Software as Scaffolding and Motivation and Meaning: The How and Why of Crowdsourcing

Libraries, archives and museums have a long history of participation and engagement with members of the public. I have previously suggested that it is best to think about crowdsourcing in cultural heritage as a form of public volunteerism, and that much discussion of crowdsourcing is more specifically about two distinct phenomena, the wisdom of crowds and human computation. In this post I want to get into a bit more of why and how it works. I think understanding both the motivational components and the role that tools serve as scaffolding for activity will let us be a bit more deliberate in how we put these kinds of projects together.

The How: To be a tool is to serve as scaffolding for activity

Helping someone succeed is often largely about getting them the right tools. Consider the image of scaffolding below. The scaffolding these workers are using puts them in a position to do their job. By standing on the scaffolding they are able to do their work without thinking about the tool at all. In the activity of the work the tool disappears and allows them to go about their tasks taking for granted that they are suspended six or seven feet in the air. This scaffolding function is a generic property of tools.

All tools can act as scaffolds to enable us to accomplish a particular task. At this point it is worth briefly considering an example of how this idea of scaffolding translates into a cognitive task. In this situation I will briefly describe some of the process that is part of a park rangers regular work, measuring the diameter of a tree. This example comes from Roy Pea’s “Practices of Distributed Intelligence and Designs for Education.”

If you want to measure a tree you take a standard tape measure and do the following;

  1. Measure the circumference of the tree
  2. Remember that the diameter is related to the circumference of an object according to the formula circumference/diameter
  3. Set up the formula, replacing the variable circumference with your value
  4. Cross-multiply
  5. Isolate the diameter by dividing
  6. Reduce the fraction

Alternatively, you can just use a measuring tape that has the algorithm for diameter embedded inside it. In other words, you can just get a smarter tape measure. You can buy a tape-measure that was designed for this particular situation that can think for you (see the image below). Not only does this save you considerable time, but you end up with far more accurate measurements. There are far fewer moments for human error to enter into the equation.

The design of the tape measure has quite literally embedded the equations and cognitive actions required to measure the tree. As an aside, this kind of cognitive extension is a generic component of how humans use tools and their environments for thought.

This has a very direct translation into the design of online tools as well. For example, before joining the Library of Congress I worked on the Zotero project, a free and open source reference management tool. Zotero was translated into more than 30 languages by its users. The translation process was made significantly easier through BabelZilla. BabelZilla, an online community for developers and translators of extension for Firefox extensions, has a robust community of users that work to localize various extensions. One of the neatest features of this platform is that it stripes out the strings of text that need to be localized from the source code and then presents the potential translator with a simple web form where they just type in translations of the lines of text. You can see an image of the translation process below.

This not only makes the process much simpler and quicker it also means that potential translators need zero programming knowledge to contribute a localization. Without BabelZilla, a potential translator would need to know about how Firefox Extension locale files work, and be comfortable with editing XML files in a text editor. But BabelZilla scaffolds the user over that required knowledge and just lets them fill out translations in a web form.

Returning, as I often do, to the example of Galaxy Zoo, we can now think of the classification game as a scaffold which allows interested amateurs to participate at the cutting edge of scientific inquiry. In this scenario, the entire technical apparatus, all of the equipment used in the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, the design of the Galaxy Zoo site, and the work of all of the scientists and engineers that went into those systems are all part of one big hunk of scaffolding that puts a user in the position to contribute to the frontiers of science through their actions on the website.

I like to think that scaffolding is the how of crowdsourcing. When crowdsourcing projects work it is because of a nested set of platforms stacked one on top of the other, that let people offer up their time and energy to work that they find meaningful. The meaningful point there is the central component of the next question. Why do people participate in Crowdsourcing projects?

The Why: A Holistic Sense of Human Motivation

Why do people participate in these projects? Lets start with an example I have appealed to before from a crowdsorucing transcription project.

Ben Brumfield runs a range of crowdsourcing transcription projects. At one point in a transcription project he noticed that one of his power users was slowing down, cutting back significantly on the time they spent transcribing these manuscripts. The user explained that they had seen that there weren’t that many manuscripts left to transcribe. For this user, the 2-3 hours a day they spent working on transcriptions was an important part of their day that they had decided to deny themselves some of that experience. For this users, participating in this project was so important to them, contributing to it was such an important part of who they see themselves as, that they needed to ration out those remaining pages. They wanted to make sure that the experience lasted as long as they could. When Ben found that out he quickly put up some more pages. This particular story illustrates several broader points about what motivates us.

After a person’s basic needs are covered (food, water, shelter etc.) they tend to be primarily motivated by things that are not financial. People identify and support causes and projects that provide them with a sense of purpose. People define themselves and establish and sustain their identity and sense of self through their actions. People get a sense of meaning from doing things that matter to them. People find a sense of belonging by being a part of something bigger than themselves. For a popular account of much of the research behind these ideas see Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us for some of the more substantive and academic research on the subject see essays in  The Handbook of Competence and Motivation and Csíkszentmihályi’s work on Flow.

Projects that can mobilize these identities ( think genealogists, amateur astronomers, philatelists, railfans, etc) and senses of purpose and offer a way for people to make meaningful contributions (far from exploiting people) provide us with the kinds of things we define ourselves by. We are what we do, or at least we are the stories we tell others about what we do. The person who started rationing out their work transcribing those manuscripts did so because that work was part of how they defined themselves.

This is one of the places where Libraries, Archives and Museums have the most to offer. As stewards of cultural memory these institutions have a strong sense of purpose and their explicit mission is to serve the public good. When we take seriously this call, and think about what the collections of culture heritage institutions represent, instead of crowdsourcing representing a kind of exploitation for labor it has the possibility to be a way in which cultural heritage institutions connect with and provide meaning full experiences with the past.

The Crowd and The Library

Libraries, archives and museums have a long history of participation and engagement with members of the public. In a series of blog posts I am going to work to connects these traditions with current discussions of crowdsourcing. Crowdsourcing is a bit of a vague term, one that comes with potentially exploitative ideas related to uncompensated or undercompensated labor. In this series of I’ll try to put together a set set of related concepts; human computation, the wisdom of crowds, thinking of tools and software as scaffolding, and understanding and respecting end users motivation, that can both help clarify what crowdsourcing can do for cultural heritage organizations while also clarifying a clearly ethical approach to inviting the public to help in the collection, description, presentation, and use of the cultural record.

This series of posts started out as a talk I gave at the International Internet Preservation Consortium’s meeting earlier this month. I am sharing these ideas here with the hopes that I can getting some feedback on this line of thinking.

The Two Problems with Crowdsourcing: Crowd and Sourcing

There are two primary problems with bringing the idea of crowdsourcing into cultural heritage organizations. Both the idea of the crowd and the notion of sourcing are terrible terms for folks working as stewards for our cultural heritage. Many of the projects that end up falling under the heading of crowdsourcing  in libraries, archives and museums have not involved large and massive crowds and they have very little to do with outsourcing labor.

Most successful crowdsourcing projects are not about large anonymous masses of people. They are not about crowds. They are about inviting participation from interested and engaged members of the public. These projects can continue a long standing tradition of volunteerism and involvement of citizens in the creation and continued development of public goods.

For example, the New York Public Library’s menu transcription project, What’s on the Menu?, invites members of the public to help transcribe the names and costs of menu items from digitized copies of menus from New York restaurants. Anyone who wants to can visit the project website and start transcribing the menus. However, in practice it is a dedicated community of foodies, New York history buffs, chefs, and otherwise self-motivated individuals who are excited about offering their time and energy to help contribute, as volunteers, to improving the public library’s resource for others to use.

Not Crowds but Engaged Enthusiast Volunteers

Far from a break with the past, this is a clear continuation of a longstanding tradition of inviting members of the public in to help refine, enhance, and support resources like this collection. In the case of the menus, years ago, it was actually volunteers who sat at a desk in the reading room to catalog the original collection. In short, crowdsourcing the transcription of the menus project is not about crowds at all, it is about using digital tools to invite members of the public to volunteer in much the same way members of the public have volunteered to help organize and add value to the collection in the past.

Not Sourcing Labor but an Invitation to Meaningful Work

The problem with the term sourcing is its association with labor. Wikipedia’s definition of crowdsourcing helps further clarify this relationship, “Crowdsourcing is a process that involves outsourcing tasks to a distributed group of people.” The keyword in that definition is outsourcing. Crowdsourcing is a concept that was invented and defined in the business world and it is important that we recast it and think through what changes when we bring it into cultural heritage. Cultural heritage institutions do not care about profit or revenue, they care about making the best use of their limited resources to act as stewards  and storehouses of culture.

At this point, we need to think for a moment about what we mean by terms like work and labor. While it might be ok for commercial entities to coax or trick individuals to provide free labor the ethical implications of such trickery should give pause to cultural heritage organizations. It is critical to pause here and unpack some of the different meanings we ascribe to the terms work. When we use the term “a day’s work” we are directly referring to labor, to the kinds of work that one engages in as a financial transaction for pay. In contrast, when we use the term work to refer to someone’s “life’s work” we are referring to something that is significantly different. The former is about acquiring the resources one needs to survive. The latter is about the activities that we engage in that give our lives meaning. In cultural heritage we have clear values and missions and we are in an opportune position to invite the public to participate. However, when we do so we should not treat them as a crowd, and we should not attempt to source labor from them. When we invite the public we should do so under a different set of terms. A set of terms that is focused on providing meaningful ways for the public to interact with, explore, understand the past.

Citizen Scientists, Archivists and the Meaning of Amateur

Some of the projects that fit under the heading of crowdsourcing have chosen very different kinds of terms to describe themselves. For example,  Galaxy Zoo project, which invites anyone interested in Astronomy to help catalog a million images of stellar objects, refers to its users as citizen scientists. Similarly, the United States National Archives and Records Administration recently launched crowdsourcing project, the Citizen Archivists Dashboard, invites citizens, not members of some anonymous crowd, to participate. The names of these projects highlight the extent to which they invite participation from members of the public who identify with and the characteristics and ways of thinking of particular professional occupations. While these citizen archivists and scientists are not professional, in the sense that they are unpaid, they connect with something a bit different than volunteerism. They are amateurs in the best possible sense of the term.

Amateurs have a long and vibrant history as contributors to the public good. Coming to English from French, the term Amateur, means a “lover of.” The primarily negative connotations we place on the term are a relatively recent development. In other eras, the term Amateur simply meant that someone was not a professional, that is, they were not paid for these particular labors of love. Charles Darwin, Gregor Mendal, and many others who made significant contributions to the sciences did so as Amateurs. As a continuation of this line of thinking, the various Zooniverse projects see the amateurs who participate as peers, in many cases listing them as co-authors of academic papers published as a result of their work. I suggest that we think of crowdsourcing not as extracting labor from a crowd, but of a way for us to invite the participation of amateurs (in the non-derogatory sense of the word) in the creation, development and further refinement of public goods.

Toward a better, more nuanced, notion of Crowdsourcing

With all this said, fighting against a word is rarely a successful project, from here out I will continue to use and refine a definition for crowdsourcing that I think works for the cultural heritage sector. In the remainder of this series of posts I will explain what I think of as the four key components of this ethical crowdsourcing, this crowdsourcing that invites members of the public to participate as amateurs in the production, development and refinement of public goods. For me these fall into the following four considerations, each of which suggests a series of questions to ask of any cultural heritage crowdsourcing project. The four concepts are;

  1. Thinking in terms of Human Computation
  2. Understanding that the Wisdom of Crowds is Why Wasn’t I Consulted
  3. Thinking of Tools and Software as Scaffolding
  4. A Holistic Understanding of Human Motivation

Together, I believe these four concepts provide us with the descriptive language to understand what it is about the web that makes crowdsourcing such a powerful tool. Not only for improving and enhancing data related to cultural heritage collections, but also as a way for deep engagement with the public.

In the next three posts I will talk through and define these four concepts offer up a series of questions to ask and consider in imagining, designing and implementing crowdsourcing projects at cultural heritage institutions.

Crowdsourcing Cultural Heritage: The Objectives Are Upside Down

Still not the droid… By Stéfan: Our crowdsourcing conversation is upside down, much like how Calculon is holding these stormtroopers upside down.

Some fantastic work is going on in crowdsourcing the transcription of cultural heritage collections. After some recent thinking and conversation on these projects I want to more strongly and forcefully push a point about this work. This is the same line of thinking I started nearly a year ago in Meaningification and Crowdscafolding: Forget Badges. I’ve come to believe that conversations about the objective of this work, as broadly discussed, are exactly upside down. Transcripts and other data are great, but when done right, crowdsourcing projects are the best way of accomplishing the entire point of putting collections online. I think a lot of the people who work on these projects think this way but we are still in a situation where we need to justify this work by the product instead of justifying it by the process.

Getting transcriptions, or for that matter getting any kind of data or work is a by-product of something that is actually far more amazing than being able to better search through a collection.  The process of crowdsourcing projects fulfills the mission of digital collections better than the resulting searches. That is, when someone sits down to transcribe a document they are actually better fulfilling the mission of the cultural heritage organization than anyone who simply stops by to flip through the pages.

Why are we putting cultural heritage collections online again?

There are a range of reasons that we put digital collections online. With that said the single most important reason to do so is to make history accessible and invite students, researchers, teachers, and anyone in the public to explore and connect with our past. Historians, Librarians, Archivists, and Curators who share digital collections and exhibits can measure their success toward this goal in how people use, reuse, explore and understand these objects.

In general, crowdsourcing transcription is first and foremost described as a means by which we can get better data to help better enable the kinds of use and reuse that we want people to make of our collections. In this respect, the general idea of crowdsourcing is described as an instrument for getting data that we can use to make collections more accessible. Don’t get me wrong, crowdsourcing does this. With that said it does so much more than this. In the process of developing these crowdsourcing projects we have stumbled into something far more exciting than speeding up or lowering the costs of document transcription. Far better than being an instrument for generating data that we can use to get our collections more used it is actually the single greatest advancement in getting people using and interacting with our collections. A few examples will help illustrate this.

Increased Use, Deeper Use, Crowdsourcing Civil War Diaries

Last year, the University of Iowa libraries crowdsourced the transcription of a set of civil war diaries. I had the distinct privilege of interviewing Nicole Saylor, the head of Digital Library Services, about the project. From any perspective the project was very successful. They got great transcriptions and they ended up attracting more donors to support their work.

The project also succeeded in dramatically increasing site traffic. As Nicole explained, “On June 9, 2011, we went from about 1000 daily hits to our digital library on a really good day to more than 70,000.” As great as all this is, as far as I’m concerned, the most valuable thing that happened is that when people come to transcribe the diaries they engage with the objects more deeply than they would have if transcription was not an option. Consider this quote from Nicole explaining how one particular transcriptionist interacted with the collection. It is worth quoting her at length;

The transcriptionists actually follow the story told in these manuscripts and often become invested in the story or motivated by the thought of furthering research by making these written texts accessible. One of our most engaged transcribers, a man from the north of England, has written us to say that the people in the diaries have become almost an extended part of his family. He gets caught up in their lives, and even mourns their deaths. He has enlisted one of his friends, who has a PhD in military history, to look for errors in the transcriptions already submitted. “You can do it when you want as long as you want, and you are, literally, making history,” he once wrote us.  That kind of patron passion for a manuscript collection is a dream. Of the user feedback we’ve received, a few of my other favorites are: “This is one of the COOLEST and most historically interesting things I have seen since I first saw a dinosaur fossil and realized how big they actually were.” “I got hooked and did about 20. It’s getting easier the longer I transcribe for him because I’m understanding his handwriting and syntax better.” “Best thing ever. Will be my new guilty pleasure. That I don’t even need to feel that guilty about.

The transcriptions are great, they make the content more accessible, but as Nicole explains, “The connections we’ve made with users and their sustained interest in the collection is the most exciting and gratifying part.”  This is exactly as it should be! The invitation of crowdsourcing and the event of the project are the most valuable and precious user experiences that a cultural heritage institution can offer its users. It is essential that the project offer meaningful work. These projects invite the public to leave a mark and help enhance the collections. With that said, if the goal is to get people to engage with collections and engage deeply with the past then the transcripts are actually a fantastic byproduct that is created by offering meaningful activities for the public to engage in.

Rationing out Transcription

Part of what prompted this post is a story that Ben Brumfield gave on crowdsourcing transcription at the recent Institute for Museum and Library Services Web Wise conference. It was a great talk, and when they get around to posting it online you should all go watch it. There was one particular moment in the talk that I thought was essential for this discussion.

At one point in a transcription project he noticed that one of his most valuable power users was slowing down on their transcriptions. The user had started to cut back significantly in the time they spent transcribing this particular set of manuscripts. Ben reached out to the user and asked about it. Interestingly, the user responded to explain that they had noticed that there weren’t as many scanned documents showing up that required transcription. For this user, the 2-3 hours they spent each day working on transcriptions was such an important experience, such an important part of their day, that they had decided to cut back and deny themselves some of that experience. The user needed to ration out that experience. It was such an important part of their day that they needed to make sure that it lasted.

At its best, crowdsourcing is not about getting someone to do work for you, it is about offering your users the opportunity to participate in public memory.

Crowdsourcing is better at Digital Collections than Displaying Digital Collections

What crowdsourcing does, that most digital collection platforms fail to do, is offers an opportunity for someone to do something more than consume information. When done well, crowdsourcing offers us an opportunity to provide meaningful ways for individuals to engage with and contribute to public memory. Far from being an instrument which enables us to ultimately better deliver content to end users, crowdsourcing is the best way to actually engage our users in the fundamental reason that these digital collections exist in the first place.

Meaningful Activity is the Apex of User Experience for Cultural Heritage Collections

When we adopt this mindset, the money spent on crowdsourcing projects in terms of designing and building systems, in terms of staff time to manage, etc. is not something that can be compared to the costs of having someone transcribe documents on mechanical turk. Think about it this way, the transcription of those documents is actually a precious resource, a precious bit of activity that would mean the world to someone. It isn’t that any task or obstacle for users to take on will do, for example, if you asked users to transcribe documents that could easily be OCRed the whole thing loses its meaning and purpose. It isn’t about sisyphean tasks, it is about providing meaningful ways for the public to enhance collections while more deeply engaging and exploring them.

Just as Ben’s user rationed out the transcription of those documents we might actually think about crowdsourcing experiences as one of the most precious things we can offer our users. Instead of simply offering them the ability to browse or poke around in digital collections we can invite them to participate. We are in a position to let our users engage in a personal way that is only for them at that moment. Instead of browsing through a collection they literally become a part of our historical record.

The Important Difference between Exploitation-ware and Software for the Soul

Slide from Ruling the World

As a bit of a coda, what is tricky here is that there is (strangely) an important and  but somewhat subtle line between exploiting people and giving people the most valuable kinds of experience that we can offer for digital collections. The trick is that gamification is (for the most part) bullshit. You can trick people into doing things with gimmicks, but when you do so you frequently betray their trust and can ruin the innately enjoyable nature of being a part of something that matters to you, in our case, the way that  users could deeply interact with and explore the past via your online collections. What sucks about what has happened in the idea of gamification is that it is about the least interesting parts of games. It’s about leaderboards and badges. As Sebastian Deterding has explained, many times and many ways, the best part of games, the things that we should actually try to emulate in a gamification that attempts to be more than pointsification or exploitationware are the part of games that let us participate in something bigger. It is the part of games that invites us to playfully take on big challenges. Be wary of anyone who tries to suggest we should trick people or entice them into this work. We can offer users an opportunity to deeply explore, connect with and contribute to public memory and we can’t let anything get in the way of that.

The Interest Driven Curriculum and Online Affinity Communities

The more I explore informal affinity communities, like the Civ modder community, or the RPG Maker Community, the more intriguing I find them. While the communities are themselves interesting, I think there are lessons in these spaces for rethinking more formal learning environments. This post is an attempt to refine some of this line of thinking. For the last few weeks I have been trying to put my finger on exactly what that something is. There are lots of individual things, for example the way participants in these communities learn to give and take criticism is important. But, I think there is something much bigger here too.

Here is what I have for the moment. The most important thing that happens in these spaces is that participants experience what it feels like to commit to a project, invest in it, and over a long process, see it grow. At the heart of these communities, I think the real value is in their ability to let a participant chase their own interest and get a feeling for how pleasurable that interest chasing experience is.

Everyone needs to find Flow
This is fundamentally about experiencing a kind of motivation. Csíkszentmihályi calls these experiences flow. It’s a terrible name, but a critical concept. Flow is a kind of single-minded immersion in a task. It is a pleasurable experience, and it is a fundamental part of developing competence and eventually expertise in a domain. The idea of flow can get rather squishy, but it does describe the generic experience of developing competence and mastery across a wide range of domains.

What troubles me, is that I think many young people never get to experience flow in school, and if they do, only experience it in a single domain. I think places like the RPG Maker Community, and Civ Modders sites could serve as tools for schools to use to help give this experience to all students.

I will borrow an argument from my high school gym teacher as an example of what I think schools need to do in this area. My gym teacher frequently explained to the class that the real value of gym class was for for every student to feel what it is like to exercise frequently enough to be healthy. Without that gym class, many of the students would never have felt what being healthy/ fit was. Without that frame of reference, many students who never exercise would not have any idea of how good it feels to be healthy.

If students are not experiencing flow in schools there is a good chance that they will never have a frame of reference for how good it feels to develop competence in a domain they are passionate about. Schools do a reasonably good job at demonstrating some kinds of motivation to students. Every student experiences extrinsic motivation (do your homework or you fail the class), and many students internalize that carrot and stick, (If I do well on this assignment I will go out for ice cream). However, I don’t think many students get to feel what it is like to feel the kind of intrinsic motivation that comes from flow, and without ever knowing what that feels like, what it feels like to get lost in your work, what do those students have to compare their later experiences in work and life with?

There are places in schools that provide these kinds of experiences, like music and art classes, and theater and athletic programs. However, when students experience flow in a single domain, they are likely to attribute the positive experience associated with flow to the domain. For example, a student that experiences flow as a violinist may well become convinced that playing violin is the only thing that makes them feel that way. In this case, they become convinced that there is one thing that they can do. Beyond the need to have this kind of flow experience, I think we need to think about helping young people find that experience in a range of fields.

The Interest Driven Curriculum
When thinking about the value of the Civ Modder’s space, or the RPG Maker Community, what I find most striking is that these spaces and communities provide a powerful means to engage in flow experiences. There are a wide range of other interest driven communities like these. Flickr has hundreds of active photo pools where budding photographers can engage in the same kinds of experience. Galaxy Zoo has a very active community of participants exploring and teaching each other about astronomy. Places like provide the same kind of experiences for writing about a range of characters from popular media.

Imagine if, for an hour or two a day, schools told students to chase their interests. Facilitators for this kind of experience could well send kids interested in making video games to explore the RPG Maker or Civ communities, Flickr for those interested in photography, fan fic for the kids excited about their pokemons. I think the best way to get students to experience flow is to let them chase their interests. These kinds of web communities provide a great place to get to feel that. At this point, those interest driven experiences of competence are only available to the students that discover them on their own. If we think that equity is one of the most important values of our education system I think we need to seriously think about how we can get these kinds of experiences in the schools.