Food Chain. Photo by Pieter Pieterse.

by • 17 Sep, 2010 • Technology, Thoughts about museumsComments (5)4008

Stop talking, start sending – The information food chain and how museums should use Twitter

I read a newspaper. I read a newspaper because I believe a bunch of highly educated people are better at sorting through the myriad pieces of news the world produces daily than I am. My newspaper even prints the best tweet out of 90 million sent every day, that’s how good they are.

Newspapers don’t converse. Newspapers send information. And it’s good they do so, because they’re high up in the information food chain.

By now thousands of museums are on Twitter cs. There they sit and chat and retweet each other and make good initiatives trending worldwide. They’ve been told Twitter (and Facebook, blogs, etc.) is a conversation channel, not a publicity channel. They’ve been told to listen, not to send. So they desperately try to engage in conversation and mostly chat with each other.

Museums on Twitter shouldn’t converse. They should send information. That’s because museums, like newspapers, are high up in the information food chain. Maybe even higher up than newspapers.

I don’t say museums should use Twitter to shamelessly publicise their events and opening hours. I mean they should sort through the millions of tweets, status updates, blogposts, etc. to pick the best things and share these in a meaningful way with their audience. They should respect their position in the information food chain.

Information food chain

Original photo by Ian Westcott on Flickr.

How to use Twitter as a museum

So, here’s how I think museums should use Twitter cs:

  1. Determine the “colour” of the information you will send to your followers. Like different newspapers, museums have different voices too. Finish the sentence, ‘We will tell you only the very best and latest about…’
  2. Install all possible alerts on words related to the information you’ve decided to send. Also, follow the right blogs, influential tweeps, facebook pages, everything that does some of the work down the line in the information food chain.
  3. Determine how often and when you will send information. And how you’ll mix news, videos, photos, essays, opinions and every thing else.
  4. From all the information that comes up through the information food chain, select the very best for your topic and share it, by your guidelines, with your followers.
  5. Be consistent and persistent.

Museums are considered trustworthy sources of information. They’re expected to have the very best art/heritage/whatever, display it to the public and be right about it. So should they be on Twitter, Facebook and elsewhere.

Of course museums are also expected to be helpful and friendly. Doing the above can never mean you don’t respond to questions of your followers anymore. You should. All it means is we should claim our position and stop begging for conversation. Stop talking, start sending!

P.S. A great example of how to do it right, imho, is the blog Open Culture. Every day this blog shares the very best on free literature, culture, arts and science. I consider them an authority, yet always quick with a reply.

Header photo by Pieter Pietserse on Flickr.

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  • Hi, Jasper
    Great approach. I always wonder why some (many? most?) museums never RT tweets from individuals nor from other museums. To me, it’s like remaining closed inside one’s shell. Are museums outside the real world? Have they to speak always and ONLY about themselves?

    I think the best Twitter use is to alternate own-museum-centered with museums world-centered tweets. Of course it’s good use to tweet practical infos & event announcements, but a good practice is to also contribute to share, analyze, comment, spread other voices as well: this is the real good service museums (as you say, “trustworthy sources of info”), can provide to their users.


  • I have to respectively disagree, Jasper. Museums should be engaging their audiences in dialogue about their exhibitions and events. Even newspapers are talking with their readers. If we’re courting audiences why should we talk “down” to them from high above the info food chain? Engaging conversation can bring new insights to the work we do in museums. For example, at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, where I work, the conversations about our show “The Art of Gaman: Arts and Crafts from the Japanese American Internment Camps, 1942-1946” haven given our readers first-hand accounts about life and the art made in Japanese-American internment camps ( These comments are often emotional reminders of how these artworks came to be made. And they add a lot to the “information” and context our museum has provided.

    This is not to say our museum’s conversations should be mindless chit-chat nor should they be insular, talking just to other museums. The question should be how should museums set up a meaningful engagement with its constituencies? It’s a much more open-ended question that focuses on the process of engagement. We’re all in the early stages of trying to figure this out. But I don’t think advocating social media be a “broadcast” rather than a “conversational” tool is the way to go about it.

  • Hi Jeff,

    My delayed response might indicate I don’t value conversation (as does the post, I admit). The opposite is true. I think we agree more than that we disagree.

    Dialogue, and especially visitors contributing their own stories, thoughts and knowledge to our collections, can be very valuable to provide context, to make collections accessible, to increase participation, etc. When I read about your “The Art of Gaman” project, I take it that structured dialogue, intensive visitor engagement and a well-designed programme led to high-quality visitor contributions. That’s wonderful and I think we – museums – should look for these kinds of participatory projects whenever they are meaningful.

    In a way, what you do as a museum in these participatory projects, is use your credibility to make visitor contributions more meaningful. You might print the best contributions in a catalogue or add them to your collection. From your position high up in the info food chain, you look at everything that happens below and encourage visitors to engage. It’s like the newspaper printing the tweet, or the selection of letters from users on the discussion pages.

    I wrote this post, not to oppose participatory projects in museums. I wrote it to show that merely being on Twitter and Facebook is not sufficient. “Meaningless” chats with a small percentage of your audience and other museums does not engage your audience. Projects like “The Art of Gaman” do. And, as you probably will admit, these require much more than a Twitter account and pressing the retweet button every now and then.

    Thanks a lot for your great comment!

  • The point here is that any attempts to impose rules, will fail. Rules will work if the communicating community find them worthwhile and are prepared to set a cultural norm.

    Does anyone agree? If not, then this hypothesis falls as well . . . . . .

  • Hi Chris,
    I guess I don’t really get your point. Could you give an example?