Topic 1: Wikis and Crowd-Sourcing

Sooner or later, as a modern-day  student, you have to figure out where you stand on Wikipedia.  It’s either something you depend on, something you avoid, or something you use but try not to acknowledge.  Where do you stand?  More important if you are a serious history major, how should the history profession adapt in this Wiki Age?

The answers don’t come easy anymore.  For years, most professors –especially crusty old history professors– warned students away from Wikipedia.  But now some are welcoming it.  William Cronon, a distinguished historian, used his term as president of the American Historical Association (AHA) to advocate for making Wikipedia better.  Check out Cronon’s 2012 editorial on the subject.  He makes some powerful points, but historian Timothy Messer-Kruse’s dismal experience with trying to improve a mediocre Wikipedia entry highlights some of the inherent problems with this crowd-sourced and surprisingly rigid online encyclopedia.  So, too, does Martha Saxton’s struggles in trying to introduce more diverse women’s history elements to the male-dominated Wiki world.  Most recently, historian Stephen Campbell reports to the AHA about his challenges in trying to live up to Cronon’s call to action.

Wikipedia is just one of many recent experiments in what is often called, “crowd-sourcing.” That term refers to efforts that attempt to draw contributions of free labor from a large number of people via online platforms.  When crowd-sourcing works best, there is a real feeling of community achievement.  When it falls apart, it usually looks like a half-baked effort to exploit poorly trained volunteers.

Digital humanist Rebecca Frost Davis has a really good post about the challenges of attempting to use crowd-sourcing in the classroom.  The New York Times has also detailed some notable recent efforts at crowd-sourcing in the corporate world, especially related to open source or open innovation projects.  See this first piece from 2009 and then check out this column from 2011 that explores some ways that non-profits have been attempting both crowd-sourcing and crowd-funding endeavors. Finally, there is a quirky but fun piece from The Atlantic  which reminds us that calling for volunteers is something that most definitely predates the Internet.  If time allows, also try to read this recent piece from summer 2014 that details how the New York Times once attempted (unsuccessfully) to update its motto with help from the admiring crowd.

Questions to Consider

Is the Isle of Wikipedia just a place where lazy students get stranded, or will it become an increasingly fertile ground for serious scholars who want to reach the widest possible audience. What’s your opinion?  What has been your experience?  Feel free to comment and to share.