The herd, the crowd and the forum - Real participation online

by Pat Hadley

In 1832 philanthropic publisher Charles Knight exalted working-class readers of his Penny Magazine to visit and appreciate the British Museum:

“[H]ere there is nothing to pay. Knock boldly at the gate; the porter will open it … Go on. Do not fear any surly looks … You are upon safe ground here. You are come to see your own property. You have as much right to see it, as the highest in the land.”

The Penny Magazine of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge 1832 p 14

It still thrills me to read this strident Victorian call for participation in cultural and natural history at a museum: we must not forget that, though society is utterly transformed, egalitarian advocates for museums are far from new.

Unfortunately, Knight goes on to remind his audience not to touch, talk loudly, ask questions or take children under eight years-old.

We have definitely come a long, long way to improving museum experiences but, given contemporary expectations, are our means of creating participation and diversifying audiences genuinely better than those in the 1830s?

At a push, I think the answer is; probably. But there is still plenty to learn and plenty to be done to improve how participation works in the arts and heritage (I use ‘museum’ as shorthand for the range of institutions in the sector). Building on Mia Ridge and Helen Weinstein’s post, I want to introduce some concepts that I think are key to successful participatory projects and warn of some potential traps. I’ll throw in as many links as I can, but I hope to be accessible rather than an exhaustive reference.

Participation traps

The sense of losing control felt by museum staff and leaders when creating fully participatory projects is well acknowledged (Daniel Spock on museum authority). There are also potential traps that projects may encounter due to a misunderstanding of their audiences:  which can lead to audiences disengagement with experts, on one hand this comes from too much deference and on the other, through rebellious disrespect. These can be most clearly explained with traditional face-to-face examples and then I’ll explore the added complexities of moving online.

Disengagement through deference

“But you’re the expert!? You tell me!” - Every keen, egalitarian, museum expert who has tried to engage a visitor with questions about an object has encountered this attitude. There are many visitors and online users who struggle with their confidence at openly engaging with cultural material: If the anointed expert from an august institution is claiming not to know the answers, what hope is there for the visitor encountering an object for the first time?

For me, these moments encapsulate a huge amount about the shifts taking place in museums around participation. They are small, symptomatic examples of issues around how museums are perceived, their social roles, the nature of the ‘casual visit’ and the thorny problem of whether museums exist to provide answers or to create questions.

Fundamentally, this issue is about an unproductive attitude to, or perception of, authority. In this case, people’s sense of exclusion from the expertise leads to undue deference. In other circumstances, reactions to that sense of exclusion can be more volatile.

Disengagement through disrespect

Museum projects, open to community comment and interaction, come with inherent risks. Given the opportunity to participate in a museum project, not every individual finds it in themselves to show the respect and care for others that is being extended by the museum - or the deference discussed above.

Online it is frustratingly easy for unhelpful or irrelevant dialogue to dominate. This has even led to an informal maxim ‘Don’t read the comments!’ explored by anthropologists. True ‘trolls’, however, are rare and as the maxim shows, most readers will identify and ignore negative comments. Also, there is plenty of simple advice on dealing with trolls on a personal and institutional level. However, its also worth noticing that those making the comments clearly feel that their views are far from trivial and gain some satisfaction from simply posting them: there is a spectrum between misinformed, well-intentioned irrelevant contributions and the rare examples of truly psychotic ranters. With the right tools and community, users in the former group may be brought around to learning respect and fully engaging. Their abrupt rejection of politeness, good intentions or the validity of the host-sites expertise is the inverse of the undue deference discussed above.

 Avoiding trolls, fostering respect

Fundamentally, the ‘culture’ of any online discussion space, can be (partly) shaped through architecture - like real-life space. Therefore, by creating the tools and resources that attract engaged users and cultivating respect, a site’s operators can do a great deal toward shaping positive interactions. For example, the Mumsnet’s forums, though infamous for their judgemental attacks on celebrities en masse, generally have users who are respectful of one another and keen on providing informative or honest opinions. On Mumsnet anyone can read the forums but only registered users can post. This barrier (user accounts) is well used in this circumstance to ensure that those wishing to participate have made a small investment, are accountable and have signed a user agreement.

Respect, as we all know, has to be mutual. Building it into online participation requires respect from the museum of its users to start with. It’s worth noting that, despite the best intentions, it isn’t always felt by participants: even in face-to-face projects. In Whose cake is it anyway? Bernadette Lynch warns museums of ‘empowerment-lite’ in which tokenistic participation is used to further institutional aims. Rather than respected, community members may often feel used - avoiding this is crucial to projects at any scale, and the only hope for preventing this is to design and manage the framework and it’s initial interactions as equitably as possible.

Shared authority: experts as facilitators

A myriad of outstanding projects exist demonstrating how participation - from square one - can not only increase access, but change attitudes to the arts and heritage. Two offline-focused projects provide core lessons in this context: Waulud’s Bank in Luton and the Homeless Heritage project.

Luton Museum staff were confronted with a problem: a visually unexciting Neolithic henge (stone age earthwork contemporary with Stonehenge) in the middle of a mixed residential area and, in their stores, the finds from the henge’s 1890’s and 1950’s excavations. Rather than simply take the collection and repackage it, stick a sign by one of the footpaths or let the collection gather dust, the team engaged a local year 9 (13-14 year-old) geography class to produce their own designs for a low-cost exhibition and resource pack. They engaged the students as equals and co-curators and avoided fixed ideas of the output (a risky thing on a grant proposal!). Further, they performed a reflexive assessment of the project in summary and detailed evaluation reports. These resources add sustainability to the project at a strategy level, while the exhibition’s re-use keeps refreshing the outputs.

Mike (left) and Rich take a break during Homeless Heritage excavations in York. Student archaeologists and homeless archaeologists working as partners. Credit: Homeless Heritage Project

Mike (left) and Rich take a break during Homeless Heritage excavations in York. Student archaeologists and homeless archaeologists working as partners. Credit: Homeless Heritage Project

The Homeless Heritage project has engaged people almost never reached by arts or heritage institutions; those perhaps least likely to feel welcome or confident in a traditional museum. The project has facilitated homeless people to document their own heritage through mapping, excavation and curation of objects - from crisp packets to 17th century pottery. The project made its participants into experts in homelessness and placed their accounts on equal footing with other historic accounts of their cities (Bristol and York). After initial invitations, participants were given a significant voice in the research agenda of the project at all stages. This inevitably led to tensions but much of the project’s real worth came from the honest discussion of these. The project cumulated with academic articles, on which the homeless participants were given equal author credit, several films and two temporary exhibitions.

Despite their successes on shoestring budgets, it is hard not to notice that both these projects were driven by charismatic, enthusiastic specialists with the courage to challenge norms (Timothy Vickers and Rachael Kiddey respectively). Passion and energy are difficult to extend and maintain beyond projects of this size and we need the lessons from such forerunners to be embedded in wider practice before real participation can be scaled-up across arts and heritage institutions.

Moving online: Crowdsourcing myths

Crowdsourcing has emerged in the last few years as one of the most hyped elements of the social web. Conceived in corporate circles as outsourcing to the crowd - in which the crowd are online and have minimal connection to the host - it is best suited to accomplishing tasks with a high volume of repetitive steps that can be easily distributed amongst a huge ‘workforce’.

Though it may be used to perform tasks - such as tagging documents with author’s names - hosts may be more interested in user’s ideas or creations and the results might be used to shape marketing or product development. It is concieved of in the service of a commercial goal, rather than for user's benefits.

Image of the Mechanical Turk from a copper engraving by Karl Gottlieb von Windisch's (1783). Public Domain - Source

Image of the Mechanical Turk from a copper engraving by Karl Gottlieb von Windisch's (1783). Public Domain - Source

This brings us to another bit of history: the Mechanical Turk. This chess-playing automaton wowed Europe and America, beating all challengers. However, it relied on clever cabinets to hide chess masters that would operate the machine: a hoax! In 2005, Jeff Bezos of took the name ( for an online service that would connect big businesses with thousands of human brains to perform repetitive tasks not yet solvable by computers (categorizing complex images, writing captions and so on). ‘Artificial artificial intelligence’ is the slogan that captures the process very well. Google’s reCAPTCHA service which provides website security whilst digitizing books operates at a similar level.

Online ‘Participation-lite’?

Both services are object lessons in using the web to create and maintain distance from users whilst using their skills for a central, controlling institution. It is the most shallow and tokenistic form of participation and the opposite of what many museums intend. However, its outputs are easy to anticipate, measure, use and build upon - for those not wanting to take risks when planning online participation it can be tempting to limit the scope for interactions.

For example, the British Library have crowdsourced the georeferencing of scanned maps (BL Georeferencing project), the Bodleian have a project describing musical scores (What’s the score?) and the V&A are doing well with a project allowing users to select better images for their online catalogue (V&A crowdsourcing).

However, none of these projects allowed users to engage one another. Indeed, they limit users engagement to a single process with the material and are completely determined by institutional objectives. The projects’ values should not be underestimated but neither should they be over-hyped as fully participatory, if the participants have no voice in the shape of the project.

These, etter projects can be seen within the Zooniverse framework (although this also contains the Bodleian score project) many of which allow users to engage one another, discuss the material, share it beyond Zooniverse (to social media sites) and learn together about the material they are collectively annotating, describing or improving. Benefit gained by these users is ancillary to the institutional objectives, although there is an understanding that access to a community is a motivation for many participations.

Some of these projects clearly have demonstrable success at ‘harnessing the crowd’ - but they do exactly that: treat users like domestic animals to be exploited for their labour. Very few put users engagement or benefit on equal footing with institutional aims or allow audiences any input, let alone control over the aims themselves.

Steps in the right direction

Three key elements: permeability, sustainability, scalability

To facilitate more effective participation, especially online, there are three concepts on which any project must be founded.

The first of these - permeability - is about creating projects which are outward-looking rather than walled-in and fixed. This means thinking through potential partners and participants carefully, they may be found where least expected. Engaging with ambassadors outside the sector and building upon their knowledge is often an excellent first step. Online, technological steps toward permeability include enabling social media share buttons on all content, enabling commenting and feedback and good cross-linking.

More fundamentally a permeable project enables the repurposing of it’s content and methodology in order to be reused, built-upon and remixed by users both during the project’s lifespan and for its legacy. This is virtually impossible without some form of open licensing such as  Creative Commons (CC), necessitating a well-thought-out approach to the intellectual property involved in the collections and their sharing. It is worth noting, however that consensus is moving toward proactive open licensing across much of  the sector. Evidence is accumulating to show that open licensing has no negative impact on the sale of images (Rijksmuseum case study, Museums & the Web report, list of institutions using CC).

All the learning in the sector shows that what is fundamental to the participatory success of a project is that a bigger resource commitment is required in making staff time available for engaging online audiences directly through social aspects of internal web spaces or third party social media. This has to be integrated as a fundamental aspect of the project and is obviously a big demand on over-stretched curatorial or educational staff and may require people to learn new technological skills. However, it is hard to underestimate how profound a shift this might be able to facilitate for a museums digital presence. For a member of the public (or interested colleague) the gap between a museum’s homepage and a staff-led blog (eg, Inside the Museum of London) or project wiki (eg, Smithsonian Web and New Media Strategy Wiki) is much smaller than the one between its front door and basement storerooms! Beyond single organisations, national and international participatory projects become possible. For example, #askacurator and the Day of Archaeology demonstrated hundreds of the wonderful stories and ideas that can be told by people whose jobs normally keep them behind the scenes. Permeability, therefore, is about organisational transparency and building skills, confidence and infrastructure that enable two-way communication throughout a project and organisation.

Sustainability has become such a buzzword in environmental and social policy that it’s regularly ridiculed (my favourite). However, the idea’s utility comes from opposing the idea of growth for growth’s sake and resisting the creation of shiny, new projects with fleeting outcomes and no long-term public impact.

From this perspective, sustainability takes many of the ideas necessary to make a project permeable and extends them over time - particularly beyond the active lifespan of a project. Digital preservation is fundamental to this and open licencing should be considered as part of this issue. Philosophically, a view to sustainability requires creating scope for future interactions and reuse and deciding how to record the intangible or transient elements of a project (such as performances or workshops). Deciding how, what and why to preserve ancient things is at the core of museum thinking but terrifying anecdotes about poor recording of projects or daily practice are legion. Good sustainability comes in many forms: the Science Museum (London, UK) lidar-scanning a beloved gallery before a refit. The Waalud’s Henge reflexive assessment discussed above appears basic and obvious but gives scope for a local project to inform the wider sector. Ideally, every element of the project, data, media, reflection, analysis will remain open and accessible in order to be reused and remixed as a building block of future projects.

At the Smithsonian Institution wrangling 20 public-facing institutions into the digital universe has taken a great deal of thought about scale (their report on the process: Best of Both Worlds). In fact, their head of strategy Michael Edson has been known to perform a poem on the subject! Planning for scale is a big challenge. Scalability means that a volunteer-created spreadsheet of information on a collection of Victorian china really ought to exist in a database which could record compatible information about Haida totem-poles. Scalability means that this database should be as stable containing 100 objects or several million. It also means that this information should be accessible online, globally and not just through a museums own site but through aggregators such as Europeana.

Even larger institutions struggle to get sufficient IT support to implement this sort of thing with core collections, let alone small museums working on shoe-string, volunteer-led projects. Further, when commercial firms are paid to provide such services there are risks of getting ‘locked-in’ to software that isn’t actually designed for scalability.

Scalable systems are a major investment but can affect every aspect of a museum’s work. For the volunteer participants recording the imaginary Victorian china above, scalability can mean a great deal. Rather than logging information into notebooks or spreadsheets, these enthusiasts can become part of a global inter-connected network analysing ceramics collections and creating data that can be used in a myriad more ways.

Sources of inspiration

Some readers may have noticed that the three principles above - permeability, sustainability and scalability - are at the core of one of the most positive and disruptive movements of the internet age: Open Source Software. This movement has created tectonic shifts in computing, utterly changing the way software is created and sold - even in the still solidly commercial sector. The ideas, ideology and mechanics of Open Source (for a anthropology/history see Chris Kelty’s Two Bits) are also embraced by a project based around knowledge. Early computing also took an ancient name ‘forum’ for the spaces in which projects were discussed - often chaotic spaces in which participation is paramount.

The sorts of knowledge - cultural, historic, scientific - which are at the core of institutions such as museums. This project is, of course, Wikipedia. Everyone’s favourite first-step resource has a natural affinity with the public-knowledge aims of museums and has fascinating scope for fostering participation.

In order to help negotiate relationships between the sector and wikipedia’s editors, a project known as GLAMwiki (Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums). By working with GLAMwiki museums can make great strides toward integrating these three principles into their knowledge-sharing strategies. There are a range of model projects covering text, data, images and multimedia and huge scope for reaching new and diverse audiences.

However, as a participatory tool GLAMwiki is less obvious - precisely because of it’s permeability, sustainability and scalability. Fostering participation through Wikipedia is completely unlike the small, face-to-face projects typified by Homeless Heritage and Waalud’s Bank. To use a crude metaphor, traditional, onsite participation projects are zoo-based studies of animal behaviour, interacting with the wilds of the internet is just that - tagging animals and setting them free.

One favourite example of this is from the Dutch Tropenmuseum (Tropical Museum). Which released nearly 50 thousand rights-free images onto Wikimedia Commons in 2009. Many of these are naturally of former Dutch colonies, particularly Malaysia and Indonesia, leading curators to debate the possibility that sharing these online was neocolonial. However, the statistics show that it is actually Malay and Indonesian language Wikipedias that are by far the biggest users of the images. This means that the thousands of articles which use Tropenmuseum images were processed, discussed and thought about by groups of Wikipedians across the world. To me, there seems to very little that could involve more sophisticated participation in a collection.

Further, one example stands out for me as a perfect example of what sharing on Wikipedia (and these principles generally) can achieve.

‘Diana’ (foreground) and ‘Retvisan’. Russian Navyships in the harbor of Sabang on the island Weh (1903) - C.B. Nieuwenhuis. From the collections of the Tropen Museum of the Royal Tropical Institute (KIT). Hosted on Wikimedia Commons

This mildly diverting image of early 20th century ships languished in the Tropenmuseum’s archive with no details beyond a year and a place name. This is all it was annotated with when uploaded in November 2009. By the end of December Wikimedia Commons user and (apparent) naval history enthusiast Alexpl had made tentative identifications of the two ships, enabling the images to be used on the ship’s own Wikipedia pages in multiple languages. Almost a year later, user Freekc34 adds the name of the photographer. Connecting the photograph with the rest of C.B. Niewenhuis’ work available on the site - most of which is also from the Tropenmuseum.

By August 2013 two users have also made the effort to do some photo-retouching.

In all, the photo has gone from being an abandoned, unusable image in a dusty storeroom to an informative and evocative image at the nexus of a number of stories: Two warships, full of Russians far from home. The Retvisan was built in Philadelphia and is on its way to its final battle at Port Arthur. It illustrates the history of the harbor (for both the French and Malay Wikipedias) and it is a point in the life and work of the photographer. Unfortunately, C.B. Niewenhuis has yet to be covered (beyond the basics) on any Wikipedia, but it’s surely just a matter of time. Maybe someone reading this will do it!?

From one perspective, the Tropenmuseum example could be seen as a crowdsourcing case: getting disparate volunteers to do work curators have no resources for. However, I find it much more inspiring to think of each of the moments at which readers became editors and thereby participated in a history that began more than a century before. The best part is, there are now massively fewer barriers to this image (and the rest) being used in a myriad of other circumstances.

Online, it may be harder to measure and experience participants engaging in a museum’s materials (and long may direct contact continue!) but the freedom creates fantastic spaces for serendipity. Open, online participation is the next step in relinquishing unnecessary control - the digital equivalent of a sign which says ‘Please touch!’ and takes the spirit of Charles Knight’s 1840’s exultation into the twenty-first century.