Usually, when I start posts with a question in the title, it's a cheat. The presumed answer is "yes" your museum needs a blog, a pony, or a set of comfy couches. In this case, it's debatable. Does your museum need a custom online social network? Maybe not. Let's discuss what it means, how it works, where it can go.
A social networking site is one in which users connect with one another. Most social networking sites give each user a unique user profile, along with a personal "home base" where you can always find your content, your contacts, and your interests. Some of the most popular are LinkedIn (a professional network), Facebook (social and professional), and MySpace (anything goes). Many museums have been experimenting in these spaces by creating institutional profiles, museum affinity groups, and connecting with visitors and other museum professionals individually. There are huge positives to tapping into these networks (which we've discussed here before), including connecting with visitors "where they are" and co-opting easy-to-customize applications for museum purposes. The Brooklyn Museum of Art is a great example of a museum really embracing these environments for community-building purposes.
But for some institutions or projects, being under a big tent that includes millions of people, groups, and activities is not appropriate. Why might a museum create its own social network? Some reasons include...
- privacy. Particularly for children's museums, protecting users in a museum-controlled space is a premium.
- freedom from advertising. Most free social networks include advertising that may not reflect museum mission.
- branding. Creating your own social network allows you to control the look and feel of the space.
- exclusivity. Providing a private place for classes, members, visitors, and staff to network can become a "value added" of supporting or being involved with the museum.
For example, consider Tree of Promise, a private social network created and managed by the Indianapolis Children's Museum. Tree of Promise is not a stand-alone network. It is an integral part of a new permanent exhibition, The Power of Children. The exhibition uses the stories of three remarkable children in history as a launching point for a platform on which kids and families can make “promises” for how they will impact or change the world. Note that even the content of this exhibition is focused on 2.0-style behaviors: being actively engaged as a participant, connecting to a larger network of individuals. The exhibition culminates at the physical Tree of Promise, a giant tree surrounded by computer kiosks. At the kiosks, children can make a promise, which floats up into the tree as a digital leaf.
Those promises are then emailed home both to the kids and their parents, and families can then elect to join the Tree of Promise social network, an online space where they can share, expand, and manage their promises. If at-home users complete their promises, they can return to the museum, where the tree “remembers” and congratulates them on their success. In this way, Tree of Promise takes a quick participatory in-museum experience—writing down a promise—and provides a supportive platform on which users can cultivate and substantiate that action. The Tree of Promise social network is not a network unto itself--it is an extension of the museum visit experience. As Angie McNew, Indy's Director of Information and Interactive Technology, explained to me, their primary objective was to provide a safe, simple place for families to track and share their promises with each other. The network is private, meaning that you can't go onto the site and view other users' promises without being invited personally by them. It's not an open space for discussion or communication; instead, it's a network of private spaces where kids and families have tools available to continue their museum experience. Because Indy's primary audience is quite young, they put particular focus on making sign-up and use as simple as possible, as well as presenting a clean, coherent message.
Excited to do it yourself? How do you make your own social network? There are plenty of articles out there on how to do it on the cheap and quick. A coworker shared an article with me last week entitled Build a Social Network in Under 60 Minutes. In it, author Adam Shahbaz chronicles an hour spent creating a free online social network called "SwagMe" in which users can share images and stories of their experiences with freebie stuff ("swag") accumulated from various businesses.
The article is empowering, and somewhat useful as a how-to. But it's also deeply annoying. Shahbaz's goal in creating SwagMe was to create an online thing for the sake of it, not to connect to or support a community. His experiment dwells little on the crux of social networks--their management--and the challenges and opportunities therein. It's a short-sighted quickie, a "hey mom, look at me!" in a sea of similar navel-gazing Web 2.0 projects.
To create something like Tree of Promise requires a lot more planning and dollars. Indy used a service called OneSite, which offers a suite of options for custom social network creation. To accommodate total customization, no ads, and heavy museum control, Indy chose Onesite's most expensive option, which has a minimum $20,000 startup fee and a $2500/month management fee. Onesite is definitely on the high end of pricing (this Techcrunch article provides a good breakdown of different options and costs), but $20,000 is not surprising given the fact that Indy fundamentally wanted a highly customized site.
And the creation costs, time, and effort are only a small part of the equation. Like engagement in any community site, the ongoing management, cultivation, and support of a social network is where the bulk of the work should reside. After all, one shot efforts to make a MySpace page, a blog, or a social network--no matter how cheap or costly at outset--are only as good as their continued growth and value. In the same way that I would recommend having a blogging strategy that includes consistent, frequent posting, managing a social network requires a community support strategy. The Tree of Promise is a new project for Indianapolis, and they are about the fact that its "release" means the beginning--not the end--of a development process that will keep evolving as the community and pattern of use grows.
So back to the original question: does your museum need its own social network? Tree of Promise doesn't make me want to dash out and create a social network component of every upcoming exhibit or museum program. It makes me cognizant of social networks' functionality as part of the museum toolkit, with particular (and limited) value. Finding the right public social networks to tie into is a no-brainer--it gives you access to your visitors in a whole new way. But creating your own social space is like developing a major exhibit or educational program. You need to be sure you have the resources to support it, and even more importantly, a compelling reason to do it. There are many such potential reasons--to allow members to share visit stories with each other, to enable teachers to share lesson plans--but you have to make sure the reason is strong enough to justify the investment. One for the toolkit... and hopefully, one that can be used wisely in the future.
Have you considered creating a custom social network for your institution? What direction or reasons are most compelling to you?