Social Software and Museums – Discussion2

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Pic: Areti Galani, Richard Light, Nick Poole and Mike Lowndes ponder the big picture. Copyright 24 Hour Museum

Jon Pratty: (24 Hour Museum, co-chairing session) I’d like to bring in Frances Lloyd-Baynes from the V&A now

Frances L-B: I was just going to say a couple of things that have been bypassed. Before that, in terms of what Mike Ellis said; ‘there’s not a concern about the loss of authority’, there certainly is within our organisations. The public may be able to make the difference notionally because they are more used to the technology, they are more used to working in that environment. But I think internally we are having serious arguments with people who are concerned about losing the authority of their information.

Mike E: Maybe I belittled it because I feel we should be beyond that. And I think we are going to be running into trouble. I haven’t had a week go by when we haven’t sat down with a member of the curatorial staff saying exactly that. But I think we simply can’t do this web 2.0 thing until we accept that we have to do it. If we’re not going to do it then let’s not do it.

Frances L-B: We have to bear in mind that this will need to be managed.

Jane Finnis: (24 Hour Museum) They are doing an equivalent project at the Powerhouse Museum in Australia. Have people seen it? It’s a guy called Seb Chan. They’re actually doing it live to the public – and they’ve had about 40% increase in web traffic since they’ve gone live with it. They’ve got 64,000 objects online and every single object was looked at within eight weeks. Every single thing.

And they were looking at what they felt the collection objects should be described as, and what the public were doing. And then not replacing them – they are running them as two separate sets: at what the user was doing. They are not throwing one a way to replace the other.

Mike E: Can we make a URL available for that? Or a contact?

Suzanne Keene: (UCL, London) Are there any other examples that we know of when museums are using this folksonomy approach? We were talking, to start off with, as though nobody was doing it and already we have two examples. And there’s a third one, the San Francisco Art Museum, They use volunteers to go around their paintings and give some taxonomy suggestions. And there was a lot of worry from the curators who didn’t like this painting been described as a yellow cow for example, rather than in art histocial terms.

Jon: There is usually a 20% crossover between user generated terms and the ‘official’ term for an art object, or painting.

Jane: That isn’t happening in Australia though.

Suzanne: Its much less of an academic discipline what’s happening at the Powerhouse.

Mia Ridge: (Museum of London) One of my interests at the moment is the barriers to participation from the museum side. We are talking about user generated content because we’re actively looking for ways to involve our audience. I keep expecting to hear resistance and we haven’t so far. So maybe there is hope.

Nick Poole: (MDA) There is a real danger of over-thinking this. It’s not a challenge to a curator. The curator, at the moment when you first come across the idea, it’s going to look like a challenge, but as soon as you get your head around what it is, which is essentially a supplement to traditional descriptions, it’s a way of democratising and enabling.

Fundamentally it’s a great way of getting people to engage with your collections – people who wouldn’t necessarily have bothered before. As soon as you find ways of articulating that, I’m sure that the whole process becomes much easier.

Ross Parry: (University of Leicester) I think we should carry on this point about ‘is it a scary thing letting go?’

Mike Lowndes: (Natural History Museum) I don’t think anyone is saying that we have to let go completely, we can mix and match.

Ross: Absolutely. This is my point really, I think this is going to be about how we present this, how this argument is made to museums. Because what we’re seeing happening in the evolution of the web from html to xml – from the web to the semantic web, or version one to version two. In my mind this is entirely consistent with the evolution that’s taking place within the museum. Some people have called this an evolution from a museum to a post-museum which Costas (Costas Manchester Unviersity) knows a lot more about. There’s a museum that’s a very didactic, modernist, positivist institution that’s very centralized and that’s turning into something that’s more open and more visitor-centered, that’s absolutely fixated with how visitors are making meaning.

We’ve (University of Leicester Museum Studies Department) just done some consultancy for the National Space Centre and the focus of the projects that we were doing was gallery interactivity. What sort of assumptions were visitors walking into that space with? How are they constructing meaning around the objects that are on display? And how can they be part of that exhibit?

How can they contribute? Those tenets, those drivers, those values that curatorial staff have at the museum are entirely consistent with what we’re talking about here. It’s not about letting go of authority, it’s understanding how our web users, like gallery users, are constructing meaning. And when you understand that, you can do all sorts of interesting things, it’s almost like using the tagging, not as market research, but as formative, front-end evaluation. It’s a good tool for audience research. I guess this is what I’m saying.

Areti Galani: (University of Newcastle) I do understand the tension between letting go and the curators being a bit itchy about the users generating their own content. Also people saying that it’s not a problem really.

I wonder whether user generated content is actually treated being as an add on, as a separate thing that we can keep in a separate box – or how we can integrate it into the everyday focus of the museum. I think it’s easy to treat it as an add on and keep it in a separate box, like you keep your outreach or other activities in the museum where they don’t really affect the core functions of the museum.

How much we can actually investigate ways all of this other information i.e. User generated content can actually be integrated in more organic ways? I think that’s the real challenge, it’s not about curators being stroppy.

Mike L: It is about their different audiences, though, and letting them have different interfaces.

Jeremy Keith: (Clear Left) The Amazon one’s a good example – the way they do have an editorial. There is a feeling that this is the official text, about a book, and this is their user generated stuff. But I know from my personal experience when I get Amazon to buy a book I don’t even read the editorial, all I’m interested in is what other people think.

Mike E: Which says a lot about the power of that.

Jeremy K: And this may be because they want people to understand that this is coming from authority and this is coming from the users – I’d be really surprised if what people were interested in wasn’t the word from users. A very large number of people will actually want to know what people think.

Mike L: We’ll always have that tension. We will always have to have to mediate between audiences. We have a massive academic audience and a massive public audience and they want to see the same stuff.

Nick Poole: There are two points to make. The first one is that semantic interoperability has taken an absolute beating ’cause it doesn’t work. Wherever we’ve had standard thesorium ontologies, as soon as they get dropped into a real world environment they get changed and so our resources aren’t semantically interoperable precisely because we’ve tried this top down approach and we’ve seen that it doesn’t work. As life will out fundamentally and people change stuff.

The other thing I would say about this whole ‘Where do you sit?’ thing, the contextual user generated content. We’ve been doing a lot a work at the moment about the reinterpretation of physical – people going into actual museums and wanting to reinterpret it and the tendency has been to whack it all into an excel spreadsheet with a reference number and link it out to the database and the thing we’ve discovered is that context is totally king.

It can all be wired into the same system but in a way when you’re coming to a museum’s contents management system online, you’re already in museum world, in a museum context that’s about authority and credibility, in quasi-academic knowledge, but when you’re looking at user generated content that all different.

Mike E: I think that depends on the museum.

Nick Poole: Yes, and how bad the website is. But, how deep do you go in to user contextualization? Do you say “this is Edna, 58, who vaguely remembers her dad having one of these as a boy”, or do you say, this is someone who has been working in a non-professional but academic research capacity who knows …”

Jeremy O: But it also assumes that you’re going to see that museum information in a museum website context.

Jon: Content is escaping, naturally, into search environments and being found in all sorts of odd places.

Jeremy O: And people will encourage that in various ways.

Frances L-B: It does raise the question of how does someone assess how believable the information is so when you go to Amazon and look through the reviews, how many do you have to read before you decide which one you’re going to believe?

Jeremy K: And this is actually the issue about the semantic web – the key issue here is trust. How do you trust?

Frances L-B: Which is why wikipedia works

Jeremy K: You mentioned the long tail which is interesting. I’m actually reading the Chris Anderson book right now…. 80% of everything being crud. If I’m looking for something from the British government I expect it to be easy to find and I would be very upset if it wasn’t. But if I’m looking for something incredibly niche, I expect to have to dig, I expect to have to search a bit more and too wade through a lot of clutter that is associated with this stuff. It’s interesting that when people care about a niche subject they really care, they are extremely passionate, and so some of the best wikipedia articles are on incredibly niche subjects rather than the commonplace.

Mike L: But you’re only seeing what’s been tagged

Suzanne Keene: There is a sort of feeling here that everything that is entered into Wikipedia is good, (or accurate). I’m familiar with the arguments. But I don’t think we should lose sight of the fact that people look to user driven sites as places with added value, with accurate knowledge and so on.

I can think of an example, a historical example, a historical database of historical fairs, it must do one of the earliest examples. The historians put it on line at the institute of historical research, just a catalogue of fairs all over Europe. It became incredibly popular, people began to write in with all kinds of additions and lots of it was great, it was brilliant, but lots of it was just plain wrong. And it’s only because one person actually carefully checked out everything that it’s actually developed into a huge and wonderful resource. Things that everyone contributes isn’t as a necessarily valuable.

Jeremy Keith: Wikipedia scales enormously well

Mia Ridge: It’s important to think about the users that are generating content not as an amorphous mass. If we refer to each other, and we create a trust network.

Jane Finnis: (24 Hour Museum) The nature of the content defines how much you can trust it and how much it is open to abuse. There are reasons people want to abuse sites – if I read hotel reviews and there are ten great ones I think I wonder who wrote those and have they been written by someone who works for that company. And because as a commercial transaction is involved in my choice I’m suspicious, by nature, that they are not a genuine.

When you’re looking at a museum site, and someone is tagging something as well, there is no reason for them to be innaccurate, no benefit in them doing anything that would be anything other than the end true opinion. And so we have an advantage as we are not following the commercial model. So you can let users come in and open it up, and trust them because why would they want to undermine that?

Jeremy K: Because what you get from the users is not necessarily factual accuracy as we would expect from academics or curators, what we tend not to get from academics and key rates is emotional accuracy and emotional honesty.

Like books, they may not be the most factual documents but they are honest and that appeals to people. And people again are capable of filtering, “all that was emotionally engaging that it was probably a load of shit and we can’t believe a word of it” whereas the academics have the opposite problem, generally all they are interested in is the facts, they leave out any emotions which are seen as being amateur.

To have emotions (about museum culture) might not be seen as professional. And people have filters they believe that from this person because he’s an academic and I believe the emotions of this person because he’s a man in the street.

Jane Finnis: And the risk of doing that is that people will be honest. They will say ‘oh this exhibition’s boring.’ And that’s the only danger isn’t it? I think they are more worried about that than somebody saying something isn’t seventeenth century when it actually eighteenth century. They are more worried that people are going to say it crap.

Jeremy K: Academics aren’t exactly objective either.

Jane F: And if they know they are right they are not going to be threatened by somebody challenging the definition of an object but they will be challenged by somebody saying that they don’t think it’s very good.

Mike E: We spent about two years worrying about authority and abuse and stuff just before we launched the Dana Centre web site with its discussion board. We wondered about what mode of moderation we’re going to have and what legal recourse and what if somebody slags off somebody else and we managed to push through an open discussion board that is moderated and we’ve had it now for two years and we’ve had one person abusing that and we simply removed his membership. Gone. done. It has simply not been an issue.

And one of the things that we’re really learned about that was that it’s about giving just the right height of barrier to entry so that if somebody arrives home from the pub after eleven pints, you actually needed to create e-mail accounts and all that stuff and I think this comes back to what Jane said about why would they want to abuse it? I’m actually sure people are pretty sensible about this.

Nick Poole: To come back to Jane’s point, this is non-commercial at the moment but one of the pieces of work we’re doing at the BBC at the moment is saying that someone owns the IP for this user generated content, and it’s entirely possible… There is a huge issue of ownership…

Jane F: But I don’t think that will change the way users use it. Not competitive.

Nick Poole: But the information you are likely to give would change fundamentally. Like if they sold wikipedia. It would change fundamentally.

Mia Ridge: If someone else’s commercializing your time I think you will. I mean Amazon does and Wikipedia doesn’t. I don’t know what the point of difference is that people invest a lot of time in creative content. It would be interesting to see how that changed.

Go to the next session – Users and what we know about them

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