At times, social media feels pretty inescapable. It’s everywhere, permeating nearly every aspect of our daily lives from the comforting privacy of home to more public spaces such as the workplace and classroom. Whether Facebook or Twitter, Instagram or Tumblr (or any of the myriad other platforms out there), the use of social media is a defining characteristic of 21st century society.
Despite its name, however, social media is no longer a purely social phenomenon used for individual communications between friends and loved ones. As a growing number of corporate organizations and cultural institutions build and maintain an online presence through such platforms, social media takes on a new role as a professional and academic tool.
The question of whether or not to embrace this social media phenomenon – and to what extent – remains a point of continuous debate amongst historians, particularly within the museum world. In recent years, several cultural institutions have taken the plunge into the digital realm, hoping to use the tools provided within social media as a means of connecting to a broader audience.
In their article, “Small Towns and Big Cities: How Museums Foster Community On-line,” Dana Allen-Greil and Matthew MacArthur examine the manner in which the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History (NMAH)uses social media to engage with online users and visitors to the museum alike. The NMAH uses a variety of platforms to facilitate audience connections online, offering topics ranging from general information (such as that found on their
Facebook and Twitter pages) to specific projects, like their Julia Child Recipe Series on Tumblr. The museum additionally offers visitors the opportunity to engage digitally while physically visiting the museum, with interactive web exhibits and holding events such as the “tweet-ups” described in Erin Blasco’s article “Presidential Hair is a Twitter Winner.”
Of course, allowing visitors a higher level of interactivity with the museum entails additionally conceding to the public greater authority in the curation and interpretation of its collections. This leads to the question of how much public authority is too much, with some arguing that this diminishes a curator’s position while others contend that it increases the curator’s responsibilities in regulating not only collections but also public interactions with them.
On the whole, however, the integration of social media and digital technology into cultural institutions seems to add a higher level of interactivity, enables more opportunities for connection, and enhances the overall visitor experience.