An Ecology of Engagement: Notes from Social Media Week London event

Digital Black and White by traceyp3031Today I presented on an ecology of engagement to people from museums and cultural industries at the Tate Britain, thanks to Farhan Rehman at Total Media and Social Media Week London.  I’m sharing below the notes I made for this event in case they are useful for anyone.  The slides and possibly the video from my presentation will be available at Farhan’s site later this week.

Joanne’s Presentation: Ecology of Engagement
General argument: In the cultural heritage sector, engagement must involve shared narratives and opportunities for social communing.

In this session I’m going to be addressing four key points:
1. Why engagement is an ecology and not a series of messages;
2. What are the barriers to engagement;
3. Why people engage and what are incentives for engagement;
4. Some best practice case studies of engagement in the sector.

I’m focusing on the cultural heritage sector not just because of the venue and the participants here, but also because there are some unique factors that apply to the sector when it comes to developing social media strategies. This is a sector which is narrative rich, with collections that are often expensive to maintain, and which to date, has had to balance its investment in technology with a need for visitors or audiences, and protection of the value (including intellectual property value) of the works. But interestingly, these characteristics make cultural heritage collections, performances and institutions actually much more suited to social media than many other businesses. Like social media, the experience of cultural products tends also to be social, and audiences are keen to discuss their experiences with others. We’ll return to this later, but let’s get back to the key points.

1. Why engagement is an ecology and not a series of messages

It’s often said that social media is about conversations, not messages. But in some respects, social media is not just about conversations but about actions. It’s all very well to seed a conversation and allow it to grow with the contributions of others, but unless you take some of the learning from those conversations and convert that learning into actions, then the participants in those conversations may not be inspired to engage again.

Back in 1997, American knowledge management theorist, Thomas Davenport came up with the notion of an Information Ecology, where information systems and knowledge processing were dependent on each other in order for businesses to continue to be productive. Raw data could be processed with other data to form information, which then could be analysed and tested and form knowledge, and that knowledge would allow ever more precise means of collecting and processing data, etc. From these ideas, the notion of digital ecosystems emerged, where technology and information combined with trust networks inspire continuous innovation and creativity. George Por came up with a knowledge cycle that clarifies the process.

But crucially this isn’t just a cycle, but more of a spiral.  As each generation of new productivity and creative intelligence is established, there are new patterns of work, new technologies, new interactions, all of which feed from one another and sustain the cycle.

But in the age of social media, engagement has a similar structure. As each new opportunity to engage is established, there are new patterns of communication, which inspire the creation of new social tools, which create new interactions, which create yet more patterns of communication. Participation is crucial for social media to remain innovative and to inspire newer tools, new methods for engagement and new means of accessing people, ideas and services.

But this cycle can also apply to engagement within the context of cultural heritage activity. As each new exhibition or work is performed, there are new opportunities to use the power of tech to engage, which generates new social interactions, which generate new ideas and stories about the works, which should deliver new ways of sharing the works.

But of course, this, too, is a spiral. Because each interaction needs to add value to the previous engagement, and each response to cultural experience needs to be recorded, and form part of the new experience of that artifact, exhibition or performance.

If any part of the process is omitted, then the value of engagement reduces, and the cycle of participation is compromised. So when we think about social media in the cultural heritage sector, it may be useful not just to think about engagement as a matter of getting people’s attention, but about what you are going to do with the ideas, contributions and stories of people who do engage. How will you value their contributions? How can those contributions augment the works you are exhibiting? How can you keep the ecology of engagement continuously renewing itself?

2. What are the barriers to engagement

Barriers to engagement generally fall into one of three general categories: lack of a space to participate, poor communication or poor response.

The first category – lack of a space to engage – is obvious. If you’re not using social media and you don’t give audiences a chance to participate, you’re regarded as remote and uninterested in engagement, and audiences treat you accordingly. So it probably helps to consider some means of socially interacting just to ensure you don’t lose a potential audience that may not trust you if they feel you are not willing to engage.

The second category – poor communication – is not just a matter of not being able to spell, speak the language or access particular communities. It’s often a matter of how communication is framed.

One of the hardest things to get across in my work with organisations, whether from commercial sector or public sector or cultural, is that in order to spark engagement, you need first to give people the space and opportunity to contribute.

It’s a common complaint from people who do dip their toes into blogging, that bloggers aren’t getting sufficient comments on their posts. But when you read the posts they’ve written, you’ll find that the posts have been structured a lot like a newspaper article or editorial; reporting facts, sharing observations and/or expressing opinions. Nowhere in the post is there a shadow of humility or an acknowledgement that the author is interested in the perspectives of others. It’s a matter of publishing and then moving on to the next idea.

Now importantly, there’s actually nothing necessarily wrong with this method of blogging if your objective is to establish your authority. But if your objective is to generate engagement and ideas, it’s a disastrous strategy. Even though comments may be enabled on posts, there is not a rationale for contributing unless a reader wants to take the author to task on points, or be seen to be saying “I AGREE!” with the author.

Blog posts need to be written in such a way as to open up a space for their contributions to be valued, or to add to the ideas presented in an original post. Reader-contributors need to feel that they are getting a return on their time and intellectual investment for responding, or at least that their contribution may bring about change, or a new experience of the subject matter.

Interestingly, it’s not quite the same when it comes to either Facebook, twitter, or any other niche networks or bookmarking systems, or indeed, location based social services. For twitter, for instance, the short form messaging system is designed for fact-based posts. Yes, it’s always good to ask questions on twitter, but the average life of a question on twitter is a matter of minutes, or at most hours, and certainly not days. Further, the actions arising from tweets may be smaller, more immediate. This is not to say that twitter is a trivial medium, but engagement will only happen if it is possible to engage quickly, in a very few words and with little need for reflection. For facebook, engagement opportunities may require more time investment, but may need to be more conversational and personal, in line with the activities of users. Importantly, failure to consider the framing of how you communicate with your audiences will result in a barrier to participation.

The final category is poor responses. If you’ve gone as far as providing a space for engagement, and framing your communication adequately, the worst thing you can do is fail to respond, or respond poorly. Not only do you need to value the contributions given, but it’s always wise to exhibit a little humility and accept criticism. The usual response to this is concern bout fostering a culture of complaint. Actually, it’s pretty easy to avoid this scenario if you make it clear you are looking for constructive commentary rather than asking people to specify what they don’t like. If you ask the question “does anyone have a problem with that?” (aggressive and frames for criticism) you will get very different feedback from, “Please share your ideas and questions” (inclusive and framed for narratives and clarifications).

3. Why people engage and what are incentives for engagement

This arises from the previous issues but it also involves a few characteristics of the appeal of social engagement via social media:

STRUCTURAL/INTERFACE DESIGN: Request to engage apparent, and participation is easy;
PERSONAL: Interest in subject matter, learning;
PERSONAL: Reputational value for engagement;
PERSONAL: Novelty and entertainment;
PERSONAL: Because engagement will help with other aspects of one’s life;
COLLABORATIVE: Chance to commune with friends/like minds;
COLLABORATIVE: Because engagement will result in change (for the better);
COLLABORATIVE: Chance to make new connections, and forge new relationships.

Obviously every engagement opportunity doesn’t need all these incentives, but it certainly helps if it has most. I’d also avoid the novelty incentive as a strategy. It might work to create interest, but novelty wears off.

4. Best practice case studies of engagement in the sector

I’m sharing just three best practice case studies of engagement, because I’m hoping that in the exercises coming up we’ll either be sharing more, or creating new engagement experiences, so it makes sense just to explore a few. In choosing these case studies, I wanted to showcase different technologies as well as different methods of engagement. And while these are all social media case studies, it doesn’t mean that engagement is necessarily restricted to online participation.

(i) THE WOMEN’S MUSEUM (SMITHSONIAN): Twitter account used to promote the collection in Dallas, Texas, as well as to share information of interest to women.
Technology: twitter;
Engagement: conversations, providing interesting and useful content, asking questions.

(ii) SCOOT GAME: Treasure hunt around cultural heritage sites, where clues from exhibits are gathered to help solve a mystery and save the world from evil carnival characters.
Technology: SMS, web-based content sharing;
Engagement: participation in the game, feedback on the experiences, creation of new clues.

(iii) FLASH MOB HALLELUJAH CHORUS: Flash mob performance in public place.
Technology: web and sms to organise;
Engagement: video and photos, shared stories and awareness of/connections with the professional singers involved.

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