Many museum people, when you suggest letting visitor rate content/exhibits/programs, bring up the “American Idol” argument. You can’t let people vote, they say, because it will push museum content to the lowest common denominator. Museums will become American Idol machines, putting out crap that panders to unthinking consumers.
This argument neglects the fact that American Idol is packaged and processed “for the masses,” not by them. It’s highly undemocratic; TV producers, not viewers, select and cultivate the material for consumption. And yes, it’s crap—because the base material provided is crap. But the base material museums provide is not crap (mostly). Is there a better model for the kind of voting and participating that could occur in museums, around a vast collection of content with varied interest and value to different users?
There sure is. Digg is a website that supports and cultivates “the people’s choice” from the ground up. It’s a continually evolving “next big thing” machine for the web. Here’s how it works:
- Users (free to join) submit websites, blog posts, videos, etc. to Digg that they think are awesome.
- Other users do the same, and or check out these new “diggs” on the site via connections they have to other members, interest areas, or general browsing.
- Items that get lots of diggs within a period of time get posted to the Digg.com homepage, which millions of people look at daily.
Which is part of what makes people love Digg—even if they rarely submit their own content. Digg is an attempt to harness the vast information on the web, and it’s a community effort. There’s more information on the web every day; how do you find new compelling content without going nuts? Digg doesn’t claim to offer the best content, but they do offer an extensive vetting process—the cumulative preferences of a wide swath of editors.
And it truly is democratic. Unlike YouTube, where it’s difficult to navigate beyond the videos that have thousands of votes, Digg makes new content easy to access. Their main page includes a tab, upcoming, which lists the most recently added diggs. These are all brand new to the Digg machine—they all have just one vote. If you find the most obscure, fabulous firework formula, or a recording of Edith Piaf singing backwards, you can submit it, and other users can access it instantly. Of course, the things that really catapult to Digg stardom tend to get there from other venues (i.e. lots of users digging the same item at the same time), but the path to glory is transparent and available to all.
And what does the result look like? Is Digg content more low-brow, more prurient than the web on the whole? Well… somewhat. It’s a near-impossible question to answer, considering the breadth of content on the web—and that’s part of the point. Sometimes you want a video of a bird flying into a tree. Sometimes you want a report on Israeli missile defense. Of course, part of the challenge is that Digg does not represent humanity—it represents a slice of people who know about it, use it, and have the time to hunt down new content on the web. In that way, it’s not unlike looking to your record-obsessed friend for suggestions for new music, or the library cave-dweller for book recommendations. These people are good at finding stuff on the web. But so are you—and the greater the range of people submitting to Digg, the greater its potential value to a diverse audience. (Remember Tim O’Reilly’s first rule of Web 2.0: it gets better the more people use it.)
What would it look like if a museum took on a similar effort with museum content, allowing people to hit a button to “digg” an exhibit, label, artifact, or video in the galleries? The New York Times website does this with its “Most Emailed Articles This Week.” The newpaper, like the web or a museum, has tons of content to offer. These articles are all “New York Times quality;” they aren’t written for a different demographic than the rest of the paper. The “Most Emailed” list is just one of many forms of aggregation that NYT users can access when making decisions about what content to view.
It’s also a potentially useful (or dubious) evaluative instrument. Is the content of these lists used by the editors to make decisions about directions the paper should take? Would museums feel pressured to do the same? Again, the users who engage with the technology (in this case, emailing articles) may represent a small, distinct portion of the NYT readership, in which case the editors may choose to ignore their preferences and think of this as a user service, not an evaluative tool. Part of what makes you digg something or email something is the feeling that you have found a secret gem—a witty article, a wild video. I think implementing a similar service around a museum collection could lead to some experimentation in artifact placement, labeling, lighting, etc… or it could just motivate more people to visit a dusty corner where visitors rarely tread.
But this has value for visitors and museums beyond tracking. The NYT is offering a service that, like a popularity contest, encourages viral expansion of their product and their brand. What museum wouldn’t want those benefits? Digg and the NYT list make content seem personal and relevant—it’s being recommended to you by thousands of Uncle Joe, not some fancy-pants editor or curator. They makes the content seem hip, upcoming, new. They have the potential to turn something you see into something you dig. Dig?