Last Thursday, I had the opportunity to sit in on two separate events pertaining to the role of social media in the world of location-based environments. One conference focused on social media in museums and historic sites. The other focused on social media in the for-profit world of location-based experiences. Here’s what happened: The museum folks discussed the fear of radical trust and user-generated content, while the for-profit folks only spoke with excitement about the opportunities user-generated content provides that sector.
Nonprofits started with the edge in social media over for-profit companies. If our attitude doesn’t evolve (like our business practices regarding social media did), then many nervous museums may fall behind quickly while our for-profit counterparts take the lead on social media innovation.
The Museum Attitude:
“We live in a golden age of the flowering of amateur experts” – Lee Raine, Pew Internet & American Life Project, as quoted during conference AASLH.
I was delighted to listen in and take part in the American Association for State and Local History’s (AASLH) online conference session on Thursday, “What’s Radical about Radical Trust?” It focused on the confidence museums have (or don’t have) in empowering/ collaborating with online communities. The session was exciting! The panelists attempted to make opportunities related to social media understandable to nonprofit professionals on the conference. Panelists shared success stories their institutions had experienced through crowdsourcing and the utilization of social media. However, all the while panelists asked questions like, “Do you have a policy on user-generated content?” and “Do you think user-generated content is a threat?” There was great concern about the sharing of opinion verses knowledge on museum blogs and interactive sites. This is why radical trust is considered “radical.” What does user-generated content mean for the authoritative voice of the museum?
The For-Profit Attitude:
“People are awesome!” – Scott Trowbridge (Disney Imagineer) & Dave Cobb (Thinkwell)
Later that day, I headed to Thinkwell in Burbank for Social Media Week- Los Angeles to attend a session called “The Online/Offline Future of Social Media: Multidimensional Engagement Across Digital and Physical Environments.” Panelists included Disney Imagineers, Thinkwell staff, representatives from 42 Entertainment and Village Voice Media. This session seemed to pick up where the AASLH conference left off– but from a different perspective. It started with the idea of authorship and authority, and spun into an exciting, high-energy panelist discussion about the bright future of engaging audiences through storytelling. These mindsets fill in the gaps and outshine some of the hesitancy surrounding museums’ social media mentality. Here’s how for-profit folks are thinking about social media and the merging of online/offline environments:
- Sharing authorship does not mean giving it up. People still want expertise, Susan Bonds of 42 Entertainment insisted at the session. Without expertise, it’s hard to follow the story. And creating and engaging visitors in a story is a shared goal in both location-based entertainment companies and nonprofit museums. Giving up complete authorship doesn’t have to threaten the authority of the institution. It’s not “losing” control, but changing up the system of control. If museums are turning into cultural centers and increasingly becoming places for dialogue, learning, and conversation, then social interactions (real or virtual) with other visitors/users can be thought of as an extension of successful community engagement, rather than a threat to museum authority.
- Accept that visitors will be using new media and ask, “How can I integrate this?” I think museums are doing this, but reinforcing the “How can I integrate this?” question helps create insertion points for visitors to discover to connect with the institution, and helps to create a more multidimensional experience. Quite simply, your visitors will be texting, tweeting, and checking in on foursquare at your museum. This isn’t a nuisance, it’s an opportunity to remain relevant and to reinforce your mission.
- Add layers of experience. Some of the negatives of using social media- as brainstormed by AASLH conference participants- included that it was intangible (what if you create social experience on-site?), there was a risk of appearing less professional (perhaps this makes your museum more accessible and builds community relationships), and a large amount of staff time is spent vetting responses (how much do you/should you really vet responses?). For-profit location-based counterparts, however, have turned these negatives into positives or found ways to use them to their advantage. This is innovation. And to stay on top of social media, we need to go one step further than just listing pros and cons; we need to change the cons into pros and utilize them to add positive layers of experience to museum visits.
- Social media and online worlds mean physical places need to be more magical. There’s probably less incentive to visit the museum when you can stay at home and get the same information on your computer. At first I scuffed at the word “magical” as it was being used by Disney Imagineers on the panel. Museums don’t have magic; we have science. But science, I think, can function a lot like magic in that it creates a spark of interest. Thinkwell is creating and exhibit for the Fernbank Natural History Museum that is an interactive recreation of Georgia’s ecological and environmental zones. These kind of themed exhibits aren’t new at all– but consider that this exhibit is driven almost solely by experience? The exhibit, he said, doesn’t even have signs or touchscreens. It has guides for parents so they can lead the way. This helps build community and social capital. This, I would argue, has the potential to be pretty magical. And it’s not something you could experience on a computer screen.
- The best (not worst) insight and information-share comes from users. The AASLH session made it clear that social media was a valuable tool, but panelists and participants spoke a lot about vetting and monitoring user responses, deciding what does/does not get shared publicly, and the issue of authority. The tone seemed to be that social media is good, but museums need to supervise and be careful. The Social Media Week session, on the other hand, praised social media and told nonstop stories about this-and-that cool thing that companies were doing to create a fusion between online and offline worlds. The tone at this event was that visitors/guests come up with the best ideas. While there are certainly issues to be discussed regarding museums and the possible evolution of their authoritative voice in the merging of online and offline worlds, there could be value in simply switching the way we think about user-generated content. There’s likely more value and innovation to be had if we think of our visitors as willing and eager contributors, and not threats.