Social Media & the Museum

What does social media mean?  Looking at the discussion on the Wikipedia entry, a debate exists between the potential of social media as a concept versus the reality of its 2012 oversaturation.  And much like I discussed in preferring wisdom of the crowds to crowdsourcing, today I prefer to discuss networked communities rather than social media, because the buzzword versions harken a lowest common denominator of labor and advertising.  However, since social media is the buzzword in demand today, I will follow that path for now.

Nomenclature aside, the concept of networked communities/social media is expansive and continues to gain traction in research and practice.  Etienne Wenger’s notion of a community of practice, as well as his views on knowledge building’s relationship to identity, is tantamount in the evolution of authentic networked communities and social media avenues.  There is enormous potential in the use of technology and telecommunications to establish rich and vibrant communities of scholars, practitioners, experts and novices who coalesce around a topic of interest in efforts to promote the topic and continue the evolution of its understanding.

Georges Seurat's "A Sunday on La Grande Jette," from the Museum of the Art Institute of Chicago.

In my research on existing Internet platforms for digital museum artifacts (webpages, mobile apps), the current use of social media revolves around that lowest common denominator.  People can use various social media platforms and companies to share artifacts or publicize real-space events and exhibits, and it stops there.  I can view an artifact at the Museum of the Art Institute of Chicago (a museum I example frequently because of it’s relatively strong web presence), and share it with others via email, Facebook or Twitter.  So, if I were to choose Georges Seurat’s A Sunday on La Grande Jette, I could share the image and whatever comment I had with my social network via those platforms. That’s a start, but only a first step.  Uder this model, if participation with the artifact and community stemming from the artifact are to occur, it will happen outside of the museum, with the only museum input the image.

One suggestion, from the MIDEA wing of the New Media Consortium, discusses the use of Wikipedia as a method to create community and interaction, through what is termed open authority, where there is a greater discussion among users of the artifacts in a museum, and that discussion is not limited to the dominant reading of the artifact as dictated by culture and curator.  The existing platforms utilizing open authority in museums, most notably steve.museum and GLAMwiki, are impressive, but a difficult UI for newcomers and interested parties to join.  In Becoming Wikipedian, Susan Bryant explores the community of Wikipedia content creators, but notes that the vast majority of people who use Wikipedia do not produce content, and the vast majority of people who produce content do not join the community that comes with greater page creation.  Bryant’s article looks at ways Wikipedians can fix that, but it is a work in progress.  For museum patrons who want to get into the discussion, the interface of platforms such as Wikipedia is daunting, as is the level of sophisticated and technical conversation occurring.

The movement is in a positive direction, and as museums continue to utilize education departments, the theories and ideas of how to incorporate education with the technology museums hopefully will adopt will further the conversation.  But we cannot be complacent with existing practices that assume a Facebook button transforms a museum’s web presence into Web 2.0.

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