Citizen Scholars: Facebook and the Co-Creation of Knowledge (Fall 2011 version)
¶ 1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 3 Doing historical research and writing on Facebook or Twitter may still seem like a strange notion to some. Social networks once had a reputation as frivolous spaces in which young people entered into and out of romantic relationships faster than one can click the ‘like’ button and older people (read: over 25) posted incessantly about the rare local organic farmer’s market finds they just consumed in their latest meal. While these uses of social media have not gone away (stop telling me about your arugula!), the value of social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter for historians, both academic and those outside academia, has become increasingly apparent.
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Much communication between scholars now happens on Twitter and in other social channels, as many scholars have, to a degree, moved away from email communication toward the more streamlined and social style of communication facilitated by Twitter and Facebook messages. This social-scholarly exchange includes the efficient sharing of information about upcoming conferences, calls for papers, new historical websites, etc, as well as conference planning, general debate and discussion, and even collaborative research. One particularly compelling case of social media in the service of history involved not an academe, though, but rather the case of celebrity twitterer Stephen Fry urging his followers—with great success—to join the campaign to save Britain’s Bletchley Park, the headquarters of Allied code-breaking operations during World War II.1 This essay is concerned neither with academic historians, nor with erudite and chatty celebrities engaging in public history, however.
¶ 3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 5 Instead, I seek here to present and contextualize the role of the lay historian—the citizen archivist or citizen scholar—in the production of historical research and writing in social media. In her 2011 blog post, “More Crowdsourced Scholarship: Citizen History,” Elissa Frankle wrote that, “In the history museum of the future, curators’ work will be driven by our audiences’ curiosity, and their preference for inquiry over certainty.”2 This growing preference for inquiry over certainty, for co-creation of content rather than consumption of content, is the basis of citizen scholarship in social media. Through the lens of three case studies of interactions with citizen scholars on Facebook, I seek to illustrate the small, yet profound ways in which lay historians are crowdsourcing the production of historical knowledge.
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Quilt Index and Quilts of the Day
I am currently a faculty member in public history at Western Michigan University, and previously, from 2008-2011, I worked a doctoral research assistant for the Quilt Index,3 www.quiltindex.org/, a digital repository providing preservation and access to images and metadata for over 50,000 quilts. In addition to my regular work, I also managed the project’s social media campaign, including a Twitter feed, blog, wiki, and our most popular social media channel, a fan page on Facebook. As far as the nature of our audience base, we had over 2,000 fans as of July 2011, most of whom seem to be middle-aged to older women who are either hobbyist quiltmakers or self-styled lay quilt historians, though we do of course have many fans who do not meet this description. It is a geographically diverse group, though, with around 20% of our fans living outside the United States, in places as far flung as Ethiopia and Pakistan, and huge followings in Canada, Italy, the United Kingdom, and South Africa.4
¶ 5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 7 The Quilt Index social media strategy on Facebook including engaging with the audience via trivia questions, questions designed to foster a personal connection to content, and by posting a ‘Quilt of the Day’ daily. Themes for the Quilt of the Day (a particular pattern, period, region, etc), are often suggested by the over 2,000 fans, many of whom, I have discovered from their posts, are lay scholars. I facilitated this collective curatorial choice by posing several similar options the week before and inviting fans to use the comment feature to make their choice. For example, one week in July 2010, I asked the audience to choose from among five “quilt-specific” fabric colors: cheddar orange, chocolate brown, indigo blue, Nile green, and Turkey red. Cheddar was chosen overwhelmingly, and so the following week’s Quilts of the Day all featured cheddar orange fabric, popular in Pennsylvania and adjacent states in the mid-late nineteenth century. A vociferous contingent expressed displeasure that Nile green had not won, however, and so two weeks later, we featured Nile green quilts of the 1930s and 40s. Significantly, knowledge of these quite specific fabric colors reflects a strong foundation of prior knowledge of textile history in at least a portion of our audience base, that at least some of these folks are true citizen scholars.
¶ 6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 3 Negotiating this mass curatorial process and engaging in the co-creation of knowledge with the audience on Facebook has been fascinating. On more than one occasion, a ‘fan’ has pointed has suggested a way in which a quilt’s metadata record might be more complete. This has then prompted me and other Quilt Index staff to do additional research and post the findings. The process of negotiating the weekly themes for these quilts of the day with the fan base is, in itself, a new genre of historical writing and research, not to mention the comments that the community posts in response to the quilts. These comments often provide obscure information about pattern origins and early or out of print publications.
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Homage to Amanda, Ralli Quilts, and Collective Knowledge
One such publication is Roderick Kiracofe’s Homage to Amanda. In June 2011, I posted a Quilt of the Day and noted in the quilt’s metadata record that the quilt had been published in a book called Homage to Amanda,inquiring if anyone had ever heard of it. Several people had, including the author of the book (who happened to be our fan). He even offered to send me a free copy of the book as it is out of print. Skeptics might argue that those with such historical knowledge to share are the exception rather than the rule, and that the majority of those on the Quilt Index Facebook page are there just to look at quilts, or because they simply wanted more pages to ‘like.’ Indeed, it is true that many of our fans do come to self-identify with a quilt-related community or to gain intellectual or emotional uplift from the quilts (though both of these are worthy outcomes as well), rather than to engage in some form of knowledge production.
¶ 8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 1 The dynamic of that of a teacher and student (or that of a Facebook manager and Facebook fan) is perhaps a more apt way of describing the work we are doing on Facebook with this population of “self-identifiers.” That said, however, even this top-down model of scholarly communication is still a process of co-creation of knowledge to an extent. As Elissa Frankle noted,
In the age of the twenty-four hour news cycle and a well-researched, well-policed Wikipedia, museums like to believe that we still have the advantage of being Authorities. We know how to do Research. We know how to pose the Right Questions. We know, most importantly, how to Give Our Visitors The Answers. Citizen History is an experiment in finding out what happens if we trust our visitors enough to allow them to bring their diverse perspectives and boundless enthusiasm into the research work of the museum and share our authority… Citizen History opens up a museum’s existing data to participants and, through scaffolded inquiry, invites participants to draw conclusions to answer big questions.5
¶ 10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 5 This sort of “scaffolded inquiry” allows for a sharing, but not a relinquishing, of authority, and provides a space in which those who might be better defined as simply citizens, rather than citizen scholars, can still work alongside us.
¶ 12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 2 The Quilt Index fan page does, however, have several individuals who are clearly visiting the fan page for the purpose of participation in research. In fact, one of our fans in Pakistan (another indicator of the very international nature of this scholarly exchange) alerted me that a ralli quilt6 I had posted on Facebook that was, according to its donor-submitted metadata, made in India, was in fact made in Pakistan. I was later able to do some research to prove the fan’s assertion, resulting in the updating of the quilt’s record.
¶ 13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 Taken together, these three short anecdotes on co-curating Quilts of the Day, crowdsourcing the ralli quilt record, and connecting with the author of Homage to Amanda (culled from numerous examples of such interactions on the Quilt Index Facebook page) may be understood in the context of what cybertheorist Pierre Lévy termed “collective intelligence.”
My hypothesis is that cyberculture reinstates the copresence of messages and their context, which had been the current of oral societies, but on a different scale and on a different plane. The new universality no longer depends on self-sufficient texts, on the fixity and independence of signification. It is constructed and extended by interconnecting messages with one another, by their continuous ramification through virtual communities, which instills in them varied meanings that are continuously renewed.7
¶ 16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 6 One can understand the collective intelligence of lay scholars’crowd-sourcing history in this way: No one historian knows everything, and everyone actively posting content has something slightly different to offer the community. All of the content produced and posted by lay quilt scholars amounts to the collective intelligence of the quilt world, a body of knowledge that no one individual can ever know in its entirety, for it is simply too vast. But collectively, these social citizen scholars have created a massive, fairly cohesive body of knowledge online.
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While engaging with citizen scholars on Facebook has been incredibly rewarding and, for the most part, unproblematic, doing this kind of work is not entirely without its challenges. Perhaps the main challenge is performing the role of a facilitator without taking control of the process, but while still keeping the discussion moving. There is also the issue of documenting the historical research and writing that is practised on Facebook. I have not found a good way to archive or search our Facebook feed, and that is a problem. This is an issue I am actively looking into at the moment. Right now I rely mostly on memory, a Word doc, and scrolling, but much more work needs to be done in the field of Facebook feed archiving and preservation. Any comments on solves or strategies for archiving social media would be greatly appreciated.
¶ 18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 3 Social media shifts the role of authority from being vested in a historical cultural domain, such as the museum or the university history department, to a community or user-generated body of information that is critiqued within the community. Academic historians are beginning to recognize that this outpouring of lay scholarship on Facebook, and through other social media outlets, is not to be ignored. This crowdsourcing of historical research and writing in social media is so powerful, in fact, that I myself (an academe and public historian) have cited Facebook comments before. Facebook is, for me, challenging the traditional channels of scholarly communication, and crowd-sourcing the way in which I approach the writing of history.
¶ 19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 0 About the author: Dr. Amanda Grace Sikarskie is an Assistant Professor of Public History at Western Michigan University. Prior to coming to Western, Amanda served as project developer and social media manager for the Quilt Index, www.quiltindex.org. She received her Ph.D. in American studies from Michigan State University, where her dissertation research focused on the practice of quilt history in the digital age and the nature of digital material culture studies.
¶ 20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 0 Acknowledgements: I am grateful to my colleagues at the Quilt Index, Marsha MacDowell, Mary Worrall, Justine Richardson, and Amy Milne, for their help and guidance with this project. Thanks very much also to those who provided comments and questions during the open peer review period. And a big thank you to Beth Donaldson, herself a lay quilt historian, who recently took over for me as Quilt Index social media manager after I accepted my current faculty position.
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- This case study was documented in Sue Black, Jonathan P. Bowen, and Kelsey Griffin, “Can Twitter Save Bletchley Park?,” Archives and Museum Informatics, 2010, http://www.archimuse.com/
mw2010/papers/black/black.html; Stephen Fry, Twitter Feed, Twitter, Last accessed September 29, 2011, http://www.twitter.com/ stephenfry. ↩
- Elissa Frankle, “More Crowdsourced Scholarship: Citizen History,” Center for the Future of Museums, July 28, 2011,http://futureofmuseums.
blogspot.com/2011/07/more- crowdsourced-scholarship- citizen.html. ↩
- The Quilt Index is a partnership project between Michigan State University’s MATRIX: The Center for Humane Arts, Letters, and Social Sciences Online, the Michigan State University Museum, and the Alliance for American Quilts. It has been funded in part by grants from the National Endowment for Humanities and the Institute for Museum and Library Services. ↩
- Statistics and countries given are according to Insights, Facebook’s internal analytics application for fan page managers. ↩
- Frankle, “More Crowdsourced History.” ↩
- Ralli quilts are a traditional form of quilted patchwork produced in Pakistan and northwestern India. ↩
- Pierre Lévy, Cyberculture, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011. p. xiv. ↩