As we moved forward with Web 2.0 and social media in 2007, we had two objectives in mind while overhauling earlier initiatives and creating new projects for visitors:
- Keep it real: We aimed to personalize content as much as possible, since Web 2.0 for the Brooklyn Museum is all about social connections and growing communities.
- Deliver content their way: Museum surveys have shown that visitors want to consume more information in shorter visits. Hence, we wanted to allow our audiences to easily receive information from the Museum, and dynamically share it with others.
We continued to focus on our community-oriented, visitor-centered mission, and these goals became paramount as we thought about (and adjusted) our early initiatives; they also served as philosophical barometers when we created new projects.
Facebook: Groups, Pages, and ArtShare
"Social" is the operative word in social networking. Simply defined as "seeking or enjoying the companionship of others; friendly; sociable; gregarious," this can be a challenging proposition for a large institution seeking to participate in a site where individual and personal connections are key. How do you give an organization a face? How can an institution make personal connections? Unlike MySpace, Facebook has a strict policy: profiles = individual people, not institutions, no exceptions. The reason is pretty simple: the site is based on social interaction and relationships. So how can a Museum work within Facebook's structure?
In the early days of Facebook, one could establish a personal account, start a group (http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=2211294957) for the organization, and administer the group by posting announcements, pictures and videos. The benefit of this system was that members could connect a face (and perhaps a personality) to the organization, rather than encountering a disembodied Museum voice. On Facebook, it’s pretty clear who is running things, because the administrators have personal profiles of their own, featuring information about themselves and clearly identifying what roles they play at the Museum. This idea of getting to know the person who is administering the Museum’s page is critical when representing an institution on a social networking site. It is fundamental to being part of a community, rather than operating for the sake of marketing or public relations.
Over time, Facebook has made some changes to its original model, and to stay in step with the community of users on Facebook it was important for the Brooklyn Museum to adjust. In Spring 2007, Facebook opened up its social networking architecture so that anyone could create applications for the site via its Application Programming Interface (API), allowing independent developers to create applications they could share with other users. Facebook users began to install an astonishing variety of applications on their profiles, quickly making Facebook unique among social networking sites. The Brooklyn Museum Information Systems department responded by creating ArtShare (http://www.facebook.com/apps/application.php?id=7723691927&ref=pr), an application that allows Facebook users to select works of art from our collection, which they can shuffle on their personal profiles. Recognizing that social networking is never one-sided, but rather an exchange of information between parties, we developed this application so other Museums could use it to share works in their own collections; and so artists on Facebook can upload their own artwork to share with friends.
So, what is the significance of ArtShare? ArtShare functions just like everything else on Facebook, allowing the members of its community to get to know one another, but in this case through art. It allows users (art lovers, museum-goers, and others) to connect their profiles and personalities to works in museums’ collections. ArtShare allows them to display their favorite paintings, photographs, and objects on their own terms and in their own social spaces. Browsing through Facebook users who have installed ArtShare, one begins to get a sense of the personal tastes and interests they have, just by looking at the works of art they’ve selected for their profiles.
Moving away from the earlier policy of banning institutions from the site, in November 2007 Facebook launched “pages,” a new feature that allowed an organization or institution to create its own page. This feature distinguishes Facebook from other social networking sites. The open application structure, so important to Facebook’s identity, also works within this new feature; therefore the institution’s administrator can install various applications to make the organization’s page more dynamic. When selecting and testing applications, we followed two vital rules of thumb. First, if at all possible, we selected applications that work with fully syndicated content. Second, we tried to find applications that allow us to connect to our existing content on other sites like Flickr, del.icio.us, YouTube, and our blog.
Why are these rules of thumb so vital? Social networking users don’t like to leave the social networking sphere and go elsewhere for content. When we select applications to display our RSS feeds or YouTube videos, we want to embed as much content as possible on the same page. On Facebook, when possible we avoid making people leave Facebook to see our content. You’ll notice that the Museum’s Facebook page is designed so that visitors can easily read our blog posts and play our videos right there on the page. Because many talented developers have created applications on Facebook, we’ve been able to establish a fully featured page (http://www.facebook.com/pages/Brooklyn-Museum/7204523707) for the Brooklyn Museum, so that it provides a comprehensive snapshot of what’s happening at the Museum. As a nice side effect, these pages are viewable by anyone on the Internet (not just members of the Facebook community) and can be fully indexed by search engines.
Having learned lessons from our experience with Facebook about the significance of profile personalization, we adjusted our Flickr presence accordingly. For every Flickr group we manage, you’ll notice another admin in addition to “Brooklyn Museum” - “aur2899.” This is my personal Flickr account, where I identify myself as an employee of the Museum and link to my posts on the Museum blog. Now Flickr users can get to know the person behind the Brooklyn Museum profile. In addition, any time a visitor makes a comment or a Museum staffer answers a question, the author’s name appears. This maintains the personal and social nature of the site and moves away from an opaque “Voice of Authority” that is typically associated with museums.
When we initiate a Flickr project, we aim to do something of interest both to our visitors, who seek to learn more and/or extend their on-site visits, and to Flickr photographers, who are personally invested in a particular subject. In accordance with our objective to “keep it real,” for our photography exhibition Goodbye Coney Island? (http://www.brooklynmuseum.org/exhibitions/goodbye_coney_island/) we asked photographers to upload their own photos of Coney Island to a Flickr group (http://flickr.com/groups/goodbye_coney_island/). (As of this writing, the project is still in progress.) Unlike our previous Brooklyn Graffiti group (http://flickr.com/groups/bklyn_graffiti/), which was connected to our Graffiti (http://www.brooklynmuseum.org/exhibitions/graffiti/) exhibition, we shifted our mode of operation for this effort. In Brooklyn Graffiti, users could submit an unlimited number of photographs on the subject. In Goodbye Coney Island?, participants can submit only one photo to the group; but this time, the Brooklyn Museum’s curator of photography, Patrick Amsellem, will review users’ submissions and select a few to discuss on the Museum’s blog during the run of the exhibition. The curatorial presence is key to this project, because the curatorial voice is what matters most at a Museum and, therefore, matters most to the people participating in the project.
YouTube: Visitor Video Competition
We first began sharing videos with our community using the video-sharing Web site blip.tv (http://brooklynmuseum.blip.tv/). We chose to do this because video quality at blip.tv is better than most video-sharing sites, in that it permits unlimited file size and length. This allowed us to host a single video rather than, for example, splitting a long artist’s talk in half, as we would have to do on YouTube in order to adhere to that site’s length and size restrictions. Brooklyn Museum had a YouTube profile (http://www.youtube.com/user/BrooklynMuseum) in addition to the one at blip.tv, and though we had steadily added content, the material didn’t seem to capture much of an audience. We started to think about ways to improve our YouTube presence, and the more we thought about YouTube, the more we came to believe that content created by the Museum might not be as engaging as content created by others. Asking for visitor-created content seemed more in sync with the YouTube community.
Our Public Information department had worked with two students at the Pratt Institute, a college in Brooklyn known for its art and design programs, to create a Public Service Announcement (PSA). The students’ short video (http://youtube.com/watch?v=K9RHQB8dPkw) inspired the idea for a video contest hosted on YouTube. Closely working with Public Information, we invited (http://www.brooklynmuseum.org/community/vvc/) visitors attending our October 2007 Target First Saturday (a free monthly event at the Museum featuring films, performances, dance parties, and other entertainment) to bring video cameras and create their own PSAs for the Museum.
Similar to Flickr, YouTube is a site where users create and upload their own material, retaining full rights to their content. Instead of asking for copyright or blanket use, as is the norm in such competitions, we simply asked contestants to upload their PSAs to their personal YouTube accounts. As a result, viewers can access each contestant’s personal YouTube profile and learn more about him or her. Because we respect the hard work of participants and want to acknowledge them as individuals, we felt this was important to the project. On our end, we linked to the submissions on our Web site using YouTube playlists (http://youtube.com/view_play_list?p=77760CA9EE2ED053) and standard embed code, which allowed for easy identification of the participants and also ensured that the view count for each video would be featured on the contributors’ personal profiles.
The power of this exercise lies in the spontaneity and diversity of the participants and what their fresh, unbound perspectives can bring to our daily working environment. We happily discovered that PSAs created by our visitors are quite different from what the institution would typically produce; for example, you’d probably never see a video called “Art Thief” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mxpSS12qdRA) - one of our most-viewed visitor-contributed PSAs on YouTube - produced by the Museum. We received a total of eleven entries, all of which were as creative and exciting as our Target First Saturday events, and all offered a unique tone and theme. The judging panel included Christina Norman, President of MTV Music Television; Danny Simmons of Rush Philanthropic Arts Foundation; and Patrick Amsellem, the Brooklyn Museum’s Associate Curator of Photography. In addition, many Museum staff (http://www.brooklynmuseum.org/community /blogosphere/ bloggers/2007/11/02/good-luck/) and supporters enjoyed viewing the entries, including our Director, Arnold Lehman.
As a testament to the power of user-generated content, we were excited to discover that the videos submitted for the competition were viewed four to five times more than anything else we had previously posted on YouTube. And when YouTube decided to feature our contest in its “Groups” area, the view counts increased exponentially.
Electronic Comment Books
If you’ve visited our permanent collections in recent years, you may have noticed wall labels featuring visitors’ responses to specific works of art - we call these “Community Voices.” Visitors and/or residents of neighboring communities, representing a range of backgrounds and age groups, are invited to create written responses to objects, and their comments are subsequently mounted next to the work on view. These support the institutional mission because they incorporate the voice of the visitor in the process of interpretation.
We extended this idea to the Web by replacing paper comment books with electronic comment kiosks in special exhibitions. This ensured that visitors’ comments would be visible both in the gallery and on the Web site. Comments can be submitted onsite using our comment kiosks or directly from the Web site (http://www.brooklynmuseum.org/exhibitions/brushed_with_light/); no matter where or how visitors submit them, all comments are visible in both places. Now easily read from both the Web (http://www.brooklynmuseum.org/community/comment/archive.php) and within the exhibition space, electronic comment books make visitor interpretation and response more visible than our older in-gallery labels.
As one might expect, we have found that most of our Web traffic comes to pages that provide information about particular exhibitions. There are at least two benefits of having comments reside on our Web site (located in the Community area of the site, but clearly linked from the exhibition pages):
- within the institution, it is easier to review visitor feedback in real time as opposed to slowly circulating paper comment books after an exhibition’s closing; and
- visitors can easily see how others are interpreting exhibitions and objects, and, to some degree, engage in conversation.
That is, when visitors leave questions that necessitate answers, we can formulate responses and post them directly in the comment forum.
For example, in our recent exhibition Infinite Island: Contemporary Caribbean Art, one work (http://www.brooklynmuseum.org/exhibitions/infinite_island/ highlight.php?a=EL51.87) in particular elicited the following comment, to which the artist personally responded.
Comment: What I do not understand is how come platano has now become a term or pride and endearment? It seems as though you hear the term "platano pride" thrown around, but if you were to call someone a platano they would take great offense; is that not a double standard?…This piece seems to be tribute to cultural and national pride but it contradicts itself. - Posted by Roxanne Ali
Response:The Plátano is a symbol with double meanings, a stereotypical yet iconic signifier of Caribbean culture. Indeed, Puerto Rican and Dominican immigrants were pejoratively referred to as “Plátanos” as they arrived in New York. Then there are regional associations that expand the meaning. In Puerto Rico for example, “la mancha del plátano (the stain of the plantain)” is an expression that historically referenced the indelible mark of one’s skin color, culture or class. Today however, it is most often used as a statement of pride in one’s roots and heritage. In the Pure Plantainum series, actual plantains were plated in platinum. They are like emblematic jewels on the outside, while the actual fruit is decomposing within. The work engages these contradicting spaces of who we sometimes are on the outside vs. the inside. And it flips the symbol, insisting upon pride over shame. -Miguel Luciano - Posted by Brooklyn Museum
The rigorous participation and positive feedback from Museum staff, visitors, and colleagues, both in the galleries and through our online comment forum (http://www.brooklynmuseum.org/community/comment/archive.php), made this a very successful initiative from its inception in March 2007, to the degree that we created a new version of comment kiosks for the exhibition Infinite Island. Visitors had the opportunity to not only share general comments about the exhibition, but also comment on specific objects within the exhibition. Platano Pride is a case-in-point. Connecting the comment to the visual work of art was closer to our original Community Voice labels and has proven to be more popular than our earlier structure. We discovered that when given the choice to comment on the exhibition or works with in it, nine out of ten people chose to comment on a specific piece.
Our comment books have gained popularity over time. For the Spring 2007 exhibitions Global Feminisms and Asher B. Durand, 107 and 124 comments were posted, respectively. Our Fall 2007 exhibitions, Brushed With Light and Infinite Island, garnered 340 and 533 comments, respectively. It is difficult to know what increased participation truly tells us, as it could suggest any of the following: growing knowledge of the Web feature, the popularity of the exhibition, audience demographics, a desire for dialogue, pure attraction to the visual image…etc. What we do know for sure is this: although visitor attendance for both exhibition seasons was roughly similar, participation in the comment forum more than tripled in the second season. As a result of this success, in the coming months electronic comment books will be installed in our permanent collection galleries, with related forums on our Web site.
Cell Phone Audio, RSS Feeds and Embedding
After a successful trial period in 2006, during which we discovered that the pickup rate for cell phone tours tripled that of our on-site audio tours, we began expanding this architecture. Cell phone audio has allowed us to cut costs dramatically and provide audio interpretation within an often-limited budget. To extend cell phone service in our building, we installed repeaters in selected areas. Existing audio tours for exhibitions like American Identities, Egypt Reborn and Arts of Africa were migrated to the new Guide By Cell system. We also produced and recorded tours for Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party and the exhibition Global Feminisms. In addition to increased pickup and cost-cutting, cell phones have allowed us to receive visitor feedback immediately – visitors are encouraged to “press 1” to record comments at any time in the tour. In this way, the visitor is given a voice, similar to our “Community Voices” labels and our electronic comment books. We expect to see further integration of these three projects in the near future.
RSS (Rich Site Summary) is a format for delivering regularly changing Web content to subscribers. RSS helps us to meet the objective to “deliver content their way”: it aligns closely with our Web 2.0 goals, and has surfaced as an important means of access for many of our readers/visitors. Hence, this year marked an RSS feed revolution on our Web site. Available feeds now include Exhibitions, Blogs, Podcasts, Events, Target First Saturday schedules, Press Releases, and more. While the information in some of these feeds is a bit sparse, over the next year we’ll be working to provide more content in this way.
Allowing users to embed content on social networking sites is another central aspect of Web 2.0 technology, and this is one of our most recent endeavors. By providing embed code, we enable people to share our content the way they want to, via their own Web sites. All of our podcasts (http://www.brooklynmuseum.org/podcasts/) and cell-phone audio stops come with embed code. If a visitor sees something s/he likes on our Web site and s/he wants to share it with others, the visitor can use the embed code to place our content directly on his/her own site. Giving the visitor ownership of the content in this way increases word-of-mouth, too. This is similar to some of our other initiatives, such as ArtShare, and will play an increasing role in our overall technology strategy moving forward.
In June 2007 we began to overhaul our blogs. Our previous efforts were hosted at blogger.com and while a couple of those blogs provided valuable subject matter, such as behind-the-scenes looks at certain projects (Dig Diary 2007 and Statue of Liberty), others (e.g. Brooklyn Museum Wireless News) had become repositories for promotional materials. It was clear to us that an overhaul was badly needed, so the Museum’s various blogs were consolidated (http://www.brooklynmuseum.org/community/blogosphere/bloggers/) and integrated into our own Web site. Thereafter, we moved forward with the intention to make publishing quick, easy, and enjoyable for staff, and also to make the information we provided to our audience as open and transparent as possible. In contrast to other means of communication (e.g. Web sites, publications, printed materials, press releases), blogging in its very nature is more personal; ideally, the authors’ voices are retained and spontaneity rules. On our Web site, information is thoroughly vetted, like any other official publication from the Museum; but our blog allows for much quicker, direct communication from staff. This means that readers of our blog sometimes find typos and less than elegantly phrased missives, but we also hope they reveal the human side of the institution.
Authors, following a set of institutionally approved guidelines, write posts focusing on behind-the-scenes information not readily accessible to the public. Diverse in terms of content, posts are written personally by staff members and retain each author’s unique voice and perspective; they also identify each author with a small picture and short biography and use tags to integrate posts with appropriate exhibition pages on the site. Readers can follow the subjects in which they are most interested using a number RSS feeds. Our blog (http://www.brooklynmuseum.org/community/blogosphere/bloggers/) provides feeds for a wide range of subjects and authors, and for categories such as Rarely on View, On Loan, Recent Acquisitions, Architecture and Planning, Egyptian Art, Technology, etc. The content in our blog is fully syndicated; this further supports the interests of subscribers/readers, as new content can be delivered directly to them whenever they want it, eliminating numerous clicks through our site.
Our experience with Twitter (http://twitter.com/) is a really interesting case of what happens when you don’t follow your own advice. Twitter, a social-networking site that allows friends to subscribe to your feed and receive short txt messages on their phones, seemed like an innovative way to distribute information in real time. At the October 2007 Target First Saturday, we established a profile at Twitter in order to send visitors updates during the event. However, major obstacles occurred during the course of this trial run.
The first concerned Twitter’s sign-up process. You can sign up people at the event using their phones, but this sign-up process results in users getting multiple messages which are often confusing. Suddenly, Twitter starts sending txt messages like “Now you’ll know what’s going on with BrooklynMuseum. But, what are you doing?” and “Thanks! Reply with your name so you can tell friends how to follow you!” If you are already using Twitter or other social networking sites, these messages make sense; but if you are unfamiliar, it can be a confusing jumble.
The second obstacle had to do with content. One of our most important rules of thumb is to post interesting content. Most often, when starting new initiatives like this one, we start simply, so we can get to know the users and the social fabric of the site and develop better content as we go along. Because we were only offering scheduling information and similar updates throughout the evening via Twitter - content that could easily be seen elsewhere - there was no real reason for a user to go through the hurdles of the sign-up process, or waste valuable txt messages in their calling plan.
Moving forward with Twitter (or a similar service) will mean a much greater commitment on our part to provide content that visitors will find interesting. For example, there are many ways to create a game-like event using txting, or to provide valuable information that visitors can’t access in other ways. Unique content combined with an easier sign-up process could make Twitter an interesting technology to utilize in the future. In the meantime, while we consider how to utilize Twitter more effectively, we are feeding the contents of our blog to our Twitter profile (http://twitter.com/brooklynmuseum). This provides a nice middle ground, because users can stay in the loop via the Twitter site, rather than having to come directly to our Web site.
By way of conclusion, let’s return to the two goals stated at the beginning of this paper, and identify how the projects described above have met each objective:
Goal #1: Keep it real.
- Blogs allowing for author identification and instant publication
- Electronic Comment Books
- Personalized social networking sites (Facebook, Flickr)
- Coney Island project on Flickr
- Visitor Video Competition
To successfully meet this goal, a museum must personalize its content as much as possible. Web 2.0 is about social connections and community, not about marketing or PR. The museum must fully commit to being in the community and offer content that people care about. When creating a platform for discussion, it must be sure to listen to what visitors have to say and respond when necessary. As much as possible, it must create projects that really mean something, both to the institution and to the participants; give visitors ownership over content; and allow visitors to use content in any way they see fit. It must also involve the curatorial presence in projects whenever possible. Patrick Amsellem is reviewing and commenting on entries in our Goodbye Coney Island? group on Flickr, and that means a lot to the participants. Similarly, judges were lined up for the Visitor Video Competition that would matter to the participants.
Goal #2: Deliver content their way.
- ArtShare on Facebook
- Fully syndicated content with no need to click-thru
- Blog RSS feeds broken down by author and subject
- Blog feeding directly to our Twitter profile
- RSS feeds for events, exhibitions, press releases, podcasts
- Cell phone audio tours
- Embedding opportunities
Allow your audience to take content with them and share it with whomever they want, in whatever way they want. Fully syndicate content so visitors don’t have to click-thru unless they really want to. What you lose in stats, you gain in community.