Social media is stupid and museums should be too.
I have now spent a year being paid to do social media for a large, well-known academic institution, library and museum: the Bodleian Libraries.
The Bodleian is the venerable old library of England. Founded in 1602, its holdings include a 1217 engrossment of Magna Carta, the first draft of Frankenstein and Tolkien’s archive. Every Oxford scholar and writer, from C.S. Lewis to T.S. Eliot, has entered its hallowed halls. To be the single voice of such an institution is a privilege and a huge responsibility.
And how have I used this power? I think this tweet sums it up pretty well:
Yes, the Bodleian does stupid tweets.
It does stupid GIFs.
It makes stupid conversation.
And lo, the sky did not fall in, and I did not get fired, and we grew our followers.
That isn’t to say that the Bodleian is always stupid. We do the usual serious press stuff, advertisements for events and exhibitions, telling people when we’re closed for Christmas etc. Being serious but interesting is a very important part of our mix, and in the case of our campaign around the Bodleian’s 12 millionth book, it can win awards too.
But when you get beyond the standard service, all that’s left to do is fulfill the aims of our Strategy — to raise our profile, to grow followers, to create warmth for our brand, etc. — in whatever ways that a) work and b) don’t make us look too stupid.
My definition of stupid here is a very specific one. In the case of the Bodleian it’s a dry humour that indulges in the silly. It’s a fusty academic accidentally letting their humanity shine through. It does not mean not smart, it means having fun.
Being stupid, of course, would not be for every institution. The Bodleian can get away with certain things on Twitter because we have 40k followers; go too far in front of Tate’s c.3 million followers, though, and you may make it onto the evening news. Equally, it also depends on the purpose and audience of an institution — the Wiener Library does not need to start using memes.
Museums and libraries are perceived as honest, however, and chatty-copy — an overly casual and familiar writing style — is beginning to be seen for the sham it is.
And yet, chatty-copy is not the same as my definition of stupid. Museums and libraries have long been see as the bastions of serious and worthy education. As a trusted and academic institution, acting stupid should be accompanied with a knowing wink. Letting the mask slip now and then is simply refreshing and, in the case of Museum Hack, profitable.
After my year of social media at the Bodleian, I can tell you that it has been our most stupid content which has been the most fun to make, and almost always results in positive feedback. If it had turned out that the Bodleian’s followers did not enjoy stupid content then we would have stopped. It turns out, however, that academics are people too.
There is an appetite out there for institutions to have fun with their collections, indulge in in-jokes with their followers and, in general, be more human. Which means being stupid.