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Resourcing for social media / Social Media & Cultural Communication 2008 conference

Regular readers will have noticed that my post-rate has been down significantly over the past two months. This has largely been because of some new and exciting projects and the extra load that preparation for presentations has brought with it.

Blogging, like any form of social media content creation, takes time and effort. Without regular and sustained effort, the community that grows and engages with this content, quickly withers and disappears.

This, in fact, was one of the points of my presentation at the Social Media and Cultural Communication conference (SMCC) at the Museum of Sydney on Friday. (The SMCC was one of the outputs of an Australian Research Council Linkage research project that brought together 6 cultural institutions and QUT Brisbane.)

Playing foil to Kevin von Appen (Ontario Science Centre) in the opening session, my task was to play the ‘bad cop’ and present some of the challenges for museums and cultural institutions when they engage in social media. Where Kevin gave an excellent run down of the great exploratory work museums and science centres are already doing online, I argued that museums, especially, have been especially prone to employing the ‘exhibition model’ of resource allocation to online projects, and that for social media this is the kiss of death. Exhibitions front load resourcing so much so that by the time an exhibition launches it is not uncommon for the staff working on it to take several weeks leave, and then return to start the next project. Getting visitors to the exhibition is the task of other people – marketing and PR staff. And making sure they have a good experience in the exhibition is the role of front-of-house staff, public programmes staff, followed up with some evaluation exercises.

Unfortunately for anyone who works in the web space they know that when a online social media project goes ‘live’ the real work begins. Getting visitors to your project, engaging them while they are there and then making sure they come back again and again is very hard. The requirements for constant iterative work on usability and front end design are matched by the need to ensure that the community ‘plays well’ together.

Building great community websites has been a challenge since the beginnings of the web, and cultural institutions, amongst others, have been quick to turn to the established communities on existing social networks – MySpace, Facebook – and content communities – Flickr, YouTube – in particular, as a way of harnessing pre-existing communities. But even with these existing networks, museum participation needs to be more than just ‘upload and leave’ – active participation on an ongoing basis is required otherwise often it will do more harm than good to your museum’s brand.

So how do you do it?

Kevin von Appen, Lynda Kelly, Tim Hart and I all agreed that social media requires significant organisational change. Lynda quoted colleague Russ Weakley, we need to “work 20% differently, not 20% more”. Tim just had two slides with the words “change” and “more change”.

I used the example of the Powerhouse’s Sydney Observatory blog. It has now been running for 20 months and has clocked up nearly 300 posts, solicited over 1000 comments, and all on the back of just two staff. The primary blogger, Nick Lomb, is the Observatory’s curator of astronomy. I’ll be posting an interview with him in the coming weeks, but he has changed work practices so that blogging is a key part of his weekly work routine. It is also now one of the primary means by which he interacts with the visitor community and amateur astronomers.

Likewise our collection database has forced a re-examination of registration and curatorial practices at a meta-level, as well as at a practical level required the Museum to look at new ways of resourcing collection-related public enquiries. In addition to this, the enormous amount of semantic data and use patterns generated by users of the collection database are now giving the Museum the opportunity to learn from visitors/partipcants/users in ways never before possible. Whether we can act on this new and emerging knowledge depends on our ability to change at an organisational level in response.

It is also critical to understand that web strategy is not the same as a social media strategy and vice versa – see my ‘four circles of online strategy‘ which I have also posted today.

5 replies on “Resourcing for social media / Social Media & Cultural Communication 2008 conference”

Hey Seb,
Your presentation was great. Funny how your summary of it here is so different to what I took from the real-time thing. We all see/hear/perceive in our own special way, eh, and I suppose that’s the point, far as museums and social media go, anyway.

It was useful to consider the three overlapping but distinct strategies for corporate website, marketing and social media…

…and the much-repeated message about the need to shift resources made me sigh ahhhhh… mmmm…

The one point with which I would take issue is where you said that social media forces a re-examination of the role of museums. Since the early 90s museum people have been talking about museums as belonging to communities, as ‘facilitators of communities’ [1] and as offering ‘a sort of yardstick that people could use to evaluate cultural mythologies’. [2]

Even within the SM&CC forum, Lynda Kelly indicated that museums have long been aware of the need to engage visitors as producers rather than only as consumers. And Louise Douglas said that the National Museum has been understood since its inception as a forum for debate, presenting multiple voices…

To my mind, social media makes it easy for museums to walk the talk of the role of museums that has been talked for over 20 years now…

But just because it’s now easy doesn’t mean that collecting institutions will all take this path. I was also interested in the abundant anecdotal reporting of organisational resistance to social media.

Enough from me for now! Best wishes and thanks for a stimulating and cracking-paced presentation,

[1] McCarthy, Conal (1990), ‘The postcolonial museum: Towards a theory and practice of museum education’, Australian Art Education, 14(2), 64–8.

[2] MacDonald, George F. (1992), ‘Change and challenge: Museums in the information society’, in Ivan Karp, Christine Mullen Kreamer, & Steven D. Lavine (eds.), Museums and Communities: The Politics of Public Culture, Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press.

Hi Cath

Yeah this post was sort of a ‘post-conference’ re-look and needs to be combined with some of my other posts for full effect.

I’d totally agree that museums have been discussing engagement for 20+ years now – the “new museology”and all that.

The difference with social media is two fold.

Firstly, there are the tools to make deep engagement possible far beyond the walls of the museum on a continual basis. I think I’ve mentioned the idea of the “ambient museum” here before.

Secondly, and this is critical, these tools are already being used by our visitors – publicly. And in an online world controlled by search we don’t have the option to ignore this. We have to respond and change.

Prior to the web the “new museology” was always a choice. Now it isn’t.

Likewise, just as libraries have had to change, so does every organisation in the GLAM sector. As funding dries up the only choice is to mobilise engaged audiences to assert the ‘importance’ and relevance of the sector.


Seb, my feeling is to agree with you that ‘we have to respond and change’ but I’m also not sure just how that argument plays out, especially in the peculiar context of national archives…

Are you thinking that museums will become irrelevant and therefore be defunded if they don’t?

National Archives exists because of the Archives Act 1983, and plays a critical role in keeping governments accountable (no chance of being entirely defunded). We are obliged to make the records accessible but in some ways the org would prefer not to make it too easy to access them, and to keep any public meaning-making off its own servers. Some of the reasons for this make sense – eg we have quite personal records about people, acquired sometimes without their knowledge. Others are less defensible (IMO) – eg archivists don’t interpret – their role is purely to manage the records, so let’s keep the public interpretation outside.

I suspect a lot of archivists would dispute the idea that we must respond and change. But maybe what makes the argument grow really powerful is where you add in that the collection itself gets more meaningful, and more valuable, the more it is used / described / interpreted / understood / appreciated.

Still thinking… (hope not sounding too dribbly! Need to sleep).
ps Just realised we could / should be sharing these thoughts over in the ‘Organisational change’ group at Ning/M3.0. I’ll add a link back to here or something.

Hi Cath

In relation to archives I think that there are enormous opportunities if there was, say, an Archives API which liberated the archives in a digital way from the NAA site and let them also exist beyond in the community where things can be linked together etc. I’m thinking mashups here.

I know that this links in to far more important questions around open government access – the UK and NZ are way ahead in terms of opening up public access to government data sets. The Open PSI (Public Sector Information) movement is worth looking at . . . .

I guess that is the real long lasting importance of some of OPAC work we’ve been doing at the Powerhouse – not that we made the collection accessible, but that we continue to make it usable. The next step is making it usable beyond the Powerhouse site in a simple way. My latest cross-government project (which is yet to be properly revealed) is hopefully a step in this direction.

I hope we can get the NAA records properly into CAN – there might be some great opportunities to experiment on CAN in ways that can’t be done (and perhaps are inadvisable to do) on the NAA itself.


Hmmm, I was just talking today with Greg D’Arcy about an idea for a tool that would make collections (across all Australian institutions) more usable…

I await the full revelation of your latest x-gov project!

Within my team we have a great web editor who has created a Zotero translator for RecordSearch, and he is also working on a project that we hope will enable people to use some of our records in a more social way… so we do have some trains rolling.

And yea, making better use of CAN would be good for Archives (or adapting CAN so that we can make better use of it)…

Good to talk with you,

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