Tuesday, July 8, 2014

"Pantheon" - Greeting the Global at Your Digital Front Door

Fig. 1 - Edgar Allan Poe's Wikipedia pages
have been viewed globally almost 34 million times - in 99 languages.

Pantheon is a “Big Data” project from the MIT Media Lab that will convince non-profits to visualize Wikipedia as a digital front door that can advance public mission. What strategies can help the local nonprofit greet the global digital public?

As an example, I will show how I used Pantheon as part of a recent March 2014 presentation on “Pioneering a Public Mission” to the trustees at the Providence Athenaeum, a thriving historic member-supported library in Providence, Rhode Island. My goal as a consulting research historian at Austin Alchemy is to research, identify, and then target transformative opportunities for new stories and strategies. Pantheon is still new to many audiences, and the results can trigger important new kinds of conversations. In this case, about public mission and new digital front doors.

Fig. 2 - The Providence Athenaeum in Providence, RI (USA).
Interior view to the historic front door of the 1836 building at 251 Benefit St.

How can Pantheon contribute to thinking about a non-profit’s public mission, both in the past and looking to the future? Why does Wikipedia matter?

The technology folks at the MIT Media Lab wanted to answer the question: "Who are globally known people" across time and space? Harnessing the impressive computing capabilities available to the MIT Media Lab, the Pantheon database offers one answer to this question by visualizing the hierarchy of Wikipedia page hits in multiple languages since 2008.  

Thus, Pantheon is a market research tool for exploration and comparative analytics. Setting aside the method's limits (discussed on their website), Pantheon can be used to make quite unexpected big-picture discoveries directly relevant to a local situation, as I show here.

How could this kind of research help the Providence Athenaeum? Communicating the historic public mission of this non-profit community cultural center has always been a priority for the Providence Athenaeum’s dynamic Director of Programming. For almost a decade, Christina Bevilacqua has curated a full slate of free public programming, and her Salon series is widely acclaimed for its broad regional impact as a cultural “amplifier”.  However, people still question the public mission of a privately supported non-profit. What are new ways to talk about this?

While exploring the Pantheon home page, I searched for people born in the United States in the nineteenth century. I confess I was shocked to discover that Edgar Allen Poe was ranked #1. 

Fig. 3 - Adjusting the parameters to people born in the USA 1800-1900,
the surprise finding from the Pantheon database is Edgar Allan Poe at #1
with almost 34 million page views
since 2008.

There are many many other interesting observations to make, but for now I want to look at the Pantheon data on Edgar Allan Poe, shown in Fig. 1 above. Since 2008 Edgar Allan Poe’s Wikipedia page has been visited almost 34 million times in almost 100 different languages, including over seventeen million non-English page views. 

Clearly, this global interest in Poe represents a new public for the Providence Athenaeum's own noteworthy Poe legacy. Here, in 1848, among the stacks of the Providence Athenaeum, Poe courted the poetess Sarah Helen Whitman, to whom he was briefly engaged. Whitman went on to become an important advocate for Poe's genius after his early death in 1849. This included her own global correspondence with the French poet Stephen Mallarme, who translated Poe's The Raven in 1875, with ravishing black and white illustrations by the painter Edouard Manet. 

Fig. 4 - The Providence Athenaeum's own compelling Poe story links
the local and the global in the 19th c. but is not yet included in
Poe's 21st c. Wikipedia page, visited by tens of millions globally.

What does Poe's Wikipedia page say about the Providence Athenaeum story? 

What about the Providence Athenaeum's own Wikipedia homepage? 

How to reach tens of millions of people globally in 100 different languages?

With one line and hyperlinks, the Athenaeum could join the Poe story on (free) Wikipedia.

Fig. 5 - The Poe Wikipedia page links to Sarah Helen Whitman but not to the Providence Athenaeum.

Fig. 6 - Pantheon proves Wikipedia is a digital front door reaching millions globally.

Pantheon as a Market Research Tool

The Providence Athenaeum is fortunate to have an existing historic Poe story ready to be developed in some way for some sort of new global digital opportunity. This in itself is an important conversation that will likely be had by the Providence Athenaeum Trustees and stakeholders. But what about other rapid market research results that might be gleaned from the Pantheon database? Especially as an aid to thinking about “public mission” boundaries and opportunities?

Here are two examples.

1) Pantheon can bring a reality check to discussions about audience and demonstrate unspoken assumptions about who is meant by “the public”.

For example, Pantheon can give shape to the overlapping contours between the humanities and entertainment. What happens if I change the historical parameter from “born USA 1800-1900” to “born USA 1800-2010”? 

Fig. 7 Globally known Americans 1800-2010

I was reassured to see that Martin Luther King tops this hierarchy of globally known Americans, and surprised to find Poe still making the cut at  #5. The rest of the top ten heavily tilts heavily towards entertainment. Poe and Andy Warhol suggest the power of bridging publics for high and popular culture. How can overlaps be discovered, explored and innovatively redefined to make new audience connections? 

2) Would Pantheon’s domain subcategory of Arts and/or Humanities bring me a more aligned user-group?

Certainly Pantheon’s domain subgroupings are idiosyncratic. In the end, I explored “Writers” as a domain subcategory grouped under the Humanities, and separate from the broad and eclectic domain grouping for Arts.

Who are the most viewed 19th c. American writers? What new news could Pantheon provide?

Fig. 8 - Pantheon hierarchy of 19th c. American writers

Once again, Edgar Allan Poe is way out in front with almost 34 million Wikipedia page views. For comparison, the tenth-ranked writer is Ralph Waldo Emerson, the Transcendentalist and father of the literary “American Renaissance”, with less than a quarter the number of page views.

Poe is notable for being a true global phenomenon, bridging languages and crossing high and popular literary publics while also overlapping with avid entertainment-oriented and immersive gaming communities. His page views are almost evenly divided between English and non-English. It is unlikely Poe would have achieved this kind of global reach without significant media crossover. How can non-profits strategize these potential revenue streams and stay mission-focused?

Returning to Fig. 8 and the question “Who are the most viewed 19th c. American writers?” I was astonished to see the local Providence, RI cult writer H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937) ranked #6, above both Thoreau and Emerson.

Fig. 9 - The author H.P. Lovecraft, c. 1915
Lovecraft is a writer beloved by his many fans, as witnessed by his almost 12 million page views split equally between English and non-English language Wikipedia page views.

It was a further surprise to do some searching and discover that Lovecraft appears to be the only Rhode Island-born person who made the Pantheon top 200 in any domain. There is no entry on Roger Williams (c1603-1683) or Massasoit (c1581-1661), or Samuel Slater (1768-1835) or anyone else one might think would represent Rhode Island in a broad sweep of globally important persons. (I just found the Newport-born military leader, Matthew Perry (1784-1858) with 1.3 million page views.)

Even more surprises awaited me: H. P. Lovecraft is a lively subject amidst the niche of Writers. But when I searched the Pantheon top 100 hierarchy across all domains for all Americans born at any time, Lovecraft still dominated at #55, with Emerson at #95.

Continued at AustinAlchemy.com post:  

“Glocal” Place Making & the Digital Front Door

Nancy Austin is a RI-based consultant at AustinAlchemy.com
Contact: NancyAustinPhD@gmail.com

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