Crowdsourcing, scholarship and the academy

The Social Scholar is a free lunchtime seminar series discussing all things ‘social’ within humanities research. We are privileged to have Dr Mia Ridge for our first session of the autumn term talking about the worth of crowdsourcing as part of research projects. This should be a fascinating session, especially for anyone thinking about new research opportunities.

Dr Ridge has kindly answered a few questions for us to whet our appetites.

Mia, please could you tell us a bit more about yourself?

I’ve just started a role as digital curator at the British Library. I recently submitted my thesis for a PhD in digital humanities (Department of History, Open University), titled ‘Making digital history: the impact of digitality on public participation and scholarly practices in historical research’. This research brought together my interests in understanding how people use digital collections and tools, the role of participation in public engagement, and how digital technologies change the work that scholars do. Before my PhD I worked in various museums and heritage organisations as an analyst/programmer.

What are your views on the use of social media and crowdsourcing?

Generally, they’re a good thing. They’ve lowered barriers to conversation, helped people find their way to new research interests, and let people develop hobbies that help create something bigger than themselves. Organisations and academics seem to find them more challenging, worrying that social media wastes time or that asking the public to help is a recipe for disaster.

Finally, what can we expect from you at the Social Scholar?

I’d love to start a discussion about integrating crowdsourcing projects into academic work – there’s so much potential for teaching, and for more participatory engagement with the humanities. But there are also lots of challenges, from finding time for community discussion, to worrying about authority and validation.

Event Details

Title: Crowdsourcing, scholarship and the academy

Speaker: Mia Ridge

Date: Wednesday 28 October 2015, 1–2pm

Location: room 243, Senate House (University of London)

Abstract: This talk will begin with a brief overview of the history and types of scholarly crowdsourcing. It will then discuss projects in which participants moved beyond simple transcription or classification tasks to a deeper engagement with ‘citizen science’ or ‘citizen history’. What kinds of scholarly skills and practices are being learnt, and how, in these crowdsourcing projects? And how does this supplement traditional education in disciplines like history? Finally, the productivity of crowdsourcing projects makes them attractive to organisations looking to digitise or enhance large collections of historical or scientific material, but the ‘crowds’ also have certain expectations about their experiences – what do this mean for academics interested in scholarly crowdsourcing?

To find out more about the seminar please check out our Event Page and register your interest to attend. The seminar is FREE and open to all.

This post was also published on the Talking Humanities Blog

Social Scholar (18 March 2015) Using Social Media for a National Festival (and Learning how to engage online)

mc_beinghuman_083 small

This month at the Social Scholar seminar we are going to look at social media campaigns for national festivals as an example of what can work well and what can be learnt from such campaigns. This should prove to be a useful session for those using or planning to use social media to promote and discuss events and projects. For full details check out our Event Page and register your interest to attend.

Title: Using Social Media for a National Festival (and Learning how to engage online)

Speaker: Dr Michael Eades (SAS)
Time: Wednesday 18 March 2015, 1pm-2pm
Location: Room 243 (Senate House)

Our speaker this week is Dr Michael Eades (School of Advanced Study) and as usual we asked him to answer a few questions for us.

SAS:Hello Michael. Thank you for agreeing to talk with us. Firstly, could you tell us a little more about yourself?

Michael: I am the School of Advanced Study’s Cultural & Public Engagement Research Fellow, more often described as the SAS ‘Public Engagement Person’. I do various things in SAS, including my own research on the Festival in a Box project, but primarily I curate the School’s major outlet for public engagement activity: the Being Human festival of the humanities.  Being Human is the UK’s only national festival of the humanities, and featured over 160 events across the country in 2014, hosted by around 100 universities and cultural organisations.

I’ve worked primarily in cultural and public engagement roles for just over two years now since completing my PhD at the University of Nottingham in 2012. My thesis looked at theories of community and engagement with/reception of culture, so I find my current work an incredibly rewarding way to continue exploring the ideas that informed that research in directly applied contexts. At SAS, my projects in this field have included everything from parkour on the roof of Senate Houseto curating a ‘human library’ of academics in Senate House Library. All great fun!


SAS: How important do you think social media is to public engagement work?

Michael: Very important indeed. Social media is changing the way that people interact and communicate – making ideas and the people behind them more accessible. But it is also raising some serious challenges. As communication speeds up and barriers break down, we have to be very careful to keep a sense of perspective and try to work with new technologies ethically.

With that said, both blogs and Twitter, particularly, were crucial to spreading the word about the Being Human festival. We worked really hard to use them to build up an online community of followers and fans of the festival. Essentially what we have at the moment is a small (but growing) army of ‘humanities geeks’ following us online. Exactly what we wanted!


SAS: What can we expect from you at the Social Scholar?

Michael: I want to do two things in my Social Scholar session. Firstly, I’ll go through some of the thinking behind the Being Human social media strategy in 2014 and some of the campaigns through which we built up a following. These included runaway successes such as our ‘shelfies’ campaign in autumn 2015, and some things that didn’t work so well, too.

The second thing that I want to do is to try to gather some ideas from the audience about what we might do for Being Human campaigns in 2015. It’s always good to do a bit of brainstorming for projects like this, so to anyone who is thinking of coming along… please do come with some ideas! I can’t promise not to steal them, unfortunately, but they’ll help us to keep raising public awareness of the humanities. That’s what the festival is there for and it’s a good cause.

To find out more about the seminar check out our Event Page and register your interest to attend. The seminar is FREE and open to all.

Podcasting academic research: PhD-Casts and Viva-Voce (Social Scholar, 18 February 2015)

The Social Scholar seminar is back with another lunchtime session, this time on Wednesday 18 February 2015, 1pm-2pm, in room 243 (Senate House). This week our focus will be on Research and Podcasts, and how audio and video can be an aid to the researcher and administrator in promoting the work that is done and building connections.

Title: Podcasting academic research: PhD-Casts and Viva-Voce – giving voice to your research

Speakers: Gemma Sou (University of Manchester); John Gallagher (University of Cambridge)

Abstract: What is it that you actually do? The humanities researcher is often asked this question and it is often difficult to give an adequate answer. In this session we look at two examples of how social media can help especially in the form of video and audio podcasting. Viva Voce is a series of 4 minute audio podcasts where researchers can talk
about their research in an accessible way to a non-specialist audience and as a means of dissemination and sharing. PhDCasts offers an alternative approach of longer video podcasts done in an interview style. Gemma Sou and John Gallagher will describe these projects and share examples of best practise, challenges, and their views
on using podcasts and other social media to create impact around research in the arts and humanities.

The seminar is FREE but we request that you RSVP via Eventbrite.

We have an interview blog post on the SAS blog where both speakers talk about their podcast projects and explain what they will be talking about on the day.

Here is John Gallaghar and the co-founder of Phd-Casts Richard Blakemore talking about their ‘season two’ of videos.

And here is a quick video of Gemma Sou, founder of Viva-Voce talking about the reasons why she started the project.

Archive Blogs in the UK – A follow-up survey

In November 2013 I carried out a sample survey of 114 archives in the UK, looking specifically at their social media services (see Archive Blogs in the UK – A Sample Survey for the results). I was particularly interested in the status and existence of blogs, Twitter feeds, and Facebook pages, although I did also take note of other types of social media such as Flickr and YouTube. In November 2014 I did a follow up survey of the same 114 archives to see how things have progressed.

The first table below shows the amount of blogs, Twitter feeds, Facebook pages, Youtube channels, and Flickr channels the 114 archives had in November 2013 and 2014. It should be noted that these archives break down into four categories: National (18); Local (88); Church (2); and University (6).

Social Media used by archives

Social Media Type 2013 results 2014 results
Blogs 26 38
Twitter 39 46
Facebook 43 48
YouTube 12 14
Flickr 20 26


In most cases the use of social media by each individual archive remained much the same. The greatest variation in the results appears to have derived from the World War One Commemoration, as several local archives have started up a temporary blog which records soldier’s diaries or otherwise reveals information from their records concerning the war.

I did notice that the regularity of posts in some blogs has dropped slightly in general terms. Although it is hard to be certain of the reason for this, it would seem likely to be a natural settling in of the blog as it ceases to be a new thing that the archive does, and therefore it settles into a more manageable rhythm. In a few instances the blog has transferred from Blogger to WordPress, receiving a new look and feel in the process.

The second table (below) breaks down the results for blogs, Twitter, and Facebook by the archive category in an attempt to understand, in particular, variation between national and local archives. I have added some percentages to even out the results but obviously the large variation between categories in terms of their number make these numbers limited in terms of what they really tell us.

Social Media usage by type of Archive 2013

Type Total Blog Facebook Twitter
Church 2 1 (50%) 1 (50%) 1 (50%)
Local/regional 87 13 (15%) 31 (35%) 26 (30%)
National 19 8 (42%) 10 (52%) 9 (47%)
University 6 5 (83%) 3 (50%) 4 (66%)

Social Media usage by type of Archive 2014

Type Total Blog Facebook Twitter
Church 2 1 (50%) 1 (50%) 1 (50%)
Local/regional 87 24 (27%) 35 (40%) 32 (36%)
National 19 9 (47%) 10 (52%) 10 (52%)
University 6 4 (66%) 2 (33%) 4 (66%)

Blogs: In general these figures suggest that there have been very little change. The only significant number change can be seen in the number of blogs owned by local/regional archives, which (as previously mentioned) seem to relate to the World War One Commemoration.

These include the following:

However, there are also some other variations in this pattern. Four of the blogs that do still exist do not seem to have been posted on within the last six months or contain a notice to explain that they are no longer active. This means that 8 out of the 38 blogs recorded in the survey for 2014 are either temporary or non-active as of November 2014.

Twitter: There are eight new Twitter feeds introduced by the archives in 2014. Excluding these, all pre-existing Twitter feeds appear to have increased their number of followers by an average of 33% over the course of the year. This figure of course incorporates a large variation in numbers. The British Library, the National Archives, and the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Record Office have followers in the hundred thousands, whilst all other archives are in the hundreds or under 7,000.

Facebook: In the 2013 study 31 of the archives had a Facebook account. This year 4 new accounts were in operation but 1 account had ceased to exist (equalling a net increase of 3). In 2014, the total of Facebook accounts in use was 34. On average ‘likes’ of these pages increased by about 34% during the course of the year, although it should be again understood that there is a huge variation in numbers of followers between accounts (the British Library, the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Record Office, and the National Archives had 1,000s of more followers than any of the other archives).


Last year I was aware of the severe limitations in the methodology that I was using and problems within the results related to the numbers in each archive category. These issues remain for the 2014 study. Both surveys were carried out in November of their respective years. In each instance the archive website was examined for signs of social media usage and data collected from clicking on the website access routes. Although this captures most of the data accurately, I believe that there are some occasions when an example of social media usage is not well-advertised on the website (or ignored altogether). There is, therefore, some possible inconsistency in the data collected.

In addition, in many cases archives that are categorised as local (i.e. record offices) have an online presence only through the council website and therefore consist of little more than a collection of static pages. In these instances there are often Twitter and Facebook accounts, but they are general to the council and not specific to the archive itself. These have been ignored for the purposes of this study.

The greatest problem with the survey is its limitation of size. Only 114 archives are included, most of which are local/regional centres. There are well over 2,500 archives across the UK. This means that the study focus is too narrow and needs to be expanded for it to be of use.

In 2015 I will be looking at a different approach. Firstly, the sample is too small to gather adequate results, but secondly, the method for gathering that data is not precise enough and is too time consuming (considering the inadequacies of the results).

We the Humanities: The Benefits and drawbacks of the Social Scholar (3 December 2014)

photoThe second Social Scholar seminar of the term takes place on Wednesday 3 December 2014, 1pm-2pm, in room 243 (Senate House). This week our focus will be on Twitter, and in particular on a unique idea for a rotation-curation Twitter account. In this post the founders of @WetheHumanities and our speakers for this session, Jessica Sage and Krissie West, tell us a little more about what to expect.

What can we expect from you at the Social Scholar?

We’ll be giving a little insight into what we do at We the Humanities and why we set it up, how it has grown organically, and what our plans are for the future of the project.  We also want to provoke a discussion that questions the assumption that an engagement with social media is necessarily beneficial for Early Career Researchers.

Why do you think Social Media (and particularly Twitter) is useful in academia?

This is precisely what our talk is going to be questioning: considering how academics use Twitter, why they use Twitter, and what they can gain and lose from doing so.  We want to engage with the tension between Twitter being on the one hand a frivolous waste of time and on the other hand public engagement in action.

Speakers profiles

Jessica Sage and Krissie West are the co-founders of the Twitter rotation-curation initiative, We the Humanities; they originally met on Twitter, discussing children’s fiction.  Krissie is a PhD researcher at the University of Reading, working on constructions of childhood in Transcendentalist literature, which she intends to submit next year.  She has over 17 years’ experience in journalism and editorial work and is currently the Storytelling Consultant for the marketing firm, The Story Consultancy.  Jessica has recently completed her PhD, on photographs of children taken by Lewis Carroll, at the same university.  She is currently a sessional lecturer at Reading and for the Workers’ Education Association.

Full details on this event can be found on the SAS events system. The Social Scholar is a FREE seminar held by the School of Advanced Study every month. Please also follow us on Twitter @SASNews hashtag #socialscholar.

Social Scholar: An introduction to writing blog posts (29 October 2014)

The Social Scholar

The Social Scholar seminar begins again this month and I will be talking at the first session about writing blog posts. Here is some of my thoughts on the matter.

If you search online you will very quickly find numerous articles offering advice about how to write a good, successful blog post. Many of these will be lists – 20 Quick Tips on Writing Great Blog Posts or 19 Headline Writing Tips for Blog Posts – or suggest that if you follow these ‘rules’ then you will quickly make money out of your post: Writing a Good Blog – For Dummies; How to Write a Blog Post: A Simple Formula etc.

As a general rule in academia we are not interested in making money from blog posts. That is not their primary purpose or even their secondary purpose. It’s simply not relevant. We are interested in attracting an audience – of course – but the advice pieces often do not help us to solve the balance problem that we often come across whenever we try and summarise complex material into a short gathering of paragraphs. How do we ensure that our point has been made and understood without losing the very audience we seek in the process?

I have been involved with blogs since 2010 (which doesn’t sound long, but then blogs have only really developed beyond their initial focus as personal online dairies since c. 2009) and I have spent time thinking about how to write posts and reading the advice scattered throughout the internet. Most of it isn’t very helpful for academics. The advice is directed towards business – towards pushing up sales – not toward scholarly impact and public engagement.

The advice talks about ‘rules’ but I’ve looked at successful and unsuccessful blogs from academic institutions, groups, and individuals, and the ‘rules’ often don’t apply. In short, a blog can take any form that you want it to take. It can have any voice you wish to give it. It can be thousands of words or a few hundred; it could be an image with a title, or a video. There is no right or wrong way to write a blog post.

And yet! The advice that does exist can be used by academics and research facilitation staff as a guide and as a means to more successfully put a point across. There are ways to write that aid skim reading (for almost all blog posts are skim read more than they are read in detail), there are ways to point out quickly what the topic is about, and there are ways to ensure that the blog post works for you just as much as it works for the intended audience.

I will therefore be offering suggestions at this month’s Social Scholar on how you might wish to write and structure a blog post. I won’t be suggesting ‘rules’, but I will be offering advice on structuring, length, and tone and much else besides.

I will be talking at the Social Scholar seminar on Wednesday 29 October 2014, 1pm-2pm in Senate House (University of London). For full details check out the event page or SAS Blogs.

Forthcoming event: Creating Impact: Using social networks to build knowledge networks

Dot - Image for Social Scholar sessionNext Tuesday is the last of this years’ Social Scholar seminars put on by the School of Advanced Study as lunchtime training sessions in using social media. As usual the seminar takes place in Senate House (University of London) at 1pm-2pm (Wednesday 18 June 2014). This week Dot Fallon (SAS) and Abhay Adhikari (indpendent digital stratagist) will be talking about the AHRC Science in Culture theme as a case study for creating impact and building networks using social meda.

As usual I interviewed both speakers to find out more about what they plan to talk about and learn more about their opinions of social media. When I asked them why social media is useful this is what they said:

Dot: Social media offers the opportunity to build an engaged network of researchers and share project information quickly and effectively. It’s also a great news source and an essential way of keeping up to date with current issues in the humanities.

Abhay: Social media is an excellent resource to create meaningful impact and build knowledge networks. Social tools can also help you discover new thinking, share ideas and opinions and raise your profile. And once you have clarity and purpose you can engage online communities to work with you or alongside you on interesting projects.

If you would like to read more of this interview then check it out on the SAS Blog here. If you would like to attend the Social Scholar event please RSVP via Eventbrite. Full details of the seminar can be found on the SAS events system.

Social Scholar seminar: Academic guide to social media and blogging

Claire Shaw (The Guardian)
Claire Shaw (The Guardian)

On Wednesday 9 April 2014 (1pm-2pm) we will be holding our next Social Scholar seminar (in room 243, Senate House). This week we will be looking at the Guardian newspapers’ Higher Education Network through the eyes of community journalist Claire Shaw (@clurshaw). For full details of this event check out the SAS Events web page or RSVP via Eventbrite to attend.

Claire Shaw has this to say about blogs:

New research shows that academics blog for their professionals peers, rather than for public outreach, and that blogging functions more like a global virtual common room. On the Higher Education Network, I think academics blog to both get feedback from their critical peers and inform a wider audience. What has become more apparent is the impact a blog can have on the individuals who work in higher education. A recent blog about there being a culture of acceptance around mental health issues in academic went viral (shared over 62k times on Facebook), and sparked debates worldwide. Our new Academics Anonymous series is a good example of why academics blog.

For the full interview check out the SAS Blog.

Abstract for the seminar: Academics are now urged to blog and use social media. Why? Because it’s believed to be a valuable part of the wider ecology of scholarship. It increases potential for public engagement, outreach opportunities and can be used as a way to measure research impact. More and more academics are harnessing the power of social media: over the past year and a half working on the Guardian Higher Education Network, I’ve seen our community of Twitter followers grow from 15k to 63k. In this session, I will provide a guide for academics on how to blog and use social media in the most effective way – and get your work noticed.

The Social Scholar seminar is FREE and open to all. Follow us on Twitter @SASNews using the hashtag #socialscholar. 

Social Scholar seminar: Myles Runham (BBC) – Online Learning: Developing Trends

Myles Runham (Head of BBC Online, BBC Academy)
Myles Runham (Head of BBC Online, BBC Academy)

The March session of The Social Scholar will be held in room 233 of Senate House (University of London) at 1pm on Wednesday 19 march.  The seminar is free and open to all. 

User expectations of what learning is and how it is offered and supported are changing dramatically and rapidly. Remaining relevant is the most significant challenge for organisations working in this new world. How might we respond to these challenges?

This month, for the Social Scholar, Myles Runham, Head of Online, BBC Academy will be talking with us about his experience of using social media. The BBC has long created online education and learning content but the promotional and discoverability side of this is less widely discussed. This seminar, therefore, offers us an opportunity to find out how the BBC uses social media, why they use it, and what benefits they expect to gain from it.


About the seminar

The Social Scholar is a series of lunchtime seminars from the School of Advanced Study, looking into the theme of Social Media. Each session includes a 20 minute presentation from an expert already using social media in the Humanities followed by discussion and Q&A.  In these sessions we hope to learn together about how to better use social media in a professional capacity and what the difficulties and issues are.  The series will look at blogs, Twitter, Facebook, and other social media services.


Time: 19 March 2014, 13:00 – 14:00

Speaker: Myles Runham (Head of Online, BBC Academy)

Location: Room 233, Senate House (University of London)

For full details of the Social Scholar check out the SAS blog category for Social Scholar. Alternatively follow the Social Scholar on Twitter @SASNews using hashtag #socialscholar

Blog features and tools (survey results)

Let’s look a little beyond the content of a blog and on to the tools and features that blog sites such as wordpress and blogger offer.  Blogs often include rss feeds, calendars, category links, search engines, and various options to follow the blog.  Especially in the case of wordpress these additional features are what make them money.  By signing up to the blogger can access a whole range of extra features while the free-blogger can only access a few basic ones.  At the end of the day it all depends on what you want to do with your blog. 

In the survey asked for Blogging for Historians last year (see here for posts about this) a question was asked about which features were seen to be the most useful.  A list of basic blog features were given:

  1. Twitter feeds
  2. Categories
  3. Calendar
  4. Past Posts lists
  5. RSS feeds
  6. Tag clouds
  7. Blog stats
  8. Search engine
  9. Recent comments list
  10. Follow blog option
  11. Other

Each participant was allowed to choose as many options as they liked so that it would be possible to see the relative popularity of each feature.  The most popular (with over 60 votes each) were categories and twitter feeds.  Past post lists and ‘follow blog’ options were not far behind.  Categories are obviously useful for distinguishing between content types and topic.  A blog looking at, say marriage customs across the ages, might be most useful if each post is attached to a category of periodization or wedding custom (perhaps a category for each religion or aspects of marriage such as engagement, the ceremony, reception, married life).  The ‘past post list’ is another aspect to this need for discoverability, as are twitter feeds.  Even past post lists falls under this category.  Therefore the most popular blogging tools are those that make it easier to find posts and contents of interest.

Other related items such as tag clouds, search engines, and RSS feeds were much lower down in participant’s interest.  Perhaps this suggests that the original use of RSS is being overtaken by other methods for finding and retrieving content (such as a reliance on Twitter), whilst tag clouds tend to be attractive means to display popular topics, but not necessarily so useful for searching blogs.  I think there is more research that can be done into these features.  For example how useful is a tag cloud?  Do people actually like them or not?

The least popular features were calendars and blog stats.  This is perhaps not that surprising.  Calendars don’t tend to offer much use for blogs focused on discussing History, and blog stats are a curiosity rather than having an essential use for viewers of a blog.  At best they might signify the relative popularity of a blog and, as the podcasted interviews have shown, provide a constant means for procrastination by blog owners.  They of course, also do provide useful statistics for institutions and individuals which can be used to show popularity and usefulness of the resource.

The ‘Other’ category offered participants the opportunity to suggest other useful features.  These are listed below:

Blogrolls Picture galleries Comments Follow by email
Archives section Facebook connection Images (within posts) Links to other sites

One comment noted a potential weakness of most blogs, in that they present posts in chronological order meaning that you need to scroll down to get to the first post (or interesting posts along the way).  This comment suggested that other formats work better, although unfortunately does not explain further what other formats could be used.  From the other items ticked by participants it would seem that discoverability is essential, and that useful features tend to be one’s which enable discovery of a blog post from external locations (Twitter, Facebook etc) and those on the blog itself which enable easy indexing of the posts.  Thus, one solution to finding interesting posts at a glance might well be some form of traditional index or something else entirely.  Another participant did indeed suggest an ‘archives section’.

The first of these respondents did note that they were interested in blogs as a possible means for working up first drafts and work-in-progress, suggesting a use of the blog as a public-facing workspace for research, but also wondered if they would become something new entirely in terms of the format it produces or ‘spawns’.

Another participant noted that they wanted to know who it was that was writing.  They wanted some indication of their background and interests.  This is not something that is mentioned very often.  Indeed, the survey didn’t ask about authorship directly.  However, this participant is definitely right.  Whenever I check a blog I usually try and find out at least some basic information about the author (i.e. is he/she associated with a university?  Are they an academic, postgraduate, or other interested party?  Where are they coming from when writing their blog post and what is the reason behind it?).