A long and interesting thread broke out on the Museums Computer Group mailing list today about how museums could use Facebook to their best advantage. As I said on the thread – although the question about how Facebook deals with organisations vs individuals is interesting, the key question to me is what we’re trying to get out of having a presence on social networking sites.
Although I spend a lot of time going on about how we should “just do it” (good tagline, that. Shame it’s been claimed by a global corporation of dubious ethics..), I’m also well aware that museums aren’t immune from the hype curve either. The suggestion we should “do something with Facebook” throughout the thread is terribly reminiscent of many requests I’ve had to “do web 2.0”. The conversation usually goes like this:
Web team office, early morning. Somewhere a phone rings.
Web Team: “good morning, this is your friendly web team. how can I help?”
Important Person, usually somewhere high up in the organisation: “we need a blog/discussion board/wiki/podcast/facebook account/mobile website/[insert other new tech thingy here]”
IP: “because I read an article in the Guardian on Saturday and it’ll improve our productivity/sales/grooviness. Besides, it’s free”
WT: “what do you want to say on your blog/discussion board/wiki/[…you get the picture…] ?”
IP: “why does that matter?”
WT: “who is your audience?”
IP: “the kids, of course. da street. da yoof. innit?”
IP: “right, I’ll hope to see some serious re-alignment of our visitor figures by, say, a week Wednesday. I is expectin’ big fings in da hood. Bitchin’. “
There’s a fine line of course between what I push for – technology growth, user understanding, fast to market, flexible applications – and the Important Person’s vision. This is a subtle game, and one which often causes concerns.
I see it like this:
> the mashup environment is about playing with technology – it is therefore partially technology driven (a bad thing) but also understands and build on content and data from disparate sources in the hope that the thing which pops out at the end is useful (a good thing). It relies on a Darwinian process to determine what works and what doesn’t: if your users like it, they’ll take to it and it’ll succeed.
> the drive to make things happen – the push which I believe museums should be making to be more leading than lagging – should always come out of user centred design. Websites should come from a user need. Ultimately, they should fill a hole in people’s lives. The bitter pill to swallow is that the needs of the institution aren’t always the needs of the user, and that’s where conversations like the one above start to cause pain.
Sometimes the needs of the institution do match (or can be bent so they match) the needs of the end user – this is when the best things happen. Take for example the fabulous English Cut blog – a fascinating look into the otherwise closed world of the Savile Row tailor. Hugh Mcleod helped put this together and he writes wonderfully about the value of the “micro smarter conversation” vs the value of the “macro brand metaphor”.
This is where web teams need to be incredibly savvy about what is out there and how to make this stuff happen. Actually, the conversation above should have a moment where Web Team gets in quickly with “Good plan, Mrs Important Person. How about a personal blog written by X about the way in which we Y”, thereby cutting off any possibility that you’ll “just do it” in the wrong direction with some god-awful corporate nonsense.
So….should museums be on Facebook? Yes, probably, if that presence does something interesting and motivating for users. Should museums be on Facebook just because it’s there? Obviously not.