Can a tweet confront hatred? Can tagging photos prevent prejudice? Can a Facebook fan page promote human dignity? Can a mobile phone strengthen democracy?
These were the questions posed at the December 5, 2009 “Un-Conference” hosted jointly by the United States Memorial Holocaust Museum and the Center for History and New Media. The questions, while heavy handed, are timely for both the Holocaust Museum and CHNM; the Holocaust’s primary function is to safeguard the legacy of victims of genocide, and CHNM has worked hard to expand social media among cultural institutions. Questioning the propriety of social media as a vehicle for ‘institutions of conscience’ and is only fitting. In the last year or so, the Holocaust Museum has embarked on a number of social media initiatives, including launching a Twitter account and posting archival photographs on Flickr. These efforts have been moderately successful, but invited serious questions about the ethics of posting sensitive material online and encouraging responses from the public.
The intent is well meaning, but can social media promote good? Increasing numbers of cultural institutions are using forums like Twitter and Facebook, but the majority of these sites’ users are recreational. In a forum like that, is is appropriate for an organization like the Holocaust Museum to post photographic testimony to millions of people’s suffering? But as a museum that is partially funded by taxpayers’ dollars, are they not also obligated to make these resources public?
Additionally, the fundamental elements of social media are the democratization of information and shared authority. By posting photos or providing a virtual wall, the Holocaust Museum invites their online visitors to curate their experiences and, more importantly, comment on the institution’s mission and collections. Already, the Holocaust Museum has witnessed controversy and even hate on their social media forums. Inflammatory responses are a reality of social media, but they take on new significance for an institution dedicated to protecting the memory of a genocide. The Museum has struggled with whether to allow the comments to preserve its commitment to dialogue, or whether to remove ignorant or combative comments. To remove them is censorship, but to leave them is offensive to a great many people.
As more museums being using social media platforms to spread their message and make their collections more accessible, ethical quandaries are sure to arise. The future of sites like Facebook and Flickr as useful, productive tools for museums may depend on how these questions are resolved.