In the 1990s, I ran a website about my Klik ’n Play projects, including a somewhat popular piece of free software that allowed other people to build real-time strategy games. I do not remember the URL, but it sounded like users.mywebhosting.com/~jvis/klikplay/index.htm.
At the time, there was no SEO, no social media, no influencer marketing. I couldn’t register a fancy URL. The only way to get people to visit my site was through the laborious process of link building. A link between two websites – which was almost always reciprocal – signified trust and relevance. It meant a real relationship, often forged through long conversations on IRC. My website was reasonably successful for the time, into the 100s of visits per month, but it is safe to say I knew most of the visitors by their nickname. The web was a small, private, and familiar place
Then, the internet changed. Blogs, social media, algorithms, and a host of other innovations made the web humongous, devoid of privacy, and highly unpredictable. This is the internet that most museums have embraced; a web where you can talk to everyone, advertise everything, and fame is always only one viral video away.
Now, however, it seems to be changing again. Mark Zuckerberg has placed his bets of direct messaging. Twitter’s latest new redesign also emphasizes conversations, albeit in the public space (“to facilitate public conversation”). If your workplace has embraced Slack, your family WhatsApp, your children Instagram, or your neighborhood NextDoor, you have seen that the web is changing. We’re moving from massive public debates to direct relationships between limited communities. The experience of privacy and control increases. It makes the internet feel like the web of yesteryear when you knew everyone by their nickname.
What does this new internet, the internet of direct messaging, mean for museums?
First and foremost, it implies the end of invasive marketing and mass communication. In the first version of Cards for Culture, we mentioned that direct messaging forces museums to be “immediate, personalized, and opt-in” in their communications. This is even truer for a web dominated by private conversations. If a museum is invited into such a conversation at all, it needs to be timely and human.
Joining a private conversation
But, how does a museum get invited into a private conversation? While we can pay to be included in people’s Instagram feed, it is not (yet) possible to insert yourself in WhatsApp groups discussing the destination of next week’s work trip.
Museums do have experience in being part of private, digital conversations. In digital transformation workshops, I like to ask participants about the digital tool that most transformed their life and work. While young marketeers chat about the latest network, more senior museum professionals – and especially researchers, curators, collection managers, and their peers – tend to agree it is email or, more recently, WhatsApp. Direct messaging facilitates their research and fosters international collaboration. For most of them, digital in the museum has always been about direct messaging.
In these research communities, museums are a trusted and relevant resource, personal, timely, and opt-in through the personal ties that researchers, curators, and others have built with each other.
Other departments can do the same. On a corporate Slack, art-based learning conversations facilitated by the education department can encourage teams to think out of the box. On NextDoor, the museum can turn into a friendly neighbor, offering suggestions for during a school strike or its location for a community meeting.
The social media and marketing people that are now carefully crafting updates, will become community service providers for a range of communities.
The future of digital for museums
That’s not all. These same researchers, collection managers, and curators have been doing something else while they were a community resource: they created some of the most amazing digital museum applications. Deep neural networks are now doing art research, robots will soon improve access to depots, and algorithms can spot fakes better than experts (to name just a few). Although hidden mainly for the average visitor, these tools offer an opportunity for the future of the digital museum.
In Quantum Culture, we describe the approach to technology in the current era as one where “The organization invests and shares in the active development and innovation of new and better technologies.” While, “technology, hardware, software, and other tools are owned commonly and collectively and shared purposefully with others who share similar values.” For the museum, the development of digital tools is a community service.
Like the neighborhood recommendations during a school strike, substantial investment in shared tools and technologies builds trust and relevance. It ensures that a museum is part of the private conversations that are the future of the web.
The digital museum in times of direct messaging is a trusted and relevant community resource. Either, because it offers a valuable service to the communities that invite the museum into their conversations (because of proximity, personal ties, or shared stories and values) or because it invests and shares in the development of useful tools and technologies that help others achieve their goals.
Header image from Quantum Culture – A new method for strategy development in the age of open source culture.