Online social media are where it’s at. Brands know this, corporations know this and of course, so do many museums.
Bundled under the rather opaque term “web 2.0″, a host of online sites and services – coupled with wider access to faster internet connections – has profoundly influenced the way that many people communicate.
Previously unrelated individuals can speak to one another, while larger numbers of people come together to form “web communities”.
At its best, this activity spawns new networks of knowledge – sharing, thinking and inspiration; at worst, it serves up a white noise of banalities. And like all organisations that deal with the public, museums have to navigate a way through this terrain, harnessing its strengths and watching for its pitfalls.
With each new social media phenomenon there is a bubble of hype: first it was Facebook and now it is Twitter. Among the hype it is not always easy to ascertain whether these things are genuinely useful; in the case of Twitter in particular, first appearances are generally discouraging, although further exploration yields riches.
The benefits of such services to museums, and how they might approach using them, are even less clear and a lot of head-scratching and question-posing is currently underway.
This Working Knowledge discusses some of the opportunities and challenges presented by online social media, looking at projects from leading institutions around the world. But before heading into the thick of it, it is worth trying to pin down what web 2.0 actually means.
Really, it is a catch-all term relating to a “generation” of online services that are built around interaction, social networking, sharing and interoperability.
Another, simpler way of looking at it is offered by consultants Lord Cultural Resources, which describes social media sites – such as Flickr, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter – as an extension of “the sharing of experiences once the sole purview of word-of-mouth communication”.
SPREAD THE WORD, VIRTUALLY
As a virtual word of mouth, it is the sharing of ideas, knowledge and experience that underpins web 2.0 services and user behaviour. This behaviour is typically predicated on relaxed openness, dialogue and a collegiate style of collaboration.
While many museum workers may share these attributes, very often the institutions themselves operate more like corporations, as Bridget McKenzie, director of cultural consultancy Flow Associates, explains.
“In the UK, we’ve followed the US model of shifting to museums as corporations and we’ve learned the rules of PR from the business world,” she says.
“I think this PR mode sits uncomfortably with the collegiate style of critical and independent thinking that characterises most cultural sector workers and increasingly grates against the conversational and open modes of social media.”
As a rule, the US is leading the way in working through these questions, with the Brooklyn Museum and Indianapolis Museum of Art both notably advanced. On the whole, museums and galleries that have really embraced web 2.0 are still few and far between, yet many say they want in.
“Over the last six months, one of the biggest things I’ve found is that people say they want to do web 2.0, but when it comes to matching the digital output that’s necessary with the shape of the museum institution inside, there is a mismatch,” says UK-based consultant Jon Pratty.
And we are right at the peak of the hype, says Mike Ellis, former head of web for the National Museum of Science and Industry and now a solutions architect at IT group Eduserv.
“Once upon a time the development of social tools had our fellow institutions looking on with horror. After a while it became entirely de rigueur. Round about now, it has become unfashionable to launch anything without some kind of social element. [This] is more about doing technology for the hell of it rather than looking at how users might really want to interact with our content.”
With this as a word of warning, the following articles discuss the practical, as well as strategic, challenges thrown down by museums’ use of social media. The apparent simplicity of many services and projects is appealing, but it masks a number of complex issues within.
The structure and culture of most museums, for example, is rarely prepared to handle a multiplicity of voices, both incoming and outgoing. Managing web 2.0 content throws up many implications for branding, content generation and authorship, tone of voice, timeliness, marketing, interpretation and more.
The Brooklyn Museum, considered by many to be exemplary in its online community work, is still something of an exception, says Pratty (see link below).
“Everyone wants to be like the Brooklyn Museum, but most UK museums aren’t like that. They don’t allow open voices or allow people to speak and author [content]. We have a hierarchical structure and the exemplars [in web 2.0] are not shaped like this, so museums have to change. This is a big thing to be tackled and it is less to do with technology and more to do with who and what the organisation is.”
One key aspect is the erosion of a centralised, single voice of authority, as traditionally presented and policed by a museum’s press and marketing department. Museums need to adjust to the idea of having multiple voices, says Mia Ridge, head of web development for the Science Museum, London.
“The monolithic museum voice is challenged by social media. It has always been the way that a museum has many voices: curators would do seminars, education teams would do something in school, and marketing people would be sending messages out to lots of different places,” Ridge says.
“But technology makes it much more obvious because you can just search through it all on the web. So if I’m semi-officially writing about work at the Science Museum on my own blog, what does that mean? My [technical] writing doesn’t really clash with the museum [voice], but what if explainers or curators are blogging? That might clash with the official lines. We’re exploring this at the moment.”
In fact, even the most progressive institutions are still exploring these issues, so hard-and-fast answers are scarce. But there are already some great examples of innovative projects out there, including the use of Flickr in competition events, both on- and off-site; blogs that offer staff the chance to share their experiences and knowledge; and exhibitions and online collections that are “co-curated” by the public.
As ever, different museums will need different responses to these challenges, based on their own particular objectives. “[Practical responses] have to be crafted for each situation, using the right channels and communities of interest,” says Bridget McKenzie.
“With social media, I think those generic rules you see everywhere are problematic. Organisations need to accept they need to invest in advice and training staff in these new PR skills.”
Jon Pratty echoes this: “Museums are seeking or searching for digital publishing skills, and they really need to. Publishing and content skills are absolutely needed.”
Or, as US-based museum and web 2.0 consultant Nina Simon puts it: “Do we have to be on Facebook and Twitter and every other damn social site? No – you have to determine what fits your goals and resources. And then just do that.”
This Working Knowledge is loosely organised around the types of activity that museums already do before the emergence of web 2.0 communications.
Some argue that the distinction between departmental functions is eroded by these new communications channels and that a full structural and cultural reappraisal is needed to embrace changes in visitor relationships, curatorship and interpretation.
This may be the case, but in the end much outward activity will fall into familiar categories: projecting what the museum does; building audiences; developing and marketing exhibitions and events; and researching and interpreting the history of objects.
The web can now play a role in all of these areas, even if it is just one channel among many. Web 2.0, for want of a better term, is more than a fad – and it is here to stay.
This article was written for the Working Knowledge section of Museum Practice, Autumn 2009.