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f you want to involve the general public in
cultural heritage, it is not enough to let them
browse through the pages, how well designed
they may be.You have to give them something to do.
A virtual community can be very useful to make them
active in cultural heritage, for instance by challenging
them to do research or interviews for oral history.
Apart from increasing involvement of the public it
also stimulates the collection of previously hidden
information and the development of new insights.'
Dr Paul Mulholland is very keen on the use of
virtual communities to involve the general public in
creating new knowledge. As a research fellow in the
Knowledge Media Institute of the British Open
University, he is involved in CIPHER, a `Heritage-
for-All' project.To illustrate the added value of public
involvement, he describes the Bletchley Park project.
`In the Second World War Bletchley Park was
the place where German codes were broken, thus
providing the Allied Forces with vital information.
A lot of what happened there is still not known in
detail. Members of the recently established virtual
community around Bletchley Park interview people
who have worked there, thus collecting new infor-
mation and gaining new insights.'
`The interviews are made accessible for other
members, for scientists, tour guides and the general
public by capturing, indexing and classifying them.
We provide the tools to do that.With these tools it
is even possible to compare descriptions of the same
event in different stories. Apart from increasing public
involvement, they are also instrumental in keeping up
scientific standards and methods. So the general public
gets actively involved in scientific research, without
compromising the results.'
Virtual communities like the one around Bletchley
Park are not just a bunch of people exchanging
information over the Internet, says Mulholland.
But they are much more fluid than a union or a
brass band with strict rules and regulations.`From
my perspective, a virtual community has certain
characteristics that are comparable with real life
communities.To be successful they have a purpose, are
limited in their scope, and have certain rules or habits.
During its existence certain roles will develop in
a virtual community. Some members will be more
central than others in defining scope and purpose.
Others will act like gurus teaching the rookies the
unwritten rules and habits. On the other hand these
new members will bring new perspectives to the
In order to function smoothly, the members of a
virtual community do not have to meet in real life.
`You have to work harder to be successful', says
Mulholland,`but it can be done. At the Open Uni-
versity we have virtual communities with a life span
of six to eight years. Compared to the virtual com-
munities around a certain course, which typically
have a life span of nine months, the long-lasting
communities tend to be more informal. More like a
group of friends than a group of student colleagues
formed around a certain theme.'
An important issue with respect to virtual com-
munities is trust.You cannot look your colleagues in
the eyes, like in a real life community.`Still, mutual
trust can be built', says Mulholland.`For instance by
giving every member some space to present him- or
herself including some background, a picture, and the
motivation to get involved in the community. It is not
the same as a real life encounter, but it certainly goes
a long way.' Apart from that, mutual trust is also being
built by everybody's contribution to the community.
Mulholland:`Through your dealings with the group
you are building up a reliability record.You can
compare it with the reliability record you build up
when you are dealing in eBay or some other Internet
auction. Instead of points or stars next to your name,
members of the virtual community will assess your
trustworthiness in the same way as they would do in
real life.'
Mulholland thinks that virtual communities can be
a real asset for cultural heritage institutions.They can
be used to actively involve people in research or
educational activities. Mulholland:`The important
thing is that people really feel part of a community. If
they feel they are exploited or not taken seriously by
the institution or the experts, they will drop out and
go somewhere else.'
Knowledge Media Institute
By Joost van Kasteren
Digicult_THI5_JS_090104 09.01.2004 14:33 Uhr Seite 18