Fresh & New(er)

discussion of issues around digital media and museums by Seb Chan

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Conversation, the Commons, museum futures, and ‘architectures of participation’

May 27th, 2008 by Seb Chan

This is a long and sprawling post and comes off the back of two weeks of presentations around the country and a lot of discussions about the ‘future of museums’. Perhaps find a comfortable chair and a hot beverage.

Checking my RSS feeds this morning I came across this piece from the Boston Globe which looks at the way the nature of what constitutes ‘history’ is being opened up with social web tools. It talks about the Commons on Flickr and the respective contributions of the Library of Congress and the Powerhouse Museum. Given the typical questions I’ve been asked in recent weeks about our own experience in the Commons, this section jumped out immediately.

Late last year, the Library of Congress posted several thousand of its photographs on Flickr and asked the public for help: What is this? Who is this? When was it taken? Curator Helena Zinkham, who oversaw the program, was stunned to discover how quickly the gaps were filled by amateur enthusiasts – and in some cases, people with firsthand recollections.

This was particularly the case where the images attracted the attention of a particular group of enthusiasts: military aviation buffs, for example, or aficionados of early baseball. One collection depicted early-20th-century boxers, many without vital information – perhaps just a last name, like “Wells.”

“By the time the conversation was done,” Zinkham says, “we were able to tell Matt Wells from Bombardier Billy Wells.” (emphasis mine)

Conversation – this is what social media is fundamentally about – and Zinkham’s use of the word says a lot about how the Library of Congress has approached the whole Commons project. As we know (from meat/meetspace) conversations are unpredictable and whilst they can be steered they can rarely be controlled. For this reason we’ve traditionally been unable to ‘let go’ in our marketing campaigns and our gallery and online experiences. Conversations are hard work too, and require ongoing work to maintain.

Thinking about the Museum Futures summit last week in Canberra (organised by Museums Australia) I’ve come to the conclusion that museums must “assert relevance, don’t assume relevance”. As others at the summit have noted, there still seems to be an assumption within the sector that museums are, by their very presence, relevant. This is not the case.

Alternatives are everywhere. ‘Experience venues’ are less the preserve of museums than every before. Take a look at the cinema industry and you quickly realise how the declining cost of home cinema equipment combined with DVDs and the internet have, in a very short space of time, greatly reduced the appeal of the ‘cinema experience’. There is now very little reason to visit a cinema to actually ‘see’ a film – that act can be performed anywhere – and the connection between the ‘seeing’ of the film and physical space of the cinema has been well and truly severed. Of course there are still some who enjoy the cinema experience, but the ‘need’ to attend to see a film is no longer.

If we think that ‘information’, ‘fact’ and ‘knowledge’ are our domain then again the alternatives are everywhere. The internet as an information space is dominant, faster and easier to access.

Fortunately we aren’t alone in facing this disruption.

I was excited to hear Cathy Johnson, a reference librarian talking about the ‘Slam the Boards’ initiative that she has been eagerly taking part in. (Cathy was talking at the State Library of NSW last week at the Reference at Metcalfe conference that I also spoke at). Slam the Boards originated in the US as a way of reference librarians making their presence felt in the rather unruly world of internet Q&A boards.

It is a great example of ‘asserting relevance’. What Cathy and other reference librarians do is all head over to Q&A boards like Yahoo Answers, WikiAnswers and the like and start answering questions. It sound simple but as even some in the audience felt, reference librarians find it incredibly challenging – even though they do the same every day in face to face situations in libraries. In answering questions professionally and tagging their posts and also identifying their avatars as ‘librarians’ Cathy argued that not only are librairans engaging audiences that have either forsaken libraries or are just unaware of their services; their answers act as promotion – not just of themselves and their library, but also of the idea of libraries as ‘trusted navigators of information’.

Actually all media industries face this question of ‘relevance’ in the face of alternatives. And, as ‘Future of media’ consultant Ross Dawson mused last week after attending a Powerhouse Future Directions Forum, museums are essentially media.

Come this morning and digital radio blogger, Tony Walker over at the ABC linked over to a fascinating post at Reportr about the changing motivations behind the newspaper world’s (slow) embrace of social media.

The Reportr article by Alfred Hermida is a fantastic read, as is the longer form report (by Hermida and Neil Thurman) it references midway through. As an investigation of how British newspapers have adapted to the changing media landscape – a result of the democratising of media production equipment and publishing technologies – it is very illuminating. We have seen similar adaptations attempted by Fairfax and News Limited.

Most of all Hermida’s research mirrors the attitudes and reactions of the museum world to social media, user-generated content, and the new demands of “asserting relevance” and engagement. From his earlier work –

While news organisations were providing more opportunities for participation, we also found evidence that they were retaining a traditional gate-keeping role. Moderation and or registration remained the norm as editors’ concerns over reputation, trust, and legal liabilities persisted.

This said, we did record a greater openness among editors. One described user media as a “phenomenon you can’t ignore”, another said they “firmly believed in the great conversation”, and one editor explained he was “very interested in unlocking” information from his “very knowledgeable” readers.

Sound familiar?

Hermida’s later research is showing that in light of low particpation rates (when compared to overall site visitation), and a lack of tangible ‘ROI’ and metrics, and ongoing concerns over ‘moderation’, there is still little in the way of more open forms of collaboration between audience and newspaper – potentially the most transformative.

Although there has been a continual increase in opportunities for readers to contribute over the three years of our work in this area, textual contributions are, in the main, still limited to short ‘comments’ on subjects or stories determined by professional editors. There is little in the way of longer-form contributions or opportunities for readers to set the agenda. We could suggest then that the media is creating an architecture of publication for material from the audience, rather than an architecture of participation.

Where opportunities for readers to set the agenda do exist (for example in readers’ blogs; or at message boards) they often seem to be part of what some have described as a “closed-off annex where readers can talk and discuss, as long as the media companies don’t have to be involved”.

Attempts to create genuinely open spaces where readers can set the agenda are few and far between. The Times’ ‘Your World’ travel site is one, but after initial external investment to get it running (it was sponsored by BMW) the site has atrophied without ongoing support and management. The most recent posts are 4 months old.

Will museums reach a similar point in their engagement with social media and pull back? At this stage I think there is a 50/50 chance. The gains that have been made with social media in terms of audience engagement and the transformation of the very idea of a ‘museum’ lie in the ability of the sector to overcome its inertia and begin to demonstrate the gains made so far and the opportunities that lie ahead.

Our relevance lies not in just creating an ‘architecture of publication’ but as Hermida and others say, designing ‘architectures of participation’. And this is not easy.

Coming back to where I started this post, George Oates from Flickr (and the architect of the Commons project), has written a nice piece over at A List Apart called “From Little Things”. The article is a nice introduction to the basics of designing for community interaction. Here she describes how Flickr operates as game –

If you imagine Flickr as something like Game for the Masses—a playing field without rules or a “way to play”—you can see how people can learn to engage with one another through conversations about their content.

This has certainly been our experience with the Commons. And the open nature of the game, and its evolving rules and social mores poses significant challenges for us. Museums are good at closed games – our galleries are full of them, our websites too. But we are only getting started at open ended evolving interactive experiences.

We better get a move on.

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