« Sharing Content IS Sharing Creativity | Main | Everyone wants to be a star? »

Miscellany & YouTube


I am quite fond of the funky old Bell Museum of Natural History so I agreed to attend a focus group on the plans for a new and presumably improved replacement. We talked about what we liked about the existing museum and why and watched a presentation on the new building and plans for exhibits and programming. Thanks to David Weinberger, I realized the plans for the new museum would look just like other museums. It will house physical collections of formerly natural things and exhibits designed by experts that teach visitors about the history of natural things. The new Bell will be another example of an organizational scheme of knowledge, in the form of a museum, firmly rooted in the 1st and 2nd Orders of Order.

After reading Weinberger, the very idea of a museum, a physical building, enclosing Natural History, seems rather absurd. “Natural history museum� implies an essentialist definition of nature as though nature is something that can be clearly and neatly distinguished from what it’s not. According to Weinberger, such a distinction is neither natural nor possible. He argues that the development of knowledge in the digital age illustrates that “essentialism is failing in every way:�
• There are no distinct boundaries between things like natural history and what—unnatural history?
• All definitions are culturally and socially determined [Weinberger 220].
Besides, even the most ardent anti-environmentalist would have to admit that humans affect the natural world and vice versa.

Is there a way to radically reconceptualize the Bell Museum consistent with the 3rd Order of miscellanea? Or does the very notion of museum preclude miscellaneazation?

What if the new museum was an open, participatory project? Disowning and releasing the museum’s physical assets to the realm of miscellany might be amusing in the abstract. Imagine visitors adding and subtracting things and inventing impossible combinations of animals and plants. Practically speaking, it would be disastrous. Imagine brittle specimens disintegrating in the hands of children, extinct stuffed animals being sold on the black market … OK, so that won’t work.

But what about structuring the museum around Weinberger’s metabusiness model? Would it be possible to release the Bell Museum’s intellectual assets into the great miscellaneous universe for the public to enhance through mixing, linking, and rethinking? According to Weinberger, this is the key to success in the digital age. He warns that consumers would “… rather have the information, navigation, and experience� on their own terms [Weinberger 228]. Although profit is not the mission of the Bell Museum, education and understanding is. By opening its information bank, the museum would enable the public to convert knowledge into greater understanding.


The issue of fragmentation connects Weinberger with discussions about YouTube. Weinberger asks whether knowledge is being fragmented and if we are being fragmented along with it [Weinberger 200]. The author of “YouTube vs. boob tube� would answer yes. Garfield argues that YouTube will be profitable and address a social problem because it unites people in an otherwise splintering society. “What it has going for it is its sheer size. In a fragmented world, there is a need for community and a need for massness [Garfield 2006].�

The observations of Michael Wesch support Garfied’s theory. Wesch, an assistant professor of anthropology at Kansas State University, created an audiovisual illustration and explanation of the power of Web 2.0 technologies that achieved stardom on YouTube. One of the benefits of making the video, Wesch claims, was that "My video created great connections for myself and the university [Joly 2007].� Given the enormous audience of YouTube, videos like Wesch’s are becoming a popular and successful recruiting and marketing tool for colleges and universities [Joly 2007].

Working for the marketing department of a university, I can attest to the popularity of video among higher education institutions. The demand for promotional and informational video has grown so rapidly in the last few years that our production staff can no longer meet the demand. A recent trend is to produce a video in place of a printed viewbook and distribute it on a Flash drive.

The value of video as a marketing tool seems clear. Is tYouTube as valuable as an educational tool? As Garfield points out, content on YouTube is out of control [Garfield 2006]. That makes it a risky environment for advertisers and educational institutions alike. On the other hand, YouTube is a rich experimental environment and an excellent object of study in itself. Given the importance of video in marketing campaigns, producing a video, posting it and acculturating oneself to the environment of YouTube translates into valuable job experience.

I think YouTube is valuable to educational institutions and everyone else because it is public. It provides an accessible publishing platform for voices that the profit-motive and conventions of conservative institutions typically stifle. On YouTube, we can all absorb, share and compare ideas normally restricted to the fringe with those squarely planted in the center.

Here’s one of my YouTube favorites and a good illustration of what happens when unusual pairs of ideas occur: Medieval Monastery Book Helpdesk


Weinberger, David. Everything Is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder. Times Books, 2007.

Garfield, Bob. “YouTube vs. boob tube.� Wired.com. December 2006.

Joly, Karine. “Lights, Camera, YouTube, Action!� UniversityBusiness.com. August 2007. http://www.universitybusiness.com/viewarticle.aspx?articleid=848&p=2#0