Twitter, Museums, and the “Institutional Voice”

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Maria Gilbert of the Getty Museum started an interesting (and, I’m sure, evolving) conversation this morning about institutional “brands” on Twitter. The discussion was sparked, in part, by a recent post from Ari Herzog assessing the Museum of Modern Art‘s own online presence. Twitter, and specifically how to use it in an institutional capacity, has of late been a hot topic at the Met as well, and the time seems right to lay out some of my own thoughts on the subject. Welcome to my New Year’s resolution to write more here at kovenjsmith dot com. Woot.

I think that the process of trying to figure out how to use so-called “social media” platforms like Twitter and Facebook has essentially accelerated the disintegration of what we used to call “the institutional voice”; that single, monolithic, thoroughly-vetted voice that spoke to you, the visitor, from a given museum’s publications, press releases, and Web site. As more and more low- or no-cost publishing platforms have become available over the last decade, we’ve seen an erosion of this single voice, as individuals from institutions are able to publish more quickly without going through a traditional vetting process. The question for museums is then: when that voice is gone, what replaces it?

I find, on Twitter, that institutional or company feeds are always less interesting than personal feeds. They’re informative, to be sure, and often highlight things about a given institution (a work of art, an upcoming program) that I might not have otherwise known, but they lack that certain personal angle that makes for a really good feed.

The problem is that a feed that speaks for an entire museum must, by its very nature, often remove the personal and/or provocative from its tweets in order to appeal to the broadest possible constituency. Therefore, the problem is less “what should we write about?” and more “from what perspective should we write?”

I agree with Tyler Green that the primary focus of a museum feed should be Art, but an institution can’t be as free with its opinions as an individual can be. If an art museum were to say something like “this portrait looks like Billy Dee Williams” in its Twitter feed (and let’s hope that happens), I’d have to wonder, as a follower, whose perspective that is. Does someone in the marketing department think that? Does the curator? An educator? The Web site director? As an institution, then, we’re reduced to posting somewhat bland tweets–daily highlights of works from the collection (something better suited to an “Artwork of the Day” desktop widget), or advertisements about half-price admission days (which probably belong in a marketing newsletter).

However, this problem of perspective goes away if you replace that single feed with a diversity of feeds from your staff.

Think about it. Friendships in the virtual space are not much different from friendships in real space. I’ll never be “friends” with MoMA, no matter how much I may love it as a museum, but I could easily imagine being friends with MoMA’s technology people, its curators, its educators, or its conservators. MoMA The Institution might not feel free to say that a particular work in its collection is sub-par, but a curator on MoMA’s staff might be willing to tweet at length about why that work is sub-par. I may not agree with that perspective, but it’s still an interesting one to read (and potentially joust with as well, via @ replies). As a follower, I’m not engaging with the institution per se, I’m engaging with one of many possible viewpoints from within that institution. This would have the end result of actually connecting me to the institution in a much more powerful (and one would hope, lasting) way.

This doesn’t mean that a single institutional feed has no value. In fact, as Tim O’Reilly points out in a recent post, he finds that his own Twitter feed often works as a kind of switchboard, connecting his followers to individual feeds within O’Reilly Media. One could certainly imagine an institutional feed taking this role, functioning almost as a party host introducing various guests to one another.

Although it seems likely that Twitter is about to break into the mainstream, we’re all still really trying to figure out how best to use it. It’s not a blog, it’s not e-mail, it’s not a Web site–it’s something entirely different that, I believe, has the potential to fundamentally change the way museums interact with their public. In “Remix,” Lawrence Lessig states that “…despite the rhetoric of the content industry, the most valuable contribution to our economy comes from connectivity, not content. Content is the ginger in gingerbread–important, no doubt, but nothing like the most valuable component in the mix…” It will be interesting to see if this will become true for museums as a result of engagement with platforms like Twitter.

_h/t to Joy Garnett (from the Goldwater Library at the Metropolitan Museum of Art) for the Lessig quote._

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