Noise vs. cultural memory

April 27, 2009

Old-ish Content Warning!

You are viewing a post that’s more than three years old. There’s a good chance that a lot of the following is seriously out-of-date (or at least not reflective of my current thinking on this topic). Proceed with caution.

I’ve been thinking a bit lately about the cultural value of noise and chatter.

The first thing that got me thinking about this was David Bearman’s recent blog entry about the use of Twitter during the recently-concluded Museums and the Web conference. Almost nonstop Twittering from the conference participants led to the creation of a rich stream of data that was full of useful references, emotion, and nuance. There was no denying that Twitter was the star player at the conference, and that it fundamentally altered the way everyone at the conference interacted with one another. David’s post is interesting and, although admittedly written from the point of view of a (somewhat) converted skeptic, I still found myself extremely frustrated with his “list of useful tweets.” His list, in fact, removed everything from the tweet but the link contained therein, indicating that any of the contextual material or emotional content contained in the tweet itself was largely irrelevant.

The second thing that got me thinking about this was last week’s Arts, Culture, and Technology meetup here in New York, which featured an engaging presentation and conversation with SebChan from the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney. Among the many excellent initiatives that Seb has overseen there, one of the most interesting is the Powerhouse’s use of the Flickr Commons as a means of both providing increased access to images of collections objects to the public, as well as harvesting information (primarily tags) from those objects for use by the museum itself.

Seb talked about the need to filter user responses when the amount of those responses becomes so overwhelming that they become just so much noise. And although I think that both Seb and David are right to filter noise when this issue is looked at expressly as a problem of mining relevant/important information from user response, I wonder if we are missing a larger issue here by focusing on that exclusively. While even a cursory skim over the visitor responses for an image like this one from the Powerhouse Museum certainly brings back a paucity of immediately useful information (thanks for the “yeah cool!” shoutout, Orsek!) I have to wonder if we’d be so quick to dismiss these kinds of responses if they were from, say 1879, versus 2009.

What I mean here is that while we might have been just as quick to dismiss this kind of commentary as useless in 1879 as we are now, that same commentary, with the addition of 130 years, suddenly acquires immense cultural/historical value. As the famous evil archaeologist Rene Belloq once said, “Look at this [watch]. It’s worthless – ten dollars from a vendor in the street. But I take it, I bury it in the sand for a thousand years, it becomes priceless.”

I find just this little change in perspective suddenly makes this information appear significantly more valuable, at least in a cultural memory sort of way, than we’ve previously thought. Just imagine if a museum were able to present, alongside the object itself, a catalog of responses to the object from the public over time. How did people respond to this print in 1930 vs. 1950 vs. 1980? Are there trends over time? Do certain terms/phrases crop up and then disappear, while others are used consistently throughout time? I personally would find that hugely fascinating.

The problem, though, is that we tend to be so focused on extracting one type of value from information obtained via public channels (“useful” links from tweets, “valuable” commentary on images) that we end up discarding what might actually be, in the long run, the most useful information, namely cultural, emotional, and historical context. In the past, we were forced by necessity to focus on only the most immediately “useful” information, because we had limited ability to capture anything else. But now that we live in the future, where storage is cheap, there’s no reason for us to hold on to apparently “useless” information as well.

Doing this, of course, puts a museum in the position of having to be a custodian of public opinion in addition to its traditional role as a custodian of culture. This opens up an entirely new area (for museums, anyway) of scholarship–the collection, curation, and maintenance of public response. The good thing is that most museums already have someone who could naturally take on this role–the “social media” consultant (usually a part of the communications/marketing department) who typically manages a museums Flickr pages, Twitter accounts, Facebook pages, and so on. I could certainly imagine an expansion of that consultant’s role (which is often now seen as primarily a marketing function) to include curating public feedback, and archiving it in a useful way for future generations. “Noise” becomes cultural memory.

Of possible further interest: