In our last session with Ally Davies, Online Learning Manager at Museum of London we discussed the concept of crowdsourcing and its role within the museum. We discussed the potential benefits of crowdsourcing to museums such as extending audience reach, enabling museums to tailor experience for intersection between specific audiences and their collections and enabling small museums to appear as more dominant. Through encouraging participation, crowdsourcing also potentially provides benefits for the participants such as extending allowing participants to develop new skills and providing participants with a forum where they can discuss the historical or scientific questions. All of these benefits are discussed by Mia Ridge here. However, I can’t help but ask…is crowdsourcing a waste of time? Allow me to expand.
During the session with Ally, we discussed one particular example: Tag London. This was a ‘game’ created by the Museum of London learning team in order to combat a need they had within their collections database (to tag objects to make them more ‘searchable’) and a need to fulfil their museum strategy (to engage every schoolchild). Already alarm bells ring as it seems the focus here is not on creating an engaging learning platform of exciting participatory opportunity but on the museums needs. When discussed with teachers, the idea of creating a ‘game’ in which the students were presented with objects from the collection that were required to be categorised from a selection of categories. The main problem with this ‘game’ was that once an item was categorised 6 additional users needed to agree on this category before it was verified and the initial user could be rewarded. This lack of immediate response or reward meant that users quickly lost motivation and interest in completing the task. In addition to these 7 users agreeing on the category the object fit in, the information then had to be agreed by a curator from the Museum of London before the information could be fed back into the database. In this specific case, when a curator is required to approve the information anyway, surely it would make have made more sense for the time spent developing the game and the time spent checking the data to have been spent completing the task internally? Perhaps this is not the case for all crowdsourcing activities, however, these activities do also raise the issue of authority and false democratisation.
Can participation through crowdsourcing ever really be free from false democratisation and is the authority ever fully handed over to the participants. In the case of Tag London, I would argue that the answer is no. Although the game task seemed to allow the participants to select and categorise the objects, this was by no means on their own terms. The lists of categories were authored by the museum in the making of the game and further to this (as mentioned above) the data had to be verified and then approved by a curator. Hardly empowerment of the participant!
This begs the question then, how often when participating in certain tasks or crowdsourcing projects online is our data checked or verified by museums professionals? For those whose motivation is to get some feeling of empowerment or a sense that they are helping the cultural institution in some way, could they have been misled? Furthermore, is it wrong to do so? Do museums simply use crowdsourcing as a tool to extend their audience reach and engage new audiences – does it matter if this tool is misleading?
Perhaps those who engage in crowdsourcing activities might not mind if their work is checked/approved by the professionals. After all, they have still engaged in the task and potentially learned a new skill and some sense of achievement. But, is it right for museums to mislead users in this way (if indeed they are misleading them)? Crowdsourcing, is it a waste of the users time and the professionals developing the projects time?
Some resources/interesting reads