This chapter provides strategies for organizing a community around a crowdsourcing project. The challenges of organizing communities around a project may be myriad, but the practical tips, proven strategies, and critical interventions shared here will add to the success of your project. Though not exhaustive, this chapter reflects the collective wisdom gained across a wide variety of projects that have succeeded, met with twists and turns, and broadened horizons. By reading this chapter, you will gain an understanding of community building and management, and their importance in the success and true value of crowdsourced projects, get practical advice on how to do community management, and understand areas overlapping with partnerships and community management.
Outreach and community management is work, and will likely take a significant proportion of the effort an organization puts into a crowdsourcing project. But it will repay that effort many times over, and enable you to realize the goals of the project, in terms of reaching the target participants and in the amount of work the project achieves.
Communities do not always grow around a project by themselves. If you build it, people rarely just show up. For example, Wikipedia without its community of contributors is just MediaWiki software with some encyclopedic text. While this may be fine for readers, connecting with other people and a sense of community is important for many participants.
Crowdsourcing software can help make people feel like they can connect to a project beyond the tasks alone. Many platforms, such as Zooniverse and the Smithsonian Transcription Center, offer message boards or “Notes” spaces for participants to talk with each other, share findings, and ask questions. Other projects rely on events, social media (planned or emergent from the community), and multimedia to provide opportunities to engage with a project’s materials and its team behind the scenes.
Perhaps one of the most popular ways to build communities is through events, for example, an editathon to collaborate on editing Wikipedia articles within a subject such as “food history” or “women artists.” In the late 2010s, many crowdsourcing projects began to hold transcribeathons to invite people to join in-person or virtual events focused on transcribing (or sometimes tagging) digitized collections. Both kinds of events offer an easy-to-grasp and formal way for people to be welcomed into the work of a project. Even more importantly, events offer a way for people to join a project’s community — to share in the larger collective effort and sense of shared mission. Participants may be drawn to your project because of the specific content, tasks, or shared mission, but often they will stay for the people. Connections with other participants (community) and the institution are where the feeling of reward and joy may happen. We discuss how and why to plan events in the “Planning crowdsourcing events” chapter.
Community building can be vital for the larger success of a project. A deep investment in building a community will get more work done, foster a deeper sense of accomplishment, and make a more enriching experience for everyone involved. In short, a project is so much more than its digital interface and end products!
Building a community involves some specific components that this chapter describes in detail. Governance, partnerships, and building spaces for the community are useful for creating ways to help people to feel invested in the broader outcomes of a project. Each of those approaches can benefit greatly from attending to cultural competency, building intentional and reciprocal relationships, and following a deliberate outreach strategy.
As we write, a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, the ideas, and practices discussed in this chapter raise new and important questions. Organizations are being pushed to think more about their digital audiences, and how this new reality differs from the time when most could rely on the patronage of in-person visitors. The process of expanding who joins our projects and how they contribute has the potential to speak to larger questions faced by our institutions over shrinking budgets, public skepticism, and the role of historical, cultural, and scientific expertise. A chance to join a crowdsourcing project can serve as a door to many new possibilities.
Community — a group of people who have shared interests, conditions, goals, and or identities for example students at a school, members of a local history club, employees of a business, members of a church, etc.1 A digital community is such a group that primarily interacts online. This interaction does not need to be simultaneous nor does it require people to interact directly with each other — the shared task which is the reason for the crowdsourced project forms the basis of a digital community.
Community building — the intentional creation of relationships between groups of people, institutions, organizations, and individuals around a shared interest/goal. Community building goes beyond simple, one-way forms of communication; it relies on effective engagement or the process of identifying and pursuing common and mutually beneficial goals. Overall, crowdsourcing facilitates ways for people to contribute to a shared understanding of the world through the democratic creation, distribution, and consumption of knowledge.
Community outreach — the process of connecting to, interacting with, and creating connections between individuals, organizations, institutions, and groups through effective messaging, intentional programming, and goal setting.
Governance — the deliberate structure of community management teams, responsibilities, and workflows.
Outreach — in-person or online activity designed to raise awareness of a project, or bring services or information to people beyond its host organization. Activity is as broad as the imagination of the project team and can include talks, events, social and traditional media engagement.
Cultural competence — the ability to recognize, respect, understand, and respond to cultural differences and perspectives that differ or align with your own culture.
Your interaction with your community expresses the values of your project. Some crowdsourcing values are critical in community management, including those below. See the “Identifying, aligning, and enacting values in your project” chapter for more information and consider these values in the context of your community:
Centering the needs of the community that you are bringing in or creating
The extent to which you co-create the project with the community
Mutually beneficial — the program benefits and respects all involved
Clear and transparent communication between and among team, stakeholders, and community
Responsible storage, sharing, and use of data
A critical assessment of the embedded values of digital tools and platforms
The way that communication is important in community building:
Practicing cultural competency
Identifying points of convergence/points of entry for individuals, partners, and organizations
Creating project materials that engage/leverage the provenance and community connections of a given set of materials
Every time we walk into a public building or a private space, be it a hospital, a library, or a friend’s living room, we implicitly know how to behave. Although these rules and codes are unspoken and seem to operate by “common sense,” transgressions can have serious consequences, indicating that these cultural norms are the result of cumulative decisions by the people who live and inhabit those spaces. So too with the digital sphere, where the potential for people to interact anonymously makes the need to create and manage an ethical and responsible culture vitally important. This is what we mean by governance.
Broadly speaking, governance can be organized by either a top-down or bottom-up process, each with its own pros and cons. However it is accomplished, there are several basic ingredients to your governance structure that specifically relate to community rules and engagement, and we recommend that it is designed with your values in mind to ensure proper alignment.
Elements of the governance structure can include:
Clarification on who makes decisions about the project. It could be assumed that these are the organizers/managers of the project, but in many cases, the community sees itself as the decision-maker, as is the case with Wikimedia.
Conflict resolution within the community.
Community norms, policies, and practices are vital to the culture of the contributor community and may be community-led or established by the project organizers. Policies may include codes of conduct or a friendly space policy.2
In the last twenty years, the Wikimedia movement has created a wide range of community norms and expected behaviors. These norms differ across language projects and are most dense in the English version. Much of the governance is focused on moderating content (including community-created templates participants can use to police each other3) however, the policies include conduct norms as well.4 This structure is so complex and unevenly distributed that in the last few years the community decided to develop and implement a “Universal Code of Conduct,” a binding, minimum set of standards across all Wikimedia projects, allowing various people involved in the work to take actions to ban, sanction, or otherwise limit the access of Wikimedia movement participants who do not comply with these policies.5
Although a vast array of different projects fall under the crowdsourcing umbrella, the crowd matrix below illustrates that their governance can be described along two axes, or leadership and values. A commercial crowdsourcing model such as Mechanical Turk, where crowdsourcing tools are expertly deployed in the context of a traditional marketplace, but decision-making rests with a hierarchy of business owners, might fall in the upper left corner. Wikipedia, on the other hand, might be placed in the bottom right. In many of the projects we work on, decision-making, strategy, and operational work are predominantly undertaken within the organization by an internal project team. If the crowd is being engaged with, this is considered to be “outreach and education” — arm’s length activities with little bearing on an organization’s operational capacity outside of the crowdsourced task.
In some projects, leadership is traditionally exercised by a small project team, but they are open to collaborating with the crowd and exercise decisions transparently. A bottom-up, distributed leadership model is committed to channeling the crowd into a decision-making role. Wherever you position your project on this governance matrix, there are pros and cons, and these are detailed further below. Honestly considering where your project sits on the matrix helps you make the most of the benefits of your chosen governance structure and minimize the risks. For example, you could use the matrix in a group exercise where everyone puts a dot where they think your project sits on the graph, then discuss any differences to come to a shared governance model.
In a bottom-up governance model, nobody can steer the online work of the volunteer contributors. There are focus lists and suggestions, but these are only suggestions — in Wikipedia, this has meant that the content covered is quite uneven, led by the interests of the participants.
Community empowerment in governance has indisputable benefits; however, there are also tradeoffs. We highlight the need for awareness of any existing community culture and the value of engaging with the existing and emerging community in developing its governance.
The Wikimedia movement’s governance6 emerged organically as the movement grew over the years. It has always been oriented towards the community and a flat decision structure. Its values are open, participatory, and democratic, which can make it more engaged because of participant empowerment, but often makes it hostile and aggressive. (It doesn’t help that the online contributors remain semi-anonymous.) Although there are structures of power within the community, there isn’t a clear way of making decisions that affect the whole movement.
The focus on everyone’s voice being equally valid, and the consensus-based decision-making style, have led to quite a confrontational, debate-led community culture which can deter newcomers. Even long-term participants who find online debates attractive can experience burnout.
On wiki governance models, structures of authority and decision-making are certainly very complex and have grown over the years. They originate in the community and can be motivated by the desire for a feeling of control in the absence of official top-down decision processes. The English-language Wikipedia has over fifty official policies (totaling 150,000 words), plus four hundred and fifty other guidelines and interpretative essays.7 Some of the wiki project communities with flat hierarchies also outsource the day-to-day organization of their work to traditional structures such as a non-profit organization.
Advisory boards are widely adopted in some parts of the crowdsourcing world, helping practitioners to benefit from the expertise and knowledge beyond the project team, without necessarily incurring the expense of a more formal board structure. Expertise may be academic and theoretical or based on lived experience. This is especially important if the members of the crowdsourcing project team are not members of the subject community. Inviting key members of the subject community onto an advisory board ensures that the project remains sensitive to relevant communities of interest. An advisory board will assist in the strategic planning of a project including its events and outreach, though ultimate decision-making is still vested in the project team. An advisory board can orient and guide the project team into learning about and connecting to the subject community — its nuances, history, expectations, the potential areas of conflict to avoid, and the opportunities for deep engagement. Advisory board positions are generally unpaid, but if possible, and especially when dealing with underserved or underrepresented communities, we recommend every effort is made to pay members of the advisory board for their expertise and time and to recompense out-of-pocket expenses.
You absolutely can run a crowdsourcing project on your own, within the structures of your heritage organization. However, partnering with other organizations, as much as it can add complexity, can bring in critical components to the project. The key opportunities are connecting to existing communities that could be interested in your project, and getting additional content for the project to include (e.g., source materials that you have not had access to). There are, of course, potential funders who could also be considered project partners.
Partnerships can drive crowdsourcing projects. Partnerships in this context do not refer to a business or transactional model — in crowdsourcing, all parties work on a shared initiative to achieve a common or shared set of goals. As a consequence, the most critical element of every successful crowdsourcing project is the matrix of crowdsourcing relationships.
The Colored Conventions Project, Douglass Day, and the Black Women’s Organizing Archive are Black Digital Humanities projects housed in the Center for Black Digital Research at Penn State University. Two of the authors of this section are senior team leaders at the Colored Conventions Project8 and Douglass Day,9 where they have worked with and created successful crowdsourcing projects which have transcribed documents from many archives ranging from Colored Conventions records, Freedmen’s Bureau records to archives held at the Library of Congress to the Moorland Spingarn Research Center at Howard University. Among the partners we have sought and developed: the African American Episcopal Church incorporated, The Library of Congress, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, University of Delaware, Princeton University, Oberlin College, Moorland Spingarn Research Center, Howard University, The Deltas Inc, the AKAs inc, the American Association of Retired People Delaware, Philadelphia, and Washington DC, local school districts. Some of these partnerships have been wildly successful while others have offered real opportunities for growth, reflection, and development. We have sought to distill the wisdom we have gleaned from these relationships along with the other writers in this section.
Each partnership, though sharing some aspects, was distinct. Organizational and institutional partners often choose to work with us for similar reasons. GLAMs like the National Museum of African American History and Culture have archives that need to be transcribed. Working with us allows GLAMs to complete the transcription of documents and generates interest in the targeted collection and beyond. Universities and colleges often want training, curriculum, and support for their teaching staff around crowdsourcing, archival projects, and archival research. Community groups — The African Methodist Episcopal church, the American Association of Retired People Delaware, Philadelphia, and Washington DC — wanted to support our work to bring African American history to their constituents and build a community around projects which shared their values and created opportunities for their members to learn, volunteer, and share and connect with broader communities. a successful crowdfunding campaign creates and sustains the relationships between us as organizers, partners, collaborators, and sponsors.
Immediately after the content for a project has been chosen, for example, an archive or dataset, we recommend identifying relevant groups with whom you want to develop partnerships. To suggest potential partners, drawing on many stakeholders and interested parties’ experience will ensure different perspectives on the content and the project are heard, and a broad range of relevant communities will be nominated. Stakeholders can include collaborators, community members, GLAM employees, volunteer participants, allies, and friends.
Generating a list of potential partners will require some research into the content and the communities that created or preserved the material, to ensure the most careful, respectful, and meticulous approach is taken. The members of this list will become some of the key people and groups in your community of practice. A community of practice is composed of interconnected people who have different layers of investment in a crowdsourcing project.
Often outside organizations will feature among potential partners. Partnering with outside organizations often strengthens a project and, we recommend, should be a reciprocal relationship in which access to funding, outreach facilitation, or common missions, goals, and hard resources such as physical space or target audiences are shared. The organizations selected as partners will deeply affect the relationships across the crowdsourcing project. A few issues to consider:
The type of organization — crowdsourcing projects are often familiar to GLAMs, so less translation or explanation will be required when planning and running an event.
The structure of the organization — bureaucratic or corporate organizations will need information presented in ways that are legible to them, such as written budgets, white papers, or rationales delivered with enough lead-time to build your project into their advanced approval and planning schedule.
The culture of the organization — knowing the culture of the potential partner organization will help you recognize whether your project would be a good fit, and whether the project’s topic or target participants would feel welcome.
The mission, vision, and values of the organization — these characteristics will determine whether the partnership will work and be mutually beneficial.
This list is neither exhaustive nor determinative, but in our experience, these are key issues that can influence the success of a partnership. If there is a clear reason to build a partnership with an organization whose mission or culture does not align with your own, be aware that it may take more effort and time, and have a greater risk of failure.
The key to creating generative and sustainable relationships with your partner organizations is clear and consistent communication. The values, goals, timelines, expectations, and benefits to all partners must be clearly expressed and agreed upon, ideally in writing. Using Letters of Agreement or Memorandums of Understanding (MOU) allows all parties to formulate and agree to deliverables and timelines.10 Written agreements help to avoid miscommunication and missed deadlines, which in turn will make your crowdsourcing project more successful. When partnering with an external organization that is quite different from your own, it is often the case that the vocabulary and approach differ too — having in-depth conversations as part of the process to create partnerships and formalizing them in an agreement or MOU can help reduce potential areas of miscommunication or friction.
The celebration of Douglass Day in 2021 centered on the life and legacies of Mary Church Terrell. Mary Church Terrell had explicit historic links to both Douglass and Douglass Day: she identified Frederick Douglass as a mentor and invented the celebration shortly after his death. We needed to ensure that working with her archive met our principles for selection and that we created a critical community to support working with her archive.
Terrell’s archive, like many others, is scattered. A pre-existing relationship with the Library of Congress (LoC) influenced our collective decision to focus on the Terrell collection at the LoC. This relationship gave us access to the photographic collection at the LoC, and to people with relevant expertise for our project. For example, LoC colleagues could inform our proposed Terrell curriculum work, spread the word about the transcribathon, and most critically we could use the well-designed and maintained LoC transcribing platform, By the People.11
Through flurries of emails, Zoom meetings, and phone calls, the Douglass Day team began researching Terrell and the organizations connected to her, current and historical. We read current scholarship on Terrell and identified key researchers who could be invited to partner with us. As we researched, the proposed Terrell Douglass Day program took shape, built on our growing list of potential partners.
Our list of potential partners included: Terrell’s immediate descendants, the current guardians of her legacy; the historians who had recently completed the first critical biographies of Terrell and her husband Judge Robert Eberton Terrell; an archivist who had participated in a national symposium on Terrell’s life at her alma mater Oberlin College; the President of Oberlin College; the state Senator who champions Terrell and is seeking to create a national holiday in her honor; two current Black women national politicians who embody the character and traits Terrell exemplified; the leader of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. (the first intercollegiate historically African American Greek-lettered sorority which considers Terrell a foremother); the president of the Deltas Inc. (that recognizes Terrell as a foremother and founder); the National Association of Colored Women (that recognizes Terrell as one of its founders); the descendants of Frederick Douglass and keepers of his legacy; the national president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (which Terrell co-founded and was one of its charter members); the American Association of Retired People in Washington DC (Terrell’s chosen home and the site of much of her activism) which we hoped might be a source for funding and offer access to its mailing lists of DC- and Pennsylvania-based high school teachers; and our Douglass Day community — a growing group of dedicated people who transcribe with us every year as we celebrate a day of radical love for Black history on Douglass Day.
In our experience, the importance of community networking and organizing cannot be overstated. Every person on a list of participants requires multiple contacts, by email, phone, online meetings, text messaging, in-person meetings, and even by fax. Working through surrogates, power-brokers, and bridge-builders was necessary to develop each relationship with careful attention to shared goals, values, interests, and benefits.
Partnering with external organizations can be done so that you can reach communities you are not directly connected to. This is particularly important if you want to reach people who are underrepresented on your project and in your organization — instead of trying to bring them from where they are into your context, you could partner with organizations who are already working with them, essentially going to where the community already is. This does mean that you may need to do some cultural translation work between your organization and the existing community — this is worthwhile work.
Ensuring the voices of the target and broader communities have been invited and are represented is a critical element of a successful crowdsourcing project. The overall planning of your project should reflect your subject and the interconnected communities their work emerged from or impacted. The content of many projects is based on people and their lives: it is vital to remember this represents actual people, who lived and breathed with love, hopes, and dreams. Without care, we can sometimes obscure or disregard their humanity in pursuit of data and analysis. This negates the presence and undermines the importance of community representation. The people whose lives are your datasets often have descendants, biological, institutional, or historical. We recommend making your best effort to inform them about your work and invite them to participate in your project, be recognized, and where appropriate or possible, financially compensated for their work.
Planning your crowdsourcing project needs to reflect deep cultural competence in the content. Particularly if this is an area where you are deficient, we recommend assembling an advisory board with deep knowledge of the scholarship and culture that produced the content, and members of the extended community. Consider hiring an expert to participate in the strategic planning phases of your project to ensure errors made in ignorance are avoided.
Our annual crowdsourced Douglass Day celebrations demonstrate the critical importance of deep structural respect for and centering of Black people and culture in our work. We have selected the inclusion of ecumenical prayers at every Douglass Day to demonstrate this point. The prayers that are offered are always ecumenical (not aligned with a particular religious denomination, group, or sect). Douglass Day itself is not a religious organization and has no interest in advocating for the practice of any faith. The public prayers are usually offered by a member of the clergy who has a recognized partner function. Historically, Black nineteenth-century events, including Colored Convention meetings, were anchored by public prayers offered by a Black chaplain or reverend. Opening prayers marked the beginning of a collective meeting held in one accord with a shared purpose which was both deeply embodied and metaphorical.
African American intellectual activists understood that the struggles for Black civil rights pitted them individually and collectively against a system of white supremacy which reduced Black people to bodies, devoid of mental or spiritual substance. This preposterous division of humans from their humanity was enacted through white supremacist alienation of Black people from spirituality and, in consequence, from mental and moral ability. It was expressed in its crudest form in race-based slavery which was encoded in the laws, social practice, and culture of the day.
By praying in public, often in Black-owned, -organized, and -staffed churches, African American Colored Conventions delegates, and attendees were creating Black autonomous spaces where they celebrated and reinforced their complete humanity, on their terms and in their own ways. Our work invites cross-sections of African American people into crowdsourcing working with Black archives documents. Opening with a welcoming prayer connects our work to the work that created these documents and is immediately legible and familiar, grounded in the past while being deeply connected to the present and future in ways that transcend the mundane.
This connection resonates throughout our project. When participants create accounts for their transcription work, they often use the opportunity to create a signpost or legacy memorial in usernames such as “formyancestors” and “honoringthepast.” Our volunteers are acutely aware that the work they have chosen to do has a transformative resonance that the shared prayer also acknowledges. When we open our Douglass Day celebrations with a prayer, with our community of practice, we honor the activists and theorists who collected and passed down rich archives of Colored Conventions, meetings, and proceedings to us, and we continue the tradition of celebrating complex Black humanity by recognizing the divine.
The decision to incorporate prayer and singing “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” (also known as the Black national anthem in the US) that honors the living descendants and cultural institutions of our chosen subjects reflects the values and principles of the Colored Conventions Project as a Black Digital Humanities project and speaks to progressive principles of doing cultural heritage work. It is important to us to center and honor the lives, labor, and legacies of the Black people in every aspect of our work.
Curating and transcribing Colored Conventions records is an expression of African American cultural heritage. As a consequence, we deliberately prioritize the values, theories, and some of the structures of Colored Conventions. We center our values in attending to every detail of our work: from protocols regarding citational practices to the structure of transcribing events. For Douglass Day, this includes opening with an ecumenical prayer, singing, inviting local politicians to make explicit connections with the past and present, and deliberately engaging with a broad cross-section of Black communities — elders, adults, children.
Many transcribers remain with us for years and express interest and excitement in participating in upcoming events, including those not organized by us. We deliberately point to the next steps for our participants, compensate people for their labor, emphasize the role of Black businesses, build intentional relationships with students and teachers, and make explicit the relevance of the work we do for individuals, from family historians to future professional researchers.
Despite sincere efforts to initiate and develop relationships with each person and partner, we acknowledge that this is not always successful. Some relationships we wanted to develop remained cold, particularly where there was no pre-existing relationship or connection and our work was unknown to them. When an initial approach creates an affective dissonance or resistance, it must be carefully bridged with respect and courtesy, and with the value of the mutual benefit of the crowdsourcing project foregrounded.
Decisions about the ways project teams engage with the community, build websites, and create crowdsourcing programs can be informed by the deliberate practice of cultural competency, as seen in the Douglass Day case study, and an acute awareness of the importance of maintaining the integrity of our work. Every interaction is an opportunity to communicate the project’s values regarding our work, the team, the public, the importance of crowdsourcing as a methodology, and the reasons to work with each individual partner in clear, respectful, progressive, and reciprocal ways.
Reciprocity is the most critical element of crowdsourcing partnerships. It is incumbent on the project organizers to articulate the reciprocal advantages to the entire project team, the home institution, and any potential partner organizations. Everyone who contacts potential partners must be equipped with deep knowledge about the project, the topic, and the limits of the proposed partnerships, as well as growth opportunities. Each partner will have different desires and needs that must be addressed and responded to explicitly to avoid confusion, disappointment, and conflict where expectations cannot be met. By understanding mutual boundaries and resources for the immediate project and future opportunities, organizers and potential partners can enter the relationship with realistic and clear expectations and enjoy the process in ways that are mutually, collectively, and individually beneficial.
Community partnerships on events can take multiple forms: curation projects, collecting events such as History Harvests,12 annotation initiatives, preservation drives, and many more. Creating an event program that is meaningful and engaging in turn frames and structures the crowdsourcing event. The work of crowdsourcing then becomes a collective of interconnected relationships which we build in authentic ways that transcend the transcribing event by creating points of connection, interaction, and interest beyond a singular event. The principles of responsible community organizing apply to all events. Every aspect of them will be deeply informed by your cultural competency, and reciprocity will create a successful relationship matrix for your crowdsourcing project, as described in the next section.
Larger pieces of work may include many project partners whose work intersects with your project at multiple points. As prompts for reflection, we list some areas of activity here and the types of groups or roles that could be useful to a project in delivering them.
Conduits — to help identify, explore, and form community partnerships
Connections to leadership community groups (for example, historic Black groups, local and family history societies)
Access to people with listservs who would be comfortable distributing your information
Existing invested partner organizations (it is important to acknowledge partners already dedicated to stewarding and preserving their histories)
Community leaders with cultural competencies (for example, spiritual leaders, lay historians, artists, activists)
Community members to serve as ambassadors and advocates of the project within their communities
Outlets — to help build awareness
Appearing in print, television, and radio media
Community members for organic and relational sharing
Social media influencers
Developing online content, for example through websites, blogs, and social media accounts
Sponsors — to contribute funds or resources for reciprocal benefit
Social/cultural capital (for example, historic stewards of relevant materials, agreements to contribute materials)
Technical and methods trainers
Community members (may want to contribute materials or funds while/after participating)
Organizers of local participating events
Organizers of distributed participating events
Participants at in-person/virtual events
Independent and asynchronous online participants
Community members who support a project but do not participate
Producers and talent (artistic creators) — to create broadcasts and live programs
Video appearances and program speakers
VIPs (historical descendants, politicians, well-known figures, or celebrities with relevant connections)
Performers, artists, and poets
Community members (incorporated through interviews or spotlighted social media commentary)
Crowdsourcing projects offer an opportunity to revisit some of the structural challenges facing many of our institutions in the early twenty-first century in alignment with your project values. In many institutions, people inherit any number of power structures and other forms of inequality. Maintaining a deep awareness of your context and culture is important for the sake of clarity and authenticity. It will also offer you the opportunity to recognize areas for growth and expansion.
In this chapter, we draw on our experience to foreground questions of race and ethnicity. These inherited structural inequities also face people from other un- or under-represented groups. We recommend paying particular attention to where this historic lack of representation is intersectional, for example in faith, gender identity, sexual orientation, disability, age, and socio-economic level.
Wikipedia has a large gender gap in its contributors and content. In a 2011 survey, the Wikimedia Foundation found that fewer than 10% of its contributors identify as female. Further, data analysis tools and computational linguistics studies have concluded that Wikipedia has fewer and less extensive articles on women; those same tools have shown gender biases in biographical articles.
Many community-led initiatives have been set up in recent years to address this, in many cases by creating welcoming, safe, and accessible spaces to bring in diverse contributor voices. One example is the Art+Feminism organization, which leads an international campaign to improve coverage of cis and trans women, gender, and the arts on Wikipedia by organizing in-person training and editing events. Since 2014, over 18,000 people at 1,260 events around the world have participated in their editathons, resulting in the creation and improvement of nearly 84,000 articles on Wikipedia and sister projects.13
Their principles include working collaboratively and thinking intersectionally (“don’t reproduce other structural forms of inequality in your feminist practice”). Their event organizing rules include safe space and a security toolkit. A lot of their materials (e.g., editathon How-Tos) are produced in many languages. The safe space policy14 is particularly impactful in how it reframes Wikimedia events to become inclusive and accessible. The policy includes statements such as:
Our shared goal is to address one of the ways women and non-binary people have been systemically silenced; through the preservation of our history. Advancing gender equity and standing up for the histories of marginalized people is about disrupting inequity and inequality, building community, and enacting our values.
When working with people, avoid assuming you know their sexual orientation, gender identity, or anything else related to their identity or experiences. Remember that every person is a complex individual with multiple overlapping identities, that may not fit your personal ideas, understandings, or social constructs.
Use All-Gender Inclusive Language. Through conversation and during workshops and training, make sure the language you use is inclusive of all people.
Many universities, colleges, and cultural heritage organizations in the US and UK, as elsewhere, remain overwhelmingly white in their focus, programs, and makeup. In the US, such institutions are commonly called Predominantly White Institutions (PWI), in contrast to Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU).
Recent studies report significant inequality in many arenas of cultural heritage, including libraries, archives, and museums, suggesting that leadership of US museums in 2017 was 93% white15 while the leadership of US research libraries the same year was 89% white.16 In the UK in 2015, 97% of library, archive, and information professionals were white.17 In National Portfolio Organizations funded by Arts Council England in 2018-2019 (which include libraries, museums, and sector-supporting organizations), 11% of the workforce was Black and Minority Ethnic (BME); in museums, this figure was 6% of the workforce, while for England overall the figure was 16%.18 Representation in History in higher education is less representative still: in 2018, 11.3% of History students were BME (compared to 23.9% of all undergraduates); while 3.9% of History academics were BME, with fewer than 1% being Black.19
These realities are slow to change and have real consequences for the communities who are served by our institutions, through who makes decisions and what actions are taken. For example, approximately 85% of the collections in US art museums are works by white artists.20 In this and other areas, our institutions have room to grow to become representative of the societies they serve. While deeper structural changes can take slow and steady work, we believe that crowdsourcing projects can help create that momentum through the time and resources we commit to short-term outreach and community organizing efforts. Below we describe some practical strategies for pursuing this work.
This road might be a little bumpy. That is not an accident. Teams within PWIs often bring their biases to the vision and design of a project. At worst, those can lead to racially exclusive practices by default. A common refrain is “well, we put out the invitations and these are just the people who signed up to participate.” We would encourage the reframing of such observations: perhaps the lack of interest by an intended audience tells us that we need different approaches to our outreach.
Are there perceived or actual limitations and ethical issues in creating and sustaining racially exclusive projects? If racial exclusion happens by default, as opposed to by active choice, the results are not the same. It creates a racially exclusive project or space or product, but worse than that, it speaks to a deeply racist, biased structure that is reproducing racist outcomes passively. If a project’s values include embracing the challenges of creating a radically welcoming and open crowdsourcing project, several concrete actions can be taken.
Explicitly state in your project values that the project and team are anti-racist
Declare the intent of your project to be as accessible as possible to all people by including a list that explicitly names the peoples and groups invited to participate
State clearly that the project prioritizes an underserved and or underrepresented group, and why
Interrogate deliberately the leadership and organizational structure of the project regarding race
Particularly where the topic or subject of the project is Black, ensure that Black people’s voices are authentically included in decision-making and leadership positions
If you need to use vendors for the project, create an explicit statement of support of Black- or minority-owned businesses. Make sure that this statement of principle is legal in your specific context.
Ask partners to consider joining you in this effort
Make clear to potential collaborators that the project seeks to support Black voices and participation in ethical and practical ways
It can be helpful to create a document for external groups which outlines practical ways to outreach to Black organizations, groups, and publics. In the next section you can find an example document created by the Douglass Day team to support other schools’ outreach, both on- and off-campus.21
We identified the need for this document after speaking with potential partners and participants who wanted to increase non-white participation in their Douglass Day events, but did not have those relationships and or know how to create them. While largely positive, uptake of the document is mixed. Some groups are not interested in taking on the extra work involved. Others embrace the challenge and have been deeply pleased with the new friendships, relationships, and resources they have discovered moving beyond their accustomed circles. The range of responses we receive are informative, and are met with equanimity: people and institutions are at different places in their own journeys and this is not a reflection of our work or the anti-racist policies we have chosen for our crowdsourcing project.
We understand that your outreach might vary, depending on your circumstances, but we can all agree that holding events or running projects that appeal only to white people is less than ideal and should be less common. We encourage you to approach this work with some persistence. Changing who benefits or participates in our programs is not a one-time effort. There are no magic spells or secrets. It takes practice and will evolve and grow over time as you learn more and build your project’s relationships. It will take some time, but we can’t overturn years or decades of local biases and structural inequalities overnight.
If you are at a large institution, museum, or university, start with the people in your organization who might be interested in the mission of your work but may not yet be formally affiliated with the effort.
And don’t just send an invitation. Ask if people might like to join the group that sets the vision for a project. Perhaps, would someone like to join your leadership team? In your initial conversations, it is important to figure out what could be in it for a person of color to join a formerly less-than-diverse team. Who in the current team will take responsibility for ensuring that new team members have opportunities within larger group meetings and in one-on-one settings to contribute their ideas, thoughts, and ask questions?
In the US, student organizations you may consider approaching include: Black undergraduate and graduate student associations, and African American fraternities and sororities, National Society of Black Engineers, McNair Program, Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship Program, and Upward Bound.
US-based academic programs include: African American Studies, Black American Studies, Africana Studies, and American studies departments. Departments of History, English, Religious Studies, along with any clubs, units, or programs related to public history, archives, and literature and creative writing.
When you first begin, it can seem a daunting task to change the groups of people reached by your projects. There are a variety of strategies you can use to help build relationships with people in communities that are often underserved by our cultural heritage organizations.
Start by compiling a list of potential partners. (See earlier in the chapter for a more detailed list of kinds and partners and their roles.)
US-based Black community organizations: National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) chapters, Urban League, Black genealogical societies, historic homes, small Black museums, church history groups, public libraries in predominantly Black areas, community centers, senior centers, elementary schools, secondary schools, local social justice organizations, women’s and family shelters, LGBTQ community centers, historic societies, and other places where community members might gather.
Once you have a list of prospective partners, contact them by email. Send a short note that describes your event. Ask for a phone conversation. If you’ve never met or spoken with the people you’re contacting, you may need to follow your note with a phone call to the offices of the directors, coordinators, or staff. Always follow emails or invitation letters with a phone call. A personal touch goes a long way!
Hint: If someone is generous enough to give you some of their time, and even if they pass on joining your project, ask for their help in spreading the word in their circles. Ask if they have any suggestions for people you can contact next.
Don’t forget: building relationships takes time, effort, and listening.
And a crowdsourcing project should be only the first step. Working together on a successful crowdsourcing project can open new opportunities for conversations about what comes next. Listen closely. Participants will provide lots of clues and ideas about how our institutions can better serve their communities.
Events can be powerful ways to create and sustain a community, whether in person or online. Events build excitement about a project and can motivate contributors by creating a shared social context in which they can see others contributing to the same goals — where this can be a solitary and even lonely experience online.
Demonstrating the complexities of a project in a live event setting can also better explain the work to those still new to how a crowd project works, which can, in turn, increase their sense of understanding and belonging. Events can build on institutional connections to existing groups, and develop new communities through increasing accessibility to a project or organization. They can increase participation and raise awareness of projects. They can be opportunities to work closely with partners towards shared immediate goals.
For more information on the benefits and methods of hosting a community event including transcribathons, hackathons, and editathons, see the “Planning crowdsourcing events” chapter.
People are the alchemy that creates a project. Through giving time, energy, and often love, they create a living project from an assembly of software and data. Build a platform, and people are unlikely to come just like that. Build a community, and the magic of a crowdsourcing project becomes real.
As outlined in this chapter, there are several key ingredients of success. Living by your project’s values, and cultural competency are essential for a successful outreach program. Designing an appropriate governance structure will support you in developing your community. Creating the right partnerships that are respectful, intentional, and reciprocal helps build a community. Welcoming affinity spaces will help sustain a community that cares about your project and its broader outcomes. Outreach is where many of your project values will be most evident to the whole project team, your organization, and the world beyond the project. Outreach is also where project organizers get to meet and spend time with the amazing people who make a project happen: enjoy it!
Inviting and supporting individual participants, and creating community spaces by running events are key overlap areas of Outreach and Community work. We invite you to explore the “Supporting participants” and “Planning crowdsourcing events” chapters next if you have not already.