation of misinterpreted information. Second, All information must be presented from a neutral point of view. This policy is intended to allow users with different beliefs to collaborate and present information without concerns over objective truth. Finally, all submitted information must be verifiable. Verifiability forces contributors to provide sources for any and all information submitted.

The site is intended to be self-correcting. Rather than administrators governing the information submitted users are expected to delete or correct misinformation. Every article has a “view history” page on which users can view submissions, corrections, and explanations for every change made. The “talk” page allows users to view discussions regarding the content of an article.

Wikipedia deserves more credit than it gets. Although it is not a suitable source for an academic paper it is exceptionally useful in establishing basic facts and themes. The verifiability policy also provides a unique resource in that at the bottom of every Wikipedia article there are extensive lists of references that can be value in researching the topic at hand in more depth. Wikipedia’s easy accessibility and general reliability on a wide range of topics has made it a heavily relied upon source of information for many people.

Flickr

Flickr is a photo sharing and management site. The site has two main goals, to make it easier for people to share photos and to improve the way that people organize their photos.

Flickr offers a range of possibilities. Users can create or join themed groups in which other users share related photos. These groups also contain discussions pages in which members of the group can discuss the theme or any interesting topics. Uploading photos to the site is streamlined and users can easily create and manage galleries of their photos. Users can also comment on or favorite photos, creating their own collections of favorited photos to be revisited later.

The Flickr Commons is a project in collaboration with the Library of Congress to make public-held photography collections more accessible to the public. Through this project Flickr has partnered with a number of institutions including libraries and museums who make their photos available to users to tag. These tags make the photos more accessible for other users.

Flickr does suffer in several respects however. First, creating a Flickr account requires the creation of a Yahoo email account. The site instantly becomes less accessible as soon as users are forced to sign up for other services just to access photo sharing.

Second, Flickr’s emphasis on images over text also means that it is a less than desirable platform for anything history related. Groups that have history as a theme more often suit architectural interest than historical interest. Dominated by heavily saturated photos of old buildings, portraits, and infrastructure without any kind of context there is no information to be learned and no meaningful engagement in history or any topic except for photography.

Beyond Words

Beyond Works is a project by the Library of Congress that seeks to engage the public in contributing to historical collections. The project is focused around the newspaper coverage of World War I and is intended to make the information in the newspapers more accessible to researchers and the public alike.

The work is broken into three separate tasks; marking, transcribing, and verifying. Marking allows users to outline any photographs or illustrations in the papers. The process is as simple as clicking and dragging a square to encompass the image, similar to cropping an image. Once done with the page the user simply clicks “done” and the next newspaper page is brought up. If for any reason though a user is unsure about something on the page they can either skip the page or outline the images they see and submit the page to be reviewed by other users. Transcribing is simply the process copying the presented text into a text box. This task has the same options of skipping and submitting material to be reviewed by other users. The final task, “verify”, is checking that submitted information is correct from several options. Each newspaper page is reviewed by several users to either mark or transcribe allowing for increased accuracy and in order to prevent any one user from incorrectly completing the task. If you stumble upon a particularly interesting page while completing tasks you are also able to view the whole newspaper.

Once the tasks are complete the data is available on the website for any use. There is a gallery of all completed and verified images that have been marked as well as a text search bar to find newspapers covering certain topics.

Beyond Works is only an experimental project but it shows great promise as a crowd-sourced method of transcription and preservation. The project makes the digital preservation of newspapers easy for anyone and it also provides an easy and fun way for people to read and engage with primary sources.

Final Thoughts

Let me know what you think! Have you ever contributed to any of these sites? What role should they play in digital history? Do historians have a responsibility to engage in communities like these as voices of authority or as contributors?

2 Replies to “Week 3: Practicums”

  1. Let’s get personal for a second- I have a secret love for Wikipedia. I know, I know, it’s not exactly something that you should use for your historical research, and for a budding historian to admit something like that makes you question their work, but hear me out. I never have and never will use Wikipedia as more than what it is- an online collaborative encyclopedia. I mean, you’re not supposed to use encyclopedias as more than basic information in your research anyway, and it looks better if you can find another source to prove this information rather than an encyclopedia. That being said, Wikipedia offers some advantages that other encyclopedias might not. Being an internet-based source based on crowdsourcing, it is likely that it is more up-to-date than other encyclopedias. Also, the different perspectives provided by more contributors enables it to have as much information as possible on a given subject. Finally, my favorite part of Wikipedia is the sources found at the bottom of the page. This serves as a starting point for future research to be conducted by someone looking at the page. So yes, while I don’t think that I would ever cite Wikipedia on a professional piece of research, I wholeheartedly agree with Blake that this site deserves more credit as a first step in understanding topics before more in-depth research is conducted.

  2. In the interest of full disclosure, I should note that I have made some small edits to wikipedia.

    I think that as a tool, it serves much the same purpose as dead tree encyclopedias, obviously, with its own advantages and disadvantages, but the former seem to me to out weigh the latter. Obviously, its crowd sourced nature does leave it open to certain sources of inaccuracy, but it is worth keeping in mind that traditional encyclopedias are not immune to inaccuracy either, even when they were written, and given enough change over time, they do accumulate new inaccuracies, especially if one is not willing to spend exorbitant sums purchasing new ones. The matter of expense should not be ignored when it comes to evaluating sources of information; sources which must be bought are naturally limiting who can learn from them, while a free online source can inform a much wider population. I also feel that Wikipedia’s format makes it better as a source of inspiration than a traditional encyclopedia. By virtue of each page containing a plethora of links to other pages, it encourages readers to make connections which they otherwise might not. Furthermore, the value of the talk pages should not be discounted. If a reader sees something on the page which raises some question for them, they have a much better chance of having that question answered, perhaps even by the person who wrote the section which inspired it, then if they were dealing with a traditional encyclopedia.

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