writing about talking + talking about writing

I’ve been thinking about blogging and social media lately; about what it means to ‘grow up’ professionally in public, and about what the indiscriminate opportunity to publish – open to anyone, but grasped by relatively few – is doing to our professional dialogue. The longer I think about these issues, the less certain are my conclusions.

Andrew Sullivan, a veteran of the art form, writes of blogging this way:

This form of instant and global self-publishing, made possible by technology widely available only for the past decade or so, allows for no retroactive editing (apart from fixing minor typos or small glitches) and removes from the act of writing any considered or lengthy review. It is the spontaneous expression of instant thought—impermanent beyond even the ephemera of daily journalism. It is accountable in immediate and unavoidable ways to readers and other bloggers, and linked via hypertext to continuously multiplying references and sources. Unlike any single piece of print journalism, its borders are extremely porous and its truth inherently transitory. The consequences of this for the act of writing are still sinking in.

The consequences for museums, and museum professionals too, are also still uncertain. In his post, entitled Why I blog, Sullivan further proposes that “…the key to understanding a blog is to realize that it’s a broadcast, not a publication. If it stops moving, it dies. If it stops paddling, it sinks.” But if this is a broadcast medium, it lingers like a publication. What are the consequences of this for our profession, or for those individuals who choose to engage in this space regularly? Although there are some museum blogs that have been around for years, it is a form still in its nascency.

In November, I have two opportunities to reflect on these questions. The first is in a panel on blogging at MCN2012 with Ed Rodley, Eric Seigel and Mike Murawski, which will consider blogging from both a personal and institutional perspective. We’ll ask what it means “to learn in public, and be an active and consistently open communicator? Where does blogging fit into an institutional, professional and personal identity? How do you manage multiple online identities? How do you deal with the inevitable public criticism and negative reactions to your work? What impact has blogging made on your career and life more generally?”

I’m super eager to work through these questions with smarter and more experienced heads than mine, particularly at a conference like MCN. I loved MCN last year, and with the program for MCN2012 looking great, I cannot wait to head back to the USA.  The conference is kicking off with an Ignite session to pop the mood into “stimulating” from the start. MCN2012 will also be a chance to catch up with so many museumers who challenge me, and to follow up in person with some of my favourite museumgeek guest bloggers like Janet Carding, Liz Neely and Matthew Israel. I’m feeling inspired already.

I will also be reflecting on social media as a disruptive force in museum discourse at INTERCOM2012 in Sydney. INTERCOM is  ICOM’s International Committee for Management, which “focuses on ideas, issues and practices relating to the management of museums, within an international context.” The 2012 conference has #museumchallenges as its theme, which recalls Rob Stein’s discussions from 2011 (I wonder how the conversation will have altered in a year). The INTERCOM program looks great, and I’m looking forward to learning what museum directors and speakers from around the world see as being the greatest immediate and long-term challenges facing museums now (plus, Jasper will be here!). How different are the concerns of museum professionals in China, Finland or Colombia from my own? And what can we learn from their experiences?

No doubt I’ll pick up lots of new insights to share with those playing at home, too.

Are you attending MCN2012 or INTERCOM2012? Do you think that social media has impacted your work or profile as a museum professional? How do you feel about its influence on your own career, or the sector at large?

BTW – Mar Dixon is conducting her second annual survey on social media and the cultural sector. You should fill it out.

13 thoughts on “writing about talking + talking about writing

  1. Hi: I do not work in a museum but do have a background in governance. Currently I am self employed as a visual artist. Also too I am relatively new to social media. I continue to read your blog with great interest and express my gratitude for your generous contributions.
    Two observations: I am most impressed with the museums use of social media to make accessible their collections and professional services. Almost unbelievable the richness of resources at one’s fingertips; and secondly like you I am taken with the professionalism of leaders in the industry that stretch their skills and insights to new limits in order to tackle the major issues. People like Janet Carding, Lynda Kelly and Merete Sanderhoff continue to strive to make the museum industry stand tall and in doing so have left me with a favourable impression.
    Thank you and keep up the good work.

    1. Bruce, I entirely agree that museum professionals like Janet, Lynda and Merete make significant and important contributions through engaging in the digital space. Interestingly, I think their presence also makes the sector seem smaller, and the higher ends seem more approachable. I used to be so intimidated when speaking to directors or museum leaders, but their presence on social media helps bridge those distances.

  2. I find this discussion quite interesting. I started blogging about two years ago. My initial intent was to provide a platform to discuss educational outreach in the fields of archaeology and museum studies – particularly for the archaeology of the United States where the public outreach troops serve mightily in the trenches but with little professional notice or support, though that situation seems to changing.

    Two years down the road, I am moderately pleased with how the blogging has gone. Here is a summary of sorts I came up with so I won’t repeat here (http://wp.me/pJf2X-D1)

    I find the instant global access less a matter of the doom and gloom stated by folks like my favorite straw man Andrew Keen and his book the Cult of the Amateur and more often a matter of bringing information from outside the box in.

    If I might use an example – Massive Open Online Courses or MOOCs as in coursera.org. Personally, I find coursera.org a fantastic tool for continuing my education process as an adult learner. I completed a couple of courses and have a couple more queued up. Coursera.org also provides a fabulous technical writing course that I advise my graduate and undergraduate students to enroll in to improve their skills. The course is free and nothing comparable is offered at the University of Memphis where I am on faculty. MOOCs have not been favorably reported by the mainline media. At my University, we were encouraged to participate in a webinar titled something like “a response to MOOCs.” Had my knowledge of MOOCs been limited to the traditional professional literature, I would have a very biased impression. The information I obtained about MOOCs that best jibes with my reality after having taken a couple of courses I got via blogs early on – specifically IndianaJen by Jennifer Carey and online education by Debbie Morrision and many more to follow.

    I also believe that blogs are a fantastic way to disseminate innovative ideas. I have long been a fan of asking students the question that goes something like “Justify why scarce tax dollars should be used to fund your tuition or future employment. How is what you do relevant to the public?” One of the best responses I ever read professionally or otherwise came from a graduate student this week, and I posted same on my blog (http://rcnnolly.wordpress.com/2012/10/08/making-museums-relevant/). I think Leila has a lot to say and speaks as eloquently, if not more so, on the subject than anyone I have read in a professional journal. Why should her voice not be heard too by the 700 or so folks who will hit my blog this week?

    To me, blogging is about engaging and being in dialogue. I absolutely love that aspect of the process. I am generally bored with folks who simply self-promote, and only use blogs to announce their new book, speaking engagement, or whatever.

    So there are some x million blogs out there. Each week, I scan maybe 50 and actually read the entirety of less than 10. But the 10 give me lots of good things to think about as I go about my life both professionally and personally.

    My .02

  3. I absolutely agree about the lack of editing in most blogging and social media. But I think there is still room online for the more considered and carefully crafted writing that we traditionally associate with print media. I think you still see it from time to time, in long-form articles or “features” on prominent blogging and news sites. It hasn’t gone away or been replaced. It’s really not any less common than it was before, and some of it is arguably even better (the truly good writing was always rare. I think we sometimes romanticize print media in our recollections more than it deserves, and I really don’t think that print’s “truth” was any less transitory even if the ink itself lasted longer).

    I think of blogging and social media as the sort of thinking aloud most of us already do before writing or doing anything of any significance. Think of academic papers you have written or professional projects you have worked on. How many people write a complete paper from beginning to end without bouncing their ideas off of someone else—a co-worker, a friend or a mentor—before running through their final draft? How many people complete a project without ever seeking input from someone? Blogging and social media are essentially the same activity (or they can be and frequently are) but expanded to a much larger group of friends, colleagues and mentors. It’s like we’re writing our drafts in public.

    The key, and it really is key, is that at some point we have to collect all of these messy public thoughts and coherently arrange them into a well-written and edited final article or final whatever-it-is-you-make. If all we do is bounce ideas off of each other in blogs and twitter, then we’re only doing half our job. But this, these posts and comments, is often just sketching. This is very often the preliminary work that helps lead us to something else. It’s not always the product in and of itself.

  4. So, I think there are a couple of interesting ideas emerging here. One of them is this idea of sketching ideas, about the dialogue. As a blogger, I entirely agree with this. It is how I have been treating my blog. But I had a couple of conversations lately that led me to believe that it’s not necessarily how others see or perceive them, particularly those who are less active participants. Do you think it matters if a writer and the immediate community of discussion around a blog sees it as a sketch-in-progress, and others view is as something closer to a finished statement? I’m not sure it does, but it was an interesting perspective.

    Matt, that leads into your quite provocative point that a blog needs to lead into something that is better developed or more final. I had never really considered that. Do you think the ideas need to resolve? Would you say the same of another online discussion platform, like a listserv? And if not, what’s the difference between the two.

    BTW – I think this is an entirely interesting perspective, and one I’d like to take on board. I wonder how different my own blogging would be if it had a more conscious end-goal in mind? Although I blog in accompaniment of my PhD reading/research, the two are now always in simpatico.

    Robert – have you found any negative consequences to blogging? Are there things that you have learned through the process of blogging that have changed your approach to it over time?

    1. Every blog post I’ve made was an attempt to use the internet as a sounding board. I’m always thinking aloud. I don’t expect my posts or comments to be final statements about anything. My final statements are the projects I’m working on, the efforts I’m trying complete and the people I’m trying to influence. The communication itself, for me at least, is a means to an end. That doesn’t mean it’s directed toward a single specific goal (though I’ve seen blogs that are). The blog is just not a goal in and of itself.

      That’s obviously not universal. There are, after all, blogs that exist simply to be host to the activity of blogging. And there are blogs that seek to inform, educate, entertain, influence opinion or just stroke the author’s ego. When we talk about the purpose of “blogging” we’re casting a pretty wide net that encompasses a lot of different activities. The label, “blogging”, in this sense is actually kind of arbitrary. It’s like asking someone why they crossed the road.

      Back when publishing was a costly and time-consuming affair we couldn’t afford to be so glib about it. We had to have a good reason to write something and distribute it because doing so was a non-trivial task. Now we have to deliberately make sure we’re publishing for any reason at all rather than just posting because we happen to be at our keyboards when we’re bored, like talking to a wall. Or we don’t have to I suppose. I talk to myself all the time around the house. Doesn’t seem to hurt anything. And that’s what publishing has been reduced to now, so trivially easy that it doesn’t have to be anything. It could be as beautiful and moving as the greatest poetry or the equivalent of talking to yourself while walking down the street. It’s what you do with it. I think the key, for professionally focused blogs, is to do something beyond just the blog because why talk about cool stuff and ideas if you aren’t going to do something with them? For other blogs, do whatever you like. But I’m wandering off the main point.

      The trick to understanding a blog is to understand the motives behind it. If the creator of the blog isn’t effectively communicating their motives to their audience they won’t have an audience no matter how often they post. Often, bloggers inundate their audiences with garbage posts just because they feel like their update schedule is the law or something. These blogs no longer have a purpose except to publish posts. They’re just noise. But a blog with a clear purpose that aligns with its audience can sustain that audience even with an irregular update schedule. I’ve followed many such blogs over the years. That usually requires that the blogger understand their motives in the first place which is where things so frequently go wrong.

      1. “I think the key, for professionally focused blogs, is to do something beyond just the blog because why talk about cool stuff and ideas if you aren’t going to do something with them?”

        I think blogging has made me need/want to do something with my ideas, far more than if I’d just been silently working away on them, cloistered within my immediate university community. If I hadn’t been exposing them here, I think they could have just stayed as abstract ideas. Now I really want to test things out, and see whether the things I’ve been thinking and writing about actually work. I don’t think that was the aim when I started, but the process has changed my response.

  5. I wrote my thesis on art museum curators and social media. I found that social media, particularly blogging, was a great tool and resource for curators to use as a sounding board and to gather their thoughts as they researched and it sounds like others agree. It is also considerably cheaper than an exhibition book. I am the biggest cheerleader for curators and educators using social media instead of the marketing departments. In my organization, however, it has been a struggle to impose upon the significant research and findings the educational department is making. They do not think it is important, but most of it is. The process of research, compiling your thoughts, and expressing them can be placed on a social media platform. On top of that, the audience gains insight on how museum professionals operate and how the work happens.

    Using social media in my personal and professional life has taught me patience and how to be diplomatic. It has also opened opportunities for me as a professional.

    1. Thanks museumshenanigans. When I wrote this, I wasn’t necessarily thinking about curators using their blogs as a research tool for exhibitions etc, but you are absolutely right. That does extend the professional dialogue (if along a different dimension from the one I was imagining).

      The point about diplomacy is a good an interesting one. I recently had a wake-up moment around that issue when blogging that I’m still processing to some extent. I think I sometimes struggle to strike a balance between honouring an idea and seeing it through/exploring it fully, and remembering the people actually attached to it. I don’t think I always reconcile those warring demands successfully.

  6. I’m finally catching up on some missed MuseumGeek posts!

    I wanted to chime in about how blogging and social media communication by museum professionals builds a productive community, which is implied in some of the above comments, but I think is a rich topic in and of itself. This public dialogue in a professional community leads to collaboration, dialogue and building off other’s ideas-in-progress (What idea is *not* an idea-in-progress? Sure, there’s a continuum, but every concept can be pushed further.) When we work out loud we’re living open-source museum practice!

    I included documentation of our process and ‘experiments’ in a 3D Initiatives Intern job description recently submitted. Innovation will come from sharing (and it keeps things fun.)

    See you at MCN!!!

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