Work in Progress

08/01/2012 4:00 AM |

Craig Konyk and Steve Lamb, “Bridge” (1987), Photo Thomas Grisel, Courtesy Creative Time

Back in March, Facebook launched Timeline, a redesign that allows users to fill in milestones and user histories all the way back to their births. Five months later, nobody I know has done much with the feature, but I have noticed a few art institutions starting to fill out their histories. I figured they already had websites that hosted a lot of the same information, so I spoke to a few staff members about their objectives for Timeline and how it was working out.

“More people need to know these amazing projects,” Todd Florio, Creative Time’s Social Media and Digital Communications Director (a new position), told me earnestly when I asked him why the organization had embraced Timeline. He was speaking of Gran Fury’s “Kissing Doesn’t Kill” billboards on buses (1989) and Bill Brand’s subway animation “Masstransiscope” (1980), two well-known works many do not know were sponsored by Creative Time. Florio has been publishing between one to three posts a day on Facebook since he arrived in March, and is now doing the same with their Tumblr.

Many of the half-dozen professionals I spoke to singled out JiaJia Fei, digital marketing manager for the Guggenheim, for her exemplary work transferring the museum’s history to Facebook. Like many arts organizations on Facebook, the museum uses Timeline’s archive primarily to focus on changes to the building and collection. The Guggenheim’s Timeline features original sketches by the building’s architect Frank Lloyd Wright, and scans of original documents and correspondence. One letter from 1956 protests Wright’s design, claiming the round shape would take away from the art hung in the building. It was signed by such famed artists as Milton Avery, Willem de Kooning and Philip Guston.

It’s great to have documents like this made available online, but it’s unclear even to the professionals if anyone is actually looking at it. “Facebook doesn’t offer much information on how people are using Timeline,” Fei told me, explaining that it’s difficult to know whether people are using the archives because Facebook only tracks traffic on new posts.

Frustration was expressed much more strongly by the Brooklyn Museum’s Chief of Technology, Shelley Bernstein. “Facebook has been a less-than-stellar platform for us,” she said, but stressed that the redesign was still an improvement. “Anything [Facebook] could throw at ‘the page’ had to be better than what we had before.”

Bernstein sees the inability to identify posts as made by individuals working at the museum as a liability, making all updates in a user’s feed, whether written by her or by a curator, look unauthored and thus more like advertisements than
actual content.

When I asked the heaviest social media user I could think of, Hyperallergic Co-Founder Hrag Vartanian, for his thoughts, he expressed a combination of frustration and disinterest. “There are other timelines that are often really well done. And the FB version isn’t ideal IMHO” he told me, explaining that the Facebook version didn’t allow you to see much information at a glance. Vartanian sent me a link to the Met’s horizontal Timeline on its website as an example of a more effective visualization.

He did, however, offer another concrete example of why institutional use of the service might be useful. “I could see how [Timeline] could become institutional histories of an organization in the future as they provide community feedback.” Bernstein seemed more interested in the feedback drawn from visitors inside the museum, noting that they found viewers much more inclined to provide critical feedback when they could comment anonymously. Of course, those commenting systems aren’t designed for conversation, which may ultimately represent the draw of Facebook. “Regardless of what [museums] are doing with the platforms, if they’re on there they tend to be listening,” Bernstein said. “And institutions as a whole are doing a lot more listening because of these online tools.”