“Can I find it on Google?”

Let’s ask this: Just what do museum website users want?

Actually, before we do that, the biggest question is “who is our audience?”.

Wait. Before we do that, let’s assume that – what – 70-80% of museum website users want to find out some logistical stuff: “what’s on? how do I get there? how much is it?”. Let’s assume that this bit is solved with a page or two of dull but useful information. Let’s ignore the 70-80%. They’re boring. There’s only so much you can do with a map and some opening times, right?

Now let’s consider the other stuff – the content – the collections, the exhibition stories, the richness. Just who are these people, what do they want, and where do they come from?

Determining audiences for museum websites is a slippery game which generally involves phrases like “lifelong learners” (everyone) or “educators” (teachers, parents, children – oh wait, everyone) or just “everyone”.

I’m being slightly mean, and actually the definitions are a little bit better than that, but still there is an underlying tension which is something to do with deeper questions about success, publicity, depth of resources, marketing, integrity – and that horrible, horrible phrase which frequently does the rounds: dumbing down.

When a curator oversees a website, for instance, he or she often fights the dumbing down thing tooth and nail. Curators are about depth, about academic rigour and cleverness. Curators aren’t (often) about publicity, traffic, sound-bites and volume. This is fine, and museums should be about quality and richness and integrity. If it wasn’t for this, they wouldn’t be the respected institutions that they have become.

The problem is that museums online want (and increasingly need) to be mainstream, too. We see Flickr and Facebook and Google and viral marketing and Twitter and….[etc] and, frankly, we want some ‘o’ that. And the tension there becomes more intense. Can you build traffic and volume and virality online and still manage to “not be dumb”? Can these deep, rich, academically sound experiences also be mainstream? Is – getting to the crux of the question – a mainstream user shallow or deep?

One of the big, enduring discussions, for example, is about how Google provides search into museum collections. Museum people tend to twitch if you suggest they should focus on exposing their collections sites to SEO best principles and forget the in-house search (or even just stick their stuff on Wikipedia and forget the whole in-house piece altogether), because they say that Google doesn’t provide the granularity that is required. For some researchers – those who want to find out the year an object was invented or the country of origin, for example – this lack of granularity is indeed a problem. For many others – those who just want a picture of any old steam engine for their desktop or wherever – it isn’t.

Balancing this requirement / audience / success equation is in itself a game. The best solution (do both) is clearly the answer, but many institutions fail to realise this, tending to focus on arcane in-house terms and interfaces rather than trying to find ways of building SEO via common content entrance points like Google. It becomes a user interface question, yes, but it is also about much bigger-picture strategic issues about success.

What each museum needs to decide is what this success looks like. And if – as is usually the case – success is about museums becoming more used, more embedded in people’s lives, more human – then success is, frankly, about Google. There, I said it. Where else does anyone begin a search for – well, anything? Do we really think that people come to museums to begin their search? Really?

So success – in the case of Europeana, for example – seems to me to be about asking the question: “can I find Europeana stuff on Google?”, not “can I find Europeana stuff on Europeana?”. When I’m looking for information on Leopold Mozart, I’m not – ever – going to start my search on one of our individual museum sites or any of the aggregators, federators or whotsitators that have been developed, including Europeana. I’m going to Google. Firstly, because I clearly don’t know who knows stuff on Mozart’s father and I can’t go there if I don’t have that specialised bit of information yet (and Google (currently) provides the single best starting point for my query); but secondly, because Google is there as my homepage, a hook in my Chrome browser search bar and as a known entity in my consciousness. Why would I start my search looking at detail in a single book when I’ve got access to general information about the whole library?

This is grandmother / eggs for many people working in museums, but I’m not sure it is as obvious to the big projects we’ve seen emerging from the museum sector. For some of these projects, specialised audiences are their success, in which case local approaches do work better. But for the majority, success is increasingly about making enough SEO noise for more general audiences.

And is this “dumbing down”? Yes, I suspect it probably is.

For the webs2, please follow the crowd

The last talk I gave – in December 2008 – was at Online Information and titled “What does Web2.0 DO for us?”.

Here are the slides (my third slide deck to get “homepaged” on slideshare…yay…):

[slideshare id=812457&doc=whatdoesweb2doforusmikeellisv12-1228296734998366-8&w=425]

This one was attempting to focus on Web2.0 in the Enterprise. Frankly, “The Enterprise” is a subject which fills me with fear, dread and trepidation, but the movement of Web2.0 into that space is probably inevitable as sales teams around the world spot another opportunity and sell it out to cash-rich bods wanting to “be innovative” in the name of their behemoth of a company. It’ll be interesting to watch.

The talk was popular, which I’m pleased about. Online Information is a funny old conference – the halls are stacked with basically the same company replicated about 200 times: reasonably bad CMS systems with reasonably bad sales people trying to sell to a reasonably badly informed market of people. I sound over-rude, but I have to be honest – I last went in about 2003 and absolutely nothing has changed. Which can’t be good in the tech field, right?

My slides were supposed to be about one thing (why the social web is important in “The Enterprise”, and why “The Enterprise” should take it seriously) – in the end, I actually focused on why “web2” is important to people rather than as a “thing” in abstract. I see the connecting of people with other people as reason for believing in the social web as a sound platform upon which to build any content. I believe this engagement is key to bringing (heritage) content to the foreground; furthermore, I think that even though web2.0 has been hyped to death, we should continue to believe in what “the social web” means. Mainly, we should believe this because the social web is about people and connections and as such has enormous importance to us as social, connected animals. 

One of the problems with talking about “Web2.0” is that the phrase carries an implicit weight with it: as soon as there is a count attached, you’re naturally looking for the current one to expire – for “Web2” to be replaced by “Web3” and shortly after that, “Web4”. Useful though “Web2.0” is as a phrase, I’m with the commentators now who suggest we talk about “the web”, or – my preference – “the social web”. Not because it is any less important, but because it is more so.

Incidentally, earlier today I was researching some stuff for a keynote I’m due to give in The Hague later in February (more details soon…) and used Google Trends to check on the phrase “web2.0”. It’s interesting to note that it reached its peak during q4 2007, and has since dropped off in popularity: 

 

Web2.0 on Google Trends

You’ll see immediately that this follows the Gartner Hype Curve prediction (or at least the beginning of it) – it’ll be interesting to watch in the coming months and years how the curve settles into a dampened “plateau of productivity”. (I’d also be interested if anyone can figure out why there is a gap between 2004 when O’Reilly first mentioned the phrase and mid-2005…)

For the graph junkies, here’s the same period for the phrase “social web”:

 

"Social Web" on Google Trends

So. That’s the hype. Maybe now we can get on with producing some astonishing, user-focused content..

It’s FOWA time again

I’m off to Future of Web Apps tomorrow. It’s (I think) my fourth year, but I could well have miscounted, what with getting old and all. Unfortunately, I can’t make it up until late on Thursday, but the schedule on Friday looks better anyway, so better that way round I guess.

FOWA is usually a good one to go to – a kind of chalk to the cheese that are standard museum/HE get-togethers. Wheras the latter tend to be fairly cautious, slightly academic affairs, FOWA is usually stuffed to the hilt with VC-funded 17 year-olds just waiting to be bought by Google or for the next bubble to explode and dash their dreams on the rocks of inevitability.

Having got the bitterness out of the way (I’m fookin 35 ffs, and STILL don’t have any VC funding 🙂 ), I usually come away from FOWA with a fair amount of enthusiasm for the world of web apps and what they have to offer. To be honest, right now I could do with some of that enthusiasm – I’m slightly feeling that the stuff we’re seeing right now is all pretty transient, non-game-changing stuff; technology that is funded just because somebody somewhere needs to fund something, and not because useful things are actually being built.

It’s stuff like sw0p (by my new friend and BathCamp helper extraordinaire, Darren Beale) that is getting me excited right now: web apps that solve real problems like “shit, we throw away a lot of stuff” rather than “hey, another twitter AIR app…”.

If I’m perfectly honest (and REALLY not wanting to do the media thing and fan the flames of fear..), it all feels a bit pre-burst right now. But I’ll let you all know on Friday once I’ve heard and schmoozed and mingled.

Webnoise

A lot of rumbling about the noise created by the (social) web has been reaching our ears recently. I’m not in this instance talking about the management of “outgoing” social media but more about how people deal with the sheer quantity of stuff which is arriving through various channels. The news feeds, tweets, emails, IM – all are part of the incoming stream. Then of course there are conversations with people in the real world (gasp!), paper-based print, TV and so on.

Fundamental, of course, to any conversation about technology is that you are ultimately destined to fail, if you’re hoping to know everything. I’ve been following the conversation at a sprint for more than ten years now and like to think that I’ve got a reasonably good grasp of the web technologies out there, but it doesn’t take a genius to recognise that the speed of change is so intense that we’re all going to get left behind sooner or later. Those who have tried particularly hard to keep up have suffered because of it – Om Malik’s heart attack and the death of Russell Shaw are pretty well publicised. While much of the media are swinging off in what is obviously ridiculous “blogging kills you” type directions, there are still some lessons. We’re all getting older (goddamit) and sooner or later we’ll be that “back in the days of X command-line interface, when the world was rosy” IT bod in meetings. Get used to it. I’m almost there already – remember the…NO, STOP..

There’s a tendency I’ve noticed when some are faced with this craziness: ostrich the problem. The argument is articulated like this: “With so much noise, maybe we’d be better off just not doing anything“. It’s either a conscious decision, or a rabbit-stuck-in-headlights paralysis. Either way, to me it’s always been the most spurious of positions to take. To steal and adapt (CC-styley!) a well-known phrase:

“where there is noise, there is signal”

Choosing to actively run away from the noise – to “not do the social web because it’s too noisy” is a hugely perverse argument. Yes, there is noise and hype…no, Twitter probably won’t last..no, you shouldn’t be on Facebook just because you can…but the point as far as I see it is this: the social web has signal far above the hype: signal far stronger than the noise, provided you can take a step backwards and look at the direction of travel rather than the individual paths being walked. The social web is important because it lets us connect, not because it lets us tweet.

There’s no doubt that the noise is intense – unfiltered, it is way more than most of us can cope with. Here’s a (probably incomplete) list of my current inputs. Every one of them is a stream of information but also a potential distraction, red herring, attention-grabber, too:

email (Outlook), email (Gmail), twitter (via twhirl), IM (Google Talk), IM (MSN), IM (Skype), phone (mobile), phone (desk), phone (skype), feeds (google reader), “the web”, …not forgetting conversations with real people…

I may be in the upper quartile of “wiredness” but I’ll bet most of you are exposed to these, and some possibly more.

As many commentators have pointed out, as the noise continues to grow (which it will), the signal to noise ratio drops and the need for us to find mediated experiences will become ever more important. My good friend Dan Zambonini pointed me to this excellent blog post by Kevin Kelly. Here’s a quote:

“I have tried to temper my celebration of the bottom with my belief that the bottom is not enough for what we really want. To get to the best we need some top down intelligence, too. I have always claimed that nuanced view. And now that crowd-sourcing and social webs are all the rage, it’s worth repeating: the bottom is not enough. You need a bit of top-down as well.”

He’s right of course – the lesson that we all take away is that although the technologies get more “intelligent” (dare I say, “Semantic”..?), the noise is probably increasing at a far greater rate. Net result – at least a cancelling-out of the “filtered benefit” and more likely – just more and more noise.

The human author – the topdown influence in Kelly’s post – is the conduit by which everything is managed. This role isn’t going anywhere, but it’s easy to forget this when we’re all getting excited about the machine -processable web, the API, Twitter and so on.

The human element is always going to be the single most important thing in the equation, which is exactly why the social web is so important, and can’t – or won’t – be ostriched.

Museums and the Web day 3 (or day 1..)

Ok. It’s opening plenary time here at Museums and the Web 2008. I didn’t manage to do any blogging yesterday – that’s what an entire day of workshops followed by immediate dinner and wine does to you…

Michael Geist is the guest speaker: “technology advocate and trouble maker”. I like him already 🙂

Michael spent his talk going through a number of sites and examples, some of which will be very familiar to us web types; others a little less well known. The examples which particularly jumped out for me (for two different reasons) were the Facebook group Fair Copyright for Canada which was started by Michael, and his example of opening up the book “In the Public Interest” for free download.

The Facebook group example was particularly powerful because it caused demonstrable change in the real world. This was actually a running thread through many of the sites that Michael showed: virtual experiences are one thing, but “real” world responses to these virtual experiences are happening too, and that’s a hugely important thing to focus on. I’ve used this to defend Twitter recently (yes, I know the irony, having said bad things about lifestreaming before…) – Twitter has recently got me back in touch with people out here in the real world, and that gives it a legitimacy and power that it doesn’t necessarily have “just” online.

The “In the Public Interest” example demonstrated (although Michael didn’t give any actual figures) that free download actually increased sales. I like this because it continues to support the Scarcity vs Scale argument which I’ve pitched on this blog previously. It’s a very pertinent discussion; Brian and I are giving a paper on Openness on Friday at which we’ll be focusing on open content (among other things). Already this week – and in my experience, always within the sector – this discussion rumbles alongside most things we try to do on the web: API provision, Web 2.0, UGC or getting collections databases online. The more evidence there is that this approach works (or not!), the better.

The overriding message from Michael for me is that online activity causes, extends, pushes “real” activity in very valuable and increasingly tangible ways.