Museums and the New Web: The Promise of Social Technologies
Blogs, Podcasts and Wikis:
Tapping the New Social Technologies
By Jim Spadaccini
When I worked with the Exploratorium's Internet team in the mid and late 1990s, we were determined not to be left behind in exploiting the new opportunities of the World Wide Web. We keenly examined online exhibits created by other museums and constantly experimented with new technologies and techniquessome successful, some noton our own site.
The Web facilitated a global feedback loop, and gradually promising practices began
Online collections, web casts, interactive exhibits, discussion forums, and virtual tours are now familiar elements on museum web sites, and a shared language has emerged that allows web developers to discuss what works and what doesn't. Yet, despite the many compelling online experiences created in the past decade, science centers and museums are once again in danger of being left behind.
In the past two or three years, another quiet revolution has been taking place on the Internet, thanks to an array of new "social" technologies tagged by some as "Web 2.0." Designers and developers are taking advantage of increasingly inexpensive and easy-to-use software tools to put the online visitor first, creating web sites that are truly "user-centric." The most popular sites todayMySpace, Blogger, Flickr, Wikipedia, del.icio.us, and othersare those that allow their users not only to receive information but also to participate actively in creating and enhancing their own online experience, often in collaboration with others.
Within this context, a new online museum environment is also emergingbut one in which science centers are curiously absent. In January of this year, if you opened the Google search engine and typed in "science museum blog" (something you might expect a tech-savvy visitor to do), the top result was a sign-up page for the Creation Museum of Northern Kentucky's electronic newsletter. Not far down the rankings was Junkscience.com, a blog run by Fox News science reporter Steven Milloy that routinely denigrates research on global warming and other scientific findings questioned by the current U.S. administration and some corporations in industries like energy and pharmaceuticals.
As the year has progressed, I am happy to report, the Science Museum of Minnesota's Science Buzz site (www.smm.org/buzz) has taken the top spot in the Google search. But this example helps to illustrate an important point: If science centers do not define themselves in this new medium, others will. Despite the field's reputation for fostering interactive learning, the majority of science center web sites still don't allow for user feedbackmuch less the kind of active participation that online audiences are coming to expect. To fully exploit the opportunities of Web 2.0, museums need to learn what social technologies are and how to use them.
The new online audience
Essential to any new museum enterprise is an understanding of its potential audience. As an introduction to the changing online world, readers might want to start with Technorati (www.technorati.com), the blog-only search engine that covers tens of millions of blogs and their billions of links. Type in your institution's name, and chances are you'll find a range of comments—and perhaps even reviews and photos of your latest exhibitions. You can join the conversation, if you are so inclined. Obviously there is interest in museums out there in the "blogosphere."
A resource for learning more about this online audience, at least in the United States, is the Pew Internet & American Life Project (www.pewinternet.org), a nonprofit organization that tracks trends on the Web. According to "Teen Content Creators and Consumers," a November 2005 Pew report, 57 percent of teens who use the Internet "have created a blog or webpage, posted original artwork, photography, stories, or videos online, or remixed online content into their own new creations."
A January 2006 Pew report, "Generations Online," adds that "Internet users ages 12 to 28 years old have embraced the online applications that enable communicative, creative, and social uses. Teens and Generation Y (ages 18–28) are significantly more likely than older users to send and receive instant messages, play online games, create blogs, download music, and search for school information." But lest you think that only young people use the Internet, an April 2006 Pew report, "Internet Penetration and Impact," reveals that "fully 73 percent of respondents (about 147 million [U.S.] adults) are Internet users, up from 66 percent (about 133 million adults) in our January 2005 survey." The share of Americans with home broadband access has now reached 42 percent, the report notes, up from 29 percent in January 2005. That's a sizable—and desirable—audience.
The online audience is also increasingly a global one. According to a May 2006 study by market research company eMarketer (www.emarketer.com), this year we reached a new milestone of 1 billion Internet users globally, 25 percent of whom have broadband at home. Broadband adoption was particularly strong in China and Latin America. So if museums build web sites that invite user participation, which of these Internet users will come? Will the response be worth the effort? Web statistics from early adopters like the Science Museum of Minnesota indicate that visitors to community sites stay longer and visit more frequently. They are more engaged and more motivated, and the quality of their participation can even be informally assessed through the "trail" of their interactions online.
Some fear that interactive community sites will reach only "alpha bloggers"—a group of highly motivated and well-wired individuals—and to some extent, that fear is justified. On Wikipedia (www.wikipedia.org), 2 percent of the most active users have done 73.4 percent of the encyclopedia's edits. On Science Buzz, a few hundred visitors make up the active core, while the vast majority are casual visitors, or "lurkers." On the other hand, visitors to existing Web 1.0 resources are all casual visitors. So while sites that feature social components might not reach everyone, they do seem to provide significant and positive experiences for those who participate. There is a need for more formal evaluation, of course, to better understand the online visitor's experience.
Museum and museum-related blogs and community sites are still rare. Among the blogs, perhaps the best known is the group of six launched by the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis (http://blogs.walkerart.org) in February 2005. The topics are education and community programs, film/video, new media initiatives, "off center," performing arts, and visual arts.
At the Walker, the effort appears to be museum-wide. Guidelines for staff, written collaboratively in "wiki" format and posted online, include such advice as "Use the blogs to engage audiences in a different way by providing a behind-the-scenes view of what makes our programming possible" and "Use Walker blogs to discuss Walker programming, post reviews, promote upcoming events, and receive comments." Cautions are also detailed: "Do not post material that is unlawful, abusive, defamatory, invasive of another's privacy, or obscene to a reasonable person," and "Get permission from colleagues before writing about them."
A newer entry is the "Eye Level" blog (http://eyelevel.si.edu), introduced by the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) last November. The museum, closed since January 2000 for major renovations, is due to reopen July 1, along with the National Portrait Gallery, as part of the new Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture. SAAM is using Eye Level to build buzz for the reopening, and the site's authors are cognizant that they are exploring something new.
Noting in their opening entry that the blog is "the first by the Smithsonian and one of just a handful of museum sites in the blogosphere," the editors promise that "Eye Level will look at both art and museums, offering the kind of close examination that new media affords, in part simply to find out how new media can enhance the museum's role." The museum field is taking note: SAAM's blog won a 2006 silver MUSE Award from the American Association of Museums.
In the realm of podcasting, many have heard by now of the "Artcasts" posted online by SFMoMA, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (www.sfmoma.org). The museum's idiosyncratic recordings—a May 19 New York Times article describes them as "less like audio tours than like slightly cerebral radio shows you might catch while driving to work"—run about 20 minutes and feature artists, writers, curators, and musicians, as well as museum visitors.
SFMoMA offers a $2 discount on admission to owners of MP3 players who present a device loaded with the current Artcast. A new contest invites visitors to submit their own recordings, the best of which will soon be featured online with the museum's podcasts.
Social technologies and science centers
Although most of ASTC's 426 museum members have yet to explore the new social technologies, there are a few notable exceptions. Along with the aforementioned Science Buzz, Canada's Ontario Science Centre has created RedShiftNow (www.redshiftnow.ca), a site where visitors can download current and archived museum-produced podcasts and participate in a variety of interactive options. Each has been operating for more than a year, and both allow for visitor discussion and user-contributed content.
Questacon–the National Science Centre, in Canberra, Australia, has taken a different tack, building an interactive online experience (http://smartmoves.questacon.edu.au/csi/index.htm) around the expanding technology of online games and the popularity of television forensics programs.
Another social technology that uses the Web to personalize the on-site and off-site visitor experience is radio frequency identification (RFID). The Tech Museum of Innovation, in San Jose, has been experimenting with the use of RFID bracelets in two new exhibitions, Genetics: Technology with a Twist and NetPl@net; the latter specifically examines how people are using Internet technologies to link themselves with others around the world.
Embracing user-created content is a big step for museums, which tend to view themselves as authoritative sources of information. But sites like RedShiftNow and Science Buzz show that the process can be reasonably managed, and that visitors do have important information to share. Indeed, the science center "audience" could be seen as potential collaborators and, in some cases, even content experts.
No one wants the kind of publicity that Wikipedia got late last year, when entries were deliberately altered to contain misinformation and editors had to "lock down" certain articles. Although an informal study in Nature later pronounced Wikipedia and the online Encyclopedia Britannica comparable in terms of accuracy, questions still linger about the quality of user-created content on the site, as well as larger issues of moderation and management of community sites in general.
Museum educators, scientists, and other staff still have an important role to play in creating context for this kind of exploration, as well as providing guidance and expertise when needed. In some ways, it's not all that different from stimulating discussion on the museum floor.
In the 1990s, science centers learned to deal with the formidable task of getting web sites established. Moving forward, we are better informed and have more support. What's more, we now have a solid set of technical standards and a variety of powerful (and free) open source software tools that are easy to use. Issues of staff and visitor participation, accuracy of content, site management, and the eternal problem of limited resources are certainly daunting. But whatever shortcomings these new technologies and approaches may have, they are offset by an opportunity to create environments where museum visitors can have deeper and more meaningful experiences than ever before. This time around, whatever science centers create, they won't build it alone. Visitors will be right there alongside.
Jim Spadaccini is the owner and creative director of Ideum, a web services firm based in Corrales, New Mexico, and the designer of ASTC's web site. He blogs at www.ideum.com/blog. Kevin von Appen (Ontario Science Centre) and Bryan Kennedy (Science Museum of Minnesota) assisted with the preparation of this article.