Radical Trust Starts At Home

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of attending the Smithsonian’s most recent Educator’s Exchange, a program primarily oriented to the Education departments of the various Smithsonian museums. The topic of the roundtable discussion was cooperation between departments, focusing primarily on education and web staff. Now, I’m in a curatorial department, a historian, but given my interest in both education and new media, I had to attend.

Coming in to the Air and Space Museum’s very impressive Moving Beyond Earth Gallery, I felt a little like an interloper, but I’m new enough to museums that I feel like an interloper most of the time anyway. During the lunch and discussion section, the other attendees were more than inviting, however. And the roundtable discussion was fascinating.

While the conversation rambled along, covering more topics than I could manage to tweet, the one takeaway I really got from this session was a better appreciation for and understanding of the notion of radical trust. It’s a term I’ve heard batted about a decent amount in recent months, but haven’t always had the clearest sense of what it meant.

Radical trust is, simply put, the decision by an organization– a library, a museum, what have you– to trust online communities, and to be sincerely open to their input. It’s trusting your visitors and your users to actually know what they want to see, to be informed engaged participants, rather than passive consumers. It’s making decisions that take into account the feedback people are volunteering.

One irony of the phrase is that “radical trust” isn’t particularly radical. It’s how many of us engage with others on the web every day. You get your friends’ opinions about a coat you want to buy via Facebook, for example, and then actually consider their opinions when making the purchase. You don’t simply put up your Facebook page to appear to be engaged. You actually interact. “Radical trust” is really the radical notion that organizations need to treat the people they serve like people.

What makes it so radical is that organizations, while made up of individuals, are not people, and do not act like people. Institutions have different instincts from (healthy) individuals. They’re highly compartmentalized. High barriers can exist between one department and the next, even when their actual missions overlap.

If you were to do a survey of the most vocal opponents of blog comments, tagging, wikis, crowdsourcing and the like on museum websites, I’d wager some of the loudest would be in curation. Curators are perhaps the most vested in the museum’s air of authority, in the implicit trust people give respected museums. This is natural, as their job is to be the arbiters of information, and to guard that trust. The job of the curator is to make sure that what is presented is accurate, interesting, valuable, and legit.

But when one of the panelists asked for a show of hands to a couple questions about interdepartmental cooperation, something became abundantly clear– curators are also being locked out of the process. In many museums, it seemed, the curators themselves were not being given access to the back-end of online projects. Is it any wonder that they would be trepidatious about allowing something they can’t even access themselves to be opened up to the whole wide world?

Radical trust can’t begin with opening up your project to the entire world. It has to start with opening up your project to the guy in the next office. If people in your organization are resisting the kind of openness that you think museums need to embrace, you have to ask yourself: how open are we being within the museum? Do curatorial, collections, education, and the like all have access to the back end of your websites? Are they being given enough administrative rights to actually do something on the back end, to contribute, and to add their own specialized knowledge? Are other departments brought in to meetings to strategize about what new technologies you should adopt?

If only the museum web team is participating in the creation of content for social media and engaging with the public, you already have a problem. Bring the whole family to the table, and make sure everyone has a seat, before you invite company in for a meal.

Radical trust starts at home.