From Social Media to Social Harmony


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"From Social Media to Social Harmony", presented in absentia at the ICOM-CECA Conference in Shanghai, November 2010

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From Social Media to Social Harmony

  1. 1. From Social Media to Social HarmonyIntroductionThe internet knows no physical boundaries. Museums are increasingly embracing digital andsocial media not only as a medium for reaching wider audiences, but also getting thoseaudiences more engaged in creating their own experiences through sharing content andparticipating in debate. This paper starts with a brief overview of social media and its benefitsto both museums and their audiences. Through a case study, it then goes on to introduce aninteractive photo sharing project from National Museums Scotland, which encouragedreflection and debate and brought different audiences together both within and beyond thewalls of the museum. The paper concludes with a suggested framework for developing futuresocial media projects, and some final lessons learned.Overview of Social Media and its BenefitsWhat is social media?In simple terms, social media includes any medium through which users interact with otherusers, e.g. a letters page in a newspaper where readers correspond with each other in public,or this ‘notificator’ (Image 1) from the 1930s which enabled Londoners to exchange messageswith each other in public places via a vending-machine-style notice board. However, it hasnow become a term popularly associated with the internet and online interaction. The majorityof social media sites feature user generated content, which includes text (e.g. statusmessages or wall posts on Facebook, updates on Twitter, or blog posts), images (e.g. on thephoto sharing website Flickr), video (e.g. Youtube), and audio (e.g. music on MySpace) 1.Image 1: Notificator (from See appendix for list of all websites mentioned in this paper. 1
  2. 2. So, how does social media benefit museums and their audiences?1. Alternative route of communicationFirstly, it provides an alternative route of communication. For museums, this means a way ofreaching market segments that you wouldn’t reach by traditional means, segments that ‘liveonline’, so to speak. By taking your message directly to these segments where they alreadyspend time online, i.e. the social media sites they frequent, you are more likely to engagethem than if you tried to persuade them to visit your official museum website.Some audiences, on the other hand, may not have recognized the museum as a place thatcould be relevant to them. While they may ignore posters, bus adverts, or other links to yourofficial museum website, if they are shown in their own setting – i.e. via social media sites –how the museum could be relevant to them, this may encourage them to engage in amuseum experience they may otherwise miss out on, whether that is online or actually visitingthe museum in person.2. User Generated ContentSecondly, social media provides a platform for user generated content. For museums this is away of making your offering more attractive, whether it’s through bulking up what you have togive – e.g. by audiences contributing to a pool of images featuring your museum andcollections; or through adding new and different perspectives and voices to your interpretation– e.g. by audiences sharing their thoughts on what they think or how they perceive themuseum (and without having to do the footwork of interviewing them all in person through aformal evaluation study).This peer to peer ‘marketing’ can make a museum’s offering more relevant to the respectiveaudience groups, and as a result, they may feel more engaged. By contributing themselvesand feeling validated if their content is used by a recognized organization – e.g. somemuseums include their audiences’ Flickr photos on their official website (with consent, ofcourse) – they may have a greater sense of ownership and a sense that the museum valuestheir opinions and contributions, which, again, can lead to a more engaged and motivatedaudience.3. Lack of physical boundariesThirdly, as I said at the beginning, the internet knows no physical boundaries. This means thatmuseums can reach out to audiences that live beyond a reasonable visiting distance, andthose audiences can engage with the museum and participate in online museum activitiesregardless of where they live – e.g. for us as a national museum this does not just includeoverseas visitors, but also audiences living in more remote areas of Scotland that we have acommitment to.Cutting across all of this is the fact that social media is a way of bringing people together whowould never otherwise interact – from social media to social harmony! 2
  3. 3. How National Museums Scotland uses Social MediaNational Museums Scotland has a social media presence on Flickr, Twitter, and most recentlyFacebook, as well as a Blog, but it is Flickr I am going to concentrate on for the case study2 .We use Flickr in three different ways. Firstly, we have our own profile page, where we postimages from our collections, exhibitions, events and behind the scenes, that other Flickr userscan comment on.Secondly, we have a group page for each of our five museums, which any Flickr user can join– after agreeing so some group guidelines – and add their images to of that particularmuseum site to share with others: think of it as a communal photo album.Thirdly, and this is what I want to focus on, we have been using Flickr for special projects, forwhich we also set up group pages and use the communal photo album idea.Case Study: SnapScot 09‘SnapScot 2009’ was a project conceived as part of the Scottish Year of Homecomingcelebrations and was inspired by our temporary exhibition ‘Salt of the Earth’, which showedphotographs of well-known Scots and international figures with Scottish connections whohave had an inspiring influence both in Scotland and abroad. In the project, visitors wereasked to share what inspired them about Scotland. They could submit either a photograph ofan object, place or person that inspired them, or one of themselves holding up a sign. We setup a group on Flickr for this purpose, though visitors also had a chance to participate in theproject at the museum itself during the Homecoming Finale weekend. For this we set up a‘photography corner’ in our main hall (Image 2), and later uploaded the photographs andadded them to our Flickr project group. In addition to the photographs themselves, adiscussion forum in the project group encouraged visitors to share why they were inspired,and those having their photographs taken during the event at the museum were also asked tocontribute to this.Image 2: SnapScot 09 Photography Corner at the National Museum of Scotland2 See appendix for list of all websites mentioned in this paper. 3
  4. 4. We had a good mix of people taking part in terms of age, gender, occupation, and someinteresting contributions to the discussion:For example, we had an oil and gas engineer from Aberdeen who felt blessed by Scotland’sbeautiful landscapes; a geologist interested in the history behind Scotland’s places comparedto the much younger history in her own native Australia; a group of English girl guide leaderswith a love of shortbread; three young boys who thought their local castle on the outskirts ofEdinburgh was a great place for hide-and-seek; a retired teacher from Fife who strongly feltthat people were all that mattered; and a gamekeeper from Buckhaven who was quite fond ofthe Scottish weather, believe it or not.Image 3: Examples of SnapScot 09 Contributions 4
  5. 5. Opening the project up to a wider audience via Flickr also meant that we not only got a gooddistribution of responses from the length of Scotland, but also from beyond, includingEngland, Germany and Japan.The project ran for about three weeks. Overall, including the event weekend at the museum, atotal of 93 photographs were submitted, with just over half of these being taken at themuseum itself. Considering that we had not publicised the online element of the project thatwidely since this was our first trial of using Flickr and we had thus opted for a ‘soft launch’approach, we felt this was a very positive response.Suggested FrameworkFollowing the success of our pilot project, the Digital Media team suddenly started getting lotsof ideas from colleagues e.g. in the education, marketing and exhibitions departments, forfuture projects. To assess which of these ideas would be viable, we developed a suggestedframework based on the evaluation of the pilot project, which is basically a checklist ofquestions to work through and help with the decision making process.Is it a project? • Does the idea have any added depth to it, such as a task or relevant discussion points, or would it be more appropriate for visitors to just submit their images to the relevant communal photo album?Is it relevant? • Is it relevant to our collections and the wider remit of the museum, or does it add value in other ways?Does it have a hook? • Is there a strong link to one of our collections, or does it tie in with an event or exhibition that we could launch the project at?Does it have a unique selling point? • Does it offer either something new or a new take on an existing concept to visitors, i.e. not just a carbon copy of an existing topical Flickr group or a replica of a project at another museum?Does it have universal appeal? • Does it appeal to a broad enough audience and does it have a shelf life beyond the ‘hook’?Are the instructions straightforward? • For some visitors, uploading their images to Flickr, joining the relevant group and submitting their images to the communal photo album will be a learning curve in itself, so the rest of the project needs to be as accessible as possible, with simple and straightforward instructions.Do we have the resources? • Do we have the time and the staff to run the project, including getting it ready in time 5
  6. 6. for the ‘hook’ and monitoring it after the initial launch?Lessons LearnedArmed with our new framework, plenty of tips from other museums who had been therebefore us, and encouraged by the success of our pilot project, we then threw ourselves intoour next project a few months later. Introducing that project is outwith the scope of this paper– suffice to say it was not the run away success we had been anticipating. While we did haveseveral dozen people take part, the uptake of submissions was slow and the discussions notas popular. Perhaps a better title for this paper would have been ‘From Social Media to SocialHarmony?’So where had we gone wrong? On reflection, we still think that the checklist asks the rightquestions, but it’s experience that teaches you how to answer them. I’d therefore like to finishwith a few lessons we’ve learned from the whole process:  Don’t take on more than you can manage – don’t jump on every bandwagon or emulate other organisations if you don’t have the resources. It’s better instead to do fewer things and to do them well. There’s nothing worse than a social media profile that never gets updated – it’s the quickest way to making a bad impression.  Start small, even if you have the resources to do more. It’s important to introduce yourself to the social media scene first and to build up a following before jumping in with too many different things in too short a space of time, otherwise you loose impact. If you’re completely new to the scene, try a soft launch or pilot project first until you’re a bit more confident.  Find out what works for you - regardless of what you may be able to learn from other museums’ experiences, there will always be some things that may work for them but not for you. And in relation to that…  …know your audience! Whether it’s their demographic profile, their use of the internet and social media, their openness to trying new things, their interest in a specific topic, or their affinity to a certain medium – in this case photography – your audience is unique to you, so make sure your project fits with them  Give yourself enough lead in time!  Try things and if they don’t work, try again with something different!And, most importantly, don’t take on all advice blindly, even if it’s good or well meant advice -including any advice I’ve given you in this paper! Take it on board, but review it and adapt it toyour own needs and circumstances. For our own next project, we’ll be applying our checklistin the context of the new lessons we have learned. I hope you have found this case study andour experiences with it useful, and I look forward to seeing your social media projects onlinein the near future! 6
  7. 7. Jenni FuchsAudience Research OfficerNational Museums (during maternity leave)Appendix – List of Websites Mentioned in This PaperGeneralFacebook www.facebook.comTwitter www.twitter.comFlickr www.myspace.comNational Museums ScotlandFlickr:Profile Groups 09 7