Percolations: Museums and Social Networking Sites

(Note: This post is part I of a series.)

Percolating. That’s what numberless posts on museums and social networking sites have been doing in the mind of this particular blog curator. The addled perfectionist in me wanted to create an entire series of posts looking at individual instances of museums using social networking sites well or ill.

Instead, I’m going to bring together a lot of that material into this One Big Post.

And so: percolations.

Wikipedia explains that “Percolation is properly a type of drip-brew process in which steam pressure recirculates hot water for multiple brewing passes. In percolation, water moves passively (percolates) down through the coffee due to gravity and is recirculated.”

And isn’t that, in the end, what we want museum content–in the museum and online–to do? To brew, to make several passes, to recirculate because it’s hot hot hot?

That’s what the blogosphere does well, albeit in the museum blogosphere largely among professionals. The social networking sites also accomplish this percolation to some extent, I think–a bit less well than the blogosphere might–but the advantage these sites have is their sheer numbers of users. If museums approach these sites thoughtfully and courageously, museum “content”–by which I mean such information as construction updates, new exhibition announcements, mashup applications that draw on museum collections, and more–can circulate through key constituencies on these sites.

Many people who climb Everest because it’s a popular challenge end up dead. Similarly, museums that venture haphazardly into the wilderness of social networking sites may end up looking stiff and frozen. Institutions need to enter these spaces with firm answers to these questions:

  • What audience(s) are we trying to reach, and why?
  • What information do we want to convey to these people?
  • What actions do we want them to take?
  • Demographically, where do these constituents congregate online?
  • Do these virtual spaces provide the tools that will allow us to circulate our message?
  • Do the sites then provide ways for users to circulate our message without too much futher effort from us–that is, do the sites allow for percolation, or will our message merely appear for a moment and then pass quickly from users’ radar?

I think, used well and targeted toward niche audiences, many social networking sites will allow museums to meet their goals.

Don’t let your institution become lured into social networking sites just because they’re new! beautiful! and modern!

Let’s take a look at some of the more popular English-language sites:


Facebook began as a site for college students, and required a .edu e-mail address for registration. Facebook has since opened itself up to all comers and, more recently, shared its API so that people could tweak existing applications (or develop new ones) to help Facebook users share content.

I think the best feature of Facebook, as far as museums are concerned, is the news feed. Every time you update your profile with a sentence about what you are doing, all of your “friends” receive the update on their Facebook home pages.

You can also start a group dedicated to your institution. Groups built around institutions work a little bit differently, allowing you to provide news updates. But, based on my experience on Facebook, there doesn’t seem to be a way for groups to feed their updates into individual users’ news feeds. Instead, users learn when their friends join or leave groups. In fact, this feed is the primary way I learn about new or existing groups–my friends join them and I check them out. I’d feel more confident about the usefulness of groups in Facebook if I received updates about them in my news feed.

Here’s a sample group on Facebook, the Public Library of Science (PLoS):

Members of the group can exchange messages, but in order to see these messages, members must visit the group page–the messages aren’t fed onto individual users’ home pages. And unless your group makes very clear what action you want users to take, you may get questions like this one posted at PLoS:

While it’s terrific that group members want to support the project, users shouldn’t have to ask such questions. And Facebook, in my opinion, doesn’t make it particularly easy for institutions to share their messages or to recruit members to their groups.

A much more effective way to put your institution in front of its constituents is to create an account for an especially wired and charismatic member of your staff (someone who would, of course, appeal to your target demographic) who will befriend users and keep them updated on your museum’s activities through pithy news updates, e.g. for a maritime museum, “Lucy is bound to her chair by old sailors’ knots:” with a TinyURL link to relevant content. The downside? I believe users will have to copy and paste the TinyURL (or whatever other short link you generate) into their browsers–it won’t be a live link, and the updates form won’t accept HTML tags for links.

Onto part II. . . MySpace.

(Vintage percolator advertisement courtesy of Gabe Angel, and used under a Creative Commons license)


  1. […] This is part V of a series. Read part I, part II, part III, and part […]

  2. […] This is part IV of a series. Read part I, part II, part III, and part […]

  3. […] Blogging « Percolations: Museums and Social Networking Sites Percolations: Museums and Social Networking Sites, Part III […]

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