Reflections on joining a community

I’m in the lobby of a hotel in Portland, Oregon, as delegates for Museums and the Web 2013 start arriving. It’s two years since I first attended this conference; the first conference I had ever been to in my life and a major career catalyst for me. Sitting here, I naturally find myself reflecting on the changes that have happened in my life since I first came into this community. I’ve often described the sensation as “finding my tribe” but, to be honest, at that point the museum tech community wasn’t my tribe. I didn’t share the language or get the jokes. I hadn’t met anyone in the sector, so I stood on the edges of a community and looked in.

That this situation has changed so significantly in such a short period of time often leaves me wondering what it was that allowed me – an outsider – to find myself and a place within this sector. What is it that makes a community and gives it meaning? And how do newcomers find their way into a community? In 1986, David W. McMillan and David M. Chavis George proposed a definition of community that included the following characteristics:

The first element is membership. Membership is the feeling of belonging or of sharing a sense of personal relatedness. The second element is influence, a sense of mattering, of making a difference to a group and of the group mattering to its members. The third element is   reinforcement: integration and fulfillment of needs. This is the feeling that members’ needs will be met by the resources received through their membership in the group. The last element is shared emotional connection, the commitment and belief that members have shared and will share history,  common places, time together, and similar experiences.

This seems like a pretty usable definition, except that I didn’t have any of these characteristics when I first came along. I didn’t feel like I had membership in the group, although I quickly became interested in becoming a member. Nor did I have influence or shared emotional connections. What I did have, however, was the good fortune of meeting people who both implicitly and explicitly invited me to become part of their discussions.

The implicit invitations could be as simple as allowing me to sit at a table with people whom I hadn’t met although they had long-standing and existing relationships; the openness of people to have a conversation and share something of themselves and their thoughts with me. The explicit invitations came from people like Koven Smith, who invited me to be part of his panel on the point of museum websites at MCN2011. I became a member of the group because I was invited by existing members to join their conversations, and given the opportunity to learn and contribute. In so doing, I started to have an understanding of the shared language and became to have an emotional connection that started to tie strongly to the community.

But inviting one person to be part of a conversation or a community isn’t particularly hard. The community borders can stretch and morph as small groups enter and exit whilst still maintaining their stability; the shared conventions and language. But is it possible to invite a significant number of new people to join an existing community and still keep a sense of internal congruity? Or, in other words, is it possible to grow a community at scale or even to have community at scale? I’m not sure that it is, but I think it’s an interesting problem for museums to be thinking about. Are museums naturally limited in the size and scope of their communities – those who have an intimate relationship with the institution and the people who are associated with it?

I’d love to know your thoughts. When have you joined a community, and what made that possible? And do you think it’s possible for large numbers of people to join a community in a short period of time, or does that threaten the self-defining nature of the community itself?

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.