4 min read

Social media, museums and the art of inclusive curation

Outgoing US President Donald Trump has made it very clear that he will not let the world’s most important leadership transition happen without a fight.

His supporters, egged on by Trump’s lawyer and tireless cheerleader Rudy Giuliani, heard the message loud and clear. The ensuing scenes of violence engulfing Washington’s Capitol were quickly condemned by tech CEOs like Tim Cook, Sundar Pichai, and Satya Nadella.

Once more, leaders of social media giants, from Twitter’s Jack Dorsey, to Facebook and Instagram’s Mark Zuckerberg and Snapchat’s Evan Spiegel are on the back foot. Through years of unrelenting criticism, they have struggled to find a principled stance for dealing with controversial content. Slowly, they have worked their way from fact-checking to suspending and locking, and now blocking Trump’s social media accounts “indefinitely”.

Despite that, criticism of the leadership that social media CEOs have shown persists. As in the past,  Zuckerberg and Dorsey stand accused of having “blood on their hands”. In the public sphere, accusations of “too little too late, are mixed with familiar charges of bias against conservatives. Inside Facebook, despite his commitment to free expression, Zuckerberg has censored his own employees’ discussions over whether to ban Trump. 

Whoever the groups on all sides of the debate are, there is one thing they all seem to agree on: Whether or not they are legally liable for content on their platforms, social media companies are being held to account by the public for the content they curate. Tech CEOs are truly damned if they take action, and damned if they do not. How can corporate leaders navigate an environment where politicians, regulators, activists, investors, and employees all expect opposing things of them at the same time?

Screengrab of tweet by Trump alleging voter fraud, showing Twitter warning flag

Balancing opposites, connecting with communities

Our own research on leadership suggests that corporate leaders might find solace and advice in an unlikely place: The cultural sector. As our research shows, British museum leaders have been struggling with confronting a troubled past and balancing several seemingly opposing expectations for years. 

Just like tech companies that are now expected to cleave fact from fiction and use data appropriately, museums have to carefully curate content that resonates with their mission. At the same time, they are trying to reach highly outspoken and historically neglected communities such as the Black Lives Matter movement, all while generating resources to maintain their corporate sustainability. These three domains also encapsulate the competing priorities that social media leaders need to reconcile.

In 43 in-depth conversations, we were fascinated to hear about the intricate ways in which museum leaders have risen to that challenge and developed ways to simultaneously balance these expectations:

  • First, they explore compatibility between seemingly disparate demands, for example by understanding social activists not as monolithic, but multi-faceted, engaging specific parts of groups that align with select aspects of their cultural mission, and serve as a source of income.
  • Second, museum leaders create complementarity by treating these differing expectations not as inextricably opposed, but through making them interdependent. For example, they create exhibitions that enable their expert employees to connect with community groups in new ways.
Museum directors ... have learnt to carefully curate inclusive spaces for different communities to meet and debate.

By making seeming opposites compatible and complementary, museum directors are transcending the apparent tensions that pervade their work. For instance, they have learnt to carefully curate inclusive spaces in their museums for different communities to meet and debate.

Rather than denying that tensions exist, or choosing one side over another, these leaders have become adept at creating integrated solutions that over time and as a whole speak to the needs of several constituents – some in particular moments, and some in different spaces. It is these inclusive spaces where a rich debate between vigorously opposed groups happens, one which social media firms struggle to create.

Platforms seek to maximise engagement. Typically, people engage more with controversial content, and content that resonates with them. Hence, their algorithms are curated to effectively separate users based on their prejudices – resulting in the infamous “echo chambers”.

It would take users’ active outreach to communities and populations outside their ‘inner circle’ to deliberately seek those contrarian views that generate a more boundary-spanning and potentially inclusive debate.

Yet few people will do this on their own accord. Challenging deeply held views creates cognitive dissonance, so it is much more comfortable to stay within one’s own community of like-minded people.

Tech CEOs have the opportunity to help change this. They could learn from cultural leaders about how to overcome separation, and algorithmically curate content in a way that provides for engagement across communities, making apparent opposites compatible. They can present differing views not in oppositional, but complementary ways that allow for new, integrated ideas.

As of now, leaders like Evan Spiegel, Jack Dorsey, and Mark Zuckerberg are still trying to catch up with events. All too often they are falling for the easy approach of appeasing one group of stakeholders over another. This has made their decisions appear inconsistent and arbitrary.

'Curate’ and ‘care’ stem from the same root. As museum leaders can tell, curating content in a way that brings together opposing views and constituents cannot be fully automated, and takes time.  

Crowds outside Metropolitan Museum, New York City

As a new leader enters the White House, tight regulation may be looming. and tech leaders may be running out of time. Rather than Mark Zuckerberg’s old mantra to “move fast and break things”, tech firms and their leaders should think about ways to ‘learn fast and integrate things’.