Many Publics, Better Models, & Engaging Volunpeers

For her Nieman Lab fellowship, Melody Kramer interviewed me about my approach to volunteers and community with the Smithsonian Transcription Center.

In her resulting report “Putting the Public into Public Media,” Melody culls insights shared from contexts of many public(inter)facing projects. She puts forth alternative and manageable models for membership. For me, the take-away is to build from a simple but not-so-easy to achieve starting point: ask your public(s) to build with you, have a say in the product they consume, and work with your product to better suit their needs. Together, you can attain more meaningful, deeper, and resilient engagement.

Melody features my approach with the Smithsonian Transcription Center as a case study. In addition, she’s included some of my comments as a footnote. She asked me to detail “how” I build community and engage with our volunteers. Continue reading for my answers to Melody’s question: “How do you foster community?”

“I think I have fostered community by

  • being authentic in my engagement (using my voice not hiding behind the Smithsonian, and being enthusiastic because this stuff is pretty cool),
  • asking questions that furthered the dialogue (how did you hear about us? what did you think of that? what was most surprising? what would you like to do next?)
  • establishing a rhetorical approach that made it clear that we/I was learning at the same time as the volunteers
  • establishing a rhetorical approach that suggests there is ALWAYS more to the story and that this is a chance to make discoveries – and then by recognizing or acknowledging those discoveries
  • creating the hashtag #volunpeers to allow volunteers to leverage the structure of social media spaces to communicate with one another and with me/us – encouraging them to use it as well to ask for help or indicate a project needs review, etc
  • creating collaborative competitions, rather than leaderboarding: #7DayRevChall (7 Day review challenges) allowed people to contribute collectively to a goal, then metric and try to beat the group goal – and using daily updates to share progress. This also allows for skills acquisition and learning best practice for review AND addresses an issue we see frequently – folks love transcribing and pages languish waiting for review. Every 2 months, we draw attention to this
  • focusing on the process of transcribing and reviewing often over the volume of the product – and cultivating/encouraging patience from experienced volunteers in regard to “newbies”
  • letting volunteers speak to each other directly in spaces in which they already live and are comfortable (Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr) – and we have benefitted from volunteers who are welcoming and want to help each other complete projects
  • Also by engaging through those 3 social media networks (also instagram some and hopefully reddit soon), volunteers have the ability to “curate” and own their experience and the product they have created. My perception is that creates more in-depth brand engagement, as well – these volunteers list “digital volunteer for @TranscribeSI” or “#volunpeer for @TranscribeSI” in their bios
  • listening to the feedback and description of external interests from volunteers and gauging their excitement in subject matter – then actively courting the archives, museums, and libraries that have related material
  • Finally, actually integrating their feedback into site design when(ever) possible”



It seems to me that many of these steps start with two words: curiosity and sharing. In practice, these two words create a cycle of behavior – as you’re curious, you investigate. When you discover, you may want to share so others can learn. When others share, your interests are piqued and you become … more curious. Asking questions, discovering connections, solving challenges, and bringing together people – these all emerge as actions grounded in curiosity and sharing. When I understand that a volunteer has had a lightbulb moment with a project, I try to connect them and this experience to the Smithsonian group that has shared the project. Then staff and public alike are experiencing the moment of discovery – and learning from each other in the process. This often happens in our social media spaces, but I also do this one-on-one with feedback e-mails and questions from our volunteers.

Are you a community manager or are you a volunteer for an organization? How do these approaches relate to your experiences?


Three Challenges to Scholarly Crowdsourcing

I spoke about three challenges in scholarly crowdsourcing in a CCLA panel discussion on 07 May 2015. Here is what I had to say about trust, workflow, and acknowledgement.  

I was invited to participate in the CCLA workshop on scholarly crowdsourcing – hosted by the University of Maryland and Drs. Mary Flanagan, Neil Fraistat, and Andrea Wiggins. I was asked to join a panel discussion and share my thoughts on challenges for scholarly crowdsourcing. Here are my notes in full.

When I think about scholarly crowdsourcing, I start with possibilities – the distributed, collaborative, unexpected connection that inevitably occurs. I know these possibilities to be true from my practical work and research: expanding discussion with crowds who are focused on achieving shared goals. Stemming from this work and learning, I see three challenges for scholarly crowdsourcing. These challenges can impact practice, policy, and participation; they are trust, workflow (a.k.a. resources) and acknowledgement.


I believe people understand their worlds through cumulative experience and bundle that with them wherever they go. That means everyone brings baggage on these adventures – sometimes that makes collaborating a bit longer to sort out… But sometimes that baggage is like Mary Poppins’ carpet bag – providing what is needed in an enchanted moment of engagement. Without trust in the potential of the product and in the well-meaning nature of the community, we might not tap into hidden reservoirs of skill and knowledge.

That calls us to trust the process of connecting with people who have useful knowledge and skill sets. It asks us to trust that quality data can be produced by a truly motley crew – and to grapple with the potential of that crowd-generated information to paint a more complete picture than presented by an expert.

We have seen the results and we are bought in, to varying degrees, in this room and on the stream – but how can we make this a cultural shift to trust, so our starting point is no longer justifying quality but rather showcasing possibility?

Trust is Risky.

Trust changes design elements – for example, decreasing single key entry standards from 10 to 3. Trust is shaped by and reflected in discourse, rhetorical approaches, and instructions – these words+images+workflows can create or flatten barriers to entry.

Trust makes authentic communication and opportunity possible by — at least in small ways — becoming (temporarily) vulnerable. Trust is a vital component of successful public engagement – and it remains challenging.


The reality of crowdsourcing typically is born from the need for help – whether in expertise or scale.

I frequently find workflow concerns at the foreground of managing projects. It is one of the most underdeveloped (perhaps underrated) elements of crowdsourcing projects. I think we can address this challenge by listening closely to those managing projects and considering creatively solutions.

We can return to our designs and find ways to make them better… indeed, some of us never leave the design phase as we iterate and optimize experiences. We can also break down the processing of data and the crowdsourcing experience into small and manageable YET still connected and coherent steps. We must develop trust in new ways of “doing” as well – to be innovatively practical in rethinking resource constraints and workflow demands.


The final challenge I see is acknowledgement – in many ways, for participants, organization, and voices yet to join.

Acknowledgement is honoring the organization/ institution/ or project’s side of the bargain, whether reporting on outcomes or making products more available – to articulate through action: “we are doing our part as you do your part”

Acknowledgement is more than high-fiving or virtually fête-ing the crowd – though that is an extremely important part of the practice. It is building that acknowledgement into the system – such as noting crowdsourcing efforts in newly created collections records.

We must face the challenging pieces of acknowledgement, such as respecting the community’s new knowledge enough to give them a place to apply that knowledge – evolving the activities or tasks in which they can participate.

Maybe acknowledgement is making the product available in new ways, with less restriction (trust again!), and opening the process with interoperability in mind.

And still acknowledgement requires investment – being there, listening, thoughtful development and design, open communication, and a willingness to go a few extra steps to demonstrate what crowdsourced public engagement means.

Acknowledgement is also reflecting on who is NOT present, who is not yet participating, and taking clear steps to improve access at every level and to increase representation – to surface and tell stories that have been left behind, erased, or blurred.

Those are the challenges I see in scholarly crowdsourcing – and I hope the conversations we have today lead to discussions we hold elsewhere and practical steps to make these obstacles into opportunities for better experiences from every angle.

SI-Q: Making history by crowdsourcing & sharing knowledge

How can you help the Smithsonian make history? Just by volunteering and sharing what you know!

The Smithsonian Institution is rooted in the crowdsourcing tradition and there are more than 30 projects actively seeking your input right now (try these!). Also visit the Smithsonian Transcription Center and learn more about the activities and possibilities at the Smithsonian.

Listen in as Effie Kapsalis and I explain the ways the Smithsonian Institution invites information in and shares knowledge back out with the world.

Smithsonian Transcription Center: Growing as a Community (Blogpost)

The Smithsonian Transcription Center digital volunteers have grown into a community of volunpeers–collaborators dependent on the work and input of the group–in just over a year.

In this post for Smithsonian Institution Archives’ Bigger Picture blog, I explained a bit about the ways the volunpeers report they use the system and how the peer review process and “eyes per page” can be understand and assessed. I’ll share more about the ways volunpeers learn by doing and how the Transcription Center is a dynamic space in which the process is as important as the product. We continue to learn about our volunpeers’ needs and the ways we can make transcription better.

Active Audiences: SI Archives and Women in Science

Smithsonian Institution Archives audiences are actively solving mysteries surrounding Women in Science.

Over the last months, I have been privileged to learn first-hand the ways in which Smithsonian Institution Archives (SIA) is taking engagement with audiences to the next level.

By actively listening to quick-thinking audiences and continuing to expand articles about Women in Science on Wikipedia, SIA staff have been able to

  • identify previously unknown women in science and highlight arc-welding success,
  • learn more about women in research positions at the University of Chicago, and
  • bring attention to a record-setting pilot through the Wikipedia Did You Know? main page feature
Dora Dougherty Strother setting helicopter flight records
Dora Dougherty Strother setting helicopter flight records

Watch for more about #Groundbreakers – women who have made massive contributions to science and technology – every Wednesday through The Bigger Picture blog and connect with SIA on Facebook for more.

These are success stories from engagement and crowdsourcing and offer interesting take-aways for sustaining collaborative activities around cultural heritage collections.

Click through to read more in my post at The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives’ blog.