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.