Tuesday, 1 May 2007

Confessions of a slow reader

OK, it's time to come clean: I suck at skimming. Skim reading, that is. I seem to have a profound anxiety that I'll miss the next big idea or something essential about what I'm reading. I could blame an early college instructor, who taught us what he called the "Rideout slow-reading method," but the truth is that this is hard-wired into me. I'm almost pathologically curious (see Moby-Dick , Chapter 85 ["The Fountain"] if you doubt the potential danger involved).

And I can't decide whether I have (a) a phenomenally short attention span or (b) an absurdly long one. One up-side to this 'slow' approach is that I seem to remember things. But it also makes things like Twitter--the current (or just passing?) flavour-of-the-month in social networking--a real challenge.

If you don't yet know of it, Twitter is based on a million and one answers to the question, "What are you doing now?" The catch is that answers are limited to 140 characters, so this is clearly a medium for generation txt.

As the developers say, it's "device-independent", so it means you can send a message to your friends, regardless of which mobile provider or instant messaging client they use. So you don't have to care about any of this, or know whether your friends are online or not if you want to update them on what you're doing.

Why bother, you're asking. Fair enough. It's not great for those who like to dwell on what they're reading, mull it over for a while. And it's not brilliant for loners either. Twitter's real strength is in the social dimension. Twitter doesn't care how you like to send your updates (SMS, IM or web), so you don't need to. So keeping in touch with your network of friends is simplified.

As Wade Roush writes, Twitter "essentially turns the one-to-one channels of instant messaging and phone-based SMS text messaging into broadcast media"(Technology Review, April 6, 2007).

Users can broadcast their presence--this IS all about what you're doing now--publicly and to their network, both 'friends' and 'followers' (users who track others' updates).

So what can this do for museums? At London Transport Museum, we've been brainstorming about ways to register some of the detail of the visitor experience--to allow visitors to create a digital fingerprint that captures some of their interaction with our collections and exhibits. And also to give prospective visitors a flavour of the experience they can expect--to generate a buzz around 'what's going on in the Museum right now'.

Critically, this is generated not by what we do as museum professionals, but by the movement, engagement and input of visitors themselves. Very 2.0.

Education colleagues will have a cascade of ideas for how this kind of networking and micro-engagement could work on a small scale, say with individual school groups.

And the museum itself can use this platform to broadcast visitor information, event details, upcoming exhibitions, podcasts--the list goes on. (Nina Simon writes a more detailed post on the subject here, which I've shamelessly adapted to my own purposes.)

A commentator on the Tech Review article cited above suggests that even if Twitter isn't around for the long haul, the lessons learned "can be applied, implemented, observed in other social platforms already in widespread use...." [johnpublic]

A quick glance at some of the add-ons available for Facebook makes the point. Services like Mugshot and fbtwit already merge Twitter with other social networks (fbtwit will update Twitter with your Facebook Status).

What do we take away from this? Well, there is no shortage of creative ways we can use these tools to help create a more engaging experience for vistitors/users--before, during and after their museum experience. Technology is growing at such a pace that we don't have to be satisfied with simply using what's given. We can now ask what we want to do and then go about building creative solutions to deliver the results that we--and our visitors--want. The Brooklyn Museum's efforts are worth a look as a good starting point. Where we go from there is up to us.

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