May 8, 2007

Experts and Amateurs

One of the core questions behind Web 2.0 and user participation (especially in the museum context) is this: what is the proper role and relationship of experts and amateur enthusiasts? As writer Steven Johnson stated in Time’s 2006 “Person of the Year” issue, “How you feel about the broader cultural implications of the Web revolves around the response this permanent amateur hour triggers in you. For some, it has power-to-the-people authenticity. For others, it signals the end of quality and professionalism….”

This issue can play out in very concrete ways. For example, expert catalogers have a great deal to say about the notion of letting users apply their own taxonomy to museum objects (social tagging), which could result in an index that is messy, idiosyncratic, or just plain wrong. For opposing viewpoints on this issue, see here and here. Any populist form of interpreting or arranging objects which seems to encroach on the prerogatives of museum professionals is bound to be controversial.

I think any discussion on this issue needs to be grounded in the well-documented fact that users value the expert interpretation that museums provide. To that we may add an assumption that there are good reasons for making museum experiences more participatory and collaborative. Thus it becomes not so much an either/or issue (expert commentary vs. amateur input), but rather, how can we create experiences where both comfortably exist side-by-side? And how might that alter traditional relationships between museums and their audiences?

It seems to me that this is an area begging for more experimentation and evaluation (and the good news is, many are going to work doing just that).

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