Crowd-sourcing History

The readings this week point out the many of the issues discussed last week. They are focused on how history is created and who is determined as the authorized editor of that history. Crowdsourcing history presents a unique problem to history, as the internet has evolved, the ability to crowdsource history has only just become a topic in the field of history. The HeritageCrowd Project was a project created to link the power of crowdsourced history to those museums and historical sites in areas not well linked to the internet, such as rural towns. One of the main issues with crowdsourcing history is its output reflecting the similarity to a cracked mirror, there are many stories, each reflecting different views, but none of them are coming together. The issue this points out, as found in the early conclusions in the study, is the difficulty in effectively using a system such as Wikipedia on such a small scale. The Wikipedia project is a massive project that has significance to every part of the world. The HeritageCrowd Project however is based solely in Quebec so as the article argues, being university funded with students and university professionals filling out most of the gap, the information may contain political bias or inaccuracies, not corrected due to a lack of debate on the forums of the project.

The accuracy of information whether factual or politically bias greatly determines the trustworthiness of a resource. This project was significant as it allows a new potential avenue of exploring history. As the article states in reflections, the method of searching for all necessary information, pictures and other tidbits on the internet helps gain a bit of a picture, than use the crowd to “fill the gaps.”The HeritageCrowd Project also gave evidence that some of the potential contributors would not contribute because they felt they were not ‘professional’ enough to submit significant work. This brings to light another issue with crowd-sourcing history, as some people who may have the necessary knowledge may hold back for lack of confidence in their accuracy. This turns the problem of inaccurate submissions on its head, instead of the worry of inaccurate information, there is also the worry that individuals may not contribute because they do not believe they have a right to write history. Ultimately, this simply points out the deeply confusing dynamic between the public and private discourse of history and how using the internet and crowdsourcing sites like Wikipedia, history can engage the layperson and build a proper objective historical record.

Wikipedia Analysis

My analysis of Wikipedia focused on two topics, the good article of Napoleon I and the bad article of Leslieville. Wikipedia itself has titled the Napoleon I article as a good article on the site and there is much to learn from the editing and discussion process. Looking at the first article, Napoleon I, the debate over multiple sections of the article shows a high degree of attention. For instance, within the talk page there is a substantial portion of comments under the title “bourgeoisie society”, whereby the forum discusses the meaning of the term and whether is it appropriately applied in the article. The concerns mentioned by those members commenting are valid, whereby they point out the different definitions of the term according to different theorists and historians, one being Karl Marx. The debate itself is not of primary concern, but the fact that this article is under the critical review it is shows the extent to which these articles are based off of consensus and not necessarily general assumptions. What this teaches myself as a student of history is that Wikipedia articles that are considered well written and documented are highly scrutinized in a manner that is highly productive. Many members of Wikipedia within the forum highly stressed the need for an accurate and concise version of Napoleon, concerning themselves at times with the sources that are cited. One example of these concerns is the Joseph Fourier article which is used to provide citation for facts on Napoleon I. However, the commenting member questioned whether that source was used in an efficient manner, questioning whether the amount of the article used was necessarily needed as a direct quote. Another example was when one person asked for a citation based on the size of Napoleon I’s penis, which was replied to with a clarification that Wikipedia does not act as a “tabloid”, but a site where “readers can get within minutes an overall understanding of the subject”. Overall, I have learned that this Wikipedia process provides the necessary checks and balances to create and maintain an effective encyclopedia. Whatever you write, so long as the article is significant, will come under scrutiny if attention to detail and relevance are not present.

The second article, Leslieville, is a poorer article in its level of content and citation. The topic itself is not seen as a significant topic, rated as “Low Importance” on Wikipedia. However, what stuck out to me was the lack of any reference in the “history” section of the article. There is only one reference and a bunch of sites directing towards local newspapers, however, the citations needed, especially within a historical section are not present. This does not suffice as a trustworthy article. Although the article does not state anything outlandish, the fact of the matter is that the facts are in no way backed by any formal sources. This article is an example of where Wikipedia is not the sufficient source that other articles within its database make it out to be. Looking at the talk and historical edit sections, very little is mentioned and there has been few edits, mainly concerning grammar rather than content. It is no doubt that the significance of this article to Wikipedia plays a major role in its lack of accountability and substance, but would an article like this even exist in an encyclopedia such as Britannica? This is the potential benefit of Wikipedia, where subjects that otherwise would not necessarily make a normal encyclopedia, have the ability to be featured on Wikipedia due to the continuous and never ending growth of its database. Although I think its concerning that there are these poor quality articles on Wikipedia, I trust that those articles which are highly significant are surrounded by highly effective debate and critique, effectively making Wikipedia a credible source.

History and the General Publics Engagement

Issues within history have always centered around the accurate analysis of its facts and events, to the biases amongst the many different historians. However, recently the general public interest in the traditional forms of the historical record has changed. As pointed out by Benjamin Filene, museums and other historical sites have seen their visitor numbers drastically decrease in recent years, in conjunction with the negative impact of the global recession. The issue that is presented in the readings this week show that there is a fundamental problem with the way that historical information attracts attention. In Graham Carr’s article over the debate on the CBC documentary The Valour and the Horror, the documentary gained massive attention due to the controversy the McKenna’s arguments brought forth over Canada’s role in the war. The argument over who had the ‘authority’ to tell history correctly was of primary concern in this debate. However, the debate and subsequent attention that was focused on was not of a positive historical experience, but a negative historical experience. It is worrying that had this documentary been less controversial, the level of attention and interest from the general public would have been much lower.

So how can history attract positive attention from the general public? As the internet has expanded, the amount it has to offer has increased drastically each and every year. History has not been as successful at capturing the internet as a tool to increase the general publics interest in its discourse. However, websites such as ancestry.ca provide new tools for the public to engage in a more personal and self-centered manner in history. In Filene’s article he talks about ‘outsider historians’ of which are those who are “people working outside museums and universities, without professional training, and often without funding… they are genealogists, heritage tourism developers, re-enactors, collectors, interviewers, bloggers, scrapbookers, and artists” (Filene, 12). These sort of outside historians coupled with the internet now allow for a major reshaping of the historical record and how this is presented to the general public. As Corbett and Miller argue, bringing historians and these sort of outside historians together in compilation of history can provide a new and unique level of historical analysis. It allows for a connection between the past and present to further engage and understand the impacts of history. Overall, the debate over who gets to officially write history will not be solved overnight, but as the articles this week outline the traditional forms of historical presentation used, such as museums, etc, are falling to the more individually based presentations of history that can directly relate individuals to their past.

History for the Procrastinator

After stumbling online for multiple hours, I finally landed on the website www.retronaut.co a website containing a substantial archive of historical pictures related to multiple topics, organized in decades from the 1800s up to the 2010s. There is little historical explanation to this website, relying mainly on pictures, videos and a few subtexts to tell the tale. This website caught my eye mainly because of its tagline: “The past is a foreign country. This is your passport.” This tagline emphasizes the branding of history in ways that help engage viewers, who potentially like myself happened to stumble upon the website. I find this tagline significant because the site has been structured in a way that pictures tell the tales of the past as if you were actually visiting the event or site of the subject.

The website’s design and structure provide a unique experience of history for any viewer, bringing history as close to the present as the 2010s, where numerous pictures depict the Disappearing face of New York documenting in pictures the change in New York in present times. The site centres around a history of popular topics, highlighting events from The Internet in 1969 to Opening the Mona Lisa at the End of WWII, 1945. Any student knows the perils of procrastination hours before an exam or major assignment is due. This website has capitalized on such curiosity and the interests in multiple subjects and interesting facts to engage individuals in history. This is a highly useful technique as the website uses photographs and videos in history to show different historical periods and significant discoveries and/or accomplishments.

The question that this website raises however is whether websites such as www.retronaut.co are actually effective at portraying history professionally and accurately? As the old adage goes, a picture is worth a thousand words. By using pictures and videos, the website allows a level of engagement with its sleek and organized design to surf randomly through images that provide a historical record of multiple events. However impressive this site may be to the eye or the procrastinating student, its lack of direction make it difficult for someone with a specific cause to effectively navigate and find the sort of information they are looking to research. This website project is not so much a historical archive as an archive used to engage the ‘layperson’ in the history of many components we are involved with on a daily basis. For instance, the photos of The Real Alice in Wonderland, c. 1862 under the 1800s category is a topic that not many professional historians would necessarily become engaged. Many of the exhibits in the 1800s category are mainly of popular interest, things that can typically relate to present interests and topics. This sort of history plays to the hand of popular support for the topics, however it does not provide the detailed account the professional historians look for in their research.

Overall, regardless of its lack of a structure for professional historians or those researching particular topics, I believe the website is an effective tool linking the interests of the average person to our historical past, providing pictures that provide evidence to the historical background of the site. What can be learned from this website is the unique mix of pictures, video and information, where subtexts briefly describe the events in pictures and help further engage the public in historical discourse. Sites such as this one show how the internet has changed the dynamic between the past and present, allowing individuals, at any time and any where, to access the ‘foreign country of the past’.

The Credibility of Wikipedia and Other Open Source Projects

Wikipedia has become an essential first step in the research of many researchers. Regardless of whether you use it to refresh your memory, or as an introduction to the topic, the significance of Wikipedia has grown and its offerings have multiplied along with it. The debate in the world about Wikipedia is the continuous debate on the credibility of the Wikipedia sources (being an open-source concept) and more specifically between the scholarly work produced by academic journals and the informal work produced by the thousands of contributors to Wikipedia. Roy Rosenzweig points out in his essay that in 25 biographies on Wikipedia, only 4 came back with errors, where as in 10 articles on MSN’s Encarta, 3 errors popped up. This could just be coincidence but 30% of articles found with an error on Encarta, versus the 16% of errors found on Wikipedia suggest that one should begin to reexamine the credibility of websites such as Wikipedia verse MSN Encarta. The fact that these two encyclopedia, one open sourced the other closed sourced, are so close in comparison with their errors, with Wikipedia in fact outperforming Encarta on this note, suggests that Wikipedia should be reexamined as per how the academic world views it.

Rosenzweig points out that what makes it further difficult to trust Wikipedia scholarship is the make up of its authors and their perceived biases. The articles that have come out in most detail on Wikipedia are articles topics perceived to be considered passions of a geek, like Star Wars and Coronation Street, where Coronation Street on Wikipedia was longer than the article on Tony Blair. Whether or not this Tony Blair’s article is longer is not the entire relevancy of the point, whether it be biased through the lenses of multiple geeky contributors or vice versa, most scholarly work already maintains some sort of bias and different events in history all suggest preferences towards history that is more exciting. The scholar community should begin to recognize Wikipedia as a beneficial resource, as its usefulness to any one interested in researching any topic in history is a key starting point. There is no question however that Wikipedia’s credibility is affected by the fact that it is open-sourced and its contributors tend to lean closer to the computer geeks biases. However, I argue that just as one reads any article, information must be viewed critically, since there is bias in the majority of history.

On a final note, having been a university student for a few years, I have noticed that regardless of the fact that the university does not view Wikipedia as a credible source, every student has used wikipedia in some form for a project, they simply avoided recognition of the fact. This isn’t to say that students are plagiarizing, but that the site is used as a basic stepping stone and guide to further dig into the topic at hand. It simply doesn’t get the recognition it deserves. These sort of open-source websites provide a new way to process information. Rather than individuals interpreting and editing the information alone, its more a team project where each individual can combine with others to link their efforts, as one builds off another. This can be realized in The Spider and the Web Project, a competition which took the picture of an object and through a description of where it was found a number of thought streams poured over the internet into suggestions of what it might be and how it could have been located where it was. This sort of benefit of the open source internet world allows for individuals to actually open a door of creativity and thoughts that could potentially be used to solve problems in a way not before considered. Hopefully scholars in the future will recognize the importance of this tool in history, for greater collaboration and an efficient source of communicating information for those researching and those posting, this sort of online brainstorming is highly beneficial to the discover and debate of history.