Museums and the audience comments paradox

I was at the Imperial War Museum for an advisory board meeting for the Social Interpretation project recently, and had a chance to reflect on my experiences with previous audience participation projects.  As Claire Ross summarised it, the Social Interpretation project is asking: does applying social media models to collections successfully increase engagement and reach?  And what forms of moderation work in that environment – can the audience be trusted to behave appropriately?

One topic for discussion yesterday was whether the museum should do some ‘gardening’ on the comments.  Participation rates are relatively high but some of the comments are nonsense (‘asdf’), repetitive (thousands of variants of ‘Cool’ or ‘sad’) or off-topic (‘I like the museum’) – a pattern probably common to many museum ‘have your say’ kiosks.  Gardening could involve ‘pruning’ out comments that were not directly relevant to the question asked in the interactive, or finding ways to surface the interesting comments.  While there are models available in other sectors (e.g. newspapers), I’m excited by the possibility that the Social Interpretation project might have a chance to address this issue for museums.

A big design challenge for high-traffic ‘have your say’ interactives is providing a quality experience for the audience who is reading comments – they shouldn’t have to wade through screens of repeated, vacuous or rude comments to find the gems – while appropriately respecting the contribution and personal engagement of the person who left the comment.

In the spirit of ‘have your say’, what do you think the solution might be?  What have you tried (successfully or not) in your own projects, or seen working well elsewhere?

Update: the Social Interpretation have posted I iz in ur xhibition trolling ur comments:

“One of the most discussed issues was about what we have termed ‘gardening comments’ but to put it bluntly it’s more a case of should we be ‘curating the visitor voice’ in order to improve the visitor experience? It’s a difficult question to deal with… 

We are at the stage where we really do want to respect the commenter, but also want to give other readers a high value experience. It’s a question of how we do that, and will it significantly change the project?”

If you found this post, you might also be interested in Notes from ‘The Shape of Things: New and emerging technology-enabled models of participation through VGC’.

Update, March 2014: I’ve just been reading a journal article on ‘Normative Influences on Thoughtful Online Participation’. The authors set out to test this hypothesis:

‘Individuals exposed to highly thoughtful behavior from others will be more thoughtful in their own online comment contributions than individuals exposed to behavior exhibiting a low degree of thoughtfulness.’ 

Thoughtful comments were defined by the number of words, how many seconds it took to write them, and how much of the content was relevant to the issue discussed in the original post. And the results? ‘We found significant effects of social norm on all three measures related to participants’ commenting behavior. Relative to the low thoughtfulness condition, participants in the high thoughtfulness condition contributed longer comments, spent more time writing them, and presented more issue-relevant thoughts.’ To me, this suggests that it’s worth finding ways to highlight the more thoughtful comments (and keeping pulling out those ‘asdf’ weeds) in an interactive as this may encourage other thoughtful comments in turn.

Reference: Sukumaran, Abhay, Stephanie Vezich, Melanie McHugh, and Clifford Nass. “Normative Influences on Thoughtful Online Participation.” In Proceedings of the 2011 Annual Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, 3401–10. Vancouver, BC, Canada: ACM, 2011. http://dl.acm.org/citation.cfm?id=1979450.

Blogger just made me switch to the Google version – ugh. On the other hand, I discovered that I had unapproved comments, so my apologies for the delay, I’ve approved them now. And my thanks for leaving the comments in the first place!

The BBC on Push for open access to research: “Last month five leading European research institutions launched a petition that called on the European Commission to establish a new policy that would require all government-funded research to be made available to the public shortly after publication.”