Thought clarification: JUST DO IT but FOR A REASON

July 2, 2007

A long and interesting thread broke out on the Museums Computer Group mailing list today about how museums could use Facebook to their best advantage. As I said on the thread – although the question about how Facebook deals with organisations vs individuals is interesting, the key question to me is what we’re trying to get out of having a presence on social networking sites.

Although I spend a lot of time going on about how we should “just do it” (good tagline, that. Shame it’s been claimed by a global corporation of dubious ethics..), I’m also well aware that museums aren’t immune from the hype curve either. The suggestion we should “do something with Facebook” throughout the thread is terribly reminiscent of many requests I’ve had to “do web 2.0”. The conversation usually goes like this:

——————

Web team office, early morning. Somewhere a phone rings.

Web Team: “good morning, this is your friendly web team. how can I help?”

Important Person, usually somewhere high up in the organisation: “we need a blog/discussion board/wiki/podcast/facebook account/mobile website/[insert other new tech thingy here]”

WT: “why?”

IP: “because I read an article in the Guardian on Saturday and it’ll improve our productivity/sales/grooviness. Besides, it’s free”

WT: “what do you want to say on your blog/discussion board/wiki/[…you get the picture…] ?”

IP: “why does that matter?”

WT: “who is your audience?”

IP: “the kids, of course. da street. da yoof. innit?”

WT:

IP: “right, I’ll hope to see some serious re-alignment of our visitor figures by, say, a week Wednesday. I is expectin’ big fings in da hood. Bitchin’. ”

——————-

There’s a fine line of course between what I push for – technology growth, user understanding, fast to market, flexible applications – and the Important Person’s vision. This is a subtle game, and one which often causes concerns.

I see it like this:

> the mashup environment is about playing with technology – it is therefore partially technology driven (a bad thing) but also understands and build on content and data from disparate sources in the hope that the thing which pops out at the end is useful (a good thing). It relies on a Darwinian process to determine what works and what doesn’t: if your users like it, they’ll take to it and it’ll succeed.

> the drive to make things happen – the push which I believe museums should be making to be more leading than lagging – should always come out of user centred design. Websites should come from a user need. Ultimately, they should fill a hole in people’s lives. The bitter pill to swallow is that the needs of the institution aren’t always the needs of the user, and that’s where conversations like the one above start to cause pain.

Sometimes the needs of the institution do match (or can be bent so they match) the needs of the end user – this is when the best things happen. Take for example the fabulous English Cut blog – a fascinating look into the otherwise closed world of the Savile Row tailor. Hugh Mcleod helped put this together and he writes wonderfully about the value of the “micro smarter conversation” vs the value of the “macro brand metaphor”.

This is where web teams need to be incredibly savvy about what is out there and how to make this stuff happen. Actually, the conversation above should have a moment where Web Team gets in quickly with “Good plan, Mrs Important Person. How about a personal blog written by X about the way in which we Y”, thereby cutting off any possibility that you’ll “just do it” in the wrong direction with some god-awful corporate nonsense.

So….should museums be on Facebook? Yes, probably, if that presence does something interesting and motivating for users. Should museums be on Facebook just because it’s there? Obviously not.

11 thoughts on “Thought clarification: JUST DO IT but FOR A REASON

  1. Hi Mike,

    Good to find a topic on MCG I can get my teeth into! Really enjoying this one….

    In response to your thoughts above…
    I’m the first person to question why we should be doing something – to achieve clarity of vision and benchmark success etc.

    However…

    In my experience, sometimes we spend so long talking about doing stuff and teasing out exactly what it is we’re trying to achieve that the web moves on to the next thing before we’ve done the thing we set out to do in the first place!

    So I’m now thinking perhaps we should just get out there and give it a go and if it works great and if not we learn from it! Obviously this has to be done with a deep understanding of the medium. I wouldn’t suggest just getting on with doing stuff on Facebook if there was a lack of understanding of what Facebook is etc. but I’m not sure we necessarily need a detailed sense of purpose – just raising awareness would be enough for me. Then sit back and let the thing evolve.

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  3. Hi Jenny

    Yeah, I agree that making it happen should be a priority. But I also think that there will be ways of approaching (social) applications like Facebook which are more effective than others. I’d like to see us being both intelligent AND daring about our approaches. ..

    Mike

  4. mike
    you’re seriously not getting the “if you build it they will come” method of developing new services,…..I jest, the argument that we MUST do this because, well everyone is doing it darhling its just soo street!! has been haunting the industry since some bright sparked added pictures to the internet.
    every tool has an audience, in this case USER and its the NEEDS of the USER that shoudl drive new development not the desires of the organisation…which should be the same but, unfortunately, rarely are.
    as a matter of interest on the Facebook front, how many groups are you in….how many do you praticipate in and how many are have no activity at all ???
    j

  5. John
    I agree. Where it gets difficult is in determining the role of RAD and mashup stuff. The argument goes that if we simply listened to our users all the time, we’d probably be back in the days of the text only internet using Lynx browsers and still having our virtual experiences in MUDs. There is a role for technology advocates to play, and it’s being a translator from user requirement to technical solution. As you’d know…
    What’s important though is that us “translators” are savvy enough to be able to recommend leading-edge tech to solve those problems in more elegant, *user-friendly* ways; to improve on what has gone before.
    Mike
    ps. Facebook groups? moi?

  6. I got into this facebook thing because colleagues thought it was a good idea to tap into social networks to gain support for the inspired project at Science museum Swindon. It may work, who knows, but also gives me the satisfying opportunity to virtually headbut annoying colleagues.

  7. So many issues – where on earth to start?

    I’ve so much sympathy for your frustration, but in some ways it’s a pretty good spot to be in. At least you have people in the business who know what FB is even if they don’t know how to utilize it (I think!?).

    It’s an incredibly delicate art being able to turn people’s short burst of enthusiasm about something new on the web into a more sustained, practical and beneficial approach – but at least that’s easier than trying to convert people with no understanding what so ever. If you do crack it though, let me know.

    One of the key things I think is a business unit that filters through the ideas that have merit based on priority (ROI, business case, etc). That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have a research budget (aka experimental time allocation, etc) but it can be quite handy to give this a number (1 day a week, 1 a month?) so that you’ve got a chance to balance things. Then let the designers/developers get on and have a go at it – with a UCD focus of course.

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