Sunday, March 29, 2009

Man Cleans Dinosaur

The mainstream news media has only a limited number of stories relating to natural history specimens and their collections and one of the perennial favorites is "man cleans dinosaur." It seems to be a never-ending source of astonishment to newspapers and their readers that things get dirty in museums and that people then have to clean them. So here is the latest offering in this series, courtesy of the Chicago Tribune, in which Bill Simpson, my opposite number at the Field Museum, cleans the skeleton of the T-rex known as 'Sue.' Bill has around 30 years' experience as a fossil preparator and nearly 20 as a collection manager - he has collected fossils all over the world. But put him on a lift with a portable vacuum cleaner and a fake feather duster and he becomes instantly newsworthy. Now I probably shouldn't grumble about this, on the basis that all PR is good PR, but these sorts of articles really irritate me because they always come off like "let's see what those crazy folks at the museum are up to today. Cleaning the dinosaurs, huh? Well fancy that!" If you read the article, it's clear that Bill made some pretty good points while he was being interviewed, but they are buried like little nuggets in a sea of folksy goodness. Contrary to public opinion, our job is not like one long episode of "Night at the Museum," but I guess "Chris spends an entire day wading through a draft collecting agreement with the Federal government" is just too damn boring.

OK Facebook, maybe I will forgive you..

... because your page manager application is actually kinda cool. It makes it amazingly easy to track growth of the site, number of hits, number of fan posts, etc. What I'm not so sure about is the continuous and apparently random selection of flow of information on my own home page, which has become less of a stream and more of a babbling brook. This has led to me blocking some of you frequent posters, especially the ones inclined to scattergun their friends with on-line gifts. You know who you are....

Friday, March 27, 2009

I'm going to steal this idea

My wife prides herself on being the person that introduced me to the term Web 2.0. This is ironic, as we are talking about a person who has me update her Facebook page for her because she doesn't think it's a good use of her time to do it herself. Since I moved to YPM (for those of you that don't know, she works there too) she's become very enthusiastic about harnessing my 2.0 interests for the greater good of the Museum. So it was that today she sent me a stream of emails relating to web-based promotion that culminated in a link to this twitter feed. Which I thought was so good that I decided to blog about it.

If you are not one of the 10,700+ followers of this feed (yes, that really is ten thousand seven hundred plus) then this is a twitter that purports to be coming from the large model of a blue whale that hangs in the Hall of Ocean Life (HOL) at the American Museum of Natural History. When he is not commenting on the evils of whaling or the various other perils that afflict his blubbery brethren, the whale bemoans the fact that he feels kinda hollow inside (as he would do, being made out of plaster and chicken wire) and provides a rolling commentary on the Museum's visitors passing by beneath him (sneezing and baby vomit seem to be popular topics).

Giving a museum icon of this sort a voice and mordant personality is a masterstroke. It's so good that I found myself trying to figure out who was providing the voice. The AMNH Communications Department certainly has some very talented people, but the AMNH Administration has a pathological fear of controversy and it seems unlikely that any postings that were critical of a named politician (even one as cartoonish as Sarah Palin) would manage to get past the heavy hand of the Office of Government Relations - yes, AMNH has just such an office. So unless this is a clever piece of guerrilla PR on the part of Communications, it seems like this twitter is probably unsanctioned.

The occasional vignettes of HOL life suggest maybe a guard, or perhaps an AMNH Visitor Services employee (aka "sweater people," so-called because of their preppy AMNH-issue tank tops), equipped with an i-Phone or PDA. But then again, some of this stuff could be made up. Also the statement that "sometimes I wish the museum had some sort of vermin problem just so that my nights might see a little more action. But alas, not such luck" was clearly made by someone who has not seen the armies of mice that emerge when the AMNH galleries close to the public. So maybe it's just a fan of the whale, of whom there are many both inside and outside the Museum. He is truly a New York icon.

The idea that Twitter could animate a much loved, but very inanimate museum object, has not gone unnoticed here at YPM. So don't be surprised if you start getting updates on the ever-chaging theater that is New Haven's Whitney Avenue. From someone with a much, much better view than me...

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

How Not to Respond to a Creationist

Doing the rounds on the web at the moment are various blog postings relating to a response sent by University of Vermont ecologist Nick Gotelli to an invitation from the Discovery Institute to debate Intelligent Design on campus. This has elicted a fair amount of flag-waving commentary on behalf of some of my friends and colleagues, which consists of variations on a theme of "now that's the way to respond to these assholes." Meanwhile, I was holding my head in my hands. Now don't get me wrong. Gotelli was absolutely right not to accept the invitation from the Discovery Institute's David Klinghoffer. But my guess is that Klinghoffer was not at all interested in having a debate with Gotelli. He laid out a very well-baited trap and Gotelli walked right into it.

Take a look at the two letters. Kinghoffer's seems eminently reasonable - "appreciated your support of free speech at UVM.... whatever side one comes down on... healthy for students to be exposed to different views.." blah-blah-blah. By contrast, Gotelli's sounds like a snarl - "your sneering coverage.... two-faced dishonesty.... isn't it sort of pathetic...." If you are a paleontologist or evolutionary biologist this stuff is all very enjoyable. But suppose you're someone with no particular feelings on the issue. Worse still, suppose you're on a school board discussing how to teach evolution in your district. How does this exchange come across? Who looks reasonable and who looks like they're one step away from frothing at the mouth?

Here's a hard lesson for us science PhD's to take on board. Many people out there, possibly a majority of people in the USA, are more than a little suspicious of us. Like it or not, this is a country that elected a president on the basis that he seemed like the sort of guy you could have a beer with. Responses like Gotelli's may play well when he's preaching to the choir, but what do they look like to these people? Intellectual arrogance, perhaps? There's an excellent documentary called Flock of Dodos that explores this issue. Watching it, I was horrified at the extent to which creationists could come across as down-to-earth, reasonable, funny, and even self-deprecating, while the academics they interviewed, by and large, did not.

So what do you do when faced with an invitation like this? The same thing you do when a drunk guy in a bar tries to pick a fight with you - don't rise to the bait (or in my case, run away as quickly as you can). Either ignore it, or send them a one-liner saying you don't have time. Which is true - you don't have time to debate ID with hacks from the Discovery Institute and neither should you waste your energy writing emails like this and providing them with a bunch of free PR demonstrating the arrogance of evolutionary biologists. Save your energy for forums where it can make a difference; the school board, the courthouse, the classroom, museum displays, or the mainstream media. As Gotelli says at the conclusion of his email "this has been entertaining..." It sure has and we've all had fun writing emails of this sort. However, the smart thing is to think twice before you hit the "send" button.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Detonating a T-bomb

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post in which I heartily praised the contributions of amateur/avocational workers to museums and museum collections. So of course, in short order, along came an example of why amateur workers might not be such a good thing, which landed in my email in-box with the electronic equivalent of a thud.

There is, in the far-off land of Oz, a man by the name of Raymond Hoser. Yes, that really is his name - for those of you unfamiliar with the McKenzie brothers, a "hoser" is Canadian slang for something that interferes with or “messes up” something else. Some snake taxonomists would argue that Ray Hoser's name is an apt one. He has carved out a formidable reputation as a professional snake handler - an important job in a country that has more than its fair share of toxic reptiles - and as a crusader against government corruption. But it's his activities as an avocational taxonomist that get his professional peers hissing like a pit full of agitated mambas (this will be the only gratuitous snake simile that I use in this post).

To a non-herpetological taxonomist like me (i.e. one who doesn't have to live with the end results) Hoser's papers are hugely enjoyable. Take, for example, his recent paper in the Australian Journal of Herpetology (owner and editor, R. Hoser) on the taxonomy of rattlesnakes. What taxonomist has not secretly wished to dismiss all those pages of tedious descriptive text with a simple statement that "This paper does not by any means seek to.... provide elaborate descriptions of taxa beyond that deemed necessary to formally resolve the taxonomy and nomenclature of this group of snakes" or better still "detail has been kept to a minimum"? Bored with compiling that bibliography? "In terms of references cited, these have been kept to a bare minimum." And there are few taxonomists out there who could close a paper on the systematics of snakes by expressing their opinion that "children discouraged from interacting with wildlife, including rattlesnakes are more likely to turn to harmful alternatives like drugs, violence and the like."

I'm not a herpetologist, so I'm not going to try and comment on the validity of Hoser's work; if you Google his name you'll find that there are plenty of herpetologists out there that are more than happy to do this. You'll also find that a lot of the commentary is negative. Certainly his buccaneering prose style does not suggest the sort of attention to detail that one would normally expect of a professional taxonomist. However, the current round of Hoser-related controversy led me back to an earlier piece by Brendan Borrell, which appeared in Nature in 2007 (vol 446, pp.253-255). This article touched on Hoser's work while considering whether or not "amateur" taxonomists are "bad for science." One of the most interesting points raised was the question of whether the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN), which sets the ground rules for animal taxonomy, should take a more active role in such matters. At the moment, the ICZN can only adjudicate on issues of nomenclature - i.e. is the name itself valid? As you can imagine, this leads to some fast-paced, cutting-edge scientific debate:

"The purpose of this application, under Article 23.9.3 of the Code, is to conserve the universally accepted name Coprinisphaera Sauer, 1955 for an ichnogenus attributed to dung-beetle brood balls (ichnofamily COPRINISPHAERIDAE). This name is threatened by a rarely used senior subjective synonym Fontanai Roselli, 1939. It is proposed that the name Coprinisphaera is conserved by suppression of Fontanai."

Take that, Fontanai, you threatening senior synonym for dung beetle balls whose beetle is as yet unknown. OK, I'll admit that it's easy to laugh at the work of the Commission, but it does serve a very valuable purpose in policing the massively Byzantine world of naming. Understandably, the last thing the ICZN wants is to be dragged into policing the science that underpins these names. And rightly so, because this is the sort of thing that the taxonomic community should be policing itself. The problem is that, faced with a "rogue" taxonomist who works outside conventional academic structures and has his own journal, complete with ISSN number, the sanctions available to the community are limited. It's possible that efforts currently underway to more tightly define ICZN's requirements for publication will restrict the ability of avocational workers to self-publish, but thus far these efforts are limited to electronic publications.

Here, however, I'm going to take a step back and argue that some "bad" taxonomy may actually be "good" for science.

Now obviously there are some limits to this. But setting aside sea dragons from Utah, Cadborosaurus willsi Bousfield & LeBlond, and Nessiteras rhombopteryx Scott & Rines there may be instances where a less than perfect taxonomic or systematic account can stimulate research, or blow open long-held dogma and open up new lines of investigation. I call these papers "T-bombs."

I'll give you an example from my own area of research, the systematics of phalangerid marsupials (no, no, please don't stop reading here... I promise it will be both relevant and interesting). For those of you who have never had the pleasure of meeting a phalangerid, they are small to medium-sized possums of questionable temperament that occur in Australia, New Guinea, and the surrounding islands. In the mid 1980s, two contrasting studies of the taxonomy of this group were published. The first, by Jim Menzies and John Pernetta (1986), was a model of taxonomic rectitude. Over a period of many years, the authors measured hundreds, if not thousands, of possum skulls. They conducted rigorous statistical analyses of the results, refined the description of existing species and, with considerable conservatism, erected a very limited number of new taxa, mostly at the subspecific level. It was massively thorough and almost unreadable.

By contrast, the 1987 paper by Tim Flannery, Mike Archer, and Gerry Maynes was a wild carnival ride through phalangerid systematics. The authors were based in Australia, while most of the Type specimens of the taxa they were describing were in European institutions. Menzies and Pernetta, faced with the same problem (they were based in Papua New Guinea), took years to complete their study, collecting data on their occasional trips overseas. Flannery et al just ignored the types and worked from the species available in their collection in Sydney, which in one case consisted of a single specimen, or worked from published descriptions. The characters they used were often hard to independently verify (to this day, more than 20 years after I first read their paper, I still don't know what "ventral rim of the orbit overhangs the cheek tooth row" actually looks like) and in some cases were age-related features that were not present in adults - a problem when limited specimen availability means that you have to compare adults with juveniles. They erected, or rather resurrected, 3 new genera, and combined two existing genera for reasons that were never explained. There were no quantitative analyses and in contrast to Menzies and Pernetta, whose study was published in the Journal of Zoology (Series B, 1: 551-618), Flannery et al's paper was in a set of conference proceedings (Archer, M ed. 1987. Possums & Opossums, studies in evolution. Sydney, Surrey Beatty & Sons & the Royal Society of New South Wales) that was very hard to get hold of outside of Australia.

So which do I think was the better paper? Flannery et al, by a mile. Menzies and Pernetta's account was thorough, but hidden underneath that mountain of statistics were some pretty untenable assumptions, starting from their belief that G.H.H. Tate's suprageneric classification of phalangerids, dating back to the 1940s, was basically correct. They omitted any consideration of possums outside of Tate's original "orientalis" group because they decided that the "problem" was definition of species inside this group. Flannery et al looked at all phalangerids, concluding that some of Menzies and Pernetta's Indonesian and New Guinea species were actually more closely related to Australian brushtail possums than they were to the other Indo-New Guinea species. And because Menzies and Pernetta wanted the biggest sample size possible they only measured dimensions that were found in all the specimens they studied - which meant that they had, in effect, done a study of the systematics of possum palates rather than possums.

A cursory read through Menzies and Pernetta's paper made you think that there were no questions left to be answered; you might as well go and have a beer, or several beers - which you would need to recover from the experience of reading it. By contrast, when you started reading Flannery et al, you sat up and started asking questions; going into museum collections and pulling out phalangerid skulls to try and check some of these characters; getting annoyed when you couldn't find them; then finding other characters that supported some of their contentions but not others; then going back to Menzies and Pernetta and beginning to see some of the flaws in that study. All the things, in fact, that I ended up doing as a graduate student. Twenty years on, we still don't really know how many species of phalangerid there are, and we keep finding new ones.

And this, I think, is the most important point. At some level, all taxonomists believe that they are searching for an ultimate truth - the one true tree, the one correct and all-inclusive list of species. The problem is that taxonomy is an artificial construct; it's our attempt to apply discrete systematic descriptors to a fluid and continuously changing natural world. In reality, there are a multiplicity of species and a forest of possible trees. They shift, kaleidoscope-like, according to your choice of characters, or your choice of statistical methodology; the tree-generating algorithms you use, or what species you include. They change when you find a new fossil, or when you discover a previously unrecognized species hidden in a museum collection, or when you look at an old character in a new way, or when you find new types of character. The rules applied to the practice of taxonomy are a necessary evil to stop all of this spiralling into chaos, but it's important that they don't become a straitjacket. And that's why it's a good thing if a T-bomb goes off every now and again.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Available at Amazon Now!

"Norris is short, with thinning close-cropped black hair, and was dressed in jeans." (Walker, J.F. 2009. Ivory's Ghosts: the White Gold of History and the Fate of Elephants. p.17)

At least he didn't mention that I was overweight and the hair was more grey than black. Sheesh.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Gone Walkabout

According to the Daily Telegraph, the Natural History Museum recently published a list of all specimens from its collections that were stolen or lost over the last five years. Of course, the Telegraph article gleefully focussed on the theft of a dinosaur coprolite from an exhibit, which was an opportunity to put science director Richard Lane on the spot about the value of fossil crap (cue stock natural history collections answer about how all our specimens are unique and priceless, etc - to find out exactly how unique and priceless coprolites are, take a look here). The existence of fossil poo is a source of endless amusement to non-paleontologists ("it looks like poo, it came out of a dinosaur's bum, heheheh") and the fact that NHM is spending taxpayer's pounds on looking after it will be a source of outrage to the retired colonels and stockbrokers that make up the Telegraph's readership. But I was far more interested in the minutiae of the list that the Telegraph hinted at. A serial squirrel thief in Edinburgh? Beetles stolen from a car in Vienna? 22 conodonts hoovered up by mistake? These are the sorts of things that make museum life so fascinating. Anyone that's ever worked with a museum collection can reel off a whole bunch of such stories - fortunately for most of us, we don't have to publish them to the public.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Opportunity Lies Within a Circle of Triangles

Yesterday, I spent the morning at West Campus attending the first “Town Meeting” of staff working on that site. We met at Building B25 (right), which acts as a hub for the Campus – it contains the auditorium, library, conference facilities, and cafeteria. It was an interesting mix of people – in addition to a heavy turnout from YPM, there were also staff members from labs, security, facilities, grounds maintenance, and the daycare center. Looking around this group, it was evident that we were a relatively small group of pioneers – 70 people inhabiting a facility that could easily accommodate 3,000. (if you want to find out more about West Campus, take a look at my earlier posting on the site)

The meeting was called by Michael Donoghue, Yale Vice President for West Campus Planning and Program Development. Michael is a familiar figure to us at YPM, being both the curator of our Botany collection and a former Director of the Museum. His presentation on the future development of the site articulated a vision for biomedical research that had both clarity and excitement. A central core of three research facilities – chemical screening, DNA sequencing, and RNA interference – that are relevant to units on-site, at the medical school, and on science hill, would support a series of overlapping thematic research programs in areas such as cell biology, cancer biology, and microbiology. These in turn would feed out into other research programs, both on- and offsite. The whole thing was visualized as a series of interlocking circles, showing the vast potential for novel, interdisciplinary research. For a (very brief) instant, I almost wished I was a molecular biologist.

At first sight, the plan for the arts, libraries, and museum collections that Michael put up on screen seemed less well-formed. He visualized the participating institutions as a series of triangles, arranged in a circle. Either intentionally or unintentionally, the different triangles didn’t seem to overlap much. The two core facilities envisaged for this area - digitization and conservation – sat in the middle of the circle, but they didn’t overlap with all of the triangles, and neither did they overlap much with each other. Unlike the “science” plan, with its tightly interlocking circles, there seemed to be a lot of blank white space in the middle of the “arts” plan. Initially, I felt a little disappointed that our plan didn’t seem as fully-realized as that for the sciences. Then, as I spent more time looking at it, I realized that those white spaces represented opportunity.

There are real opportunities at West Campus for the all of the “Arts” institutions – new ways to physically-access collections, or perhaps combine collections from different institutions and disciplines in shared/neutral space to generate new perspectives. The digitization facility gives institutions the tools to promote the virtual equivalents of this collection-based interdisciplinarity and make it available to a much wider audience. Michael had outlined new K-12 education facilities that were being spearheaded by YPM. Currently these are just outside the Campus boundaries and have a strongly environmental focus, but could they be brought inside and expanded to encompass cross-collections access? Because the plans are still evolving, we have the opportunity to shape them in new and exciting ways.

To take one example of this, an important concept for West Campus collections that Michael touched on was the idea of browsable storage. There are different visions of what this might mean. At the most simple level, it is the idea that collections should be accessible and usable despite being in storage. This is not a particularly novel concept in natural science collections, where we regular provide collections access to hundreds of researchers a year. In some cases specimens are brought by collections staff to a separate work room, but it is often far more productive to allow the visitors to browse the collection themselves. This involves a considerable degree of trust on the part of the hosting institution, which is why the privilege is usually only extended to fellow professionals. The pay-off for the museum is that an experienced visitor may find interesting material that has been overlooked (or even wrongly identified) by the museum staff.

Museums have frequently toyed with the idea of giving the public “behind the scenes” access to collections, but where this has been done it is usually in the form of tours given by museum staff or volunteers. Even in institutions which have actively promoted the idea of “open” collections, such as the Natural History Museum’s Darwin Centre, public access still follows this basic format although in the case of Darwin the tour guides are collections staff or researchers. These are certainly valuable programs and allow the museum to teach on its underlying mission of collections care and research in ways that might not be possible through conventional exhibits. But it’s possible to go much further with the idea of browsable storage, particularly in a venue that combines multiple collections from widely differing disciplines.

Imagine that a visitor could walk, with only minimal guidance, from a collection of dinosaur tracks in fossil slabs, to a room full of 19th Century paintings, and from there to a brand new video art installation, and on to an assortment of astrolabes. At the most superficial level, they would surely get a sense of the breadth of Yale’s collections. But it’s also possible that as they wandered through the collections, they might begin to draw their own links between some of these objects. Whereas conventional galleries seek to impart the curator’s vision, browsable storage of this would have no preconceived message – it could act as a blank canvas on which the visitor could develop their own ideas. The challenge for us then would be to develop mechanisms for recording and sharing these ideas with other visitors.

Of course, the number of visitors that can make the trip out to West Campus may be limited, whereas the numbers that can visit on-line are almost unlimited. Given the right tools for capturing, tagging, annotating, linking, and sharing object images and information, it would be possible to create virtual spaces where visitors could do the equivalent of browsing the collections, assembling their own “collections” of “specimens” that might combine archival, ethnographic, art, and natural science objects from multiple institutions. They could save them, post them, and share them with their friends and colleagues. The opportunities are as limitless as the potential audience. This is the sort of initiative that a digitization center of the sort described by Michael could pursue across the collection holding units at West Campus.

Which brings us back to the question of interdisciplinarity. This is the outcome that all research administrators lust after – breaking down the boundaries of existing disciplines to generate new opportunities and, ultimately new disciplines. YPM has achieved this once already with the Class of 1954 Environmental Science Center, a facility that has created a magic mix of people, facilities, and collections on a single site adjacent to the main Peabody Museum. The question is can we do the same thing again on West Campus, but on a much larger scale, covering a range of highly disparate disciplines and collections? The major challenge is how to get bodies on-site. Interdisciplinarity can be fostered by common facilities, but the most important factor is day-to-day physical proximity of people. We need to come up with a sufficient attractant to bridge that 7 mile gap between the Central and West Campuses.

The one thing that we have on our side is time. Incorporating a major facility like West Campus into the existing structures at Yale is a significant challenge and Michael’s presentation made it clear that this is a very long-term project for Yale; perhaps as long as 50-100 years. That small group of people sat in the cafeteria at B25 is the advance party of whole generations of future inhabitants.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

We Know What You Want

You gotta love Mark Zuckerberg. It’s not so long since Facebook’s head honcho was busy telling us how we shouldn’t be at all bothered that his company was going to claim copyright on all the pictures of our kids that we’d uploaded to Facebook. Today, however, Mark decided to reach out of cyberspace and personally make my life a misery. Or so it seemed at 9:00am this morning.

One of the great things about Facebook is that they continually think about how we could be doing things “better.” Then they make us do them. Without asking us first. Facebook believes that we have a problem with connecting to the information that we want. We may not know that we want it yet, but Facebook knows and it’s going to make life better for us. As Zuckerberg said in a posting to the Facebook Blog yesterday:

“… we must build Facebook to give everyone the power to share anything they want and connect with anyone they want. The way we're doing that is to first extend people's ability to connect with everything that interests them, and to give people a way to get updates from all of these connections. Then, we're going to increase the pace of the [information] stream, so you can immediately see what is going on around you.”

Well that all sounds Fine and Dandy, and if you’d asked me yesterday what I thought about this I’d have given it a big thumbs up. That was before I logged into the YPM’s prototype Facebook page this morning to make some last minute checks before our group presented it to our Director this afternoon. And found that it had totally changed.

Our original Facebook page had all the content on one page. We had pushed our Wall (for all you FB virgins out there, that’s the area where people can post comments and where changes that we’ve made to the page are flagged) to the bottom of the page, and had front-loaded the page with a lot of cool applications that fed in video from our YouTube channel, and RSS feeds from our blogs and our Twitter feed, and links to exhibits, and a really cool new application that lifts content from an XML page populated with data and images from our on-line catalog. All of this stuff was gone.

Actually, it turned out it wasn’t gone. It had been moved to onto a separate screen, accessed by a tag labeled “Boxes” (because if anything says “on-line exhibits” or “blog feeds” to users, it’s the word “boxes”). Our photo albums where on another tab. Our carefully chosen image of YPM was shrunk to the size of a postage stamp. The information about where we are and when we’re open, which was originally at the top of our page, was shoved onto another tab, called “Info” (admittedly a bit more informative than “Boxes”). And all we were left with on our front page was the Wall, proudly announcing things that we had done, in some cases, weeks ago along with statements of ball-busting inanity (“Yale Peabody Museum has installed the Profile Box application”).

All of this was done by Facebook, without reference to us, because Facebook knows that our users don’t want access to on-line exhibits, or opening hours, or video content. They want to know what we’re DOING! Like RIGHT NOW!! And if they like it, they want to tell us that it’s “gr8” or “kuhl.” And that means that the Wall has just become the most important thing that we do. Everything else can get shoved in the back. Just like the conventional websites that we were trying to move away from when we set up the page. You’re allowed to customize the page a little, but you rapidly encounter limitations as to what things can be put on what Tab and where. The design is actually far less flexible than the old single page, where you could pretty much order things as you like.

I trogged over to the Facebook Blog to see who was protesting about this. Expecting a mass of criticism, I instead discovered that over 8,400 people have logged on to say that the changes are gr8 and kuhl. Scattered throughout this, at the rate of maybe 1 per 100 comments, were hapless page administrators asking “why is my page all f*cked up?” and “can I have the old page back?” To which the answer from Facebook is “no.” These are the same changes that Facebook imposed on personal pages a few months back. People protested furiously, and to absolutely zero effect. Facebook knows what’s best for you. And ultimately they may be right. The fact is that institutional page admins form a tiny fraction of Facebook’s users. If Facebook were a democracy, which it isn’t, we’d probably be outvoted. So it may mean more work for us, but we’re going to have to adapt.

By now of course, you are all having a good laugh at me for blathering on about the potential of Web 2.0 and then complaining when social networking priorities come back to bite me in the ass. But I think there’s a lesson to be learnt here. I’m working with a colleague of mine on a project to develop new ways to interact with natural history collections via the web. A couple of days ago we were looking at another, non-Facebook networking application, and she said to me “look at all this stuff out there – it seems like we’re just reinventing the wheel. Why would we want to develop our own application?” Well Facebook has just given us the answer to that question.

Nina Simon wrote a great post on her Museum 2.0 blog in which she said that the future of authority is Platform Power – museums shouldn’t worry about letting visitors control the museum experience because ultimately the museum controls the platform and sets the rules of what which content can be generated, how it can be shared, and how interaction takes place. The problem with museums using Facebook (or MySpace, or any third-party networking technology) is that we don’t have the Platform Power – they do. Facebook knows where it’s going and if you don’t want to go that way – well you can always get off the bus. Just make sure you leave the family snaps behind.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

More on Threatened Closure of UConn Museums

A couple more pieces on the threatened closure of the Connecticut State Museum of Natural History and the William Benton Museum of Art at UConn. Allison Lex, writing in the Daily Campus, gives an overview of the situation, while Larry Cohen and Gina Barreca debate the closures in a Hartford Courant piece which made me want to beat my head with something very hard.