Collecting [&] 1000 fans

Last week a post on Open Culture caught my attention. It proposes A New Way Forward for Museums and calls for museums to “get smart and get excited about culture, reach out and forge a new social contract with the public and a new economic contract with industry to create a new offer that is fit for a new generation of audiences.” It’s worth reading when you have time (it’s a longish post, and probably requires more than a quick glance).

But it’s the discussion in the comments that has me interested. Judith writes:

In many museums, such as natural history collections, we curators have difficulty explaining why digitized dead worms would be interesting to the general public and therefore worthy of the monetary layout to make the effort.

I responded to this comment myself, but wanted to explore the idea that I touched on there a little further by considering Kevin Kelly’s concept of 1000 true fans. For Kelly, a true fan is “someone who will purchase anything and everything you produce.” They are the people who are obsessed with what you do. For musicians and artists, these are the people who will follow you around the country to see you perform live, or who will buy (into) whatever you are doing, and talk to others about it etc.

Online, true fans can be spread all over the world, and connect with one another and with the artist (or company or whatever it is). These ‘communities of passion’ can unite and share ideas, expertise and passion despite distance in their physical proximity. And this same philosophy is something that I think that museums should be thinking about when putting their collections online. As I wrote on the Open Culture blog, rather than considering the general public when putting our collections online, we should:

Consider the 1000 people in the world who are absolutely fascinated by worms [or whatever is in your collection], and who know and understand more about worms than you of I ever could. And that those 1000 people might be spread all across the planet with no way to access the information that’s currently stored in your collection… but by putting it online, one of those worm-obsessed people might be able to see something in your worm collection that might prove to be a major breakthrough in ‘wormology’ that makes an impact on better ways of planning for environmental degradation or composting or … something (I’m not a worm expert, so I can’t tell you what it would be).

Ed Rodley agreed, continuing:

Every collection can’t appeal to the masses. They never have and never will. But there is an audience out there for just about any subject. Our challenge is to find ways to connect our content with those audiences.

If Ed is right, then maybe museums should consider trying to identify their target markets more specifically online, rather than trying to be all things to all people. Instead of putting our collections online and hoping someone finds them useful, we should be aiming to find ways to connect our content with the people who will use it best in the way that will most suit them. For a small museum or gallery, that might mean finding effective ways to connect to the local population. But not necessarily. As Owen Thomas at Mashable writes “When we talk about community, we talk about places and spaces. But online communities transcend geography.”

Passionate vermiculturalists are no doubt located all over the world. So how can a museum with a big collection of worms reach and connect with the 1000 true fans who would really care about that collection? What can museums – with our wealth of stored knowledge captured in objects and in our people – bring to this community that they can’t get anywhere else?

Imagine if we could even encourage these niche community to grow and interact on our websites so the the museum becomes a key destination for connection rather than simply a resource. Is the Semantic Web key in making this happen, bringing together disparate information sources into a single resource for a community (like the INNL website, which Jasper Visser describes as “a semantic network of history and heritage websites. Existing online collections and communities are connected in a meaningful way with each other and our website”)? Or can we even utilise a vehicle like online forums to bring passionate people together with experts and the objects that interest them?

Already museums are inviting more interaction with their audiences online through social networking (see what people want from museums on Facebook and Twitter). But these interactions still seek to speak to mass audience, when they might be more effective if we can find a way to service and even cultivate niche communities.

When James Davis launched the Tate’s beta collection at MW2011, he spoke of the three different types of users that they had made the website  to suit: researchers, explorers and dreamers. Each type of user required a different stylistic approach, because each type of user sought different things from their experience of an online collection. It would be interesting if museums could build on the idea of personalising the approach based on a user’s needs and refine it even further to give ‘communities of passion’ a meaningful user experience in context of the online museum.