Databases as Foundation for Narrative and Engagement

For this week’s post, I chose to focus on Les Manovich’s “Database as a Genre of New Media” work that discusses the underlying structure of media and on Nina Simon’s article “Discourse in the Blogosphere: What Museums Can Learn from Web 2.0” that provides ways in which cultural institutions can use these underlying structures to engage users.

Les Manovich states that the database is the dominant structure of all digital media. He also argues that databases themselves cannot constitute narratives, because they are simply collections that give all included items an equal significance. Often these databases have search functionalities or other features that allow users to search for or access the included items, but he argues that those actions by the user do not themselves tell a story or create a narrative because it is ultimately random. Manovich also addresses the Internet’s openness and iterative nature as part of its inability to be a narrative. He argues that websites are constantly changing and therefore cannot make up a cohesive or consistent narrative, simply because of the nature of the medium, and rather, it is simply a collection, or database. But what is a narrative? Manovich infers in the first paragraph that a narrative would tell a story, include some kind of development, and have a sequence, such a beginning and end, all of which is not possible with the database format. However, he does say that databases can support linear or interactive narratives, but that “there is nothing in the logic of the medium itself which would foster its generation.” He mentions that cultural institutions and digital works that include cultural content often utilize the database form, through things like virtual museum experiences and collection databases with various search functionalities and facets.

Nina Simon’s “Discourse in the Blogosphere: What Museums Can Learn from Web 2.0” looks more closely at specific ways in which cultural institutions can build upon and use the databases and digital mediums discussed in “Database as a Genre of New Media” to engage users and visitors. Simon asserts that museums can use the web to to create spaces that allow users engage with one another, through curating, generating, and sharing content. Users can participate by doing things like tagging resources, collaboratively authoring information, and even having web profiles. She also talks of the web as a democratic platform that allows for users to have authority and ownership, and she describes Web 2.0 as being much more interactive than Web 1.0 by stating “Web 2.0 transforms Web visitors into Web users.” She also argues for the use and adaptation of some of these approaches to be used in the physical space of the museum as well and argues that many of them can be transferable.

Both authors touch on the changing, impermanent nature of the Web. Manovich seemed to be pointing it out as a flaw, while Simon is more interested in using the fluidity of the medium to engage users. One of the biggest takeaways from these readings for me was the idea of trusting users and contributors and ultimately making museums and cultural institutions more community-based. Simon discusses the pros and cons of engaging with users, especially online, and comes up with two models: inconsistent quality is an inevitable results of increased participation, while more substantive content will results in restricted or limited participation. I like the idea of trusting users but also having checks with things like enforced ground rules for online discussion boards and clear guidelines and requirements for user-submitted content to ensure unique and worthwhile additions to the collection. This reminded me of Documenting Ferguson by Washington University that actively solicits input from its community (with some terms and conditions) and even provides ways in which users can submit content anonymously.

-Sarah Kirkley


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