Failing Miserably at Social Media for Special Collections
I had some feels about this talk, “How to destroy special collections with social media,” when it first came out. Finally, I have some time to figure out just what bothered me about it….
We have to start with the title: I get that clickbait-y headlines are all the rage now, but I’m not sure it’s really in the best interests of the profession to assert that special collections can ever be “killed,” and if they can, that the cause can ever be “social media.” Cutesy and hyperbolic talk titles do us a disservice: a profession with low visibility isn’t doing itself any favours by seeming overreactive or dismissive and flippant.
… Man I sound like a cantankerous old coot. Let’s try this again: the title has nothing to do with the content of the talk. The talk lays out ways in which special collections in their current form are generally incompatible with how the majority of the world uses social media. So, an accurate title would be “How to fail before you begin at social media for special collections.”
To summarize the points of Werner’s talk, based on the blog post:
- We aren’t digitizing enough content.
- Our image database interfaces are crummy.
- We make a lot of baseless assertions about our copyrights; maybe our users mistakenly believe us, which would be bad.
- We could use our images as opportunities for learning, but we don’t.
- Citations are tough! Especially with character limits!
- “Educating” on social media seems to happen in communities that are already engaged with higher learning and subject expertise. So, we’re preaching to our choirs.
- Metrics are tough! We’re not statisticians!
- We don’t convert the metrics available into proof of value.
Here’s the concluding paragraph:
“So I’ll end with three easy steps you can take, as librarians and researchers, to help special collections grow by using social media: 1) Digitize with open access licensing and easy-to-use platforms; 2) Teach your audience to think about the past instead of laughing at the past; 3) Choose your aims carefully and don’t confuse popularity with engagement.”
There are parts worth agreeing with, and parts worth trying to rectify. I’m going to try not to return to the title over and over, but forgive me if I do.
1) Digitizing “with open-access licensing and easy-to-use platforms” is correct. It’s a very complicated issue, though, that is worth diving into much more deeply. Suffice it to say that so many archives and special collections have a lot of work to do to clear images for sharing (and in advocating for good interfaces that respect our materials and show them to their best advantage).
Werner here focuses on rare books and manuscript pages and illustrations, which are published, in the public domain, and not subject to much in the way of donation agreement restrictions or copyright issues. To those materials I say “Digitize to your heart’s content” (after checking first to see if a near-exact copy hasn’t already been put online by one of the major libraries, so as not to waste energy). I know paper isn’t going anywhere and there are more pressing issues, but that’s not really so crucial to a social-media and outreach discussion.
For the purposes of getting people in the door, received wisdom (and if anyone has any stats or studies to contradict this I’d love to see them) is that the most beautiful art, the funniest and most absurd one-liners, and the coolest marginalia (and any and all references to cats) are the easiest ways to drum up attention. It’s something I’ve always been a bit skeptical about, and there are many competing interests here (donors, faculty, researchers, etc.) to take into account.
Werner’s definitely right in that we use silly licensing to absolve ourselves of unforeseeable mistakes; users versed in copyright will know that the Vatican can’t assert ownership over public-domain digitizations, and will proceed as usual. We can always help by clearly labeling all PD stuff as such, even if it’s not from our collections.
Also, yes, our interfaces are often garbage.
2) Teaching one’s audience “to think about the past instead of laughing at [it]” is more contentious to me. Teaching in general is hard, as we all know, and we have a million venues for talking about pedagogy and learning styles.
Teaching on social media is extra double hard. Social media is a great way to make people aware of issues, start discussion, get some basic feedback – but intellectual engagement happens best elsewhere, on blogs and in articles (something something scholarship is a conversation, one not hampered by 140 characters).
I have no issues with teaching as a goal, but we need to be very careful here: insisting that teaching is the only goal is really really really really wrong. It’s a moral judgement, and it’s frankly selfish. The public-domain materials that you put online? They’re not yours. They’re public domain. People can do what they like. Be happy they’re using them at all, and if you happen to be around when they do, you can try to start a “more meaningful” conversation.
The other thing conflated in this talk was the idea that teaching necessarily includes people going back to your website to see the context. Enforcing your own research and authority is important to you, but it’s not more valuable than people having fun on social media (while ambiently increasing everyone’s exposure to historical objects, and increasing visual and digital and print literacy, and inspiring each other to create, and ….). If people perceive your online presence as for scholars only, that’s a barrier to entry we can’t afford.
If you’re angry about some paid jokester stealing your best bits, or profiting off your laborious curation work … um, get over it. Or write a twitter bot that responds to every tweet by those accounts with a citation and link. But seriously, life’s too short for you to get butthurt and embarrass your institution (and the profession) by conflating labour with ownership. We are not in the “digitization = modification = new work” business, we’re in the sharing-shit business.
Did you want to use Twitter as a way to grab some visual attention for a blog post or new initiative (online exhibit, newly-added collection, discovery portal, change in licensing ….) on your main website? Do that. Did you want to excerpt some of your better collections, commemorate an on-this-day event, relate your materials to a contemporary news story or trend, help people understand that there is a way to educate themselves on what’s going on? By all means.
The latter – relating your collections to things people are doing in the world – encompasses the joke+image tweet, and can be done extremely well for the purposes of driving traffic. There’s nothing wrong with the format per se. Maybe we just need to make better jokes. Maybe we need to hire copywriters, comedians, hell, even students from our creative-writing programs, to help us out. Maybe we do social-media-for-heritage badly because clear and succinct expression is not a skill we tend to possess.
I have some ideas for systemic solutions to the images-proliferate-without-attribution problem, but it’s not a piecemeal answer, and it’ll take a lot of work from a lot of dedicated institutions (and just about every major corporate website). It’s not going to be easy, but it’ll be easier to enforce attribution from the top down than by whining about it. I’m looking at you, medieval scholars.
3) Mmmmmmmmetrics. Werner’s talk contains no mention of existing research and standards into conversion, ROI, and assessment for social media metrics. Turns out, the corporate world and the heritage world want the same things: people going to our websites, signing up for our mailing lists, digging into our materials.
We don’t track sales, but we do track downloads, people who link to us, people who cite us in research and writing, uses of our images in other places. Here’s a ridiculously easy way to do the “tracking downloads” thing with Google Analytics (assuming you have decent web skills / a decent webmaster):
“Keep in mind that Google Analytics only allows you to create twenty goals. Ever. So, I recommend using one thank you page for all of your downloadable content and then delivering whichever guide, e-book or check-list the person requested via email. Don’t worry; you’ll still be able to see how many leads came from a specific campaign, social network and post or ad using the techniques below.”
I don’t recommend file delivery via email, but I do think you can have a thank-you splash page reminding people gently that citations are appreciated, while performing this tracking function. I found that within 30 seconds of googling about social media conversion. I bet you could find more, if you looked.
You may remember I had some opinions on this in my AAO2015 presentation: your images should be free, all use is good use, and if we want to know that we’re having an effect in the world, we might measure an item’s velocity (its speed of dissemination and the size of its reach), which would include both attributed (or “educational”) and unattributed (or “naive”) uses.
Every institution is different and it’s not easy for me to guess which statistics are going to seem most valuable to your board of directors or whoever else you report to. But I can bet that saying “We have X followers on Twitter” means little to them, whereas saying “Our images have been downloaded X times,” and showing a few examples of reshares and commentary you dug up with some choice reverse-image-searches, would work out a lot better for you.
(And hey, what if your images are increasing traffic to another institution that has the same book but hasn’t digitized it yet? What a nice thing to do!)
If you find your images are being used as stock to illustrate people’s loosely-related blog posts, rather than being used as primary sources in research, that’s not a bad thing – but if that difference is meaningful to you, you’re going to have to work on integrating yourself into the research fields your materials could support. (See also liaising half-decently.) I would hesitate to pick one of those as more valuable than the other – and I would disagree that an uncredited stock usage is somehow abusing the privilege of being able to access your shared materials.
I’ll repeat myself on the moral judgement of social media for cultural heritage: it’s not your stuff. It’s public domain. People can do what they like. Let’s have fewer talks about how special collections are being killlllllllllllllllllllllllllllllled by MedievalReacts and more talks about how we can use those perfectly normal and unavoidable patron behaviours to our advantage.