March 22-25, 2006
Albuquerque, New Mexico

Papers: Community Sites & Emerging Sociable Technologies

Kevin von Appen, Ontario Science Centre, Canada, Bryan Kennedy, Science Museum of Minnesota, and Jim Spadaccini, Ideum, USA


A generation of new, easy-to-use ‘sociable technologies’ is creating opportunities for museums to pioneer the creation of on-line communities. These communities can deepen and extend relationships with and among visitors, while moving museums beyond their traditional role as arbiters of knowledge. Blogs, podcasts, RSS feeds, wikis, open-source content management tools and more, collectively offer the promise of greater interaction and collaboration, both at the museum and on-line. Not since the invention of the Web and its subsequent development as a multimedia platform have we seen such an exciting array of emerging technologies, yet few museums to date have taken up the tools and strategic advantages offered by what’s been dubbed Web 2.0. These advantages include the educational potential of constructivist learning models fostered by on-line collaboration and dialogue and ‘first mover’ advantage with funders and partners. Meanwhile, not to participate is to risk being left behind by a significant and growing segment of our visitors, and to have our mission and offerings defined by others in our absence, potentially to everyone’s detriment. In this paper, we argue that the strengths of museums such as authenticity, emotional engagement and repeat visitation, make them ideal catalysts for on-line communities; we examine some early experiments; we explore issues of quality and accuracy in visitor-created content; and we suggest models for the management and maintenance of on-line communities.

Keywords: community sites, Web 2.0. science museum, blogs, wikis, rss, podcasts

1. Introduction

Like most major shifts in digital technologies, the rise of what’s been dubbed Web 2.0 is largely driven by a new generation of easy to use tools. The prevalence of these tools has reached a tipping point, thrusting new methods of communication into our global consciousness. Daily digest Web sites have morphed into blogs. Audio posted to the Web has transformed into podcasting. Keeping on top of what Web sites have to offer, previously done through bookmarks and e-mail reminders, is now seamlessly delivered through syndication tools such as RSS and ATOM and their various readers. The new tools are reviving the original promise of the Web in the early 1990s as an easy to use, decentralized and democratized platform for communication. The features and qualities of blogs, podcasts, wikis and RSS are not all necessarily new, but their ease-of-use and inexpensive development costs have helped make them worthy of their various neologisms.

This paper will explore how the new tools - what we call ‘sociable technologies’ - are breaking down the traditional role of museums as official arbiters of knowledge. If the previous decade on the Web had a motto, it was “Content is king”. And while Web 2.0 does not ring the death knell for this monarchy of knowledge, a new power is on the horizon. In the world of Web 2.0 we sing, “Long live community.” In the new world, connection and community is king. We will examine how the sociable aspects of these new communities can offer up new realms of interactions for museums and the Web, while acknowledging some of the limitations and stumbling blocks that are inevitable on our trip down this new road.

A Short History Of Museums And The Web

Before we look ahead to where we’re going, it’s helpful to take a brief look back at where we’ve been.

Museums’ first forays into the Web represented an attempt to duplicate physical museums on-line, using metaphors from physical museum spaces for navigation or even creating ‘walk-through’ environments. Over the years a variety of resource types have evolved, from on-line collections, Web casts and interactive exhibits to virtual tours (Spadaccini, 2006). While many of these on-line experiences are quite engaging, they are for the most part inherently one-way and don’t foster visitor communication or independent participation.

By using Web 2.0 tools, museums can invite a whole new range of interaction focusing on community and social learning - interactions we believe will lead new visitors to our Web sites and museums and foster new learning opportunities for our current visitors.

2. What is Web 2.0?

A Communal Definition

We have co-opted the term Web 2.0 to describe a pivotal change in how the Internet is important to museums. But to define it we will rely on descriptions in the Internet at-large that exemplify the practices we are describing.

Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit,” stands out as one of the most successful and controversial examples of Web 2.0, where a new technology and approach have merged with an old concept: the encyclopedia. How do the creators of Wikipedia define the term they exemplify?

Web 2.0

A social phenomenon referring to an approach to creating and distributing Web content itself, characterized by open communication, decentralization of authority, freedom to share and re-use… (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Web_2.0)

The Digital Web Magazine helps define Web 2.0 in contrast to what had come before and tries to explain the evolution of the Web.

Enter Web 2.0, a vision of the Web in which information is broken up into ‘microcontent’ units that can be distributed over dozens of domains. The Web of documents has morphed into a Web of data. We are no longer just looking to the same old sources for information. Now we’re looking to a new set of tools to aggregate and remix microcontent in new and useful ways. (http://www.digital-web.com/articles/web_2_for_designers/)

Finally, publisher and Internet pioneer Tim O’Reilly, creator of the annual “Web 2.0” conference, visualizes Web 2.0 as a “meme map” (http://www.oreillynet.com/lpt/a/6228) with an “architecture of participation” in which “you control your own data” as a user. D. Keith Robinson, Editor in Chief of Digital Web Magazine calls it “the People-centric Web” (http://www.publish.com/article2/0,1759,1860653,00.asp).

Who is Web 2.0?

A number of social networking applications that represent this type of development have sprung up and become wildly popular in the last five years. Browse these examples for a cursory glance at what Web 2.0 has to offer. To really experience what these sites offer, you need to belong. Create a login and get started using the sites to experience their potential.

Name Description Web 2.0 Tags
(descriptive categories)
Wikipedia The free encyclopedia that anyone can edit. encyclopedia, knowledge, specialized, broad, wiki, open, international
Flickr A community photo sharing and organizing site. photos, folksonomy, tagging, creative commons, yahoo, cell phone,
Friendster The first big social networking site dating, jumped the shark, popularity
MySpace The current top-dog social networking site music, dating, friends, email, teens, invite, what you’re doing this weekend
del.icio.us A social bookmarking tool bookmarks, gtd, organization

All of these sites share one principle: the unique community interaction they offer around exciting content is the dominant design consideration. Community Web sites have been around since the early 90s and earlier if you include dial-in bulletin board systems and Usenet. The Well (http://www.well.com), for example, was enormously popular in its day and continues to have an active community more than 20 years after its founding. But Web 2.0 makes it much simpler to create and run sites like this and put the visitor in charge of the experience. You don’t need a large team of people to develop and maintain complex proprietary software. The tools are out there - free, open, ubiquitous and relatively easy to use. While many museums have devoted some portion of their operational budget to maintaining an on-line presence, building and hosting a community Web site offering deep social interaction was out of reach before. Web 2.0 tools offer the promise of building such on-line communities within the scale of our institutions.

3. Why Should Museums Be Interested In Developing Community Sites?

These Technologies Allow Us To Pioneer

Museums everywhere are working to redefine their approach to their missions. Whether they are reaching out to new audiences, dreaming up the next generation of museum experience in which visitors become participants and co-creators, or broadening the voice of their institutions, changes are afoot. Many museums and the organizations that fund them are putting high priority on being current and relevant to the world that surrounds them. A small number of institutions are even venturing into the realm of advocacy and encouraging civic engagement in the development of public policy. No matter their approach, we consider those who exemplify these developments to be the leaders in our respective fields.

The application of the technology behind the Science Museum of Minnesota’s Science Buzz exhibit and Web site (http://www.smm.org/buzz) provides one example of how a museum can use sociable technologies to pioneer. Science Buzz is a National Science Foundation (NSF 0337389) funded project to bring current science news and events to the museum floor and the Web. The exhibit and accompanying Web site need to be up to date, relevant, and therefore easily updateable. The project also strives to bring the visitors’ voices into the exhibit to make current science issues relevant to their lives.

The project’s digital exhibit templates and Web site components allow visitors to interact with current science issues in a social manner. These digital templates use existing Web 2.0 technologies - RSS, free-tagging, VXML (Voice Extensible Mark-up Language), and open source content management systems - to deliver content to various displays, computer kiosks and the Web site.

Science Buzz uses a community-based ‘Buzz Blog’ to encourage visitors to register and create content in the form of a poll or blog post. The community aspect of the Buzz Blog also allows the museum to expand its voice as it encourages people outside of the development team to contribute.

Fig 1: The Minnesota Science Center’s Science Buzz web site, http://ltc.smm.org/buzz

Fig 1: The Minnesota Science Center’s Science Buzz Web site, http://www.smm.org/buzz

The Buzz Blog is built from an open-source pre-existing content management system called Drupal (http://www.drupal.org). Drupal allows the museum to develop content quickly, allows visitors to comment directly on current science issues, and lets visitors build a community identity associated with the museum. By choosing an actively developed tool, the museum can constantly capitalize on new features developed as part of the Drupal package. Using RSS syndication, Science Buzz provides visitors with the latest science news without the museum having to devote resources to actually developing content around these issues.

Elsewhere, Eye Level (http://eyelevel.si.edu) is the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s blog with a declared mission to “look at both art and museums, offering the kind of close examination that new media affords, in part simply to find out how new media can enhance the museum’s role.” A collaborative team of six post the blog entries. Each entry allows blog visitors to attach comments. The Walker Art Center in Minneapolis (http://blogs.walkerart.org) contains six separate blogs, each exploring different topics such as Education and Community Programs, Film/Video, New Media Initiatives, Off Center, Performing Arts, and Visual Arts. Meanwhile, the Ontario Science Centre’s RedShift Report (http://www.RedShiftNow.ca) delivers podcasts on current science that are driven by listener questions and blog-style Web diaries from science researchers in the field around the world.

Fig 2: The Ontario Science Centre’s RedShift Now web site, http://www.redshiftnow.ca

Fig 2: The Ontario Science Centre’s RedShift Now web site, http://www.redshiftnow.ca

We Can’t Afford To Miss This Party

The explosion of Web 2.0 technologies is defining the field of Internet development. And there’s evidence the new Web that’s emerging sorely needs the contributions of museums and science centers. If you searched Google with the phrase “science museum blog” (something you could expect a science museum visitor to do) in January 2006, the top result was a sign-up page for the Creation Science Museum newsletter (http://creationscience.miricreation.com/ creationsciencemuseum).

The top ranking item in 2005? Answers in Genesis, Upholding the Authority of the Bible from the Very First Verse (http://www.answersingenesis.org/museum), home to the Creation Museum in northern Kentucky, USA. Science blogs created by science museums are not what you find on these sites! If we do not define ourselves in this new medium, it will be done in our absence and quite possibly to our detriment - and the detriment of our visitors.

Our visitors, meanwhile, are already defining museum-related content in Web 2.0 through their own text and photo blogs. Search by your museum’s title at Feedster.com or Blogsearch.Google.com. Chances are you’ll stumble on a lively (and stunningly candid) conversation about the experiences you offer - a conversation you can, and should, join. Nearly 80 percent of on-line teens and adults under 28 say they regularly visit blogs; 40 percent report creating their own (Madden, 2005). Museums experimenting with blogs, wikis, podcasts and the like may still be pioneers in our peer group, but in fact we’re playing catch-up with a significant segment of our audience.

Finally, beyond the hype that had the search term ‘Web 2.0’ garnering more than 19.3 million citations in Google by early 2006, there is a reality that funding follows the perception of a significant technological, social or economic movement. Museums defining new Web initiatives in this context may gain a certain ‘first mover’ advantage with public sector or corporate partners, at least in the short term.

If We Build It, They Can Learn

From what we know about the ways people learn, it seems obvious that community Web sites have enormous educational potential. After all, creating environments in which on-line visitors can make deep connections represents the promise of these types of sites.

Communication and collaboration are emphasized in many of the major learning theories museums have adopted. In general, most museums have embraced one form or another of ‘active learning’, where participants themselves construct their own knowledge through social interaction and exploration.

Constructivist learning theory, introduced by Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget, emphasizes that learners construct their own knowledge and that learning is an active process (Piaget, 1969). Knowledge is built upon prior experiences and affected by new ones. Furthermore, this development is more likely to occur when peers collaborate, since as equals neither person can dominate the social interaction.

The type of learning that Piaget is talking about is not excluded when one looks at ‘traditional’ interactive exhibits. The solitary and passive nature of most Internet experiences - browsing and clicking - means that interaction can be limited and may not include a social component. But this component can exist independently of the experience. For example, two students may share a computer and have a conversation about what they are seeing (or interacting with). However, it is another matter entirely for museums to build in the opportunity for on-line social interaction.

Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky believed that students need social interaction to order to build a more complex world-view (Vygotsky, 1978). His theory of Social Constructivism is multifaceted but it too is relevant to community-based Web sites. Vygotsky believed that dialogue provides learners with an opportunity to construct and organize knowledge. His theory holds that learners benefit from repeated exposure to a community of practice. The community provides a place for social interaction. It also contains the content and tools to allow users to explore and create. Immersion in the culture helps learners become increasingly independent in their learning.

In the formal education world, much has been written about the importance of active learning within on-line environments. Conrad and Donaldson (2004) tell us “students cannot be passive knowledge-absorbers who rely on the instructor to feed information to them.” On-line learners must be “active knowledge generators who assume responsibility for constructing and managing their own learning experience.”

Kearsely (2000) believes that “the most important role of the instructor in on-line classes is to ensure a high degree of interactivity and participation” while Bender (2003) tells us, “Collaboration is vital to learning so that students understand questions, develop arguments, and share meaning and conclusions among a community of learners.”

Finally, a study of twenty-one students enrolled in an on-line course at the Open University found the success of students was dependent upon whether or not they felt that they belonged to a community. Students who felt like insiders excelled; those who felt like outsiders did not (Wegerif, 1998). These lessons from formal education provide us with additional encouragement when advocating a community-based approach to informal learning.

4. The Nature Of On-Line Communities

What is the nature of the interactions and learning that takes place in on-line communities? Howard Rheingold, who coined the term ‘virtual communities,’ defines them thus:

Virtual communities are social aggregations that emerge from the Net when enough people carry on those public discussions long enough, with sufficient human feeling, to form Webs of personal relationships in cyberspace. (Rheingold, 1994)

Museums have advantages that allow them to build communities that support this ideal. Museums already foster return visits, encourage discussion daily, and often engage people with empathy and feeling. Further, there’s evidence of a strong, positive tie between visits to museums’ Web spaces and in-person visits to museums. According to a survey by Statistics Canada for the Canadian Heritage Information Network, the more you visit museum Web spaces, the more likely you are to visit museums in person. (http://www.chin.gc.ca/English/Digital_Content/2004Survey/index.html)

Why A Museum Virtual Community?

The contrasts between visiting a physical museum and an on-line one are striking. We know from statistics that most visitors stay at our Web sites a very short time, less than two minutes on average. Most of these visitations are simply not comparable to ‘real,’ physical museum experiences. Part of the promise of community-based sites is that they can increase time spent and the level of engagement of the visitor and thus produce more meaningful experiences. if visitors feel that they belong to something, then they will see themselves as part of the content and be more engaged, whether we are trying to educate them on issues of science, history, culture, or art.

What Are We Asking Visitors To Do?

It is very important to ask this question when developing any sort of interactive experience, but especially in community building. The nature of the communication on most Web sites is almost entirely text-based, so we are primarily asking our visitors to read and write. The subtleties of verbal emphasis or language are not present. Younger generations have begun to bridge this gap through cryptic acronyms:

LOL = Laugh Out Loud

∧5 = High Five

<smirk> = a smirk

; ) = wink

(∧_∧) = smile (Japanese)

:-D = laughing

Yet these hardly take the place of the subtleties of human speech.

Some communities like Flickr, a photo sharing Web site, or Odeo, a podcast sharing Web site, allow you to experiment with engaging in communities primarily through pictures and audio. These sorts of interactions seem ripe for exploration in museums where visually enticing artifacts abound and visitors often engage most with rich media such as audio and video.

Museums have begun to experiment with audio content delivery and creation over cell phones. By using turnkey Interactive Voice Response (IVR) systems based on standards like Voice-XML, museums can link phone networks to on-line communities. To make on-line communities fit the overall missions of our museums, we will need to find other front-end experiences for visitors to engage with beyond simply reading and typing.

Contributors vs. Lurkers (Who’s participating?)

On-line communities might be a specialized example of Pareto’s Principle (also known as the 80/20 rule). In our situation, Pareto’s rule might say a couple things:

20% of the visitors contribute 80% of the content.

20% of the visitors contribute the content while the other 80% just visit and experience the community passively.

In truth the 20% number here may be far too generous. Wikipedia is an example of this. The most active 2% (1,474 people) have done 73.4% of all edits. In fact, half of all the edits are done by .7% of all users, just 524 people. Looking at Usenet, a distributed communication network from the early days of the Internet, more than 80% of the posting is done by less than 5% of the participants (Witschge, 2002).

Users who visit a community regularly but do not contribute are often negatively characterized as ‘lurkers’ - non-contributors who are shirking social responsibility. “Just as in physical communities, not everyone is an active participant in all things, all the time” (Shumar, 2002). It is easy to portray the disparity between contributors and lurkers as a failure to engage with a community.

However, the lurker can also be construed as a potentially productive participant who is not yet ready to make a contribution. Moreover, contributions - and real world impacts - are not always visible in the on-line community itself. Lurkers may e-mail a story on to their mother, talk about a VR movie of a unique sculpture at a dinner party, or build a lesson plan around a Web site for their classroom.

Nevertheless, we are faced with a charge to increase the numbers of people who participate in our communities. By networking our exhibits with on-line communities, we can lower the barrier to participation. Many people who might not have an opinion about a scientific issue or an artistic movement can feel moved to voice one during a visit to our institutions. We should work to connect our physical offerings with on-line experiences to extend the visit into our virtual community.

Authority, Validity, And The Community Voice

Questions abound about the quality of information produced within community sites, blogs and wikis - questions that are particularly challenging for museums with accuracy and quality in their curation as a core value. Technology writer Nicholas Carr characterizes Web 2.0 as the "cult of the amateur," suggesting that its promoters distrust the professional. Of Wikipedia, he remarks:

Certainly, it's useful - I regularly consult it to get a quick gloss on a subject. But at a factual level it's unreliable, and the writing is often appalling. I wouldn't depend on it as a source, and I certainly wouldn't recommend it to a student writing a research paper. (http://www.roughtype.com/archives/2005/10/the_amorality_o.php)

However, there are counter-arguments to suggest accuracy concerns may prove overblown. A special report by Nature magazine in December 2005 found that Wikipedia comes close to Encyclopedia Britannica in terms of the accuracy of its science entries. (http://www.nature.com/news/2005/051212/full/438900a.html) James Surowiecki points out in his book The Wisdom of Crowds (Surowiecki, 2004) that collective intelligence often trumps that of experts, with Tim O’Reilly extending that thinking to the blogosphere:

First, because search engines use link structure to help predict useful pages, bloggers, as the most prolific and timely linkers, have a disproportionate role in shaping search engine results. Second, because the blogging community is so highly self-referential, bloggers paying attention to other bloggers magnifies their visibility and power. The “echo chamber” that critics decry is also an amplifier.

If it were merely an amplifier, blogging would be uninteresting. But like Wikipedia, blogging harnesses collective intelligence as a kind of filter. What James Suriowecki calls “the wisdom of crowds” comes into play, and much as PageRank produces better results than analysis of any individual document, the collective attention of the blogosphere selects for value.

Issues of access remain, along with concerns that the on-line communities formed by museums will be dominated by core Internet users and technological enthusiasts. But properly framed for context, on-line museum communities will complement, not compete against, the particular expertise of curators.

Managing The Community

The perceived difficulties in managing on-line communities are a barrier to adoption. Indeed, sites that can grow and require daily maintenance might seem out of reach within the grant-funded structure and small operational budgets that accompany specific projects. The Ontario Science Centre’s RedShiftNow.ca and The Science Museum of Minnesota’s Science Buzz project provide two examples of how this process can work without being intensive.

Science Buzz moderates all comments on the site. When a comment is posted from the exhibit or on-line, it goes into an approval queue. A team of 4-5 people collectively reviews the queue periodically each day. It’s easy to scan comments and pick positive ideas for publishing while skipping over the inevitable silliness left by school groups excited about typing “poop” into an exhibit terminal or the Internet troll with a mean-spirited comment that is more abusive than helpful. Censorship of meaningful comments is rare, but the museum does take a stand on posting scientifically valid information. The time it requires to maintain a site like this is small (1-2 hours per week cumulatively for the entire 4-5 person group) because of the Web interface, the distribution of work over a group of people, and the “publish the good ignore the bad” approach described above. RedShiftNow.ca follows a similar ‘review, then publish’ approach on its Web site, but allows physical visitors and visitors on-line to publish comments instantly to the exhibit floor for viewing. The Science Centre believes that the risks of objectionable content’s offending visitors are outweighed by the benefits of immediate feedback. However, the museum reviews and culls the comments frequently. The time commitment is similar to that spent in Minnesota.

Moderation of these sorts of sites will have to be specific to your institution. Each place and topic will require different levels of openness in your community. Building community structures that moderate themselves is really the goal. As museums increase their virtual community presence, they will need to take lessons from other successful communities, such as Wikipedia, that moderate a massive degree of interaction with a relatively small full-time staff.

5. Conclusion

While museums shouldn’t feel compelled to adopt every new technology that comes along, there are compelling potential benefits for museums and their visitors in the development of community-based sites. Beyond those benefits, museums who choose not to participate run the risk of either being invisible in the Web 2.0 world or having their institutions defined entirely by outside voices.

Still, developing these types of sites presents several challenges unique to museums and the roles they play in our physical communities. Foremost is the question of the quality of visitor-created information. Beyond the risks of inflammatory postings or user-generated graffiti, issues of accuracy and integrity are paramount.

At first glance, the concept of a visitor-created Web resource seems to be at odds with the traditional role of museum curation and mediation. However, Web 2.0 technologies don’t necessarily pose a threat to traditional museums. Rather, they are an opportunity to reach new audiences in new ways.

In other more competitive realms, the major news media and political parties in the United States have made adjustments to leverage the Web 2.0. More and more, policy discussions, news, and information are being spread out among a sea of blogs. Political contributions and advertising dollars have followed. Both American political parties, a number of politicians, and many news organizations have launched blogs, started podcasts, and opened their Web sites to visitor comments. These new technologies have created challenges for these organizations, but also opportunities to make deeper connections with their readers and supporters. Museums can do the same.

And while political parties and major media outlets have many more resources with which to develop Web 2.0 technologies, it’s important to remember that sociable technologies are relatively inexpensive and easy-to-use. Setting up a blog, for example, can be done in a few hours with free, open source software. In addition, a variety of Web services may provide opportunities for museums to enter existing on-line communities.

The distributed nature of community-sites and blogs can allow multiple staff members or combinations of staff and volunteers to maintain and operate the site. Museum content from collections, exhibits, newsletters, or static Web sites can be placed in a community environment to spur or to focus discussion. In much the same way visitors’ chat around exhibits in the physical museum, on-line users can do the same within a community space.

Museums need not lose sight of those things that make their institutions unique: their collections, their exhibits, their expertise - these assets are what make a museum attractive in the first place. An on-line community can be built around this core. The Web 2.0 is an evolutionary enhancement, not a replacement for the things that museums have been doing and do well, including traditional on-line exhibits and Web development.

The advent of the Web provided challenges and unique opportunities for those museums willing take the plunge. Here we are again, over a decade later, facing similar choices. Just as the Web 1.0 remains with us today, Web 2.0 is here to stay. Technorati, one of the dominant blog-only search engines, claims to search 26.7 million blogs. Kevin Kelly, writing in Wired magazine in August 2005, (Kelly, 2005) estimates a new blog is created every two seconds. Assuming an average human reading speed of 150 words a minute, some 950 new blogs have come on-line since you began reading this paper. Bloggers - and all the other users collectively creating the Web - are not just our “audience;” they are a worldwide community of potential co-creators with knowledge and distinct areas of expertise. At the Web Designs for Interactive Learning Conference in June 2005, Internet researcher Andrea Bandelli (2005) issued a call to action that museum Web professionals would do well to consider:

People don’t want to interact with you. They want to interact with each other…We should try to become social enablers, providing situations that become addictive and indispensable for people’s lives so they can get together and socialize…we should value social currency. People understand that there are activities that are rewarded not by money but by social currency. Knowledge is one form of social currency, and that has to be rewarded or acknowledged in some way. If you don’t respect the knowledge that people have, why should they come to your Web site?

For museums, perhaps the best news about the world of Web 2.0 is that we won’t have to build it alone.


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Cite as:

von Appen K., Kennedy B. and Spadaccini J., Community Sites & Emerging Sociable Technologies, in J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds.). Museums and the Web 2006: Proceedings, Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics, published March 1, 2006 at http://www.archimuse.com/mw2006/papers/vonappen/ vonappen.html editor's note. URL corrected Jan. 21, 2007