Museums and the Web 2009: call for participation

MW2009 will be held in Indianapolis, Indiana, USA from April 15-18, 2009. I’ve only been to one Museums and the Web conference but I would recommend it – the sessions were really useful, and I met some fantastic people and overall it gave me access to a wider community of digital museum professionals. It’s a great chance to share your ideas or showcase your project for a proactive and engaged audience and there’s a variety of session formats which means you can find a format to suit you and your content.

You’ve got until the end of this month for proposals for papers, and until the end of December for demonstration proposals. Proposals are welcome on any topic related to museums creating, facilitating or delivering culture, science and heritage on-line – a full list of themes and much more information is at MW2009 Call for Participation.

[Full disclosure: I’m on the Program Committee.]

Microupdates and you (a.ka. ‘twits in the museum’)

I was trying to describe Twitter-esque applications for a presentation today, and I wasn’t really happy with ‘microblogging’ so I described them as ‘micro-updates’. Partly because I think of them as a bit like Facebook status updates for geeks, and partly because they’re a lot more actively social than blog posts.

In case you haven’t come across them, Twitter, Pownce, Jaiku, tumblr, etc, are services that let you broadcast short (140 characters) messages via a website or mobile device. I find them useful for finding like-minded people (or just those who also fancy a drink) at specific events (thanks to Brian Kelly for convincing me to try it).

You can promote a ‘hash tag’ for use at your event – yes, it’s a tag with a # in front of it, low tech is cool. Ideally your tag should be short and snappy yet distinct, because it has to be typed in manually (mistakes happen easily, especially from a mobile device) and it’s using up precious characters. You can use tools like Summize, hashtags, Quotably or Twemes to see if anyone else has used the same tag recently.

You can also ask people to use your event tag on blog posts, photos and videos to help bring together all the content about your event and create an ad hoc community of participants. Be aware that especially with Twitter-type services you may get fairly direct criticism as well as praise – incredibly useful, but it can seem harsh out of context (e.g. in a report to your boss).

More generally, you can use the same services above to search twitter conversations to find posts about your institution, events, venues or exhibitions. You can add in a search term and subscribe to an RSS feed to be notified when that term is used. For example, I tried http://summize.com/search?q=”museum+of+london” and discovered a great review of the last ‘Lates’ event that described it as ‘like a mini festival’. You should also search for common variations or misspellings, though they may return more false positives. When someone tweets (posts) using your search phrase it’ll show up in your RSS reader and you can then reply to the poster or use the feedback to improve your projects.

This can be a powerful way to interact with your audience because you can respond directly and immediately to questions, complaints or praise. Of course you should also set up google alerts for blog posts and other websites but micro-update services allow for an incredible immediacy and directness of response.

As an example, yesterday I tweeted (or twitted, if you prefer):

me: does anyone know how to stop firefox 3 resizing pages? it makes images look crappy

I did some searching [1] and found a solution, and posted again:

me: aha, it’s browser.zoom.full or “View → Zoom → Zoom Text Only” on windows, my firefox is sorted now

Then, to my surprise, I got a message from someone involved with Firefox [2]:

firefox_answers: Command/Control+0 (zero, not oh) will restore the default size for a page that’s been zoomed. Also View->Zoom->Reset

me: Impressed with @firefox_answers providing the answer I needed. I’d been looking in the options/preferences tabs for ages

firefox_answers: Also, for quick zooming in & out use control plus or control minus. in Firefox 3, the zoom sticks per site until you change it.

Not only have I learnt some useful tips through that exchange, I feel much more confident about using Firefox 3 now that I know authoritative help is so close to hand, and in a weird way I have established a relationshp with them.

Finally, twitter et al have a social function – tonight I met someone who was at the same event I was last week who vaguely recognised me because of the profile pictures attached to Twitter profiles on tweets about the event. Incidentally, he’s written a good explanation of twitter, so I needn’t have written this!

[1] Folksonomies to the rescue! I’d been searching for variations on ‘firefox shrink text’, ‘firefox fit screen’, ‘firefox screen resize’ but since the article that eventually solved my problem called it ‘zoom’, it took me ages to find it. If the page was tagged with other terms that people might use to describe ‘my page jumps, everything resizes and looks a bit crappy’ in their own words, I’d have found the solution sooner.

[2] Anyone can create a username and post away, though I assume Downing Street is the real thing.

Some feedback to MW2008 and other conferences

There’s a thread on the Museums and the Web conference site asking for suggestions for MW2009. I was a bit zombie-like by the time I filled out the feedback form, so I’d added some more comments.

I’m posting them here because I think they apply to lots of conferences and these are things I’d like to see generally. It might look like a lot of comments but I’m probably inspired to write because overall the conference was so good.

There were suggestions to have Pecha Kucha style sessions for people to talk about their projects. I think that’d be really useful – people in the early stages of a project could get a range of feedback and suggestions from some of the best researchers and most experienced ‘doers’ around; and the vast majority of projects that will never be written up as big conference papers can still pass on a few valuable lessons in a few minutes. It’d also help build a pool of people who had some experience presenting.

I also suggested having afternoon versions of the Birds of a Feather breakfasts. I’m one of those people who’s not at all sociable in the morning, but an afternoon session in a coffee shop or pub would be perfect. It’d also give you a way to meet people and maybe go on to dinner or drinks – it must be really difficult if you don’t know anyone there and are a bit shy. I’d imagine you could find people who are interested in the same topics more easily this way because it offers a bit more structure than just drinks.

I don’t know if there are any guidelines when writing papers but I’d like to suggest one – it’s really useful when people talk about how their projects worked in their institutions/sector, as it helps everyone work out how to champion and implement similar ideas when they get back from the conference. Or maybe that’s a thread for one of the museum geeks lists…

It would be really useful if each session listed the audience (managers, technologists, educators, etc) and the level of experience it was aimed at (e.g. absolute beginners, practitioners, people looking for a practical learning session) in the program. A lot of the papers did a really good job covering a range of potential audiences, but I might have skipped other sessions if I’d realised they were aimed at an introductory level.

Museums and the Web conferences are brilliant because they put the papers online, so this is a minor quibble, but it would be handy if the papers were available as pdf (or similar) downloads so I could load them onto my phone or laptop beforehand. That way I could follow them during the presentations if there isn’t any network connectivity, or review them afterwards.

Finally, it would be so helpful if all presenters had to put their slides online somewhere, tagged with the conference tag and linked from the conference site. The one paper I’ve blogged about so far had their slides online, and it helped me immensely when writing up as I could check my notes against theirs. As more people blog about conferences, you might need tags for each session – a bit more overhead, but I’m sure you’d get great conversations between people who blogged about the same sessions and hopefully with presenters too.