Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Museum Software Merger

It was with the great surprise that I stumbled upon the announcement of the merger of Convio and GetActive companies this week. Though mergers may be commonplace in the general technology sector – especially after the Internet bubble – in the cultural sector, corporate mergers and acquisitions amongst companies that serve Museums (and non-profits generally) is a note-worth occurrence that has an immediate impact.

The topic of interactive marketing software may seem trite, but the companies that produce software and systems that serve the Museum-world are important and merit critical consideration. There are no Museums in the United States that have the luxury of full application-development and support departments. Museums are fully reliant on third-party administrative and collection software in order to perform their public mission. Further, for public-facing systems, these email and web marketing platforms (with their own delivery models and technical limitations) define how the public is introduced to exhibitions and culture. In effect, the available platforms define how institutions announce exhibitions, garner support, steward to Members, reach out to the community and market themselves globally.

Though this acquisition cannot be considered anti-competitive (PatronMail remains the top software firm in this market vertical and Blackbaud is the unchallenged heavy-weight in the non-profit sector as a whole), the consolidation in the software market bodes ill for the Museum sector.

Convio and GetActive are two of the top service providers for integrated content management, email marketing and hosted CRM systems in the nonprofit sector. For institutions looking to integrate systems, reduce overhead/administration and remove the communication barriers between programming staff and constituents, both these platforms were well positioned. In the long-term, the loss of either of these forward-looking companies (at least in relation to the sector as a whole) can only be considered a loss of choice, innovation and competition for Museums and cultural institutions.

Further, there are always the practicalities arising from any loss of competition in a service industry; the leverage these companies will gain in terms of controlling pricing, system customization and upgrade flexibility. These too are important issues for Museum technology managers as they impact total resources, budgeting, staffing and strategic planning.

So, given that context and the newly shifting technology landscape, I thought it might be useful to outline a list of email and web marketing companies that serve the Museum sector (with some of their respective clients). This list is by no means exhausitve, so if anyone has additions and/or experiences to add, I'd love to hear from you.

Smithsonian Deal (II) - Long Tail Ideals

Reviewing the Smithsonian deal with Corbis - initially, my thinking centered mostly on the nature of Museums as stewards of public trust and culture.

But clearly, there are even broader social ramifications to this deal.

Recently there's been a good deal of buzz surrounding Chris Anderson's book The Long Tail. The immediate ramifications of which relate to the creation, distribution and consumption of digital products and content. His examples are numerous but consider Amazon's impact on books, iTunes' on music, NetFlix's on movie distribution... These platforms have unleashed consumers from the tyranny of the Top 10 and allowed for the aggregation and distribution of a larger swath of cultural content (both high and low). The long tail makes previously obscure content accessible to a wider audience than ever possible. Anderson makes clear that the economics of scarcity no longer apply when the cost of storing and distributing products approaches zero.

Yet, in this Smithsonian situation, the promise of the long tail web paradigm is being ignored. And while no one suffers because of Corbis, no one truly gains either (at least not in any broader social sense). Can you imagine how irrelevant iTunes would be if it served only as a platform for insiders in the music industry? Or, if Amazon were only a tool for editors and publishers? Yet, this is essentially the closed content distribution model the institute is leveraging.

As Anderson points out, for long tail systems to succeed, they also require trust.

How appropriate.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Smithsonian Deal Raises Questions of Platform Neutrality, Public Trust

An Associated Press article has just announced that the Smithsonian Institute has entered a media deal with the Corbis Corporation for the licensing of the institute's images. Corbis will make the institute's image available in a "one-stop-shop" for advertisers and the commercial sector.

On top of the Corbis online image portal, the Smithsonian is also licensing access out in broadcast media as well. As the article points out:

"The [Corbis] deal follows the Smithsonian's semi-exclusive TV deal with Showtime Networks Inc. for use of museum resources for filming projects. The joint venture will launch a new TV unit called Smithsonian Networks this spring that will be available as an on-demand channel from cable and satellite television providers. "

There has been some backlash surrounding the Showtime decision - yet, the Corbis deal is proceeding without review or challenge by the public. Perhaps this reflects that private image wholesaling is not an entirely new trend; similar agreements have been reached with the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Brooklyn Museum of Art. Still, the incorporation of the Smithsonian raises the profile and stakes within the cultural sector. Amongst the pertinent issues for public (if not Congressional) review:

  • How does the concept of cultural patrimony seem relevant to the "public good" if that patrimony is leveraged in the service of private interests?
  • Is the Smithsonian also granting free/open access for researchers, developers and the creative commons to leverage those very same images and resources?
  • Will the institute leverage the revenue from this deal to fund greater open access and innovation initiatives or just fill budget gaps?

In my opinion, the primary issue in this case is not the institute searching for new revenue streams or receiving licensing fees for its property, but rather the choice to explore closed, revenue-driven platforms for dispersing the content of the nonprofit sector. The most contentious quote from the article is the statement "Smithsonian officials said they hope the agreement with Corbis will make museum resources more easily accessible and offer some images in a digital format for the first time." Accessible to whom? This type of deal sets a dangerous trend of narrow-casting Museum services in all the worst ways - cutural capital in the service of private interests on proprietary platforms.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Weekly Tour - 1/20/07 - 1/26/07

Livening up a Friday morning:

  • Art and the Mobile Phone - The Contemporary Museum in Baltimore is presenting an exhibition on the usage of cellular phones in contemporary artwork. Given the plethora of phone news in the last couple of weeks, this is fortunately timed.

  • Couple sued for SMS phone spamming - Again, in light of all the general buzz about the future of phone technology (including my own echo chamber), the other perspective - new ways to invade privacy and clog innovation. One wonders whether all of the resources spent on clogging/disrupting were poured into building and innovating how much further social and cultural capital could be stretched. Ahh... the common good.

  • Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum: Tech on Your Terms Blogfest - The Museum announced an upcoming event focusing on Blogs. Again, in regards to blogs, the Smithsonian seems to be well ahead of the general museum adoption-curve.

  • Modern Art Notes - Discussion of social image tagging research and its applications in Museums. This project includes staff from the Met, Guggenheim and SFMoMA. The Steve website also contains a good deal of information for people interested in social image tagging and folksonomy.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

A Tale of Two Phones

With the introduction of the iPhone, the media has been engrossed all week with the possibilities of phones as a new platform.

However, there remain very real questions in the United States surrounding the market and adoption rates for phones with increased computing and service capabilities. Case in point, on the heels of one of the most important technology announcements in the last year, a NY Times article ironically explored the robust computing capabilities of decidedly low-tech cell phones.

There are roughly two polarities here:

  • Phone as integrated, all-in-one personal technology (i.e. iPhone, smartPhones, full-featured PDA's)

  • Phone as, well, phone with on-demand value-added software (See NY Times Article above)

For the cultural sector this opposition raises even greater questions as to how to respond to the presumed rising tide of cell phone technology reliance. A recent Musematic article analyzed the impact of iPhones on Museums. Blogger Nik Honeysett sees the device as a strong step forward for all technically-inclined individuals. The utilization of the technology not-withstanding, it is my contention that it is the platform itself that is the challenge. I posted the following caution to his article:

"The question will be whether practicioners in the Museum world have any interest or stake in platform dependency. This type of device looks great for the integrated apps. (iTunes, the SMS service and Video) but I have a tough time believing that Safari will be full-featured and able to handle Ajax, Mash-ups or data-driven flash programming... Plus, think of the stretched IT resources available for any given development project. Can you imagine adding another layer of usability for touch screens and 3:5 aspect ratio? Resources are too tight to work with this platform..."

Clearly, the open question is what other options exist. Are Museums better situated to create integrated app.'s or websites that are WAP and cell-phone browser usable? For a sector of society that is a perpetually late adopter of technologies the coming years will be essential. The Brooklyn Museum has already reached out to explore cell phones as a medium for audio guides but that is a far cry from the applications offered for ordinary cell phones, PDA's or the newly corinated iPhone.

Experiencing Technology

I want to expand a bit on a cross-posted thread from Musematic. There is an open question in the Museum world about how digital mediums should be stored and what constitutes a "final" state. This conversation is especially important to film and video mediums. Is the state of a digital work platform-dependant? How does the artist’s intention for a work conflict with the public’s interest in maintaining a historically-rooted versions of works?

This is an interesting question, especially for works that are presented in public in one state (i.e. cinema distribution or gallery installation) and then altered/polished by the artist for archiving and presentation in another medium (DVD-format or other digital mediums). Which is to be considered the final or authoritative version? Who gets to define this?

On the one hand, it is easily defensible to argue that it is the artist that makes this determination. One can draw parallels here with print artists tuning and altering a print across a variety of states. Only when the print-maker makes the determination is the state considered final.

For presented media though, there are two important differences: 1) in printmaking the previous states are lost to the process of creation – covered by the subsequent revision. If they are discarded, that can be done immediately. 2) The other difference is the presence of the public in a state of participation. When a work is performed in the public setting – the state of presentation is not a relic or artifact but is a shared experience. Regardless of the artist’s determination of finitude, the work lives in that moment in the media it is presented.
Presentation platforms reflect the concurrent state of their society and culture.

As an example, I am reminded of the 2004 Whitney Biennial that included lo-fi works by Corey Arcangel. If you’re not familiar with the artist, his work has included hacks into 8-bit Nintendo games where he removes portions of the programming. The piece from the Biennial was a hack of Super Mario Brothers that left only the bright blue sky and fluffy blue clouds projected on the gallery walls. Link

What stands out in my memory of the installation was the actual Nintendo box sitting in the corner of the room: extension chords, A/V chords and controllers. It was a mess. This was, of course, intentional from a curatorial perspective; it recreated the dissonance of fluffy blue clouds and disarrayed technology on dingy basement carpets. The installation strikes at the heart of the power of legacy platforms - they are not just a medium but are a shared experience and carry psychological weight. Though the visual sense can be ported to YouTube or the Internet, the visceral experience is evoked with the presence of the antiquated, legacy platform.

Transferring this experience to "superior" mediums might make storage and archive sense - but it will not evoke the wonder of first moving Mario with a controller and the world-view revolution that induced. Similarly, Star Wars can be changed, digitally-altered and archived, but the first state, the sound and the fury of first participation will persist.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Resolutions and Solutions

2007 - OK, so everyone has their pile of resolutions for the new year. Mine, it seems, did not include being on time. Twenty-two days into 2007, it is time to get back on the ball - or the blog. My news years resolution, slightly tardy, is to ramp up my efforts of blogging on technologies in the cultural sector.

In 2006, I focused primarlily on technology assisting the administrative functions of Museums and libraries; marketing, PR and fundraising. There is certainly more space to explore those topcs here - and I will continue to do so in 2007. But, I've been ignoring the elephant in the room; of greater interest is the growth of web 2.0 technologies in the diffusement of content and community. Can web 2.0 be a solution to improve the dispersement and dialogue surrounding cultural capital in the public sector?

Let's explore, we're already running late...

Tech Trends For 2007

  1. Skype - Can you imagine reference services on demand? Distance-learning and lecturing to underserved populations? A curator on-call for students in Hong Kong, Johannesburg, New Orleans... I'm just waiting for a development department to request funding for this type of service. Bricks and mortar are great for capital campaigns but at some point, the right donor is going to ask why funding projects for dynamic web services aren't being explored.

  2. Flickr - Community image-tagging and posting (the Brooklyn Museum is already getting their feet wet - Link).

  3. YouTube - What? Treadmills and trampolines? How could this help the ballett or modern dance? Its the platform stupid. Eyes to see great coreography. Gallery tours made easy. Google can't keep this platform streaming forever. Sooner or later it will be available to download individual videos - watch out!

  4. Digg - Community-driven news. Museums and performing arts groups draw millions of visitors a year with blockbuster exhibitions but community dialogue and review have not kept pace. Look for institutions relying on word of mouth to harness new avenues for getting noticed.

  5. MySpace - The music and social networking site has gotten a bad press of late with its lack of community policing and soft privacy and security protections. What still stands out though is the rising of "alternates to email". Email is dead. We are witnessing the rise of RSS and hosted messaging services where only the invited can play. MySpace for all its faults, is a widely used platform for invitation-only messages and data-mined advertisements.

  6. Blogs - Old news you say. True. But I can count on two hands the number of major institutions in the United States that have implemented blogs as part of their PR/outreach and education programming. Link Budgets might be tight, but I think this is still the unexplored frontier.

  7. CoRegistration - Pay Attention. New ways to connect to mavens and links. Any annual fundraisers that tells you Direct Mail is going to be where it is now in a decade is not paying attention. The Chronicle of Philanthropy (subscription required) and the eBenchmarks survey both boast of the rapid growth and reliance of online donations and community building in the non-profit sector. It isn't 2.0 but it is an emerging trend to monitor for non-profits of all shapes and sizes.