blog: Audience Participation

The digital age, along with the technological developments, brought about fundamental changes as to how archives serve and interact with their audiences. In the spirit of these changes, archives’ role, their functions as well as relations with their active users had to undergo drastic changes, from ‘holders and curators of culture’ to interactive platforms.

The session Re-Imagining the Archive started with a keynote of Kate Theimer. She stated right away that the archives must adapt and fulfil their obligation for the public in new ways. Kate argued that even the language changed, from the traditional meaning of curator to a more general notion, meaning any selection, such as Pinterest.

The meaning of an archive changed too as with so much information available online, today practically everything is an archive. Then Kate discussed the principle goals of archives. Their role is to collect and to preserve the heritage, to make it available, and to add value to people’s lives by increasing their understanding of the past. However, facing today’s technologically and digitally driven developments, Kate argued that we must shift primacy from stuff to people, in other words, from market to networks. Archives should place their focus instead of on the materiality of their collections, on how to make them servable to the public. Since access is not scarce anymore, the archives should offer additional values and shift to platforms.

The archives should offer activities on their website, encouraging and facilitating participation of people other than professional archivists. However, for participation to exists engagement is necessary. Therefore, for archives to shift to platforms and to engage in the dynamic of exchange with the audiences within the ‘information ecosystem’, in order to evolve (or otherwise ‘go extinct’) archives must rethink and shift their goals. They must undergo digitization, be present online, as today ‘what is not online, does not exist’, and they must collaborate. Phenomena such as ‘citizen archivists’ indicate that the idea of traditional, credible and reliable authorities that seem important, might have actually lost its importance to some (e.g. average, non-professional users searching through Google).

Lastly Kate also argued that context plays a huge part in online curating as it adds extra meaning and extra value to things on display. Therefore archives, in order to add value to people’s lives, should become a participatory platform; an environment stimulating, supporting and nurturing a greater understanding of the past among the audiences.

In response to this, Mirko Tobias Schäfer raised some interesting issues. First he discussed the materiality of archives today. They have turned into databases and dynamic data: a ‘fluid, procession, dynamic archive, in which the typology of documents can be reconfigured again and again’ (Mike Featherstone). Then he continued on discussing the participation: that it is extremely closely related to technology (interfaces). He called it the ‘great legend of social interaction and cultural production online’. He also, in my opinion very accurately, differentiated between the explicit participation and implicit participation. Explicit participation characterizes intrinsic motivation of the audience member, a motivation to ‘achieve an objective’; whereas implicit motivation is more profound. It indicates ‘channelling user’s activities through interface’s design’. In line with this argument he then defined the social media platforms as oil for advertising, popularizing practice where ‘real objectives are hidden agendas paying off the developers’.

Mirko argued, that the archives should function as platforms and not the other way around (platforms as archives). Lastly he argued that the participation is also limited to narrative. Once you want to incorporate the participation of non-professional archivists, you need skilled audiences with intrinsic abilities.

Here then comes the question of technological challenges for platforms (also in terms of interfaces): who is it that you want to target and ‘talk’ to? Is that the skilled audience with the intrinsic abilities, or is it to attract the general, non-skilled audience? These are important questions that must be addressed when defining the goals and strategies of any archive and its online platforms.

by Krystyna Biernawska

Leave a comment