The Web: Collaborative or Exploitive Readings 5-9 (February 10th Readings)

Hi everyone! I wanted to start off this reading response blog first by saying I so enjoyed reading everyone’s introduction posts and I am very excited to continue to get to know you all over the course of the semester. I also wanted to let you all know that I will be covering readings 5-9 as listed on the syllabus, however for the sake of discussing how they connect with each other I will not be covering them in order as they appear on the syllabus.

The first reading I wanted to discuss is Roy Rosenzweig’s 2006 essay “Can History Be Open Source? Wikipedia and the Future of the Past.” In this essay Rosenzweig gives a brief history on Wikipedia and discusses its success as a platform for democratization of knowledge and collaborative work. Rosenzweig begins by discussing how professionalized historians are highly individualistic, rarely publishing co-authored or multi-authored works, and are highly concerned with authenticity of work, always citing original ideas to their source and avoiding plagiarism (117). Rosenzweig argues that there is a dichotomy between the way professionalized historians have traditionally operated and the ways in which Wikipedia operates; calling for anyone and everyone to contribute their knowledge from a “neutral point of view” or “NPOV”. He argues that despite this dichotomy historians need to care about wikipedia because students care about it, as well as its open-access approach to knowledge, in comparison to so many academic journals that are locked behind paywalls. Overall Rosenzweig concludes that historians should pay attention to Wikipedia, learn from it, and attempt to include aspects of it’s open sourced, democratized approach in their own work. As this article was written in 2006 I’m curious if you all think historians listened? Do you think professionalized historians are open to approaching history in ways similar to how Wikipedia does it? Is there a difference between generations? 

The next reading is Elissa Frankle’s 2011 article “More Crowdsourced Scholarship: Citizen History”. This piece seems to be in almost direct conversation with Rosenzweig’s call for historians to incorporate crowdsourcing into history, Frankle and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum did just that with their “Children of the Lodz Ghetto” project. This project allows for “citizen historians” i.e. anyone who is interested, to access certain historical documents and sources the museum has and do research to attempt to draw conclusions about what happened to the students of the Lodz Ghetto. The project allows “citizen historians” to participate in the research process of history and come to their own conclusions, which are then checked by Frankle, instead of just viewing the interpretations museum professionals have drawn in the form of an exhibit. Frankle predicts that more museums will crowdsource out the research process and search for more ways to engage everyday people interested in history. 

In response to Rosenzwieg’s essay and Frankle’s successful experience with the “Children of the Lodz Ghetto” project, it feels appropriate to next discuss Alison Miner’s 2010 blog post (and the comment thread) “if everything on the internet has to be free, why isn’t my healthcare, too?” More so than any of the other sources I examined this piece challenged me to think about my future as an emerging professional in the field of public history. In this piece Miner, a LIS student, poses the question, “how can i get paid for my profession if there are people out there who are willing to do the work for free?” Miner argues that with a turn towards open-source platforms, crowdsourcing approaches, and the overall demand for free knowledge and free products of intellectual’s work, her hope for her job to continue to be in demand and a paid possession is faltering. Miner and many commenters pose concerns about American capitalism and the devaluation of intellectual work, as a result of many non-tenured humanity positions struggling to maintain living wages. This piece, especially when read in conjunction with Rosenzweig’s call for historians to approach history more in more open-sourced ways and Frankle’s success with her project, made me think… a lot! Where is the line between gatekeeping knowledge (something historians are accused of – think again paywalls to academic journals) and maintaining a level of professionalization? These articles didn’t begin to discuss differing access to education and the need for now (at least) a Master’s degree to enter the field of history and hope to be paid adequately for your labor. How can we as professionals navigate our desires to engage more people but still maintain our jobs? Is this something others are worried about or just concerns of my cynical, over-thinking prone brain? 

The final two sources switch direction a bit and instead discuss the more ‘meta’ ways in which people and the internet interact. The first source, a 2007 YouTube video titled “The Machine is Us/ing Us”, provides a history of digital text and technology and poses many questions to viewers about not only the usefulness of digital text and technology but the ways in which we (we being internet using people not necessarily historians) interact with it. The video points out that interactions with the internet go both ways, we use it to gain information and it uses us to gain information. While this video is a bit dated, I’m interested to hear your thoughts about it. Was it still effective? Did it achieve (what I believe to be) it’s goal of getting you to think about the ways in which you use the internet and it uses you? Are there things you would change or add to the video now, over 10 years later? 

The final source I’ll be discussing picks up on the thread of the above video and is Siva Vaidhyanathan’s “Making Sense of the Facebook Menace” article posted on January 5, 2021 (a date in itself I found very interesting as it was the day prior to the insurrection at the capital, something largely contributed to the allowance for right-wing conspirators to openly plan on online social platforms). In this article Vaidhyanathan begins by discussing and critiquing the “Facebook’s Top 10” list, a twitter account run by New York Times’ journalist Kevin Roose that publishes the sources of the 10 most interacted with links on Facebook in the United States for any given day. Vaidhyanathan points out that the list has been used to point to the propensity for Facebook to disseminate right-wing information, but argues that the lists don’t give a measure for the top 10 nor do they take into account other vital information needed to draw conclusions about how links are being shared, used, and understood. Despite these critiques Vaidhyanathan continues on to argue that as a platform that is constantly using and collecting user information to tailor itself to each user, Facebook poses such an efficient threat to Democracy worldwide, many could not recreate it if they tried. What implications does Facebook, the continued push for regulation of Facebook, and the propensity for Facebook’s undermining of Democracy have for historians? 

Thanks for reading this, I know it got a bit lengthy but I can’t wait to hear what you all thought of these sources!

9 Replies to “The Web: Collaborative or Exploitive Readings 5-9 (February 10th Readings)”

  1. Hi Rosie! Thank you for sharing so many great insights and questions from the readings.

    I was particularly interested by your question regarding the time that has passed since Rosenzweig’s essay about Wikipedia was published. I can’t speak to the whole field of history, but public historians seem to be answering Rosenzweig’s call for professional historians to engage more with Wikipedia and similar approaches. One historical organization that I worked with in Ohio held a Wikipedia Edit-a-thon where several volunteers submitted new articles and edited articles about their local history. From what I’ve heard, I think that a lot of other organizations do Wikipedia Edit-a-thons, and it seems like a good way to encourage historians and students/community members to engage with collaborative approaches.

    They also started crowdsourcing entries for a county-specific resource called the Trumbull County Encyclopedia that they included on the organization’s website: Since most of these entries were so locally-specific, it was a great way to gather information that was collectively known by the community, but was not yet put into writing.

    I feel like it is kind of difficult to determine whether or not there is a generational gap at play. I would say that the historian’s professional goals would play a larger factor in whether or not they choose to try these more open/collaborative approaches to history.

    1. Hi Mia! Thank you for sharing this! I have never heard of a Wikipedia Edit-a-thon before but I agree it is a really interesting way for public historians to encourage engagement in ‘non-traditional’ ways (I say non-traditional as in not a textbook or book, but who knows maybe Wikipedia and activities like this are the new ‘traditional’ ways). Thank you for sharing the Trumbull County Encyclopedia as well, it is really cool to see how communities were inspired by the crowdsourcing approach that Wikipedia employed and created something to fit their needs using that technology.
      I agree that the historian’s professional goals are key to how they engage with sources like this. I think my generational question was in reference to teachers/professors when we were in grade school or high school saying Wikipedia isn’t a reputable source and then moving on, versus what I see some doing now which is using Wikipedia as a teaching resource to discuss sources, collaboration, or crowdsourcing (as your organization and Trumbull county did).

  2. Hi Rosie! I was also very interested in Vaidhyanathan’s argument in his “Making Sense of the Facebook Menace” article. Specifically, I was a bit surprised that his argument was that the list does not tell us “as much as it might seem” as it “obscures far more than it illustrates – despite its popularity.” I think the list, then, is just another example of a quick bit of information or a succinct list of supposedly exciting or shocking information becoming popular because it offers a bit of surprising information without much depth. As with other similar examples on Facebook, it “distorts” information in a succinct manner, allowing it to be spread quickly and widely. Why is this is a problem? Because, as Vaidhyanathan puts it, “we miss the real, much more substantial threat that Facebook poses to democracy around the world.”

    1. Hi Claudia! I completely agree. I think Vaidhyanathan’s argument is that in certain ways the list distorts the reality of Facebook, and its power against Democracy. It was interesting to see that although he discusses the right-wing lean of the list (and it being used to illustrate right-wing extremism) he does point to the fact that Facebook serves authoritarian regimes well. Definitely conversations I have seen occurring elsewhere (I’m thinking specifically of the popularly viewed video of AOC asking Zuckerberg questions during the Congressional hearing’s on Facebooks involvement in the 2016 election.)

  3. Hi Rosie, to answer your question about whether historians are open to approaching history in a similar way to Wikipedia or not, I definitely think it is a contentious issue within the discipline. I feel that many historians could (and are) hostile to a democratization of history because it would erode the exclusivity of history-making. I also believe that there is indeed a difference in attitude toward this idea, depending on generation. Having grown up with tools for learning like Wikipedia, I understand that they serve well as jumping-off points for further education on a given subject, but are not as substantive as journal articles. Older generations, though, may fear that younger generations take Wikipedia articles at face-value, which could be a reason for possible aversion towards tools like Wikipedia.

    1. Hi Raphael. I agree that in some cases there is a generational gap in understanding and utilizing Wikipedia as a learning tool. I think the idea of using Wikipedia as a jumping-off point for further conversations and lessons is a really good idea like you pointed out above!

  4. Rosie– I’ve had a full gamut of historians-dealing-with-wikipedia examples. In the most profound case I had a professor who openly promoted its use, for it has typically decent information and usually source materials that aid in research. I remember being shocked by this concept that professionals not only use Wikipedia but also promote it. I think as we enter the profession the conversation around democratizing history will continue to change as historians more often than before are held accountable for their efforts to create a holistic, inclusive, and accurate history. I think the onus of supporting the democratization and accessibility no rests with institutions until they provide their full support.

    1. Hi Josh! Thanks for sharing these experiences and for your contributions to discussion in class last night. I’m always curious about people’s previous experiences with Wikipedia in school situations. I remember one time a biology teacher used Wikipedia to discuss sources and following the citations on the Wikipedia page to see if they came from reputable sources. Funny enough, I don’t ever remember a history (or social studies teacher) incorporating it into lessons.

  5. I must say, it was interesting to read about the threat of Facebook against Democracy. Vaidhyanathan’s argument for this kept me hooked on the reading and learning his thoughts on right wing extremism. I also was intrigued learn more in depth about the “Making Sense of the Facebook Menace”. I think encouraging non traditional forms of enjoyment for digital historians is a great idea for the future to implement a digital form of history.

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