Crowdsourcing: Useful or Not?

The first two readings for this week’s class focus on crowdsourcing, both the myths that surround its usefulness and an analysis of a project that successfully utilized crowdsourcing. D.C. Brabham uses critical discourse analysis to examine 101 articles that the terms “crowdsourcing” and “amateur” are used in, to wrestle with many of the myths that tie those two terms together. Tim Causer and Valerie Wallace breakdown the results and structure of a crowdsourcing project, Transcribe Bentham, to examine its successes and highlight areas that need improvement. These two readings work together to call attention to popular myths about crowdsourcing’s usefulness and why the myths can be detrimental to future work.

Brabham found that the popular opinion of crowdsourcing does more harm than good to the often valuable work that comes out of crowdsourced projects. By engaging with the various definitions surrounding terms such as “amateur” and “hobbyist,” Brabham is able to unpack many of the biases that underlie popular opinions. For example, he discusses that amateurs are often positioned between professionals and the public in a field while hobbyists are viewed as only having casual interest in their subject. These two positions are viewed as separate, but will often co-exist within the same crowd-sourcing and be beneficial to the project overall. Some professionals who have a vested interest do not have enough free time to give more than a casual interest into a project, while some amateurs have significantly more time and are just entering the field.

 While he does argue that crowdsourcing does conform to many of the actual definitions, he explains that this should not detract from its value. While some who work on crowdsourced projects may not be serious about the subject matter, they are freed from the rigidity that may accompany professional work on a project. By inviting the public and amateurs to have a voice, it can move the field and project forward overall. This argument read very similarly to other popular arguments I have seen about history as a field and its relation to public history as a field.

Causer and Wallace unpack all the work that went into the project to create a new transcription of the works of philosopher Jeremy Bentham (the man behind the idea for the panopticon prison). The project was undertaken in at the University College London, and took place over a six month period between 2010 and 2011. The results of their project determined that the many volunteers who transcribed Bentham did an astonishing amount of good transcription work. What made this project unique was the complexity present in Bentham’s writing, as most transcription projects include texts that are straightforward instead of convoluted. This supports Brabham’s argument that crowdsourcing is not only for simple projects, but can be used for more complicated ideas. 

The two readings complemented one another, because they both appear to champion crowdsourcing as a method to create new work. Both also mentioned pitfalls or ways to improve the work in the future. Brabham focused on the issues with demeaning crowdsourcing and finding a way for scholarly work to be properly credited rather than taken for granted. This concern is valid, and it would be interesting to see how it could be resolved. Causer and Wallace provided a blueprint for other crowdsourcing projects to work from, including where their timeline constrained the success of the project and lack of media attention at the beginning also stunted the project’s growth. It’s important to recognize the cons to crowdsourcing, but overall these readings left me feeling like it should be used by more reputable organizations like the University College London as a way to help deter the negative opinions that surround its credibility.

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