Monday, 26 January 2009

'The strikethrough is the canonical symbol of the Web'

Below is a quote from Wired's Chris Anderson on museum, curatorial authority and the long tail, from a Washington Post report, 'Smithsonian Click-n-Drags Itself Forward' on Smithsonian 2.0 ('A Gathering to Re-Imagine the Smithsonian in the Digital Age').

The quote really covers two issues - making failures and mistakes in public and leaving them there, and training external volunteers and experts to curate parts of collections, because no one curator can be authoritative on everything in their remit: "in exchange for a slight diminution of the credentialed voice for a small number of things, you would get far more for a lot of things".

I suspect this is a false dichotomy - there's a place for both internal and external expertise. The Science Museum object wiki doesn't mean the rest of the collection catalogue and interpretation has no value or relevance. The challenge lies in presenting organisation and user-contributed content in the same interface - can those boundaries be removed? Is it wise to try? And what about taking external content back into the catalogue?

This isn't a new conversation for museum technologists, but it's a conversation I'd love to have with curators. I've never been sure how the technologists who get really excited by the possibilities of sharing content online in various ways can go about working with curators to find the best way of managing it so that the public, the collections and the curators benefit.

Anyway, onto Chris Anderson:
The discovery of the "long tail" principle has implications for museums because it means there is vast room at the bottom for everything. Which means, Anderson said, that curators need to get over themselves. Their influence will never be the same.

"The Web is messy, and in that messiness comes something new and interesting and really rich," he said. "The strikethrough is the canonical symbol of the Web. It says, 'We blew it, but we are leaving that mistake out there. We're not perfect, but we get better over time.' "

If you think that notion gives indigestion to an organization like the Smithsonian -- full of people who have devoted much of their lifetimes to bringing near-perfect luster to some tiny pearl of truth -- you would be correct.

The problem is, "the best curators of any given artifact do not work here, and you do not know them," Anderson told the Smithsonian thought leaders. "Not only that, but you can't find them. They can find you, but you can't find them. The only way to find them is to put stuff out there and let them reveal themselves as being an expert."

Take something like, oh, everything the Smithsonian's got on 1950s Cold War aircraft. Put it out there, Anderson suggested, and say, "If you know something about this, tell us." Focus on the those who sound like they have phenomenal expertise, and invest your time and effort into training these volunteers how to curate. "I'll bet that they would be thrilled, and that they would pay their own money to be given the privilege of seeing this stuff up close. It would be their responsibility to do a good job" in authenticating it and explaining it. "It would be the best free labor that you can imagine."

It didn't go down easily among the thought leaders, who have staked their lives' work on authoritativeness, on avoiding strikethroughs. What about the quality and strength of the knowledge we offer? asked one Smithsonian attendee.

You don't get it, Anderson suggested. "There aren't enough of you. Your skills cannot be invested in enough areas to give that quality."

It's like Wikipedia and the Encyclopedia Britannica, Anderson said. Some Wikipedia entries certainly are not as perfectly polished as the Britannica. But "most of the things I'm interested in are not in the Britannica. In exchange for a slight diminution of the credentialed voice for a small number of things, you would get far more for a lot of things. Something is better than nothing." And right now at the Smithsonian, what you get, he said, is "great" or "nothing."

"Is it our job to be smart and be the best? Or is it our job to share knowledge?" Anderson asked.


  1. I'd argue that sharing knowledge is useless if the quality of that knowledge is rubbish. So given a choice between being the best *or* sharing knowledge then being the best has to win.

    Museums already use knowledgable volunteers for cataloguing projects, so I don't think there's a problem with using contributions from knowledgable amateurs. I think the resistance to wikis comes from the wikipedia model, which encourages contribution by people who have no stake in the quality of the information itself. See

  2. @Jim - but the people who come across a museum's objects by searching for them are precisely those often DO have a stake in the object and the information about the object - maybe they designed it/built it/sold it/repaired it/owned it.

    The problem with traditional volunteer projects is that they don't scale well, and the barrier to entry limits it to people with lots of time on their hand, in the vicinity of your museum, and who are the type of people who actively volunteer for things.

  3. Hi Frankie,

    I don't understand the vicinity argument? The beauty of using the web is that we can gather volunteers from all over the globe. I do think limiting this to people with time on their hand, and the sort of people who traditionally volunteer is a good thing. They'll build a community which then generates a useful, knowledgeable site.

    I was a moderator on a site called 10 years ago. That was a bunch of volunteers, giving their free time and knowledge to answer questions. There was no problem handling the volume of incoming questions. We had a nice queueing system and loads of volunteers. People really wanted to be involved. Answers to science questions had to be reviewed before going live on the site but authors were always creditted for their work. I think that model works really well and encourages contributions because contributors feel rewarded by their work.

    Wikipedia's anonymous editting, and edit wars, can be disheartening and I don't see how a contributor gets the same sense of satisfaction after fighting those sorts of battles. In fact, I could imagine that kind of going down the tubes the same that usenet did in 1994/95. I'm thinking here of the way useful groups like sci.astro went down the tubes when AOL lowered the barrier to entry to anyone with a modem. After the astrologers, ufo nuts and pseudo science weirdos took over, the regular scientists got tired trying to post against the overwhelming wave of crap and the group died.

    So I think getting comments and collaboration from your audience is great. However, I'm not convinced by Anderson's argument that Wikipedia is a shining example of the wisdom of the masses.

  4. Dan Cohen has put together a great post on his 'post-meeting sense of where the Smithsonian should go for those who don't have time to read a hundred tweets'. It could be summed up as 'this is the Smithsonian not as a network of museums but as a platform for lifelong learning and cultural engagement', which is neatly borne out in similar discussions around the 'museums and/on the web' crowd.

    There's a brilliant comment that puts a lot of the angst over letting the public claim some expertise in or work on collections in perspective:

    "It's oversimplifying things a bit, but Smithsonian 0.2 was in the middle of the nineteenth century very much a crowd-sourced operation.

    Army officers, volunteer naturalists, and avid amateurs sent specimens by the tens of thousands to Smithsonian Assistant Secretary Spencer F. Baird. In order to manage those collections, he in turn brought in young naturalists (many of whom had no formal schooling in the sciences) such as William Stimpson and Robert Kennicott and taught them to scientifically describe and catalog them. Their schooling, under Baird and others, was almost more an apprenticeship than anything else."

  5. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the mad scientist network is still up and running at too.