Curators are great storytellers—you probably already know that. On Friday, I learned that many also have a great instinct for social media, even if they aren’t (yet) active users.
I was reminded of this as I sat down with two curators to prepare them for the #docsocial tweetup taking place at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History (NMAH) and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM). Bill and Nancy would be leading a tour of the Camilla’s Purse exhibition, which tells the story of Camilla Gottlieb, a Holocaust survivor who managed to save a purse full of incredible documents that illuminate her pre-World War II life, survival in Theresienstadt, and immigration to America. From NMAH, the group would move to USHMM for a behind-the-scenes experience. In our prep meeting, the NMAH curators and I chatted about the logistics of the tweetup as well as some Twitter best practices (top tip: quips are easier to tweet than paragraphs, so a short, off-hand remark may get re-tweeted 30 times while a longer point may not).
Then Bill asked a great question: is Camilla’s story Twitter-compatible? Could you tell a story like hers through a series of individual tweets? I referenced @RealTimeWWII and @todayin1963, accounts that convey ongoing narratives that people don’t seem to struggle to follow, as examples that it was probably possible. So we decided to try it. The story is a chronological one beginning with Camilla’s life in Vienna, her experiences during the Holocaust, immigration to America, and life here. In the exhibition, documents, 3D objects, quotes, panels, and many other elements convey this multifaceted, sprawling story of one woman’s life. Could we get the point across on Twitter?
The tweetup felt like a great success—a flurry of thoughtful tweets and photos from our 25 participants, great questions asked and answered, online followers chiming in and getting curious. Afterwards, my colleague Elissa from USHMM and I crunched the numbers (wow, 1,225,050 Twitter accounts reached, oh boy, 24 million possible impressions) and started selecting some of the stand-out tweets to share on Storify.
Re-building the chronological story of the tweetup on Storify, I think both of us were struck by the same thing: this narrative is kind of hard to follow. We had been curious about what the experience of “watching,” “following,” or “stumbling upon” a tweetup stream like this would be like, even preparing a short survey to gather feedback from those who encountered the hashtag on Twitter. We’re still waiting for more survey results to come in, but this tweet from Sarah Erdman really got me thinking:
@amhistorymuseum Like being at the back of a packed room. If you jump you see a snippet and piece together the story. Each tweet is a “jump”
— Cabinet of Curios (@CabinetofCurios) January 26, 2014
I love Sarah’s analogy for what it’s like to follow a tweetup online when you aren’t in the room.
- The room is crowded so you hear a lot of chatter (one survey taker complained that there were too many re-tweets, making the stream too cluttered to follow).
- Not only do you not have the best seat in the house, you’re way in the back, perhaps decreasing your chance of fully enjoying or accessing what’s happening at the front—or just underlining the fact that the experience isn’t really for you, you’re just a secondary audience.
- I love the idea of Twitter followers having to “jump” to see above the heads of those in front of them and perhaps hear a bit of what’s going on. Jumping takes a lot of effort and I’d be unlikely to continue jumping unless what was going on really captured my attention.
- Jumping also conveys the lack of connection between tweets. With 25 people in a room sharing what they’re seeing and hearing, parts of the story resonate loudly while others don’t make it outside the room.
This is no criticism at all of our tweeters—they were amazing. As I tweeted from the @amhistorymuseum account, I often missed critical plot twists that the tweeters were able to capture and convey before I could hit the “compose new tweet” button. In the post-tweetup survey, one remarked that they’d had a hard time balancing the need to speed tweet with the desire to listen and pause for reflection. I know our tweeters took the task of sharing the experience with the world very seriously.
But I think the curators had a very wise point: the narrative content of the #docsocial tweetup was, in fact, somewhat hard to convey. In an earlier tweetup at our Souvenir Nation exhibition, I’d marveled at how well the exhibition lent itself to the 110-characters-and-a-photo format. Full of individual souvenirs that convey a snippet of our nation’s history, the exhibition is Twitter gold: “look, a piece of George Washington’s hair!” “oh wow, a chunk of Plymouth Rock.” The exhibition had an important overall message that inspired reflection on how we preserve and interpret American history but that, too, could fit fairly well into a tweet or three.
If there had been a webcast of the tour, the online audience’s experience may have been different and perhaps the “jumps” wouldn’t have to be as high. But when Twitter and Instagram (and the occasional Vine video) are the main doorways into content, what’s it really like to encounter a tweetup online? What motivates people to follow it? And does “follow” entail reading two tweets or 20?
When I brought up these questions to tweetup-attendee and friend Julia Rocchi, she had some interesting thoughts, questions, and suggestions, which I’ll paraphrase here:
- What if tweeters in a tweetup were assigned “beats” to follow and tweet? Some could tweet from the perspective of teachers while others pay attention to exhibition design elements and a core group relays the main plot points?
- What if you asked curators to pause at “applause lines” or moments they think are particularly tweet-worthy? This might allow tweeters more time and space to tweet what might otherwise be missed?
- What about accompanying the tweetup with a Google Hangout that would cater specifically to the interests and questions of online participants?
She also pointed out that tweetups are uniquely useful for providing a variety of points of view on a topic. In a tweetup with such a sensitive and tragic content as this one, it often felt more comfortable to repeat a curatorial quote than presume to provide one’s own opinion.
All interesting points to continue discussing.
Elissa and I wondered what types of content or digital storytelling modes are best suited to the tweetup format. Just because you can have a tweetup when a new exhibition opens or there’s something rad to see behind the scenes, is it always the best style of programming? What makes an experience tweetup-compatible? If you want to tell a chronological narrative, what format might be better?
Huge thanks to the folks at USHMM, the NMAH curators, and our 25 amazing tweeters for not only helping us to tell Camilla’s story but also for making us think critically about the best practices of digital storytelling. Share your thoughts in the comments or tweet me!
Erin Blasco is an education specialist in the New Media Department at the National Museum of American History.