You are the author of the document “The place of cultural portals in the context of converging digital culture”. This is the third Culturemondo International Survey about cultural portals and related trends in digital culture and heritage. Why was Culturemondo network created? What are the main aims and activities? What is the added value of the network?
Culturemondo is a network of people who either work managing, building or developing cultural web portals around the world. As a group of people all involved in cultural portal development, we wanted to create a place where we could meet other like-minded people, share ideas and help each other. Despite the fact our portals ranged in size, scope, services and management structure, our on-line spaces all had one thing in common – the drive to engage and excite people with the richness and diversity of culture and the ways that it shapes our lives. Today the Culturemondo network is five years old. During this time the network has undertaken three international surveys of cultural portals (in 2005, 2006 and 2009) and published two reports: ‘Cultural Portals: Gateways to a Global Commons’ in 2005 and ‘Culturemondo 5 years on: where are we headed?’ in 2009. We have hosted five Roundtables: Japan (2005), Croatia (2006), Cuba (2007), Taiwan (2008) and New Zealand (2009). The network has grown, embracing members from all continents and at many stages in their development as online cultural spaces. Members have gone through major changes, some have been closed down by the public authorities that started them only a few years earlier, and many new portals have been started. We see that the impact of digital technologies has been transformative to all aspects of culture – online and offline. It is a landscape that is continuously changing, within which we need to hold on to a clear understanding of what we are trying to do and for whom.
What is the rationale behind this survey? What was the need for it? I
nformation about trends concerning cultural portals is not easily encountered. We all face challenges in developing our virtual projects and we would like to be able to compare our experiences with our online colleagues and be able to present arguments when advocating for importance of our online activities. This is why Culturemondo is trying to build environment in which such practical knowledge can be shared – through virtual networking, round table meetings and comparative surveys. This is also why Culturelink Network has been researching the topic of digital culture, analysing how cultural policies deal with digital culture. These two networks jointly conducted Third Culturemondo International Survey about cultural portals and related trends in digital culture and heritage. The survey has put its focus to new participatory trends, aiming to find out if cultural sector engages users in virtual environment and weather new working practices have emerged. The aim was to look at cultural portals in an international context and by examining cultural portals related trends help to support national, regional and local virtual initiatives on a global level and thus reinforce the knowledge-base of an online community of those of us involved in developing and managing cultural portals across the world. It is our hope that by working together to share information, we can advocate the value of online culture and its potential to reach out to online audiences.
Who participated in the survey and how the survey was organised?
The survey has been implemented using the www.surveymonkey.com. It was open from November 2008 until June 2009 in which time we have collect answers from cultural portals around the world that allowed us to spot some trends in development of digital culture in which cultural portals play a significant role. An attempt has been made to identify existing cultural portals in different countries and regions and invite them to participate. An invitation has been sent to all portals that have previously been identified by Culturemondo, or have previously participated in some of the Culturemondo activities. In addition, invitation has been sent out through various existing cultural networks or portals mailing lists and in direct communication with all identified portals through web searching. We have put effort to ensure a balanced response from different continents, but still regional imbalance exists, reflecting partly situation in the field and number of existing portals in particular areas, but also reflecting stronger links of the survey organisers with portals in a particular regions or countries. Out of 147 started surveys 101 are completed and used in the final analysis. Of all portals that answered the survey 62 are based in Europe and 39 on other continents: 9 from Africa; 7 from Asia, Australia and New Zealand; 18 from Latin America; and 5 from USA and Canada.
In according to the survey: Why are cultural portals created? Could you give examples of their missions and aims?
From the missions of portals participating in this survey it is visible that building of cultural portals is motivated by desire to inspire users to explore their own culture and various culture related contents. Common to many portals is that their purpose is general promotion of culture or specific cultural areas. Their main goal is related to securing of the relevant, reliable and updated information to portals’ users. To be a one-stop portal, to offer a central access to all the cultural services and resources for promotion of culture/arts/artists/heritage, in a particular region or in a particular cultural sector, to raise visibility of the cultural sector and to support cross-cultural cooperation has been repeated in many answers. Key words used by many portals were – inform, exchange, monitor, encourage participation, connect, support. Cultural portals have important role in the provision of the virtual resources for the cultural sector. In addition to being information providers, they are also trying to facilitate cooperation in the cultural sector and to contribute to the construction of new forms of virtual communication and collaboration in the space of digital networks.
What is their content? What kind of information they distribute? For whom? Are cultural portals created for the general public or for cultural professionals?
Portals are designed as public, private or civil sector projects with the aim of communication with users through the Internet. Thus, it is important to identify for which group of users portal is designed and to identify interests and needs of its users. Cultural portals are oriented to two major groups of users: cultural professionals and cultural audience (i.e. general public) A majority of portals indicate cultural professionals, art practitioners and cultural researchers as their main users. Surveyed cultural portals rarely have activities targeted for children, for families, for tourists or any other demographic group that is not somehow linked with cultural field. There is a room for further defining of portals towards various niche markets. Recognising different target users and catering for their specific needs is essential for successful functioning of cultural portals. Cultural portals cover a wide array of cultural topics – mostly covered categories are art/artists, museums, heritage, festivals, cultural policy, cultural cooperation. A majority of cultural portals base their content on news, calendars of cultural events, information about cultural institutions, different studies and online documents, while the list common services are those based on interactive communication.
Can cultural portals be self-sustainable, generating revenues from online sales, marketing activities and other peripheral services?
The survey was trying to identify portals that are not commercial, but those that aim to inspire users to explore their own culture. By large such cultural portals seem to be non-profit initiatives (mostly run by NGOs, governmental initiatives or to a lesser extent run by some public cultural institutions. They are usually part of the wider business remit of the organisation running the portal (in over 75% of cases) i.e. the additional activity of the existing cultural organisations or government services using Internet to further support their main mission. Cultural portals operate on rather limited resources. Portals are not run by big teams: in over 75 % cases they reported having less than 5 working staff. Being mostly not-for-profit oriented and small scale initiatives it does not come as a surprise that their annual working budgets are often correspondingly small. Many portals depend for their funding on public budget that represent the most significant source of income for their work (80% of portals in the survey indicated that they get funding from the public budget and in many cases they are funded entirely or in biggest part from public money). About 30% of surveyed portals indicated that they complement their revenues from donations, sponsors or commercial activities. Such a large percentage of public funding is also an indication of the expectations we hold about cultural portals – to be promoters of public domain. A significant part of portals which participated in this survey operate with a modest budget which partly determines the volume and variety of services they can develop. Still, the ability to achieve consistency and quality of content implies significant financial and human resources and cultural portals’ financial and human resources do not seem to indicate general situation which provides for portals’ security of operation and long-term strategic planning and investment. This begs a question on how to ensure their long-term viability and how to ensure that cultural policies recognise portals’ contribution in their role of providing access to culture – linking culture with the citizens and ensuring their active participation, as well as portals’ role in developing a public domain information resources, and ensuring that diversity of cultural content gets communicated worldwide.
Is it a complex job to maintain a cultural portal?
Today low technical entry barriers enable easy start-ups of virtual services, which mean that anyone with initial enthusiasm and motivation can start some kind of virtual service, website or portal, but running them depends not only on technology but on well thought idea and service offered to a targeted group as well as on secured resources. Success depends on securing long term viability as well as on the long term relevance. Flexibility, responsiveness and ‘light-touch governance’ are required both in establishing cultural portals and maintaining their connections and relevance to the audiences. Majority of portals regularly update their portal content – mostly daily or sometimes weekly. Dynamics of content updates indicates portals’ interest to motivate regular visits of their users, and in order to engage with users portals are trying to promote and to position themselves strategically among numerous other virtual resources. But, to be able to cater for their users’ needs and in order to achieve the comprehensiveness and representation of the content a majority of portals depend in their content creation on a combination of centralised and decentralised approach. All portals have a network of partners, users and external collaborators, but often they do not allow their collaborators to publish their content on their portals directly. Instead the information received from them are edited and uploaded by the portal staff. Such situation indicates that portals are aiming to achieve editorial quality of the presented information, but, on the other hand, they do not take advantage of possibilities that digital network environment offers to establishing new distributed and participatory working practices. Interactivity still presents challenge for cultural portals because such openness challenges their editorial policies.
Could you summarise some of the main trends in development of cultural portals?
In order to enhance the development of digital culture resources it is important that, both, cultural sector and cultural policies recognise digital culture and portals as an important space of their interest and activity. For this reason it is important that they can have insight into working reality of such structures and be able to recognise changing trends. Definitions that described web portals 10 years ago do not fit their role today. Portals’ role of gateways to existing information on the Internet today is replaced by search engines that can find content quite efficiently today. But digital landscape still needs tools that enable users’ engagement with digital culture. No longer simply sign-posting to other web resources, portals today are producing, aggregating and organizing cultural content, trying to ensure relevant, reliable and trustworthy content. Today portals are online publishers and online cultural platforms for discovery of content, for communication and interaction. From the discussions that took place within the framework of Culturemondo activities it is visible that they recognize the need to respond to an increased interest in collaboration, collectivity and distributed public creativity, providing an adequate infrastructure for public knowledge generation. In the future their sustainability will require new business models across the cultural sector and in specific environments within which online cultural platforms operate and, even more importantly, bridging gap between policy and practice and need to embed digital culture in cultural policy making. How essential are portals in public policies of different countries and which criteria should be employed when deciding on supporting them? These questions need to be resolved within cultural policies of different countries in order to be able to give support to culture that went down the digital path. Learning to work in the network environment is an imperative for cultural sector, but also for a cultural policy that often puts emphasis on digitisation of heritage projects but they do not feel particularly at ease with participatory aspects and dynamism of digital network environment. Sharism is a new phenomenon that emerged when network environment presented users with new opportunities. The rise of social networks in combination with mobile technologies impact how information is shared today and how knowledge is being constructed. Cultural content should be part of this sharing and communication process in order to remain alive in our collective memory. Digitalisation of cultural content presented an initial basis for development of digital culture and cultural portals are thus an important link between the cultural content and its users, as they try to encourage users to explore their culture and to participate in the process of intercultural communication, sharing and communicating knowledge recorded through our cultural heritage. It is not only about getting or providing information, but about being actively engaged in social and cultural issues. What on your opinion is the role of LabforCulture among all existing international cultural portals? LanforCulture has established itself as a very relevant resource in the field of culture. It has put in the focus of its users many interesting cultural issues. It is a platform that takes initiative, not only working as an aggregator, producer and organiser of cultural content, but it also takes initiative and organises discussions, such as for example ‘Converging Pathways to New Knowledge’ and participates in many European encounters reporting back to its users about issues that cultural community feels passionate about. I find a lot of useful information while browsing through its resources.
Alexandra Uzelac (http://www.connectcp.org/profiles/showprofiles.php?lang=en) is a research fellow at the Institute for International Relations (IMO) in Zagreb and Head of the Culture and Communication Department at IMO. Her interests include the impact of ICT on cultural issues, digital culture, virtual networks and portals, digitalisation of culture, organization of knowledge in the cultural field and issues of public domain and cultural heritage, cultural policy and cultural cooperation issues.
Read the blog post also on LabforCulture.