Museums and the Web 2005

Reports and analyses from around the world are presented at MW2005.

Using the Web to Support and Document New Media Collaboration

J. Karen Parker, Banff New Media Institute, Canada


The Banff New Media Institute's endeavours often involve collaborations with artists at other institutions. Historically, such artistic collaborations were restricted mainly to telephone communication and in-person visits. However, with the increasing pervasiveness of the Internet, there are many more options and opportunities to connect with artists from around the world. This paper presents case studies of two such collaborations, both involving the use of on-line Web communities.

Keywords: new media, collaboration, artistic research, Web-based communities


With the increasing use of the Internet in institutions around the world, it has become a common medium for artistic collaboration. Unlike proprietary collaborative tools (such as teleconferencing systems), the Web offers a common platform, allowing users with different operating systems or Web browsers to find a shared venue for their collaborations. The Banff New Media Institute takes advantage of this venue to support collaborations with outside artists, and also to help the people within their own walls communicate effectively.

While they cannot replace the richness of face-to-face communication, on-line Web communities are great tools for supporting collaboration. Users can post discussions in forums, share files and other resources, and even participate in real-time chats. Recently, we developed on-line communities for two separate collaborations at the Banff New Media Institute. We present case studies of these collaborations in the hopes of informing future use of such tools in new media collaboration.

First Case Study: Supporting a Large, Distributed Research Group


As part of a grant based on collaboration studies in new media, the Banff New Media Institute assembled a team of international artists and researchers. In order to support the team's work, it was essential to have a central forum for communication. We wanted to create an on-line environment where members of the network could chat and share ideas, documents, links, and other resources.


Members of our collaboration network came from a wide range of disciplines – from engineering to art to social science. They also ranged in technical ability: some were technology experts, while others barely knew the basics of Web browsing.


We first considered using a service such as Yahoo Groups (, which allows users to set up free e-mail lists and discussion boards, as well as share files and photos. While this is a quick and easy solution for setting up an on-line community, it has several drawbacks. Your users must provide their personal information to a third party, as well as view ads on the site and in the discussion list e-mails. And since all of the content is hosted by Yahoo, there is limited storage space available. As the message archives and the files grow, available storage space quickly dwindles.

Another alternative that we considered was the development of our own content management system. Building such a system from the ground up would allow us to tailor it to meet out specific needs, but would be time consuming. We needed to set up our community quickly (ideally within a window of a couple weeks).

An existing content management system (CMS) offered a happy medium between the restrictiveness of a free third-party-hosted community and the time required to development our own from scratch. There are many content management systems available for people who wish to start an on-line community. In choosing a CMS, it was important that it be easy for us to install and modify. We settled on a CMS called Xoops (, since our Web administrators felt most comfortable with this system, and it offered modules which would be useful for our community.

Many CMS sites use a module system. Modules are site components that can be easily added or removed depending on the needs of your community. Xoops comes pre-installed with some basic modules such as Forums, Downloads, and Links. The collaboration grant researchers were in many different time zones, and some had more time to devote to collaborating than others. As such we felt it was important to have some areas within the Web site for persistent content: discussion forums allowed for ongoing discussions, while files and links sections also allowed users to post content for other site members to view at their leisure. However, there is also something very compelling about real-time communication: a flash-based chat room module provided a real-time component for our community.

Initial Site Use

Our main goal upon initially launching the site was to motivate the network members to make use of it. In collaborations involving weekly conference calls or in-person meetings, there is a certain amount of pressure for people to show up, but there is less accountability with an on-line community; the researchers could visit the site (or not) according to their own individual schedules. Keeping this in mind, we opted to use occasional e-mail reminders to urge our members to visit the site.

We signed all of the network members up for the site and sent each person a welcome e-mail with username, password, and information about the site. A small subset of the network members began to use the site immediately, but it quickly became obvious that the majority of the members were not making use of the site, and many had not even logged in once!

We compiled a list of the users who had never logged in and gently prodded them with another e-mail "reminding" them of their username and password for the site, in case they had forgotten them. Additionally, we sent a general e-mail to all of the users, reminding them about our community site and stressing the importance of using it in preparing for a series of upcoming in-person workshops at a scheduled summit at Banff. By motivating the site with a purpose (preparing for the summit) more users were drawn to log in and participate in the on-line forums and chat, and activity picked up on the site.

Adoption of the site was further helped by scheduled chats. Site moderators invited users to participate in discussions - both on the forums and in the chat room – during a fixed window of time. Given a specific time and goal, users were more likely to visit the site.

From Distributed To Face-To-Face

Although the site was getting more use after our second blitz of information, we still worried that some users were feeling intimidated or overwhelmed and that this was preventing them from fully participating in the research.

We hosted a weekend workshop in Banff for our network of collaboration researchers, giving them a chance to meet the peers they had interacted with on the site. The face-to-face time acted as a catalyst, with the workshop producing many fruitful ideas. Observing the richness of the interactions at the workshop, it was painfully obvious that we would never be able to duplicate such a setting in our virtual environment.

However, the face-to-face event did give us a unique opportunity to educate our site users, and to elicit their feedback regarding our on-line community. We went through each of the site's modules step-by-step, providing instruction on their use and answering user questions. The session provided a lot of insight into problems that we might otherwise never have discovered, and the ensuing discussion helped us determine some key areas for improvements and make changes to the site.

Current Site Use

After the workshop, users initially returned to the site with renewed interest. However, the large user base made it difficult for everyone to participate together, and the researchers were in fact interested in investigating several different projects. As specific research projects emerged and sub-groups formed, most of the research discussion moved to other venues (beyond the Web site we built). While the community we developed is still a valuable tool for communicating with all the researchers as a group, other more familiar tools (e-mail, phone, instant messaging) have provided a better medium for hashing out the details of specific research projects.

Second Case Study: Supporting a (Mostly) Local New Media Team


Combining two grants received for development of mobile gaming and wearable technology, the Banff New Media Institute (BNMI) brought together artists, developers, and support staff in Banff to create several innovative new media projects. Although the team members were mainly located within Banff, they wanted a Web site to document their work and share ideas, as well as to facilitate input from outside collaborators on the project (based in Montreal and Vancouver).


Members of the team included graphic designers, fashion designers, computer programmers, engineers, and a production coordinator. All were comfortable working with basic Internet technology such as e-mail and chat, and some were even experts in the field of Web design. All were located at the Banff New Media Institute, but were dispersed through offices in two different buildings.


Having learned from our work with Xoops in setting up our previous Web-based community site, we had a better idea of what we were getting into in setting up this community site. Additionally, since the intended users were a relatively small group and were local, we were able to consult with them in choosing a content management system to suit their specific needs. A couple of users of our original Xoops site had mentioned an alternative tool called Drupal ( Upon investigating, we decided it would be a good fit for our needs.

While we had used a default template with our first community site, the designers who would be using this site were keen to tweak the interface to make it more usable. One of the graphic designers on the team took the initiative and developed a custom design. Converting the design into a Drupal-friendly template proved time consuming - much more so than using one of the default designs - but was worthwhile in that it pleased the team that would be using the site.

Similarly to Xoops, Drupal uses modules to control content. As with our first site, we outfitted this one with forum, files, and links modules. Because this community was designed to support some very specific projects, we also included an issue tracker which participants could easily use to keep track of the current status of their project tasks. Since our users were local to each other, we chose not to include a real-time chat module on this site. In addition to telephone, all users adopted a common instant messaging platform in order to communicate in real-time.

Site Use

Adoption of the site by our user team was swift, as it was a key component in their project work. Team leads stressed the importance of using the forums for discussion in order to keep a record of the work being done on the project, and the files section provided a much-needed venue for the sharing of diagrams, images, and other project documentation.

Since everyone was in Banff, interactions on the site were supplemented by weekly production meetings and also by smaller, more informal meetings of team members. However, the site remained an important tool throughout the design process.

Feedback regarding the site happened both in the forums and at the weekly meetings.  This allowed us to keep up with any problems or requests for changes, and implement them quickly. The small number of users meant we were able to implement most requested changes within a few days.


Our experiences in the above two case studies show that, while Web-based communities are an invaluable tool for providing support for new media collaboration, they will never replace the richness of face-to-face interpersonal interactions. In considering such an environment for an artistic project, it is important to consider the technology you have at hand, the group you will be supporting, and the overall goal of the project.

With little experience in on-line community building, setting up our first community site required a great deal of research, and the entire development process was a learning experience. When it came time to set up the second community, our experience from the first site was invaluable. In both cases, we had to consider our available resources - both technical expertise and software tools - and select a system that was a good fit with these.

The user group was also an important consideration. Our first site was designed to support a large group of users with a wide range of backgrounds, and exploring a wide range of topics. Our second site was tailored to a smaller, much more focused group. , Thus it is no surprise that while with the first site it was impossible to please everyone, with the second one we were better able to fine-tune features to the group's liking. Smaller group size – in both the second group, and in the sub-groups from our first community – also made it easier for users to adopt a common platform for other tools (such as a common instant messaging client) and subsequently move some or all of their discussions to that platform.

Finally, the goals of a project will also have some bearing on the success of a community site. The goals for the research project which our first site supported were very open-ended. While discussions on the site's forums provided some initial ideas, it was not until the users met in person that they were able to really bring these ideas to fruition. Conversely, the second community site was developed for a project with some very specific goals, and supported the journey to these goals quite well. Because they already had common goals, the users were able to use the site to share their work and move towards their completion.

In the end, it was the combination of our previous experience and the very goal-oriented nature of the project that made our second on-line community a success.  Our case studies show that in developing on-line communities for new media collaboration, it is important to provide clear goals for the community users; these goals could be scheduled chats (as in our first case study) or specific projects.  It is also important to note that with a larger user base, as in our first case study, users have such a wide range of motivations and experience that it is nearly impossible to get 100% buy-in.  Instead, focus on supporting the users that do adopt the community.


We gratefully thank ASRA, CFI, SSHRC and the Department of Canadian Heritage, New Media On-Line Research for providing funding for our new media collaboration projects. We would also like to thank the staff and artists at the Banff New Media Institute who helped in the creation of our online Web communities, particularly David Kretz, Magda Wesolkowska, Greg Judelman, Maria Lantin, and Sara Diamond.


Drupal. Consulted February 24, 2005.

Xoops. Consulted February 24, 2005.

Yahoo Groups. Consulted February 24, 2005.


Cite as:

Parker, J.K., Using the Web to Support and Document New Media Collaboration, in J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds.). Museums and the Web 2005: Proceedings, Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics, published March 31, 2005 at