When our visitors walk into their museums, they will have already consumed a great deal of information and fast at a rate of, on average, 23 words per second. Over the course of a day, people read an average 105,000 words. They walk into your museum, only to use text to find the bathroom, learn about your collection, and find their way to the exit. But, are museums textual practices keeping up with the literacy changes of our visitors?
Quick History of Knowledge Acquisition
- Move from oral to print increases sphere of influence
- Mass production is partnered with mass consumption of text
- Technology exponentially increases not only production of but also access to text
When it comes to social change, there are usually two camps: it was better before and it is now wondrous. In terms of knowledge sharing, you might think that we are living in the moment before the mass extinction of books, just waiting for one more meteor from the tech sphere. You might instead think that we are finally in the great democratic (small d) age of knowledge. Either way, it might be useful to step down the historical path of literacy and knowledge sharing.
Knowledge in the early days was transmitted orally. Writing systems were implemented, effectively separating the words from the speaker/ writing and thereby making ideas highly mobile. Early writing survives on pots and tablets. And, while mobile, these writing documents were handmade and heavy. Pity the horse asked to transport a set of texts over a hill.
Scrolls helped with the weight of things. Even the most ornery, old mule could take one scroll to the next city-state. But, the codex, or spined-book, changed things. These stackable communication tools could be filled with dissertations and novelizations. Books were then further improved in as mass media tools with the onset of printing.
Printing changed knowledge forever. Ideas whizzed out of machines in broadsheets, newspapers, pamphlets, posters, and books. Knowledge was now mass media, multi-format, and myriad. Finally, technology took up the charge from printing. Early website information was present in certain situations, like from desktop computers in homes, (remember that iconic buzz of the landline connection?) Smartphones, like the iPhone launched in 2007, meant that knowledge was in your pocket or hand all the time. The smartphone allowed you to get blogs, tweets, feeds, and all the other Web 2.0 tools continuously and continually.
Web 2.0 & Social Media: Faster, Shorter, and MORE
- User-generated/ change in authority structure
- High-volume text consumption
- Writing and reading styles have changed
Web 2.0 with its social media tools made knowledge-work a global activity, hobby, or obsession, depending on where you stand. Everyone is writing all the time. This user-generated content has changed the power structures of knowledge. Users (i.e. readers) are making text to disseminate their ideas. Authority became dispersed being partially displaced from institutions to individuals. This dissemination of authority can be seen as a flowering of democratic knowledge-work or, alternately, an erosion of quality in knowledge-work. While this debate is beyond the topic at hand, those acquiring knowledge are basically reading on the front-line of this authority debate. Readers confront this question with every text that they read. For every like or retweet, they are endorsing the authority of the writer.
And, they are making these assessments in record time. Knowledge is being made faster than ever. An average 1.2 million words are added to Twitter every minute. This is 18 Billion words every day. Almost four TRILLION words every month. And, that is on a single platform. Add all the text your mom is writing about you on Facebook, the captions on Instagram, the food blogs, the comments on those food blogs about the problems with the recipes, the comments on FB posts… You get the point. You live the point. Text inundates readers daily. Rather than being overwhelmed, many are willingly accessing and responding to this text. People are reading more, even as they are reading fewer books. Longform literary texts, with 1000 pages to get to the denouement, has a smaller audience, but short bites are on the rise. In other words, rather than being on the decline, literacy is shifting.
Social media and Web 2.0 texts have changed readers. They expect short and sweet. That said, the long text doesn’t immediately turn them off. They are skimmers. You don’t think so? With the changes in readers, texts and writing are changing. Look at this text. Its constructed for the skimmers amongst us. There are bold headings, like road signs, for the speeding readers. For the super-fast reader, there will be some quick bullets at the end. So, why am I putting in all this text, then? b/c you are all looking for something different. In order word, long-form texts are being created to support the diversity of audiences and their differential interests. (Also, age-old norms are changing. Abbreviations are being the norm.)
Transformations in Knowledge-seeking
- Knowledge seeking is easier than ever
- Knowledge resources are wide, deep, diverse, broad, and ever-present
- Knowledge seeking is often broad rather than deep
Along with literacy shifts, Web 2.0 tools have transformed knowledge-seeking. When was the last time you flipped through an encyclopedia to figure out the name for that line that separates two dates in a range? (En-dash, by the way). Now, as a museum/ knowledge worker, you are probably more predisposed to use physical/ analog texts to find answers, but even knowledge-workers Google things. This shift is important in the museum setting. Your viewers know how to look up textual facts. They can find out where Rembrandt was from if they care. They know how to figure out the definition of tempera, and where to watch a video of egg tempera being made. Facts are available to everyone. And, while you might see yourself as the purveyor of the real, verifiable facts, your visitors are also very good at finding answers (and they might have a different idea about what a verifiable fact is). Your visitors, if motivated, can find any fact they need, but this increased ability to fact-find is not necessarily matched with a concomitant growth in critical reasoning.
The flip-side of this phenomena is that for every museum collection there is a web niche. So, there are knowledge-makers online creating the counterpart to everything. You have a collection of decorative objects, including Wedgewood salt shakers. Look up salt and pepper shakers. You will see an amazing world of savory dec arts. You are a natural history museum with skulls and bugs. Well, I assure you that you have scores of Instagram accounts that would pair nicely with your collection. In other words, you aren’t the only one out there. This phenomenon can be taken in two ways by museums, as an erosion of uniqueness or alternately, and more positively, as an expansion of their community.
What are the implications for Museums?
- The short version: People are reading more, finding facts all the time, and being inundated with text. Museums need to understand these changes to make better text.
As a society, we are not the readers we were in 2007. This is not a value judgment. This is not about caring less about collection objects. This is about idea dissemination. People are getting info in a different way.
Before you attempt to bemoan the diminished state of knowledge today. Every generation has had some type of knowledge acquisition transition. And, those who are living through these changes are often completely unaware when cognition slowly changes accordingly.
You really only notice the giant jumps, like going back to a long-ago time period. Even the most scholarly of us might find listening to an oration of the Mahabharata for 12 hours or so a little overwhelming. You are not inherently dumber or smarter than the original audience that could sit through that Indian tale of duty. We are trained by society to acquire information. Information that is transmitted in the social vernacular will be more easily acquired. Said differently, people learn as society has trained them to; teach differently or they might not learn.
How do we give museum visitors what they want and need in terms of text?
Begin by ensuring that the text is suitable for the delivery method. Social media often is entertaining, short, and timely whereas labels are site-specific, informative, and evergreen.
With our visitors becoming savvy information consumers, we need to spend more time and research money on evolving the all our textual information so that our knowledge-ecosystem works for our visitors. We need to be strategic about ideas and knowledge-dissemination. We need to work holistically on the text as a form of access and inclusion. It is imperative, as a field, that we spend time researching labels and think about innovating at that most basic element of our knowledge-ecosystem. If we don’t, our visitors, best case, will just Google it, or worse, stop coming.