In 2005 a Flickr. Member, Jens-Olaf Walter, posted a photograph from WWI of German soldiers scrambling across railroad tracks somewhere in Finland. He accompanied it with the phrase: “official army photo, German-Finnish Sign “Haltpunkt”?” It was not long before another (rather eccentric looking I might add) user “timonoko” posted a comment identifying a sign in the photo and noting that it was near Helsinki but that he did not recognize the scenery. Another member took the challenge up almost three years later, using the clue of the railway and Google Maps to suggest a possible location. In response to this both Jens-Olaf and ‘timonoko’ posted photos of Finish maps, one of which indicated a change in the railway line through that particular town. Next, and perhaps even more astonishingly, “timonoko” posts a video clip from a Finish TV series “Memories of 1918” showing the exact same scene of the soldiers in the photograph crossing the railroad—except that it had been caught on film!
The stream of comments and image posts does not end there. The amount of collaborative research recorded on this single photo verges on the absurd. All this to say, examining the photograph and reading the comments was a shocking experience for me. I have not seen as dramatic a display of effective crowdsourcing to describe and identify an historical artifact on the internet to date. Interestingly the First World War Poetry Digital Archive, a project of the University of Oxford, asked to post the image in their archive. And there it sits, where I first found it, bereft of its amazing string of comments.
What the above example says to me is that we have not even begun to reach the potential that collaboration can achieve in the digital humanities. What many of the projects lack right now is the sheer mass of user traffic that something like Flickr generates. This suggests to me that more efforts should be made to integrate digital humanities projects with existing free commercial sites. The sky would be the limit.
Crowdsourcing, Flickr, and the Digital Humanities