I tweet therefore I am . . . (part of a community)

Or . . . how a techie novice came to embrace social media.

Sometimes you don’t know what you’ve learned until you come across someone who is yet to embark on that particular learning curve.

I came to realise this recently when I started to talk about Twitter at a conference, only to be met with a lot of blank looks. Almost by accident I have become a citizen of the Twitterverse, and it is only when I encounter non-tweeters that I realise how much I’ve learned about social media over the past few months.

First some background about my relationship with ‘technology’  – I’m not an early adopter. I’ve long believed that there are two main types of people when it comes to attitudes to technology:

  1. “What does it do?” types – these are the people who are turned on by technology in and of itself. They like experimenting with new gadgets and technology. They like the functionality, and play with it to discover applicability.
  2. “What does it do for ME?” types – these people aren’t necessarily anti-technology, but they’re more cautious. They don’t particularly like playing with gadgetry. But when they find an application that fits with their day-to-day lives, they’ll embrace it with both arms._
  3. (Yes OK there is a third type, those who are inherently suspicious of technology in all its forms and wish it would go away. If you are in this category you won’t be reading this post anyway because that would mean switching on a computer.)

I fit into the second category: I’m not all that confident with gadgetry and have never felt particularly web-savvy (although I’m starting to realise I probably know more than I think I do – osmosis is a powerful learning tool).

As a Type #2 person, I had adopted a bit of a ‘wait and see’ attitude to Social Media. I joined Facebook and LinkedIn in 2007, and this was in response to specific needs that presented themselves at the time. It was not long after I moved back to Australia from overseas, and these sites were a handy way of keeping in touch with friends from the UK and make new business contacts respectively. And I’ve been a reasonably regular user of each since. But I think Facebook is more of a tool for sharing with people you know rather than for meeting new people, and LinkedIn is quite focused in its remit and tends to be a more formal networking space.

By comparison, Twitter is far more powerful and versatile as a communication and networking tool. I opened a Twitter account out of curiosity in late 2009 but it sat more or less dormant until the middle of this year, which was when I embraced the Twitterverse.

So what were the catalysts for this change, at least in my circumstances?

  1. Change of work situation: in the middle of this year I left full time work and started working from home. This gave me a desire to connect with people so I didn’t feel isolated; it also gave me time & space to get to grips with how Twitter works and how it could work for me (not that leaving your job is necessary to get your head around Twitter!)
  2. Programs like TweetDeck and Echofon: I never really figured out how to incorporate the Twitter website into the texture of my daily life, and have only just recently taken the plunge to buy a smartphone (as a Type #2 person, I’ve been getting by on my partner’s hand-me-down phones for the past decade). I found that TweetDeck was easily customisable, incorporated Facebook and LinkedIn into a kind of one-stop-shop, and could happily run in the background on my desktop. Meanwhile Echofon was a handy application for using on my iPod touchto follow live Twitter feeds in front of the telly. Being able to do this gave me a feel for how the medium worked. (An aside: I only have an iPod Touch because Dad was given one as a freebie. It took me ages to figure out what the point of it was, but it is now is my near-constant companion – typical Type #2 behaviour!)
  3. Finding stimulating people to follow: I’d heard all the hype about Twitter being all about celebrity banalities and people broadcasting what they had for breakfast. I didn’t think it was necessarily a place where grown-ups congregated to discuss things of significance. But I knew a few fellow science communicators had been tweeting for  a while, plus I’d become aware of a couple of museum professionals with an interest in social media. So following these people seemed like a good place to start. Then, by following the #qanda hashtag during ABC TV’s Q&A and also the #auspol discussion during the lead-up to the Australian Federal Election, I also found more interesting people to follow. Plus there is a lively Twitter community in Adelaide and it wasn’t long before I found them and / or they found me.
  4. Getting over ‘stagefright’: I’m a fairly extroverted person, but I feared an off-the-cuff statement being preserved for all eternity in the virtual sphere. What if I couldn’t think of anything profound to say in 140 characters or less? What if I say something that comes across as stupid and it comes back to haunt me? I must say I’m still *relatively* careful about what I say in a tweet. But I now see that in the general scheme of things, my tweets are but grains of sand on a virtual beach – most people will only be half paying attention (at best) to anything I say unless I really go to town. Small sins are readily forgiven.
  5. Encountering a real community in the virtual sphere: through Twitter, I have participated in lively debates and discussions, shared links and valuable information, expanded my business networks, live-tweeted from conferences, kept up with breaking news and found out about forthcoming events happening in the Real World. (e.g. TEDxAdelaide had a strong Twitter presence before, during and after the day itself). I’ve even been to the movies and a picnic organised by #socadl. (Adelaideans in social media.) In short, I’ve made friends, broadened my professional network and come to know people I never would have encountered if I hadn’t taken the plunge into Twitter.

So my advice to the reluctant would be: give it a go! Terminology like handles and hashtags might seem a bit alien at first, but a bit of trial and error goes a long way. And it’s a great opportunity to feel part of a community of ongoing conversation.

Follow me into the Twitterverse!

More on Museum Funding and Staffing

This is another post in my series looking at the ABS’s Arts and Culture statistics, again trying to get to grips with what the published statistics are saying about the sector. Here I focus on the statistics about museum income, expenditure and staffing as detailed in Chapter 8 of the report (the ‘museum’ chapter).

As noted previously, around two-thirds of museum income comes from Government sources: either Federal, State or Local. The report breaks down income and expenditure by museum type; I’ve also shown income and expenditure streams as a percentage of the total:

Summary of Income and Expenditure by Museum Type (Source: ABS)

(Note that the income categories are a little different from that in the chart shown previously – the Government figure is the same and I’m assuming the discrepancy is down to other categorisation differences.)

This shows considerable variation in the funding mix for different museum types, with the differences between Historic Properties and Natural /Science /Other showing the biggest contrast. Whereas less than half of Historic Properties’ income comes from Government sources, Government provides three-quarters of Natural /Science /Other museums’ income. The fact that Historic Properties are far more likely to be paid admission (see here) is consistent with this and explains the higher proportion of income coming from admissions.

There is also a marked contrast in the proportion of income from fundraising, with Art Museums taking in more than triple that of Natural /Science /Other when taken as a proportion of total income. Given the fact that both of these categories are likely to represent some of the larger and national museums (the reasons for this are given in the previous post), it seems that either Art Galleries are punching well above their weight in the fundraising stakes, or Natural /Science /Other museums are lagging behind somewhat (or maybe a bit of both). Another possibility that cannot be ruled out is that one-off capital grants (which are included in the Government funding total) have skewed the figures in this particular financial year.

On the expenditure front, I was surprised at how little (as a proportion of total expenditure) is spent on exhibition and display development. Given exhibitions are the main public face of the museum, and that exhibitions are typically quite expensive to produce, I would have thought it would have come in much higher than a tiny 4% (on average) of total expenditure.

The other thing that surprised me was the relatively high proportion spent on exhibitions by Art Museums (7%) as opposed to the much lower figures spent by other museum types. I can’t think of anything inherently more expensive about mounting art exhibitions and wonder whether the increased cost is down to an increased frequency of exhibition changeover in Art Galleries, rather than anything inherent in the cost of mounting a given exhibition. (Assuming Art Galleries do indeed change over exhibitions more frequently, that is!)

It should also go without saying that having a category called ‘other’ that accounts for half of museums’ operating expenses makes interpretation or generalisation from these data somewhat difficult.

Just to see what would happen, I took these income figures from above and divided them by the number of museums and number of visitors (paid and free admission) to each museum type (as provided earlier in the ABS report and summarised here).  Among other things, this shows the amount of Government subsidy per visitor to each museum type:

Income per museum and per visitor by museum type (as derived from ABS report, Ch8)

(I should add a disclaimer here: these figures have been derived by combining numbers from two completely separate tables in the ABS report. This may or may not be a valid way to treat these data. You have been warned . . . )

This bears out what the other table indicated – Historic Properties gain a higher income from their visitors ($6.95/visitor) ; Natural /Science /Other museums attract a greater Government subsidy for each visitor they attract ($34.65 per visitor).

Presenting Government subsidy in this way is pretty sobering in general really: with Government (Federal, State, Local) support coming in at an average of $21 per visitor, I can see the need for us to demonstrate real value and benefit. Conversely, it would be interesting to see how this figure relates to per-visit / per-use subsidies for the rest of the arts and cultural sector – that $21 may well represent excellent value when the full cost-benefit and comparison analysis is done.

So to look at expenses more closely, manipulating expenses in a similar way to what I did with income, it seems that the main reason Natural /Science /Other Museums are more expensive to run is due to staffing costs:

Museum expenses expressed per museum and per visitor (as derived from ABS figures)

As indicated previously, I think the Natural /Science /Other category is more likely to include large institutions (I’m thinking the Australian Museum, SA Museum, Melbourne Museum, etc. would all fit into this category); all of which have relatively large public programs teams, design departments, and so forth. The Art Gallery category would also include its fair share of large insitutions, but this is probably balanced by many other smaller and regional galleries.

So how do these staff costs break down? According to the ABS report, 7,856 people were employed in museums (June 2008).  At the same time, there were 23,426 people working as volunteers in museums:

Overview of employees and volunteers by museum type (Source ABS)

As with all the figures which are averaged out ‘per museum’, interpret with caution as it’s a pretty blunt instrument. That said, there is a marked difference between categories with respect to the ‘average’  number of employees and the numbers of volunteers (and their ratios to paid staff). These differences would definitely appear to explain the differences in staff costs.

I also wonder whether the cause of the difference in volunteer ratios is supply-side (i.e. social history museums are more willing to take on volunteers), or demand-side (i.e. people who wish to volunteer are more likely to choose social history). It could also be a bit of both: social history and historic sites tend to be smaller, local organisations with relatively low staff numbers and more dependent on volunteers; conversely because they are ‘local’, they may be more attractive to volunteers either through geographic convenience or because their impact is more visible than it would be if they part of larger institution’s ‘machine’.

Museum employees are broken down by category; I’ve shown the supplied numbers and have also presented them as a percentage of the total number of employees by museum type:

Breakdown of museum employees by job category (Source: ABS)

So for instance, the bottom row of this table shows that 31% of Art Gallery employees fall within in the ‘Security’ category, whereas this category only accounts for 20% of Natural /Science /Other Museum employees; 26% of museum employees across the board are ‘security’ personnel.  I’m not sure if any of these proportions leap out at me for being noteworthy or unusual, however.

As always, your insights and comments are very welcome . . .