Smithsonian Web Strategy, CultureLabel: The Impact of Network Effects

The Smithonian just announced the release of its Web and New Media Strategy v 1.0 [pdf], which has come together swiftly in a process of marvelous openness and inclusion. As a campus-like institution with 19 museums and galleries, 9 research centers, 18 archives, 1 library with 20 branches, and a zoo, the Smithsonian web-presence to date is as fragmented as its administrative parts (also see this presentation), and the chief goal of the web strategy is to offer the Smithsonian Commons as a unifying platform to SI units.

The initial Smithsonian Commons will be a Web site […] featuring collections of digital assets contributed voluntarily by the units and presented through a platform that provides best-of-class search and navigation; social tools such as commenting, recommending, tagging, collecting, and sharing; and intellectual property permissions that clearly give users the right to use, re-use, share, and innovate with our content without unnecessary restrictions.

Starting to skim through the report, this line in particular caught my attention:

We are like a retail chain that has desirable and unique merchandise but requires its customers to adapt to dramatically different or outdated idioms of signage, product availability, pricing, and check-out in every aisle of each store.

I think this is an apt metaphor for how the Smithsonian currently undermines its own potential, and should serve as a memorable rallying cry for the changes the web strategy advocates.

As coincidence would have it, this metaphor also handsomely dovetails with another intriguing piece of news, gleaned from the UK Museum Computer Group list (posted by Simon Cronshaw, Director of CultureLabel):

If you haven’t come across CultureLabel yet, our aim is to facilitate a united alliance of museum e-stores to forge a new mainstream consumer shopping category of ‘cultural shopping’ – in a similar way to how ethical shopping or alternative gifts have crystallised as buying categories in the public consciousness. We see this as a great new opportunity for both income generation and innovative audience development for all our culture partners.

While the Smithsonian aims to integrate its digital collection into a more cohesive webpresence, CultureLabel aims to integrate museum e-stores (for starters, those in the UK – more here) into one massive one-stop shop. What’s true for digital collections is equally true for products from the museum store: bringing together assets from a wide variety of players creates a webpresence with more gravity, which in turn will attract a wider audience. The Smithsonian Commons and CultureLabel both take advantage of a fundamental network effect: the more assets, the more users (customers / site visitors); the more users, the more participation (purchasing / tagging, commenting, etc.). The brand, a term featuring prominently both in the SI Web Strategy and on the CultureLabel website, ultimately is the biggest winner.

The Smithsonian web strategy acknowledges that the fragmented offering severely limits the impact pan-institutional assets currently have. Taking a step back, of course this logic also applies to the larger community: fragmenting our offerings into thousands of institutional websites severely limits the impact and potential of the collective museum collection.

With 60 participating museums and galleries, CultureLabel breaks down those institutional barriers, and stands as one of the most extensive data sharing exercise museums have engaged in to date. It’s a little sobering, if not surprising, that the gift shop is ahead of the collection in this instance. Can we do for museum collections what CultureLabel has done for museum commerce? Can we scale the model and the values of the Smithsonian Commons to a Commons for all museums? If it works for products, let’s make it work for digital collections.