Tag Archives: Twitter

Noise vs. cultural memory

I’ve been thinking a bit lately about the cultural value of noise and chatter.

The first thing that got me thinking about this was David Bearman’s recent blog entry about the use of Twitter during the recently-concluded Museums and the Web conference. Almost nonstop Twittering from the conference participants led to the creation of a rich stream of data that was full of useful references, emotion, and nuance. There was no denying that Twitter was the star player at the conference, and that it fundamentally altered the way everyone at the conference interacted with one another. David’s post is interesting and, although admittedly written from the point of view of a (somewhat) converted skeptic, I still found myself extremely frustrated with his “list of useful tweets.” His list, in fact, removed everything from the tweet but the link contained therein, indicating that any of the contextual material or emotional content contained in the tweet itself was largely irrelevant.

The second thing that got me thinking about this was last week’s Arts, Culture, and Technology meetup here in New York, which featured an engaging presentation and conversation with SebChan from the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney. Among the many excellent initiatives that Seb has overseen there, one of the most interesting is the Powerhouse’s use of the Flickr Commons as a means of both providing increased access to images of collections objects to the public, as well as harvesting information (primarily tags) from those objects for use by the museum itself.

Seb talked about the need to filter user responses when the amount of those responses becomes so overwhelming that they become just so much noise. And although I think that both Seb and David are right to filter noise when this issue is looked at expressly as a problem of mining relevant/important information from user response, I wonder if we are missing a larger issue here by focusing on that exclusively. While even a cursory skim over the visitor responses for an image like this one from the Powerhouse Museum certainly brings back a paucity of immediately useful information (thanks for the “yeah cool!” shoutout, Orsek!) I have to wonder if we’d be so quick to dismiss these kinds of responses if they were from, say 1879, versus 2009.

What I mean here is that while we might have been just as quick to dismiss this kind of commentary as useless in 1879 as we are now, that same commentary, with the addition of 130 years, suddenly acquires immense cultural/historical value. As the famous evil archaeologist Rene Belloq once said, “Look at this [watch]. It’s worthless – ten dollars from a vendor in the street. But I take it, I bury it in the sand for a thousand years, it becomes priceless.”

I find just this little change in perspective suddenly makes this information appear significantly more valuable, at least in a cultural memory sort of way, than we’ve previously thought. Just imagine if a museum were able to present, alongside the object itself, a catalog of responses to the object from the public over time. How did people respond to this print in 1930 vs. 1950 vs. 1980? Are there trends over time? Do certain terms/phrases crop up and then disappear, while others are used consistently throughout time? I personally would find that hugely fascinating.

The problem, though, is that we tend to be so focused on extracting one type of value from information obtained via public channels (“useful” links from tweets, “valuable” commentary on images) that we end up discarding what might actually be, in the long run, the most useful information, namely cultural, emotional, and historical context. In the past, we were forced by necessity to focus on only the most immediately “useful” information, because we had limited ability to capture anything else. But now that we live in the future, where storage is cheap, there’s no reason for us to hold on to apparently “useless” information as well.

Doing this, of course, puts a museum in the position of having to be a custodian of public opinion in addition to its traditional role as a custodian of culture. This opens up an entirely new area (for museums, anyway) of scholarship–the collection, curation, and maintenance of public response. The good thing is that most museums already have someone who could naturally take on this role–the “social media” consultant (usually a part of the communications/marketing department) who typically manages a museums Flickr pages, Twitter accounts, Facebook pages, and so on. I could certainly imagine an expansion of that consultant’s role (which is often now seen as primarily a marketing function) to include curating public feedback, and archiving it in a useful way for future generations. “Noise” becomes cultural memory.

The future of mobile interpretation redux

Eh, just because I can’t get enough of this particular subject, I thought I’d do another quick post ’bout mobile interpretation in museums. As I was gearing up to write the Future of Mobile Interpretation paper for this year’s Museums and the Web conference, I did a few informal surveys via both Twitter and Yammer to see if my gut feelings on multimedia/audio tours were even close to correct. The interesting side effect of this “flash survey” was that I found that microblogging platforms were a really interesting means of acquiring quick survey results, if you’re not interested in being particularly scientific (perhaps I’ll post more on that subject in the future). Primarily, though, I was pleasantly surprised at the thoughtfulness (and pithiness, given the format) of the responses. I thought I’d post them here, since some of my Twitter peeps have expressed some desire to see the results of my survey. So basically, I asked the question, “To those of you who don’t pick up audio guides in museums, why is that?” A random sampling of the responses follows:

Most people and especially younger ones carry in their pockets much more powerful appliances (i.e. cellphones)… I can do much more about getting intersting information with a blackberry, palm or iphone by typing in name of the artist or work or genre in wikipedia.

With audio guides if you are wearing headphones, then you are disconnected for a time from the person you came in with, while you otherwise would be possibly discussing the artwork. I think there is something to audio guides being exclusively one way interaction device, apart from entering numbers.

audio guides make a museum experience feel too solitary.

Talking too slow for saying too little.

Cause I like to do things at my own pace, choose which info to absorb (I rarely read entire labels), and hear the surroundings.

Not usually for the main collection, yes for special exhibits, if it’s free and the crowd isn’t nuts. Probably because of where the guides are handed out – at the controlled entrance to the special exhibit. generally, special exhibits have a single path, so i’m thinking linearly & the guide can build a narrative, whereas in the main [galleries] I like to wander and anything gleaned from the guide will be a one-off. That said, if the guide was, already in my pocket in the shape of my mobile phone, I’d be more likely to call up info on a particular piece in the main [galleries].

I’m not usually at a museum by myself, and I want to have a shared experience with whomever I’m with. Headphones disrupt that.

Because I don’t like things in my ears.

I think we can glean a few things, even from a small sample like this one. The first (and I point this out in my paper) is that museums really don’t know much about this new audience. What studies have been done (in particular Peter Samis’s excellent survey of visitor response to the Matthew Barney: Drawing Restraint interpretive devices) are largely analyses of visitor preference between given devices, and don’t therefore tell us much about the majority of our audience that never picks up a device in the first place.

The follow-on from this, then, is of course that museums don’t yet know whether the approaches they currently employ in the development of interpretive technology strategies in galleries will produce results that satisfy this new audience. Given that most multimedia handheld devices in museums still employ what is basically an audio tour model adapted to a new device, my assumption (particularly in light of the kinds of responses like the ones above) is that this will not be the case. It’s time to figure out a new way.

Before I leave this post to go catch up on some Battlestar Galactica, I thought I’d point towards a few interesting resources. The first is a post from New Curator with a discussion about iPhone apps that might be useful for museums. Another is the Museums and Mobile Adoption Survey by the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. Of particular interest to me were the responses to the “Are you evaluating visitor usage of the device?” question. And lastly, but never leastly, the Mattress Factory dudes have made excellence happen again in the form of an aggregated MF Twitter feed viewable in the MF’s gallery space. Aside from this just being a great idea, I point to it because I mentioned making something similar to this available via handheld devices in the MW paper, and it’s nice to see this already happening. Word.

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Twitter, Museums, and the “Institutional Voice”

Image representing Twitter as depicted in Crun...
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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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