Percolations: Museums and Social Networking Sites, Part II

Note: This is part II of a series. Be sure to check out part I as well.


Museums appear to be colonizing MySpace at a much faster pace than they are participating in Facebook. It’s not surprising that MySpace is so popular with museum marketers, as it’s not only among the most-trafficked social networking sites, but also may be number six on the list of the world’s most popular English-language websites. MySpace also attracts the participation of a young audience that most museums would love to capture as lifelong patrons.

Museums have approached MySpace in a variety of ways. See, for example, the Henry Art Gallery on MySpace (598 friends) and the MOCA (LA) MySpace profile (9016 friends). The MOCA profile looks much more polished and approximates a more traditional website. The Henry profile embraces the cluttered, haphazard aesthetic of the typical MySpace page. The Brooklyn Museum (9181 friends) combines elements of both approaches.

Other institutions on MySpace (by no means a definitive list): Tate Gallery, the Tate Modern Shop, Ohio Historical Society”, American Museum of Natural History”, Walker Art Center, Andy Warhol Museum, Hammer Museum, Cincinnati Museum Center, The Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Children’s Museum in Easton, MA, the Exploratorim, The New Jersey Historical Society, The Milwaukee Public Museum, American Folk Art Museum, Claifornia Historical Society, Lower East Side Tenement Museum, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, The Autry National Center/Institute for the Study of the American West, LACMA, Orange County Museum of Art, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, and San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. You can find even more museums in the friends page of lamusediffuse.

There’s also a small MySpace page called “I like museums,”, which seeks to make museum-going in the northeast UK more appealing to teens through cross-marketing efforts by a number of museums. Thus far it has fewer than 40 friends, but the comments section could prove to be an interesting place for fans to rave about their favorite museum and exhibits–as seems to already be happening, albeit in a very small way.

As a field, we need more research on how museums define and measure a successful MySpace presence.

MySpace vs. Facebook

Danah Boyd recently shared some reflections on the class differences between the typical Facebook and MySpace users. Her observations include these:

The goodie two shoes, jocks, athletes, or other “good” kids are now going to Facebook. These kids tend to come from families who emphasize education and going to college. They are part of what we’d call hegemonic society. They are primarily white, but not exclusively. They are in honors classes, looking forward to the prom, and live in a world dictated by after school activities.MySpace is still home for Latino/Hispanic teens, immigrant teens, “burnouts,” “alternative kids,” “art fags,” punks, emos, goths, gangstas, queer kids, and other kids who didn’t play into the dominant high school popularity paradigm. These are kids whose parents didn’t go to college, who are expected to get a job when they finish high school. These are the teens who plan to go into the military immediately after schools. Teens who are really into music or in a band are also on MySpace. MySpace has most of the kids who are socially ostracized at school because they are geeks, freaks, or queers.

If Boyd is correct in her observations–and as you can see from the comments on this blog post a lot of people think she’s on to something–institutions need to be thinking about which venue is a more appropriate place to connect with constituents. Are you looking to connect with Facebook’s more conventionally/traditionally cultured/educated “hegemonic” users or MySpace’s “subaltern” participants? (I’m borrowing Boyd’s terminology here.)

As Boyd’s commenters discuss, Facebook allows for more controlled, tighter-knit connections. Users can specify how and when they met each of their Facebook friends, and it appears (from my observations anyway) that Facebook replicates offline patterns of friendship and acquaintance. MySpace, on the other hand, provides a less tightly networked approach, with hundreds, if not thousands, of complete strangers befriending the same user.

Why not use both Facebook and MySpace?

Don’t be fooled into thinking social networking sites take the guesswork out of outreach.

Jim Spadaccini of Ideum offers some answers:

There are some serious challenges for those institutions brave enough enter these spaces. First of all there are serious identity issues, ads (some of which might be considered inappropriate), and the issue of resources in maintaining multiple web identities. The fact that many of these sites may be short-lived is also a concern. In looking beyond the more established spaces, how much time would you want to invest in start-up social networking site?There are copyright issues: who owns the content that is posted on these sites? Finally, there is the persistent issue of measuring success. I think the museum field does a fairly lousy job of measuring the impact of our various websites and online exhibits. How do we measure the success of a presence in Flickr, YouTube, or MySpace?

Bingo. . . As I said above, we don’t as a field have clear metrics as to whether the investment of staff time into maintaining such virtual profiles pays off in visits, contributions, gift store purchases, and whatever else it is institutions desire.

Onto part III. . . Flickr.

(Vintage coffee maker ad courtesy of Gabe Angel, and used under a Creative Commons license.)

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)

Welcome to the Museum Women’s Blogosphere

(Cross-posted at BlogHer)

In recent years many museums have begun to emerge from their longtime stodginess in favor of exhibits and activities that appeal to, well, people. In the 1960s and 1970s, museums embraced more interactive exhibits–inspired, no doubt, by the success of Charles and Ray Eames’s exhibit Mathematica, which brought complex math to the masses (although not without, I noticed on my last visit to the exhibit, at least one sexist joke in the labels).

Institutions like The Exploratorium and the California Museum of Science and Industry (now the California Science Center) extended this mission with more manipulatives. Parents and kids alike enjoyed their romps through the galleries.

Fast forward to the present. Museums are embracing the Web, and now you can watch webcasts of Iron Science Teacher, go behind the scenes with the Smithsonian’s Office of Exhibits Central blog, and learn about art from the assiduously edited Eye Level, the blog of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Museum employees and aficionados are jumping into the blogosphere as well, championed in no small way by Jim Spadaccini of Ideum. Women make up a large portion of this corner of the blogosphere. It’s no wonder–women have long been the forces driving education (in art, history, and–yes–especially science) in museums, and the museum professional blogosphere is very much about sharing ideas and learning from one another.

Here’s a sampling of the best:

The Museum Detective writes about museums and interviews fascinating museum people. Don’t miss her series of blog posts on museum women (a topic so near and dear to my heart I wrote my dissertation on it).

Sheila Brennan’s blog Relaxing on the Trail also provides excellent insights into museums and collecting. I especially enjoyed her recent post on women stamp collectors.

Mª Soledad Gómez Vílchez blogs (in Spanish) at MediaMusea about the possibilities Web 2.0 holds for the cultural sector. For those who aren’t fluent in Spanish, the blogger kindly includes an “automatic translation” link to an English version.

If you read Portuguese (or have a good translation program), you should check out Ana Carvalho’s blog No Mundo Dos Museus, where Carvalho blogs about a wide range of museum topics, including conservation, exhibition documentation, registration, education, management, marketing, and tangible and intangible patrimony. She invites everyone to join in the discussion.

Among my favorite museum blogs is Nina Simon’s Museum 2.0, which addresses quite a few different topics, among them games and books, but which focuses on the ways Web 2.0 philosophies might play out in physical museums.

Into art? Visit e-artcasting. This Spanish/English blog “is a non-profit research project on sociable technologies in art museums from all over the World.”

Don’t miss Lynn Bethke’s chatty and irreverent–but still thoughtful–blog Im in Ur Museum Blogz (Readin’ n Analyzin’).

I also enjoy reading Le carnet d’Ana, which is in–you guessed it–French. I find especially insightful her posts on museums and the web.

Don’t let the fact that you’re not multilingual limit your exploration of this corner of the blogosphere. My experience in the museum blogosphere as a mostly monolingual American has been very reasonable, as most of these bloggers have been able to read and respond to my comments left in English.

Web 2.0 and Museums, from Museums and the Web

Just catching up on my Museums & the Web notes. . . Please forgive the bullets. My comments are in italics.

This session was a study in vast contrasts. I completely understand each institution’s approach to Web 2.0 technologies, but I must say the Smithsonian approach, while it may produce quality content, does not strike me as really being in the spirit of true blogging, as it lacks spontaneity and a clear personality driving it, and all comments are moderated. I’m all for team blogging, but blogging by committee disconcerts me. So while the quality of Eye Level is quite high, after seeing how it’s published, I’m not entirely convinced it’s a true blog. What defines blogging, after all–the process, the form, or both?

“New World Blogging within a Traditional Museum Setting”
Jeff Gates, Smithsonian American Art Museum

  • desired accelerated production of content
  • Q: how much time would the project take from offices outside of information services?

Goal: Engage new audiences in a dialogue about the museum’s art. Wanted to connect the museum’s Web offerings with about-to-be-reopened galleries.

The blog has continuous and searchable content aimed at multiple audiences. A long tail approach. Aimed especially at young people. Desire to cultivate new audiences pre-reopening of the museum, highlight assets of the museum with high impact at a low cost. Would highlight other programs and promote community involvement.

Chief curator Eleanor Harvey involved with blog topics.

All departments very busy pre-reopening. Blog needed to be sustained with very little help from elsewhere in the museum.

They published Eye Level internally until everyone on staff was comfortable with format and concept. This helped to overcome early skepticism.


  • propose blog post
  • writeboard
  • discussion by blog team
  • rewrite if necessary
  • editing by publications
  • final approval
  • publication

Timely posts get priority.

Roles and responsibilities clearly defined for each team member. Gates is managing editor.

Initial goal: 2 posts/wk. Exceeded this goal in the first year.

Early concern: prepare for controvery

Comments are moderateed. They have developed a comments policy and are fine-tuning it.

Long term goal: Develop new story ideas.
Long term concern: Balance PR needs with good content. Eye Level is not perceived by audiences as merely a PR tool. Audiences would lose interest if that were the case.

Museum wanted to join in blogging networks, not just reach general public. 127,000 visitors to Eye Level in the first year.

Advice: Move slowly, adjust continually to monitor progress and ensure success.

Eye Level: a case study for being “both a disrupter and a diplomat” (quoting Bill Taylor, editor of Fast Company magazine)

Building an On-line Community at the Brooklyn Museum
Nicole J. Caruth and Shelley Bernstein

A very inspiring presentation!

Visitor-created content:

  • portrait photos of visitors in Sargent exhibition
  • visual/prose fragments in “brooklyn poem”
  • graffiti walls for visitors to tag in an exhibit about graffiti art—with an accompanying Flickr page and online “tagging wall” (whiteboard) for web visitors to contribute

The museum used Flickr to collect existing images of graffiti in Brooklyn neighborhoods.

Brooklyn Museum website has a community page with links to MySpace, Flickr, RSS, videos, podcasts, blogs, comment pages linked from exhibitions pages.

The Brooklyn museum doesn’t distinguish between/prioritize physical, web, or web 2.0 visitors. Wants to provide equal access for all.

Flickr pool: Brooklyn Bridge photos and art

Visitors in a web 2.0 space expect you to be there as often as they are. So:

  • respond to comments
  • post interesting content—marketing should be secondary
  • web visitors tend to moderate themselves
  • no comment moderation except for spam filter
  • invite current Flickr users to join new museum Flickr pools/groups

Flickr lets users leave testimonials. Some great (and positive!) feedback left there.

Q: Does using Flickr and MySpace cause brand confusion?
A: Most traditional visitors to website are not going to Flickr pool. It’s mostly for Flickr users who understand what the museum is doing.

Flickr is now one of the museum’s top referrers back to the museum website.

When using Flickr, be sure to provide a link back to the exhibition page.

Stop thinking, start doing: addressing barriers to web 2.0
Mike Ellis, The Science Museum, London
Brian Kelly, UKOLN, University of Bath


  • have good content and willingness to get it out there
  • are holders of lots of niche stuff: the long tail is ours!
  • have a long history of wanting users to really engage. “We’re the custodians of the long tail.”

Barriers to participation:

  • museum treacle
  • We’re quite bad at change and this is a big one.
  • We feel a need to “protect” our audiences.

Barrier #1: Why bother? Our users don’t care.
Reply: These are new audiences, new environments. Surveying current users of the museum about web 2.0 won’t work–because the point is to draw new audiences.

Barrier #2: Cultural and political stuff. Brand? Dumbing down? Reputation? “We’ve never done it like that before.”
Reply: But users understand. Effective design distinguishes “our” from “theirs.” Our repuation is at stake it we don’t participate in web 2.0.

Barrier #3: Technical. No expertise, untested. What if Yahoo! servers go down?
Reply: Identify enthusiasts and early adopters in the organization. Your servers are probably less reliable than major web portal’s. Make your tools small scale and free to minimize resource costs. The API approach to development is the future: insist on it! Manage risks, learn from mistakes (they may not happen). Build prototypes quickly, have plan for migration.

Barrier #4: Resources and cost. “We’ll need to moderate, and it’ll take an entire team working full time.” “This kit looks expensive.”
Reply: It doesn’t require as many resources as you think. We’ll-designed systems save huge amounts of time. Raising barriers to entry is extremely effective (e.g. low barrier, such as requiring an e-mail address to comment, works well). Users are (usually) pretty sensible. Plus a lot of this stuff is free—and hosted!

Barrier #5: Content, legality, context. “You just want to give it away?”
Reply: Deal early with funders and other stakeholders. People are already using your content in strange and unusual ways. If you want traffic, encourage people to “borrow” your content.

Intellectual property rights landscape is constantly changing.

Start doing: We must continue to pioneer. Funding follows “significant social movement.” If we don’t fill this space, someone else will. We need to get better at sharing our experiences.