Digital Strategy

Using a series of article with varied case studies, the book Letting Go: Sharing Historical Authority in a User Generated World explores how public history is dealing with issues of authority on the web, with community based programming, with oral history, and through contemporary art. In dealing with issues of authority the core questions of this work are: are these cultural changes fundamentally changing the relationship of the museum to the constituent, and how much will change and how much will stay the same? (pp 11-12)

In an attempt to make the shift toward more public authority less scary “Where are the best stories? Where is my story? Participation and Curation in a New Media Age” by Steve Zeitlin and “Get Real! The Role of Objects in the Digital Age” by Matthew MacArthur both show how the ideas behind participatory and digital projects are not new but rather the technologies which allow the kind and scope of the change is new. This allows the changes to seem less threatening to staffs. In some ways I think that resistance from staff and the challenges this presents will lead to changes coming from outside the profession, as was the case in Benjamin Filene “Listening intently: Can StoryCorps Teach Museums How to Win the Hearts of New Audiences.” Perhaps this is the reason that Michael Frisch saw the same issues of authority and learning he dealt with the in ‘90s now being played out with digital tools in “From a Shared Authority to the Digital Kitchen, and Back.” In the field of public history we still have not learned these core lessons of participation.

The idea of having to work within parameters of the staff could also be seen in two of the articles from the April 2012 conference titled “Museums and the Web 2012: The International Conference for Culture and Heritage Online.” “Blow Up Your Digital Strategy: Changing the Conversation about Museums and Technology,” by Robert Stein shows that many museums have been less successful than they could be because they do not adapt the digital strategy to the real world of museums. You need to understand that the nature museum funding and staff will lead to delays in embracing technologies. This is not about embracing outdated technology, but about choosing the tool that is the most practical for the museums’ reality and the staff’s willingness. “Social Media and Organizational Change” the three authors look at the examples of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History (NMAH), Monticello, and the Getty each approached social media further reveals the power of staff. While each took different approaches to staffing social media projects either with new hires or existing staff, each of the sites found that building trust by educating staff on the tools, using the “center-edge model” where core employees to do most of the work and other employees as supplemental led to the most dynamic and active accounts, and that no matter what that social media experts need to be empowered to do the work for their institution. This makes it clear that staff willingness to participate is a key hurdle to a project’s success.

Within Letting Go? two projects seemed particularly successful at overcoming this obstacle. These were “The Black Bottom: Making Community Based Performance in West Philadelphia” by Billy Yalowitz and Pete Stathis, which looked at community performance and shared authority between Black Bottom residents and University of Pennsylvania students and staff, and “Make Yourself at Home – Welcoming Voices in Open House If These Walls Could Talk” by Benjamin Filene, which looked at the bottom up and story driven exhibit from the Minnesota History Center.

In The Elements of Content Strategy Erin Kissane runs down the core principles and practices of the content strategy profession. These are broken down into three main parts: basic principles, the craft of content strategy, and tools and techniques. This book provided a nice continuation with the themes of last meeting’s Shirky readings. Namely, that old professions are dying out but that this is not a point of concern because new professions are emerging. That is the case with the job title “content strategist” which is a combination of marketing, information science, curation, and editing according to Kissane. In a lot of ways this book is most helpful as a guide for how to create space for a new profession before it is universally recognized enough to have professional standards, supportive organizations, or be a major in colleges and universities.

The remaining articles from “Museums and the Web 2012” provided something which was missing from the Kissane book: examples. In the article “Navigating the Bumpy Road: A Tactical Approach to Delivering a Digital Strategy” Carolyn Royston of the Imperial War Museum (IWM) and Charlotte Sexton of the National Gallery (NG) show how their distinct museums created surprisingly similar strategies for creating digital content. In this way they emphasize the importance of creating clear, concise, and straightforward digital strategies to help for project creation and continued management of the site in the future. This, as well as their push for new staff positions devoted to digital content, fit with the recommendations of Kissane. However, unlike Kissane, they focused more on internal staff development than external user testing, which could reflect that they have already done user testing for other in-house and online projects. Also, they encouraged sharing across “peer organizations that are working on similar projects to benefit from shared experience and expertise.” (pp 9) Writing for the private sector, Kissane instead recommended more competition and less sharing.

In the article “From the Group Up (or the Inside Out): New Approaches in Digital Publishing” Sarah Hromack and Rachel Craft focus on the creation of publishing projects for museums. While they do push the importance of digital strategy, much of their article actually focuses on the steps before creating this strategy when “institutions… assess their needs and capabilities to support” the projects. (pp 11) While the case studies from the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Indianapolis Museum of Art show that there is no one route to successfully publishing online, they do show the importance of linking the goals of your publication to your institution as a whole and that museum staff should not resist these methods. They will add to traditional scholarship and create new kinds of visitorship, not lead to the end of traditional publishing or collections.

Participation and Public History

This week’s readings focused on how to choose and use tools to foster the greatest amount of participation for your projects.

In her book “The Participatory Museum” Nina Simon’s central question is how to use participation not just to give visitors a voice, but also to develop a more meaningful experience for visitors and institutions. To tackle this question she outlines four main types of participatory projects – contributory projects, collaborative projects, co-creation projects, and hosting projects. The keys to success for a participatory project are using the best tools for the job through design, allowing information to flow between institutions and visitors by respecting visitors contributions, creating an institutional culture which encourages participatory projects, and including informational scaffolding into projects to help visitors move from “Me-To-We.” After outlining how to create these projects Simon ends with an outline of how to implement and evaluate these projects in order to be successful.

In “Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations” Clay Shirky also emphasizes the importance of using the appropriate tools by exploring the power of group action when given the right tools. The new online and social media tools have the power to change our essential social skills and the characteristics of our society by changing the ways groups assemble and cooperate. Shirky argues that group formation is the key to how a society functions. Because these tools have changed group formation by lowering inhibitors to organization, decreasing the need for central management, and allowed for the reemergence of the amateur, new kinds of group behavior is possible. This goes against the premise of the “Bowling Alone” theory of social and civic decline. Instead of seeing an end of group formation, we are seeing new kinds of groups. Shirky reminds us though that not all social changes are good and to create positive civic results we must actively harness these tools. Social tools after all do not create collective action, they simply remove obstacles to it. To create successful collaborative projects one must establish a plausible promise, use the appropriate tools, and create a successful bargain for users who are connected through the “small world network” framework which connects small groups to a larger aggregate.

Cognitive Surplus: How Technology Makes Consumers into Collaborators” was written by Shirky following “Here Comes Everybody” and continues very much on the same train of thought. But instead of focusing on external tools that people can use as Simon and his earlier work did, he now turns to the idea of free time as a new and undervalued tool. The free time which the western world has gained with the rise in education, a shorter workweek, and white collar jobs has led to a “cognitive surplus” of 200 million hours of aggregate free time. Shirky argues that this free time could not truly be harnessed as a tool for social and cultural betterment until the new tools of the digital age made sharing and crowdsourcing possible. But Shirky also emphasizes that we should not think of these tools in a technologically deterministic way. Tools alone cannot change society. Instead you must have a culture which is willing to participate, share, and discuss ideas to move from personal and communal sharing to public and civic sharing.

The articles and blogs this week showed ways that new tools and their uses are being pushed by organizations in the field.

The article “The Community as the Centerpiece of a Collection” discussed the innovative “National Vending Machine Project” in the Netherlands which was able to push the causal relationship of communities and collection by attempting to put the community before the collection. By allowing members of the community to purchase and decide for themselves what kinds of objects would be considered a part of the collection this exhibit challenged the idea of visitorship. It was able to successfully attain steps one through three of Nina Simon’s “Me-To-We” chart, and met the fourth component partially. This was achieved by having visitors interact with the content, being able to revisit the exhibit on the web, by having the individual’s information instantly connected to the project, and giving them the immediate reward of the object and the information. It only partially achieved the fourth step of interacting with others for social use because although users could see who else got that object before them, there was little chance to interact with others outside of their group about the event. While interesting and certainly worth expanding, the main problems of the project emerged from the limiting nature of the pre-existing objects and on the complicated tool of the vending machine which required staff assistance. This fits with issues of achieving participation discussed by Shirky.

In dealing with access “Chiming in on Museums and Participatory Culture” put a much greater emphasis on the importance of museums as civic spaces than the “The Community as the Centerpiece of a Collection” article. This idea increases the museum’s role as moderator over content creator to a certain extent, fitting with Sharky’s “publish then filter” model. Because of its call for civic engagement I appreciated that this article addressed the real problems of the technology gap for impoverished areas and the role of access for the disabled, something neglected by the other authors.

Bringing Citizen Scientists and Historians Together” shows that the tools learned for good participation practices in historical settings are applicable across other focuses as well, specifically science crowdsourcing sites. Its most important recommendations are to have built in rewards for participants, to have a clear and meaningful purpose in the project, and to still allow contributors to take research in unexpected directions.

With “Building a Volunteer Community: Results and Findings from ‘Transcribe Bentham’” we learn a few important lessons. Namely, that users do not always need a great deal of staff encouragement and attention to make a project successful, but rather would like most to have questions answered timely and to know when their contributions are being used. The second aspect is something which Simon also emphasizes with the recognition it is rarely done, but the first finding seems to go against her recommendations. We also learn that just because community building and social aspects are incorporated into a site that this does not mean that participants will be interested in taking part in them. This could be another barrier to creating the kind of interactive and civically engaged communities called for by Robert Stein in “Chiming in on Museums and Participatory Culture.” But perhaps the greatest lesson is that complicated, specialized work can be successfully executed by amateurs through crowdsourcing projects. Though, to be fair, a highly educated and dedicated workforce is not your “average” internet user, this is just one more reason that you need to specifically target volunteer groups.

According to the New York Public Library “NYPL Labs is an experimental technology unit that works closely with curators to create tools that expand the range of interaction, interpretation and reuse of research library collections and data.” On their blog projects highlighted include: Flickr pages for historic auto manufacturer and baseball images, geographic studies on New York’s shoreline, the crowdsourcing project Map Rectifier, a spotlight on musicals, and information from the “What’s on the Menu?” crowdsourcing historic menu project. Of these projects the Map Rectifier stood out to me as particularly interesting given my focus on the built environment. Highlighting the insurance map as a source (something that I frequently use as part of the Sanborn Digital Map collection) this sites holds promise for increased education of how to rubber-sheet these maps on to topographical displays through their instructional videos. This kind of project is one that would be useful, interesting, and doable for almost any major American city.

In the article “The Crowd and the Library” Trevor Owens challenges the connotations behind the word “crowdsourcing” which he feels implies an unskilled mass and an exploitation of free labor. Neither are accurate and both understandably make people involved in cultural institutions uncomfortable. Instead he argues that the “crowd” should be thought of as a specific, dedicated, and motivated group of amateurs. These non-professionals volunteer their time, rather than being “sourced labor,” because of deep personal passions and commitments. To move beyond simple definition shifts, he also argues that understanding human computation, the wisdom of crowds, tools to be used for scaffolding, and motivations will lead professionals to more fully understand the power of crowdsourcing. Understanding crowdsourcing in this way will make institutions more comfortable taking advantage of it as a tool.