What Can You Do With Crowdsourced Digitization?

At first, crowdsourcing seems like handing off tasks to people and not paying them, which doesn’t sound great at all. However, crowdsourcing is best described as a “it takes a village” effort. These tasks would be monotonous for an hourly worker, and mistakes are bound to pop up when the same person is doing the same thing every day. Add hundreds of others and suddenly you have proofreaders and fact-checkers, all doing this because it involves minimal effort. Of course, some users love to get into the weeds with various crowdsourcing projects–all for digital badges or silly stickers–but crowdsourcing works best when it’s portrayed as a quick activity.

The easiest crowdsourcing activity is corrections. I tried this out with NYPL’s Building Inspector, which involves a user checking building shapes or fixing them himself/herself. I like this project because you’re double-checking a computer, which is less daunting than some other crowdsourcing projects. The stakes aren’t high, and you can do a lot in a small amount of time. The motto “Kill Time; Make History” makes that point best. Now, this crowdsourcing is map- and history-focused, but if you want to contribute to modern-day maps, Google Maps also uses crowdsourcing to provide phone numbers for businesses, to add new locations when a new store opens up, to show you pictures of what a building or park looks like–all because circumspect (re: picky) people provide this information.

Transcriptions involve (much) more work. I’m not going to lie: transcriptions involve time and effort. A lot of their tutorials don’t involve 1920’s ragtime piano music and cheeky text: they’re full of rules, guidelines, instructions, etc. I reviewed Papers of the War Department, admittedly because I took a class with Professor Hamner this semester. (Ask me about civil-military relations sometime!) I also love the idea of recovering information that was thought to be lost, as well as the idea of this project being open to the public. I knew the interface wouldn’t be as fun as Building Inspector, but I did expect to be able to zoom in on the letter on the same webpage as the transcription text box. However, zooming in the letter involved opening the image in another tab and zooming in with the web browser’s zoom tool rather than one built into the interface. I hate switching back and forth between tabs when transcribing, so that piece irked me. There also isn’t instant gratification with transcription like with crowdsourced corrections: 18th-century cursive script is very hard to decipher, and the spelling of even erudite men was non-standardized and absolutely appalling to any English minor. However, that is not to say that I don’t like transcribing. While I need to practice reading 18th-century handwriting, I really enjoy transcribing videos on YouTube. Several YouTube communities invite viewers to transcribe their videos and upload captions. Transcription even goes a step farther with communities who also translate videos. This past summer, I transcribed and uploaded captions for several videos for the American Veterans Center’s YouTube channel. This allows people who are hard-of-hearing (which, let’s face it, is the channel’s main demographic) to understand interviews or narration, and it also allows me to improve the metadata, if there is an interesting subject I missed and need to tag. The AVC YouTube videos could benefit from crowdsourcing–I certainly wasn’t going to caption over a thousand videos, some of which are an hour long. So if you want to release your inner court stenographer, audio transcription could be the way to go.

I enjoy crowdsourcing, but I do fear that it contributes to the “gig economy.” If someone is doing a significant amount of work, I think that they should be paid. At the very least, they should be named as a contributor, especially if the work is published. Crowdsourcing does make “ownership” a bit blurry, and if the project creators and managers aren’t circumspect, crowdsourcing can do more harm than good if someone has to go through all the mistakes and fix them all by hand. All in all, crowdsourcing needs to be monitored; things usually will not run smoothly on their own.