DH – 804 – Networks and Crowds

Our final set of readings focused on the subject of crowds. It was less so about networks as we’d imagined it – in terms of network analysis- and instead about how networks of people can work together to transform action in the digital environment.

This week the readings emphasized how networked crowds (like we’ve discussed elsewhere) handle scale differently. Though the phrase “many hands make light work” – seems to hold true here, the difference is, as Clay Shirkey writes, “In the words of physicist Philip Anderson, ‘More is different.’ When you aggregate a lot of something, it behaves in new ways, and our new communications tools are aggregating our individual ability to create and share, at unprecedented levels of more.” (Cognitive Surplus, 25). Shirky, Yochai Benkler, Cass Sustein, Max Evans, Guy Marieke and Emma Tonklin agree that an important and transformative feature of the Web 2.0 world is that scale changes everything.

But also as Sustein emphasizes, do we need to increase our concern and critical assessment of the process itself- be suspicious about the negative impact of the voices of the many drowning out the voices of the few. In terms of my own interests I was drawn to the way in which the web makes it possible for engagement and participation from minority voices – and for me this has to do with the way in which digital media has transformed the ways in which (and spaces in which) members of the deaf community interact, share ideas and engage with hearing individuals. Shirky was particularly meaningful in his (hopeful) assessment of how the internet can grow groups and organizations.  In Here Comes Everybody,  he writes, “We now have communications tools – and increasingly, social patterns that make use of those tools – that are a better fit for our native desires and talents for group effort.” (48) While we’ve focused much of our discussions in this minor field reading on our own dissertation work, in a much larger way- this has been the draw for me in engaging in the digital humanities – for the productive way in which DH has made it easier to effect change, achieve access, and connect with peers – particularly in the community in which I am engaged. 

Stepping back from my own interests – the readings were useful in conceptualizing and imagining the way in which networks and crowds enable us to get at data differently and more efficiently than previously possible. I can’t read about the Flickr Commons project and Folksonomies or Max Evans’ piece about archival digitization without thinking immediately of the Papers of the War Department and the Scripto tool used at CHNM – or the New York City Public Library Building Inspector project that is learning to machine read insurance maps, or many other user-driven attempts to harness the “power of the crowd”. While these approaches won’t aid me in my dissertation work – they are useful for me to consider in future projects and will continue to play a big role in finding and obtaining access to information/resources I need for my research.

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