Thoughts on the Smithsonian Commons

Reading the Smithsonian’s recent announcement of the debut of the Smithsonian Commons Prototype and playing around on that page has left me feeling rather ambivalent, with more questions than answers.

I like the impetus behind the project– it’s ambitious and well-intentioned. Integrating the Institution’s many web presences, putting them in an environment where the user has more control of how they use and experience it, allowing guests to collect and curate, themselves, rather than maintaining the position that curation is a rarefied activity best left to experts– these are commendable goals, and the Commons, if it lives up to the promises of the Prototype page, will deliver on these things. But part of me feels like it’s just… insufficient.

“Vast, findable, shareable, and free” is a great start. But it’s not enough. What is lacking is any definition of openness, or any commitment to a specific vision of what openness means.

The goal of the project seems to be an opening up of the Smithsonian to a wider public– and I think that’s a great goal. But I worry that where the prototype has currently settled is may be giving more lip service to the principle of openness than it is embracing what that principle entails. This is where I start to have a lot of questions.

The prototype page promises that the Commons represents a “dedicat[tion] to stimulating learning, creation, and innovation through open access to Smithsonian research, collections and communities.” And yet how open will that access truly be? In the four video use-cases presented by the prototype page, I see very little openness with data. I primarily see a more social approach to playing in the Smithsonian’s sandbox. Letting others play in your sandbox is definitely a step toward openness, but true openness is letting others walk away with your sand and do whatever they want with it.

To put it another way: “Screws better than glues.” Ownership is about the ability to alter, remake, use, remix, or hack. And you need to give your visitors data, not just let them see it. Being open with information in the digital age means not just allowing people to look at your books, but letting them walk away with a copy and seeing what they can do with it. Until that point, you’re not really being open. You’re just being transparent.

Openness is a moving target, of course. There’s “open” and then there’s open. And there are some indications that the project has the potential to be truly open. But they are somewhat ambiguous. In the use-case videos, two things are mentioned that give me hope that this could be a truly open project.

The first thing was that, in the video of the teacher, she is able to download her collection from the Smithsonian Commons and use it– in this case, by making a Powerpoint for her fourth-graders out of images of Teddy Roosevelt she has gathered. This is hardly particularly exciting– she could have done the same thing by mastering the elusive “left mouse click” technique. But is this all the download function will allow you to do, or is it just a failing of imagination on the part of this hypothetical teacher? I want to know– how much metadata will be downloaded when you use that download tool? What format will your data come in? Will it be a rich enough data set to let you really do something with it?

But second, and perhaps more excitingly, the Smithsonian Commons will have an API. Of course, that can mean a lot of things. Will this API be available to any developer who wants to incorporate Smithsonian resources into his or her own site, or is it an internal API that allows all the various SI museum sites and digital archives (which run on a variety of different CMSs) to interoperate and participate in the Commons? And if it is public– how expansive will it be? Some APIs are limited to highly specific functionalities, where others really let you get into the guts of the thing and really do something innovative. Which will this be?

People trust Google. Not everyone, of course, and as Jeff Jarvis has been pointing out a lot lately, a lot more Americans do than Europeans. But ultimately, it’s a trusted company. They have access to everything on my phone, my email, they have access to 98% of my search activity… Normally, I’d say that anyone who trusted a profit-driven company that much was either crazy or stupid. And yet I do it. Why?

There’s a couple things. One is openness. Even before the Data Liberation Front initiative, Google was fairly good about letting me export my data. I can take my ball and go home, because they let me own my data, even if they also own my data.

But the other one– the really big one– is their commitment to not being evil. The adoption of the motto “Don’t be evil” was a step toward the creation of a certain type of culture– one that was constantly asking certain fundamental questions when coming into new projects– What does it mean to be evil? Is this new project evil? Can it be used for evil? Do its implications for malfeasant use overwhelm its potential for good or convenience?

Openness, like I said, is a moving target. What the Smithsonian needs to do, in approaching this project which has the potential to be really revolutionary, is to work on creating a similar culture, one that is always questioning openness. What does it mean to be open? How open can we be, here? Is this project being executed in the most open way possible?

As a publicly supported institution, openness should be seen as a moral obligation, a key element of the SI’s mission. Public institutions need to see “open” as the default, not the exception. And yet, looking through the SI’s web and new media strategy wiki, I don’t see that sort of discussion going on. The adjective “open” is used a lot, but there’s not as much grappling with what it means, or what it implies.

I hope none of this comes off as negative toward the Smithsonian or toward the Smithsonian Commons project. I think it’s a great idea. As the Jefferson Library’s Eric Johnson has pointed out, in some ways, Smithsonian 2.0 is really getting back to the organizational structures of Smithsonian 0.2. Under Spencer Baird’s tenure, the Smithsonian’s collections grew exponentially because of the crowdsourcing of knowledge in the form of specimens sent in by amateurs and hobbyists. Moreover, many of those doing the curation and gatekeeping during this period were, likewise, not exactly formally trained. They learned by doing– on-the-job training that taught how museums work by forcing you to make a museum work.

It’s natural that some museum workers– like many in academia– will have resistances to openness. After all, museums and universities are the great organizers of Knowledge. Their identity is often contingent upon their reputation for being able to separate wisdom from hokum, to selectively place that seal of approval on the true and disavow the false. And years and years of schooling and job experience are invested in credentialing, in the creation of the trust necessary to make such pronouncements authoritative and accurate. Openness can be seen as threatening to this, with its non-hierarchical structures, armchair experts, and “wisdom of crowds.” Working toward a truly open model for a project like the Smithsonian Commons is, in some ways, going to be an uphill battle. But the first step of that battle has to be changing the discourse, actually forcing people to discuss, tease out, interrogate the principle of openness.

For the Smithsonian to move forward and remain relevant, not to mention for it to remain true to its mission as a public institution– it needs to take a hard look at these questions when beginning a project with as much potential as the Smithsonian Commons.

The Smithsonian Folklife Festival began today. There is a quote from Secretary S. Dillon Ripley, under whose tenure at the SI the Folklife Festival began, that pertains just as much to the advent of the Smithsonian Commons as it does to the founding of the Festival: “Take the objects out of their cases and make them sing.”

The Smithsonian Commons is a project that could well have just that ability, to unbind the vast collective knowledge of the Smithsonian Institution and put it out there for the whole world to experience.

The question of openness can be reduced to this: you can take the objects out of their cases. But do you just want to put them in front of a worldwide public, or to put them in their hands?