Museums and Social Media – Don’t Forget the International Perspective

Last week I participated in a Twitter chat on what kind of social media training and skills new and emerging museum professional should have.  I was especially interested because during our recent teaching stint in India my co-teacher and I had for the first time worked a number of social media requirements and activities into our course on incorporating the visitor voice into exhibition development. 

Moderated by Erin Blasco @Erinblasco and Amelia Wong @amelialikespie, the chat thread can be found at #musesocial on Twitter, and the Storify summary has been posted.

The discussion was rapid and wide ranging.  At one point, after leaving the chat for about 20 minutes, I returned to find that over 100 tweets had been posted just on #musesocial!  It was hard to catch up and jump in after that – kind of like getting into a double dutch jump rope game – you’ve got to be fast and nimble.  The Storify account confirms that participants agreed on the importance of social media in museum practice today and the need for museum professionals to be familiar with the variety of forms and uses, especially for communicating with colleagues, visitors, and wider audiences. 

There was one element that I felt was missing from the discussion, and I tried to inject it when I left the chat early, but I don’t think it was picked up:  the international implications of the growth of digital technology and social media.   Although the participants were an international group this element did not seem to be articulated and brought to the surface.   In my final tweet I provided a link to the THINK! Newsletter, a monthly aggregation of information on innovative uses of technology throughout the world, particularly the developing world, with links to research papers, surveys, and reports.

  I’m sure that there are many other sources of information on this same topic, e.g. many of the presentations on TED or Edge. The bottom line is that all of us in the field must keep abreast of this growing phenomenon and think of it not as a remote development but as a proximate aspect of our work..

We in the museum field ignore the  global growth of digital technologies and social media at our peril.   

        If we are aware that our words on social media may be read by people all over the world, we may be less likely to make general statements about our work, our beliefs, what is best museum practice- really anything- without framing it as our own perspective and realizing that our generalizations may not pertain everywhere.

       This awareness and openness to other world views in our daily use of technology can lead to more powerful and effective communication with our colleagues and audiences all over the world.

        We need to appreciate the power of (relatively) simple technologies like the cell phone to educate and communicate on a broad scale. As documented on THINK! there are many programs in Asia and Africa right now using text messaging ( or SMS as it is known in many countries) to teach language, math, and a variety of other disciplines to people, especially women and children, in remote and rural areas.  These mobile phones are increasingly becoming smart phones, so that the education and communication potential of these devices will only grow.  What can museums in the West learn from these innovative programs in developing nations?
–    What will be the impact when the usual barriers of a certain social status and education level, still the characteristic of most of our museum visitors, begin to fall away through the use of digital technology? In India I saw street dwellers, teens, cabbies, and many others using or sharing cell phones. What will be the effect of this burgeoning and radical democratization of technology access on cultural as well as other institutions worldwide? I don’t think we’ve seen the full effect yet, and watching other cultures may provide us with valuable information.

Undertanding the global nature of all social media forms, and bringing that to bear on their use, is an important communication skill for all museum professionals – emerging, senior, and all those in between.


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