Crowdsourcing – Exploitation or Collaboration? (AFF-601)

In a previous post discussing the Letters of 1916 Project, I broadly considered the means by which that project, a public history project, garnered its database of letters and transcriptions: crowdsourcing. The topic itself appears to be a many-faceted one; does it, as a practice, promote a sense of community? Is this communal sense of preservation more important than the scholarly preservation that happens as a consequence of the former? Is crowdsourcing, in essence, purely a means to a scholarly end; an exploitation of the public by academics? This blog post will explore and argue these questions with the aim of creating a better understanding of crowdsourcing as a practice in public history projects.

Crowd and Creator

Crowdsourcing can be defined as “the process of obtaining needed services, ideas, or content by soliciting contributions from a large group of people, and especially from an online community” (Merriam-Webster). Within the context of Digital Humanities and indeed with Public History projects, this definition provides us with both a broad scope and breadth for approach. When we start a Digital History project of any kind, we of course need to first address what our aims are, what our means are, and what our audience is. Are there the funds to carry out our aims or indeed, the information required from the projects? Digital History projects aim to digitise material for both academics and crowdsourcing becomes an excellent way to both preserve and promote, given the right angle.

Much of how effectively a project can be crowdsourced is down to the aims of the project itself. Outreach and engagement with the public is crucial for successfully crowdsourcing a project. One only needs to look at the success of publicly collaborative websites like Wikipedia to assure this. The public needs to be able to interact with the project and need to see a return on their ‘investment’, that is their time and/or resources. Susan Schreibman points out that literary projects tend not to be as successful with engaging the public, but, with effective outreach and engagement, projects such as UCL’s Transcribe Bentham can achieve impressive results. Projects such as this engage with the public in such a way that they allow the user to feel like they are helping the project, without needing any real background in the field. As Heppler and Wolfenstein assert, the crowd should not be completely left to their own devices, nor exploited solely for legwork. The project team in turn seek patronage without being patronising, effectively creating a team and user-base that work in tandem. As long as there is a return on the user-base’s investment, there should not be a damning cry of exploitation from critics. It is in the project team’s interest to ensure this, and any successful project will. A certain level of trust and transparency between the user-base and the creator is key to effectively achieve an end result, which in turn assures the ‘crowd’ that they are not just contributors, but also collaborators.

Macro & Micro

Crowdsourcing through digital means has been irrevocably altered with the advent of social media. Now, more than ever is it possible for a project to directly interact with its ‘crowd’. The public needs to be drawn to a project with the aspiration of direct involvement, and this needs to happen throughout the course of the project itself rather than an initial intake. Laura Carletti presents this idea thus:

“The public is invited to interact with institutional resources in new ways, enriching them, even if not directly impacting them.”

 Social media allows a project to condense the macro and present the micro, the project can compact certain objects of interest and present it to its user-base, creating overall clarity on a project’s progress through smaller examples. This shouldn’t be taken however as mere reassurance, but rather a reciprocal engagement with an audience. This level of engagement helps to ensure longevity of user interest and the fanning out of interest to prospective users. The user should have some sort of incentive for their investment, social media is ultimately a tool with which a project can re-work their public image and ensure direct interaction without exploitation.

As mentioned in my last post, Twitter provides a direct link between a user and a project that can open discussion and discourse on a plethora of topics pertaining to the project. Facebook can be a great help with its more established profile system allowing for larger, more dynamic posts and for its popularity with sharing media. YouTube also offers the possibility of video outreach, which is useful in condensing or realising information in an interactive and vibrant way. Social media arms a team with the tools it needs to craft itself in a balanced way and to leave its crowd with a real sense of contribution. It is very interesting to note the increasing awareness the academic community has of the importance of social media for its demonstrative and outreach value. With careful planning of a strong social media presence, crowdsourcing can be extremely effective both in terms of extending outreach and increasing chances of funding. Social media allows a project to have a face, to become something more tangible that a crowd can be personally invested in.


The successful crowdsourcing of a public history project assumes a symbiotic relationship between two parties; the user-base and the project team. The team itself needs to inspire impassiveness from users, it needs to give the crowd a reason to contribute. A successful and creative crowdsourcing campaign should leave in its wake an engaged collective who both want to contribute and collaborate in whatever form that may take. We should not judge the success of a Public History project in terms of its end goals, but rather how it interacts with and involves the public in achieving these end goals; indeed, the public and the project should become interwoven into a democracy of input and output. Successful crowdsourcing requires , above all, effective planning; by immersing the user in the project and giving them a sense of clarity and real contribution, we can distance ourselves from exploitation in lieu of collective satisfaction. Ultimately we are creating a relationship between the public and the team, the macro and the micro, the etic and the emic. Obviously there cannot be complete transparency of the inner workings of the project, however, in furthering the relationship between the two, we further ourselves from exploitation.


Carletti, Laura, et al., Digital Humanities and Crowdsourcing: An Exploration, Web,, accessed 27/10/15.

Doughtry, Jack, Nawrotski, Kristen, Public History on the Web: If You Build it, Will they Come?, Part 6 of Writing History in the Digital Age, Web,–writing-history-in-the-digital-age?g=dculture;rgn=div1;view=fulltext;xc=1, accessed on 27/10/15.

Heppler, Jason A., Wolfenstein, Gabriel K., Crowdsourcing Digital Public History, The American Historian, Web, , accessed 26/10/15.

Schreibman, Susan, Digital Scholarly Editing, Literary Studies in the Digital Age: An Evolving Anthology, Web,, accessed 26/10/15.

Simperl, Elena, How To Use Crowdsourcing Effectively: Guidelines and Examples, Liber Quarterly, Web,, accessed 26/10/15.

Transcribe Bentham, University College London, Web,, accessed 26/10/15.

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MA Digital Humanities student in An Foras Feasa, Maynooth University. BA Music from Maynooth University.

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