I was an early convert to Twitter, and I’ve been tweeting since before 90% of other users set up an account. I joined in 2009 after a year’s urging by a local madman interested in hyper local news, and I signed up just before the Balloon Boy incident, a news story involving a lost child, a soaring homemade balloon, and a pair of loathsome parents hungry for media attention. Balloon Boy sold me on Twitter when someone tweeted from the scene that the boy had been found hiding. Five minutes later, CNN told the world.
When I ran a small art museum almost a decade ago, there was no Twitter. There was no Facebook. There was only our website, press releases, and word on the street. To update our website involved emailing our webmistress a request to update the site, her getting around to it, and no one’s knowing quite what impact that would have. Press releases were another thing altogether. In spite of the demonstrated, consistent interest in arts and culture, no newspaper does a very good job with arts and culture, and we send our press releases to an industry that more than any other is confined to antiquated models of success and has suffered from an inability to change. Word on the street was even more sketchy than our website or press releases. Sometimes in my more poetic moments, I imagine what I would have done with social media had it been at my fingertips in 2002.
On Saturday, January 4 I chimed in to a question from @ExtrovertedMuse about Twitter, museum retweets, and advocacy. My morning was mostly making breakfast for two children and keeping them from fighting, but there was enough meat on the bones of the conversation to keep me thinking about it all day.
These important points emerged:
1. Tweeting or retweeting museum content is a kind of advocacy, simply a small part of it.
2. Museums are resistant to tweeting content from other museums.
3. Most museum planning processes fail to embrace and include social media or advocacy.
Tweeting is a kind of advocacy, and it is a small part of what advocacy is and a small part of what a museum should be doing in promoting its programs and its place in a community. Using Twitter can be a simple reminder to people that a museum is in their midst. Museums are incredibly diverse and complex, and the 140 character limit can break down museum jargon to something a normal person can read. Tweeting well is a skill; a good tweet requires an economical use of words that keeps it simple. Advocacy is simply telling people what you do. It is telling people what you do simply. Twitter will do that.
Advocacy is a difficult charge for museums. Advocacy is a movement from inside the museum field from activists worried about the future of museums. Advocacy is telling those outside of museums what is going on to boost support for museums across the board. Very few museums have advocacy as part of their mission or even as part of the job description for their director. When museum associations like mine urge members to participate in advocacy, we run into a slew of problems. Advocacy doesn’t seem to be mission related. It is not in the director’s job description. It is not as comfortable to do as the research, exhibit, or program that is consuming a particular person’s time. It could be a little too political (but I assure you it is not). It may even be assumed that statewide, regional, and national museum associations will, as membership in these associations suggest, automatically produce an advocacy effort. These obstacles and assumptions leave museums empty at the newsstand, in government budgets, and, quite literally, empty.
Museums’ resistance to use social media for advocacy or at all to its greatest influence is another daunting obstacle. Slow to change, some museums see social media as a free way to self promote, and they find out that it isn’t free. It takes thoughtful staff time to engage in social media, and in a time of shrinking budgets and belt-tightening, social media also remains outside the comfort zone of directors, board members, and typical corporate communications structures. A rather well-run museum may have trouble creating a quick, engaging strategy for these communications without the leadership to support it and alienate the converts in the ranks who see Twitter as one of the last raging, exciting, free places on the internet.
Museums tweet what they are doing but too seldom retweet what another museum is doing, even one on the other side of the country in no direct competition for visitors or attention. Museums seldom stretch to tweet about what is going on in the field of museums. Museums seldom retweet content from other museums’ accounts or pass along advocacy messages from associations or other advocates.
Sometimes museums will interact when an organized effort is at hand with a relevant hashtag like #askacurator on a special day, but we not see “Break a leg!” tweeted colleague to colleague about a new exhibition’s opening. Every museum has the potential to link to another. There are endless opportunities to showcase one museum’s collection that relates to a major opening at another. Museums on Twitter often seem to exist only for themselves in a desperate attempt to self promote, and the field suffers from its own failure to make connections, museum to museum, museum to field, and museum to visitor.
Most museums have not taken as much time to plan in any area as may be ideal. No one can spend all of their time planning. The last thing anyone worries about is advocacy; this shortcoming shows itself again and again in communications. Museum people, almost in spite of the great stories museum collections have the potential to tell, hesitate to share what they know with the people in the galleries or in positions to establish policies that could secure the stability of museums for future generations.
Planning takes the same kind of staff time away from operations that advocacy does, but museums do tend to engage in planning as a pre-requisite for funding or simply to give shape to their forward momentum. The time is ripe for museum planners to examine how an institution will handle its communications, participate in advocacy, and do both exceedingly well with some simplicity. Twenty years ago it was mail. Ten years ago it was email. Yesterday it was Facebook. Today it is Twitter. There will be many people still paying attention to Facebook and Twitter tomorrow. The day after tomorrow it will be something else, and it is our delusion of grandeur to assume that important people are paying attention or that anyone is listening at all.