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The Magpie Myth

September 19, 2013

Earlier this week,, I attended the excellent Let’s Get Real conference which took place, handily for me, in Brighton. The evening reception took place in Brighton Museum, where the report was launched. Immediately following the launch, I took part in a show and tell session, promoting Story Drop, a new smartphone app we’ve developed with Surface Impression.

There was a rather whopping irony in this. The introduction to the report notes that one of the barriers to making good use of digital is that, ‘senior management want us to build big, shiny new showcase digital “things” that will show everyone we are cool (app, kiosk, game etc.)’, a point Sejul Maide also makes in this article for The Guardian. Yet Story Drop (present teething bugs aside) is almost an archetype of the big, shiny thing, and looks to run almost entirely against the spirit of the Let’s Get Real project and its subsequent report.

All of which suggests that our showcased app really ought to have had the status of a serial adulterer preaching at a True Love Waits wedding. To compound the sin, Story Drop is one of a series of (arguably) big, shiny, new things (BSNTs) I’ve worked on over the last couple of years for the Royal Pavilion and Museums, which include an experimental crowdsourcing project, a couple of apps, and a gamish thing.

Now, this post will not be a defence of the BSNT: ‘innovation’, which is what most BSNTs are promoted under, has always struck me as a limited virtue in isolation. Nor will I take issue with the general thrust of the argument: I should stress that the Let’s Get Real report contains some very useful advice and helpful analysis, and I would strongly recommend that anyone working with digital in the cultural sector ought to read it. Plus, having met Sej a couple of times, I have a lot of respect for him, and largely agree with his article. Who can contest the simple point that if an app or other digital product is produced solely for its value as a BSNT, then some deeply flawed thinking is at work?

My concern is that the BSNT is a mostly mythical beast. I have observed a good deal of discussion over the last year or so about a lack of strategy in digital activity by the cultural sector, but I can’t recall ever seeing any bad examples cited. This is entirely understandable: as a sector, we don’t like to point fingers and name and shame, and since much of this discussion is driven by those who have to work with other organisations, whether through working as a freelancer or by representing a governing or advisory body, no one wishes to risk souring relationships with old, new or potential partners. But without being able to discuss the bad examples of digital work, the debate is a little like fighting shadows.

I would also question how we may ever judge a BSNT? It’s easy to criticise the design, functionality and user experience of a digital product, but making the claim that something is ‘unstrategic’ or ‘non-strategic’ seems fairly difficult to me unless you know a lot about the circumstances and motivations behind it. I’ve seen lots of digital initiatives from cultural organisations that have made me raise a sceptical eyebrow, but unless I’d read the organisation’s forward plan, knew of their aims and objectives for the project (which may not be immediately obvious), and knew something of the impact of that initiative, I’d hesitate to criticise it for a lack of strategic direction.

I’m also sceptical of how much of a magpie mentality really motivates these projects. All the BSNTs I’ve recently worked on have emerged from grappling with a particular audience focused problem — how to reach particular demographics, and how to forge new relationships with co-producers. The starting point has never been to develop an app, website or other form of BSNT; the final form has always been that which best suited the ambitions and audience. Moreover, I can’t recall ever being asked by senior management to produce an app. True, apps and other BSNTs are an easy sell, but in my experience most senior managers need proof of engagement or return on investment. You can’t spin an unsuccessful BSNT for very long.

It is also worth remembering that the impulse to create BSNTs is part of the DNA of museum culture. Think of Richard Owen’s Natural History Museum, envisioned as a ‘cathedral to nature’. Consider the continuing appeal of the blockbuster exhibition. Ask yourself why museums employ designers and take so much care over the look of exhibitions? Historically, museums have done very well by making things big, shiny and new, for the simple reason that they help make an impact on the popular imagination. That impulse should not account for the whole of a museum’s focus, and there is a clear need to adopt new practices; but I doubt it will be swiftly swept away by new agile, iterative practices that have yet to fully make their case. And besides, while there are many reasons why apps are an unwise investment, people like them — and as I’ve previously argued, that can always be a factor in making a business case for developing them.

Bigness, shinyness, newness and even thingyness should not be a cause for judgement. At worst, these are ill-conceived distractions. Dismissing digital products solely on this basis reeks a little of fashionable cat calling; how long before trends tilt, and we start to scorn the apparently rarely used open data API, or a crowdsourcing initiative with seemingly low activity? All that matters is data, and evidence of real impact. And that, I think, is really the essence of what Let’s Get Real is trying to achieve.

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