Should museums just give up now and let Google take responsibility for knowledge?

Posted on May 17, 2012

15


Wow – so the introduction of Google Knowledge Graph today has some fascinating implications for museums, knowledge, and everything else. As the Mashable account of the new move by the company explains:

Starting today, a vast portion of Google Search results will work with you to intuit what you really meant by that search entry. Type in an ambiguous query like “Kings” (which could mean royalty, a sports team or a now-cancelled TV show), and a new window will appear on the right side of your result literally asking you which entity you meant. Click on one of those options and your results will be filtered for that search entity.

…In addition to the window which will help users find the right “thing,” Google will also surface summaries for things, which, again, will try to be somewhat comprehensive by tapping into the various databases of knowledge. A search for Frank Lloyd Wright, for instance, will return a brief summary, photos of Wright, images of his famous projects and perhaps, most interestingly, related “things.” People who search for Wright are also looking for other notable architects. It’s a feature that may remind users of Amazon’s penchant for delivering “people who liked this book also bought or searched for this one” results.

And from the Google blog post on the Knowledge Graph, comes this little nugget:

We’ve always believed that the perfect search engine should understand exactly what you mean and give you back exactly what you want. And we can now sometimes help answer your next question before you’ve asked it, because the facts we show are informed by what other people have searched for. For example, the information we show for Tom Cruise answers 37 percent of next queries that people ask about him.

This is fascinating. And in some ways quite monumental for museums. How on earth can museums compete in such an environment? Why would anyone come to a museum (or at least, an online collection) for information when they can go to Google and get information that is likely to be tailored to their needs? And at the same time, how can we find information that runs against this “official” line? Is this simply grand narratives on a much grander scale, only controlled by a commercial entity? Google argues that this will lead to serendipitous discovery  – but surely the potential for truly serendipitous discovery is actually reduced, not improved?

During Koven’s Ignite Smithsonian talk from 2011, he said

however you may feel about content farms like eHow, wikiHow, whatever, what they do do very well is they find questions that people are actually looking for, and answer them directly and completely.  And so what we need to do is, by combining content from lots of sources, we can actually really focus on what people want, and worry just exclusively about making that content that’s unique to us.

But what on earth is unique to us? We aren’t the only institutions for whom history is our domain. Nor are we the only ones that tell stories. We have objects, yes, but objects maybe don’t mean all that much online, when all that they can present is a simulacrum of the physical. So what can we offer that Google cannot? Authority? I think that most people would think that Google was fairly authoritative for the majority of information that they are looking for (particularly if it does point to sites like museums and libraries).

So should museums simply give up trying to find better models for presenting their own collections, and work with Google? Or can we instead prove to be an effective counter-point to the global meta-narrative that Google is writing for us using algorithms? Does this move by Google have the potential to essentially change what a museum is or does online in the Internet age?

This is obviously a very quickly bashed out post, filled with first reactions rather than deep contemplation. But I would love to hear what you think about this more too. Lots to discuss on this issue.

What do you think? What could the implications of Knowledge Graph be for museums?

Posted in: Museums, Technology