“Colonizing” Social Spaces

colonize.jpgAs museums and other informal educators continue to experiment with Web 2.0 technologies, the concept of “colonizing” existing social networking spaces is emerging as a viable option for institutions both large and small. Back in October at the Association of Science-Technology Center’s conference, we discussed the concept. More recently, in my course at University of Victoria and then at the National Digital Forum in New Zealand, I’ve come across more interesting examples. In addition, I’ve begun to compile some of the benefits and drawbacks of such an approach.

The benefits
There are literally hundreds of millions of visitors and active users in various social networking sites on the Web. On Wikipedia there is a List of social networking websites which includes a User count. Even with MySpace’s claim of 100 million users in dispute, 43 million users is impressive and hard to ignore.

Almost all of these social networking sites are free to join and very easy to use (no technical expertise required). Many of the sites include younger users, which many museums are trying to connect with. Although, it should be mentioned that this is changing fast as we’ve seen from a recent study on MySpace users. Also, entering these spaces and being successful in them, can help promote the museum and drive visitors to the main web site.

Drawbacks
There are some serious challenges for those institutions brave enough enter these spaces. First of all there are serious identity issues, ads (some of which might be considered inappropriate), and the issue of resources in maintaining multiple web identities. The fact that many of these sites may be short-lived is also a concern. In looking beyond the more established spaces, how much time would you want to invest in start-up social networking site?

There are copyright issues: who owns the content that is posted on these sites? Finally, there is the persistent issue of measuring success. I think the museum field does a fairly lousy job of measuring the impact of our various websites and online exhibits. How do we measure the success of a presence in Flickr, YouTube, or MySpace?

Pioneers
There are few very interesting examples of museum’s who’ve taken the plunge and jumped into these social spaces.

The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (MOCA) has a MySpace page. MOCA’s Web Generalist, Bret Nicely recently shared MOCA’s experience in developing and maintaining their presence in MySpace. They have a phenomenal 6,377 friends at this point. MySpace being an Los Angeles start-up contacted MOCA, so they have a more “formal” arrangment than other museums who apparently have followed their lead. MOCA has been in MySpace since June of this year. They’ve used their MySpace page to promote many museum events, in particular their Night Vision series of concerts, which explains how Z-Trip, The Crystal Method, and others are listed are their “friends.” In recent weeks, the numbers of friends have jumped with a few hundred being added each week.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, Zeke’s Gallery has a list that includes about two-dozen other Art Museums with pages in MySpace. It was just updated on November 27.

The Ontario Science Centre has begun posting videos in YouTube, take a look at the Plasma Ball video. Posted as an experiment two months ago, the Plasma Ball video is fairly popular with about 1000 views, the others have anywhere from a couple dozen to a couple hundred views. Columbus Science Center has followed and have created their own channel just three weeks ago. The Tech Museum of Innovation has a channel too, and Ideum helped add the videos from the Future of Science Conference a month ago. So far we’ve haven’t had very many visitors.

The National Library of Australia’s project PictureAustralia makes extensive use of Flickr, visitors have contributed over 12,000 images through the online photosharing site. Their People, places and events group is worth checking out. Tony Boston from the National Library presented at the National Digital Forum in New Zealand. The library has a formal agreement with Yahoo! in Australia, who helped promote their relationship on the Yahoo! Website.

Currently Ideum is working on a project with the Maxwell Museum of Anthropology. We’re using a Flickr mashup to create a gallery and online activity. The site focuses on the 20th Century American photographer, John Collier Jr. The Maxwell will be posting around 500 high-resolution images to Flickr. At the moment, you can visit a John Collier Jr.’s Flickr site and see a test-bed which includes around 40 images.

The choice to use Flickr was an easy one. All of the photographs are in the public domain and were taken for the Office of War Information (OWI) in the 1940s. Flickr will allow us to connect with a new audience on their site. Plus, we don’t have to build and host a database, we simply connect to the images on Flickr through the mashup. On our own site, the gallery section works much like any collection we might have developed, except it was easier and cheaper, allowing us to put resources in other activities. We’ll have much more to report about this project later this month and in ’07.

Finally, back in October there was the first museum meeting in SecondLife at the International Spaceflight Museum (the first museum in SecondLife?). It will be interesting to see what happens in this unique 3D environment.

What’s Next?
We’ll continue to see more examples as museums experiment in these spaces. I think museums will increasingly use mashups to add value to their own sites. Still, there a some various serious issues to work out. This approach isn’t for every museum, the particular social networking site needs to be the right match for the project and the institution. Copyright and identity issues along with a lack of “trust” in these communities will continue to hold many back. There are no universal solutions or “best practices” to follow here.

If anyone has additional examples of museums entering these spaces please feel free comment. It would be great to see how others are approaching this. I hope to post more on our own efforts later in the month.

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