What’s Web 2.0 to the Cultural Sector?

A Few Things to Think aboutA Few Things to Think about

By Bart Groen and
Leonieke Verhoog

Bart Groen is a new media freelancer and researcher, currently employed at Virtueel Platform.
Leonieke Verhoog is project developer New Media at VPRO and researcher/producer for Virtueel Platform.

What is the difference between web 1.0 and web 2.0? (Or the broadcast model vs. cooperative participation

In the last few years the web has successfully penetrated people’s daily lives.
A large majority of people in the first world have access to the Internet and have discovered its possibilities.

A current generation of youngsters have grown up with the Internet and seem to have grown entwined with it making it necessary
for cultural institutions to approach the participant both physically and digitally.1
In the following article we would like to show that due to changes in technology another kind of cultural audience has arisen.

This changing paradigm will be explored, questioning how this newly interactive user can be described, how they have changed and what cultural institutions can learn from this situation.

Assuming the situation has changed, what are the (dis)advantages of cooperative participation for cultural institutions?

The ways in which the vast treasury of cultural data can be opened to this new audience will be defined and we aim to provide an insight into the main topics discussed at the Culture 2.0 conference, concluding with what exactly web 2.0 means for the cultural sector.
Internet technology has changed dramatically over the past few years in the lead-up to what Tim O’Reilly has dubbed web 2.0; the phrase insinuating a dramatic break with previous version(s) of the Internet. In his 2005 article ‘What is web 2.0?’ O’Reilly points out the differences between 1.0 and 2.0 services.

The main difference is the way in which users interact with the offered service, or the way in which users constitute the service they use. In the 1.0 model a service was offered which the user could consume (as a passive activity). Services in the 2.0 era thrive on the effort users put in and perhaps more importantly, on the ways users are able to interact with each other via the service. As an example of this we can look at the difference between personal websites (1.0) and blogging (2.0).

Where the website was once used as a private or commercial space on the web, the weblog is utilised as a medium by which to communicate, not unilaterally but bi-, tri- or multilaterally.

An important factor in the success of weblogs is the sense of belonging people feel when they attach themselves to communities that grow and cluster around weblogs of specific interest. Even though this is just a single example it can be seen as paradigmatic for web 2.0 applications.
This changing paradigm of interaction has led to a profound shift in the conceptualisation of the user.

Therefore a distinction should be made between web 2.0 and social software.

Where web 2.0 is meant as delineation from its predecessor, social software focuses on the user and more importantly their interaction with other users. The process of interaction has changed from one-to-many to many-to-many, from a broadcast model to a cooperative model. As with television, where content is created beforehand and then broadcast, this model deprives the user of interaction. Interaction in the cooperative model is essential to success.

The extensive list of examples Bob Stumpel provided us with proves that cooperative interaction (as a social act) is serving both as a business model and as a means for users to create meaning (and belonging) in the digital world.
This change has lead to a different perception of the user and web services.

To clarify, in the web 1.0 era users were called consumers, which is in line with the broadcasting model used.

They consumed the services websites had to offer. For example in O’Reilly’s list of differences between web 1.0 and 2.0, companies saw publishing information online as a part of their business model so long as they had the power to regulate which users had access to what type of company information. 2.0 companies encourage users to participate in gathering information and sharing data (i.e. weblogs use several authors who obtain their information from multiple sources). This shifts the user from being a consumer (consuming information) to a prosumer (both producing and consuming information other users have added).

A new cultural ecology

Prosumers, connected to each other by the Internet, share and respond to or change content due to the digital nature of the media. According to Hartley these digital changes gave rise to a ‘newly interactive citizen-consumer’ (Hartley, 2005) who in turn has affected a new cultural ecology as well (De Bakker and Verhoog, 2006).

Within this ecology a change can be discerned regarding the cultural paradigm. Hartley describes this new paradigm as:
“The conceptual and practical convergence of the creative arts (individual talent) with Cultural Industries (mass scale), in the context of New Media Technologies (ICTs) within a new knowledge economy, for the use of newly interactive citizen-consumers”. (Hartley, 2005, p.5)
These newly interactive citizen-consumers will make the biggest impact on the cultural sector. It is this body of people that the cultural sector needs to cater for
– the early adopters that follow and quickly embrace new developments. When
we relate this to the way in which cultural objects are never completed (these are always open to connotations, and different meanings) there is no cause for institu-tions to be scared about these developments.

Cultural institutions should use this ‘open situation’, revelling in the fact that people want to and are able to, share and help with the creative development process. Where ‘the work in movement’ has
set in motion a new cycle of relations between the artist and the audience, a new mechanics of aesthetic perception and a different status for the artistic product in contemporary society has evolved. We are beginning a new chapter in the history of art.

What are the advantages of cooperative participation for cultural institutions?

Research by the Dutch Social and Cultural Planning Office (SCP) in 2006 shows that amongst cultural institutions there is a lack of information about the user and their needs regarding online strategy.

There are, however, some important examples that could give an insight into the way the user and their needs can be met.2
An example of this type of research has been conducted by ‘Vooruit’ (a cultural centre and podium in Ghent, Belgium). Their extensive research into the needs and wants (relating to web 2.0) of cultural consumers in Belgium has led to the launch of a 2.0 website and the opening of a Virtual Arts Centre of the Future (VACF). Stefaan de Ruyck (Vooruit director) sums up the needs of these visitors and the issues involved.
Our visitors may feel overloaded by the rich cultural landscape.

They want to discover new things but they don’t always want to take risks. More background information, audiovisual teasers and expert/user opinions might help to enthuse them.

They want to feel engaged, in part by sharing their opinion and expertise. By enabling them to do so we want to invite our visitors to participate. [..] The challenges that this brings with it are big: cultural institutions should not simply find answers for the multiplicity of new media, arts and presentational forms, but also for the new possibilities of communication and interaction with the crowd. (de Ruyck, 2007:3)
In our opinion De Ruyck is accurate when he addresses the need for the participation of visitors, next to their eagerness for being informed about cultural happenings. Combining a need for cultural interest with cooperative participation proved to be a key factor in the research.
In order to embed it in a digital context, the research team centralised the negotiating role of the cultural institution. The web offers cultural institutions the possibility to interact: with their public, other players in the cultural landscape, and importantly within its own organisation. Not by means of one-way traffic, but in an open and balanced conversation.

Furthermore, digitisation destroys thresholds and boundaries for creative participation. Anyone who feels the need can produce cultural material, disseminate and share it, which blurs traditional roles.

An important task for cultural institutions seems to be
in providing curatorship over this huge and complex structure of cultural data. Not as a traditional gatekeeper, who decides what the public gets to see and what it doesn’t but more like a guide that accentuates and structures the material. (Mechant and Michiels, 2007: 19)
What this research shows us is that a need exists for cultural institutions to draw on the creativity of their visitors.

According to Tara Hunt, drawing on this creativity (as part of an online community) will result in heightened customer loyalty, self-policing, amplified word of mouth, better feedback and stronger and more interesting relations.

Creating a sense of community for the user is about creating a sense of belonging in which the user has feelings of membership, feelings of influence, integration and fulfilment of needs and a shared emotional connection.

Context is king

This sense of community has been the basis for the success of companies like YouTube, Flickr and MySpace.

However these websites had no a priori data to share, or for the users to interact with, instead they were filled with users’ creativity and personal information. Seemingly meaningless information was transformed into meaningful information because it was put in a social context (and was creatively used).

If cultural institutions can open up the vast treasury of cultural data they already have digitised, it would seem likely that all they would have to do is create a social context around it for people to make the most of this already meaningful material.

Quality or quantity?

We sense that the greatest fear surrounding the opening up of cultural data is losing control over it. Institutions fear the freedom that users have become accustomed to on public websites such as YouTube.

However, enhanced interaction with the available material does not necessarily mean that the content provider loses all of its privileges (like it has while using a broadcast model). Institutions hold a substantial amount of knowledge on certain topics and have the experience and expertise to put certain topics within a broader context.

Therefore we would like to suggest a model in which the institutions become a provider of content, a provider of theoretical background and a provider of technological means, by which the user can create new meanings in their own way (tag it, remix it, mash it up, distribute it, etc.).

What are the possibilities of these advantages for the cultural sector?

Nowadays, almost all cultural institutions have a website and they’re working hard on the digitisation and delivery of cultural information. The Internet is an important medium to make this treasury available for a larger audience.
Cooperative participation is leading to the growth of creative communities in which users feel a sense of belonging and in which interaction with the available material is a key factor.

Cultural institutions, in their traditional role as information providers, might start using social software to serve a double purpose. Firstly, users can interact with cultural material they have been familiar with in a creative way, and which already has a lot of meaning attached to it and secondly, this might also serve an educational purpose.
All cultural institutions edit the material they show to their public. Be it by leaving out certain works of a collection or by literally editing pieces of information. However, in every audience a number of experts are present who, when grouped together, might know a lot more than the experts working in the institutions on the specific topics.

One of the exciting things about co-creation is that this is a resource of knowledge that can be tapped into. It is up to institutions to discover and enable the experts amongst their audience.

Examples and best practices

Some of the better projects that are already using the creative power of the masses include ‘3voor12 Lokaal’, where Dutch public broadcaster VPRO provides enthusiastic volunteers with the tools to create their own local music news environment. In return they form a huge ‘web’ of informants collaboratively helping to spot the latest news about music.

Another good case is Last.fm, a website where you can share your favourite songs with people who like similar styles of music. When you upload your music from iTunes, automatically your favourites are mixed with the ‘if-you-like-this-you’ll-probably-like-this-too mechanism. This mechanism can be employed by a variety of cultural institutions to give a new layer of meaning to data as friends and specialists recommend it.

As it is said, the sum of the individuals is more valuable than the group of individuals alone. In line with this philosophy, Moose, a website which reviews theatre productions, lets people write their com-ments on performances they have seen. Potential audiences can read other user’s comments, as well as professional reviews or read the opinion of a friend they know has similar taste. The value of reviews on the site can only be measured by the reader; there is not one agreed-upon quality or standard. Again it is the context that makes it valuable to the user of this cultural product.
Instead of being afraid of the power of ‘mass creativity’ institutions should endeavour to utilize the creativity of their once-passive audience. During one of
the Cultuur 2.0 workshops Willem Velthoven voiced the opinion that technology can filter out a large part of the useless contributions. By redirecting this task to software an automatic safeguard is put in place that filters out the rotten apples, leaving a selection of more worthwhile offerings. We’re not saying that opening
up this treasury to a larger audience is always easy – according to the Sociaal Cultureel Planbureau research, institutions still have a lot of work to be done regarding digitisation and web infrastructures.

However, when all these structures are in place both the software and the users will account for the largest part of the effort. The editor or curator will have broadly the same function as the institutions have now: showing material, selecting material, instigating discussions and asking questions.


Services need to attract users by instigating a social context in which prosuming can take place.

One of the key issues of attracting the user in the era of web 2.0 is user experience. If the interaction design is bad users will reject the application. 2.0, in different sectors, has proven to be a tool capable of creating engaging user experiences. The cultural sector is rich in media content and could thoroughly benefit from a web 2.0 strategy.

Organisations could link content from different databases, perhaps even combining it with the user’s preferences found in commercial applications such as last.fm/del.iciou.us/plazes/twitter/wordpress. With minimal editing from institutions, the user is able to truly personalise their experience.
A key factor in the whole process of participation is the possibility of co-creation, be it by means of mashing up audio files or videos or by supplying friends or other users with feedback on concerts, exhibits etc.

At the core of co-creation is the idea that people enjoy the sense of belonging that comes with engaging with likeminded (creative) communities. They don’t want or need to be paid for this since the topics they share with one another are topics they really care about. It’s this passion that makes people want to work/share/make and create.

An ethnographic research on the organization of 3voor12 shows that passion for the subject is essential to form a community, a context, and therefore a meaning for the users (De Bakker en Verhoog, 2006). Without passion there is no drive for pragmatism, no drive to working together and ultimately no drive for change.

What does web 2.0 mean for the cultural sector?

These changes described above not only affect cultural institutions; they also affect governmental policy makers and the organisations that are in charge of subsidising projects/institutions.
If cultural institutions want to change the way in which they approach their customer/visitor they should not only change the way in which interaction is made possible with their digitised content, but also the way in which these institutions are funded should be changed. Let’s take museums as an example: quantification still happens by the number of visitors that have been in the museum space.
Thus, a museum is supported on the basis of the number of visitors it receives.
As a possible solution we would like to change the model of quantification: museums are no longer judged on the number of visitors in-house but by the amount of information they distribute. For example, the impact of a piece of information (online or off) would be measured by the number of times it has been used (track-backs, mash-ups or other user based expression).
However, to develop a system that enables organisations to open up collections and share information that is ready to be used by an audience is another problem.

Creating digitally available, indexed, searchable archives in which information is embedded in a historical and social context is the biggest challenge yet for cultural organisations and funding bodies.

Thus more time should be spent finding out what needs the user has and what information they are looking for. As both 3voor12
and Vooruit prove, only after creating an in-depth user profile is it possible for an institution to cater to the needs of their specific crowd. Taking into account that it is not only institutions that can (or have to) change, but also the way in which they are quantified and subsidised, web 2.0 will have profound effects on governments, cultural institutions and audiences alike.

From Virtueel Platform

Scroll up