Museums, Social Media, and the Fog of Community

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Wong, Amelia Selene
Sies, Mary C
In the early twenty-first century, museums increasingly turn to "social media" to engage audiences and in these efforts they routinely imagine them as "communities." This dissertation tends to the politics of that choice, which extends a long history of museums employing community as a strategy towards institutional reform. Museums invoke community in numerous ways but without typically articulating those meanings, even though they influence the implementation and evaluation of social media projects. I argue that this lack of articulation creates a "fog" over practices--an ambiguous and confusing context of work--in which community operates as a "self-evident good," but serves traditional interests as much as transformative ones. To expose the many ideas that lay within this fog, I examine how American museums invoked community throughout the last century, showing how they use it both to reinforce their power and alter relations with audiences. After exploring how community has been conceptualized through networked digital media and social media--technologies and a culture that emphasize openness, communication, collaboration, and the materialization of digital bodies--I show how museums continue to use community in complex ways. As social media conflate community with communication--specifically "face-to-face," or immediate, communication, I argue they influence museums to over-value visible acts of communication, which narrows their understanding of online visitor engagement and dilutes the potential of community to shape projects that more conscientiously serve audiences and institutional reform. To illustrate the complexity of these ideas at work, I present three case studies of museums using social media to construct community: the Getty Center's blog, A Different Lens; the Japanese American National Museum's website, Discover Nikkei; and the website of the Science Museum of Minnesota's Science Buzz. I expose the definitions of community at work in each, examine how they influence the use of media, and work to limit and serve the project's various democratizing goals. The conclusion offers a nascent problematique that suggests more critical approaches museums may take for invoking community and using social media towards democratizing aims.