Sree Sreeni­vasan: Amer­ica’s Tech Guru

Amer­ica’s Tech Guru

Luxe Beat Magazine - - Contents - By Lil­lian Africano

When Sree Sreeni­vasan (@sree) was ap­pointed Chief Dig­i­tal Of­fi­cer at the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Mu­seum of Art in 2013, that was the lat­est step in what he calls “a three-decade, one-way love af­fair with one of the world’s great mu­se­ums.”

Since his ap­point­ment, a lot has hap­pened at the Met, re­flect­ing Sree’s ex­per­tise in all things dig­i­tal, es­pe­cially so­cial me­dia.

In April 2014, the Met’s In­sta­gram ac­count was se­lected as the Webby Award Win­ner in the So­cial Arts & Cul­ture cat­e­gory in the 18th an­nual awards pro­gram. (The Webby, pre­sented by the In­ter­na­tional Acad­emy of Dig­i­tal Arts and Sci­ences, is the lead­ing in­ter­na­tional award honor­ing ex­cel­lence on the In­ter­net.)

In Septem­ber 2014, the Met launched an app on iphone and ipad that was used more than one mil­lion times in its first nine months. Of this fea­ture, Sree (rarely is he called “Mr. Sreeni­vasan”) said that it “serves as a dig­i­tal com­pan­ion be­fore, dur­ing and af­ter a visit to the Met—and it’s ac­ces­si­ble to our in­ter­na­tional au­di­ence, with whom we are al­ways try­ing to con­nect bet­ter from afar.”

The goal of con­nect­ing with au­di­ences every­where is clearly be­ing met. The mu­seum’s dig­i­tal au­di­ence is in­creas­ingly glob­ally, with in­ter­na­tional users up to 36% on the web­site, 50% on In­sta­gram, 54% on Twit­ter and 70% on Face­book. On Weibo, one of China’s largest so­cial me­dia net­works, the Met had 10 mil­lion im­pres­sions in 2015.

At the close of the fis­cal year, the Mu­seum’s Face­book ac­count had more than 1.3 mil­lion fol­low­ers (with a reach of 48.5 mil­lion peo­ple) and its Twit­ter feed had 982,000 fol­low­ers (with tweets re­ceiv­ing 148.5 mil­lion im­pres­sions). The web­site had a to­tal of 32mil­lion vis­its.

All this on­line ac­tiv­ity has led to record-break­ing vis­its to the brick-and-mor­tar mu­seum. In July it was an­nounced that a record 6.3 mil­lion peo­ple – from the United States and around the world – had vis­ited the mu­seum dur­ing the fis­cal year. This was the high­est vis­i­tor­ship since the Met be­gan track­ing ad­mis­sion sta­tis­tics more than 40 years ago.

When th­ese changes are men­tioned to Sree, he ac­knowl­edges them hap­pily – but de­clines any credit, pre­fer­ring in­stead to men­tion “our team” (At the Met, he leads a world-class team of 70 work­ing on top­ics he loves: dig­i­tal, so­cial, mo­bile, video, data, email apps and more.) “It all starts with Tom Camp­bell,” he says em­phat­i­cally, “who em­braced the idea of a dig­i­tal Met.” (Thomas P. Camp­bell is the mu­seum’s di­rec­tor and CEO.)

“We are build­ing a vir­tual cir­cle with peo­ple all around the world. When they come in per­son, we want them to stay con­nected to the mu­seum At­ten­dance has changed and grown and bro­ken records. We are in­creas­ing ac­cess to schol­ar­ship, but there is no dumb­ing down any­where. We work at a deep schol­arly level and also a lighter one. We want to achieve a bal­ance and to serve all ages.”

Ex­pand­ing the com­mit­ment to serve all ages, in Septem­ber of this year, the mu­seum launched #Metkids, a new on­line fea­ture with mul­ti­me­dia con­tent made for, with and by kids. “The full ef­fect of what we are do­ing will not be seen for years,” Sree re­flects, pon­der­ing the ques­tion of how to best make con­nec­tions and how to make them have a se­ri­ous re­sult. To make the point, he adds: “Few of us saw how quickly In­sta­gram would grow.”

Sree joined the Met af­ter spend­ing 20 years at Columbia Univer­sity as a mem­ber of the fac­ulty of the Columbia Jour­nal­ism School and a year as the univer­sity’s first Chief Dig­i­tal Of­fi­cer. As an ad­junct pro­fes­sor, he still oc­ca­sion­ally teaches at Columbia, where he is fondly re­mem­bered by both stu­dents and as­so­ciates.

Liz Borod Wright first met Sree when she was a stu­dent at Columbia’s Jour­nal­ism School. Ten years later, she be­came the ad­junct pro­fes­sor for his so­cial me­dia lec­tures for three years. Liz re­calls those years: “Sree’s lec­tures are so en­ter­tain­ing that stu­dents don’t even re­al­ize the sheer vol­ume they’re learn­ing un­til long af­ter it’s ended. His en­thu­si­asm for so­cial me­dia is con­ta­gious; it’s im­pos­si­ble to hear him speak and not feel in­spired to use so­cial me­dia for what­ever your per­sonal and pro­fes­sional goals hap­pen to be.

“I’ve seen stu­dents at­tend his so­cial me­dia lec­tures mul­ti­ple times, trav­el­ing for hun­dreds of miles just to hear him speak be­cause they will al­ways pick up some­thing new. He is al­ways up-to-date on the lat­est trends, tech­nolo­gies and data. But his real pas­sion is for help­ing peo­ple. He loves to ask for peo­ple’s twit­ter han­dles so the group can fol­low them, and then he’ll give an in­di­vid­u­al­ized cri­tique as to how the stu­dent can do bet­ter. Sree’s pas­sion for help­ing and teach­ing is ev­i­dent in ev­ery­thing he does, but es­pe­cially in how his lec­tures would fre­quently run an hour over their end­ing time -- and even then he’d con­tinue the con­ver­sa­tion with stu­dents over pizza.”

Given the depth and breadth of Sree’s in­volve­ment in the dig­i­tal world, one would ex­pect that his own 12-year-old twins would have started us­ing so­cial me­dia while they were tod­dlers. Not so, he says. In

fact, the op­po­site is true, as Sree and his wife, Roopa Un­nikr­ish­nan, re­sisted in­volv­ing their chil­dren in so­cial me­dia. “Peo­ple were sur­prised,” he says. “We were among the last to get the kids cell phones. You don’t need one when you’re a kid – and we saw that lots of tech­nol­ogy peo­ple were re­strict­ing the use of tech­nol­ogy with their kids. Now the twins are 12 and they are on In­sta­gram.”

So are they aware now of how prom­i­nent their dad is?

“Well,” Sree replies, “they’ve been dragged to some events, so they are some­what aware, but not the full range of what I do.”

The “full range” of what he does is im­pres­sive: In 2015, he was named to Fast Com­pany’s list of 100 Most Cre­ative Peo­ple in Busi­ness, in part for the work he and the mu­seum are do­ing on the fu­ture of cul­ture.

In 2015, he joined CBS Ra­dio’s new Play.it pod­cast net­work with the “@Sree Show: Talk­ing tech, cul­ture, en­trepreneur­ship” In 2009, he was named one of Adage’s 25 me­dia peo­ple to fol­low on Twit­ter and in 2010 was named one of Poyn­ter’s the 35 most in­flu­en­tial peo­ple in so­cial me­dia; in 2014, he was named the most in­flu­en­tial CDO in the US.

He is co-founder of SAJA, the South Asian Jour­nal­ists As­so­ci­a­tion, a group of more than 1,000 jour­nal­ists of South Asian ori­gin across the United States and Canada.

Though Sree’s in­volve­ments have been in­ter­na­tional in scope, he says he has “an im­mi­grant mind­set” that makes him more ap­pre­cia­tive of his city and his coun­try. Un­der­stand­able, given the fact that his fa­ther was a diplo­mat for the In­dian gov­ern­ment, a post that meant fre­quent re­lo­ca­tions. So Sree was born in Tokyo, Ja­pan and grew up in the USSR, Fiji and In­dia. He at­tended kinder­garten in Moscow, P.S. 6 in Man­hat­tan, Marist Broth­ers High School in Suva, Fiji and St. Stephen’s Col­lege in Delhi, In­dia. (He grad­u­ated from Columbia Univer­sity with a Bach­e­lor of Arts in history and re­ceived a Mas­ter of Science de­gree in Jour­nal­ism from Columbia’s

Graduate School of Jour­nal­ism.)

To­day, as a leader in all things dig­i­tal, Sree re­tains his love for the printed page and be­lieves that tech­nol­ogy can’t com­pletely re­place the daily news­pa­per. He men­tions that “in other parts of the world, print news­pa­pers are still strong.” They are also strong in the Sreeni­vasan house­hold; Sree sub­scribes to both mag­a­zines and news­pa­pers. And as for books, he points out that E-book sales have fallen, but the num­bers for print books has risen.

“Print is still rel­e­vant on many lev­els,” he says, “as a kind of back­lash and also due to the fact that tech­nol­ogy has not yet caught up. A dig­i­tal im­age, for ex­am­ple, can’t com­pare with a beau­ti­ful cof­fee ta­ble book.”

Warm­ing to this theme, he says: “An email ‘thank you’ can­not com­pare with a card. I keep ev­ery card I re­ceive from stu­dents and friends – and I dis­play them all.”

As if to fur­ther demon­strate the back­lash against a tech-lov­ing world, Sree says: “Vinyl records are sell­ing again, and cas­sette tape sales had their best year since 1967. Can you imag­ine? I didn’t even know they were still around.”

Since Sree lives so much of his pro­fes­sional life in the spot­light, was there any­thing about him that hasn’t been widely dis­cussed? “My first job,” he says. “It was hand­ing out fly­ers at a phar­macy on 88th and Madi­son. So many peo­ple re­fused to take them, it got em­bar­rass­ing. So I re­solved that when I got older, I would al­ways take a flyer from any­one who was hand­ing them out. If you walk with me, you will see that I do that.” And if you walk with Sree, you will also see that he is al­ways tweeting about the world around him, al­ways find­ing some­thing new and in­ter­est­ing to add to the con­ver­sa­tion.

If you’d like to know more about Sree Sreeni­vasan:

You can find him on Twit­ter at twit­ter.com/sree and on Face­book at face­book.com/ sreetips and on In­sta­gram at in­stra­gram.com/sreene­tand on the web at sree.net.

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