Monday, April 30, 2007

Backwards Interview: My Advice for Incorporation of Web 2.0 into Museums

Most of the time this blog focuses on individual aspects of 2.0 thinking or applications. But every once in a while, it's nice to go back to the big picture. James Yasko is writing an article for an upcoming issue of Museum News on museums and Web 2.0. He got in touch with me last week to discuss some ideas for the article and asked me to respond to a few questions. One of these was a general question that I thought might be of interest to you.

Here's the question:

What advice do you have, as one who keeps up with technology as it relates to museums, to a group looking to incorporate Web 2.0 into their repertoire?

And my response...

1. Set your high-concept goals and find a Web 2.0 technique/application that will fit those goals. Are you trying to establish yourself as an up-to-the-minute news source on topics related to your museum’s content? Blog. Do you want to offer audio or video programming to an international audience for free? Pod or Vodcast. Do you want to become a community nexus? Start working the social network sites. Do you want visitors to contribute to the classification and presentation of your artifacts? Start thinking about tagging and folksonomies.

It’s not acceptable to say “we want to do it all.” If you had one youth educator, would you expect them to develop and run overnights AND scout programs AND teen programs AND toddler programs AND outreach AND… of course not. You would set a strategy that best serves the mission of the institution.

2. Start conservative and build from there. There’s a term in podcasting, “podfading,” that describes podcasts that are launched with vigor but fade into non-existence as its producers become overwhelmed or lose interest. Blogfading is rampant as well; casual clicking on reveals more than a few blogs that have dropped off the face of the internet (and according to Technorati, there are over 1 million blogs that exist only long enough to sustain a single post). While this trend might be acceptable (though annoying) when the blogs are personal, it's unprofessional--and unacceptable--when the blogs are institutional. Museums need to develop sustainable models for projects that require frequent content updates.

How can you avoid getting burned in this way? Some museums start with internal projects (blogs, wikis, tagging experiments) that are then released to the public once the kinks have been worked out and the quality level is adequate. Others set the bar low by being clear from the start about the frequency of content. At the Spy Museum, for example, we launched podcasting in the fall and committed to monthly half-hour episodes. The production value is high, the content is enjoyed by thousands of listeners, and the work required to produce each episode is manageable. You can always be a hero by increasing the frequency of your content later; it doesn’t work so smoothly the other way around.

3. Get all the departments on-board. Executive, marketing, content, and IT/web folks all have a stake in these projects. While the driving force (and the bulk of the work) may fall on one team, everyone’s concerns and needs have to be addressed. Who will be impacted resource-wise? How will the endeavor reflect on the museum’s brand image?

Web 2.0 projects can also be a great way to connect staff across the institution and empower people in non-creative positions to contribute content. At my museum, our COO often talks about how different museum projects fill three “buckets”—staff, visitors, and financials. While there’s a lot of focus in most museums on financial and visitor success, I think there’s room for improvement in terms of educating and supporting staff. You don’t have to be a curator or a marketing person to be involved in your museum’s blog or social network. And the more people get involved, the more diverse voices are reflected and the more staff feel connected to and empowered by the institution.

4. Keep statistics. Once you are rolling with a project, set metrics for success and keep everyone apprised of the impact the project is having on the institution in general. Has your tagging system increased overall google hits for the museum? Do your MySpace friends come to museum programs? Keep the overall museum mission in mind and report on the ways your Web 2.0 activities support that mission.

5. Be flexible and open to irreverence. Web 2.0 encourages non-authorities to participate in content creation and interpretation. For museums, this means we cannot continue to be stingy with the stories in our galleries, to hold interpretation of objects and history in a clenched fist. A good way to test your personal comfort with this openness is to start by encouraging irreverence in yourselves. How does your institution react to forum-style programming, risqué marketing tactics, or opening exhibits in prototype? How tightly held is messaging about the museum and its content?

6. Don’t wuss out. Many museums are using Web 2.0 in a very cursory way as another distribution pipeline for the same messages and content presented throughout the institution. While you may get some buzz just for using the technology platforms, the real power comes when you use Web 2.0 to offer programs and opportunities that are new to the museum. This can mean presenting new content rapidly, without going through the long exhibit or program development and implementation cycles. It can mean supporting staff and visitor opinions about the museum. It can mean encouraging social participation with other museum supporters. It can mean using visitor content and comments to adapt and grow the core museum content.

We’ve known for a long time that visitors define their own museum experiences. There’s a lot of fear around that reality. Web 2.0 sites take the radical stance that it is DESIRABLE to have users define not just their own experience but everyone’s experience. Can you grin and bear it?


What am I missing here? What advice would you give? What kind of advice are you looking for?

7 comments, add yours!:

Anonymous said...

Great post. Brian Kelly and I presented a suggested "how to" at Museums and the Web this year - see

I do react a bit to the concept of universal buy-in (#3). Not because it wouldn't be nice, but it does have a tendancy to stick us all down with the "museum treacle", sapping any energy there was at the beginning.

Also I think there is something to be said for doing stuff for staff (and users) to respond to - rapid protypes are great for stirring up ideas and reactions from staff which otherwise would remain buried...

Anonymous said...

I am not a museum employee but I recently worked on the redesign of the SFMOMA website. It's not yet live, as we all know, these things take time...

I attended the Museums and the Web 2007, where my colleague, along with SFMOMA's web director, presented a paper about the user-centered process we used in order to make design decisions. One of our findings (controversial) was the reluctance our audience had regarding using web 2.0 features on the SFMOMA website. Many people disliked this finding, I assume because 2.0 is a very attractive trend right now and, as they should be, aspects of which can be utilized to support many museums' missions. To hear that our audiences don't want to use these tools is a defeating finding.

However, I would like to say that web 2.0 features are highly relevant tools when used strategically, and this use can and should override user research if it supports institutional requirements, departmental requirements, makes something easier for publishers, adds value to the user experience, etc. For users of the current SFMOMA site, there is a complete lack of understanding of the breadth of content available on the site as well as the number of programs available in person at the physical museum. Current web users overwhelmingly come to the site to plan a trip and to see what's on view. Perhaps because it is a modern art museum (intimidating to some), perhaps because the navigation is poor, perhaps because its a lack of marketing, perhaps perhaps perhaps...people don't know about the "extracurricular" content on the site and in the museum. Given that context, we shouldn't be surprised that these same people would be resistant to participatory activities online when they don't know how these would be utilized on what they perceive to be a trip-planner.

I think context is everything, even to the point of making the 2.0-ness opaque to the user. What I mean by that is: if requesting participation in some form or another, maybe we don't need to make it a blunt "we do 2.0 and so should you". We don't need to call a blog a blog, we can call it something else. We don't need to say "tag this art object" we can call it something else. There's really is some general apathy and close-to-boredom-ness when it comes to 2.0 — it's so over, everyone is doing it, I don't have time — unless it has particular meaning to the user. I see this in a variaty of clients, not just for the SFMOMA project. "Jeez, another expert blog, why should I care?" "No, I really don't need to get an RSS feed about random news, whatever. Who cares?"

But "hide" RSS in the form of signing up for calendar alerts, well, there's a huge call for that and people want it. It's still 2.0, it's just contextualized into a language that offers the user high value and meaning.

"Hide" commenting on an exhibition: don't just say "what did you think?": a lot of people are nervous about sounding stupid. But invite a person to offer a personal history about the first time they saw that Matisse and how they felt emotionally about it - it's not then about the art (where they might get something wrong), it's about their relationship to the art.

I do honestly believe that when it comes to museums and UGC/2.0, modern and contemporary art museums will have a harder time convincing people to participate than science or historical museums will, given that, at least in the USA, many people just "don't get it". SFMOMA is finding the right tools which will allow them to target audiences in contextually relevant and valuable ways. Some of these tools will be from the 2.0 treasure chest - and I think they're taking the right approach by not being blatant about their use, but rather contextually presenting the features in non-intimidating ways that add value for their audiences.

Nina Simon said...

Mike and Brian's paper is awesome! I've been continually impressed by the non-academic, practical, and entertaining tone of the MW2007 papers.

Renee, great points about making web 2.0 more accessible "where people are." Amen to the contextual representation of these elements--they should be thought of as tools to help us better serve our visitors, not end-all be-alls. I think it belies a general misunderstanding of the technology when we assume that the typical look and feel is a necessity, not one of many options.

When I read the SFMOMA paper, I understood that you were primarily surveying your current web audience about their 2.0 interests, rather than looking at which new audiences might be interested. I agree with you that web 2.0 is not always (or even necessarily often) the answer, but I think it's something we should be experimenting with. There's a pretty good discussion about the SFMOMA paper on the fresh+new blog here.

Anonymous said...

yeah, that discussion on fresh+new is what initially got me a bit riled up about the paper we were presenting, especially because that particular passage - the focus of the discussion - was taken out of context of the entire paper, and some of the discussion entries were by people who hadn't even read the paper. The discussion was also created before the conference, before people heard the presentation. Mike even used that passage in his presentation.

It was very interesting to read the discussion and see how people were interpreting that one finding without really understanding the bigger picture of redesigning the entire site and that 2.0 is just a tiny sliver in the bigger mess of designing an entire site from the ground up, including balancing all new technology with institution requirements. Thank goodness we DID talk to users** or we would have had an incredibly unbalanced perspective on how the new site should be built.

The discussion was a pretty eye-opening picture of how some people are approaching 2.0, and not only in the museum world. I should mention that the fresh+new discussion and the resulting 2.0 debate is what has made me a regular reader of your blog.

**I would like to point out that we surveyed and interviewed "current" users in the sense that we captured their data because they visited the site on the days that the survey and interview invitations were posted on the homepage. Some of these people responded that it was their first time using the site. I would hesitate to say those are "current users" as in "regular users". However, the paper was misleading on this point.

Lynda Kelly said...

Thanks for this post - I think it is required reading for those of us who are thinking about this for our institutions.

I was also lucky enough to receive advice to post i made asking for useful links on Web 2.0. I put them all under my del.icio.ususing the "strategy tag" for want of a better word!

The discussion on that post is useful too.

Unknown said...

Great site, and good post. I'm co-editor of CRUMB for curators of new media art, but I'm also interested in new media interpretation. My colleague Sarah Cook recently curated a show on critical WEb2.0 art

RE your comment about stats, I'm usually saddened by how little Art Museum directors know about their online audience, and how stats are often just about numbers, not about who, for how long, etc.

Has anyone got any interesting stats on what happens when people participate rather than just view?


Beryl Graham

Anonymous said...

Hi Nina, your emphasis on strategy reflects findings from a current social media in museums research project I'm working on with a number of Australian cultural institutions. I have a background in communication strategy (rather than museums) and I have also been pushing a 'strategy-first' approach to social media projects.

However, I'm starting to get the feeling that employees of larger museums equate 'strategy' with 'management committee meetings designed to hobble any project' (I presume this is the 'museum treacle' to which Mike Ellis refers in his post?). Hence some aversion to the idea of a 'strategy-first' approach and an apparent preference by some museum professionals to 'just give it a go' in terms of social media projects.

Do you think this might be the case? And have I used too many inverted commas in this post? Perhaps I need an inverted comma strategy...