On Monday, David Klevan (from the US Holocaust Memorial Museum) and I spoke at the MAAM Creating Exhibitions conference about Web 2.0 and museums. I provided the Web 2.0 framework, and David shared lessons learned from the huge range of projects the Holocaust Museum has initiated.
The biggest question that came up again and again was: how much does it cost? In most cases, the audience wasn’t asking about money: they were asking about time. When David explained that each of the Holocaust Museum’s myriad comment boards, blogs, and online forums is moderated by a staff member, the audience turned a little green. As one woman put it, “spending time on this means time staff isn’t spending on other work.” Absolutely. So in the interest of hers, yours, and everyone else’s time, here’s a rundown on what I see as the real time costs of a variety of Web 2.0 ventures.
The time cost of Web 2.0 is not in product development but in product management, maintenance, and growth. It may take you only a few minutes to create a blog, but doing so means (hopefully) a commitment to frequent content posts. When you start any Web 2.0 initiative, you should think about what (and who) it's going to require over its lifespan, not just pre-release. The time estimates below are written with sustainability in mind--the week-by-week management of Web 2.0.
First, the cheap options... and probably the most valuable. You don't need big time to get started with Web 2.0. Got 1-5 person hours each week? Become a participant.
You don't need a lot of time (or any technical expertise) to jump into the world of Web 2.0 and sniff around. Better yet, some of that sniffing can be appended by friendly actions that require little more than a keyboard and an interest in talking with others about your museum.
In 30 minutes, you can learn a lot about your institution and visitor opinions of it. You can...
- Search for your institution on Yelp and TripAdvisor. If reviews include incorrect information, add your own comment giving helpful information about hours, prices, and new cool things people might like. If there are negative comments you want to address, commiserate, be friendly, and help them know that you care.
- Check yourself out in the blogosphere. Go to Technorati or Google Blog Search and put the name of your museum (or exhibit, or program, or...) in quotation marks and hit search. You'll see all the mentions of you in recent blog posts. If something looks interesting, click through and read the post. You might even want to post a comment (and link back to the museum website).
- Look for photos of you on Flickr and videos about you on Youtube. Again, add comments that give tantalizing information about the ancient vase behind the smiling girl or upcoming programs featuring those video-recorded light sabers. This is also a good place to get an education in how people are using images from your institution--both legally and illegally.
- run a Twitter feed. The most time-consuming part of this is not posting content (how time-consuming can 140 characters get?) but attracting followers who will read your content. Search for people or institutions of interest to follow, and the followers will come.
- post images from museum events on Flickr, upload videos from events on YouTube. The time these require is highly correlated to whether you are currently generating this kind of content, but if you are already snapping shots, putting them up on the web (with a handy link back to the museum website) is a cinch, and it's totally acceptable to do it sporadically.
- create and manage a Facebook group or page, or a MySpace page. These are arguably the most time-consuming of the "cheap" time options, but if you have staff members who are already using these social networks, you can quickly broadcast out to a large group of people (like Twitter) at infrequent points, and provide a place for that group to meet and interact with each other. You can also have an extremely strange representation of yourself, as does the American Museum of Natural History. It must be working for them--they have over 2000 virtual "friends."
- manage an online comment board on your website. Yes, it sounds overwhelming when David talks about monitoring all the boards on the USHMM website. But in reality, the monitors are making a very simple designation: is this offensive/dumb/nonsensical, or can it stay up as a comment? It's not hard to make that decision; most of us could do it in a few seconds. And since the average online museum comment board garners just a few comments each week (if you're lucky), this needn't be an onerous activity.
Have a bit more time and energy? Not satisfied with the puny 140 character limit on Twitter? If you have 5-10 hours per week, become a content provider.
- Start a blog. There are many third party applications like Wordpress and Blogger on which you can host a blog with very little technical knowledge. Yes, you have to do a bit more than just typing to add the images and format the style of the page, but there are simple templates to work with as well (for example, this blog is served on a standard Blogger template). The challenge with blogging is frequently updating the content; I'd say once a week is a must, and posting two or more times per week is a great goal. If you spread the writing out among staff, it needn't take more than 10 hours a week to get three great posts up and monitor (and respond to!) the comments. For more information about what kind of blog might be right for you, check out this post.
- Start a podcast. Same as the blog, but requires a microphone and some audio editing software. If you are comfortable producing audio content, it's quite simple to start a podcast... and reasonable to put out new content as infrequently as once a month. You don't need to have fancy machinery to make this happen. What you need is organization, interesting content, a person who can edit audio (which you can do for free with Audacity), and a place to post it. You don't have to host the audio yourself; you can use a service like Feedburner to host, organize, distribute, and market your content. If you want to get really fancy and go video, you can "vodcast" this way, too.
But you want something bigger? Have gobs of time and some technical know-how? Then sheesh! With 10-20 hours per week, become a community director.
These projects tend to be custom and are harder to define in neat bullets than the others. They include projects like...
- community websites like Science Buzz (Science Museum of Minnesota) and Red Shift Now (Ontario Science Center) that combine a variety of text, video, audio, and image content accessible both from the museum and from the web. In these examples, staff are continually producing new content and interacting with the community via comment boards and other uploaded user-generated content.
- open collections databases like the Powerhouse Museum's tagging system, where visitors can add their own keyword tags to museum artifacts. In this case, staff are producing digital assets and managing a back-end program (read: software techies) to provide visitors with the content they want via passive tracking of usage.
- experiments in social networks like those performed by the Brooklyn Museum via their Facebook applications and video contests or by the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in their Google Earth work and myriad comment boards. This pretty much requires dedicated staff.
- open exhibit development projects like The Tech Virtual Museum Workshop. While it took a full-time effort to launch this Web+Second Life platform where visitors can propose and prototype their own exhibits (the best of which we are now building at The Tech), it now takes only about 10 hours of my time weekly to manage the community, coordinate classes, support virtual exhibit designers, and make it happen.
These projects require a fundamentally different skill set than many of the other jobs we do in museums. Think of the folks doing these activities as floor staff working in your virtual galleries. They have some content knowledge and an interest in engaging with visitors. They aren’t super-techies or crack content experts. They manage relationships instead of producing exhibits or events. Some museums are starting to reflect this in their hiring, adding "community management" to job descriptions that formerly were just about content production or distribution.
But you don't have to change your title to get started. Bookmark your hour each week and start wading in. What ideas have I left out that you would add to these lists? What costs are you most concerned about when you consider embarking on Web 2.0 ventures?