Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Image Beats Text: Good for Museums, Tough for Me

Over the past year, I've had a hazy sense that the social web is transitioning from a text-based to visual medium. Services like Tumblr, Pinterest, and Instagram are growing at incredible rates, especially with younger users. Facebook shifted its design to focus on photo and video-sharing in response to data showing that this content is shared way more frequently than text and links. Visual content motivates more responses than text, engages younger participants, and is often cited as a major trend of 2012 and 2013.

A trend in which I take almost no part. It's surprising (and a bit embarrassing) to realize how little I engage with tools that appear ascendant broadly and are in constant use by my colleagues. I appreciate these tools--the attractiveness of Instagram, the usability of Vine, the utility of Pinterest. But I live in a digital world in which text is still king. I spend my professional time online reading blogs, reading reports, sharing articles, engaging in text chat. I use an RSS reader to aggregate articles to read, a bookmarking tool (pinboard) to save links of interest, and conversational tools (Twitter and Facebook) to share. And of course, I use this blog as a reflective space to learn by writing.

In contrast, many of the people I work with use visual social media formats as their lead tools for creating, sharing, and consuming information. At our museum, Pinterest is a primary tool for brainstorming and sharing ideas. Instagram has become a popular way to share photos, along with Flickr, where we catalog all our images from events and exhibitions. And the most recent excitement is around Vine, which we're using to make snippets of video showcasing our work. Individual staff members use these tools both personally and professionally. They are invested in them beyond their workday.

I'm supportive of all of this. At the same time, I recognize that these tools and this form of content-sharing is (so far) not for me. Part of that has to do with my personality--I love to write, and I rarely take photographs. While I'm comfortable working out my thoughts in a half-baked way in words, I rarely use images as part of that learning/reflecting/sharing experience. I just haven't figured out how to integrate these tools into my workflow.

But what's awkward for me is actually probably very good for museums. Museums, and museum staff members, tend to be highly visually-oriented. It's about the objects, the display, the people, the process, the event--the image of the experience. I suspect that there are many more museum professionals who are ready and eager to share photographs or videos documenting their work than are ready to write about it.

This is great for museums looking for authentic ways to engage with people online. We don't have to hunt for photogenic projects: we have impressive feats of construction and wonder on display on a daily basis. Visual content can build excitement about museums in a way that would be hard for a social service agency or nonprofit to emulate.

At the same time, we might think about how these tools might be used inside our field in the context of professional development and building communities of practice. Most of the professional networks I belong to online operate using the most antiquated of text-based tools: the listserv. Even sites that do encourage use of images or video as part of professional sharing tend to make those elements optional while text is required.

This makes me wonder: are younger practitioners creating their own online communities of practice in visually-based social networks? Are there opportunities for explicit knowledge-sharing that are rooted in photographs and videos? Does the growth of visual content affect who within an organization produces digital content and how those resources are managed?

Clearly, this is not my area of expertise. I'd love to hear what you think.
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