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A Crowdsourcing Story, and ruminations thereon

I don’t know if Gentle Readers saw the recent story over the last couple of days on the New York Times photography blog (and the photography blog at Der Spiegel) about the photo album with blank provenance and World War II photos. The Times and Der Spiegel posted a bunch of images and asked readers to come up with the photographer and circumstances. And they did: a few hours after the posts went on-line, a doctoral student wrote in to identify the photographer, a man named Franz Krieger. Crowdsourcing! Complete! Very cool, right?

Only… it seems that the Mr. Krieger is fairly well-known among people who study this sort of thing. And there are people who study this sort of thing. At the University of Vienna, there’s Samanta Benito-Sanchez, for instance, who has written about press photographers between the wars. That came up with a quick search of Google Scholar. I didn’t come up with Peter Kramml of the Stadtarchive in Salzburg, who wrote the book on Herr Krieger, but that would not have been necessary. An email to ten or twenty people who study propaganda photography of WWII would clearly have turned up people who read Mr. Kramml’s whether Mr. Kramml was on the list or not. That list could have been gathered in half an hour or so from Google Scholar, the websites of prominent universities, a list of recent dissertations or dissertations in progress, or an index of abstracts. Or the editors of prominent journals could be contacted, East European Quarterly or News Photographer, with a question about who was studying that material, and the list gathered that way. As a reference question, it might well have taken more than three hours, but then of course it took a good deal more than three hours to set up the whole posting-on-the-blogs dealio, as well.

So, here’s the thing: the New York Times could have done some easy research to get contacts, reached those people, got further contacts, and then found out the answer to their question. But it was probably easier to do it the way they did it: post the info and then wade through the comments, following up on the first thing that sounded real. It was easier to ask everybody, assuming that everybody includes experts with actual knowledge, than it was to just ask the people with the actual knowledge. That is what we mean by crowdsourcing.

Now, in point of fact, the NYT was not primarily interested in an answer to their question; they were interested in eyeballs on the page, fulfilling the basic mission of journalism as defined by award-winning journalist and pundit David S. Bernstein as “ filling the area between ads with something marginally preferable to blank space” (see Media, Academia, & Politics, a remarkable and provocative essay that didn’t actually manage to provoke YHB to write anything). The Times got my attention by telling the story the way they told it, presenting the information in the way they did. I don’t ordinarily read their photography blog (or Der Spiegel’s), but I read this one, and even linked to it on this Tohu Bohu. So, well done them, and it would be wrong to see this as purely a reference question.

On the other hand, this technique is of course extremely common. On the baseball sites I frequent, and on some other sites I have been to that have large commenting communities, folk ask reference questions all the time, and get answers, too. And good ones, with citations and links and book recommendations and so on and so forth. It does work. On the other hand, so does the other way, where you find out who is likely to know and restrict your questioning to those people. The internet makes that much easier, too, of course, and frankly being able to email (or tweet or text) some Professor of Photographic History at Universitat Vien and get a next-day response is as crazily miraculous as the crowdsourcing that actually occurred.

So, I guess I’m wondering how Gentle Readers feel about all this, both as people who are quite likely to be looking up information on somewhat obscure topics and as people who are likely to come across blast questions of that kind. Does it annoy you to be included in crowdsourcing? Does it amuse you? Do you do it yourself, or do you lack membership in a large and heterogeneous enough group to make it work, or are you otherwise hesitant for any other reasons? For those who have experience guiding research (and I must admit I’m thinking here about Catherine and Nao particularly, and others who work in libraries, but teachers and advisors as well), do you find this sort of thing cool? Or scary?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.