Takeaways from THATCamp Canberra, 2011

The last few weeks have been very intense. Between attending Reprogramming the Art Museum, presenting work at the Powerhouse Museum, speaking on a panel at Critical Animals, preparing for and presenting at the Digital Culture Public Sphere, and more, I have been pretty exhausted.

Thus it was that I was in two minds about attending THATCamp Canberra. I had been looking forward to going to THATCamp for ages, ever since I first heard about the concept in relation to THATCampMCN. But by the time the event actually rolled around, I was so brain-sore that I didn’t think I would have anything left in me to contribute (and that is, after all, the point of an unconference).

But fortunately, the event was so stimulating that I didn’t need to worry. There is no way that I can write a post that sums up everything I learned however, so here are some of the highlights and takeaways that I got from attending.

The first day was bootcamp, and it brought with it an awesome opportunity to find out more about data visualization in a big double-session with Mitchell Whitelaw. I recently learned about Mitchell’s cool commonsExplorer project (with Sam Hinton), which visualizes the relationships between tags and images on Flickr Commons, so I was pretty keen for this session. Data visualisation is something that I think has a great place in relation to museum data as we move towards increased linked data, and I was super glad to have the chance to learn more about the back end of the process.

It turned out that I was entirely in over my head, because the session was pitched at people who had some basic coding experience – and I still don’t really have any. Since my post on wanting to learn to code, I have started trying to master some of the basics, teaching myself a little Ruby after borrowing a book on it from the PHM web team library. However, Mitchell’s bootcamp session was the first time I’d really had a chance to sit in a class with people going through this type of thing, and it was so cool to start to get the sense of how the thought patterns develop when actually coming up with programming. I’d heard people talk about coding as being about problem solving, but in my mind, I didn’t really understand the extent to which that was true. I’d been so conscious of my lack of programming language that I hadn’t really clicked into the fact that programming really is about using the code as a tool. It’s such an obvious takeaway, but something that I didn’t really understand until I was in that context.

I managed to hold my own for the first half of the class, when Mitchell ran us through some basic ideas in Processing, and helped us create our first data visualizations, but completely lost my way in the second half of the session. Having said that, I am more and more starting to see the value in visualization, and the session really got me thinking about new ways to use and conceptualise data.

Really basic coding, but it's a start.

Thinking about museum data rather than simply museum objects is probably one of the things that I’m starting to do a lot more in recent weeks, and I think it’s really beneficial to my PhD research. One of the sessions on Saturday at THATCamp built upon this, as it looked at visualization from a broader perspective. Some of the real benefits of visualisation were seen to be the way it could help tease out new findings from data, and create big picture perspectives. Although there was some debate over the use (from an academic perspective) of visualisation, there was a general sense that it could lead to the asking of new questions, which is always a worthy pursuit.

The other sessions that really rocked my world and got my mind cogs ticking over were the ones on “Stories in Shoeboxes” about community storytelling websites and the conditions that lead to engagement; a session that I organised on authority and control in the Internet age; and a session to follow up on the Public Sphere.

Each of these sessions led to some really interesting discussion and thoughts, although no real conclusions (which is natural, due to the complexity of the issues at stake). The session on community storytelling/history/culture websites was very interesting. We discussed the fact that communities are generally self-selecting, and so it can be difficult for outsiders to really create an appropriate online space, even with the best intentions. It was also acknowledged that there needs to be something compelling, some ‘hook’ to get communities to engage online – there has to be something in it for them. In many cases, Facebook now seems to fulfill this role for self-forming communities, so maybe we need to learn from that and create simple and engaging spaces and leave the rest to the community?

The other two sessions that I loved and had great discussions in were both sessions that I proposed. The first session, which was on authority, was inspired by my coming panel on What’s the Point of Museum Websites, coming up at MCN in only a month. This session started with a seemingly simple question: what is authority, and how do you get it? In trying to answer just this, we ended up tangled in knots. Authority can be earned with time, it is culturally contextual, it can be conferred by another with authority. It is tied up with respect, but precisely how it is earned or maintained is unclear. In some ways, authority seems able to be likened to porn, in that it might be difficult to define, but is able to be known when seen.

The most interesting question that came out of the session however, and one that has certainly left me thinking ever since, was on the authoritative nature of Google online and whether “if you can’t find something on Google, do you trust that means it’s not online?” This brings up very interesting issues around transparency and manipulation of information, and also just on how much currency we are giving to this company that has no clear reason to be trusted, except that we have learned (rightfully or wrongfully) to trust it. After all, to Google is now shorthand for searching online, which is a great responsibility for a single company, and one that had interesting implications in a conversation about authority.

Finally, on Sunday morning we had an excellent (sober, rational) conversation about the Digital Culture Public Sphere that everyone who was attending THATCamp participated in. The discussion was quite different from the roundtable events on the day itself, because there were people drawn from a wider field at THATCamp. There were very useful contributions from people who would not necessarily self-identify as being from the digital culture sector, whose knowledge and experiences were very relevant. We’ve drawn up some results and will publish them to the digiculture wiki shortly, but it was generally a good and interesting session.

THATCamp whiteboard notes from our Public Sphere session. Thanks to Cath Styles for capturing the board.
Whiteboard notes #2

Of course, the best things about something like THATCamp are the new relationships that accompany the new conversations, and I met lots of interesting people working in very different areas to me. With an emphasis on the digital humanities, this was a far more academic conference than I’d been to in many ways, with lots of other Uni-focussed people in attendance. What was missing however was ego, as everyone seemed incredibly open to new ideas and new perspectives. What was particularly beneficial to me was the openness that surrounded the conversations, that left space and headspace for playing with ideas not yet fully formed. THATCamp felt like a place for incubating ideas, not just publicising fully-formed ones. Even in the last two weeks, despite my increasing busyness and lack of formal research, I’ve really found that playing through ideas in my head and working out how to describe and discuss them with others has made a very significant impact upon my PhD thinking. Yesterday I looked over some of my existing notes, and was aware of a number of gaps that I need to work through and include that had not yet been articulated in my work. I think this has been the greatest benefit to me of THATCamp – the chance to still engage with ideas but with a little critical distance from my more formal research.

THATCamp was also a place for karaoke (woo!), which was also beneficial, although maybe in different ways.

Thanks to the generosity of the Kress Foundation and THATCamp for awarding me a THATCamp Fellowship to attend the unconference. It was a brilliant experience, and I cannot wait to attend again next year.

Reflecting on museumgeek’s first three months

This blog has now been running for just shy of three months. In that time, I’ve written 31 posts, and received double that many comments (yep – you’re starting to talk back, which is awesome). Within a day or two, I should hit 2500 views, which is significantly more than I imagined I would have at the start (and even more surprising because my Mum has only read the site once – so it’s not just her!). I’ve been shocked (and excited) to find people responding to my ideas by writing entire posts of their own (and here), and have been honoured to discover my site listed in blogrolls of people whom I respect.

With all this, museumgeek has thoroughly exceeded my expectations.

What has surprised me is finding out the posts that get the most reads and reactions. When I started blogging, I thought I’d post a fair bit about technical innovation in museums. After all, that’s what the people whose blogs I read write about, and they’re always interesting to me.

What I quickly learned however is that the difference between those bloggers and me is that I’m not actually a tech geek. I might love technology and enjoy seeing the technological advances taking place in museums, but I have neither the background nor the mindset needed in order to best exploit the possibilities of technology.

Instead, it’s my more philosophical posts like Museum objects and complexity, Visualising the museum collectionWho owns the virtual space in your museum? and Who are you collecting for? that have drawn the greatest interest. Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised by this… museums are inextricably linked with philosophy, and my own bent of inquiry leans towards the existential. I probably write more passionately on these issues than on other things. Despite this, I didn’t expect that these would be the posts that would inspire the greatest response.

So there is that. In the last few days, this feedback has led me to start reconsidering the approach I was intending to take in my PhD. Although I need to discuss this with my supervisor, I’m starting to think that my research should be a philosophical inquiry, rather than a strictly “scientific” one. This is probably a silly idea… It will involve far more work, and be a lot harder. But I also think it will be a very interesting approach, and will certainly push me to look deeply into the issues. Hmm. I’ll keep you posted on this idea once I talk to my supervisor…

On a personal level, I’ve discovered that blogging is a lot of work, but very enjoyable. My writing muscles are growing stronger from regular use, and writer’s block is far less tyrannical than it was. Writing for an audience is great for helping me clarify my thoughts – although I still get scared every time I hit the “publish” button in case I’ve said something really stupid… although even if I do, hopefully you guys will take me to task for it so I can learn something new as a result.

In the mean time, thanks for reading and being part of my first three months!

On creative risks and PhD blogging

Nina Simon has just written a post entitled Empowering Staff to Take Creative Risks in which she asks “What are you willing to risk to pursue your dreams?” It’s a somewhat timely post for me, because I am stuck deliberating on the role of blogging for me in the PhD process.

Yesterday I drafted a new blog post which I think poses an interesting perspective on moving museum collections to the Internet. Only in its fledgling stage, the idea is probably not particularly groundbreaking – but I think it has the potential to be developed further and it could be relevant to my PhD. And suddenly I find myself stuck as to whether to put it – and other PhD thoughts – online or not.

I’ve asked my supervisors for their thoughts, as well as asking an open question on Facebook and Twitter about what academics think of the issue. The responses have been mixed. Some have said they couldn’t imagine it being a problem, some have warned against the risk that someone would steal my ideas, and one friend pointed out the possible intricacies involved with people posting ideas in comments, and how difficult attribution might be if my ideas were later informed by discussion that took place online.

And so when I read Nina Simon’s post, it made me question precisely what I am willing to risk in the pursuit of my ideas and my career. This blog has become an interesting vehicle for me. Although it has only been up and running for a few weeks, I’ve had quite a few people contact me because of it, and have started some interesting conversations as a result. It is letting me make some interesting new professional (and personal) contacts, and has helped ensure that my mind never completely switches off thinking about the field, because I’m always on the look out for something new to post about.

But until now I have never actually wanted to post thoughts that might later be important to my research. Doing so could be a risk. Someone could indeed steal my ideas without attribution. Having said that, just starting a public blog and putting my ideas – mostly half-formed and in need of work around the edges – into the blogosphere carries with it certain risks. But ultimately, I think that hiding away from criticism and the opportunity to fall flat on my face would be worse. After all, the things that appear safe in life often aren’t. Seth Godin wrote recently on ‘exceptional’ brands, and why they fail:

The problem with brand exceptionalism is that once you believe it, it’s almost impossible to innovate. Innovation involves failure, which an exceptional brand shouldn’t do, and the only reason to endure failure is to get ahead, which you don’t need to do. Because you’re exceptional.

The take home message from both Seth’s and Nina’s posts is that pursuing big things – like dreams, careers and in the case of museums, innovation – is risky, and that risks bring with them real opportunities for failure. But that it’s only by being open to failure that really interesting things happen.

Does this mean that I will upload the post I drafted yesterday? I haven’t yet decided, and will seek further advice first. Though unless anyone can give me a compelling reason not to, I probably will. If someone steals my ideas, at least that means they were worth stealing (is this a Web2.0 attitude?).

In the mean time, I’d love to hear from anyone else who is or has been in a similar situation on what they decided to do. I know that a lot of museum bloggers are also research students, so surely this is something other people have grappled with too.