Note from Beth: Hosting events for your network – where they can meet offline – can be a terrific away to build your network. Jay Geneske, a social media professional, shares his experience from a recent Tweetup.
Notes from a Tweetup by Jay Geneske
In early January, the American Museum of Natural History announced that it would hold a Brain Tweetup for 75 of its Twitter followers. The event promised an after-hours look at their special exhibition Brain: The Inside Story, a chat with its curators, a behind-the-scenes tour of the museum, and an opportunity to meet other fans of AMNH. To be selected, fans had to tweet at least once about the event and register on AMNH’s website. I’ve organized and attended tweet-ups of various sizes and levels of success, so I was eager to participate.
After checking my coat, I was led to the special exhibit with a group of individuals mostly unknown to one another. En route, I caught myself making sideways glances at their name tags, perhaps wondering if we followed each other on Twitter. It seemed clear that this experience would be quite different from my previous visits to cultural institutions.
When I attend a museum alone, I like to take my time reflecting on the collection and the space. With a friend, it can be about socializing in an extraordinary setting. With a niece or nephew, it can be about exploring a new world. So I wondered what it would be like to experience an exhibit with people unknown to me outside of the virtual world. Would we easily socialize or personally connect? Would we look up from our smart phones?
Indeed, the advent of the social web continues to shift the intersection of the private and public self in unpredictable ways, and our relationships—especially with nonprofits—are constantly evolving. And under constant debate, as was referenced in the recent article in the Huffington Post.
So I wasn’t surprised when I didn’t make immediate personal connections with the other visitors. However, something unexpected happened. I felt an impulse, naturally and unnaturally, to “share out” anecdotes using the #AMNHtweetup hashtag. While following and interacting with others on the hashtag, I realized that I was receiving and interpreting the collection in an entirely new way. I even answered a question about the exhibit for someone not in attendance at the event.
At the close of the exhibit, we were directed through the dinosaur wing (so great to be there without a million guests running around!), to an area where they served drinks and food. There was some interaction among us, but it was admittedly a bit awkward. Soon, the co-curators gave quick speeches about the exhibit.
Curator Rob DeSalle started his speech by saying “You know, tweeting is a lot like the nervous system.” After an agreeable laugh, we were split into smaller groups for tours of the behind-the-scenes area where 98% of the museum’s collection is held. This is where something really interesting happened: we began personally interacting. My group of about ten people included a web producer, math teacher, technician, zookeeper, student, and a government official. Our diverse backgrounds, reasons for attending the tweet-up, and use of Twitter, created a distinctive dynamic. A member in my group even said “Hey, this is you,” as he showed me his phone displaying my most recent tweet.
For me, the behind-the-scenes tour was the highlight of the experience. The fascinating scientists took us through parts of the collection and archives that most visitors never see, all the while connecting what we were seeing with the special exhibit on the brain. At the tour’s conclusion, we were led back to the reception area for more socializing, and as we left, received a brain ice cube tray as a gift for attending.
From coat check to the food and wine, without question this event took a considerable amount of resources. A building of that size requires significant staffing, especially from the scientists and marketing department. Nevertheless, every staff member seemed excited to be there, to hear our perspectives, and to ask for our reactions.
As the social web continues to evolve and our cultural experiences and expectations shift, I’m excited that “fortress-like” institutions like AMNH are exploring what it means to be embrace a social culture required of a networked nonprofit.
By Jay Geneske, 2011. Jay Geneske is the Director of Online Communications at Echoing Green, and has also worked for other nonprofits like Carnegie Hall, Shedd Aquarium, and Steppenwolf Theatre.