Written by Erin Branham.
Last Friday I had the opportunity to speak with Stephanie Pau (@17reasons) and Jessica Baldenhofer (@jbaldenhofer), the tweeters behind @MoMALearning, one of my favorite museum ed twitter streams. This feed, one of the few run from the education department of a museum (that I’ve discovered anyway – please tweet any you know of to @edgital), was begun by the Museum of Modern Art in March 2009. The initiators of the feed were Beth Harris, the former Director of Digital Learning, who worked with Colleen Brogan, also formerly in the Digital Learning lobe of the Department of Education. It has always looked to me like MoMA has completely embraced social media, and fairly early on – Twitter was a mere 3 years old when this feed started. Stephanie and Jessica told me that by the time @MoMALearning began, the Museum already had several Twitter feeds going, so the museum was indeed an early adopter.
Beth and Colleen have since moved on to other positions and thus @MoMALearning was inherited by Jessica, who has been tweeting for the last 2 years, and Stephanie, who joined her as co-tweeter last October. This particular team developed because Jessica works in the School and Teacher lobe of the department, managing School Visits to the museum, so she wanted a partner with a completely different set of responsibilities to come on board. Stephanie is part of the Interpretation & Research lobe, so she collaborates on interpretive text, audio, multimedia, games, visitor research and the like. Between the two of them they feel that they are able to more fully represent the varied aspects of the department – giving a sense both of what happens behind the scenes in museum ed, and what happens in the galleries.
Tweeting from Professional to Personal and Back Again
I was curious to know whether Stephanie and Jessica had been experienced personal tweeters before they began handling the @MoMALearning feed. Surprise, surprise! They were. As with many museums, it is staff who are adept at and comfortable with social media who end up taking it on as part of their jobs. I asked if tweeting for the museum was very different from their personal tweeting. Stephanie, a self-described “museum nerd,” said that there was already a lot of crossover between her personal and professional interests, but found that tweeting professionally upped the amount of personal tweeting she did. Jessica described herself as an obsessed tweeter (*applause* I’m a fan of owning one’s obsessions) and that her personal stream was about her many other life interests, rather than professional ones.
Since I’m always interested in how social media is handled internally, I asked a few questions about the process they use to develop content. The attitude Stephanie and Jessica described reminded me a lot of what I’ve read about a company renowned for its open attitude regarding staff and social media, Zappos.com, and their succinct communications policy: “Be real and use your best judgment.” MoMA currently has 15 twitter feeds, as well as multiple Facebook pages and tumblr feeds, all run by different areas of the museum. Jessica and Stephanie said that each one has its own voice, and staff members are trusted to represent the museum well. In fact they said that they used the various MoMA social media streams to keep up with what their colleagues are doing, mining them for potential tweets. They also described how working with a co-tweeter helped distribute the workload and made it easier to reach their goal of representing the diversity of the education department.
Communicating, Sharing, Learning
In terms of additional goals, they strive to cover different staff perspectives, to communicate what it’s like to work at MoMA, and in the MoMA Education department. They want to inform the audience about what’s happening, so they tweet about upcoming programs and events. They also tweet participant feedback – interesting things visitors say and great photos they capture as they go about their work. Stephanie and Jessica also see @MoMALearning as a resource for the museum field, so they tweet about current issues and share information that they’ve come across that they feel is worth amplifying to their network. I also loved that they think of their MoMA colleagues as their audience and they want to be a hub of information for people in their department. These various goals give them plenty to tweet about and have paid off in (as of this writing) 11,100 followers and growing.
On that subject, I wanted to know how they and their department measured success for the feed. Jessica and Stephanie said they were less interested in numbers than what those numbers mean. Over 10,000 followers is great, retweets show that people are finding your information valuable – but the real reward was in the relationship building. Jessica told me about how she had been contacted via @MoMALearning by a teacher in a remote area of Canada who asked if she would do a distance learning lesson for her 10th grade art students. Jessica explained to me how this was not something they usually attempt due to staff and time limitations. But, “She was so dedicated to using technology to expand her classroom. We ended up having an amazing discussion despite the many technological challenges to doing it with iPads and Skype. The students were talking about whether or not video games can be art, because that was the question they wanted to explore. Now we have a relationship with this teacher. She wrote a blog post about the lesson and we still exchange resources and ideas.”
When I asked about how they integrate their tweeting duties into their regular work load, I swear I could hear the shrug over the phone. “This is how people communicate now,” Stephanie said. Jessica added: “Twitter, though this may be changing a bit now, is where people seem to find out about things first.” They described how they use HootSuite to schedule tweets (I like HootSuite too), or simply tweet off the cuff when something catches their attention, averaging about two or more tweets a day. Stephanie added, “When we started in 2009, the content was really geared toward promoting events at MoMA. There were not many exchanges and retweets. When we expanded that model from one of just promotion to include information and resource exchange both for museum audiences and the museum education field, we became part of the larger dialogue. That really helped to grow the audience, and helped us to learn a lot more about what’s happening. It just becomes more interesting for people to follow you when you do it that way.” And, said Jessica, “it’s been interesting for us to meet the audience with things that they find valuable. Doing that communicates about what our values are as an education department, being a part of that conversation communicates our most basic value.”
When I asked for any final thoughts, they both laughed and talked over one another, saying, “We haven’t perfected this, so it’s always a learning process – this is what makes it fun. We’re not experts – no one really is. We’re constantly trying to experiment and think critically about how we do what we do and why. It’s a constantly changing environment, so there’s always more to learn.”
I couldn’t agree more. Sometimes I think I’m eager to push for greater involvement in social media from the museum education field for the purely selfish reason that there is so much to learn, and that’s why I got into this career in the first place. I’ve been blown away by how many amazing people and great information I’ve found on twitter so I loved how they included the benefits the stream brings to the tweeters in their list of why running a twitter stream is a good idea for museum education. Thanks to Jessica and Stephanie for taking the time to chat with me and share their experiences.
Keep an eye out for more from the MoMA Education team when I follow up with a post in a week or two about their fantastic MoMA Learning online resource hub.