Net Neutrality Matters to Museums

Imagine the following scenarios:

  • Prospective visitors are asked to pay extra fees to visit your institution’s website.
  • Digital visitors find your website, but it loads at an excruciatingly slow pace.
  • While the homepage of your website is available, the microsites (from exhibition-specific landing pages to crowdsourcing and crowdfunding projects) are ‘pay-walled’.

Now imagine the results. Would prospective visitors pay to visit your website? Unlikely. Would digital visitors get bored waiting for the website to load and give up? Probably. Would your crowdfunded project ever hit its goal? Doubtful. Would your mission to educate be fulfilled? No.

These scenarios sound preposterous – that’s just not how the Web works, right? It’s possible that this is all about to change.

Net Neutrality, which defends an Open Internet, is under threat by the US government’s Federal Communication Commission (FCC).  This means that ‘big cable’ could impede access to information by choosing which websites load faster and which load at all, and generally controlling our behavior online. The corporations that pay or lobby the Internet Service Providers (ISPs), could influence what sites are available. And, as a result, small-money entities, from mom-and-pop-shops to small or under-funded museums could be deeply effected as well. July 17th ends a ninety day comment period run by the FCC, and today, July 12th, is the day that internet-based corporations are banding together to alert the general public.

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In addition to recognizing that those who are planning to visit in person use our website as a pre-visit tool, museums need to recognize that our visitors are digital. Our digital visitors may never visit our institutions in person; they may be in another country and not have the means to travel. Or, they may be scouring the internet for places to visit in the distant future. Yet, these digital visitors come to your institution for many of the same reasons that your in person visitors do – to learn, to be entertained, for a respite.

Once we recognize that visitors are more than just the bodies that walk in our doors and that digital visitors count as well, Net Neutrality becomes increasingly important for us to fulfil our missions.  As we aim to make our institutions more welcoming for local and underserved communities, we must also fight to make our digital sites available to our web communities at large.

Many museums are recognizing the reality of the digital visitor. Recently, the Metropolitan Museum of Art released their latest visitor statistics.  After announcing their record breaking in-person attendance, they devoted subsequent paragraphs to their digital visitorship – progress at least in terms of their definition of visitor. Numbers, though, aren’t everything.  In terms of project-based results, the Smithsonian, U.S. Holocaust Museum, and Museum of the Moving Image have all met funding goals through Kickstarter campaigns.  Many of the funders are likely local, or familiar with the institutions, but not all of them.  If the websites of these institutions were not publicly available, or cost more to visit, would the prospective donors wait patiently for the site to load? Would they pay extra to see what they could then be asked to fund – thereby paying two amounts of money?

Digital visitors also come to our sites to contribute their time and expertise.  The cognitive surplus that museums have generated has at once satisfied the curiosity of visitors while making a small but significant dent in our limited resources.  Institutional crowdsourcing has forwarded countless research projects – our visitors have transcribed menus, alerted us to objects that should be on display, and given us insight into how visitors understand our objects through social tagging.  These tasks could not be achieved without our digital visitors.  If Net Neutrality is decimated, do our institutions have the financial means to hire substitutes? Do we have the bandwidth to bring in more volunteers? Are local volunteers enough to cover the digital resources that may not be nearby?

In addition to digital visitors, we need to consider how our institutional narratives are seen in the context of ‘big cable’.  Does your cable provider or its parent company have strong feelings about climate change? Natural history, interactive science, and botanical gardens which have climate change educational materials could have their websites slowed.  Does your cable provider or its parent company have strong feelings about civil rights or other activist causes? Social history, memorial, and advocacy institutions could be censored.  Does your cable provider have television or web shows that have corresponding toys? Children’s museums may need include exhibitions featuring those characters to appease the website-availability-deciders.  Even if it’s not a directive to change your mission and narrative, at what point will museum staff need to yield to their cable providers just to survive online?

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If you do think your institution can survive not having a website or having one with very few visitors, because you would rely more heavily on third party sites such as YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, they don’t think this is a good idea either.  Frankly, no one does, except for the cable companies and the FCC.

Our registrars and conservators are experts in preparing for disasters.  They write documents about hurricanes and floods, fires and prodding fingers on our objects.  If Net Neutrality comes to an end – is it time for our digital teams to write their disaster plans? Given our digital world, is anyone prepared for this? Do we know where we would even start?

As our entire premise is built on sharing, educating, and preserving, it is our responsibility to join in the fight for Net Neutrality, thereby enabling us to share our content online, educate our digital visitors, and preserve the internet as it was meant to be.

Please sign. https://www.battleforthenet.com/

 

UPDATE: On December 14th, the FCC voted 3-2 to repeal Net Neutrality regulations, some of which had been in place since the dial up era. They are now being sued by many states and the ACLU. In the wake of these developments, businesses, non-profits and every website in between has had to come to grips with a new reality.  Since the vote, this blog post has been linked to the following  by futurist Bryan Alexander and Director of Technology and Digital Strategy at the MIT Museum David Nunez.

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