Museums Can Model the Future of Social Media
Imagine, a place where people — strangers from all backgrounds — gather to engage an experience relevant to their interests, lives, and communities, participating in a civil conversation with input and guidance from experts.
Such an arrangement might sound like science fiction in the age of Twitter, but it happens at museums and other cultural institutions around the country, every day.
A few weeks ago, Annalee Newitz wrote an article in the New York Times asking what the future of social media and the internet might look like. She noted that although we don’t tend to be very good at predicting major shifts, we could start from the position that the next generation of social media and technology will probably look very little like our current platforms.
Although the 2010s began touting the promise and benefit of the social internet, the decade closed with its downsides all too visible: endless advertising, lack of privacy and control of personal data, vicious harassment, the encouragement of partisan tribalism, widespread misinformation, and a host of other ills. The unwillingness or inability of social media and technology companies to curb these shortcomings has left some considering a better future.
“There are many paths beyond the social media hellscape,” Newitz notes, “ and all of them begin with reimagining what it means to build public spaces where people seek common ground.” They continue, suggesting that that the future of social internet could be modeled after real world spaces where people come together to debate and socialize; they could “imitate actual town halls, concert venues and pedestrian-friendly sidewalks.”
The best model may be museums.
In communities around the country, museums, historical societies, historic sites, humanities councils, and other cultural organizations accomplish much of what we hope current and future online spaces will provide. These institutions already have well-developed approaches for providing people a shared experience grounded in authentic material and facilitating a conversation between relative strangers about complex issues. Increasingly, museums not only encourage dialogue with visitors, they connect the museum’s historical or other expertise with contemporary issues and the questions and challenges most relevant to their audience as community.
At the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center in Hartford, Connecticut, for example, the monthly program “Salons at Stowe” convenes community members for big conversations about race, class, gender, and other issues of social justice. The Center serves serves as a convener and forum, inviting experts who provide perspective and serve as a resource for attendees. Similarly, the International Coalition for Sites of Conscience offers training and coaching for historic sites and museums around the world on how to engage their communities and facilitate difficult conversations about the link between the past and contemporary challenges.
These are just two examples of a much wider trend. Throughout our field, museums, history institutions, and other organizations in the cultural sector are increasingly trying to provide their audiences with a forum for discussing complex issues with expert guidance and a firm grounding in historical evidence. Visitors have responded positively. The emphasis on community engagement and relevance has occurred in tandem with an increase in visitation at history organizations, particularly the small institutions uniquely positioned to serve a local community in direct and meaningful ways.
It will be difficult to forge meaningful links between technology companies, developers, and cultural institutions, but it appears to be a major area of opportunity. Perhaps as the U.S. 250th anniversary approaches in 2026, history organizations will be able to position themselves to take advantage.
As the next generation of social media and internet platforms come into development, the best practices developed by museums and history organizations can offer a model for how to build and operate spaces that encourage conversation, understanding, and empathy. As the limitations of our current platforms become ever clearer, the tech sector would do well to take note.