Shared Authority & the Return of the Human Curated Web

A few years ago, I wrote a piece on Why Academic Blogging Matters: A structural argument. This was the text for a presentation as part of the SAA in Sacremento that year. In the years since, the web has changed (again). It is no longer enough for us to create strong signals in the noise, trusting in the algorithmns to connect us with our desired publics. (That’s the short version. The long version is rather more nuanced and sophisticated, trust me).

The war between the botnets and the SEO specialists has outstripped us.

In recent months, I have noticed an upsurge of new ‘followers’ on this blog with emails and handles that really do not seem to be those of actual humans. Similarly, on Twitter, I find odd tweets directed at me filled with gibberish web addresses (which I dare not touch). Digital Humanities Now highlighted an interesting post in recent days that explains what’s going on, discusses this ‘war’, and in how this post came to my attention, points the way forward for the humanistic use of the web.

In ‘Crowd-Frauding: Why the Internet is Fake‘, Eric Hellman discusses a new avenue for power (assuming that power ‘derives from the ability to get people to act together’. In this case, ‘cooperative traffic generation’, or software-organized crime. Hellman was finding a surge of fake users on his site, and he began to investigate why this was. Turns out, if you want to promote your website and jack up its traffic, you can install a program that manufacturers fake visitors to your sites, who click around, click on adverts, register… and in turn does this for other users of the software. Money is involved.

“In short, your computer has become part of a botnet. You get paid for your participation with web traffic. What you thought was something innocuous to increase your Alexa- ranking has turned you into a foot-soldier in a software-organized crime syndicate. If you forgot to run it in a sandbox, you might be running other programs as well. And who knows what else.

The thing that makes cooperative traffic generation so difficult to detect is that the advertising is really being advertised. The only problem for advertisers is that they’re paying to be advertised to robots, and robots do everything except buy stuff. The internet ad networks work hard to battle this sort of click fraud, but they have incentives to do a middling job of it. Ad networks get a cut of those ad dollars, after all.

The crowd wants to make money and organizes via the internet to shake down the merchants who think they’re sponsoring content. Turns out, content isn’t king, content is cattle.”

Hellman goes on to describe how the arms race, the red queen effect, between these botnets and advertising models that depend on clickrates etc will push those of us without the computing resources to fight in these battles into the arms of the Googles, the Amazons, the Facebooks: and their power will increase correspondingly.

“So with the crowd-frauders attacking advertising, the small advertiser will shy away from most publishers except for the least evil ones- Google or maybe Facebook. Ad networks will become less and less efficient because of the expense of dealing with click-fraud. The rest of the the internet will become fake as collateral damage. Do you think you know how many users you have? Think again, because half of them are already robots, soon it will be 90%. Do you think you know how much visitors you have? Sorry, 60% of it is already robots.”

I sometimes try explaining around the department here that when we use the internet, we’re not using a tool, we’re sharing authority with countless engineers, companies, criminals, folks-in-their-parents-basement, ordinary folks, students, algorithms whose interactions with other algorithms can lead to rather unintended outcomes. We can’t naively rely on the goodwill of the search engine to help us get our stuff out there. This I think is an opportunity for a return of the human curated web. No, I don’t mean building directories and indices. I mean, a kind of supervised learning algorithm (as it were).

Digital Humanities Now provides one such model (and there are of course others, such as Reddit, etc). A combination of algorithm and human editorial oversite, DHNow is a cybernetic attempt to bring to the surface the best in the week’s digital humanities work, wherever on the net it may reside. We should have the same in archaeology. An Archaeology Now!  The infrastructure is already there. Pressforward, the outfit from the RRCHNM has developed a workflow for folding volunteer editors into the weekly task of separating the wheat from the chaff, using a custom built plugin for WordPress. Ages ago we talked about a quarterly journal where people would nominate their own posts and we would spider the web looking for these nominations, but the technology wasn’t really there at that time (and perhaps the idea was too soon). With the example of DHNow, and the emergence of this new front in botnets/SEO/clickfraud and the dangers that that poses, perhaps it’s time to revisit the idea of the human-computer curated archaeoweb?


Wikiblitz: Student Perspective

We had a great conversation this morning on the students’ perspective on the Wikiblitz assignment. We began by going over the article, and noting all of the changes, deletions, additions, and omissions that had occurred in the five days since we last looked at the article. In the spirit of the Heavy Metal Umlaut video I used Jing to make a short video showing how the page evolved from its one-line birth in 2005, to what we see today.

I’m no filmmaker.

But it was instructive to see how the interests and early structure that emerged in the article’s first few months have set the skeleton for all subsequent revisions. Once a structure emerges, it seems it takes a lot of energy to over-rule it or otherwise make substantial changes. The article we blitzed is about a particular place, and we noted how political history about the place was quickly expunged (but leaving a section on first nations land claims in the area).

So – a class that earlier in November had a significant number of students who felt there was nothing wrong with Wikipedia as a resource for their university level work, still like it and will refer to it, but understand now how it generates knowledge and the limitations of that knowledge. And they all promise never to cite it as a basic resource ever again.

We shall see, eh? But in general, a good experience and one that the students enjoyed doing.

Some student observations:

‘The fact that many of the changes made by the class were reverted [by other Wikipedians] means that even an ‘any one can edit’ site like Wikipedia is in fact conservative and resistant to change. Why is that? Perhaps its because people take ownership of particular pages… I also thought it was quite amazing how the anti-vandalism bot reversed some of our changes…this feature designed to preserve the presentation of fact has the effect of preserving misinformation as well…’

“The fact that the people writing and editing Wikipedia pages could in fact be just like us – first years with little in-depth knowledge – is actually rather frightening…’

I tabulated the content of my students’ feedback:

Gist of comment # of mentions by students
ease of use 1
the way Wikipedia ‘self heals’ 3
lack of professionalism 3
content is contested 5
fact that it is ‘in public’ compels professionalism 1
authority lacking – these people could be just like us! 2
futility of trying to improve articles 2
where do wikipedians get their sources? 1

The Wikiblitz: Exploring the meaning of Wikipedia in a First Year Digital History Seminar

Context: FYSM1405a is a first year seminar designed to give students an understanding of how historians can create ‘signal’ in the ‘noise’ of the internet, and how historians create knowledge using digital media tools. Given that many students when doing ‘research’ online will select a resource suggested by Google – and generally one within the first three to five results – this class has larger media literacy goals as well.

The first section of the course looked at the sheer mass of historical materials available on the internet, asking, how do we find our way through all of this? How do we visualize or otherwise identify what is important? The structuring readings during this module were reflections by the seminal author Roy Rosenzweig (founder of the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University). We also looked at how the ‘doing’ of history was itself an ‘unnatural act’, in Sam Wineburg’s felicitous phrase. This led to a second module where the students explored the idea that we never observe the past directly; we are always building models to fit what we ‘know’ into a system of explanation. In digital work, these models are explicitly written in computer code. Understanding how the code forces a particular worldview on the consumer is a key portion of becoming a ‘digital historian’. Computer games are another kind of model of the world; historical computer games are some of the best selling games on the market today. How do they represent history? Can we subvert or challenge these representations?

A consideration of gaming and an ethic of ‘playing’ with history led to the current module focussed on crowdsourcing history. Wikipedia is, in a certain sense, a kind of game where competing visions of common knowledge vie for dominance. We looked at simulations of termites as a metaphor for how crowdsourcing can create knowledge (the termites interact in a world with the simple instruction ‘pick up a piece of wood when you find it; put it down when you encounter another piece of wood’. From an initial random scattering of wood chips, a single pile emerges in the center of the world.) We looked at the history of Wikis more generally, and that of the Wikipedia itself specifically. I created the image at right to help the students situate when it is appropriate to consult Wikipedia (and when to cite it; the difference between using it as a tertiary source, and a primary source for a particular argument where it advances or illustrates the argument in some way).

The Wikiblitz assignment: To understand how the process of knowledge creation actually works on Wikipedia, by improving the article related to our local region. This assignment was partly inspired by the UBC SPAN312 2008 semester long experiment in writing collaboratively on the Wikipedia (for an analysis and post-mortem on this experiment, see ; other similar projects are listed here ). Two short videos were prepared for the students showing them the mechanics of how to edit a Wikipedia article.

Instructions to students: Examine the article. Identify areas that are logically weak or poorly written, or areas that are otherwise incomplete. Using a pseudonym, log into Wikipedia and make a substantial improvement to the article. Email me with your pseudonym and a brief description of the changes you made. All changes are to be made within class time.

Follow Up: During a subsequent class, the students will review how the article evolved during their blitzing of it, and the subsequent changes made by the wider Wikipedian community. They will be asked to reflect on how much of their contribution survived the interval; why did those parts survive? Why did some parts get reverted or deleted? How does the Wikipedian community deal with citations and points of view? Their reflection will be written before the class discussion, taking the form of a short paragraph, and will form the jumping off point for the class discussion.

Part one of this assignment – the wikiblitz itself – was conducted on November 26th 2010. Part two – the reflection and discussion – will take place on December 1st 2010. On December 1st, the students will be shown a time-lapsed video illustrating how the wiki page changed over the course of the blitz and the subsequent week. They will then be given the prompt to take 15 minutes to write down their reflections on their experience creating knowledge on Wikipedia. They will then share their observations with their seat mates to either side, before sharing with the class as a whole. Their written reflections will be taken in for grading as per the rubric (noting that the majority of the points concern their actual engagement with the Wikipedia page).

Rubric for this assignment

3 2 1
Blitz Editing Major contribution made Minor contribution with several corrections made throughout the text Minor edits only
Wiki Style Observed Wikipedia’s house style English is generally correct, but NPOV is not observed English is problematic
Sources Cited appropriately Citations problematic No citations
Reflection Knowledge creation Reflection shows deep thought on how knowledge is negotiated in a wiki Reflection shows some awareness of how knowledge is created Reflection shows little awareness beyond the student’s own point of view

Total points: /12

Desired Outcomes
The students should see how knowledge creation on Wikipedia is as much about style as it is about substance; how Wikipedia constitutes a kind of peer-review; how the ‘neutral-point-of-view’ (NPOV) provisions lead to particular kinds of rhetoric and judgments regarding knowledge credibility and suitability.

My zotero assigment

Inspired by what many others are up to in their classes (and in particular, Prof. Fernsebner; but see also Brian Croxall), I had my first year seminar students use Zotero to create a group library related to digital history & the local history of the Ottawa region. Below are the instructions I gave them:

Add 5 references to your personal zotero library with annotations; transfer those references to our zotero group online bibliography.

  1. Download and install Zotero in Firefox.  If you do not have Firefox installed on your machine, click on the Firefox link to obtain it. It’s free!
  2. Review the help videos for zotero on our course website, and on the Zotero main page.
  3. Sign-up for Zotero Groups at
  4. Search Groups for ‘1405a-digital-history’. Click on ‘Join Group’. This will send me a short note saying that you wish to join the group. Once I ‘approve’, you’ll have a new ‘group library’ on your ‘collections’ screen on the Zotero interface in Firefox. At the top you’ll see ‘my library’. To copy an item from one collection to the other, find the item you want; click and drag it to the other folder.
  5. Now, find some resources/references concerning digital history, and the history of Ottawa & the Ottawa Valley / Outaouais! You should begin by asking yourself – what aspects of this course have I found most interesting so far? Key words might be things like ‘digital history’; ‘digital humanities’; ‘history GIS’; ‘serious games’… and so on.  Look at the ‘readings’ section of our course website. Did you know that Google allows you to search for similar resources? Try it out: go to, click ‘advanced search’, click ‘more’ and put the link in the ‘page-specific tools’ box.
  6. Collect your resource, and annotate it by clicking on the ‘Notes’ tab in the zotero interface. Things to think about when creating your notes:
    • Who wrote this? Is this person credible (ie, do they work for a reputable institution? Are they well-known? What do others say about this person? Can you even find the person’s name?)
    • When was this published or posted? Was it in response to some wider current in society? (for instance, something published on terrorism in October 2001 might have a very different tone/point of view than something published in August 2001)
    • What kind of historical questions or problems could this source be useful for?
    • Are there any obvious flaws in this resource?
  7. Tag the resource using descriptive labels, under the ‘tags’ tab. (This will allow you to search and create subcollections based on these labels. Use as many as you’d like.)
  8. Transfer your citations to our group library.
  9. IF SOMEONE ELSE has already uploaded a source that you wished to contribute, please find a different source. So you’re better off completing this assignment ahead of time, rather than at the last minute.

And here is the rubric I’ve used to grade their submissions to the group library:

Zotero Group Library Joined? No (no points) Yes (1 point)
# of unique items added to the group library One or two (1 point) Three or four (2 points) Five items (4 points)
Quality of annotations (see instructions, #6) A random assortment, with no obvious connection to the course demonstrated or little reflection on utility (1 point) Some randomness, but also some awareness of why the sources are valuable, and in what way (3 points) Resource obviously connected to the class, and annotations show reflection on the utility or appropriateness of the resource (4 points)
Annotations are tagged with descriptive labels No tags (0 points) One or two resources are tagged (.25 points) Three or four resources are tagged (.5 points) All five resources are tagged (1 point)

So far, so good. But one thing I didn’t count on, was that I can’t search by user-who-added-items in the group library. This has been a major time sink, in that regard. I have to click through each record in the group’s library page on the web, noting the resource, who created it, and when (since some students appeared to have added to what others submitted).

So while overall I’m happy with how this assignment panned out – I wanted them to learn to use Zotero, and in terms of the basics, that’s what they’ve achieved – I think I could’ve planned this out better.  Aside from the technical difficulties in retrieving what each student submitted, there’s the more important question of whether or not my rubric does what I wanted it to do. And there I think it falls down – “connection to the course” should’ve been defined a wee bit more rigorously, for instance.  I was imagining ‘connection’ meaning, a connection with the issues raised in our readings – but many students simply took that to mean, ‘he talked about enigma machines once, so this website on the mechanics of the enigma machine therefore is a good resource to collect for digital history’. Well maybe it is, maybe it isn’t: but since I didn’t spell out that I wanted them to spell out the connections… well my bad.

So. A good assignment to teach a useful skill, but as for fostering anything deeper, I think my instructions & rubric let me down. Lesson learned. versus The Twitter Times

I’ve run my twitter feed (electricarchaeo) to both and The Twitter Times. Of the two, I find more aesthetically pleasing (and it displays my own materials much more prominently) than Twitter Times; it also imposes a bit of order on the materials by classifying into broad categories. But it only updates once every 24 hours; Twitter Times is a bit quicker in that regard. It also displays materials based on how many of your ‘friends’ and ‘friends of friends’ have tweeted a particular item, and it displays the link back to that original item.

So a draw! Two different services for slightly different effects.

Civilization on the iPod – chronicle of inclass use

Just came across what seems to be an experiment in a classroom using Civ Revolution on the iPod for history teaching… will be interesting to see what happens.

If I’ve divined the twitter feeds that led me to this, it would seem to be a project of Lucas Gillespie on whose website there appears to be an interesting World of Warcraft experiment going on…

The primary focus of this project is to develop a curriculum for an after school program or “club” for at-risk students at the middle and/or high school level.  This program would use the game, World of Warcraft, as a focal point for exploring Writing/Literacy, Mathematics, Digital Citizenship, Online Safety, and would have numerous projects/lessons intended to develop 21st-Century skills.

Bravo, and well done! One that I will follow with interest…

Masters and Doctoral Theses on Serious Games

A list maintained by Katrin Becker at SFU, ‘Serious Games Pathfinder‘:

The following is a list of Master’s and Doctoral theses that have been completed that have to do with serious games (and in some cases more broadly with digital games). Doctoral Theses are marked in bold. You can get more info on each thesis by clicking on the associated ‘details’ link.

Note: I am just starting to develop this list. So far, almost all the theses are Canadian ones. If anyone has a thesis they would like me to add, please let me know the following:

Name, Title, Year, Degree, Country, Institution, Department, Abstract, URL to the thesis (If you are willing, I’d like your nationality too).

Please send info on theses that are about DIGITAL GAMES ONLY (I am not interested in theses about Game Theory (i.e. math), ELearning, Virtual Spaces, Social Websites, Blogging, Graphics, AI, … UNLESS they specifically focus on applications to or for digital games)

I reproduce below the listing she has for 2008:


details Applications of CSP solving in computer games (camera control) Ali, Mohammed Liakat
details The invention of good games: understanding learning design in commercial video games Becker, Katrin
details Gamers as learners: Emergent culture, enculturation, and informal learning in massively multiplayer online games Chu, Sarah
details Consistency Maintenance for Multiplayer Video Games Fletcher, Robert D. S
details Homeless: It’s No Game – Measuring the Effectiveness of a Persuasive Videogame Lavender, Terrance
details The “Heat Game”: an augmented reality game for scientific literacy Rees, Carol
details Beyond Fun and Games: 
Interactive Theatre and Serious Videogames with Social Impact Shyba, Lori
details Believability, Adaptivity, and Performativity: Three Lenses for the Analysis of Interactive Storytelling. Tanenbaum, Joshua Glen
details Adolescent problem gambling: relationship with affect regulation, Internet addiction, and problematic video game playing Taylor, Robyn N
details Video game expertise and visual search and discrimination Wu, Sijing
details Computer-aided exercise Yim, Jeffrey W.H

Visualisation in Archaeology

An interesting project hosted by Southampton in the UK and English Heritage – see the full website here. They’re hosting what looks to be a fascinating wee conference in October:

Visualisation In Context:
An Interplay of Practice and Theory

22 – 23 October 2009
Hosted by the University of Southampton

The 2009 VIA Workshop is designed to probe the intersections between theory (which might traditionally be represented in terms of critique – linear and written) and practice (which might increasingly be expressed in terms of production – non-linear and visual) within the field of archaeology as well as other disciplines from the humanities and the sciences.

Check out the VIA  showcase:

Online Research Showcase
Centred on the visualisation of data in both archaeology and the wider fields of the social sciences, arts, and science and technology studies. Like the bibliography, these summaries aim to link practitioners across disciplines, highlight innovative visual projects, and offer a platform for future planning and discussion of best practices around archaeological visual method and theory.
Click to view full entry and abstract... Archaeology and Community Museology: Ancient Egyptian Daily Life Scenes in Museums
Gemma Tully
University of Southampton
Click to view full entry and abstract... Choreographic Morphologies: Interdisciplinary Crossovers in the Use of Digital Visualisation Methods in Dance and Archaeology
Helen Bailey, Stuart Dunn, James Hewison, Martin Turner
King’s College London
University of Bedfordshire
University of Manchester
Click to view full entry and abstract... Fractured Media: Challenging the Dimensions of Archaeology’s Typical Visual Modes of Engagement
Sara Perry
University of Southampton
Click to view full entry and abstract... Framing Machu Picchu: Science, Photography and the Making of Patrimony
Amy Cox
University of Florida
Click to view full entry and abstract... Imag(in)ing the Other at Dura-Europos
Jennifer Baird
Birkbeck College, University of London
Click to view full entry and abstract... Institutionalising Images: Early Visualisation Networks in Aegean Archaeology
Deborah Harlan
University of Sheffield
Click to view full entry and abstract... Interactive Panoramas and 3D Modelling Based on Panoramas
Karol Kwiatek, Martin Woolner, Simon Standing, Jes Martens
University of Plymouth, Institute of Creative and Cultural Industries
University of Oslo, Norway, Museum of Cultural History
Click to view full entry and abstract... OKAPI Island in Second Life
Ruth Tringham, Noah Wittman, Colleen Morgan
University of California, Berkeley
Click to view full entry and abstract... Pervasive Gaming, Education, and Cultural Heritage: Emplaced Interpretive Games at the Presidio of San Francisco
Ruth Tringham, Colleen Morgan
University of California, Berkeley
The Presidio Archaeology Lab
Click to view full entry and abstract... Reflexive Representations: The Partibility of Archaeology
Andrew Cochrane, Ian Russell
Cardiff University
University College Dublin
Click to view full entry and abstract... Representing Prehistory: The Biographies of the Robenhausen Lake Dwelling Collections at the Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (2008-2009)
Katherine Cooper
University of Cambridge
Click to view full entry and abstract... SahulTime: Rethinking Archaeological Representation in the Digital Age
Matthew Coller
Monash University, Melbourne, Australia
Click to view full entry and abstract... Scandalous Artefacts
Alessandro Zambelli
Bartlett School of Architecture, University College London
Click to view full entry and abstract... Strategies of Visualisation in German Archaeology, 19th-20th C
Stefanie Klamm
Max Planck Institute for the History of Science
Humboldt University, Berlin
Click to view full entry and abstract... The Archaeological Eye: Visualisation and the Disciplinary Foundations of British Archaeology
Sara Perry
University of Southampton
Click to view full entry and abstract... The Gateway to Sarup
Niels H. Andersen, Maria Isenbecker, Camilla Bjarnø, Jan Solheim
Moesgård Museum, DenmarkSamsøgades Skole, Denmark
Supported by the Danish Ministry of Culture and the Danish Ministry of Education
Click to view full entry and abstract... The Remediated Places Project
Ruth Tringham, Michael Ashley, Steve Mills, Eric Blind, Jason Quinlan, Colleen Morgan
University of California, Berkeley