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“It’s an ethic that defines what the new Web is becoming: a massive playground of information bits that are shared and remixed openly into a fluid and participatory tapestry.”
Tapscott & Williams, Wikinomics, 2008

A new tier has been added to all GLAM institutions throughout the world: the Internet. Here we seem to have access to everything, everywhere, at all times. We do not need to concern ourselves with opening hours, modes of access, or whether the museum itself is thousands of miles away. If we have an Internet connection, we have access.

The role of the GLAM sector in society is, broadly speaking, to make our cultural heritage available to all, to support learning and education among the general public, to inspire creativity and personal development, and to help contribute to the building and preservation of a diverse culture. The Internet has opened up brand new opportunities for museums, libraries, and archives for gaining a wider reach and being relevant to people when and where they need them. But it also requires the GLAM sector to adjust to a radically new situation; a situation that changes our users’ expectations of us and requires us to adapt, leave old habits behind, and adopt new strategies and skills to fulfil our mission. A lot of hype tends to surround digital technologies, and at times the pace of technological development can almost take our breath away. However, I – and many others – view digital technologies as something that offer us unique opportunities for fulfilling our mission in the 21st century.*6

Even though keeping track of the technological developments can seem daunting, we nevertheless seem to adapt quickly to the new habits and comforts they bring. First, the PC entered our everyday lives, making it easy to work with data and information in a structured manner, whether you were a doctor, art historian, or accountant. Then the Internet arrived, opening up entirely new dimensions for what the PC could do for us by placing the entire world before our feet in digital form, like a Maggi cube of the world. The Internet, whose 20th anniversary was celebrated in 2013, was from the outset conceived as a free and open domain, allowing everyone to utilise its potential. [9] Finally, the PC and Internet became truly integrated when smartphones and tablets made digital access mobile and ubiquitous, putting it right into our hands.

Productivity and efficiency are not the only things to have made a huge leap ahead with the aid of the Internet’s radical openness and the rapid proliferation of digital technologies. As Clay Shirky puts it in his book Cognitive Surplus. Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age the emergence and global reach of the Internet has set free a tremendous surplus of knowledge and creativity. This overabundance can flow freely thanks to new social technologies that turn passive TV audiences into multi-media producers, newspaper readers into reporters, and put people across the world in touch with each other in dedicated networks with powerful, free tools right at their fingertips. [10] We are rapidly moving out of the broadcast era, where we were accustomed to the passive consumption of content selected and related by authorised experts, into the Internet era, where we are becoming accustomed to the fact that media are also social – they are places where we arrange and organise things ourselves, pass on our own knowledge and attitudes, and help shape the way our shared reality is presented. We have gained direct access to the “publish” button, and more and more people are seizing that opportunity, pushing the button hard. Jay Rosen from the New York University simply calls Internet users “The People Formerly Known as the Audience".*7

A general trend is emerging; many companies and institutions, that are successful online, are good at supporting and harnessing people’s cognitive surplus. Instead of watching TV as a parttime job, as Shirky aptly puts it, we now have the opportunity to spend our time actively contributing knowledge, help, and skills in contexts that mean something to us and where we can make a real difference. The best-known example is Wikipedia – an encyclopaedia aspiring to encompass all the knowledge in the world, in myriad languages, created through the shared efforts made by thousands of volunteers from the entire world. An unthinkable concept prior to the Internet. But now, after the advent of the Internet, it is a tangible reality that most of us use every day, and to which people all around the world devote millions of hours of voluntary work.*8 [11]

How do they find the time? That is a question puzzling many readers of Cognitive Surplus. However, Shirky turns the issue upside down, asking this question: How many hours of cognitive surplus would be set free if the world’s population spent just 1% of the hours we spend watching TV every year on contributing to a common cause? Just this one per cent would correspond to the production of more than 100 Wikipedias a year. If people have the means, motif, and opportunity they will also find the time.*9 The Internet and social technologies serve to accrue and pool people’s individual enthusiasm, giving it direction and real impact. Generosity and creativity are central aspects of this culture (as is indicated by the title of Shirky’s book); not because we live in an age where people are more generous and inventive than before. But, argues Shirky, because the development of the social Internet has given the world’s population the tools to unleash potentials that have always been inherent in mankind, on a hitherto unseen global scale. [12]

A new museum culture

The culture of co-operation, generosity, and participation that characterises Internet culture has prompted a new economic paradigm that has been given the striking name wikinomics, invented by Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams in their 2006 book by the same name.*10 Wikinomics is based on four pillars that fundamentally change how companies and knowledge institutions can act:

Openness – transparency and open standards replace secrecy and closed licences
Peering – professional peers and users are actively mobilised to help develop and improve data, products, and services
Sharing – information and assets are shared freely in order to allow everyone access to the ongoing development, thereby giving added impetus to the discovery of new solutions
Acting globally – the global network culture makes it possible to scale up initiatives and reach far larger markets and user groups

The book Wikinomics is full of examples of how this new economic paradigm generates value, both in terms of sustainable solutions and cool cash. Wikinomics extends from the business world far into the knowledge and culture industries. In recent years a wide range of non-profit organisations and grassroots initiatives have successfully generated vast amounts of knowledge and content by opening themselves up to user contributions, collecting and combining them to form useful digital resources.*12

Aside from the wellknown example Wikipedia, other highlights include OpenStreetMap, which has grown from its humble beginnings in 2004 to become a worthy competitor to Google Maps (more than 300,000 active contributors and more than 12 million updates as of June 2012); Librarything, where readers can catalogue their books and make them searchable to others, share recommendations, and get in touch with like-minded readers (more than 1.6 million users, more than 80 million books catalogued as of April 2013); and DigitalKoot, where more than 100,000 users helped the National Library of Finland proofread and correct more than 8 million words in digitised newspaper articles over the course of less than two years, simply by playing a simple and fun online game. In Denmark, the DR Kunstklub (the Danish Broadcasting Corporation’s Art Club) seems to be taking Clay Shirky at his word, turning traditionally passive viewers into active co-creators of cultural expression. The Art Club successfully nurtures a bubbling creativity by presenting people with more or less firmly delimited tasks, prompting responses from a dedicated and growing community. The resulting cultural artefacts and statements – often beautifully crafted and thought-provoking – are exhibited by the DR Kunstklub online and at cultural institutions nationwide.*12

When analysing what makes these diverse platforms successful, certain structural features recur:

• Influence and scope for action: Users are invited to take part in decision-making, actively affecting the service or forum to which they contribute.
• Combining work and pleasure: Users get the opportunity to contribute something useful and valuable while having fun.
• Community-oriented: The platforms establish a framework where users can meet likeminded individuals and form communities based on shared interests. One of the main driving forces for participation resides in contributing to the common good.*13

This new culture, made possible by the Internet’s social technologies and global network, changes people’s perception of themselves and their relationship with the world. Knowledge and culture is no longer exclusively created by experts and professionals, served up to passive consumers; rather, it is something to which everyone can contribute. The boundaries between producers and consumers become blurred, giving rise to the so-called prosumers, who have become accustomed to – and increasingly expect to – participate actively if they so desire. This quite obviously has strong implications for the GLAM sector, which is situated at the intersection of this development. Our sector of expert institutions must now relate to “The People Formerly Known as the Audience” – an involved, active, and participating audience. How to approach this task? According to Nina Simon, who has kept the influential blog Museum 2.0 for a number of years and is now head of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History, this change is fundamental.*14 Today museums cannot simply be satisfied with producing professionally valid and engaging exhibitions; they must also develop and offer opportunities for visitors to share their own content in meaningful and appealing ways. [13]

Adjusting to this new situation is a major challenge for museums. Our institutions have strong traditions and high moral standards as far as the discharge of our duties is concerned. The tasks of collecting, recording, doing conservation, research, and educational activities are already stretching work schedules to snapping point. How can we possibly find the time to also collect the users’ knowledge and facilitate their creative endeavours? How can we teach ourselves the necessary skills and competences to carry out these new tasks to proper professional standards? Is it a job for museums to act as creative playgrounds and public forums for dialogue? Couldn’t people simply turn up and visit exhibitions just as they have always done?

Internet culture affects museum culture whether we want it to or not. Museums must face up to new sources of competing offers to keep up and stay relevant to next generation users. [14] The cognitive surplus of knowledge and creativity, that fizzes and pops on the Internet, will not flow into the museum ecosystem by itself. It requires effort. At the same time the Internet’s free flow of content and knowledge also changes the public’s general expectations on what museums can and should offer. In just a few years, users will expect easy and user-friendly access to searching and re-using the museum’s online collections. [15]

In 2013, the Danish Ministry of Culture launched a digital think tank that includes representatives from the entire Danish cultural sector.*15 The initiative testifies to the fact that not only the museums, but the cultural sector in a wider sense – all the industries that form and convey cultural output and information in a country like Denmark – is under pressure from many sides: Technologies are changing rapidly, as is user behaviour. Large international enterprises such as Google, Amazon, and Netflix are in competition with Danish cultural alternatives. Users expect easy, instant, and preferably free access to information, culture, and entertainment online. This situation creates challenges for all creative industries. [16] All branches of the cultural sector are realising that the conditions, subsidy schemes, and patterns of user behaviour we know and have been comfortable with, are likely to change. If museums, and indeed the GLAM sector in general, is to have relevance and value to future users, it is crucial to adapt and assign new and different priorities to our resources and energy. [17] If our institutions are to thrive in the years to come, we must face the developments that will happen, whether we welcome them or not. If we act decisively and with our eyes open, we stand a much better chance of affecting the general development and ensuring that our specialised skills and institutions will hold an important position within Internet culture.


*6 I’m thinking especially of Edson’s, Shirky’s and Tapscott & Williams’ arguments for harvesting and including the knowledge and competencies of the crowds in the professional work of the culture and knowledge sectors. (Edson, 2011; Shirky, 2010; Tapscott & Williams, 2008)

*7  Shirky, 2010, p. 36.

*8  Since Wikipedia was founded in 2001 it has generated more than 22 million articles in 285 languages. 77,000 people across the world are active contributors, and hundreds of thousands of volunteers work every day on editing and commenting on their work in order to continually improve the content

In March of 2012 the success of Wikipedia prompted the venerable Encyclopaedia Britannica to bring its 244-year long history of printing reference books to an end, adopting an exclusively online publication strategy instead.

*9  Shirky, 2010, p. 20-29.

Tapscott & Williams, 2008. The term ‘wiki’ is derived from the Hawaiian word for ‘fast’

*11  This aggregate of collective knowledge volunteered by non-experts is often divided into two overall categories:

  1. Crowdsourcing: when an enterprise or institution outsources a function or task that was previously carried out by inhouse employees to a non-specific, usually large network of people (as defined by Jeff Howe, Wired Magazine, 2006)
  2. Citizen science, when independent experts and amateur researchers make volunteer contributions to the work done by an established museum or institution, e.g. in the form of collecting, recording, data processing, research, etc. (Carletti, Giannachi, Price & McAuley, 2013)

A recent addition is Citizen exploration, introduced by David Lang in the online magazine Make: as a critital comment to the Citizen Science concept:

*12  OpenStreetMap:
DR Kunstklub:

*13  A commented overview of websites and online services capable of generating large quantities of user-generated data and content can be found on the SI Web and New Media Strategy Wiki urs+of+effort
I carried out this research for Michael Edson at the Smithsonian Institution in October 2011. The overview is a living document, and everyone is welcome to add to and edit the list.


*15  Programme for the Danish Ministry of Culture’s Digital Think Tank’s start-up seminar in Copenhagen, 27 May 2013:

Updated: 26.apr.2018
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