"Encouraging a "There Are No Dumb Questions" culture is only part of the solution. What we really need is a "There are No Dumb Answers" policy."

How to Build a User Community, Part 1 offers some good solutions to the kinds of issues I've worried about when thinking about our user communities. I think it's a good basis for some guidelines but really we just need to get it up and running and see how our users respond.

Are small museums the long tail?

On the way home from the Semantic Web Think Tank last week (see previous post), I suddenly thought: are small or specialised museums the long tail?

Each museum by itself would represent a tiny proportion of the overall use of museum collections online, but if you put all that usage together, would their collections in fact have a higher rate of use than those of more 'popular' museums?

At the moment I don't think there's any way to find out, because so many small or specialised museums don't have collections online, through a lack of expertise, digitisation resources or an easy-to-use publication infrastructure. Still, it's an interesting question.

Semantic Web ThinkTank

I went to the Semantic Web Think Tank meeting on "Social Software and the User Experience of the Semantic Web" in Brighton on Thursday. I'm still thinking about the discussions a lot, but here are some of my thoughts. This isn't an official report of the day, and they're in entirely random order and mixed up with other issues I've been thinking about lately.

We were asked to introduce ourselves and briefly describe our interest in the Semantic Web at the start of the session. I explained that I have a long-standing interest in user experiences online, and in the presentation of collections online. I've been interested in discovering whether we're actually using the most effective schema, formats, navigation and interfaces for our audiences for a long time, so sessions like this are a delight.

User-generated content
A lot of the conversation was about user-generated content rather than the users' experience of the semantic web, possibly because museums are thinking hard about user-generated content at the moment.

We talked about models for the presentation of user-generated content that would suggest users are comfortable distinguishing between content generated within an institution and that written by other users, such as Amazon reviews.

I didn't raise this at the time but while the overall quality of Amazon reviews and Wikipedia entries are encouraging, the Yahoo! Answers service makes me despair for humanity. Maybe it doesn't have the snob value of other social software sites like Amazon or Wikipedia, but the answers tend to be pretty low quality and sometimes possibly even maliciously wrong. Importantly, stupid or bad answers don't tend to be rated down the way a less insightful Amazon review would be.

However, overall it does show that there are existing models of user-generated content that we can follow – we don't have to invent them to start publishing user-generated content on our museum websites.

As an aside, hopefully our users don't discount 'official' museum content the way users tend to disregard the publisher blurbs on Amazon – we're told that users regard museums as trustworthy and 'objective' and I would hope regarded with some affection.

I'd never really thought about using folksonomies as a form of feedback that would inform the process of creating ontologies but once Areti raised it I started thinking about it. I guess I've always seen them as serving slightly different purposes, and as I don't think they don't compete in any sense, I hadn't seen the need to change how ontologies are constructed. I guess it depends – while internal ontologies don't need to be user-friendly, museums have a tendency to re-use them as navigation and information architecture on a website, where they do need to suit the audiences.

There was some discussion about the barriers to participation for museums and the possibility of resistance from curators and other museum staff. I've been lucky that so far I haven't encountered any resistance but I think generally we can use internal goodwill to engage new, non-traditional or disengaged audiences as a motivator. Our barriers to participation are those old favourites, time and money.

I think I must have been hungry because I started thinking about collections online as RSS as 'home delivery' from a range of menus and traditional online collections as going to a restaurant – the restaurant chooses the range of items you can order and in what format they'll be delivered.

Not all users are equal!
User-generated content isn't written by random voices from undifferentiated mass of users. Reputation and trust are important, whether 'Real Name' reviewers on Amazon, established authors on Wikipedia, or eBay sellers with good feedback. What impact might that have on museum content that's 'leaked out' and lost its original context?

Knowing what our users want matters, and simultaneously doesn't
Towards the end of the morning session I decided that we can't predict how semantic web users will use unfettered access, so maybe we should just build it and see what happens, instead of trying to second guess them. In a way, the Semantic Web is post-User Centred Design because we're not designing the applications but providing repositories of data that can be used in what could be called User Created Applications. It's not that users don't matter, it's that now isn't the time to make assumptions about what they want – our dialogue with them should be very open-ended.

As for what 'it' is – maybe a repository of objects published in a sector-wide digital object model or schema? There was some discussion of whether objects could be published in microformats, but I think they're too big for that. Otoh, if we have a repository where each object has a permanent URI, we could put selected data into microformats that can refer back to the URI.

We can better predict how user-generated content might relate to our existing infrastructure so we should try to cater to known models and requirements.

The semantic web can cause problems for museums funded according to the number of visitors through their door or to their website. We need to redefine the measures of success to incorporate content that's used outside the infrastructure of the originating museum; or we can refer users onto commercial services such as picture libraries. In terms of development, we can aim to created re-usable and sustainable infrastructures in any new applications developed so they can be used to deliver content both to the target audience/application and beyond.

Other random thoughts
I've also realised that maybe we need to take a step back and ask "do we actually know who our users are?" before we can assess the effectiveness of online collections. There generally accepted groupings of users we talk about, but do they reflect reality? It may well be that we're on the right track but it would be good to confirm this. Interestingly, since I started writing this post, I've noticed that my old workmates Jonny Brownbill and Darren Peacock are presenting a session titled Audiences, Visitors and Users: Reconceptualising users of museum online content and services at MW2007 so hopefully research in this area is moving forward.

I can relate this to the discussions on Thursday but actually it came out of a conversation I had with my workmate Jeremy beforehand: does Australia's history with models of distance education like the "School of the Air" mean that Australian museums have a different understanding of how to present collections online? Australian museums have had extensive collections online for years, possibly a lot earlier than museums in Europe or North America.

Update: the workshop report is now online.