My Soapbox: Michael Edson

"I'm just a pelagic jellyfish floating through an ocean full of smart people, trying not to get eaten."

That's Michael Edson in 140 characters or less. A Twitter fanatic and expert in digital initiatives, Edson is director of web and new media strategy at the Smithsonian Institution. He visits the Contemporary Arts Center Monday, March 7 for "Where Do We Go from Here?," the center's series featuring visionaries of design, web and more. His talk will focus on digital strategies re-shaping ideas about institutions, audience and productivity.

In his 20-year stint, Edson has been instrumental in the development of the Smithsonian's digital presence, overseeing projects such as the first Smithsonian blog, Eye Level, and Ghosts of a Chance, the first alternate reality game in a museum. He became a director in 2008, and in 2010, he led the launch of the Smithsonian Commons Prototype, a digital product connecting Smithsonian's museums and research centers with the public.

As Edson explains: "For a long time, the playbook was 'Collect the most interesting artifacts and hire the smartest people, put them in Washington D.C., and good things will happen.' Now, in the 21st Century … the old way we used to do that isn't good enough - isn't fast enough, isn't energetic enough, isn't strong enough. We think that by creating a commons we recognize that not all the smartest people in the world work for the Smithsonian, and that everyone else in the world is capable of insight and innovation. To accomplish our mission, we have to look outside our walls."

In this Soapbox Q&A, he offers an assessment of Cincinnati's social media efforts, and more comments on the Smithsonian Commons Prototype.

Q: Would it be fair to say the Smithsonian Commons Prototype stands at the intersection of social and educational experiences?
Edson: Yes, and certainly our ideas of "social" have really expanded. Learning and knowledge creation have never been asocial, and researchers and scholars have always had social networks. James Smithson, the Smithsonian's founder, was really defined by the social network he built for himself, scholars and researchers all over Europe … but new media tools and technology have amplified the kinds of collaborative learning and knowledge creation that has happened in the past.

Q: How can traditional organizations and museums benefit from upping their digital strat-egies? Why should they up their digital strategies?

Edson: There are tremendous pressures within institutions, differing ideas about how work should be done, and even what kind of work is possible. All of this is churned up by differing ideas about the impact of technology and new media. I feel very strongly that strategy is language that does work. It's a tool that helps you accomplish things, and without a cohesive strategy, there is no way to prioritize among the millions of tactic-al opportunities that crop up every day.

Q: How do you view Cincinnati's new media efforts? Could you point out Cincinnati com-panies that have caught your attention?

Edson: I know probably all business conversations in Cincinnati eventually wind up talking about Procter & Gamble, but I think P&G, in a lot of ways, was doing social media before there was social media, buying into soap operas in the 1930s and radio before that - that was the social media network of the time. They were pioneers then, and (today) the Old Spice guy campaign is one of the most imaginative, fun and effective social media marketing campaigns ever. That's a big story. I read (on Mashable) that their annual advertising spend is $9 billion. P&G is in a posi-tion to do a lot of very interesting and useful experimentation with even a fraction of that money.

Cincinnati has incredible culture resources -  places like the CAC, the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, the Cincinnati Art Museum, and Union Terminal. But when I look at those institutions from a new media/digital strategy point of view, I see more interesting things happening outside of those institutions than in them. For example, on Flickr, a search of Cincinnati Art Museum comes up with more than 6,000 photos, and a lot of them are taken by fans, people who love the museum. What I would expect to see over the next few years is museums embracing the vitality, creativity and love they enjoy within their communities and bringing them to their own sites.

Q: Where can we find you on the web more often than not?

Edson: Twitter is an absolutely essential workplace tool for me. I consider it an extension of my brain, and it makes me smarter every single day. I have a warning on my Facebook profile that says "Beware, this is just a torrent of workplace Tweets." Beyond that, I'm a huge reader of blogs and books.

Photography provided.
Geert Van Den Bogaard and David King
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