Calm in the Chaos

It’s been a weird and disorienting month. Like a lot of people, I start my morning with a flood of new information about COVID-19. Another celebrity has died. Another friend thinks they might have it but they can’t get tested. Deaths just jumped up again. Seemingly recovered patients test positive again. Here’s the plan for re-opening. It’s exhausting, and I know I’m far from the only one who thinks that.

I see many of the emotions I’ve felt reflected in the museum communities I follow. We are confused and anxious. We feel cut off from each other, from our volunteers, from our communities. Our jobs have changed dramatically. Where a few weeks ago I was scheduling group tours and events, working with docents, and preparing evaluation projects for our next exhibit, I am now doing none of those things. The immediate concern became getting out digital materials for teachers and putting up our public programs online. It has been a frantic race to get everything we can up as quickly as possible, leaving little room for thinking about what comes next.

But among the chaos, I also see the shining bright spot that is our museum educators and social media staff. I see them putting out online programs. I see them offering Zoom classes and tours to students stuck at home. I see them working tirelessly to create access to resources for families. Incredible amounts of work are being done to keep a continuity of programming going during these weird and confusing times. I have come to seek out their optimism and their boundless creativity to get me through my day.

That bright spot also comes with its fair share of struggles. As much as educators have stepped up to fill the void left by our in-person activities, there is still constant worry about what waits for us on the other side. Major museums across the country have furloughed or laid-off significant numbers of their staff, and plenty of others have cut salaries by up to 20%. I’ve heard from staff at our partner museums that they were already in dire financial straits before the lockdown, and now they face permanent closure. Americans For the Arts estimates that the current toll of the pandemic has been $4.5 billion in losses to the arts and culture sector. I think it goes without saying, but for someone who works at a small local museum, the thought of museums with multi-billion dollar endowments needing to furlough staff is not comforting. It’s not helped by the heart-wrenching announcement from The Museum of Modern Art that they had terminated all freelance educator contracts. “It will be months, if not years, before we anticipate returning to budget and operations levels to require educator services.”

Without an end in sight, we can lose ourselves to the enormity of this crisis. It is too easy to fall down the terrifying spiral of what ifs. But even in the face of all this, I think our museum community can continue to serve and educate, and that we have a responsibility to do so.

It is critical to remind our communities that history is a series of steps from one action to the next, and although we can’t see the steps that will come in the next few months or years, we can look to the past to show us what has been done before. We can look to the end of the 1918 Flu, as many observers have already, to see the effects of social distancing measures and how lives were saved, or lost. We can look to art and music that expresses similar feelings of hopelessness. We can see the revolutionary changes in public health policy and epidemiology. We can look back on frightening and overwhelming circumstances knowing as the subjects and artists do not, how the story will end.

On her last day in the office, Reggie Lynch, the [Akron Art Museum’s] curator of community engagement, took a detour through the galleries to commune with a Helen Frankenthaler painting called Wisdom (1969). She thought of the Abstract Expressionist’s artistic process, the slow methodical bleeding of pigment into the canvas. “I found myself tracing the lines of where she was spreading the paint and took a minute to pause and find connection with another human,” Lynch said. “That’s what art does.” via ARTnews

Take a breath. This pandemic is far from over, and it’s okay to take a moment for yourself. I, like many museum workers, have been full steam ahead on digitization projects and it’s been difficult for me to really step back and think about what’s happening. Museums do not want to be left behind in the frantic race for people’s attention and we don’t want to be forgotten among the new avalanche of breaking news, online programs, and kids coloring pages. But now is the time for us to pause and reflect. Take the time you have to think about what you, and your museum, really need to be right now. What do you really need to offer? What is it that your community turns to you for normally, and how can you continue to provide that? What do they need now that you don’t have a physical space for them to gather in?

Museums, more than any other institution, have the ability to comfort our communities, and it is our responsibility to do so. Across the board, Museums rate as some of the most trusted types of organizations, more than state and federal agencies, other NGOs, and local newspapers. With the current climate of misinformation wildly varied responses to this crisis, it is imperative that we be a rock of the people that rely on us. We are seen as impartial community guides that should recommend and model behavior for the people we serve. It is therefore critical that we use our collections and our knowledge to create a sense of calm, even when we don’t feel it ourselves. We are looked to as guides to the human experience, and we should use all of the tools in our toolbox to do that.

We should use history to show how we have come out of pandemics in the past. We should use art as catharsis for our overwhelming emotions. We should use science to explore what is happening and how to fight it.

Life is not going back to normal any time soon. Normal is so far gone that the first week of March seems like a dream. There’s a good chance that many of the museums I know and care about will shutter permanently, and if, or when, that happens, the world will lose a little more of its cultural history. But museums have the power and the responsibility to provide some level of comfort for our communities, and until this is over, I believe that is where our focus should be.

It’s Time for March Mammal Madness!

Tomorrow is March 1st, which means I’m gearing up for one of my favorite events of the year. That’s right, it’s time for March Mammal Madness!

For the uninitiated, March Mammal Madness (MMM) was created in 2013 when biologist and professor Katie Hinde found a BuzzFeed bracket to determine the cutest animal. Professor Hinde decided to do them one better and created a full-on March Madness-style bracket for mammals. 

Each year over at the “Mammals Suck…Milk!” blog, a team comprised of biologists and natural scientists from all over the country select animals to compete in an imaginary bracket for the month of March. The divisions showcase mammals from a variety of different perspectives, from animals who have made their homes in our cities, to aquatic mammals, to not-cats that humans have named after cats anyway, to, increasingly, not-mammals. As the month progresses, animals are pitted against each other in imaginary battles until only one remains.

But not to worry! As the blog states, “The battles are NOT always ‘nature, red in tooth and claw.’ Sometimes the winner ‘wins’ by displacing the other at a feeding location, sometimes a powerful animal doesn’t attack because it is not motivated to…. Even a small claw cut or bite wound can get infected and lots of times an animal will back down rather than take a risk for little potential benefit.”

MMM2018

my, ultimately poorly-done, 2018 bracket

I can’t say enough about this very silly, but very scientific contest. I filled out a bracket for the first time a couple of years ago thinking it would be quick and straightforward.

I was wrong.

I spent several hours researching and learning about the animals in my bracket. I knew of Homo floresiensis, but had never heard of Andrewsarchus. I agonized over whether the Coyote would get the best of the Opossum, and if a platypus’ venom was enough to take down a maned rat. (Spoiler alert: It wasn’t. I didn’t consider that March is after the platypus’ mating season, so it didn’t have enough venom left over to defeat the Maned Rat). 

There are a lot of factors to take into consideration, and to do justice to the bracket, it isn’t enough to just pick the higher seeded animal. You need to consider not just its potential fighting ability, but how it lives in its environment, if it might be hibernating or mating in March, and where the battle is taking place. The early battles take place in “the preferred habitat of the better-ranked combatant” meaning that a tropical animal might do really poorly in an arctic environment.  

I did not do very well in my first contest (I ranked last in my office!) but I learned so much and reading the play-by-plays after each round taught me what to pay attention to. It wasn’t just about seeing which animal would win in an out-and-out fight, it was thinking about animals holistically: what they eat, when they might be willing to defend themselves, when they might run away, and the fact that if a hippo and a coyote are fighting in the middle of Central Park, there’s a good chance that the Park Rangers are going to intervene.

It’s great fun, and a great learning opportunity, so much so that the MMM team has developed lesson planning materials designed to bring the game into the classroom, including an early bracket, help for researching the combatants, and a plan for discussing the tournament outcome with students. Educators can also check out the extensive LibGuide from the Arizona State University Library. 

The 2020 March Mammal Madness bracket is now available. Check it out, read up on the divisions and tournament schedule, and read all about the MMM team.

Midnight in Salem, OR Her Interactive’s Marketing Nightmare (Part 2)

Last week, I introduced you to one of my favorite companies, Her Interactive. This week, I want to walk you through what’s happened with the company in the last two years.

Soon after the release of their most recent game, Sea of Darkness (2015), Her announced they would be moving to a new game engine from their older homebrew system in order to add additional features that fans requested: better graphics, more characters, more environments, etc. Fans were told that the next game, Midnight in Salem, would be “coming soon.”

From their August 2015 Letter:

“One of the major limiting factors that prevents us from implementing many of these changes is our current proprietary game engine. Thus, we have made the exciting decision to move to a Unity-based platform for our games. However, this move will affect our development schedule resulting in a delay in the release of our next game, Nancy Drew: Midnight in Salem. At this time, we can’t confirm an exact launch date, but we hope it will launch sometime in 2016. Even though we have started the process of adapting our games for this platform, it’s not something we can do overnight. Working on Nancy Drew: Midnight in Salem is a once in a lifetime opportunity for all of us at Her Interactive. We are creating something we are really proud of and we don’t want to compromise on quality. We promise it will be worth the wait.”

Two years later, and not much else has been released. And fans have started to get angry at the lack of information and the lack of a release date.

But it’s not just the gap that’s frustrating fans. There’s a lot happening in the periphery that makes this story interesting, so we need to back up a couple years to put this announcement in context.

In 2013, long-time CEO and Chief Creative Strategy Officer Megan Gaiser announced she would be leaving the company. Gaiser is largely credited with the success of the company and the games, and was considered a warm and open person by fans and employees. In 2014, a new CEO, Penny Milliken, came on board, and it is under her leadership that Her has changed their tactics dramatically.

Around May 2015, just before Sea of Darkness was released, an “undisclosed number of staffers” were let go, including Nancy Drew’s voice actress, Lani Minella. This left the company with almost half as many people and the development team seemed to be hardest hit.

However, Her wasn’t the one to announce the layoffs. Fans only learned about the staff reduction through a combination of comments from former staff on forums, Twitter, and fans poking around the Her Interactive website.

And then, seemingly overnight, their marketing strategy took a 180.

The New Marketing Strategy

Since Midnight in Salem’s announcement, the entire company has seemingly gone into lockdown. Everything from the game’s development to the number of people on staff is suddenly off-limits from conversation.

One particularly bizarre exchange came in the comments of their Amateur Sleuth Blog run by Marketing Assistant Little Jackalope:

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Amateur Sleuth Blog, “Birding and Birthdays”

Comments like these, with a not-quite-answer, are the rule rather than the exception. And this has made longer-term fans frustrated. For two years, fans have requested the typical updates that come with a new game. In the past, this would come in the form of character concept art, screenshots of environments, teasers, trailers, music, and more. A pre-2015 Her Interactive would likely have included fans in the move to the new Unity game engine, showing testing videos, interviews with staff, concept art, or information on the new interface, but those details aren’t coming.

Fans have been trying to find out any information on this game, but most answers are like the one above: a mix of legalese, obfuscation, and I-can’t-say-s that really beat around the bush.

 

(And if you think I’m exaggerating when I say all of the answers have been like this, check out this compilation of comments from Her on Midnight’s development put together by some particularly dedicated fans.)

 

The most consistent response from fans has been one of disappointment. It’s not wrong for a company to be tight-lipped about a new product, or even for there to be long gaps between releases. What makes this story so frustrating for fans is that the model has changed completely. Previously open lines of communication have been on lockdown. Well-known employees have been let go, or aren’t communicating with fans. When you’ve had an impressive and reliable release schedule of two games per year with lots of content in between, the drop-off can seem baffling.

That’s what makes this story so weird. An internal reorganization and an utter lack of information has led fans to speculate on what’s actually happening. Is the game ever going to be released? Are they even working on it? Who is currently working at this company? Are they in financial trouble? Why the sudden change?

All of these changes seem to focus around the new CEO. Milliken seems to have adopted a very 90s-era approach to marketing where the company controls the flow of information. If this is indeed the approach they’ve decided to take, they have failed to take into account the new communication lines fans have built between each other and the relationship the company had with its fans. In an information vacuum, rumors and speculation are bound to run wild. For a company that used to be so responsive, the sudden dearth of information is suspicious and the complete unwillingness of Her to release any new information leads fans to unsavory conclusions about the state of the company.

Midnight in Salem is, to our knowledge, this company’s only project. The old Her Interactive, had they been working on the game, would have released something. The lack of anything beyond some bizarre character concepts and constant notes to “Stay sleuthy!” leads fans to believe that production has stopped.

Some Takeaways

Her Interactive is a cautionary tale of what not to do when communicating with followers. Drastic changes in communication style leaves followers bewildered. What Her got wrong comes down to information flow. The fan base that Her has built is not accustomed to waiting years between updates, and they are used to knowing and communicating with staff outside of the marketing department. Now, many fans feel left in the dark by a company that felt at one time like a family. There’s nothing wrong with changing tactics, but you have to be careful not to sour the relationship with your followers by changing too quickly.

The second caution here is that we all crave information, and when it’s taken away, we go looking for it. As a company in the 21st century, you don’t have control over the message anymore. Social media doesn’t allow for the 90s-era one-sided communication model anymore. Fans can ask you questions publicly, and failure to answer those questions satisfactorily will only lead to more questions. More than that, follower networks within social media can now rip apart every scrap of information they find and analyze it to death. If you don’t provide sufficient information or interpretation, followers will do it for you.

Some Recommendations

I wonder, as I read through Her’s comments, if their response comes from a fear that fans won’t like where the company is going. And if that is the case, Her should have more faith in their followers and know that many of them have been with the company for years. Fans like that are not lost easily, and people have been excited to see the company move in new directions.

Bearing that in mind, I have the following recommendations going forward:

First, they will need to be open and honest about what’s happening at the company. Her doesn’t need to detail everything, but if the direction of the company has changed, that’s something fans should be told. If they are looking to become a game distributer rather than producer, as some have speculated, that would be good and interesting information for fans to know!

Second, Her needs to return to its previous style of game marketing, or at very least, increase the amount of material being released. If work is being done, tell fans what it is. If work has been outsourced, tell fans who you’re partnering with and why. If the move from the homebrew engine to Unity is more difficult than anticipated, share some interviews with the developers about the process. Again, fans are not owed all of the nitty gritty details, but the relationship that existed before should be respected, not ignored.

It’s difficult to speculate on what’s happening at Her Interactive, but hopefully they and the Nancy Drew series are still going strong. I, for one, am looking forward to seeing those communication lines open back up soon.

Midnight in Salem, OR Her Interactive’s Marketing Nightmare (Part 1)

Today, I’d like to introduce you to a company that I’ve admired for a long time, but has recently had a dramatic change in marketing style. For the next couple of posts, we’ll be doing a case study of Her Interactive, a company that has moved from an open, small, but dedicated family of people to a company that seems as if it is under lock and key. A company that has changed tactics from a warm, straightforward, and communicative style to one that is filled with legalese and vague non-answers. Today, we’ll be coving who Her Interactive is and how they got to where they are today.

Founded in 1995, Her Interactive is best known for its extensive library of Nancy Drew point-and-click adventure games, released twice yearly since 1998, for a total of 32 games. The games are generally very well received and they have sizable fan communities on Facebook, Tumblr, Reddit, and the company’s forums. According to Business Wire: “As the number-one PC mystery franchise since 2004, unit sales of the Nancy Drew series have exceeded those of Harry Potter, Myst, and Tomb Raider.”

What makes this so remarkable is that the company is tiny, somewhere between 25 and 50 employees, and while some work, including music and early animation, has always been outsourced, most of the major elements like the game design and writing were done in house. Not only that, but head writers were incredibly accessible.

One player took to emailing Her to ask questions about the games’ development and clarify plot points. Not only were questions answered by the company, the emails were passed around the office for several people to chime in on, and the head writer would take time to give thoughtful and careful answers to each question. In response to questions on the 28th game in the series, The Ghost of Thornton Hall, the writers noted,

“In many ways [Ghost of Thornton Hall] is a very dark story – but we are a company that designs for ages 10 and up. Our goal in this particular game was to design a game that would engage the younger players, but really scare the older players. That’s why you have to connect some of the dots on your own as a player. This is not an approach we will always take, but in this case we wanted to deliver on the promised scares – but only for the players who wanted to look into the darker parts of the Thornton family saga.”

If you have some time (and aren’t worried about spoilers/aren’t going to play the game), I recommend reading through the whole email because I think it really underlines the care and attention this company gave to its fans.

Beyond emails like this, Her has a strong social media presence on Facebook, as well as profiles on Twitter, YouTube, and Pinterest. On their Facebook page, material is split between promotional material for upcoming games (including game trailers and teasers, character profiles and concept art for upcoming games, giveaways, and trivia questions) and fan-generated material that has been shared with the page. Fans share enormous amounts of fan-created material…

…including costumes, pumpkin carvings, cookies and cakes, artwork, pictures of their game collections, and live-streams of themselves playing the games.

The tone of their marketing material has always been open and warm, and you can see that very clearly in the comments Her receives on their posts. Not only that, but fans continue to write essays and lengthy comments about what these games and this company mean to them. There was, for almost a decade, a very trusting relationship between fans and company.

That is, until 2015.

Read Part 2

An Open Letter to Museums

With the long awaited death of 2016 and the start of the new year, I have some thoughts I want to share regarding the state of our country, especially with the impending inauguration of our next president.

Deep divisions came out into the open during this election. It seems our communities are more insular, and our echo chambers stronger, that we don’t engage with world views we find distasteful, and that we shut out those with whom we disagree.

There can be no doubt that the President-elect’s campaign stirred up resentment that was built during the last 8 years, all of which came to a head in the election and its ongoing aftermath. If we are to heal the gulf that grew between us, if we are to combat the hate that was revealed over the course of this election, if we are ever to live in a peaceful world, we must start to see each other as people, not simply “the other.” We must be able to look into each others’ lives, and we must be able to debate honestly, openly, and constructively. And I believe we have the institutions to do so, if we choose to use them.

There’s one strength that museums have, more than many other institutions, that I think makes them uniquely equipped to help heal our fractured communities. Museums give their communities the ability to think critically about their pasts and about the relationships between the groups that live there. They are narrative centers where we can see the intersections of our lives and they can give us a window into others’ situations that, while different, might mirror our own.

It’s difficult to really, truly, understand what another person’s life is like without actually living it, whether the difference is race, gender, religion, ability, or socioeconomic class. And that, along with a myriad of other reasons, has made the gulf between groups even wider. But there are ways in which we can, and should, share our experiences so that others can better understand what it is like. I plan on highlighting some of the ways this has been done effectively in my next blog post. Progress isn’t made by burying our heads in the sand and ignoring the plight of others. Progress is made when we come to a collective understanding of the experiences of ourselves and the people around us.

So this is a call to museums. Over the next few months, years, or however long it takes, ensure that your exhibits, your classes, your l ectures, your discussion groups and your materials address all of the narratives of your community. Make sure that you aren’t just focused on the one that is most available. How have your communities of color contributed to your towns and states? What is the current relationship between your upper classes and working poor? How do your artifacts and works of art share stories that might not otherwise be heard?

Over the next few months I’m going to take these questions to heart. I am going to look at the ways in which we’ve become divided, I’ll be examining social media’s role in the sharing and exclusion of narratives we find unsavory, and the ways in which we vilify and separate ourselves from each other. And I’ll be looking at what we can do to change that.

What are you going to do?

Which is the real “me”? : A Quick Intro to Code Switching

When you’re out with friends, you’re relaxed, outgoing, confident. When you’re at the office, you’re reserved, quiet, focused. You feel like you’re an entirely different person around your family than when you’re around your friends. You think to yourself, “which of these is the real me? The truest me? How do I know I’m not just pretending whenever I’m around other people?”

I’ve heard this question asked more times than I can count. Usually it’s in jest, but sometimes it’s a deeply rooted fear. They worry that among all of these different “personalities,” their truest selves have been lost; that they are somehow liars who put on an act to gain social acceptance.

If this hits close to home, I’m here to tell you not to worry. This phenomenon, the seeming ability to be multiple different people is called code switching. Code switching is often used primarily to describe changes in speech, but I tend to believe it can manifest in a few ways. Regardless, the result is essentially the same: you appear to have different personalities or mannerisms around different people. How? Here are a few ways:

1. Your style changes Style (and I don’t mean just your fashion choices) is a necessary part of how you present yourself. This includes, but is not limited to, clothing, hairstyle, use of jargon, the way you walk, and the way you carry yourself. Around the office, this might mean wearing professional clothing, standing up straighter, and exuding confidence. When you think about what certain clothing choices say about you as a person, you’re thinking about style. When you adjust those choices based on circumstance, you’re code switching. You may do this on social media too, especially if you use more than one platform.

2. You switch dialects If you’re reading this blog, you’re probably fluent in English, and at least one other dialect. That could be Standard Formal English, perhaps your hometown’s unique style of speech that you only drop into when you visit, or maybe it’s Southern American, or AAVE, or the jargon you use around your work colleagues. All of these could broadly be described as dialects, and the ability to move in between them in different social situations is code switching. If you have a child and switch between “parentese” and adult conversation, it’s the same thing.

3. You switch languages I had a friend in elementary school who we’ll call Jane. Jane’s family spoke fluent English and German at home. Sometimes, if I was unlucky, I would see them get mad at each other, as families do, and if Jane was really frustrated or upset, I would see her switch into German. As an 8-year-old, this both terrified and confused me. While this particular situation might not be the most common, it’s not unusual for bilingual families to switch between one language in a school or work setting, and another at home. Bilingualism is not my primary area of research, but there are a lot of resources out there if you’re interested in this variety of code switching. There are other varieties, of course, but this is just a quick introduction. Next time, I’ll be discussing my personal favorite, code switching on social media. For more information, I recommend the NPR Code Switch blog and this post, How Code Switching Explains the World.