Friday, June 12, 2009

Don't Join the Conversation if You Aren't Ready to Listen

Whenever I work with an organization that says they want to “hear from visitors,” I always ask: what will you do with what you hear? Is this a research project? It is an exhibit of user-generated content? Is it a conversation? What will you do if they say something you don’t agree with? In almost all cases, museums assure me that they want to be in conversation, that they want to be responsive, that they want to “really hear” what people think.

This week, I read two stories about disagreeable flare-ups between institutions and consumers. In one case, the institution jumped into the conversation and converted an ugly situation into a positive community outcome. In the other case, the institution was unwilling to engage in the conversational environment and ended up isolated, fueling the fire.

Sadly, it was the second story that was about a museum. Let’s start there.

Here’s what happened: an art critic named Jerry Saltz posted an incendiary note on Facebook about the very low representation of women artists on the 4th and 5th floors (painting and sculpture) of MoMA. He encouraged his friends and followers to help him generate a package of comments and complaints on this topic to send to museum executives at the end of June. Then, he received a message from MoMA’s Chief Communications Officer, Kim Mitchell, which he posted (at her request). Here’s her message:
"Hi all, I am (Kim Mitchell) Chief Communications Officer here at MoMA. We have been following your lively discussion with great interest, as this has also been a topic of ongoing dialogue at MoMA. We welcome the participation and ideas of others in this important conversation. And yes, as Jerry knows, we do consider all the departmental galleries to represent the collection. When those spaces are factored in, there are more than 250 works by female artists on view now. Some new initiatives already under way will delve into this topic next year with the Modern Women's Project, which will involve installations in all the collection galleries, a major publication, and a number of public programs. MoMA has a great willingness to think deeply about these issues and address them over time and to the extent that we can through our collection and the curatorial process. We hope you'll follow these events as they develop and keep the conversation going."
This message spurred hundreds more comments on Facebook, blog posts, and tweets, which eventually made their way to people like me. As Doug McLennan wrote in Arts Journal, Kim’s message was condescending, impersonal, did not respond to the specific issue at hand, and did not reflect an honest interest in engagement. Though she wrote, “we welcome the participation and ideas of others in this important conversation,” Kim made it clear that MoMA will continue to talk about this issue internally, on their own, and we should just wait and “follow” their subsequent actions.

MoMA is present on many social networks, including Facebook and Twitter, and clearly “heard” from people about this issue. But only Kim was tapped to address it in a corporate manner. Despite offering conversational portals, MoMA was unwilling to engage conversationally in this case. It would have been very easy to send out a tweet or Facebook update with a link to the article and some version of the question, "what do you think?" so that MoMA could become part of the discussion. I presume that their silence on the airwaves means MoMA doesn't have a policy that allows staff to engage in these environments in the open, personal, conversational ways that are appropriate to the platforms when the topic veers away from positive comments and event announcements.

There are people on Jerry Saltz’s page and other venues having very passionate, engaging conversations about how to deal with gender representation issues in MoMA and other museums. It’s not like the gender issue is a big secret that Jerry exposed or that this topic isn't heatedly discussed inside and outside the museum world. But MoMA isn’t ready to participate with the public on these potentially tough, meaty conversations. They don't have the resources or policies to support real dialogue with the public, even if they are present in social media-land. They may be in Rome, but they’re not ready to do like the locals.

But don't despair. There is an alternative for those who are really ready to hear from visitors: engage responsively in an invested, honest, personal manner. That’s what Dave Schroeder did this week when he was in a similar position to MoMA.

Dave runs a yearly software conference called Flashbelt in Minneapolis. Like MoMA's upper floors, Flashbelt has a significant gender imbalance with about 5-10% of attendees being women. One of the keynote speakers, Hoss Gifford, gave a talk that many perceived as sexist/degrading/offensive and completely unprofessional. A female attendee, Courtney Remes, wrote about the experience and the managers of the Geek Girls Guide blog posted her comments along with a comprehensive call to action to encourage people to write to the event organizers and generally raise awareness about the issue.

The same day, Dave Schroeder wrote privately to the women and, significantly, posted a public apology about the incident on the Flashbelt homepage. He didn’t hide it on a secondary page; one day after the conference was over, the homepage of the conference focused solely on this issue. His statement was honest and explicit. He validated the concerns, apologized to everyone, took full responsibility for the issue, and expressed his commitment to redress this issue now and in the future. (Note: his letter has now moved here.)

The next day, the Geek Girls post was updated to announce that there would be a united response from Dave, Courtney, and the Geek Girls coming soon. Here’s what they said:
“Dave Schroeder, Courtney Remes, Nancy Lyons and Meghan Wilker met this morning and had a great discussion. We're working together on a united response, which will be posted here as soon as it's done. This has obviously touched a nerve with a lot of people. Let's keep the dialogue going, and let's keep it positive and respectful.”
They met in person. They talked about it. This afternoon, they issued a lengthy collaborative statement. And they are encouraging more dialogue about the general issues of gender imbalance and prejudice in the software development world, which they are clearly willing to lead and take part in.

This is the way that institutions should be willing to act when we say we want to “be responsive” to people. I know there are many differences between the MoMA and Flashbelt incidents and that running a huge museum is much more complex than running a yearly conference. But the issues these stories bring up around willingness to "hear" and "engage" are universal.

This is why I always say that participatory tools are about relationships, not technology. You have to be honest about what kinds of relationships you are willing to take on. If your corporate culture prevents you from being an invested, accountable, honest, personal part of a serious conversation, then there are some conversations, relationships, and social venues in which you cannot fully participate. And it’s fine if you know you are not ready to be there. It's entirely your choice to engage or not in different kinds of relationships. But don’t show up for a conversation if you aren’t ready to listen.

11 comments, add yours!:

Chris said...

Having just moved from a very large, very corporate museum that worries a great deal about the flow of information, I agree with a lot of what you say – it is frustrating when the only voice of an institution is such a corporate one. But I think you’re being a little unfair to MoMA. Over the last few years I’ve had to write a few letters and emails that were similar in content to Kim Mitchell’s response, so I can sympathize with her position; my first response was that it was actually quite well crafted and the sort of thing I’d probably have done myself – I guess I might have to revisit that opinion!

It may be unpalatable to say this, but big museums are corporate entities. They have hundreds of staff and multi-million dollar budgets. They depend for funding on donors and corporate sponsors that can turn money on or off at will. They are also large, slow moving targets for anyone that wants to launch a lawsuit. And, of course, they depend on the goodwill of the public to generate gate receipts. Under these circumstances, it’s not surprising that they’re risk averse when it comes to PR.

You suggest that it would be nice if MoMA allowed staff to engage with discussions in “open, personal, conversational ways.” The problem is that they’re employees of MoMA. By extension, everything that they say in that capacity is a MoMA opinion, and if anyone takes offense then the blowback will be on MoMA, not the employee. So how should museums show that they disagree with an employee’s opinion? By disciplining or firing them? Presumably you wouldn’t be in favor of this? In the end, it’s safer for all concerned to have the museum speak with a single voice, particularly where controversial subjects are involved.

Now, I agree that this is a sad state of affairs and I would like to think it will change as society becomes more comfortable with the way that information and opinions flow through the web. But it’s going to take a while for institutions to get completely at ease with this concept – they need to have a bunch of positive experiences and getting a hammering from some critic with a lot of Facebook friends is not going to be one of them. Criticizing MoMA for issuing a corporate response is a bit like calling the Wright Brothers failures because they never got to Mars.

John said...

So for me this post brings up an issue I still don't know where I fall. Should we chastise big institutions for outdated practices, and show them the ways to move forward in ways that does not coddle them?
I wonder if a post like this alenates and makes big corporate institutions feel legitamized in their responses.
Can you imagine how Moma bigwigs would react to being compared to this confrence some guy named Dave runs in Mn. who pissed off a bunch of people who call themselves the Geek Girls? I am sure they feel justified and good about themselves for issuing what amounts to a "press release" but they are very down with the kids because they did it on the I-N-T-E-R-N-E-T because an intern who was "web savy" showed them how to use email and the whole notion that they, Dave's Conference,and the Geek Girls are one in the same is proposterous!
All the time people who are influential in areas of thought leadership as it relates to new media and democratized comunications get a little tired of Dinasaurs getting it wrong. Sometimes we point it out. Very often we do so in ways that also throw in very specific parts of web culture that these big institutions find dismissive, even though they are 100% legitimate examples of the good ways to deal with problems or ways to communicate with the public.
So my question is I guess the proverbial Can you teach an old dog new tricks with new thought?

Jim Richardson said...

The response that the MoMA reply is getting could be enough to put any museum off the idea of being proactive in the social media space, if an organization perceived to be ahead of the curb on sites like Facebook and Twitter can fall fowl of it's audiences, then is it safe for any institution to respond to criticism on the web.

Nina Simon said...

I believe that the folks at MoMA are well-intentioned, smart people. I don't mean to use this post to slam on them, but to point out that the style and tone of conversations in social media are fundamentally different from those in press conferences. I think MoMA and all museums _can_ get there, but they need to rethink how and who communicates to make it happen.

It's not impossible. There are some big corporations (and corporate-size entities) that are able to engage conversationally. And consider that museums are more like universities than factories. Curators and museum educators are more like university professors than cubicle drones. Why can't they express themselves as freely as academics do? In some ways, museums are highly aberrant among their peers for their level of message control.

I respect the fact that many companies prefer to control their messaging. But that kind of messaging becomes, as John puts it, outdated, when the venue is multi-vocal, authentic, and direct.

Chris-you're right right. The Wright Brothers don't belong in NASA. But if they want to go to the moon, they better learn from the astronauts how to get there.

Alli said...

What I'm hearing is that there is a strong expectation that if you are online, you must be ready to engage the public (or "don't join the conversation" at all). Is this true? It seems like a fairly limiting expectation that puts a lot of pressure on large institutions.

Say Jerry was at MoMA with a few friends when Kim overheard their conversation about gender representation and responded as she did online. Not the most personal response, but if it were me, I'd be grateful for her stopping to acknowledge the issue. I wouldn't expect her to apologize and ask me what I thought would improve the situation (though it might be better PR), and I certainly wouldn't have preferred she ignored me altogether.

So, if social media is about relationships more than technology and institutions have the right to choose what type of relationships they want with the public, what is it about this media environment that caused such negative reactions to Kim's response?

Nina Simon said...

I sincerely hope that in person, Kim (or any staff member) would have been more responsive and natural in this conversation. Doug suggested in his Arts Journal post that no one would talk like this in person. I agree. The gallery and the social web are the opposite of a media environment, which is why press-speak stands out.

Scott Ellsworth said...

So let me see if I understand this.

Kim responds with a letter that likely lets her keep her job, that mentions works by the claimed-underrepresented group, and that at least tries to keep a discussion open, and the response is to slam her? Aggressively, and as a corporate drone?

Were it me who had just crafted a reasonable sounding response, only to get a bucket of ... stuff ,.. thrown in my face, it would be a cold day in hades before I bothered to respond to the community again. There is no percentage in it.

Let me be clear - if the response of the community is to be unhappy with the corporateness of the response, then you will get no responses, and you will get no conversation. Do you really want the museum to think of the community as counterproductive and negative?


Tim K. said...

I think Scott has a good point. You have to let these institutions warm up to communicating in a non-corporate world before they will be willing to engage in a dialog. On the other hand, it's not the people who read this blog that are going to be judging the "corporateness" of the blog post/statement/response. It's the general public, the physical and online visitors to the museum. The blogsphere isn't going to sit back and analyse the situation from a corporate perspective, they expect a personal response and a two-way discussion. I think Nina's point is that these groups are operating in two very different worlds, and the public isn't going to change, so we have to.
A lot easier said than done, but something to think about.

Lynda Kelly said...

Thanks for the post Nina. we are facing similar conversations at the Australian Museum. Our new website has a commenting function that is turned on for every page so staff have no choice but to engage and join the conversation.

Our web manager arranged for web writing and CMS training where we discussed many of these issues and we've decided to suck it and see to a large degree - it's very exciting!

We've also been experimenting in social media spaces, where again, we regularly talk among ourselves about how to engage with our audiences. A good example is the All About Evil blog and Facebook group.

We have a long history of audience research at the Museum, so to a large degree we're really used to talking with and listening to our audiences. Recently we held a Teachers' College and plan to use our website to have many more conversations with them in the future (as with all our audiences).

Beth said...

As a late-comer to this game, I have a comment related to the statement, "You have to be honest about what kinds of relationships you are willing to take on." I think transparency is a big part of this process.

Having just been tasked with managing my museum's new visitor feedback and social media efforts, I decided to be transparent and posted a statement that we reserved the right to delete comments that were inappropriate or inflammatory. We received a handful of publicly posted comments that were highly inappropriate and wanted to be up-front about our reasoning for deleting content. I'd seen other museums and organizations do this on blogs, Facebook pages, and journalism sites. While we received many comments praising us for our efforts to keep discussions civil, we also received backlash - folks who accused us of censorship because of our posting policy statement. I was so focused on transparency that I overlooked how such a policy could be perceived by users.

While there is a lot of talk about museums being open and accessible to all (including at my own institution), my museum's mission is also to cultivate a respect for diversity. So it seems that in our social media, we are navigating a middle ground between maintaining our brand (encouraging a respect for diversity) and enabling users to provide us with their opinions - whether good, bad, or ugly.

I think it's a tricky balance. In opening ourselves up for feedback, we are bound to receive comments from all points along the spectrum. While museums may see social media as an outlet to gain feedback, create an identity, and give a public forum for discussion, users' behaviors cannot be predetermined or controlled.

I'm curious to hear how others feel museums should or should not listen and respond to comments & feedback that is less than constructive.

Anonymous said...

This is rather juvenile. We're talking about MoMA, not your corner-store 'museum.' The content and mode of discourse both encouraged and made possible by social media channels are simply inadequate for these and other serious purposes.

Kim Mitchell's response is not only specific to the central issue, but also forward-thinking in that it describes the near future as it revolves around just that issue. Not only that, but her language is clear, in accordance with the mission and intellectual level that MoMA both nurtures and expects, and direct.

If anyone finds that 'condescending,' they are in the wrong lane of traffic.