Virtual Visitors: A Community of Clickers and Commentators

The virtual revolution will not be televised.... although you'll probably get a tweet about it.

The virtual revolution will not be televised.... although you'll probably get a tweet about it.

Isn’t it fascinating how quickly (or maybe it’s not that quickly) our technology has advanced, increasing our sense of interconnectedness? I must admit, for awhile I assumed there might be a backlash of sorts where people would start to feel too consumed and overwhelmed by the extent of such connections. Alas, we are probably safe from all that, at least for the time being.

Innovative web and application programs make it possible for local communities to become more connected as well as the formation and cultivation of new virtual communities which extend beyond geographic borders to encompass individuals with similar interests and values.

Threadless is a “community-based tee shirt company with an ongoing, open call for design submissions.” Participants can create tee shirt designs, solicit feedback, and ultimately win a cash prize if your design is selected. At first I thought to myself, who is the community in “community-based tee shirt company.” To answer my own question, in this case it is the community who rates and comments on the participant’s idea. Anyone checking out the website can score designs. What I love about this is that there are numerous entry points to participating and becoming part of this community. The website also allows for designers who are not sure if their design is “ready” to have a preview of sorts which can be reviewed by the greater community. I know you may be asking…. why is Val talking about tee-shirts anyway…. To respond and to affirm, we can look beyond museums for inspiration.

Such opportunities to submit and evaluate works of art, brings to mind the Brooklyn Museum of Art’s 2008, Click! A Crowd-Curated Exhibit (side note: inspiration for this exhibit actually came from a book). The museum encouraged museum visitors, artists, and the general public to participate in this co-created exhibit experience with web-access to forums for discussing submitted photos, a virtual tour of the exhibit,  a “blurb book,” and a link to the results of the evaluation process (as the selected images were chosen by this community of participants). What was really neat about this exhibit was that the selected works on display were sized based on their votes (i.e. the more votes you got, the bigger your photo).

This notion reminds me of my previous post about the Partners in Preservation project in the Greater Boston area where participants could vote for a historic site to receive funding and another post regarding the Smithsonian’s NMAAHC asking participants to help select the winning design of the new museum. Creating a virtual community by asking others to vote or make a decision empowers individuals, sparks a desire to participate, and allows them to contribute thoughts and ideas. A likely side effect: people will surely buzz about this to their friends.

In another previous post, I asked if/what museums are doing to talk about all these great changes happening within the museum and if the outside word is aware of all the buzz…. perhaps the Smithsonian was listening to me? Check-out the their Call to Action, “Voice Your Vision” YouTube video:

What a creative way to start a lot of buzz about the museum’s (new) outlook and also solicit ideas and thoughts from the public!

From Facebook to Twitter, social networks also offer plenty of opportunities to reach out to, expand, and engage your virtual community (and if you’re wondering why we should care, check out Nina Simon’s recent blog post). With opportunities to create your own social network and emerging Web 4.0 applications such as Thwonk (a pretty wild “platform and community….giving you full access to manipulate and change the social rules of email list communication”) we should challenge ourselves to effectively and authentically engage our virtual communities while embracing all these innovative (and constantly changing) technological advancements.

I recently heard about the New York Hall of Science’s social network called MySci where their program participants receive usernames from the museum to access and interact with fellow museum program participants, contribute to blogs, and dish science. The network is only available for out-of-school-time program participants; a sort of members only approach with a safe space for kids to share openly. What’s really cool is that even after you grow-out-of or leave the out-of-school-time  programs your account remains active.

New website collectives also offer virtual space to grow, inform, and involve community groups about any range of topics. While at AAM, I attended a session entitled, Places and Stories That Matter: Digital Experiments and Community Involvement where presenters discussed ways they are using digital technology to engage audiences and bridge differences. The Historical Society of Pennsylvania plans to launch (in September 2009) PhilaPlace, an interactive “multi-ethnic web-based resource” that explores the history, culture, and neighborhoods of Philadelphia, PA. The goal of this collaborative project is to “bridge disciplines, media, and audiences by creating a new model for connecting audiences.”  Throughout the planning and development stages, the Historical Society collaborated with community partners and individuals to obtain stories, memories, photos and experiences.  The sneak peek we got during the session was an eye full; Google maps meets Twitter meets Flickr meets YouTube meets established historic archives meets…. well you get the picture.

Similarly, City Lore, is a New York-based non-profit that specializes “in the creation of programs and materials for public education and enjoyment.” One of their many initiatives, in collaboration with the Municipal Arts Society,  is Place Matters “a city-wide initiative to identify, celebrate, interpret and protect places that tell the history and anchor the traditions of New York’s many communities.” Places are nominated by New Yorkers through a Census of Places that Matter and for the sites highlighted on the website, viewers have access to read stories, advocate for these places of importance, and learn about upcoming events and programs.  Another City Lore program, City of Memory, also provides access and opportunities for people to share stories and experiences “that happened forty years ago or something that happened this morning” which are mapped out (so virtual visitors can pin-point these locations and  become actual visitors). I definitely plan on doing a bit of my own research to see if my grandfather’s butcher shop is included among the wonderful stories already shared!

These are just a few of the buzz-worthy, web-based resources that connect, cultivate, and engage folks to grow community interest, involvement, and interaction. Of course the question remains, what if you’re being savvy with technology and no one responds!?

  • Well first things first, reach out to your local and virtual communities using a variety of mainstream and creative methods to build an interest in developing technology-based programs.
  • Secondly, use programs that work for you (you don’t need to have a Twitter feed for the sake of it, I actually follow a couple of museums who hardly ever update their twitter- kind of pointless). Think about ways to virtually engage the public beyond your website, but also consider the time and resources you will need to maintain a presence on the Internet. In considering the time constraints  posed on visitors as contributors, check out this interesting Museum 3.0 post by Monika Lechner.
  • And of course, try new things and look beyond museums for inspiration. Depending on your resources and availability, such applications can be just what you need to revitalize your programs and brand while expanding your reach in serving your community.

To my community of readers: Are you vritually connected to your community, if so how? What are some projects or thoughts you’d like to share about connecting with your local community virtually and growing a virtual community? Do you feel virtually connected to museums, do you care to be? Are you an active member of online communities, when do you participate, how?

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2 thoughts on “Virtual Visitors: A Community of Clickers and Commentators

  1. I’m connected and how! I rely pretty heavily on virtual communities and connections to supplement (and in some cases, replace) “real world” connections. This is from the standard using email and gchat to keep in touch with friends flung across the country to maintaining multiple blogs on subjects such as my new haircut to… museums! I recently participated in the interview project based in CFM and I talked about the future of visitors being more involved in the creation process. Yes, I am a bit obsessed with Ms Simon.

    As for being virtually connected to museums, I am and I do care. I am friends with SITES on facebook. I follow the Smithsonian on Twitter. But how it matters to me is that I am one of the first people to know about something going on, I am someone my non museum friends can rely on for cultural information. So while the virtual museum connection is there, it is validated through my existing relationships in the “real world”.

    • Tatiana, thanks so much for your comment. I completely relate to your feelings in virtual community and connections access supplementing “real world” connections and the value we place on these forms of interactions as compared to other methods. Taking it a step further, I’m REALLY interested to see where Second Life takes the museum experience and how people participate, interact, and feel about that.

      I’m also curious about the mainstreaming of museums- maybe it happens with people like us; connectors who bring museums to people (who might otherwise not be as interested). We take our work home with us and dish about it whenever we get the chance (ha, could this be profitable?) I like your notion that the “real” world relationships validate the virtual world relationships – and it sounds like what you’re saying (if I’m not mistaken) that the two rely on the other to strengthen the total experience.

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