Participation, Crowdsourcing, and Digital Public History

(A post for the second meeting of digital public history; readings are at the bottom of the post.)

Ai Weiwei installation at the Hirshhorn Museum, Washington D.C., Feb 2013

Ai Wei Wei installation at the Hirshhorn Museum, Washington D.C., Feb 2013

Last weekend a friend and I went to the Hirshhorn Museum to see an installation by Ai Weiwei titled “According to What?” There were a variety of pieces, but two sections features large-format photographs of construction in Beijing displayed not in frames but on the floor and walls of the exhibit space. In order to see the mounted black and white photographs (just visible on the left of my cell phone picture) and to move through the installation, you had to walk across these photographs. I took a deep breath before I took my first step onto the printed image; Even knowing it was meant to be walked on, it felt wrong somehow. After all, everything else in the installation was clearly Do Not Touch, with the beeping alarms and everything.

I wouldn’t call the installation participatory by any means, but it did make me think about expectations. When I go to an art museum, at least one of those on the National Mall, I expect the art to be on the wall, inaccessible. Standing on a photograph isn’t interactive, but it made me feel like I was in the work of art, not outside it. Somehow, walking through the photographs, looking down as well as left and right, was part of the art as long as I was there. I have no idea if it’s what Ai Weiwei intended, but that’s how I felt.

I think engaging in participatory public history, at least as an institution, is a bit like taking that first step onto Beijing’s 2008 Olympic Stadium. It’s scary, like any moment a security guard or division head is going to appear and tell you off for doing the wrong thing. You have to reevaluate how you think about the relationship between the institution and the audience  Or rather, to use a phrase Clay Shirky borrows from Jay Rosen, the People Formerly Known as the Audience.

Relationships are a key part of the process of crowd- or community-sourcing and building participatory projects. Not just the relationship between project creators and community but the relation of the community to the project itself, its goals and outcomes. If the community (not audience) doesn’t feel rewarded by their relationship with the project, they won’t engage.

The most important lesson for someone running a participatory or crowdsourced project, in my opinion, was stated by Shirky, Simone, and Stein: Be A Good Host. Running with the metaphor, it means providing clear directions on how to get to the party, what the appropriate attire is for the party, leaving the porch light on, greeting new arrivals, providing them with essential information (location of bathroom, where to hang coats), and maybe introducing them to a few other people. A good host doesn’t just let people in and leave them to wander, and if she do see someone looking lost, she helps them get back to the party.

I think some of this can be managed through scaffolding. Good scaffolding helps lower the barriers to participation, a key factor to getting participants. Have a tool which looks familiar enough, for example like Wikipedia, and that’s one less step for people to learn before they start transcribing. Clearly stated goals and expectations prevent people from flailing about confused halfway through the project. I was caught by the idea that not all projects require a place for conversation among users. While a discussion board is right from some projects, others are full of people who just want to work in relative isolation. I’m not entirely sure how you determine whether or not yours will be a chatty project.

One thing that is clear is that users need to feel like their work actually does something. As Trevor Owens points out “It would be a waste of the public’s time to invite them in to complete a task that a computer could already complete,” and most community-sourced projects don’t want to be cow-clickers, at least as far as I can tell. All of the articles about participatory projects conveyed that their users were motivated by a desire to contribute something real to scientific or historical knowledge. They participate because they feel they have a stake in the outcome. The Galaxy Zoo users even discovered a new kind of astronomical object.

The fact that the users, the community, were credited with the discovery is another key factor, one that involves the relationship between contributor and coordinator. While a formal journal article might have been published under the name of scientists working on the project, credit for the identification seems to have been rightly given to the community of users. Their amateur status doesn’t mean the staff of the project has the right to dismiss their findings, although the discovery did have to be confirmed by experts. Stein contrasts an authoritarian approach with an authoritative one; listening and speaking is better than just shouting, in most situations. Besides, as the discovery of the peas and recent revelations about Roman hairstyles have shown, the amateur can sometimes uncover things the expert doesn’t see.

Relinquishing authority might be a little disorienting at first, like walking onto a photograph in an art museum. Figuring out how to run a good community sourced project isn’t easy, but if it is the right approach for the project, I suspect the outcome is well worth the challenges.

Readings for this week: