May 30, 2011

The participatory revolution is all around us

Okay, maybe “revolution” is a little dramatic. But preparing for my talk last week at the American Association of Museums meeting in Houston, I found no shortage of evidence that our culture is being reshaped by the work of many hands. Authority ain’t what it used to be.

I was chairing a panel on which three great people from STEM museums (Shari Werb from Smithsonian Natural History, Tom Owen from an exhibits firm working on the Kennedy Space Center visitor center for NASA, and Meg Lowman, a pioneering rainforest canopy biologist who directs the new Nature Research Center at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences) talked about how citizen science — or more to the point, visitor science — will play out in new facilities they’re building.

My job was to frame the topic, and I did so pretty broadly. This isn’t just about museums, I told the museum professionals in the room, or even about the culture sector more broadly. It’s about new roles that people like you and me are playing in all kinds of domains.

Those roles are described by various buzzwords, from crowdsourcing and user-generated content to maker culture, citizen journalism, citizen science, and so on. They’ve occasioned a slew of books, some celebratory (like Clay Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus, or We Are Smarter than Me) and some critical (Andrew Keen’s The Cult of The Amateur).

What’s it all about? Among other things, a changing sense of what authority and expertise are supposed to look like. (Not coincidentally, authority and expertise have been the foundation of museums’ value systems. No wonder they’re anxious.) At the root of “authority” is the word “author,” and I suggested that what’s changing is who gets to tell the story, who gets to be the expert. The answer, increasingly often, is you.

You’re not just a voter; you’re a civic problem-solver, at least if you live in one of the four cities where Give a Minute is operating. You’re not just a consumer or an armchair inventor, you’re an Innocentive problem solver (“We need your brain power to help solve some of the world’s toughest problems”).

You’re not just a buyer of stuff, a la Amazon. You’re a maker of the stuff in the first place, thanks to online communities like Etsy. And community isn’t just a metaphor here; Etsy also happens in real places where you can make things with others (like the Brooklyn Etsy Labs below).

In music, you’re not just an audience member. You’re a “rusty musician” playing onstage at the Baltimore Symphony alongside the pros (a program I blogged about last year). ...

In the visual arts, you’re not just a beholder, you’re a contributor to the work, thanks to a trend toward what has been called “social practice” art. (That’s Yoko Ono’s “Wish Tree” below, at MoMA.) Or maybe you’re playing curator at the Brooklyn Museum’s website, where a few months ago Split Second asked for your very quick takes on the relative appeal of various Indian paintings being considered for an upcoming show.

But it’s in ecology and science that the participatory trend has really taken off. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has been running citizen science programs for decades and now boasts more than 200,000 participants each year in a suite of initiatives for adults and kids, like the Great Backyard Bird Count and eBird.

And Zooniverse, a partnership of universities and science museums in the US and UK, started in 2007 with Galaxy Zoo (in which more than 270,000 people have helped classify the shapes of galaxies online, using real images from Hubble that scientists haven’t yet plowed through) and has proliferated to Moon Zoo, Planet Hunters, Solar Stormwatch, and others.

Some citizen science projects take the form of online games, since gaming offers useful structures for collaborative action and progressive reward, not to mention an avid international community with brains and energy to burn. So biologists at Carnegie Mellon and Stanford set up EteRNA, a very serious effort to understand how the folding of RNA proteins determines their functions, as a puzzle-solving game. What I find mind-blowing is that, each week, the best solution is synthesized in the lab at Stanford. Talk about the game of life.

Now, the rise of citizen science is a specific case, driven by its own realities (namely, that scientific data-sets are getting so huge that the professionals don’t have enough manpower to tackle them, and that humans are far better than computers at certain sensory-cognitive tasks, like recognizing shapes and patterns).

But it’s also an instance of a broader shift away from the 20th-century, “modernist” world and toward a 21st-century, postmodern one. Authority and expertise used to be centralized, isolated in distinct realms, and reserved for a privileged class with special training and credentials. The rest of us played passive roles: consumer, beholder, layman. We were, in a sense, outsiders in our own culture.

Times have changed. These days, authority is decentralized, democratized, easy to access, and designed for all of us. Correspondingly, our roles are becoming active: we’re not just audiences but co-creators, not just beholders but expressers. In the original sense of the term, we’re amateurs (from the Latin “amare,” to love), which is very different from being laymen.

If that’s what’s going on around museums, the question is what will need to go on inside them. It’s easy to run a citizen science project online, but where does that leave visitors in science museum exhibits, which may be plenty interactive but which don’t usually allow you to contribute to real scientific discovery? That’s where my three panelists weighed in, and you can see their slides (and mine) on Slideshare here. The Q&A was terrific — and I hope you'll continue it below in the comments.


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