Cultural Heritage

A UKOLN Blog for the Cultural Heritage sector (now archived)

Responding To Social Web Challenges

Posted by Brian Kelly on August 6th, 2009

I mentioned previously that I took part in a 2-day workshop held in Cardiff on “Search Engine Optimisation”, running a session on “Using The Social Web To Maximise Access To Your Resources“. Towards the end of the session I asked the participants to identify some of the difficulties and challenges in exploiting the Social Web for this purpose. These (slightly tweaked) questions are listed below and, as promised, I have included some responses.

Group 1

  • How do you find relevant resources?
  • What are the quick wins?
  • How does one develop an organisational strategy?
  • How does one rein in the enthusiasts?
  • How do you get motivation higher up the food chain?

Finding Web 2.0 resources is probably easy, there are so many of them. Finding relevant resources may be more challenging. You will need to ensure that the resources are relevant to your particular requirement, that you have the appropriate skills and expertise to use them and that your investment in time and effort in learning about and using the resources will provide an appropriate return on investment. A suggestion I would make is to use the Social Web to make connections with your peers and top learn from them about the resources they find useful. This blog can also have a role to play. We have already published a number of guest blog posts which describe the experiences of a number of cultural heritage organisations in using Social Web services. We hope you can learn from these experiences. And why not offer to why a guest blog post yourself, about your experiences in using the Social Web.

What are the quick wins? I would suggest introducing your marketing department to various tools which can be used to observe what is being said about your organisation on the Social Web. Using Addictomatic to see what is being said about the SS Great Britain, for example, I can see that visitors are already using Twitter to talk about their visit, including one person who informs us that this is the “First time we’ve been since our parents got married on it“. An opportunity for some positive publicity about the marriage, perhaps – but also a need to reflect on the ethics of doing this. And if negative comments are being made about visits, wouldn’t you want to know about it so that, if appropriate, the concerns can be addressed. And once the marketing department understands how visitors and the media are using the Social Web they may then want to publish in this space.

The need for an organisational strategy is beginning to be raised more frequently. There’s a danger, I feel, in developing policies covering use of the Social Web too soon – there’s a need to observe the diversities of ways in which the Social Web is being used before implementing policies which may stifle innovative uses.  So perhaps the strategic approach needs to embrace a period of observing and experimentation.

The question of how one reins in the enthusiasts can perhaps be challenged. Why would you want to rein in the enthusiasm of colleagues who are keen to exploit the potential of the Social Web? Surely you should consider yourself fortunate to have such colleagues? But of course such enthusiasm will need to be managed. One approach to maintaining the enthusiasm whilst ensuring this is sustainable may be to ask the enthusiastic user of the Social Web to document how the institution should respond if funding is reduced or the enthusiast leaves the institution.

How do you get motivation higher up the food chain is another important question – after all, the  enthusiasm and a bottom-up approach can only go so far. I have suggested to those who work in higher education that the enthusiasts should ensure that senior managers are alerted to the Higher Education in a Web 2.0 World and The Edgeless University reports. These two high profile reports were commissioned by key funding bodies and related agencies and outline the strategic responses required of senior management. “Beat your senior managers over the head with these reports” is how I suggested these reports could be used to get motivation from those higher up the food chain.  It would be useful to see if similar reports have been published for the cultural heritage sector and for other groups in the public sector.

Group 2

  • Who owns the content and how does one go about monitoring  it?
  • How do you learn how to use social media?
  • How do you automate workflow processes to keep, for example,  course materials up-to-date on third party Web sites?

The ownership of content held on Social Web services can be complicated. I have tried to avoid the complications of contracts for my UK Web Focus blog by explicitly clarifying ownership issues in the blog’s policy. The question of monitoring content is partially covered in my response to a previous question (use services such as Addictomatic). I’d also suggest that the enthusiasts who make initial use of the Social Web in a profession context define their own policies which ensure that  their use reflects the interests of their host institution along the lines I have taken for my UK Web Focus blog.

I am pleased that the question of automating workflow processes has been raised. There are certain Social Web services, such as Facebook, which I feel should be used to automatically pull in content held elsewhere. If you wish to use Facebook for an organisational presence I would recommend that details of events, photographs, videos, etc, are embedded using RSS applications or other appropriate applications (e.g. YouTube, Flickr, etc. tools)

Group 3

  • How appropriate is it to move in to student’s social media (it might make them move out)?
  • What about the investment in existing systems (e.g. VLEs, CMSs, etc.)?

The term creepy treehouse is sometimes used as an argument that organisations shouldn’t use Social Web services. However rather than completely avoiding use of these  services I feel there is a need to use them in appropriate fashion. It would be a mistake, I feel, to require users to ‘befriend’ an organisation in order to access their resources. However providing access to such resources in a Social Web context which users may choose to access is providing a diversity of means for users to engage with the resources.

The question of one’s investment in existing systems is, when you think about it, nothing new. We’ve been through many times before this: for example when we moved from mainframe computers to workstations and from standalone PCs to networked PCs. In the IT world this regular change has always happened and we need to ensure that as organisations we are agile enough to respond.

Group 4

  • Is there a problem just trying to be cool and trendy, or can the services be used to fulfill relevant purposes?
  • Can we assume that all users will be willing and able to make use of the Social Web? What about issues such as social inclusion?
  • Should you seek permission in the first place… or just do it?

Public sector organisations shouldn’t be cool and trendy – they should be dull and worthy :-)   More seriously, innovation is often intimidating and may be dismissed by being labelled as ‘cool and trendy’.  This happened in the mid 1990s when Web sites were regarded as trendy, but eventually became established (and even dull and boring!). Social Web services may be cool and trendy – but they can still be used to fulfill one’s organisational requirements.

All users will not be willing or able to make use of the Social Web, and it would be wrong to assume there is a homogeneous user community out there, who are all using Facebook and are comfortable using various Social Web services. But not all of are users are willing or able to make use of IT. Does that mean we should abandon investment in IT? Clearly not. rather issues such as social inclusion will form part of the challenges which we need to face and address. But remember that developing engaging services which make use of the Social Web may help to engage with users communities which are otherwise difficult to reach.

The suggestion that enthusiasts and motivated individuals should take an approach of ‘just do it‘ was popular a few years ago (indeed Mike Ellis and myself presented a paper on “Web 2.0: How to Stop Thinking and Start Doing: Addressing Organisational Barrier” at the  Museums and the Web 2007 conference which explored these ideas. This approach, which was not possible when significant development required large budgets and the support of IT staff, is now achievable. But there is a need to consider one’s organisational cultural and the risks that any innovation may not be sustainable.  But remember that there are approaches that individuals may be able to take (using an RSS reader, using a social bookmarking services such as, etc.) which can be beneficial for the individual and help improve the individual’s efficiency without the need for formal adoption within the institution.

Group 5

  • How do you monitor what’s ‘out there’ and make sure it is answered in reasonable time?
  • How do you convince decision makers for staff to do this work and get resources?

The first question is concerned with monitoring what is being said about your organisation on the Social Web and how one should respond, especially to criticisms. There are a wide range of tools which can be used to alert you to new content – I make use of Google alerts to send me email messages which appear to mention papers I have written. I also have RSS feeds which will alert me to blog posts and RSS feeds which mention the areas of work I am involved in. In addition the administrator’s interface for my blog will inform me of new including links which cite my posts. I then have to make a judgment on hos I should respond to this information.

How do you convince decision makers of the importance of the Social Web? Well the economic recessions, which is still to hit the public sector in its full force, will help decision makers to focus on new ways of doing things. And use of services in the Cloud may have a role to play in helping public sector organisations to continue to engage with their user communities, without having to ask for significant amounts on new investment.

Group 6

  • What tone should be used for embracing Social Web?
  • How do you control and monitor use of the Social Web?
  • How do you identify authentic Web sites, compared to those that appear similar?

A variety of ‘voices’ can be used when making use of the Social Web. The voice behind the blog or the Twitter account could be that of an individual. Alternatively the voice could be the institution.  Both approaches have advantages and disadvantages.  My suggestion would be to observe the approaches taken by related organisations and adopt one that you feel would work best for your organisation and for the people in your organisation who will be involved in use of the Social Web.

The issue of monitoring use of the Social Web has been mentioned previously. The question of ‘control’ of the Social Web is a difficult and perhaps dangerous one to raise. You can’t control what is said about your organisation on the Social Web (unless you wish to te legal proceedings). My view is to regard the Social Web as a public place: you can’t stop people talking about you in such places, But you can talk about the things that you have being doing in this space.

The issue of authenticity in the Social Web is another interesting one.  For me, this is a question of information literacy. Yes not everything in Wikipedia, for example, will be true, and users need to appre5ciate this.  But Wikipedia is a very well-used resource. So let’s ensure, at least, that entries in Wikipedia relevant to our areas of interest and expertise benefit from our experiences and knowledge.

I hope these responses to the issues raised at the workshop in Cardiff are helpful for the participants. I should add, however, that these aren’t intended to provide ready-made answers: rather they aim to provide suggestions for approaches which may help. Let’s not imagine that there are a set of simple rules which will solve all of the uissues related to effective use of the Social Web. Life ain’t like that, I’m afraid!