If a tree falls in a museum, and no one is there to hear it…

Australian IT policy advisor Pia Waugh has just posted the first of a series of four posts on online culture. This one, titled Unicorns and Doom, investigates some of the ways that the Internet is changing mainstream culture. As she writes

Using the Internet changes your expectations of the world around you, and importantly your expectations of how you can interact with the world.

The entire post is compelling, and I would recommend that everyone should read it. However, I am going to pull out a few of her key points now and dissect them a little bit for what they mean for museums.

Waugh argues that there are four expectations/behaviours that we develop when we engage online. These are the expectation that we can route around damage – or find new paths around any form of artificial interference; healthy skepticism – that we can examine and question information, particularly official information that doesn’t necessarily gel with other evidence; an expectation of transparency and accountability; and an expectation that through “do-ocracy” or people power, it really is possible to make significant changes to the world.

In her post, Pia expands on each of these ideas considerably. However, I’ll now just grab a couple of her ideas in brief for closer examination. She writes:

When we want to know about something, we automatically look it up online. We expect to be able to get information on any subject we choose and when information is not forthcoming we ask why.

This is one of the very real and compelling reasons why I do think that museum collections do need to be online… When Koven asked what’s the point of a museum website at MW2011, and again in his Ignite speech, my first answer was (and continues to be) that as we become more and more reliant on the Internet as the storage space for the sum of human knowledge and information (as seems to be happening) then if something is not online it will almost be as if it doesn’t exist. It’s the tree falling in the woods argument reframed… if you have objects in your collection that could be useful to human society – whether to a researcher or someone else – and they can’t find or access that information (even just at a basic level to know that the object is in your collection), does that object have any purpose? How can it tell us anything about ourselves/our past/culture if we don’t even know it exists?

Now this is a very different question of how we make that information useful and useable – and I think that is an entirely unresolved problem (see Mia Ridge’s post on death by aggregation). But as our social expectations regarding information change, it really is becoming the case that if information about something is not accessible online, then we look for other information. Even as a researcher, I will look online at my library’s collection to see what books they have that I might be able to use well before I make the trip into the physical location. That’s not to say that serendipity won’t guide my search once I’m there, but the initial impulse usually occurs when I’m not in situ – and my future actions are predicated on the information that I find online.

Waugh’s post continues:

The Internet has democratised both access to and “publishing” of knowledge. The control of knowledge has always been a power mechanism, and we are now seeing a significant struggle as traditional knowledge and power brokers find themselves continually flanked by individuals and communities.

This is something I’ve wanted to write about for a little while now. The publishing of knowledge, and control over information, is something that has obviously been important for museums historically. It was a key aspect of how museums maintained their authority, by making some claim to control over the objects of our past and the information about those objects, and therefore about our past.

However, authority online comes from (appearing to have) visibility of process, rather than from hiding behind safe institutional walls. This means that organisations need to be work harder to ensure consistency between what they say they do and what they actually do, since they will be called to account if people notice gaps between the rhetoric and the action.

Pia argues that the ease with which we can access, engage with and hold accountable anyone online makes it easier for people to make informed choices, and I would agree. This article by Richard Smith from the Journal of Financial Transformation provides an interesting perspective into transparency and trust in the ‘post-Gutenberg era’, or the era of social media (although focussed on business institutions and brands). He writes:

In the Gutenberg world, trust was institutionalized. Organizations worked to establish reputations such that people would trust anything and everything they did without feeling the need to interrogate it for themselves. This worked because it was efficient, from the organization’s perspective, and because individuals recognized that they could not (or could not be bothered to) comprehensively interrogate all the organizations they dealt with. They would accept an organization’s ‘institutionalized representation’ of itself (its brand) — provided they could have a level of reassurance that this representation was reasonably accurate.

Trust within social media is not vested in institutions, it is vested within visible processes. The best way to explain this is to look further at the Wikipedia example and its battle with Encyclopaedia Britannica. The Encyclopaedia Britannica is a classic example of institutionalized trust. You trust its entries based on your knowledge of the reputation for accuracy it has established and carefully nurtured over the years. You do not feel the need to look behind or interrogate this reputation in any way. Wikipedia is totally different. You trust its entries purely on the fact that it has made visible the way that entry was produced and refined. Even if you do not choose to examine the history of every entry, the simple fact that you can do this and there is a process in place which means somebody is doing this, gives you a level of trust. Critically, an element of this trust is based around the need for you to make your own assessment of the process and how much trust you will decide to allocate to it.

It is not that people are going to reject institutionalized trust, but the task of sustaining it is going to become much harder in the world of transparency brought about by social media. Organizations will, therefore, find that ultimately the only efficient way to maintain trust is to switch to a model based on process, which will mean creating the ability to see in much greater detail how an organization goes about its business.

As Pia’s post indicates, mainstream culture is changing as a result of the Internet. What this means for museums – particularly online – is still open to significant debate. But it is important to look at the significant and apparently lasting trends occurring within technology and the ways society is changing as a result to get a sense of how and where the museum website fits.

5 thoughts on “If a tree falls in a museum, and no one is there to hear it…

  1. I couldn’t agree more with Smith’s comment that in order to maintain trust museums should switch to a model based on process. Museums (actually most organizations) are still so results oriented that it’s often hard for us to actually see how technology is changing the process of disseminating information (and ultimately our content).

  2. I am concerned by the comment that museums need to ‘switch to a model based on process’.

    Trust may indeed be a result of process, and transparency within that process. However, I would argue that in business activities generally a focus on process over results will usually lead to disappointing overall performance.

    Therefore trust, as in having a high level of trust amongst your public, is a result, it is an outcome. And this outcome should be the focus of the museums business processes. For example, once trust is built sufficiently to have achieved its aim, then maintain it and focus on what else can drive your performance. Otherwise, the museum may end up with stellar trust levels, but be poor in every other area.

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