Thursday, 19 June 2008

Authority

I haven't blogged for quite a while now about my dissertation because I've been writing up the boring chapters - lit review, background etc - yawn! - and they weren't much fun.

This week though, my experiences at both the NaMu and the UK Museums on the Web Conferences have got my brain juices flowing a bit more and last night, in my little student hall of residence room (quite a change from the luxury of the Belmont Hotel during NaMu), I got to thinking a bit about my data analysis chapter which I started writing at the start of June.

I was writing my section on the quality of the contributions that we have received on the BPMA Wiki and got to discussing why it is that we have had lots of page views on the philatelic glossary, but very few edits. Those people that have edited have also tended to add terms and definitions rather than correcting or improving existing entries.

I came up with a number of reasons why this might be. The first is that the philatelic community thinks that the glossary doesn't need improving. I don't agree with this assumption but it's possible that that's what they think. The second thought was that maybe the lack of transparency on our wiki as to what others had already added meant people did not have the confidence to contribute themselves.

One reason, however, piqued my interest and I began to explore it further but I'm still not too sure about it. This was prompted by all the discussions about authority and trust at NaMu. People trust museums. They go to them to find out 'the truth'. Could it be that an organisation like BPMA, presenting an extensive philatelic glossary, and then asking people to help to improve it goes against people's understanding and perception of what museums are trying to do? Does the presentation of the glossary within the framework of the BPMA website mean that people are unable to see the wood for the trees, i.e. can't see how to improve it?

Perhaps Wikipedia, with its widespread audience, and its transparency about what other people have added, works because people feel that they are equal to the others that have already contributed. They feel able to express their own knowledge and contradict others because they feel on a level with them.

Is it anathema to suggest to an audience that a museum, after all, the source of 'the truth', should ask for help in creating something like a philatelic glossary? This opens up into the broader question of whether a wiki, by definition about democracy and equality of contributions, can ever achieve widespread contributions if it's 'lead' by an authoritative organisation.

This would appear to be disproved by the Science Museum Object Wiki which has had numerous contributions correcting and adding information about each of the objects. Is it possible, however, that the minimal Science Museum branding, the fact that this wiki is a separate site and the fact that the Science Museum haven't needed to actively promote it because people have found it through Google all contribute to the user not really realising that it is in a wiki run by the Science Museum? Or is it simply that the objects in the Science Museum Wiki are more everyday than philatelic terms and therefore attract an audience that feels more confident to make edits?

What do people think? Interested to hear other people's comments!

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1 Comments:

Anonymous david.looseley said...

I think the question that piqued you is an interesting and important one. My gut feelings about it are:

(a) you're right when you say that the idea of a wiki goes against people's perception and understanding of a museum.

(b) this 'going against' possibly challenges the idea you cite that "a wiki [is] by definition about democracy and equality of contributions". Maybe a wiki is about a certain version of democracy, i.e. the "right" of the customer rather than of the citizen. So, in this view, this would a be a consumerist, market reading of democracy, similar to one's "right" to zap between TV channels or to vote in a reality show for a contestant or for an alternative ending to a drama. But I suspect that some people don't want to enjoy that right but would rather be surprised (or delighted or disappointed or whatever) by an imposed outcome. Perhaps it's the same with museum-goers. Some users (and perhaps this is in part a generational thing???) may want to be surprised (etc.) or even challenged by what the museum selects, hierarchises and invests with its authority, in preference to being told "this is YOUR museum", YOUR definition of or contribution to knowledge"?

I don't think this is any way undermines the value of wikis, but it might be a useful angle to consider in order to do a fully rounded critique of them in your dissertation. It's just that a wiki doesn't automaticlly address--even less, solve--the age-old issues of cultural democratisation, the tension between excellence and access. Some users may want to be offered the ready-made excellence of the traditional museum--in which case the issues then become the usual ones of free admission, accessibility of displays, education, etc. Others may want to make a personal contribution to that excellence.

Anyway, I do think this is a crucial and probing point you've raised and it could maybe figure in the dissertation as part of a wider critique of the wiki concept? Bon travail.

22 June 2008 at 13:11  

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