Might More Meaningful Words Mean Meaningful Evaluation?

Amelia Wong, USA

Is it possible that the language museums use to talk about social media is an obstacle towards developing meaningful frameworks for the evaluation of their social media outreach?

It is the norm that online social media try to construct their user audiences as “communities.” They use various tactics to do so, but rely largely on the principle that social media are inherently “interactive.” It is not uncommon for museums to do the same: they often seek to use social media to create communities because they are perceived as interactive.

It is also not uncommon in their social media efforts for museum staff to seek community through interactivity without defining either term. But, what Sally J. McMillan has written about “interactivity” as it circulates in the field of information and communication technologies is also true for museums: “It is … important to realize that interactivity means different things to different people in different contexts.” Similarly, decades of scholarly research on the concept of “community” shows that it has a plethora of definitions that operate in different contexts.

This lack of definition I find troubling for two reasons. The first concerns how museum practitioners often turn to interactivity and community in the interest of democratizing museums. That they pursue their efforts in the interest of democratization is not troubling. Efforts to increase access, diversity of representation, and other goals are laudatory and necessary. What is problematic is that staff often assumes that creating interactive opportunities with audiences and invoking “community” in their work automatically achieves democratization.

The second is that definitions of concepts, whether articulated or not, affect the design, implementation, and evaluation of social media projects. Taken together, these concerns lead me to the argument that, in taking “interactivity” and “community” at face value as inherently positive, museum practitioners may be stymieing their efforts to advance democratizing goals (which also require definition). What is more, I will suggest that by articulating definitions of these terms in social media efforts, the field may find a meaningful framework for evaluating the impact of social media.

My paper will explore definitions of “interactivity” and “community” in general and show how these are at play in museums’ uses of social media. I will also show that, by and large, when museums seek interactivity and community with online audiences, they are pursuing various types of interaction and communication. Although this may sound obvious, I will explain how that understanding allows museums to tap into existing bodies of research about interactivity and communication that suggest ways to evaluate their social media projects. As an example, I will explore how the field can draw from research about interactivity defined on the basis of user-to-user, user-to-document, and user-to-system. In recognizing that museums pursue “community” through actually pursuing different types of interactions between users and users, users and staff, users and content, and users and interfaces, we might begin to evaluate social media projects by collecting qualitative and quantitative data in meaningful contexts.