Why we need to save the material experience of software objects

Conversations at last month’s Sustainable History: Ensuring today’s digital history survives event [my slides] (and at the pub afterwards) touched on saving the data underlying websites as a potential solution for archiving them. This is definitely better than nothing, but as a human-computer interaction researcher and advocate for material culture in historical research, I don’t think it’s enough.

Just as people rue the loss of the information and experiential data conveyed by the material form of objects when they’re converted to digital representations – size, paper and print/production quality, marks from wear through use and manufacture, access to its affordances, to name a few – future researchers will rue the information lost if we don’t regard digital interfaces and user experiences as vital information about the material form of digital content and record them alongside the data they present.

Can you accurately describe the difference between using MySpace and Facebook in their various incarnations? There’s no perfect way to record the experience of using Facebook in December 2013 so it could be compared with the experience of using MySpace in 2005, but usability techniques like screen-recording software linked to eyetracking or think-aloud tests would help preserve some of the tacit knowledge and context users bring to sites alongside the look-and-feel, algorithms and treatments of data the sites present to us. It’s not a perfect solution, but a recording of the interactions and designs from both sites for common tasks like finding and adding a friend would tell future researchers infinitely more about changes to social media sites over eight years than simple screenshots or static webpages. But in this case we’re still missing the notifications on other people’s screens, the emails and algorithmic categorisations that fan out from simple interactions like these…

Even if you don’t care about history, anyone studying software – whether websites, mobile apps, digital archives, instrument panels or procedural instructions embedded in hardware – still needs solid methods for capturing the dynamic and subjective experience of using digital technologies. As Lev Manovich says in The Algorithms of Our Lives, when we use software we’re “engaging with the dynamic outputs of computation; studying software culture requires us to “record and analyze interactive experiences, following individual users as they navigate a website or play a video game … to watch visitors of an interactive installation as they explore the possibilities defined by the designer—possibilities that become actual events only when the visitors act on them”.

The Internet Archive does a great job, but in researching the last twenty years of internet history I’m constantly hitting the limits of their ability to capture dynamic content, let alone the nuance of interfaces. The paradox is that as more of our experiences are mediated through online spaces and the software contained within small boxy devices, we risk leaving fewer traces of our experiences than past generations.

Collaboration, constraints and cloning and ‘the open museum’: notes from UKMW13

MCG’s UK Museums on the Web 2013: ‘Power to the people’ was held at Tate Modern on November 15, 2013. These are very selected notes but you can find out more about the sessions and see most slides on the MCG’s site. UKMW13 began with a welcome from me (zzz) and from Tate’s John Stack (hoorah!) then an announcement from our sponsors, Axiell Adlib and CALM, that CALM, Mimsy and AdLib are merging to create ‘next generation’ collections system – the old school collections management geek in me is really curious to see what that means for museums, libraries and archives and their data.

Our first keynote, Hannah Freeman, presented on the Guardian’s work to reach and engage new audiences. This work is underpinned by editor Alan Rusbridger’s vision for ‘open journalism‘:

‘journalism which is fully knitted into the web of information that exists in the world today. It links to it; sifts and filters it; collaborates with it and generally uses the ability of anyone to publish and share material to give a better account of the world’. 

At a casual glance the most visible aspect may be comments on pages, but the Guardian is aiming for collaborations between the reader and the newsroom – if you haven’t seen Guardian Witness, go check it out. (I suspect the Witness WWI assignment will do better than many heritage crowdsourcing efforts.) I know some museums are aiming to be of the web, not just on the web, but this ambition is usually limited to making their content of the web, while a commitment to open journalism suggests that the very core practices of journalism are open to being shaped by the public.

The Guardian is actively looking for ways to involve the audience; Freeman prompts editors and authors to look at interesting comments, but ‘following as well as leading is a challenge for journalists’. She said that ‘publication can be the beginning, not the end of the process’ and that taking part in the conversation generated is now part of the deal when writing for the Guardian (possibly not all sections, and possibly staff journalists rather than freelancers?). From a reader’s point of view, this is brilliant, but it raises questions about how that extra time is accounted for. Translating this into the museum sector and assuming that extra resources aren’t going to appear, if you ask curators to blog or tweet, what other work do you want them to give up?

Hannah Freeman, Guardian Community coordinator for culture at UKMW13. Photo: Andrew Lewis

Our closing keynote, the Science Gallery’s Michael John Gorman was equally impressive. Dublin’s Science Gallery has many constraints – a small space, no permanent collection, very little government funding, but he seems to be one of those people who sees interesting problems to solve where other people see barriers. The Science Gallery acts as funnel for ideas, from an open call for shows to some people working on their ideas as a ‘brains trust’ with the gallery and eventually a few ideas making it through the funnel and onto the gallery floor to incubate and get feedback from the public. Their projects have a sense of ‘real science’ about them – some have an afterlife in publications or further projects, some might go horribly wrong or just not work. I can’t wait until their gallery opens in London so I can check out some of their shows and see how they translate real scientific questions into interesting participatory experiences. Thinking back over the day, organisations like the Science Gallery might be the museum world’s version of open journalism: the Science Gallery’s ‘funnel’ is one way of putting the principles of the ‘open museum’ into practice (I’ve copied the Guardian’s 10 principles of open journalism below for reference).

Michael John Gorman, The Ablative Museum

Possible principles for ‘the open museum’?

While the theme of the day was the power of participation, I’ve found myself reflecting more on the organisational challenges this creates. Below are the Guardian’s 10 principles of open journalism. As many of the presentations at UKMW13 proved, museums are already doing some of these, but which others could be adapted to help museums deal with the challenges they face now and in the future?
  • It encourages participation. It invites and/or allows a response
  • It is not an inert, “us” or “them”, form of publishing
  • It encourages others to initiate debate, publish material or make suggestions. We can follow, as well as lead. We can involve others in the pre-publication processes
  • It helps form communities of joint interest around subjects, issues or individuals
  • It is open to the web and is part of it. It links to, and collaborates with, other material (including services) on the web
  • It aggregates and/or curates the work of others
  • It recognizes that journalists are not the only voices of authority, expertise and interest
  • It aspires to achieve, and reflect, diversity as well as promoting shared values
  • It recognizes that publishing can be the beginning of the journalistic process rather than the end
  • It is transparent and open to challenge – including correction, clarification and addition

The open museum isn’t necessarily tied to technology, though the affordances of digital platforms are clearly related, but perhaps its association with technology is one reason senior managers are reluctant to engage fully with digital methods?

A related question that arose from Hannah’s talk – are museums now in the media business, like it or not? And if our audiences expect museums to be media providers, how do we manage those expectations? (For an alternative model, read David Weinberger’s Library as Platform.)

Emerging themes from UKMW13

I’ve already posted my opening notes for Museums on the Web 2013: ‘Power to the people’ but I want to go back to two questions I was poking around there: ‘how can technologists share our knowledge and experience with others?’, and ‘why isn’t the innovation we know happens in museum technology reflected in reports like last week’s ‘Digital Culture: How arts and cultural organisations in England use technology‘? (Or, indeed, in the genre of patronising articles and blog posts hectoring museums for not using technology.) This seems more relevant than I thought it would be in 2013. Last year I was wondering how to define the membership of the Museums Computer Group when everyone in museums was a bit computer-y, but maybe broad digital literacy and comfort with technology-lead changes in museum practice is further off than I thought. (See also Rachel Coldicutt’s ‘I Say “Digital!”, You Say “Culture!”‘). How do we bridge the gap? Is it just a matter of helping every museum go through the conversations necessary to create a digital strategy and come out the other side? And whose job is it to help museum staff learn how to manage public engagement, ecommerce, procurement, hiring when the digital world changes so quickly?
Another big theme was a reminder of how much is possible when you have technical expertise on hand to translate all the brilliant ideas museums have into prototypes or full products. At one point I jokingly tweeted that the museum and heritage sector would make huge leaps if we could just clone Jim O’Donnell (or the BBC’s R&D staff). Perhaps part of the ‘museums are digitally innovative’/’museums suck at digital’ paradox is that technologists can see the potential of projects and assume that a new standard has been set, but it takes a lot more time and work to get them integrated into mainstream museum practice. Part of this may be because museums struggle to hire and keep really good developers, and don’t give their developers the time or headspace to play and innovate. (Probably one reason I like hackdays – it’s rare to get time to try new things when there is more worthy work than there is developer/technologist time – being inspired at conferences only goes so far when you can’t find a bit of server space and a free day to try something out.) This has also been a theme at the first day at MCN2013, from what I’ve seen on twitter/webcasts from afar, so it’s not only about the budget cuts in the UK. The Digital Culture report suggests that it may also be because senior management in museums don’t know how to value ‘digital experimentation’?

Other, more positive, themes emerged to link various presentations during the day. Community engagement can be hugely rewarding, but it takes resources – mostly staff time – to provide a conduit between the public and the organisation. It also takes a new mindset for content creators, whether journalists, educators or curators to follow the crowds’ lead, but it can be rewarding, whether it’s getting help identifying images from ‘armchair archaeologists’, working with online music communities to save their memories before they’re lost to living memory or representing residents experiences of their city. Both presenters and the audience were quick to raise questions about the ethics of participatory projects and the wider implications of content/item collecting projects and citizen history.

Constraints, scaffolding, the right-sized question or perfectly themed niche collection – whatever you call it, giving people boundaries when asking for contributions is effective. Meaningful participation is valued, and valuable.

Open content enables good things to happen. Digital platforms are great at connecting people, but in-person meetups and conversations are still special.

Finally, one way or another the audience will shape your projects to their own ends, and the audience proved it that day by taking to twitter to continue playing Curate-a-Fact between tea breaks.

We should have a proper archive of all the #UKMW13 tweets at some point, but in the meantime, here’s a quick