Where should social networking 'live'?

Chris Anderson says social networking is a feature, not a destination:

Right now the world is focused on stand-alone social networking sites, especially Facebook and MySpace, and the fad of the moment is to take brands and services there, as companies build Facebook apps and MySpace pages in a bid to follow the audience wherever they happen to be. But at the same time there's a growing sense that elements of social networking is something all good sites should have, not just dedicated social networks. And that suggests a very different strategy–social networking as a feature, not a destination.

So far, so good – but Chris Anderson's day job is at Wired, which is definitely a destination site with a huge audience. Cultural heritage sites are useful for a range of people, but I suspect most people stumble across our content incidentally, through search engines and external links – they don't think "I'll spend my lunch break browsing the Museum of Whatever's website".

But another of his projects is much smaller so the issues are more relevant to the cultural heritage sector:

So we've been debating internally whether we want to shift to a distributed functionality strategy (AKA "go where the people are"), where most users interact with us via a widget on third party sites, clicking through to our site only when they want to go deeper. We're embarking on some experiments with a few partners we like to see how that goes. Hopefully a distributed strategy will help us reach critical mass as a destination, too, but right now we're simply experimenting to see what works.

I think focused sites that serve niche communities will extract the best lessons from Facebook and MySpace and offer better social networking tools to the communities they already have. I'm sure huge and generic social networking destinations will continue to do well, but I'm placing my bet on the biggest impact coming when social networking becomes a standard feature on all good sites, bringing community to the granular level where it always works best.

So how would this work for us? Would our visitors gather around specific institutions, around institutional collections, around meta-collections that span several institutions, or around the sector as a whole? Would they, for example, gather around a site like Exploring 20th Century London, which has a very specific temporal and regional focus? Or are these potential users already on sites that meet their needs, at least to some extent? Our collections will inevitably still form a valuable resource for discussion, no matter where that discussion takes place.

Who knows? I think it'll be fun finding out.

I keep meaning to post about Ning. As the post above says, "Ning is not a destination itself–instead, it provides hosted social networking tools for niche sites to create their own destinations."

It could be a useful tool for smaller organisations who want to get into social software but don't have the means to build their hosts or applications, or for small ad hoc team working.

Two unrelated posts I've liked recently, on Navigators, Explorers, and Engaged Participants as user models; and going back to basics for digital museum content:

We don't need new technologies to attract teen audiences, we need, if anything, to revisit how we (and others) interpret our collections and ideas and then decide what new technologies can best convey the information

The New York Times on what the American public want in a history museum, and some discussion of the value of multimedia and interactive exhibitions:

if memorizing dates and place names hold little appeal, history museums still rate very highly with the American public. "What people say they’re excited about in terms of history museums is contact with real stuff of the past,” he explained.

They also want to find themselves — spiritually, socially and intellectually — among all that material

"In the visitation research that's been done for many years," Ms. Davis said, "the thing that we hear most is that people want to see something about themselves and that they trust information the museums are giving them even more than they trust what schools are telling them and even the stories their grandmothers are telling them.

"People want to see themselves in the exhibit. And the research done at individual museums suggests that when they do find themselves there, they fare much better."

All fair enough. But the article concludes with a quote, "The greatest danger is not that people get a version of history that is dramatized. It's that people don't pay attention to the past at all" but to me that contradicts the responsibility museums have as trusted institutions. The stories we present should be real; if they're not real, both the sources and the areas of fabrication or uncertainty should be clear.

History’s Real Stuff (Sorry, Miss Grundy)

Funding for major heritage projects to be slashed by £60m

Lottery money for major heritage projects in Britain is set to fall to £20m a year, down from £80m last year. … The most important reason for the cuts is the London Olympics. Originally HLF was set to lose £143m to help finance the games, but last March a further £90m was taken, making a total of £233m up until 2012.

From The Art Newspaper.

In the same edition of The Art Newspaper, Giles Waterfield, former adviser and a trustee of the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) asks "What will happen to Britain’s museums now?":

The HLF is—or has been—the only body in this country capable of making multi-million awards to museums for building projects or acquisitions.

While the Fund will continue to play an important role as a funder, as a result of pressure from the Olympics it will become just one more organisation dispensing helpful, but not crucial, sums to a great variety of bodies including museums. A highly efficient and discriminating funding mechanism is being junked.

England's DCMS never has the funds to make major grants, and apparently never will. The situation is highly ironic since the Blair administration has loved grand gestures such as the Millennium Dome and now the Olympics. Museums, clearly, are not big enough to excite Government interest, in spite of the huge numbers of visitors they attract. While this Government has been quite generous in funding running costs for national museums, over acquisitions and capital projects they have sheltered behind the Lottery. Asked for financial support, whether for building projects or acquisitions, the Department refers applicants to the large and generous body which until lately has dispensed over £300m per annum: the HLF. Well, no longer.


The next decade looks to be a dim one for British museums: let's hope the Olympics will show that the sacrifice was worthwhile.

Severe cuts in UK cultural heritage as funding diverted to the 2012 Olympics

While there's good news for the Museum of London, overall the cultural heritage sector in the UK is about to suffer. As the 24 Hour Museum puts it:

While the round of government grants, now in its sixth year, is welcomed by the country's museums and galleries, trepidation still hangs in the air as severe cuts are due to come into force in Heritage Lottery and Arts Council funding.

The main reason for this is money being diverted for the Olympics – the HLF has lost £233m to the Olympic fund up to 2012.

Lottery grants for projects exceeding £5 million have been slashed from £80 million in 2006/07 to half that in 2007/08, and to £20 million in 2008/09. Big handouts have helped projects like the £10m York Minster restoration this year, but commentators say hard decisions will have to be made over future applications of the same significance. The HLF budget for smaller projects has also been reduced.

From DCMS Wolfson Fund Announces £4m For Museums And Galleries.

This will only be relevant to the archaeologists, I guess, but it has occurred to me to ask – what would you like to see in the Catalhoyuk archive reports? What information would either be useful or satisfy your curiosity?

In a wider sense, what can we (as IT geeks in the cultural heritage sector) learn from each other? What are we too scared to ask in case it's a stupid question, or because it seems too obscure? What don't we share because we assume that everyone else knows it already?

A recent Alertbox talked about Banner Blindness: Old and New Findings:

The most prominent result from the new eyetracking studies is not actually new. We simply confirmed for the umpteenth time that banner blindness is real. Users almost never look at anything that looks like an advertisement, whether or not it's actually an ad.

The heatmaps also show how users don't fixate within design elements that resemble ads, even if they aren't ads

I guess the most interesting thing about the post is that it acknowledges that unethical methods attract the most eyeballs:

In addition to the three main design elements that occasionally attract fixations in online ads, we discovered a fourth approach that breaks one of publishing's main ethical principles by making the ad look like content:

  • The more an ad looks like a native site component, the more users will look at it.
  • Not only should the ad look like the site's other design elements, it should appear to be part of the specific page section in which it's displayed.

This overtly violates publishing's principle of separating "church and state" — that is, the distinction between editorial content and paid advertisements should always be clear. Reputable newspapers don't allow advertisers to mimic their branded typefaces or other layout elements.

I think it's particularly important that we don't allow commercial considerations to damage our users' trust in cultural heritage institutions as repositories of impartial* knowledge. We've developed models for differentiating user- and museum-generated content and hopefully quelled fears about user-generated content somehow damaging or diluting museum content; it would be a shame if we lost that trust over funding agreements.

* insert acknowledgement of the impossibility of truly impartial cultural content.

More on the F word

I was thinking about all the fuss in the cultural heritage sector about Facebook on various museum-y discussion lists at the moment, and thought perhaps the off-line equivalent would be posts saying

"I've discovered this place where lots of young people hang out, interacting with each other in a really natural way. The thing is, institutions can't go there, only individuals. But this place is full of audiences we want to reach. So how can we engage with this new-fangled 'pub' thing?".

I guess what I'm asking is, is Facebook 'fit for [our] purpose' or are we just chasing it for the same reason marketers love youth social networking sites – it's a place where a hard-to-reach demographic hang out.

With that in mind, here's what Facebook does well:

…just how intrinsic the use of Facebook is today among younger scholars – grad students and junior faculty – in their scholarship and teaching. Facebook, for now, is often the place where they work, collaborate, share, and plan. Grad students may run student projects using Facebook groups; they may communicate amongst each other in inter-institutional (multi-university) research projects; they may announce speakers and special events to their communities.

I've been enmeshed recently in increasingly agonized conferences that concern themselves with "re-thinking scholarly communication" and grappling with understanding what tools might be used to facilitate new models of peer review, or facilitate research collaboration, or teaching — and all the while – of course – it has been happening anyway, using widely available tools that provide the flexibility and leverage that scholars have been seeking.

And here's why it's relevant to the cultural heritage sector:

…regardless of the ultimate fate of Facebook, the set of characteristics that it has established – the sense of community; user control over the boundedness of openness; support for fine grained privacy controls; the ability to form ad-hoc groups with flexible administration; integration and linkage to external data resources and application spaces through a liberal and open API definition; socially promiscuous communication – these will be carried with us into future environments as expectations for online communities.

From Working in Facebook, O'Reilly rader.

Exposing the layers of history in cityscapes

I really liked this talk on "Time, History and the Internet" because it touches on lots of things I'm interested in.

I have a on-going fascination with the idea of exposing the layers of history present in any cityscape.

I'd like to see content linked to and through particular places, creating a sense of four dimensional space/time anchored specifically in a given location. Discovering and displaying historical content marked-up with the right context (see below) gives us a chance to 'move' through the fourth dimension while we move through the other three; the content of each layer of time changing as the landscape changes (and as information is available).

Context for content: when was it written? Was it written/created at the time we're viewing, or afterwards, or possibly even before it about the future time? Who wrote/created it, and who were they writing/drawing/creating it for? If this context is machine-readable and content is linked to a geo-reference, can we generate a representation of these layers on-the-fly?

Imagine standing at the base of Centrepoint at London's Tottenham Court Road and being able to ask, what would I have seen here ten years ago? fifty? two hundred? two thousand? Or imagine sitting at home, navigating through layers of historic mapping and tilting down from a birds eye view to a view of a street-level reconstructed scene. It's a long way off, but as more resources are born or made discoverable and interoperable, it becomes more possible.