April 9-12, 2008
Montréal, Québec, Canada

From Ladders Of Participation To Networks Of Participation: Social Media And Museum Audiences

Lynda Kelly, Australian Museum, Australia, and Angelina Russo, Swinburne Institute of Technology, Australia


Given increasing access to the Internet and the rise of social networking, it is becoming imperative for museums to understand not only who use the Internet, but also how and why they are using it. Previous ways of classifying users typically used demographic data or analysed search and visiting patterns. However, these methods often lack the depth of information needed to understand why people engage in certain behaviours. This paper will explore recent examples of types of on-line participation and classifications, reporting on three recent studies undertaken at the Australian Museum.

Keywords: audience, research, on-line, museums, social media


The increase in Internet use and the rise of social networking has increased the need for museums to understand not only who uses the Internet, but how and why they are using it (Russo et al, 2008). Previous ways of classifying users typically used demographic data or analysed search and visiting patterns. However, these methods often lack the depth of information needed to understand why people engage in certain behaviours. An additional challenge for museums is to consider the relationship between on-line and physical visitors, and what characteristics and behaviours may be shared across both.

This paper will explore recent examples of types of on-line participation and classifications. It reports on three recent studies, undertaken at the Australian Museum, that investigated the impact of on-line visitation, and compares these results to data collected in the US (Li, 2006). Some initial findings regarding the relationship between on-line and physical visitation is also considered. Finally, the paper explores the potential for museums to create networks of participation through social media.


Several ways of classifying on-line visitors have emerged recently. Green and Hannon (2007) investigated how young people understood and employed digital technologies. From their discussions they identified the following four user ‘types’ (p.11):

  1. Digital pioneers [who] were blogging before the phrase was coined;
  2. Creative producers [who] are building web sites, posting movies, photos and music to share with friends, families and beyond;
  3. Everyday communicators [who] are making their lives easier through texting and MSN and
  4. Information gatherers [who] are Google and Wikipedia addicts, ‘cutting and pasting’ as a way of life.

The Forrester Group surveyed 4,556 US youth in October, 2006, and 4,475 US adults in December, 2006, to learn about their social computing technology use (Li, 2006). As a result, users were grouped into six different categories of participation:

  1. 52% were inactive
  2. 33% were spectators (read blogs, watch peer-generated videos and listen to podcasts)
  3. 19% were joiners (use social networking sites)
  4. 15% were collectors (tag web pages)
  5. 19% were critics (comment on blogs, post ratings and reviews)
  6. 13% were creators (publish web pages, publish or maintain a blog, upload video to sites like YouTube).

It was suggested that these categories formed a ladder of participation, with progression from one to the other up the ladder.

Apart from Inactives, these categories have resonance with museums, given the shift to more active engagement with audiences via the tools that Web 2.0 offers. Creators, Critics and Joiners, in particular, present a useful and exciting way for museums to think about the different kinds of on-line audiences they are catering to now and in the future.

In order to both unpack the Forrester findings further and seek more qualitative information, three studies were conducted by the Australian Museum during 2007: an on-line survey of Australians’ Internet behaviour; five focus groups with adults aged 18-30 recruited specifically using the Forrester categories; and a workshop with high school students aged 12-18 years. The aim was to understand users’ motivations and behaviour in more detail in the on-line, as well as physical, context.

What Are Australians Doing On-Line?

An on-line survey of 2,006 participants across eastern Australia was undertaken in November 2007 using a similar set of questions from the Forrester study in order to make some comparisons (Australian Museum, 2008). Respondents were asked about the kinds of on-line activities they had undertaken in the previous month, as well as where they accessed the Internet, and how comfortable they felt with technology; they were also asked to provide some demographic information.

Figure 1 shows the kinds of activities Australians were engaged in over the previous month. Most related to watching videos; reading customer reviews; participating in discussions; and reading blogs.

figure 1

Fig 1: On-line activities Australians are engaged in

Some of the differences between Australians and Americans in specific activities undertaken were that significantly more Australians participated in discussion board/forums (32% compared with 21%) and watched videos (43% compared with 18%). However, the latter could be due to the timing of the study, with the rise in YouTube usage and content over the previous 12 months since the Forrester study was conducted in 2006.

These results were then grouped into the six categories identified by Forrester to compare data across both the Australian and US samples. As shown in Figure 2, the survey revealed that more Australians fell within in the Creator, Critic and Spectator categories, with significantly fewer being Inactive on-line.

Figure 2

Fig 2: Participation: Australian and US data

Museum Visitors And On-Line Behaviour

Are those who interact with museums on-line different from general Internet users? Given the substantial increase in the kinds of on-line experience museums are offering, how do they reconcile their Internet and physical experiences? From 1990-2004, a major telephone survey of Sydney adults was undertaken to understand both the demographic and psychographic profiles of museum visitors to a range of cultural institutions across Sydney, including the Australian Museum, Powerhouse Museum, National Maritime Museum, Art Gallery of NSW, as well as the local zoo and aquarium (Hall, 2005). An analysis of over 13,000 respondents found that those more likely to visit museums agreed with the statement, “I am more interested in abstract ideas”. As the Web may be seen as a place for abstract ideas, could this mean that there may be a link between physical and on-line museum visitors?

In the on-line survey of Australian Internet users, 41% (n=829) reported that they had visited a museum/gallery in the previous six months. The data from this group were separated to compare against the rest of the sample to see if there were any differences in these users’ on-line behaviour (Table 1). The data show that museum/gallery visitors participated at higher levels across all activities. Apart from using social networking sites, statistical tests revealed that these differences were highly significant across all categories.

Activity Total sample (n=2,006) Museum/gallery visitors (n=829)
Watch a video
Use social networking site
Participate in discussion board/forum
Read customer rating/review
Read blogs
Tag Web pages
Listen to podcasts
Use a wiki
Post ratings/reviews
Comment on blogs
Upload video/audio they created
Publish own Web page
Publish/maintain blog
Use RSS feeds

Table 1. Comparison of museum visitors and total sample

These findings have broad implications for museums and their relationships with both their on-line and in-person audiences. The data suggest that not only do those who visit museums participate in more on-line activities; they also engage in activities that are participatory and two-way. This raised the question of whether these visitors may bring those expectations and modes of behaviour and learning to their physical visit. In considering this question, the two in-depth studies undertaken by the Australian Museum provided the opportunity to not only look more closely at the Australian on-line survey findings, but also investigate possible implications for the physical museum experience.

In-Depth Study 1: On-Line Users Aged 18-30 Years

It has long been demonstrated that people aged between 18 and 30 are under-represented among Australian Museum visitors (Australian Museum, 2007). Given the rate of Internet usage across this age group (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2007) it has been suggested that maybe the on-line environment could be one way to engage this group and perhaps entice those living in Sydney to actually visit the Museum through new ways of on-line marketing, promotion and programming. Therefore, the aim of the first in-depth study was to understand more deeply how those aged 18-30 behave on-line.

Five focus groups were held with a range of participants recruited using the Forrester categories (Vivid, 2007). However, when interviewing participants during the recruitment phase it was found that people could be identified as belonging to Creators, Spectators, and Joiners, but not to the Critics or Collectors groups. On reflection, it was decided that Collectors didn’t yet exist in Australia, and that many of the Collector characteristics, such as tagging and bookmarking, formed part of how people manage their on-line lives rather than being ends in themselves. Also, another group emerged, called Commentators, rather than Critics. It was felt that Critic was too strong a label for this typology given that Australians tend not to be comfortable with debate (outside of sports). Also, “commenting” is the most common term given to a collection of random thoughts on a subject, and comments are usually quite brief, so it was felt that this label was more appropriate.

From analysing the transcripts across the groups, overall it was found that the typologies were not mutually exclusive and are often influenced by life stage and personality. Users move in and out of categories depending on their age and personal/social circumstances, as well as on their levels of comfort with using technology. It was also found that people had either a one-dimensional relationship with the Internet, using it as a transaction or information source, or a two-dimensional relationship that was more about participation and exchange. Certain characteristics of each group did emerge as discussed below.


The research showed that Spectators have a one-dimensional relationship with technology. Their key driver is efficiency – the Internet makes their lives easier through activities such as banking, looking up movies, restaurants, etc. They typically don’t spend much time on-line outside of work and study, and tend to have a negative view of technology. In their personal lives, they may have niche interests but not enough knowledge about them and faith in the Internet to use it to feed their passion. Spectators belong to their segment for two main reasons: their relative lack of trust in the Internet, over aspects such as security and content; coupled with a relative lack of interest or passion that they want to share or learn more about.


Joiners utilise the Internet for work, study and general organising of their lives, but are quick to point out that the most important aspect is socialising. The Internet is their social lifeline through sites like Bebo, MySpace and, more recently in Australia, Facebook. It was found that the use of Facebook has become compulsive for many Joiners, who check it many times a day. They also reported that their work, study and general life administration was suffering because of it. Joiners demonstrate a high level of trust in the on-line world and are very optimistic about the potential of technology. Compared with Spectators, their relationship with the Internet is two-dimensional and, although they are more engaged with technology, that engagement is quite shallow, limited primarily to social networking sites as a means to keep in contact with friends and family. Joiners have been swept up in a social movement that is easy to access, fun and rewarding to be a part of. Yet could it be a phase for most users?


In discussions with Commentators, two types of behaviour were uncovered. The first was deliberate – focused around interest areas as a way to maintain and explore their interests and where they will comment in most on-line sessions. The other was spontaneous, where they sporadically commented on anything and anyone, usually because of a negative provocation or experience. The driving force behind Commentators’ Internet usage is a fuel for their passions. Although they use the Web for other functional activities, doing so gives them more time to devote to their passion Web sites. Like Joiners, they have a two-dimensional relationship with the Web; however, they see it as a give and take relationship. They acknowledge the gratification the Internet has provided them and, in turn, feel the need to return the favour. They are comfortable with debate and tend to revisit the same sites rather than explore new ones.


Creators use the Internet as a personal development tool. They are hunters and harvesters of information which they then share with others. Unsurprisingly, they spend the most time on the Web compared with other categories, using the language of addiction to describe their Internet usage. They are trusting of and optimistic about the potential of the Internet, without being naïve. They are typically passionate people, driven to be at the forefront of their passion. They recognise that knowledge equals power and value the importance of being published in order to leave a record of themselves, their opinions and their activities. Overall, it is intellectual rather than social fulfilment that Creators seek on-line.

Significance of These Findings

What do these findings mean for museums, their on-line presence, and their sites for visiting? Some preliminary ideas emerged in discussion of these findings with Museum staff. As Spectators use the Web for information, museums could advertise through information sites such as CitySearch to ensure they are connected to museum events more readily. In this way, museums could collaborate with commercial and not-for-profit organisations to create a trusted network through which audiences could participate in cultural activities. As Joiners are driven by social engagement, museums could promote events through social networking sites. They could provide incentives to promote on-line ‘advocates’ or ‘fans’ to encourage others to participate. Additionally, museums could create on-line community spaces for those with like-minded interests to discuss and debate issues relevant to museum collections and events. As Commentators are driven by somewhat obscure passions and interests, museums could promote their physical offerings through professional or specialist Web sites. They could then cultivate those with interest in their content areas and collections (such as science, the environment, culture, social history and art) to contribute to the museum’s Web site on a deeper level. As the Internet is so much a part of Creators’ lives and is used as a personal development tool, it was felt that they might be the least likely segment to physically visit a museum, yet they have the most potential for on-line engagement as professionals contributing to content.

In-Depth Study 2: Students Aged 12-18 Years

For young people with easy access to technology, the links between social behavior and the knowledge economy are becoming more diffuse. Both Green and Hannon (2006) and Li (2006) argued that the ease and affordability of on-line connection are having a profound effect on social structures and learning, and that peer-to-peer interaction is increasingly being perceived as a source of information - as opposed to some central pedagogue or authority. Young people are learning to use a huge range of digital technologies in their homes and other sites in the community beyond schools, and they also use them differently. For example, a recent report demonstrated that young people make clear distinctions between social sites and news sites, and prefer to access their news via tailored feeds (Vahlberg, Peer and Nesbitt, 2008).

Given that learning through social media and digital resources is increasingly becoming a core function in the learning repertoire of today’s students (Green and Hannon, 2006), it was decided to run an e-Kids’ College with participants from the Coalition of Knowledge Building Schools to investigate how they were using the Web and, in particular, social media. An important component of the research was the search for feedback and advice about how the Museum’s research and collection could be better utilised through digital media to match audience needs and interests.

The Museum has worked with students from the Coalition since 2003 on a variety of audience research projects (Groundwater-Smith and Kelly, 2007). The Coalition consists of around 20 public- and privately-funded schools across New South Wales that have joined together to undertake research across a broad range of topics, specifically related to both school activities and informal learning projects. The schools cover the spectrum of years from Kindergarten (students aged five) to Year 12 (aged 17-18), and as well represent a broad range of socio-economic circumstances and geographic locations.

Twenty-four students from nine schools across New South Wales attended a one-day workshop in November 2007. Students were consulted on a range of issues encompassing their use of digital technologies for leisure and for learning. They undertook a behind-the-scenes tour of the Museum, spoke with a number of scientific staff, and experienced the public areas of the Museum in order to provide feedback about the Museum’s potential for on-line offerings. Prior to their visit the students had interviewed ten of their peers, again using the same questions from the Forrester study, with other aspects included that asked about their general views of the Internet, where they accessed it and how comfortable they felt with technology.

Unsurprisingly, all students reported that they felt totally comfortable with technology in general, giving interesting perspectives about the Internet, for example:

I enjoy using computers and digital technologies to learn because there are so many possibilities and it is a lot more interesting than a pen and paper. But technology can be tricky and break down very easily and it isn’t always reliable. But with technology, almost anything can happen.

Surfing the net is fast, exciting and surprising and different. Without the Internet the world would be bland.

When asked to complete the sentence, “Not being able to access the Web is like not being able to …” respondents likened it to not being able to breathe, live, eat, talk, socialise and get access to water, as well as travel around the world, explore my inner self or broaden my horizon.

One interesting finding was that the students had mixed views about the Museum’s presence on social networking sites such as MySpace and content-sharing sites like YouTube and Flickr. Some felt that it would make the Museum look too “try hard” or “uncool,” and others thought that these sites were primarily for socialising and leisure – they did not associate them with education:

I don’t really see how you can use things like MySpace, YouTube etc. Most people would not even consider watching a video from the museum. I think the best thing to do would be to keep the Museum Web site always up to date and accurate. Make sure it comes up the top of search engines, with actual paging. People never click on the sponsored links.

However, on reflection, several students felt that the Museum could utilise social spaces in a number of unexpected ways; for example; showing movie trailers of upcoming exhibitions and events, and even developing a page for a number of animal species, as a way to promote the Museum’s work in a fun and light-hearted way:

"The Australian Museum should have a trailer and a page about their tours and expedition";      "The Museum could set up a MySpace, with bulletins, to keep contacts up-to-date, set as public;" "For Bebo, have a Bebo bank (make a page just for the Australian Museum)"; and

I think it would be interesting to set up a MySpace type profile for the different specimens, and use this to provide information. It would allow you to make it visually appealing with bright colours, and even movie and music clips. This would appeal to young audiences.

Overall, they felt that content should primarily sit on the Museum’s Web site, for example:

MySpace is more for advertising value than viewing content. Whatever I put out on the Internet, it should be able to all be linked back to the Museum’s Web site for credentials – accuracy and reliability.

In one of the day’s activities, they were asked to answer the question: “If the Museum were a Web site …”. The overall consensus was that the site should be uncluttered, pleasing to look at, advertisement-free, jargon-free, simple and easy to use:

If the museum was a Web site, it could be either boring or fascinating depending on the way that designers approached it. For a younger audience it is crucial to break up the factual information, and present it in an interactive, appealing and creative way. It would be important to have it set up by a representative of the target audience, as ‘second guessing’ often proves inaccurate.

If the Museum was a Web site it would need a variety of ways used to get the message across e.g. videos, pictures, podcasting. It would need to have a dedicated site for younger people, because different target markets respond to different things, so only one type/theme site would not work. Primary, secondary and public would be good because of different reasons for using the site.

They believed that there should be a discussion board where questions could be asked and opinions mooted, games, interactivity, and more personal and informal staff information: [a] “question of the week, where children are able to write in and ask a question, the best question will be chosen and will be posted in a blog, this way people can comment on it”, “An interactive touch screen that would show different types of animals (e.g. marine) and let you design a pattern on the animal”, “Have a link on your Web site called ‘scientists are people too’ and have a character version of a scientist and maybe try and portray their quirky ways”.

These findings resonate with an earlier study that examined students’ and teachers’ needs and wants relating to the Internet generally, and museum Web sites specifically (Kelly and Breault, 2006).

A number of others also made a distinction between visiting the Museum itself and visiting the Museum’s Web site. For example, one student who had participated in previous research projects with the Museum had this to say:

Last time I came here we focused mainly on new technology and we were constantly saying we needed more screens, games and interactive displays, but since then I have been thinking: I can do that at home, I can watch movies, play games etc at home. If I come to the Museum I want to be able to get information, read it and be able to learn from it. It is good to have these things (screens etc) but I guess, like all things, in moderation. The Web site needs to suit all audiences. I got the feeling that you were trying to find out what we want but we are not the only people that use the Museum. A section on the site, with bright colours, games etc could be good, but it is unlikely that the reason we are at a Museum site in the first place is to play the games. We can do that anywhere. If we are there we are probably looking for information of some kind. So it needs to be easy to read and access without being too dry.

When reflecting on the outcomes of this work with the Coalition over the years, participants have suggested that when it comes to designing fantastic physical and on-line museum experiences for young people, the principles are the same and include a range of elements:

  • experiences that encourage discovery, interaction, cater for the unexpected, provide many pathways to explore, give a taste for what happens behind-the-scenes and are fun
  • content that is challenging, real, authoritative, meaningful, encourages questions and is well-organised and easy to navigate
  • staff that can relate to young people, are respectful of their ideas and views, are knowledgeable in their field and are easy to talk to
  • opportunities to socialise, hang out with their friends and learn together.

From Ladders Of Participation To Networks Of Participation Through Social Media

The Forrester report provided useful data and classification tools to determine the ways in which audiences participate in on-line activities. Yet it did little to extrapolate these findings in relation to cultural participation beyond broad genres of interactivity. The Australian data suggested that people who were actively engaged in physical museum visitation tended to be involved in on-line activities that included participation in greater numbers than those who didn’t. Using the Forrester categories to survey the 18-30 year olds resulted in a range of options regarding cultural engagement with visitors both physically and on-line. The work with students demonstrated many similarities between what they wanted from the physical and what they wanted from the on-line museum.

Social media can be used to encourage audiences to respond to museums and relate their experiences back to themselves, to communities of interest and to the museum itself in ways that are meaningful. It is here that the opportunities to create networks of participation through social media can be usefully explored. Recent research by Russo et al (2008) demonstrates how social media facilitate knowledge exchange by taking advantage of ‘network effects’ and creating a new forum through which diverse audiences can participate with museums to explore issues and voice these reflections on-line. Social media are an exceptional platform from which to establish dialogue with and between users, to build relationships with and between audiences, to bring together communities of interest, and to enhance external and internal knowledge sharing. With recent technological changes they are a simple and cost-effective way to enhance and extend audience experience through networks of participation.

Changes to the centrality of collections within museum programs have set the scene for authentic learning through social networking. Social media could be useful in stimulating audience engagement as some of its forms, particularly the newer complex sites such as My Space and Facebook, break down conventions of information sharing. When social media such as blogs, podcasts and wikis are used by museums, they provoke the systems of authority and custodianship which museums have, over history, tried to establish. This has both positive and negative implications. For example, the use of audio tours has recently been deconstructed as individuals offer their own perspectives or audio tours via pod casts or via blogs. In the USA an independent media group, ArtMobs, works with young people to offer a platform through which audiences can upload their own podcasts of their visits to the Museum of Modern Art, New York (MoMA). While supported by the museum, this stand-alone Website provides what ArtMobs describes as ‘unofficial guides’ to museum content. MoMA itself offers a forum through which young people can offer their opinions and experiences in relation to museum content. ‘Talk Back’ encourages young people to ‘…read about what other people have to say about art and share your own opinions’. While these types of ‘youth engagement’ initiatives are increasingly popular in large museums, it is rare to find them extending to reflections and additions to curatorial expertise.

A Pew Internet report found that Wikipedia was far and away the most-accessed on-line reference in the USA (Rainie and Tancer, 2007) because it acknowledges and encourages community voice and collaboration. Groundwater-Smith and Kelly (2003) demonstrated that young people visiting museums are increasingly interested in taking experiences which are relevant and authentic to them and creating experiences which illustrate this engagement to their peers. If this is the case, then museums could operate as hubs of a cultural network and engage communities of interest in conversation, collaboration and co-creation.

As museums attempt to make their collections and expertise more accessible in audience terms, certain concessions to experimentation will need to be made, allowing audiences to express what it is that they value as opposed to being offered a learning environment focused exclusively on institutional views. The challenge for museums is in developing the ability to support multiple representations and critical examinations across that range of public forums they operate within.


For institutions that are not used to responding to technological or social change in short time frames, the challenges of providing on-demand experiences will require some adjustment in the conceptualisation and development of programs. Informal learning environments such as museums are well-positioned to draw people of all ages into their collections by designing interactive experiences which take advantage of the opportunities of social media while introducing specialist knowledge. While museums are not able to compete with commercial leisure activities, there is the potential to enable users to engage in live experiences and accentuate their on-line learning with physical experiences.

The research undertaken at the Australian Museum goes some way to providing evidence of how innovative programs of cultural engagement might be developed and how they might be perceived by both in-person and on-line visitors. The potential for museums to create new types of participation and then evaluate the experiences needs development. Over the next year, as the Australian Museum undertakes a major redevelopment of its Web site, it will trial social media initiatives based on some of the issues identified from the research reported in this paper. These experiments will result in new questions to investigate and generate further discussion.


Australian Bureau of Statistics. (2007). Household use of information technology Australia 2006-07. Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia., 20 January, 2008.

Australian Museum. (2007). Visitor Profile 2005-2007. Sydney: Australian Museum.

Australian Museum. (2008). Australians’ on-line behaviour: a report of survey findings. Sydney: Australian Museum.

Green, H. & C. Hannon (2006). Their Space: Education for a digital generation. London: DEMOS Foundation., 20 January, 2008.

Groundwater-Smith, S., & L. Kelly (2003). As We See It: Improving Learning at the Museum. Paper presented at the British Educational Research Association Conference, Edinburgh.

Groundwater-Smith, S. and L. Kelly (2007). Re-visioning The Digital Environment for Young People At the Australian Museum. Sydney: Australian Museum.

Hall, R. (2005). “The “Museum Constant”: One-third plus or minus a bit”. Visitor Studies Today! 8/2, 4-7.

Kelly, L., and K. Breault (2007). “What makes a good educational website?” In E. Nardi (Ed.), Thinking, evaluating, rethinking: Proceedings from ICOM-CECA 2006 Conference. Rome: Universitie da tre.

Li, C. (2007). Social Technographics. Mapping Participation In Activities Forms The Foundation Of A Social Strategy. Cambridge, MA: Forrester Research.

Rainie, L. and B. Tancer 2007. Data memo: Wikipedia Users. Pew Internet and American Life Project., 20 January, 2008.

Russo, A., J. Watkins, L. Kelly and S. Chan (2008). “Participatory Communication with Social Media”. Curator 51/1, 21-31.

Vahlberg, V., L. Peer and M. Nesbitt (2008). If It Catches My Eye: An Exploration Of On-line News Experiences of Teenagers. Media Management Centre, Northwestern University., 22 January, 2008.

Vivid. (2007). Developing On-line Usage Profiles: A research debrief for the Australian Museum. Sydney: Vivid.

Cite as:

Kelly, L., and A. Russo, From Ladders Of Participation To Networks Of Participation: Social Media And Museum Audiences, in J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds.). Museums and the Web 2008: Proceedings, Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics. Published March 31, 2008. Consulted