Sneaking its way into many of our conversations of the last month and half has been a debate over the value of crowdsourcing. Should we do it? Is it useful? My original intention with this post was to offer a defense of crowdsourcing as a valuable endeavor for academia. While I still think that, ultimately, I am supportive of crowdsourcing or something similar, the fact that it has taken me two weeks of stops and starts to write this post speaks to my own struggles, doubts, and uncertainty about our project as a crowdsourcing project. As I understand them, some of the concerns about crowdsourcing from our team are as follows:
Does crowdsourcing (used for interpretive purposes) create any kind of useful data, knowledge, or insights for academic purposes?
Does crowdsourcing treat people like cogs in a system, resulting in their dehumanization?
Assuming that we want our project to be relevant beyond academic walls, can a DH crowdsourcing project actually reach beyond those walls? Are non-academics interested? Will people from other walks of life even have the chance to be exposed to such a project?
I think these are legitimate concerns which we need to address. However, I am going to argue that we should, nevertheless, endeavor to incorporate some sort of crowdsourcing aspect into our project. Without roaming too far away from the central issues, I will try to explain why:
One of my primary concerns with academic pursuits is a failure to consider the implication of our profession, research, and practices for the society beyond our own institutional borders. This might be a surprising criticism of a world that often (though not always) hails the insights of feminism and postmodernism, which invite an acknowledgment of subjective meanings and encourage a self-reflective awareness during research and writing. However, while this approach may be used within the confines a research project, I often the lament the degree to which we fail to ask important self-reflective questions about research and academia in general. What is the role of a university? Of a library? How do our practices matter in the world beyond the ivory tower? How might our scholarship influence policy, definitions of truth, or identity? What are the lines of communication and influence between our universities and the rest of society? Is our scholarship relevant to someone aside from other academics? As privileged members of the some 30% of the U.S. population who graduate from college and the even smaller enclave who make their living in academic institutions, I feel we are obligated to ask these questions.
Part of what attracted me to the Praxis program was the use of crowdsourcing, which I saw as an opportunity to engage in these big questions by bridging the space between the ivory tower and the world beyond. Not only could a crowdsourcing tool have research potential, it could also help to make us aware of the world outside our own institutions and to (hopefully) keep an eye toward that world as we pursue our own scholarship. I am still excited about this potential despite our concerns over crowdsourcing. So here are my thoughts on the three questions listed above:
Will a crowdsourcing project produce useful information for academic pursuits? Perhaps not in direct manner. But, it could clue us into important and relevant questions which we can then address in our work, ensuring a certain degree of relevancy between our work and the nonacademic world.
Does crowdsourcing turn people into dehumanized cogs? This is such an important question as we endeavor to be responsible and reflective scholars! The way in which crowdsourcing has been used in the past to harness the energy of the masses makes this a legitimate concern. However, I think our team is in agreement that we are interested in a project that centers on interpretation rather than using “the crowd” to accomplish a particular project. Perhaps this implies that we need a new term for this approach—maybe we are not really doing crowdsourcing so much as suggesting that through a collaborative interpretive project we could get a sense of the pulse of a community. Does this still result in dehumanization of individuals? I am uncertain—this is definitely a concern which deserves more conversation.
Can a DH project really reach beyond the walls of the academy? Could it provide a line of communication between professional scholars and others? I think that the right kind of project with an inviting, playful interface and an approach that is presented in non-specialist language could, in fact, do just that. However, I agree with some of my team members, that actually reaching beyond the academic community would be challenging. Reaching beyond the 30% of the population which is college educated might be even more unlikely. But I am still excited by the potential to do these things, and don’t think that the difficulties they present should prevent us from undertaking them.
I’m sure there are other concerns when it comes to building a tool that depends on crowd participation. I feel as if I have barely tipped the iceberg on this issue, so comment away. Should we crowdsource? What are the benefits? The pitfalls? How does this decision relate to the larger mission of our work and the work of academic institutions in general?