“Everything that’s wrong with society”? Facebook Home in museums

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A woman struggles to keep her eyes open and her mind alert during a tour of an art museum. A woman’s eyes grow wide and light up as she makes a personal connection with a sculpture in that same museum. Why the difference? According to a new ad from AT&T, it’s an HTC phone running Facebook Home (an app that fills the home screen with a steady stream of Facebook posts) that makes all the difference.

The story of this woman’s museum experience caught my attention. But I’m an art lover, a museum educator, and a social media geek. What does the rest of the (perhaps less-invested) world think of this TV commercial? I turned to the social Web to find out.

Before I share what I found, you should take a moment to view the 30 second spot for yourself.

. . .

So? What do you think? Is it a provocative take on how technology might bring museums to life by honoring the personal interests and experiences of visitors? Or a depressing documentary on how nothing–not even the rare beauty of great art–can earn appreciation and attention in a world obsessed with the immediate?

Caitlin, who blogs at Sass and Precision, calls the ad a fail:

Quote from Sass and Precision blog

The Twitterverse had a few choice words to share on the subject, as well:

Perhaps fittingly, Facebook was the platform boasting a more considered and varied conversation on the topic. AT&T posted this to its Facebook page earlier this month:

AT&T HTC Facebook post

A selection of the 100+ comments shows that many viewers had a strong reaction to the ad . . . but those reactions run the gamut:




Finally, the comments on the YouTube page for the ad generated some interesting debate as well:


There’s nothing like a provocative piece of advertising to spur people into diatribe mode. While AT&T may simply be trying to push some HTC phones off their shelves, I can’t help but be grateful to them for airing something that gets people talking about the role of technology in their lives. This tiny research project is also a clear reminder to me of the power of social media to help us better understand the people we are trying to engage–and to remember that there is quite a wide spectrum of emotional and intellectual positions people take on how best to experience museums (and life, in general) in mediated and un-mediated ways.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on the ad. Please share your reactions in the comments below.

16 thoughts on ““Everything that’s wrong with society”? Facebook Home in museums

  1. I’m in two minds. My initial reaction to this ad was horror and sadness. After pondering, I see how they might be trying to show that making personal connections to art and experiencing it with our friends (real or virtual) is important. I definitely agree that museum tours can be super boring. I have no problem with people using their devices in a museum – I always do, usually to share my experiences with my network. However, all that said, I don’t believe that’s what they were trying to say with this ad. I imagine their marketing team sitting round a table trying to come up with a location that says “boring” to the broadest range of people, and they came up with an art museum. That’s what my initial, gut reaction was in response to, and that’s what we need to fix.

  2. Great post. I’m glad museum folks are discussing this commercial.

    I stand with the skeptical crowd above, which wonders why someone would go to museum if they spend their time checking status updates on their phone. I think HTC and Facebook’s motivations are clear when you put the ad in conversation with their earlier commercial for the new platform, where a man makes his flight more bearable by checking in with friends on his phone. There, and I suspect here, social media is sold as an escape from a mundane life. From boredom.

    But perhaps there is something to learn as well. I’m curious to know what others would think are *positive* smart-phones (or better yet social-media) uses in a museum environment? Could a different commercial show the woman following a museum’s tweets, and rushing to see a concert she hears about in another part of the museum? Or meeting her friends as they explore a new exciting exhibit, which they’re simultaneously sharing on Instagram? I like these ideas, but I don’t think are museums are social enough –yet– to make a believable commercial.

    1. Jordan, I think museums are still struggling with the best ways to acknowledge and welcome social media as part of the museum visiting experience. I’ve seen a few (but not nearly enough) good examples of institutions who are using social media to invite closer looking at objects, for example. A project I’m working on asks teens to take photos in response to object-specific prompts (e.g., talk a self-portrait after viewing a portrait of a young woman in our collection). We already know our visitors are pointing, shooting, and posting to Instagram–why not take a somewhat-superficial habit and turn it into an opportunity to connect with the collection?

  3. One thing that I do see happening in museums is visitors tweeting/posting about their visit and the museum responding. The visitors don’t always seek out the museum’s account to follow them, but they seem to be pleasantly surprised if they get a response or a re-post – that they were “heard”. The biggest barrier here is that people who manage museum social media accounts (disclaimer: I’m one of them) are trying to connect with the vast audience of people out there who might never visit the museum building in person. It’s easy to forget that you can and should digitally connect with the non-virtual visitors, too, especially when there are lots of *real* people for them to interact with (info desk people, tour guides, guards, etc.). The attitude within many museums is that visitor services staff deal with the physical visitors and social media managers deal with virtual ones. They forget that these are not two distinct groups.

  4. It would have been cool if she was using her phone to interact with ideas in the art museum, instead of thinking about a haircut! It feels to me that technology is more of a distraction in this case. It was clever advertisement to put her friends as works of art. I would have preferred AT&T to show case this technology as wonderful resource to learn more in this environment. Seems harder now more than ever to keep individual engaged with what’s in front of them.

    I would have preferred an ad in a subway or a another everyday place. You think an art museum would be one place that would have enough visual information to keep you stimulated!

  5. This reminds me of some commentary I heard recently that pointed out that in these days of facebook and twitter, everything starts with “I.” It’s a self-centered worldview in which an individual thinks his or her every action and thought are worthy of being shared and will be interesting to others. The woman in this ad can only find the art compelling if her own concerns and friends are brought into it. But viewing great art is about experiencing something new, examining brushstrokes and the curves of sculpture, reading symbolism, and pushing our ideas about what is beautiful.

    The other thing this plays into is the multitasking, never fully present aspect of our lives today. Going to a museum for me is an escape from this; the creators of this ad obviously think focusing on one thing at once is inherently boring.

    All of that said–I do still think there is a way to use smartphones and media in museums. The tour guide droning on is an old model, albeit a good one when the guide is dynamic and well-trained. But having viewers see a related video clip or image or listen to an oral history clip or music can capture the visitors’ wandering attention and focus it in on the objects. The creators of this ad apparently haven’t visited an art museum recently, because this is already being done and being done very well (looking at you, Georgina!).

  6. Yes, there are some things to criticize about this ad. But, I find that most popular culture attempts to describe my interests usually fall short. So, I’m not too surprised here.

    That being said, I think they could have made this a more compelling commercial for all if they had spent a small amount of time actually talking to museum professionals as they developed this piece. I’m sure that didn’t even occur to them. And, therefore, the “product” is full of stereotypes.

    Sooo, what are we in the museum community going to do about this? a) Nothing b) Complain to AT&T c) Develop our own commercial to show them what they should have done, or d) something else.

  7. Mmm… I’m in the ‘horror and sadness’ group, maybe because of my past ties to corporate communications, including advertising construction. I think it’s awesome when someone is engaged with a museum and uses social to share (or, if you will, spread) that engagement, or even just simple enthusiasm. But I don’t see anything like that in the ad; it’s just about relieving boredom by gulping spoonfuls of digital sugar, and pushing that same button in the viewer. Ugh.

    An equally sad aside is the fb commenter who juxtaposes “I’m all for art and appreciating art” with “some dead white dude who painted a painting of a pretty white lady” in the same graph. Double Ugh.

  8. The deeper reading of this, while a good exercise for museum folk, is probably mistaken in regards to the ad’s actual intentions and message.

    The writers and testers of this ad are surely more pragmatically cynical (they’re profit-driven, remember) about the surface level message and likely takeaway being that of a phone being a great way to escape even the most modestly uncomfortable cognitive workload when you itch for the immediate gratification or social affirmation that so many like this girl pictured can’t live without.



    Boo, AT&T.

  9. I know why so many people are offended by this ad. Yes, it would be a pity if an art museum visitor failed to engage with the art surrounding them because they were distracted by the ‘chatter’ of social media, and this ad seems to be encouraging exactly that to happen. But, on the other hand, art museums often take their audiences for granted, assuming that all they need to do is put the ‘masterpieces’ on display and get people to come and see them. Shortly after I started working as an art museum educator in 1982 (at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney), there was a TV ad in Australia for Kit Kat chocolate bars, featuring a famous painting from our Gallery:
    While the ad was current (and for some months afterwards), whenever I took a school group into the room containing that painting, one of the students would suddenly exclaim “The Kit Kat painting!” and the whole group would rush over to see it. At first I was thrown by this, because it upset the flow of my planned talk. But then I discovered that if I went with it, rather than resisting, the students would seem to get much more out of the rest of my talk, and their museum experience generally.
    At the time, some of my colleagues expressed their horror that this iconic artwork was being ‘cheapened’ by commercialism. But I maintained that a connection WAS being made between the world of art (19th century art, in this case) and THEIR world (albeit mediated through mass media), and so it was in fact a positive thing.
    I have no problem getting visitors (and not just school students) to imagine what a work of art would taste like, what piece of music would go with it, what sport the people in it might play, what it could be used to advertise, or what they could write about it on Facebook. As long as the artwork has some role to play. And, who knows, maybe further down the track some of these people might see this artwork again, feel some connection with it, and decide they want to know more about the artist, the period, the style.

  10. Nina Simon also blogged about this ad over at Museum 2.0. Check out her thoughts on the subject:

    Heres’s a sampling: “People (of all ages) are making bad decisions because of technology rapture–whether that be texting while driving or spending more time with screens than with family members. And social media can promote a kind of narcissism in which each of us lives in a tiny bubble of friends’ rants and raves. These issues are important. But I feel that they are societal issues, not issues specific to museums or art institutions.”

  11. Comments I put on Facebook but should have put here:

    Boring tour guides always send me digging in my purse for my phone, even when the art they’re talking about is amazing. There’s no better way to take the life out of a museum object than to drone on about it like that. By “alabaster” I would have tuned out, too. Being part of a group led through the galleries with no free choice about what to see and how to experience it? Barf. If a mobile device can better connect you with art at your own pace and interest level, ditch the hourly highlights tour and go with it. (Caveat: as a former manager of sometimes lecture-prone volunteers, I know they mean well. No offense, guys.)

    Also: when the statue turned into a girl talking a selfie… you could argue that the visitor suddenly realized the seemingly boring figured in the art works were actually doing things she sees today among her friends–like posing for photos (well, sculptures) and gathering together for group shots. Did it imply that art is more accessible when you can make a connection to your daily life? Because I agree with that, in general.

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