I'm just off the plane from snowy Montreal, where this year's Museums and the Web conference was held and where discussions centered on the use of Web 2.0. Chances are if you're reading SITES' blog, you're already quite familiar with the uses (and misuses) of this newish technology. Blogs, wikis, Flickr, social networking, YouTube--these are the buzz words for the Web 2.0 generation. But how do we use these platforms (wisely)? Should museums/cultural institutions care? Should we be afraid of losing control of vetted, academic content?
Yes, we should care. Non-profits are often are the last to jump on the technology bandwagon, yet this is one case where we should embrace what's out there. Web 2.0 has great potential for museums, encouraging more active, more meaningful visitor participation--a tangible means of getting visitors hooked and thinking after they walk out the museum's doors. Still, it's not entirely self-serving. People get something out of contributing, whether a photo on Flickr or content that's been shared on a museum wiki, there's a satisfaction in making connections with like-minded individuals, in knowing that curators may be shaking their heads and saying, "Well, I never thought of it that way."
A handful of folks admitted that you just have to change your plan-everything-years-in-advance attitude and see what happens. You don't know where the content/commentary will go until it's up there. Gail Durbin of the Victoria & Albert Museum in the UK was a big advocate for this kind of "learning by experiment" as were others who admitted you just have to wait, watch, and wonder how your project will evolve.It's a very organic process.You have to let it flower and just continue to trim back the dead blooms.
That leads us to the second question. Should we be afraid of losing control? I heard this particular comment from all the leading museums. "We want to use x,y,z technology, but we're apprehensive about blurring the line between our well-researched materials and unsubstantiated 'facts' from the public." Some participants insisted that you should visually establish a clear distinction. Perhaps there's obvious "official" information in one area and more dynamic, user-generated content in another. Remember, you can moderate commentary. You can offer a policy that indicates what is legitimate and what will be removed.
What about not-so-complimentary feedback? Don't worry about Negative Nancy, who tells you that your exhibition brochure wasn't worth the paper it was printed on. The great thing about a loyal social network is that the group will often come to your defense. It's all about strong building relationships--whether real or virtual.