Skip to main content

Museums and the Web

An annual conference exploring the social, cultural, design, technological, economic, and organizational issues of culture, science and heritage on-line.

Social Media Tactics for Culture Projects: Lessons from the Heritage at Play Project

Colleen Brogan and Zachary McCune, Heritage at Play, USA


With the rise of the digital humanities, scholars are reconsidering how research can be done, shared, and experienced through new media technologies. But far too often, these approaches result in titanic, one-off media objects (such as interactive exhibits or databases) that fail to present scholarship in its true form: as a process. Documenting the process of production is something common in the art world, but generally avoided by scholars in favor of finished projects that seem to develop ex nihilo. Over the summer of 2010, Colleen Brogan and Zachary McCune traveled to Ireland to produce a documentary on the cultural life of Gaelic Games. They documented their process using several social media platforms, including Twitter, YouTube, Vimeo, Google Maps, and WordPress. This experiential documentation of scholarly process through social media doubled as a form of promotion and real-time project critique, informing the duo's research and humanizing the task of digital humanities work.

Keywords: media production, open source, open educational resources, documentary, sports & society

1. Motivation: why sports? Why us?

Basketball in China. Cricket in India. Baseball in Latin America: sports have long been part and parcel of colonization. In a globalized world which worships the World Cup and the Olympic Games, shared global sports are seen as preferable to local alternatives. But what is lost in selecting 'universal' games over indigenous ones? Are sports important to cultural and social heritages? Or are they free to be reassigned and replaced? Fifty years before the Irish Free State was declared, an association was developed to preserve indigenous Irish sports. Games formerly outlawed by the British government, domestic pastimes such as hurling and Gaelic football, were re-established as part of the broader Irish renaissance movement. After they were taken from the fringe of extinction, participation in these sports became a new type of patriotism, a new venue or nationalism, a new space to perform Irish-ness. Today, Irish sports are broadcast around the world on global satellite networks. With Irish pubs part of an endless Irish Diaspora, these televised sporting events mark a local Irish pastime made international, though they will never rival American professional leagues or Olympic sports. These Gaelic games present an opportunity to understand Ireland's dedication to preserving its own culture in the face of globalization, as it did in the face of colonization. But there is an odd disjuncture. Of 80 million people worldwide who claim Irish descent, half are American citizens and few have ever heard of these sports.

Heritage at Play, a documentary project responding to this line of inquiry, started with three basic goals:

  • to investigate the importance of sports to Irish indigenous culture, history, and character
  • to resolve questions of the value of local sports in the larger field of globalized sports entertainment, and sports as the international 'even playing field'
  • to document and share evidence of the state of Irish indigenous sports today

The project was sponsored by AT&T and the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University. It was created and developed by media producers Zachary McCune and Colleen Brogan, two Irish-American filmmakers fresh from media and visual culture programs at Brown University. Apart from indulging a voracious interest in Irish history and culture, the duo hope to explore new and more engaging documentary forms in the course of Heritage at Play.

2. Technology and methodology: specific strategies

The success of Heritage at Play hinged on the documentation of the team's cultural investigation through social media. Describing this approach as 'intermedia', the team employed various Web technologies and media formats to create comprehensive, accessible, and multi-layered content throughout the process of the project. This was partly invited by the AT&T Fellowship, which challenged us to be 'New Media Fellows', but also a direct expression of seeing the growing power of ubiquitous social media. By maintaining a WordPress blog, an active Twitter account, and a video Web series hosted on Vimeo (and later YouTube), we capitalized on social media outlets to build a community around the project. Individuals and institutions from both direct interest groups (such as Irish-American heritage societies) and incidental followers (often the broader community of users/participants within social media networks) evolved into steady, active supporters. The relationship between Heritage at Play and these followers was characterized by interaction and exchange. As supporters found that the content would be consistent, regularly updated, original, and engaging, they began responding to Heritage at Play's theoretical questions and influencing subsequent media production by asking new questions and suggesting new lines of inquiry.

What is a documentary for? What kind of cultural work does it do? As graduating students, our first responses to these sorts of questions were taken from thinking about the documentary as a form of filmic essay: an exposition by way of showing things, not simply telling them. We wanted to document, in the sense of both capturing and revealing, cultural and heritage processes that could be expressed better audio-visually than in written and read prose. But why stop there? Or, to ask the question in another way, why forego the new spaces of 'networked publics' to use danah boyd's term for social network sites, where people are now congregating, interacting, consuming and yes, producing (boyd, 2007)?

These spaces have low barriers to entry. They use cheap and ubiquitous technology to share culture in new ways. They allow iterations- serial developments and sequences. In that alone, social media allowed us to present our project as a real-time process. We did not hide our work until its completion (the romance of the personal, closed workshop): social media offered a place to present content as it emerged and crystallized. And being what has been called 'digital natives', working with and through these technologies felt natural (Palfrey & Gasser, 2008). Using social media, we began re-imagining the documentary as a constellation of media (photos, videos, long blog writing and short tweets) networked together into the 'stuff' of Heritage at Play. This is what we call 'intermedia.'

Rethinking the role and focus of documentary media continued throughout the project. While we began with an interest in 'open sourcing' our documentary process, and thereby making the process a part of our final product, we were often confronted by alternatives - including hard-line convention. Meeting another documentary filmmaker in Ireland who was living with a hurling team and documenting their experience for several weeks to fulfill requirements for a master's degree, we came face to face with the traditional conceptions of the documentary filmmaker, marking out starkly how what we were creating a very different form of documentation. The traditional documentary filmmaker works in near solitude: a fly on the wall of experience, a passive expert in the field who seeks an unutterable truth about a topic and only shares finds after careful editing of a final product. This takes out all evidence of the learning curve present in all documentary projects, including mistakes, ideas, hunches, intuitions, difficult questions, human experience and discovery on the part of the filmmaker/documentarian.

Heritage at Play's methodology was in many ways the reverse: to share more steps of documentary discovery and development with a 21st century audience by the means of 21st century communication tools. Utilizing Twitter, WordPress, Vimeo, Youtube,, Scribd, etc, the team worked hard to promote the project, serve the community following the project, and pay extra attention to voice and tone while writing for the Web, not to assume a pre-knowledge or mastery of Irish sports among their viewers, and to welcome diverse viewers, everyone from informal learners to dedicated Gaelic games athletes. Throughout the span of 4 weeks in Ireland, Heritage at Play produced 50 blog posts, 9 webisode 'Broadcast from Ireland' videos, 3 Scribd documents, 2-5 Twitter updates a day, an interactive Google Map, and, ultimately, a 32-minute documentary film called "Playing Irish".

It was important of course to use our 'intermedia' as a base of work and media that directly engaged our process and informed our project goals. Sequences first put together in the webisodes were re-used as parts of the final documentary. Other sequences were re-edited to put later content in conversation with earlier work, presenting social media as a way of mapping ideas for future use.

But our "intermedia" also supplemented our specific goals by sketching the grander context of Irish history, politics, and contemporary news in which we hoped our supporters could consider the questions of Heritage at Play. This meant that even subjects and events on the periphery of our project's interests could be shared and reflected on. Posts might take on the way that Gaelic games are televised or how counties are represented by traditional color schemes (, 2010). In two long posts that drew many comments, Zack reflected on the complexities of Irish-American heritage that Ireland as a real nation rather than an imagined site presents, 2010). Also, highly relevant when we look back on the project, are the telling signs of an economy in danger. The documentary film ends with a quote by Cloghan's town butcher, Gary Daly, "With no money to throw away, basically, you come back to the GAA"( The film was completed more than three months before the IMF bailout of Ireland.

As a set of networked objects, Heritage at Play content was thus always interconnected, constructing an abstraction of the entire project best imagined as a sort of constellation. Ideas moved between media objects (videos showcased on the blog, tweets sharing links to posts, videos referencing back to the blog, and so on) and between our experiences of Ireland itself (news, adventures, interviews, games attended, etc.) In the age of the network, perusing cultural inquiry by producing a network seems most fitting.

3. Documentary media in cultural institutions today

The value of documentary media in cultural institutions is changing. No longer are video and audio recordings just about archiving important events. Media material is being produced for its social qualities and capabilities, its power to promote, educate, and communicate with the public and foster a sense of community. A recent Architecture and Design exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, NY, called Small Scale, Big Change: Architecture as Social Engagement included scale models, architectural plans, drawings, ephemera from building sites, and videos - produced to deepen visitors understanding of the impact of two of the buildings in the show, one an urban arts center in Los Angeles, and another a school in Burkina Faso (MoMA, 2010). The videos are not the focus of the show, but convey information about each building -vital details that are difficult to convey in physical objects and artifacts: how the building projects impact and affect human experience in their community. Videos have the incredible power to convey complex ideas through simple means, or take something that looks simple and show its complexity. A perfect example: the documentary film showing in the Tate Modern in London about Ai Weiwei's community and production of the Sunflower Seeds piece in the atrium (Tate, 2010). What at first seems like an endless pile of sunflower seeds takes on new metaphors and value when you see the context and texture of its production.

While these videos convey community and impact, and can be shared by social means, other forms of social media production are sites of experimentation, education, and curatorial and monetizing efforts by cultural institutions. Ask a Curator day on Twitter had the optimistic ambition of opening up a dialogue with curators and the masses--fighting off spammers and hackers, the event was successful in starting an online, international dialogue, but Twitter's character limit left conversations unfinished, interrupted, and a little incomplete. Twitter as a site of community and reputable exchange was validated in April 2010 when the Library of Congress announced an initiative to preserve all of Twitter's archives (Library of Congress, 2010). Why? Because Twitter is not just a fleeting trend or fad, but reflects culture, economics, politics, and social communities - and the record is a valuable resource.

When cultural institutions allow themselves to produce various forms of digital media, as many now do, they put forward the necessary conditions for developing 'intermedia' strategies for their projects. A good example of this comes from the Berkman Center for Internet & Society's "Berkman @ 10" conference. Celebrating ten years of research on the Internet and society, while also interrogating the conference's theme, "The Future of the Internet," the conference represented a wide range of content, questions and activities loosely bound together (Berkman, 2008). But with a commitment towards using various media formats (flickr, YouTube, Twitter, audio, and blog posts included), Berkman had all the ingredients for an 'intermedia' project. These were later rendered visibly connected by an interactive interface developed by the Bestiario company which allowed dynamic navigation through visible networks of media nodes (Bestiario, 2008). This interface bound an otherwise overwhelming data set together and made the conference legible as both a process and a product. As an assistant to this project at the Berkman Center, Zack saw first hand the power of such an approach.

There are so many examples and explorations, but to contextualize Heritage at Play and look back on our process, we are still convinced that there is a certain value to multimedia, 'intermedia' production serving a community of informal learners and interested, knowledgeable parties with careful consideration of language, focus, promotion, and production.

4. The Heritage at Play approach

The Heritage at Play approach was simple: We created a complete weave of content based on self-promoting and accessing communities in different social networks. This required patience and a lot of repetition on our parts, but to the user this made the project more thorough, present, and accessible. We averaged a post of 3-5 tweets a day on the @HeritageatPlay twitter, 1 blog post a day, 1 "Broadcast from Ireland" 3-5 minute video on our progress every 3 days, and cross-postings of videos on Vimeo and Youtube, blog posts on the Watson "Global Conversation" blog, and tweets re-tweeted by our friends, followers, and our personal twitter accounts. Constant, predictable schedules and dialogue with our followers were important: we developed a very active community around the blog and the videos, actively addressing and following up with our followers and our participants in the project.

Writing for the Web and writing for our audience became a learning process: we did some close evaluation of our followers and found that the majority had previous knowledge and fluency in Gaelic games, and we had many repeat followers, so felt comfortable building our story rather than recapping. Written content that was accessible and understandable to a variety of users without much pre-existing knowledge was important to the project. While an educational component was not the main focus, we were not a marketing agency for the GAA or a history documentary. This was about translating experience and culture, and in part we were developing an Open Educational Resource (OER), producing 'how-to' videos on playing the Gaelic games hurling and Gaelic football, and keeping all of our materials Creative Commons licensed. We finished the project with a film premiere in Newport, Rhode Island. It had a small attendance, but many who had heard of Gaelic games were from Ireland, or were already following the project. One Irishwoman in the crowd said we had captured "the entire ethos" of Gaelic games and what they mean to the Irish. Our fears of misjudging or misrepresenting the games and their value was diminished.

5. Evaluation/ Next Steps

The 'intermedia' documentary style was a success - in total there were almost 5,000 hits on the blog during the project, a remarkable achievement given the lack of conventional promotion and attention (no newspaper articles, no television time, no advertisements). We had active followers who participated in discussions and offered advice, encouragement, and re-tweets. We're confident to say that more multi-platform, relatable, and accessible content on platforms that reflect the online life of the 21st century user are the future of cultural production and culture audiences. The 'how-to' videos on Gaelic football and hurling are unprecedented and continue to get a steady stream of hits, leading us to believe that the 21st century Web user is an informal learner, piqued by an interest in learning something as opposed to being sold something.

6. Conclusions and Future Work

Gaelic games were a great topic for an 'intermedia' project, but we know the method could be adapted to many different topics, sports, and cultural events. We have been approached about featuring the project on a television station and hope to build off the template, the Heritage at Play approach, and serve many other cultural institutions and events in the future. We are optimistic and interested in pairing with cultural institutions, sports teams, arts and education resources, to produce educational, community-focused content with our style of process and discovery. We are interested in building off the 'web-series' and 'webispodes' approach and know it could be useful. The entire Heritage at Play project was funded with $5,400 total. We know that media production is often seen as expensive and time-consuming, but we hope this approach and this story will inspire cultural institutions and individuals to produce engaging educational content for the Web.

7. Acknowledgements

Thank you to AT&T, Watson Institute for International Studies, Ray Bell, Ciaran Goen, Ian Russell, Ipek Tureli, Steven Lubar, Geoffrey Kirkman, Karen Lynch, Rosanna Flouty, Tom Potts, Ross O'Carroll, St. Rynagh's GAA Football Club, The Brogan Family, Gail and Grady Sullivan-McCune, Tom Rodelli, Lucy Seyfarth, Dave Gagnon, Lise Rahdert, Pat Ambrus, Lindsy Ray, Kylie, and Joyce Copland for your support throughout the project.

8. References

Berkman. (2007-2008). Berkman @ 10. 2008, last updated 22-Dec-2008. Consulted January 31, 2011.

Bestiario. (2008). Bestiario, 2008, last updated Dec-2008. Consulted January 31, 2011.

boyd, danah (2007). "Why Youth (Heart) Social Network Sites: The Role of Networked Publics in Teenage Social Life." MacArthur Foundation Series on Digital Learning - Youth, Identity, and Digital Media Volume (ed. David Buckingham). MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.

Brogan, C. and Z. McCune (2010). On Being Irish-American (Part One), 2010. Last updated 07-Jul-2010. Consulted January 16, 2011.

Brogan, C. and Z. McCune (2010). The Sunday Game: The GAA in Media, 2010. Last Updated 12 July 2010. Consulted January 29, 2011

Brogan, C. and Z. McCune (2010). Colors of the Counties, 2010. Last updated 9 July 2010. Consulted January 30, 2011.

Library of Congress (2010). Twitter Donates Entire Tweet Archive to Library of Congress. 15 April 2010. Consulted January 29, 2011.

Museum of Modern Art (2010). Small Scale Big Change: Architecture as Social Engagement. 3-Oct-2010. Consulted January 29, 2011.

Palfrey, John. & Urs Gasser (2008). Born Digital: Understanding the first generation of Digital Natives. New York: Basic Books.

Tate Modern, (2010). The Unilever Series: Ai Weiwei. 12-Oct- 2010. Consulted January 16, 2011.

Cite as:

Brogan, C. and Z McCune, Social Media Tactics for Culture Projects: Lessons from the Heritage at Play Project. In J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds). Museums and the Web 2011: Proceedings. Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics. Published March 31, 2011. Consulted