Twitter, Museums, and the “Institutional Voice”

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Maria Gilbert of the Getty Museum started an interesting (and, I’m sure, evolving) conversation this morning about institutional “brands” on Twitter. The discussion was sparked, in part, by a recent post from Ari Herzog assessing the Museum of Modern Art‘s own online presence. Twitter, and specifically how to use it in an institutional capacity, has of late been a hot topic at the Met as well, and the time seems right to lay out some of my own thoughts on the subject. Welcome to my New Year’s resolution to write more here at kovenjsmith dot com. Woot.

I think that the process of trying to figure out how to use so-called “social media” platforms like Twitter and Facebook has essentially accelerated the disintegration of what we used to call “the institutional voice”; that single, monolithic, thoroughly-vetted voice that spoke to you, the visitor, from a given museum’s publications, press releases, and Web site. As more and more low- or no-cost publishing platforms have become available over the last decade, we’ve seen an erosion of this single voice, as individuals from institutions are able to publish more quickly without going through a traditional vetting process. The question for museums is then: when that voice is gone, what replaces it?

I find, on Twitter, that institutional or company feeds are always less interesting than personal feeds. They’re informative, to be sure, and often highlight things about a given institution (a work of art, an upcoming program) that I might not have otherwise known, but they lack that certain personal angle that makes for a really good feed.

The problem is that a feed that speaks for an entire museum must, by its very nature, often remove the personal and/or provocative from its tweets in order to appeal to the broadest possible constituency. Therefore, the problem is less “what should we write about?” and more “from what perspective should we write?”

I agree with Tyler Green that the primary focus of a museum feed should be Art, but an institution can’t be as free with its opinions as an individual can be. If an art museum were to say something like “this portrait looks like Billy Dee Williams” in its Twitter feed (and let’s hope that happens), I’d have to wonder, as a follower, whose perspective that is. Does someone in the marketing department think that? Does the curator? An educator? The Web site director? As an institution, then, we’re reduced to posting somewhat bland tweets–daily highlights of works from the collection (something better suited to an “Artwork of the Day” desktop widget), or advertisements about half-price admission days (which probably belong in a marketing newsletter).

However, this problem of perspective goes away if you replace that single feed with a diversity of feeds from your staff.

Think about it. Friendships in the virtual space are not much different from friendships in real space. I’ll never be “friends” with MoMA, no matter how much I may love it as a museum, but I could easily imagine being friends with MoMA’s technology people, its curators, its educators, or its conservators. MoMA The Institution might not feel free to say that a particular work in its collection is sub-par, but a curator on MoMA’s staff might be willing to tweet at length about why that work is sub-par. I may not agree with that perspective, but it’s still an interesting one to read (and potentially joust with as well, via @ replies). As a follower, I’m not engaging with the institution per se, I’m engaging with one of many possible viewpoints from within that institution. This would have the end result of actually connecting me to the institution in a much more powerful (and one would hope, lasting) way.

This doesn’t mean that a single institutional feed has no value. In fact, as Tim O’Reilly points out in a recent post, he finds that his own Twitter feed often works as a kind of switchboard, connecting his followers to individual feeds within O’Reilly Media. One could certainly imagine an institutional feed taking this role, functioning almost as a party host introducing various guests to one another.

Although it seems likely that Twitter is about to break into the mainstream, we’re all still really trying to figure out how best to use it. It’s not a blog, it’s not e-mail, it’s not a Web site–it’s something entirely different that, I believe, has the potential to fundamentally change the way museums interact with their public. In “Remix,” Lawrence Lessig states that “…despite the rhetoric of the content industry, the most valuable contribution to our economy comes from connectivity, not content. Content is the ginger in gingerbread–important, no doubt, but nothing like the most valuable component in the mix…” It will be interesting to see if this will become true for museums as a result of engagement with platforms like Twitter.

h/t to Joy Garnett (from the Goldwater Library at the Metropolitan Museum of Art) for the Lessig quote.

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6 thoughts on “Twitter, Museums, and the “Institutional Voice”

  1. Twitter’s still really young and unproven in many ways, and those of us talking about it now are either early adopters (if it survives) or suckers (if it doesn’t). Either way we’re non-representative of Twitter’s user base in three years.

    It reminds me of 1994 or so, when we started to see how much the Web was going to change (shopping, anyone?). Maybe we’re not even to that stage with Twitter–how much will they, and even Facebook, have to change when they’re forced to become part of a profit-making operation?

    So I think it’s premature to argue that the institutional voice is dead. Rather we might see that the institutional voice, even in its last throes, kills Twitter first :-).

  2. Point taken, Matt. What I’m really trying to say here is not that the institutional voice is dead, it’s just that it’s now no longer the sole means by which a museum might communicate with its public. That voice will always be there, but it will be surrounded by a number of other individual voices, and I think that it is these voices that will be most interesting to a community like Twitter.

    Museums have to recognize that they no longer have a single “public.” They now have to deal with multiple communities, and a given community may be defined not by a common interest, but rather by a (possibly ephemeral) platform like Twitter or Facebook. And in that situation, it is often the early adopters that define how the community operates.

    Twitter might be gone in three years and replaced by something else, but by sitting those years out we will have missed so many chances to connect with people who we otherwise might not have. And maybe the thing that replaces Twitter will itself last only three years. That’s six years of not participating, not connecting, and not learning. The days of waiting to see what pervasive technology “wins” are probably over, because the days of overly dominant technology platforms are themselves over. We have to be ready and willing to play where our community is already playing.

  3. Very insightful post Koven – much food for thought.

    I think it’s really interesting that museums are struggling so with the issue of voice(s) in the Web 2.0 space. All of our institutions are comfortable with multiple voices in the ‘real world’. Staff go to meetings, seminars, conferences etc and speak in an ambiguous social location that’s both ‘as ourselves’ and ‘for our institutions’ – and there’s no drama (or not much anyway).

    Why is it so different when it’s in Web 2.0? It seems to me that one issue is the almost but not quite ephemeral nature of the Web 2.0. In practice a tweet or a blog post is (nearly) as ephemeral as speaking. On the other hand all of our posts lurk, linger and circulate indefinitely as published text (or whatever, but mostly as text).

    Maybe also it’s an issue of social context? Meetings, conferences etc are defined, specific social contexts that have unstated but taken for granted social rules that have been developing for hundreds of years. Each of the Web 2.0 spaces is also a social context but they are new and rapidly changing and we really don’t (yet?) know where we are or who we are.

    Real world meetings also tend to be quite focused and specific – people with specific expertise or interest become voices on behalf of their institutions. As you point out, this is also true in Web 2.0 spaces – the posts that work best have fairly well defined communities of interest in which the tweeter/blogger belongs.

    Some organisational angst might be because the people who become voices in Web 2.0 spaces are not necessarily the people who become voices in real world spaces. In fact it’s highly likely to be younger and more junior staff who want to blog or tweet – people who would not represent their museum at conferences. Vetting is therefore more explicit, more visible and less taken for granted.

    Lastly, voice may be a more general issue for museums. As a social history museum, we’ve always had a commitment to multiple voices within exhibitions. More recently we’ve been exploring multiple curatorial voices as well – can we enable different curators to have different ‘museum’ voices within an exhibition space? Will this confuse visitors? Will it make exhibitions incoherent? I wonder if this is partly driven by a new, emerging general Web 2.0 culture of individual as opposed to institutional voice?

  4. The institutional voice is the lowest common denominator of authority. It’s committee-designed, watered down, and relevant to the least number of people while trying to appeal to the most. As long as museums are unwilling to take chances with their audiences, it will never entirely disappear.

    That being said, there’s no good reason for it to disappear. It’s the baby steps of voice that every museum first learned as it came forth into this world and it’s what it knows best.

    The real issue here isn’t voice, but rather fear of losing authority. That an uncomfortable informality in some way cheapens the brand of the museum and leads to a lowering of standards. But while museums sit and ponder what their new voice or voices should be (and obviously the latter is eventually the answer for many), they miss the golden moment of being relevant.

    We’ve all personally struggled with the idea of our multiple selves and how we engage with the rest of the world. Koven, I’d make the guess that you engage a little differently with your music friends than you do with your museum friends than you do with your museum professionals. At some point it gets hard being multiple selves and you stop worrying about it and you’re just you. Sure, you may tailor yourself a bit for different experiences, but at the end of the day, you’re probably true to yourself without even overthinking it.

    In twitter’s case, we’re talking about 140 characters. It seems like such a small threshhold that we’re hesitating to cross. And, more importantly, we often learn best by simply doing. I’d argue that in twitter’s instance, just start posting things. As people respond to some things and not to others — or even as someone reads backs through a twitter stream — it will begin to appear what seems or feels right for a given museum.

    There’s not a single answer of what this best new voice is, but instead of listening, trying to figure out how to be best like the others, just start talking. Ultimately, you’ll find your voice and you’ll be part of the conversation. Even better, by being relevant, you even better ensure that your identity remains whole and you’ll be an authority in the new space. Given the two possibilities — you occasionally misspeak or that the conversation ends before you ever had a chance to contribute — which is the worse outcome?

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