Online, Can a Museum Be A Person?

[This is the English version of post originally published on c/blog]

Are museums people?

What is a museum online? A website is a destination so visiting a museum’s website is analogous to visiting its building—it has an address on the internet just as it has an address on the street (assuming it isn’t a virtual museum!) The same term, “visitor,” is used to identify you both when you view the museum’s homepage and when you walk through its doors. In email, sending an inquiry to the main museum email address isn’t much different from calling the museum’s main telephone number. Email and websites were born in institutions—the first people to have either in large numbers were at universities—so models were easily found for the existing needs and practices of museums.

What about “social media,” “social networking” or, as I will call it, “the social web?” The last several years have seen the incredible rise of social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter. The internet churns out “revolutions” at an alarming rate, but this development is certainly worthy of the term. Most of these social sites and services are less than five years old but they already amount for almost 25% of the the time people spend online. Thousands of museums around the world already use these tools to connect with their audiences—real, potential, or virtual—but they are moving quite a ways away from the institutional models towards the personal, away from being a virtual space to being an actor in a virtual space. You don’t have a “Twitter site,” you are “on Twitter” like you are “on the phone.” On Facebook you are not a “visitor,” you are a “friend.” This social networking revolution is too important for museums to sit on the sidelines, but it begs a difficult question. What would it mean for a museum be “social?” Does a museum have friends? Online, can a museum be a person?

I am going to suggest two things. First, that to stand out in the social web the quality of your closest friends is more important than the quantity of your followers. Second, the museums enter the social web with a privileged position. They will have to take on as part of their mission a new responsibility: to use that position to craft their social interactions in ways that add meaning, and not to simply provide content to fill the gadgets that people need to justify buying.

The Landscape

The landscape of social media or social networking is made up of an ever-changing number of online services and sites. Some specialize in particular media, such as pictures (Flickr) or video (YouTube, Vimeo). Some revolve around your bookmarks (Delicious, Diigo), what you’re reading (TwitThis) or where you are (Foursquare). Facebook and Twitter are generalists (Facebook voraciously so) and anything online that considers itself social works together with these two, almost by definitions, to share the fact that you’re sharing your pictures, videos, or location. Tumblr, a relatively new and popular blogging platform, owes it’s success in part to their decision to make it very easy to share from and to many of these other services.

What makes these, or any services, “social”? What makes the social web different from the web as we were using it before Facebook? In a word: followers. The social web is not made up of websites. Different services use different words—“fans”, “friends”, “contacts”—but, whatever the term, the social web is made of relationships implied by these terms, mediated by these services.

To be on the web means to have a website. You may get many or few visitors, but if someone who is looking can find you on Google, you are on the web. Twitter has a website, but when I visit it I don’t really see or, at least, I don’t see the same thing anyone else sees. Like most people I don’t, in fact, use the Twitter website. A March 2011 survey showed that 65% of users used Twitter via an application, mostly on mobile devices.  What this means is each person’s experience of the social web is a function of how, when, and where they interact with it. The social web is not a place you go. It is people you know, it is something you do, and you can do it anywhere and anytime using the computer you carry in you pocket.

Whatever the interface or device you use, being on the social web entails more than setting up accounts on any of these services. You have to develop a network, you have to attract followers, you have to make friends.  When you post something, it is your followers who will see it. If it is interesting enough to them they may repost it. Now your followers’ followers see it. They may repost it further and, through the mutual connection, your followers’ followers may become your followers. A website functions like a broadcast and the great change that the Web brought was the creation of a universal wavelength where all programming was available at once. Information spreads on the Social Web more like a rumor or an idea, from person to person. People will turn their ears towards those with best rumors or ideas to share, and there is something in human nature that gives us delight in passing these on to the next person.

Being a Part of Something

That delight may come just from the being the first person with a juicy bit of news, but this drive to share is also in play when we want to be a part of something.  In the 21st century, this kind of engagement can be an important factor in real revolutions, such as the January 25 uprisings in Egypt which took place not just in the the streets of Cairo, but on teh social web as well as news of events spread more widely and efficiently through Twitter than via traditional news media.

An image made by Kovas Boguta depicts the Twitter network through which this news spread.  It is an image of a real network, but one that exists in an abstract, social space. It is organized not by geography, but by language (colored red for people who speak Arabic, blue for English, and shades of purple for those using both) and “connectedness” so that those people with the most followers,  of followers, etc. appear largest on the graph. Activists Wael Khalil, “Zeinobia,” and Wael Ghonim dominate, while traditional journalists and news outlets are pushed to the insignificant edges.

These journalists, television networks, and newspapers are not very interesting friends to have. If you followed these events, by the time you heard something from them, you had probably heard it many times already. Being “edgy” is not a good thing in a network. Can museums be content to live on the edges? If not, what can they do to earn a central position? The most important thing is to cultivate a network of active and interesting friends. As part of their privileged position, many museums have this already—their own staff.

Your Staff Are Your Closest Friends

Internal Audience

If a museum is a “person” on the social web, what of the people who make up the museum? In the case of the traditional web, just as they are “behind” the museum, they are “behind” the museum website—ideally in the sense that they contribute to the success of the institution online and off, but also in the sense that they are hidden behind the walls and their personal contributions subsumed into the impersonal, institutional voice. As more museums began to integrate blogs into their website those personalities started to show, but there are still many examples of museum blogs with unsigned entries. Once we look at the “fully social web” there is much less of a “behind” on the social web and sometimes none at all.

An institution can be supportive, neutral, or prohibitive of people maintaining their own social, work-related personas. One way for an institution to broadcast that it values the contributions of its workers is by literally broadcasting the contributions of it workers. In the past this has usually been reserved, out of convention and practicality, for the the more senior levels—the people who write the books, speak to the media, address donors. But now it might even be the case for a given exhibition that fewer words are written in official publications than in the personal and professional run by staff involved at many levels and in many departments. Shouldn’t that be reflected in the museum’s social web?

To look at one possible model, MoMA’s Department of Advertising and Graphic Design has their own portfolio website ( and Twitter account (@momastudio) which MoMA has promoted on their main blog. Their design team does amazing work and, by featuring it in this way, MoMA not only gives the public a glimpse behind the scenes, but also gives the designers a space to present their work as their work, the way they would present it to their peers and clients if they were working for themselves. Something they would want to share, and their followers to re-share. MoMA is a better member of the social web, and a better place to work perhaps, by letting their insiders operate something like outsiders.

The inside/out distinction dividing the museum staff from the museum audience (what I meant, above, by there being less of a “behind” on the social web) begins to dissolve, and instead we find degrees of connectedness. People who work at a museums—as curators, guards, conservators, accountants, web developers, it doesn’t matter—weave their own social webs around themselves and without explicitly identifying staff members around any “social institution” will be a cloud  of people closely connected to the institution and to each other. These are the museum’s best friends and they can very interesting friends to have. Many people (whether they are they hardcore audience for the museum or just interested in design, art history or any of the disciplines that make up a museum) are fascinated to hear what they have to say about what they do. Sharing what its best friends are doing can help the museum move to a more central position of social webs where interesting conversations are happening.

Connections with Value, or Making Sure the Medium has a Message

Tweets. Good/Bad?

“My grandchildren, that’s all they do. I mean, of course they talk to people, but an awful lot of their communication is extremely rapid, very shallow communication. Text messaging, Twitter, that sort of thing.”

It’s easy to imagine these words in the mouth of almost any average grandfather. What made these words notable, though (and generated a lot of extremely rapid and in many cases ironically shallow response on Twitter), was that they were spoken by Noam Chomsky in an October 2011 interview. He continued “It think it erodes normal human relations. It makes them more superficial, shallow, evanescent.”

This is a very common criticism of social networking, usually by those who don’t use it, and Chomsky is in good company. In September, Roberta Smith wrote a brief piece in the New York Times about how everyone at the Venice Biennale seemed to be experiencing it, shallowly, through their cameras, “The ubiquity of cameras in exhibitions can be dismaying, especially when read as proof that most art has become just another photo op for evidence of Kilroy-was-here passing through.” Gallery-owner and blogger Edward Winkelman picked up on Smith’s words in his own post worrying over such “art viewing via a digital filter.”

It is a given that people will always think that the next generations are destroying culture. This is nothing new—Euripides was criticized for employing “new music” in his plays—but the rapid pace of technological change has in the last 100 years has sped up the generational turnover. It’s not just the old, but the merely older, sometimes the just-barely-older who find themselves aghast at what the young/younger/barely-younger are doing. No one is too surprised that a conservative writer like Mark Helprin should produce a book, Digital Barbarians, that seems to misunderstand every facet and overstate every potential criticism of more collaborative styles of work and creativity (I stopped reading when he compared brainstorming about history topics in elementary school  to “factory-floor soviets” and “Vietnamese reeducation camp”). It’s more surprising, and instructive, when a digital arts pioneer like Jaron Lanier writes a book, You Are Not A Gadget, that while much better argued and more though-provoking still seems to revolve around the notion that the balance between the freedom to create and the control over creations that he enjoyed when he was young was just right.

Of course, being cliché does not make an argument necessarily wrong. What is common to Helprin’s and Lanier’s books is the cry “People are not making the choices I would make.” In Lanier’s case, at least, he presents the choices he would make—for instance, to create artificial scarcity in music distribution be reintroducing physical objects, “songles” he calls them, that replace the LPs and CDs driven out of the market by iTunes. This is not just nostalgia but his solution to a problem: he believes people are now allowing to be made for them and made poorly by the design of software and systems they use, such as Facebook. In his view these systems work more easily if digital distribution is unhindered, and in their design they promote the march to free downloads and the belief that somehow that is what’s best for the creators. Many if not most people don’t stop to examine whether that is a matter of their choice or their convenience.

So, this is an essential question for us to ask ourselves. We weave our own social webs, but we are not designing the software through which these webs are woven. What choices are we implicitly making or allowing to be made for us when we create a Facebook page or Twitter account? Is there anything we can do make better choices or at least make the trade-offs explicit?

MyMuseum Is Not My Museum At All

Whatever its origins, whatever its potential to do good for society, whatever the aspirations of its most idealistic practitioners, the web is a commercial medium. Nothing is free. You can choose to use to use Flickr for free, or you can choose to pay. For a paid subscription you get more features and more bandwidth, and you also  don’t have to look at the ads that you would when using it for free. This is a very common model, so common that it passes without notice. What should not pass without notice is that when you use something that is free but ad-supported, you are really using it at the cost of viewing those ads. Your eyes are the real product and are being sold to the advertisers. The service, whatever it may be, is a just lure.

Some of those ads might be for the next big museum exhibition. Museums operate in this commercial web like any other seller: we advertise, we sell memberships, and we happily ship worldwide from our online museum shops. However, we maintain some distance as well. Online museum shops usually have a different URL from the museum and links to the shop often open in a new browser window, as if to draw a distinction between cultural and commercial endeavors.  I cannot imagine a museum adopting a model in which only members can browse the website ad-free.

Still, there are subtler ways that the commercial web can creep in. Many museums allow you create and save your own selection of objects from their online collections. At the Metropolitan Museum of Art this service is called “MyMet,” at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, “MyMFA.” The “My-” prefix is very common, and is really copied from free but commercial services—MyYahoo! is the earliest example I can think of—where personalization is the means of collecting the very demographic data that makes you a product that can be sold to advertisers. When you use MyYahoo! you are really creating Yahoo!’s version of you. It is put forward as customizing the website for your self, but you are really standardizing yourself for the company, reducing yourself to a gender, an age, and checking off a few pre-determined interests. You can say that “MyMet” and “MyMFA” are just names, but when “my” means “your” and “custom” means “standard” that’s a very good example of Orwellian doublespeak. Museums can think harder before helping such terminology become standard language.

Like Me

What about when we ask our audience to interact with us through services like Twitter or Facebook? When there is a “Like” button on the website or we offer a prize to our 1,000th Twitter follower, is the bar of engagement set so low that it is merely “superficial, shallow, evanescent?” Or worse, is it simply asking our audience to take part in history’s largest marketing survey without any clear benefit to either the museum or the visitor.

Facebook and Twitter are free and ad-supported, but there is no option to pay. The only way to use them is at the cost of providing them with the data that is your social web. There is some difference between the two, however: though networks on Twitter can be very rich, the amount of extra information you can put into your profile is paltry compared to Facebook, where you can list every school you’ve attended, place you’ve work, city you’ve lived in and on and on. But Facebook isn’t selling that static data alone (Facebook’s you), but rather that data connected to what you do, the sites you visit, and the things you share (unless you put a link in your Tweets, Twitter can’t fins out as much about what you are doing).

This is why Facebook is always in trouble with privacy advocates and watchdogs. Your privacy is a hinderance to their business. Many commentators have expressed shock at their recent push for “frictionless sharing,” which amounts to doing away with the “like” button altogether and assuming that you want to share everything you do. Many who tried out the music service Spotify were caught off-guard as Spotify broadcast the list of everything they listened to to all their Facebook friends.

In 1938 Adorno wrote of the commercial music industry, “If one seeks to find out who ‘likes’ a commercial piece one cannot avoid the suspicion that liking and disliking are inappropriate to the situation. The familiarity of the piece is surrogate for the quality ascribed to it. To like it is almost the same thing as to recognize it.” [“On the Fetish Character in Music and the Regression of Listening”] That sounds close enough to the workings of the Facebook “like” button and the motivations behind frictionless sharing to be very uncomfortable.

One of Adorno’s criticisms of commercially produced art was that the “proper” reaction of the viewer, reader, listener was programmed into the work—as no one doubts they should cry at the end of a tear-jerker—and that this artistic standardization mirrored industrial standardization and served its purposes. One could argue that the real content of a tweet or blog post or anything with a “like” button attached is simply the command to share. Take Helprin’s complaints seriously for a moment and picture in your mind the legions of web surfers spending their leisure moments scanning the web and dutifully picking out tidbits to spread on their social networks, creating the very data marketers will use to create more content for them to scan and share and Adorno’s judgment that “Amusement under late capitalism is the prolongation of work” rings very true.

This is not a Widget

Enough dystopia. What thoughtful reaction is there? First we should admit the internet is only going to continue to evolve as it has been. Lanier may long for music distributors to see the light and sell no song without a songle attached but that is vanishingly unlikely. The internet is going to invite us to lead ever more of our lives online. In the near future it will more available, more mobile, faster, smarter, and more watchful of everything we do.  There is simply no way to tweet about an event post to Facebook about an exhibition without helping Twitter and Facebook along. People will check in on Foursquare just to impress people with the museums they visit. People will take picturs of themselves with art as if it were a photo-op.

One approach, and it’s perhaps a practical one, is to engage as little as possible. That is giving up too much though. The social web has a great deal of potential for connecting individuals in ways that matter. There is the potential as well, that in connecting people through shared interests in art, science, and history we can reflect on the nature of those connections as well as others. What this approach needs is an explicit goal. It cannot be a generic experience or it’s only as good as any other experience—a repetitious widget whose programmed content is simply to be experienced.

An interaction might require something of participants, or it might pose a problem. Simply collecting data aimed at some sort of discovery can help lay open open the amount of information we leave in our digital trails as in this video by plan b, in which they attempt to narrate a year’s worth of their movements as recorded by animated GPS traces. This data is recorded by impersonal devices, but it contains parts of our life story if we only take the time to extract it. Another video by plan b takes a collective approach to the data by using the tracks of many people to draw a living picture of Birmingham.

Split Second

The Brooklyn Museum’s exhibition of Indian paintings, “Split Second,” is one example of doing it well. Taking a cue for Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, visitors to the website could take part in an activity in which they were asked to give a quick reactions to a number of artworks. The results helped determine the final selection of works in the exhibition. Word of “Split Second” spread fast on Twitter. Often we see ideas like this go no farther than the crowdsourcing, but for “Split Second” the collected data was itself a prominent part of the exhibition and Chief of Technology Shelley Bernstein and others wrote many blog articles about the data and what they learned from it. Does more information help people appreciate art or does it get in the way? In one part of the activity, visitors were asked to rate paintings after being given some context. Some participants were given tags alongside the painting, some where given a caption, others were given curatorial descriptions.  Ratings from these activities could be compares to ratings given to the same works by others who rated them without any added context. This experiment showed definitively that people had better responses to the art and gave it higher ratings when they had more information.

The activity invited participation and since it involved the selection of artworks to be shown sought to give visitors a sense of contributing to the final result. If no more had been said the exercise would be open to the criticism that it was just a market research gimmick and that the museum just wanted to know what would make people happy (and get them to pay). The great amount of open analysis, however, of results makes us feel that we are all learning something, together. The museum-goer has gained some background on the concerns that go into an exhibition and some grounds on which to understand his or response to other exhibitions. Almost 5,000 people participated in “Split Second,” generating 175,000 rankings, and they got much more in return than a distracting way to spend a few minutes online.

Better than Social Graphs

Facebook makes much of itself as the “social graph”—the source of data on who is connected to whom, globally. A graph like this can be easily visualized, as in a widely seen map of the world drawn by Facebook connections made by Paul Butler (an intern at the company) . This image if interesting if a bit unsurprising. North America and Western Europe are well represented and strongly connected, along with India and a handful of cities on other continents, the complete absence of China and Russia looms ominously. The view is so wide that individual contributions are only visible as part of the overall domination of Facebook in this sphere.

As an image of social change and a portrait of “citizen journalism” in action at a  time that it truly seemed to be able to move events, Kovas Boguta’s graph (discussed above) has much more to say about people than Butler’s Facebook visualization. The data is drawn from Twitter, but it is not an image of Twitter, just an example of how people were able to use one technological tool to organize their own flow of information. Since Twitter is a fairly well designed and successful interface for a few kinds of interactions (the tweet, the retweet, and the follow) it is possible to find instances where those simple interactions add up to something greater.

Many museums have a great amount of data at their disposal, but the task is to make it meaningful, or to extract and display it’s most meaningful aspects. When the Walters Art Museum launched a redesign of their online collection, I thought it would be an interesting experiment to graph the connections between the works of art singled out by users of their “Community Collections” (note how easy it is to come up with a name other than “MyWalters”). By charting the connections between objects by at least two users, I was able to single out one, Ingres’ Odalisque with Slave, as the “best connected” work of art. This is not something that The Walters’ Community Collections was designed to investigate but, again, it focuses on a simple action (adding a work to a collection) and these simple actions can add up tell us something about the shared interests of a large group of people.

More to Curate

We will get the most advantage from this new kinds of interaction, these new sources of data, if we look on it as something more to curate. You could argue that Odalisque with Slave is simply the random choice of a poorly directed activity or of people with no expertise. Or you could look at data like this as telling us something about how people view collections, the purposes they serve for visitors, or how trends outside museums affect the perceptions of museum audiences. You could argue that these interpretations are only of interest to insiders and experts. Or by sharing with visitors the very patterns they create, you might engage them even more in the common cause of making interpretations of our shared culture.

The designers of Twitter, I’m sure, think very hard about the interactions they facilitate. Museums could think harder about these, too. As Split Second shows, and exhibition can do more than teach a lesson or convey a message. An exhibition can be something people do, a gallery can be a space in which people generate the very the thing that is on view. If the results don’t seem interesting, it may be because we haven’t put enough thought into the mechanisms generating the results. Creating meaningful interactions isn’t easy and the distance between success and failure is very narrow, but there is at least one method I can recommend: just try something, and follow your users.

At the Guggenheim, visitors were for the first time allowed to take photographs in our recent exhibition “Maurizio Cattelan: All.” We tried to come up with an interesting concept for visitors submitting their photos, and a big hurdle was simply figuring out the simplest way to do the submitting. After considering Flickr and Tumblr as the possible best solutions, we had to abandon the idea because there simply wasn’t enough time. We still set up a Flickr group to see what we could get, but easiest and most popular way to instantly submit photos turned out to be something we hadn’t even considered, and which our visitors figured out themselves: Foursquare With that information in hand, perhaps the next time we can jump right into brainstorming how to use Foursquare to generate something of greater interest.

This will become a space in which museums thrive when we stop being worried by the lack of authority in the non-expert voice or the crowd-sourced solution and start finding it something interesting to talk about. I doubt Odalisque with Slave would be the curators’ first choice at the Walter’s, but I wonder what there is to say about the differences in opinion between the experts and the general public. Whatever there is to say, I bet the general public are more interested in hearing about it than the experts might think.

[Photo: Urmia Salt Lake by Mehrad.HM]

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