If you’re pondering new audiences for science centers, there’s nothing like watching a guy with a green face and a black cape dancing next to a ferrofluid piano exhibit to expand your thinking.
On YouTube, the man in the cape is a video blogger from Pennsylvania who hosts something called “The Mo Show.” But at the opening night party for the 888TorontoMeetup (888) at the Ontario Science Centre (OSC), Toronto, he became the physical embodiment (and quite an embodiment it was) of a virtual community.
When we first began uploading to YouTube in 2006, our objective was to explore opportunities for engaging people with science and technology in an emerging social media space where millions were creating, sharing and responding to each other’s work. From a single video-sharing site, our experiment has grown to uploading videos to 19 different sites – from Atom Uploads, to Exposure CBC, to Yahoo! Canada Video – and more than 5 million views of more than 340 OSC-produced videos.
The idea for meetups came from YouTube itself. Significant meetups have been held so far in cities from San Francisco to New York, to Atlanta, to Chicago.
The meetup we held at the Science Centre on August 8, 2008 (the 888 Toronto Meetup) drew participants from as far afield as Australia, Argentina, the UK and the US, but also drew a large, and youthful, local contingent. To our knowledge it was the first meetup held at and organized by a science museum, and the largest to date, with more than 460 participants.
Some 460 YouTubers – from as far away as Argentina, Australia, and the United Kingdom, and as nearby as the couple from two blocks over who’d never visited the OSC before – attended on August 8, 2008. Previous research (Alexander et al., 2008) strongly suggests that having a video-content presence on YouTube is not enough on its own to drive traffic, physical or virtual, to a museum. And there’s convincing evidence (Bernstein, 2008) to suggest that visitor-created content can be more compelling, and fit better with the dynamic of the YouTube community, than content produced by the museum alone. Our experience of 888 resonates with these findings, and suggests that it’s worth exploring further meetups – and meetup collaborations among museums – to engage new audiences in new ways.
Why a Meetup?
When the OSC began posting videos on YouTube in October 2006, our idea was to explore opportunities for engaging people with science in an emerging on-line space where millions were creating, sharing, and responding to each other’s work. Since then, the influence of that emerging online space on both on-line culture and the world beyond the Web has only grown more profound. An increasing portion of the 10 hours of video uploaded every minute of every day to YouTube is focused on “unfiltered” news and politics (Grove, 2008), producing a double-echo chamber of Web-produced content getting aired on mainstream TV and fleeting mainstream TV moments getting an extended life through redistribution on on-line channels – with activists everywhere recognizing citizen-produced, Web-distributed video as the ultimate testimony (Naim, 2007). Educators are increasingly looking to YouTube’s potential as both a tool for publicizing research and an on-line video archive with thousands of hours of footage for use in lectures (Micolich, 2008). Little wonder that YouTube has evolved beyond its origins as a video hosting and sharing site to become a bona fide search tool (Helft, 2009). In November 2008, the 146 million Americans who watched videos on-line conducted nearly 2.8 billion searches on YouTube, about 200 million more than on Yahoo – long ranked the No. 2 search engine after Google. Americans viewed 34% more on-line videos in November 2008 compared to a year ago (www.comscore.com/press/release.asp?press=2660).
For our part, we’ve amassed more than 5 million views of OSC-produced videos on 19 different video-sharing sites, with YouTube owning the lion’s share of our video traffic.
But we’ve had nagging questions.
How could all this on-line activity drive physical visits and deeper engagements at, and with, our science center? How could we become a catalyst and partner in the rapidly-evolving social media activities of our publics?
YouTube itself suggested an answer in the spontaneous emergence of user gatherings in 2007. Meetups held in cities from San Francisco to New York to Atlanta to Chicago inspired audiovisual designer Kathy Nicholaichuk – who as “videochick770” is the chief YouTube persona of the OSC – to create a meetup channel around which a community quickly coalesced. (http://ca.youtube.com/888torontomeetup).
The personal relationships formed between videochick770 and other YouTubers from around the world were key to making 888 happen. The group used Web 2.0 tools such as Facebook, Twitter, and Flickr to collectively communicate about and assist in organizing 888, before, during and after the event. A Stickam feed during the kick-off party streamed live video, enabling others from around the world who couldn’t attend to talk to the YouTubers on our floor. Within the OSC, the branding issues inherent in investing the Centre’s identity in individual staffers who might leave or not fully represent institutional goals are the subject of serious debate. But to quote Shelley Bernstein of the Brooklyn 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.
Yet with all the personal relationships and shared community effort, hosting 888 wasn’t simple or cheap. We calculated the cost to pull it all together – including staff time in the months before the event working with the YouTube community – at more than $43,000 CAD, or about $95 per attendee. The effort required coordination across the Science Centre: from the hiring of a DJ and paid-duty police officers to check bags at the meetup kick-off party, to media promotion, audio-visual support and hosts to interact with and do science demos for meetup participants. So we’ve been asking ourselves a few questions.
Who Came and What Did They Do?
Half the 132 attendees we surveyed at the kick-off party were under 19, and most were local. (We suspect the total proportion of international visitors, and visitors older than 19, was higher than shown in the survey, with many skipping the official evening kick-off party to get together in smaller groups.) More than a third of those surveyed had never visited the OSC, and about two-thirds came with friends or family. YouTube itself, along with word-of-mouth, was the overwhelmingly dominant source of information about the event for participants.
We estimate at least 1,000 videos were produced around the event (http://ca.youtube.com/user/888archive), which featured performances by famous and not-so-famous YouTubers, along with a free run of our exhibit floor for those who pre-registered. We analyzed 100 videos in detail: 70 were “social,” featuring purely personal interactions and reflections of participants, and 29 were “marketing/promotional,” prominently featuring the OSC and its offerings. One video – a nine-minute meditation on culture, community, and technology selected for YouTube’s “education” category – fit a remaining category we called “science communication.”
Clearly, meetup participants were first and foremost interested in each other. The OSC was the context, not the star. Videos that showcased the meetup-as-party/science center-as-party-place positioned us as a cool place for young adults to hang out, and that’s an audience we’d like to grow. How does that image fit with our core audiences? (In our case, that’s families with kids.) Savvy on-line visitors may be able to distinguish between the different contexts of different audiences, but that’s still a question any science center, museum or art gallery considering holding a meetup should ask – and given YouTube’s ubiquitous reach, a meetup could be considered no matter where you are.
What’s the Impact?
We estimate print, radio, and TV coverage of the 888 event reached a potential audience of more than 2.3 million. Does this constitute cheap marketing? The question is more complex than it might first appear. Viewed through the marketing metric of CPM (cost per thousand impressions), the meetup was not cost effective – in fact, the OSC could have purchased advertising inserts in a Toronto commuter newspaper for around half the CPM we “paid” in staff costs and other support for the coverage we gained of the event. And while YouTube video views of the event will continue to increase over time, growing in hard-to-predict ways based on video responses created after the fact, that traffic is not “geo-targeted”. From an attendance/revenue perspective, a family in north Toronto has a higher value for us than an 18-year-old in Taipei checking us out on-line.
On the other hand, we know the youth audience attracted by 888 is not attracted by our traditional advertising or offerings. What’s the “right” price for a science center to pay to attract, and potentially retain, a new teen or 20-something visitor? The question remains open.
Meanwhile, the 100 videos we analyzed had drawn more than 880,000 views and 13,800 comments within a few weeks of 888. Feedback from participants themselves was overwhelmingly positive - a few said it changed their lives forever.
“The best time of my life !!... I will never forget it.” – bugsinrug
“It was great being a part of history” – TinyDancer500
"Thank you for all your hard planning and even for the IDEA of holding a first Canadian You Tube gathering! Great that it was at the Science Centre too....I hadn't been there in years." – Baybea
Further, we’ve observed that newbie YouTubers, especially teens, rapidly develop video skills as they look for better ways to create and communicate. They explore technology and they innovate. Those are exactly the kind of skills, attitudes, and behaviors we’re trying to grow in our visitors.
Young, social media-savvy visitors are future movers and shakers who will lead and support science centers, museums and galleries (or not, depending on our perceived relevance). We want to engage this group – being a meeting place is a start.
Perhaps the most frequently asked question at 888 was: what about 999? The desire for continued connection between the participants was, and is, palpable. But we don’t think a simple sequel in Toronto would cut it – for participants, or for the OSC. With the novelty factor of simply hosting a meetup past, we believe future meetups should take us into new territory. We’re examining ways to attract young YouTubers to participate in ongoing Friday night programs for teens at the OSC. And we’re exploring the idea of collectively creating the first globally networked meetup, hosted at multiple locations and institutions. (You can join the conversation at: http://ca.youtube.com/user/999globalevent.) Those who participate will be heeding the call for the risk-taking “suck it and see” attitude towards Web 2.0 called for by Gail Durbin of the Victoria and Albert Museum (Durbin, 2008), supported by the learning theories cited by David Greenfield of Loyola Marymount University (Greenfield, 2008) in which communities of learners create narratives to assist their learning:
Empowering individuals to create and share their narratives fosters a greater involvement in museums by the global community and can only assist us as museum professionals to continue creatively to do our work.
Finally, YouTubers form one on-line community that offers a physical fit for museums, but they’re by no means the only one. Who are your local alpha bloggers? What on-line hobby groups fit your exhibit offerings? Does your town have a critical mass of artists or photographers who’d find it intriguing to blur the lines between art, technology, and science at an informal meetup event – with an associated wiki and Flickr group?
Museum consultant Nina Simon, who followed the development of 888 on-line, nails this concept in a recent blog post titled “New Models for Community Partnerships: Museums Hosting Meetups” (http://www.museumtwo.blogspot.com), and in the spirit of valuing the virtual, she’ll get the last word:
People who engage deeply in any online community, whether a bulletin board or social networking site, want to meet in person. Right now, they are primarily meeting in commercial spaces – restaurants and bars – which benefit from their business and their buzz. If museums get involved in these online-offline partnerships, we can bring new audiences through our doors, familiarize them with museum-going in a comfortable way, and reap the benefits of their online musings about their real-life experiences.
Alexander, C., et al. (2008). “Beyond Launch: Museum Videos on YouTube”. In J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds). Museums and the Web 2008: Proceedings. Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics. Published March 31, 2008. Consulted January 25, 2009. http://www.archimuse.com/mw2008/papers/hart/hart.html
Bernstein, S. (2008). “Where Do We Go From Here? Continuing with Web 2.0 at the Brooklyn Museum”. In J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds). Museums and the Web 2008: Proceedings. Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics. Published March 31, 2008. Consulted January 25, 2009. http://www.archimuse.com/mw2008/papers/bernstein/bernstein.html
Durbin, G. (2008). “Just Do It! Web 2.0 As Task, Not Technology”. In J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds). Museums and the Web 2008: Proceedings. Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics. Published March 31, 2008. Consulted January 18, 2009. http://www.archimuse.com/mw2008/papers/durbin/durbin.html
Greenfield, D. (2008). “YouTube to MuseTube – Now We Have Web 2.0 tools, How do We Use Them?” In J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds). Museums and the Web 2008: Proceedings. Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics. Published March 31, 2008. Consulted January 18, 2009. http://www.archimuse.com/mw2008/papers/greenfield/greenfield.html
Grove, Steve (2008). “YouTube: the flattening of politics”. Nieman Reports, Summer 2008.
Helft, Miguel (2009). “At first, funny videos. Now, a reference tool”. New York Times, January 17, 2009, p. BU4.
Micolich, A.P. (2008). “The latent potential of YouTube – will it become the 21st century lecturer’s film archive?” CAL-laborate International 16, October 2008.
Naim, M. (2007). “The YouTube effect: how a technology for teenagers became a force for political and economic change”. Foreign Policy 158, January/February 2007: 104 (2).