This week I had the privilege and pleasure to attend the Triangle Scholarly Communications Institute event at the University of North Carolina. It was a great event. I spoke about the Open Library of Humanities, had discussions about XML typesetting, positive representations of Sikhism and social challenges of changing scholarly communications. In short, the diversity and breadth of expertise and participants here made it a brilliant environment. I was sorry I had to leave early.
One point that I made during the event and that we discussed was the connotations of the term “the crowd” and I wanted to write up a few words on why I think the ideologies of this phrase should be subjected to some close reading. The dominant way in which the university and its digital projects tend to think of “the crowd” is primarily as a means of bi-directional engagement. In other words, we need to do public engagement, outreach, become more than an ivory tower that preaches to distant constituents from an elitist site and instead invite contributions in. Many of these elements are key to my thinking on open access, so I certainly don't disagree with that motivation.
However, there are two problems and I want to argue them from a devil's advocate perspective. The first lies in the term itself. “The crowd” implies a noisy, uncontrolled “mass”, distinct from the orderly, hierarchical structure of the university that solicits crowd involvement. Sure, we've heard of the “wisdom of the crowd”, but this is perceived as a very different type of wisdom, occurring accidentally and in opposition to the lone, individualist genius, who instead imposes control and discipline to achieve insight. Likewise, we might consider how close synonyms – “swarm”, “the masses”, “quantity” – might have denigrating connotations when applied to others. In other words, while "the crowd" is thought of as a way to dismantle elitism of universities and communicate better, the term might imply a reinforcement of those very notions of elitism.
Secondly, the labour structures of “the crowd” are volunteerism and gamification in the service of creating outputs for which tenured academics are paid. Certainly, crowdsourced projects will be listed by principle investigating academics on their CVs. This symbolic capital will translate into a direct material return for those academics. By contrast, when reaching out to publics, the labour of annotation, metadata correction, transcription and so forth are presented as volunteerist efforts, or made into games, for the greater good of humankind. We could say that this is OK. After all, efforts like the British Library's 1 Million Images project are simply unachievable otherwise. What this really means, though, is that we want things done without paying for them. When we say “we couldn't achieve this without the volunteerism of the crowd”, what we tacitly mean is: we weren't willing to allocate funds to do this and to pay someone for the labour time needed. When we say "the internet makes things possible at a scale previously unimaginable", what we also mean is: there are people all over the internet willing to do one enormous jobshare for which the remuneration can be zero.
This might be all well and good, except for some observations on labour, both academic and otherwise. Firstly, whenever we want a job done and somebody volunteers to do it, that person must, in the vast majority of cases, surely be supporting themselves through some other form of paid employment. What, though, about people who need jobs but find their livelihoods undercut by others volunteering to do work for free because it looks like a game? Perhaps you don't care about this and think that the labour “market” should fix this. I think I do care and don't believe in a market for labour that would make this work, evidenced by rises in under and un -employment and top-loading of wealth.
Secondly, the way we remunerate academics (ideally: I know there's a lot of contingent, precarious labour) is designed differently. Tenure and other job securities are designed to function more like a patronage model, allowing academics to choose the focus of their research labour time and to then give away the outputs, rather than selling them. This has many advantages. However, it also makes it easy to forget, within the academy, that those outside do not have this model. This leads to a potential obfuscation of my first point: that labour done for free, outside of tenure-like structures, leads to an impossible situation for those who need to be paid to work to exist.
I don't know what the answers are to these problems or whether they really are problems that we need to carefully interrogate. Someone else might have already written more insightfully about this than I have. It seems to me, though, that if we think of publics as “latent scholars”, as someone at the event put it, then there might be a less solid structure of “latent ethics” lurking behind our assumptions about “the crowd” and its benefits than we sometimes like to admit.