Clash of the networks

With the opening of the Facebook Platform a war has broken out, with the two sides aligned with similar views to the ones we talked about at Museums and the Web.

On the one hand is MySpace, the rambling, ugly behemoth with over 100 million accounts, a closed database of users and no API. On the other – now – is Facebook: a mere 20 million users and as of just recently, an API and developer network.

The MySpace approach is closed – almost fascistic, in fact – the experience is entirely to be had within the bounds of the MySpace website. No Flash can be embedded. No widgets which haven’t been authored by MySpace themselves. No data can travel in, out or around the application.

This is (museum) website 1.0. The user experience is there, on the site, with known edges, known paths. It is comfortable, comforting, understood – and ultimately flawed. The Facebook way is markedly different. Obviously it’s primarily a social network, and many hundreds of thousands of users will remain there and move around the site within this framework, never knowing what else is behind the scenes. But now, it’s also going to mutate into many other things – unknown, weird, wonderful, creative things. With a strong API, the data is set free. Yes, it’s true, the API only allows development of applications within the Facebook walls, but it’s a huge head-start.

The reason I believe this works is because this is how people use the web. We pillage images, sounds, text. We remix, mash, rehash, copy, paste. Who here hasn’t sourced stuff from the web and re-used it for a presentation, a talk, a blog post? More to the point, who hasn’t seen the power of this way of working: blog comments, flickr images, google docs…?

MySpace has always been an anomaly to me. I posted about it on the old Electronic Museum website when I questioned that this horrendous beast – ugly, inaccessible, hard to use, terrible to navigate – should be so damn popular. The answer of course is that MySpace could probably be anything at all, but has a critical mass which ensures its continuing success. Most users don’t give a crap about an API, so why should MySpace care?

Well, according to TechCrunch the questions aren’t just about some academic “in an ideal world, data should be free” position. One application launched just a few days ago using the Facebook API now has nearly 400,000 users.

It’ll be very, very interesting to see what happens next. As Josh Kopelman says in his blog:

Facebook has recognized (and embraced) something that Myspace has not – that there is more value in owning a web platform then a web property.”

When are museums truly going to start recognising that we should start building platforms rather than properties?

11 thoughts on “Clash of the networks”

  1. While I srongly agree with yr position Mike, I have to go some of the way with Nick P on this: most museums struggle to get the basics right, so to embrace the move to ‘web as platform’ is asking quite a lot of a rather ‘traditional’ sector.

    I can see that science museums and centres are often going to be the innovators here – and its great to have such innovation.

    I’d like to see the beginnings of a nationwide platform that smaller museums can use to take advantage of some of this stuff , without needing in-house tech skills. Technically it is not such a challenge; funding and politics – wise I refer you to Nick. To paraphrase and ‘tweak’ him – should we suffer a 2 year lack of distributed development funds so a focus can be brougt to this issue at a national level?

  2. Mike…I’m on contentious ground here – and actually this is a post in itself – but I’ll push it a little bit.

    I think one of the inherent problems with our sector is that we don’t actually push ourselves nearly hard enough. We see issues where often there are none; we wait for huge batches of funding when actually that funding isn’t needed; we build contingency and costs into every turn when in reality things can be done for free or for cheap.

    This is the basis to my perspective on innovation. We miss opportunity because we, in many ways, aren’t naive enough. We have lost the ability to just try things, fail at some, win at others.

    Some would argue that this kind of risky undertaking is not the domain of museums. I’d argue that this is exactly the kind of space we should be occupying. As well – of course – as the “classic” best practice stuff that we’re already good at.

    Back to the point. Imagine for example if every site funded by the NOF digitise project had gone one tiny step further and provided their search results in XML. This is maybe half a days worth of technical work: literally a new template for displaying results and object data. Think about what an opportunity that would have been for developers out there looking for fabulous, real data. How much use would our digitised material have had by now?

    I think the idea about a nationwide platform is a great one. The idea about a 2 year moratorium on development is the worst idea I’ve heard in some time 🙂

  3. Without returning to the cynicism of my latter days in the sector (!), I think the technical skills you mention are _not_widely distributed enough in the sector to make the sector ‘push itself’. They do exist of course, but many I’ve spoken to over the years are far to busy running round madly just keeping what they have online going and either do not have the time or are not given the remit to experiment.

    Are you advocating some form of R&D time for museum tech staff? Not even at the NHM did we have the luxury of that (outside of our own time). Maybe some form of UKMW SIG would be an idea?

    BTW I totally agree about NOF. I remember giving a talk on CMS to them in the early days of the program and distinctly rememeber covering metadata and interoperability. Trouble is it never seemed to be a deliverable / KPI and therefore was not done. We (NHM) did create an xml content feed that allows us to interoperate at the species level with the ARKive site.

  4. I absolutely agree about a nationwide platform.

    I also think we should encourage smaller museums to use existing social software applications to ‘dip a toe in the water’ and see what happens when they publish their content. They can start small, ‘release early and often’, and monitor usage. It doesn’t mean that they should chase the zeitgeist, but it does mean they must feel empowered to experiment.

    The technical skills to push the boundaries might not be present in all museums; but the sector should provide guidance for smaller museums who put technical development out to tender on what should be expected from outsourced development in terms of re-usable content and technologies to support that.

  5. I love the last line of this post. I’m coming at this as an inherently non-tech person who dabbles in tech ideas. I think there are lots of ways that museums can become platforms that are not inherently web-based. The social web is a great proving ground for the popularity and success of user-generated content, social networks, open platforms, mashups–a whole slew of things. But in museums, being a platform can mean modular exhibit design. It can mean reframing educators as community leaders and event organizers. It can mean tapping visitors for their own artifacts, stories, and connections.

    To me, the problem is that most of the people who are dreaming 2.0 in museums are tech people, not exhibit designers, educators, and development folks. Which means the focus and projects get pigeonholed into the web division, instead of encouraging institution-wide innovation and change. The museum leaders feel like that’s “web stuff” and leave it aside, instead of thinking about how it can impact the museum more broadly. It’s our task, as the dreamers, to spread the vision more broadly so everyone can own and apply it.

  6. You’re absolutely right, Nina – and in many ways the approaches which I’m encouraging are about embracing these ways of working outside the more “traditional” (ha!) lines of “just the web”. One of the things I’ve worked on for the past few years at the Science Museum for example is the integration of a Content Managament System. Yes, it’s tech, but the concept – reuse of content around the organisation for *everything* from exhibition design to web to kiosk to finance department to designed flyers to – well, you name it…. is very much about a holistic approach to this content. Web 2 is a part of the whole mix – more Museum 2.0 than Web 2.0.

    The frustration of being “just those geeks” is felt on the tech side of the fence too. Developers are having biiiiig ideas which often aren’t about the web on its own, but they often struggle for representation outside of their own teams. If I were to take a rather more defensive standpoint on this (it’s been known..), I’d say that actually it’s high time that museums recognised that the web – and the approach which the web encourages – is not just a sidelined bolt-on to what they do. Instead it should be a *core* part of what they do. The days of “this is at the museum, better put it on the website” should be long gone, replaced instead by curated online experiences where content authors use and understand the medium as effectively as our “real” exhibition spaces.


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