Saturday, February 14, 2009

When Facebook Becomes Work

Up to now I, like most people, have seen Facebook primarily as an entertaining way to waste my own time and that of my friends and colleagues. However, since moving to Yale my Facebook ambitions have expanded dramatically. It’s no longer enough to waste the time of my friends and family. Now I want to waste your time as well! One of the joys of working for a smaller museum is that you tend to get tapped to do a variety of things beyond the confines of your regular job. So a casual conversation with our Director about my enthusiasm for the potential of Web 2.0 to broaden our means of outreach morphed into joining a small committee headed by YPM’s Director of External Relations, charged with setting up a Facebook page for the Museum.

If you don’t have a Facebook account, or if your use to date has mostly revolved around sending virtual beer to your friends and playing Scrabulous and Wordscraper, then you may not have noticed that Facebook has become a significant outreach mechanism for a number of organizations. It’s not just Barack Obama who's taking advantage of its attractive 40-something demographic these days. Many major museums have now set up Facebook pages (and Twitter, and MySpace pages). The quality is somewhat variable, as is the time and effort invested (a particular favorite of mine is the Natural History Museum in London, which offers its 15,500 “fans” an album containing 4 photographs and a list of its opening times – its mini feed reads “no recent activity”). Museums like AMNH, MoMA, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art have dynamic, exciting pages, packed with video and photographic contact, feeds from Flickr accounts and YouTube channels, and RSS feeds to staff and curator blogs. Not only do they feed content to you, but they allow (and encourage) you to talk back – review exhibits, post your own pictures and videos of your visit, complain about things that bug you, or get involved in discussions about topical issues.

What struck me most forcibly as I looked at the various museum pages on Facebook is that we’re seeing the beginning of the end for the traditional museum webpage. The fact is that the Facebook page for AMNH (to take just one example) is much more fun than the Museum’s webpage; it updates more frequently, tells you when it changes, and lets you participate – plus it still delivers all the practical information you want (opening times, directions, etc) and puts this information front-and-center on the page, rather than burying it on an “about us” page somewhere behind the homepage, as most conventional websites do. From my own perspective as a collection manager, Facebook offers a new portal by which the public can access the material in our care. A good example of this is the Met’s “Artwork of the Day” feature on its Facebook page. This is an RSS feed linked to the Museum’s on-line catalog, which changes every day. Click through it, though, and you’ll find yourself in the publically-searchable database; Facebook has acted as a hook to draw you into an exploration the wider collection.

The Peabody’s Facebook page is still a few weeks away from launch – we have a fair amount of content to pull together plus some thorny issues about what to include; for example, would we post a curator’s videos of mating ducks, shot as part of a research project? The general feeling was “yes,” even though the man himself described them as being “like porn” (presumably porn for ducks, although I’m sure there are probably at least some hard-core Anatiphiles out there). For some reason, I’ve ended up as the proud administrator of YPM’s “not-for-profit” YouTube channel, so I guess the duck porn issue may land in my lap eventually – I can’t wait. But the bigger question is, where do we go from here? Peabody’s main website will probably need an overhaul in the next year or two, but will we replace it with a one-way information delivery system, or with something more dynamic? And given the already high quality of our on-line collection data, how can we harness the emerging technologies to improve our user’s experience of the collections? I'm halfway through an NSF grant to develop web-based resources as part of the Paleontology Portal project - you can see the first of our two web "modules" here. When we launched this module last year, I was really quite pleased with it - now I wonder if we should have made it more interactive. The fact is that we just weren't thinking this way in early 2005, when we wrote the grant.

It’s nice to get to think about things like as part of your job, but it’s also rather disorientating – as one of my fellow committee members remarked “damn, I remember when Facebook used to be fun.” Now I find myself logging in to mess around with “RSS-Connect” on the YPM page instead of challenging my friends to Wordscraper matches, or getting frustrated because “YouTube Box” has stopped working. When I visited the App page for YouTube Box during the downtime I found a host of panicky messages from users on the Wall, including one from a woman who had been unable to upload a video during a demonstration for her CEO. Plainly this was all getting much too serious. So I spent this morning in a more traditional collection managerial activity; out at West Campus, hammering pallet racks with a big rubber mallet.

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