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Social Media starts conversation. Now what?

Social Media brings the visitors to our virtual door. What have we gotten ourselves into?


In the recent days, I have watched and listened as social media innovates political process in Iran. Twitter has been a powerful forum for a newsfeed out of the country, allowing people to photograph, video and blog about events in real time, even as more traditional journalists are being asked to leave.

Listening to a segment about it on the radio, I couldn’t help but think about the massive change to how news is found and the way crowdsourcing of information has so drastically changed the source of the news we get, and for museums, how closely this is tied to the changing face of visitor interactions through the web. Nina Simon, in this article at Museum2.0, writes,

For people who are deeply immersed in social media, social networks are already a much heavier influence on personal choices–where to visit, what concert to attend–than traditional advertising. Which means that your organization’s website–a brochure out in the wilderness of the Web–is only going to remain relevant and useful as a marketing piece if it is being referenced in the social context of your users’ lives.

Different people and institutions have found vastly different approaches to garnering information from their audiences.

Some museums have decided to use crowdsourcing, which can be appealing to visitors, in a way that is helpful to what the museum wants to accomplish. The Brooklyn Museum’s Shelley Bernstein wrote about a new project called Freeze Tag! where Brooklyn decided to utilize their loyal taggers to help control errant or incorrect information. Putting control back in the hands of the visitor can be risky, but, like Wikipedia, ultimately a project where passionate people and the wisdom of crowds wins out in the end. Brooklyn is a leader in integrating the visitor into the museums practice in innovative ways. With or without social media, how can other museums use this model to further their own goals?

Certainly, insta-media has increased the demand for transparency. Last week, Tyler Green and Christopher Knight tweeted and blogged about the dubious ethics in a private sale of works of art at the Orange County Museum of Art. These exchanges led to a heated discussion of the readers of the respected entries, including people representing both sides of the argument, and lots of scrutiny at the museum. Did the museum miss a chance to lead these discussions in the first place?

The problems start when the institution places itself on these social media sites, but don’t seem ready to hear what their devoted fan have to say. Douglas McLennan, of  Diacritical says,

…traditional PR notices are not only ineffective in this new era of many-to-many communication, but can make things worse. And what might have been a real opportunity to meaningfully engage this community has been lost.

Can a museum be listening all the time? In the world of public relations and standards, the casual conversation style of the Facebook world must seem completely alien.

The voice of the audience has never been as available to museums as it is now. Museums small and large have been all over Facebook and Twitter, my social media outlets of choice, trying to add fans and establish a voice that is cohesive with the museum’s image. Let’s imagine there is a museum out there doing it all perfectly. They generate lots of discussion and suggestions from their core audience of loyal visitors and donors…. What now? This next step is crucial and the point of getting involved in social media in the first place, and it is up to each museum.  How and when is that museum going to listen?

It’s my hope that we will continue to see the flowering of visitors being welcomed into the museum conversation, worldwide, with social media just being an example of ways to welcome them into the rest of the practices in the institution. If we want the community to value our institutions, we can strengthen the relationship by showing how much we value them.

Filed under: Guest Bloggers, Musings, New Media

4 Responses to “Social Media starts conversation. Now what?”

  • avatar
    Will Cary Says:

    Very well-put, Emily!


  • avatar
    Meg Says:

    Great post, Emily! I think it’s important for all to understand the critical distinction between presence and engagement in a community (both online and off).

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    David Hart Says:

    I think the problem is also that users can post something quickly, so they expect change to happen just as swiftly. Writing something on Facebook is fast and effortless, but steering the direction of an entire organization takes a tremendous amount of time and effort, and I think that people are not (often) considering that when they decide to rant online.

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    Emily Says:

    I agree, but I think the chance to explain that to ardent fans is often lost in a museum being too structured and/or didactic. I think that a museum must be flexible enough to allow for different types of relationships and also open to the opportunity to learn from all types of visitors. The type of interaction between the museum staff and the public on Facebook can be free flowing and casual, and still be built into a larger, more formal, dialogue. I think it is this duality that is currently stumping so many PR departments- and they are missing out on a conversation that gives them the greatest access and insight to their most passionate fans.

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