Share Your Thoughts: Do you remember the first time you read the Diary of Anne Frank? Please share your memories of reading that book, and its impact on you. Did the information in this Web site surprise you or change your view of Anne?
In a six month period ending last month, 655 comments were submitted to this board. (For comparison, the most commented-upon museum blog, Botany Photo of the Day (according to Jim Spadaccini and Seb Chan’s recent report) received 128 comments in a one month period.) The comments largely address Anne's courage and talent and the comments have a theme—heartfelt, inspired, and personal.
But not all of the Anne Frank visitor comments make it onto the site. Of the 655 submitted over six months, only 151 were approved for display.
When I asked about the content of the rejected comments, I was surprised to hear that it was neither spam nor hate speech that kept comments off the site; it was redundancy and lack of quality. Apparently, a lot of people submit one-line comments like, “I love Anne Frank,” and those comments don’t add a lot to the conversation.
Or do they? Go onto a MySpace page and check out the postings in the “Friends Comments” section at bottom right. Many are redundant, short, and silly. But when you post a comment on MySpace, you know that your comment will appear (unless the maintainer of that page finds it offensive). You get an instant reward for participating—momentary stardom. You are motivated to write more comments because of your success at “joining the conversation” this time—even if your contribution was insignificant, it gets as much space as anyone else’s.
This isn’t a web-only phenomenon. Go downstairs and flip through the comment book at your museum’s front desk. How many comments just say, “I love this museum!” or “Johnny So-and-So is a loser!”? It would be absurd to imagine a comment book that required you to submit your comment for approval before it showed up in the book. Why do we do this on the web?
Because we can. And there are some potentially good reasons for it. The facilitator of the Anne Frank board isn’t doing anything inappropriate; he or she has made a personal decision to curate the comments, to sculpt a visitor-generated exhibition, rather than open a forum for occasionally inane and redundant commentary. But the fact that this curatorial decision isn’t immediately apparent to commenters is a problem. The visitor starts to wonder what’s going on: Why didn’t my comment get published? Did we have technical difficulties? Do they not like my comment? The lack of instant gratification translates, in the visitor’s eyes, to a lack of respect for his or her contribution, and the visitor is disincentivized from commenting again. What’s the point?
What appeared at first to be an open opportunity to join a conversation turns out to be something else entirely. If the text at the top was clear and said, “Contribute to this online exhibition of peoples’ reactions to Anne Frank’s diary,” visitors might understand that there are criteria for inclusion that their comments may or may not meet. There have been many exhibitions that employ such methods, soliciting stories and artifacts from visitors under the clear understanding that some, but not all, will be incorporated into exhibition.
Museums need to determine what role they want to play—that of MySpace and comment books, which tolerate inconsistent quality in exchange for maximal participation, or that of the Anne Frank board, which restricts participation in exchange for substantive content. And once decided, the museum needs to communicate whether visitors are contributing to an exhibition (which makes editing understandable) or participating in a conversation (which makes openness paramount).
Or would you prefer a hybrid model? Again, head into the museum galleries. There are many exhibitions that feature “talk-back walls” on which visitors can voice their impressions of the exhibition or answer questions. At the moment that you are a contributor, you know your comment is going up on the board immediately. There’s no one moderating the discussion real-time and every comment is included. But there’s not necessarily an expectation that your comment will stay up on the board for all time. As a lurker, when you walk up and look at the comments, you expect that you are looking at comments which are either very recent OR have been chosen by the curators as notable in some way. Sometimes, these “notable comments” are explicitly featured in some portion of the exhibition. This way, visitors can have open discussion real-time AND curators can choose which of those discussions to highlight and which to weed out later.
In each situation in which you solicit visitor content, ask yourself: What do you value more, giving everyone a voice or sculpting a high quality experience from their contributions? How can you make your choice clear to the visitors? And, whenever possible, how can you design for the AND instead of the OR?