Soliciting conversation and listening actively while isolating discussion

I've been paying more attention to The Age's "what's on" listings and reviews while I'm actually in Melbourne, and noticed that their film critic, Jim Schembri, is doing a fine job soliciting responses on his film reviews.  At the end of a piece on 'Bruno: Comic genius or witless git?', he asks:

What do you think? Is Bruno funny? Half funny? Not funny? What do you think of Sacha Baron Cohen? Do you agree with anything in this article? Does the author make any valid points? Is there skill involved in this brand of comedy? Or is he a middle-aged fud who just doesn't get reality humour?

What do you think of the Shock and Guffaw School of Comedy? Should ethics factor in to it? Or are the laughs worth it, whatever the cost?

And what did you think of the saturation Bruno media blitz? Did you enjoy it? Or was it a case of "enough already"?

What is you favourite Sacha Baron Cohen moment? Is there a scene from his films or TV shows that make you laugh every time you think of it?

And if you had to choose between Bruno, Borat or Ali G, who would you most take to: (1) a wedding? (2) a funeral? (3) a kid's birthday party?

Your valued thoughts are hereby sought.

These direct questions are a good attempt at provoking discussion. I'm never sure how well specific questions soliciting audience response work, and in this case I'm not sure what prompted them – does it lead to a more constructive discussion? Reduce flame wars or trolling? Your valued thoughts are hereby sought.

But this is the best bit, and the point I'd like to make to museum bloggers – he also responds to comments:

The design is subtly clever, in that the blog author's responses appear inline, but are distinguished from audience comments with a heavier typeface. They're also attributed differently – "Schembri note" versus the 'Posted by blah on blah at blah'. This provides a level of authority while allowing direct responses to specific comments. I'm not sure how he'd respond to a bunch of similar comments – does it work if it appears as a separate comment? Would it display differently?

It's a great example of starting a discussion and actually sticking around to listen to the results – it turns a blog post into a conversation.

The other interesting point is that there's a very similar piece of content by the same author, Borat's bro is fully sick in the film section of the 'main' site, and the sub-heading makes it sound like it's also a participatory piece – "Bruno: a comic genius or a witless git? You be the judge" – but it's not.  And there are no links to the blog piece, so at a guess the majority of readers would never know they could comment on the film.  Effectively, the discussion is isolated from the main site, the general reader.  I can think of a few reasons why this might be the case, but a more interesting question might be – what effect does this have?

I'm still thinking this through (particularly in relation to cultural heritage and social media) – your thoughts would be welcome in the meantime.

8 thoughts on “Soliciting conversation and listening actively while isolating discussion”

  1. HI Mia
    Thanks for the thoughtful posting. I agree with you that you need to stick around to listen to the responses! I suspect that it is this aspect of social media which concerns some people in the cultural sector. I think that the way you can now add blog comments as tweets will help the conversational aspects of blogs (few as they are). Still, I'm not sure whether asking the audience will necessarily elicit response. I guess we all ask at the end of our posts but how often do we receive a response?
    It's great to see how participation is evolving in mainstream media though. Thanks!

  2. This is the thing I miss most about museum blogs, that is common in craft blogs. There are conversations!

    From commenting on a couple of Jim Schembri's posts (I don't always read him, but there was interesting discussion around The Chaser episode)I could see that he normally responds only to those where a reply is appropriate. Which is fine. If you follow some of the blogs on the Australian newspaper, there are a few good bloggers there who have good conversations, regulars start talking to each other (or hurling gentle abuse, whatever).

    In craft blogs (the ones I read are mainly textiles), there are a lot of conversations going on under the posts, and people actively read them.

    But museums? Especially in the voluntary sector – comments are rare. But so are the blogs.

    (Same around Flickr – the craft community is used to commenting – maybe it is just a case of waiting).

    If you would like to read a good Australian craft blog, to see what I mean, try


  3. Angelina – I guess Linda's point makes it clear that we need other people to actually reply so that we can respond!

    I've never been sure if there's an art to writing questions to evoke responses. Maybe being more polemical or courting controversy would work?

    Linda – what do the craft-y conversations tend to be about? Specific techniques/materials, community building, apparently random things, discussion of particular pieces?

    I wonder if people are scared to respond to museum blogs because they don't feel they have the knowledge or authority.

  4. Mia asked: "What do they comment on?", and gave a list. I have to say – all of the above. There are long and thoughtful discussions of art versus craft, value of women's work, etc (much more meaty than I am able to adequately explain, probably).

    They are also supportive, and there is a distinct sense of community. They often spill over into people's private lives.

    I went down to Melbourne once (I am in country Victoria), to speak about my blogging – I was hoping I was talking to other volunteers, but only one turned up – and he went to another session, so it was a bit of a loss.

    Free-fall blogging for volunteers is good fun, with no worrying about if peers approve/are impressed etc, that it was pointed out museum professionals have to continually think about.

    It has a lot to do with a sense of audience. I am writing for whoever is entranced with objects administered by a group definitely non-professional volunteers, and I don't try and emulate the professional language of those who work in the sector. I am not writing for a peer-reviewed journal (which is how a lot of them come across), or needing to get approval from my superiors. I am just enjoying what I am doing. And am determined not to write in a formal manner, as my prime audience is the 60-odd volunteers in one institution, and a medium-sized town in the other. If anyone else calls by, they are most welcome, and if I happen to call any other cataloguers (you possibly call then Registrars) out of the cold – well, that would be really good.

    Couple of other things – Craft blogs are really high on photographs – it is a good way to exhibit your art. I think objects are really deserving that sort of treatment. The Powerhouse Object of the Week blog is one of the most refreshing things around. More please.

    And the other thing, speaking of that, what happens in the craft sector is that when someone finds a new blog, they run off and gleefully tell everyone on their blog that they have found something good like that. And other bloggers then drop over and leave welcoming comments. I'm blogging a little in the Australian garden scene too (yes, I know, too many blogs for my own good – most are a little quiet) and that is tending to develop in the same way.

    Good, conversational reads in short paragraphs. I might not have managed that here.

    Bottom line – a community needs to grow, and I haven't seen that happening yet. But there is a lot of online journal article writing happening.

  5. Wow – there are a lot of questions in that piece. Far too many if you ask me – it sounds almost desperate, like a radio phone-in DJ.

    If you want to encourage "a conversation", I think there a few other techniques which work better:

    * Asking a genuine question (ie one which you're not sure of the answer to and want help with) eg "should I do X or Y?" or "can anybody help me do X?".
    * Soliciting facts rather than opinion (eg "I'm not sure about X" or "I don't know Y"). People often feel more valid in asserting things they know, rather than things they feel.
    * Simply asserting a strong opinion – this is an implicit call for responses (from people who agree/disagree).

    …however I think you can overthink all this. Sometimes it's best to just follow your gut and do what feels right, and what makes you most passionate.

    But yes, people who don't reply to comments on their own blog can be annoying. Although on super-popular blogs, sometimes this aloofness seems to be carefully cultivated!

  6. Frankie – interestingly, with my "been in England a long time" head on, I feel the same about the number of questions. It almost feels like a homework assignment.

    But as a Melbournite, Jim Schembri has been around for years, and people who read his pieces know what to expect. I don't know if those questions are based on gut instinct about his audiences that's been refined over time, or whether Australians like a barrage of questions. Or maybe it is desperate, regardless of regional differences. It seems to work though.

    It looks like we might be blogging more at work, I'll see if I can work with the content people to do some experiments.

    Linda – I love your blogs! I've finally had a chance to check them out. Do you have a special location code for accessioned items that are still in use, like your 1930s heater?

    Posts about the visit from your spanner man are also a sobering reminder of the difficulties small and/or regional museums face. Thanks for sharing your stories with us.

    I guess it's difficult for people to respond to your posts unless they have specific information about an object mentioned, as netiquette still generally frowns on 'me too' or 'I like this' posts.

    If you're interested in feedback, you could look at lower-overhead ways of letting people rate or share posts – addthis is easy to add to blogger (which reminds me I should sort out the bodge job I've done on this blog) as a prompt for people to share, save or discuss your posts. Star rating or 'like' widgets might also be available.

    Out of curiosity, are your blog addresses printed in any brochures or signage in the sites?

  7. To be brief – special codes for "in use"? No, just the location makes it obvious where it is. That is not a big place.

    And I'm not sure that nettiquette in the craft blogs is so definite about no "Me toos". I think that is what makes them warmer and different. Saying "I really like that, and thank you for sharing" is quite okay. People are thanking others for exhibiting their work, and that is fine.

    I'm not into chasing the latest "gear freak" stuff with blogs – what I have is enough for me. I think sometimes they all get too complex for people to follow. Especially those who are out there chasing objects around. In my case I use stat-counter to give me some idea of who is reading, and bloglines to subscribe and see how many subscribers I have (I can also see followers). That'll do me.

    And yes – we leave little two-line paper slips around in both places with the blog address, and it gets onto some flyers and into a newsletter at one place, and gets good click-through from the main website at the other organisation.

    But I find I pick up most traffic from searches, and from including the link in posts to discussion lists. And a link on the Flickr photos that appear in the blog.

    But the bottom line – no, there isn't a community out there yet of people who understand how welcome their comments are. And that those comments do not have to be profound, reviews of the topic that was posted.

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