Thursday, April 19, 2007

Where's My Comment? Differences Between Visitor-Generated Exhibitions and Discussions

I was talking recently to David Klevan, Education Manager for Technology and Distance Learning Initiatives at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum (say that three times fast), about some of their awesome experiments with online discussion groups, blogs, and 2.0 content. David steered me to their most popular discussion board, on which visitors are prompted to share their memories of reading the diary of Anne Frank. Specifically, the page says:

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?

6 comments, add yours!:

Anonymous said...

Sha-Na-Na rules!

Nina Simon said...

n, your open and enthusiastic (albeit non-sequitur) contribution to the discussion is welcome. :)

Unlike most thirty-eight year old institutions, Shanana does have a myspace page.

Find my dad, win a pair of pink pants with a star on the butt.

Anonymous said...

Been busy, but still trying to visit Museum 2.0 when I'm in virtual town.

Here's a question: when does graffiti become art? When you deign to name it a Comment? Or when it's stuck around long enough? Don't you have to keep every inane utterance, even the occasional Sha-Na-Na shout-out, just in case it's someday worthy?

Example. I love the graffiti that still exist on the walls of Pompeii. My favorite is probably
"Miximus in lecto. Fateor, peccavimus, hospes. Si dices: Quare? Nulla fuit matella."
Trans: We have pissed in our beds. Host, I admit that we shouldn't have done this. If you ask: Why? There was no potty.

Succinct. Plaintive. Honest. Hilarious. Sympathetic.

A comment left nearly 2000 years ago, that still inspires audiences (or at least me) today! But Pompeii did not become a museum until its excavation in the 1700s -- it took 1600 years for the beholder's eye to switch.

So I say, keep all comments, for one day even the most lewd may be educational! Comforting to see that in Ancient Rome, graffitos still took the time to scrawl the timeless "Pliny was here." I've done so, and thus established a link to my Latin forebears.

Another thought: you have, previously, pointed us to online tools that listen to and track the murmurs of the Internet, that reveal the emergent moods in the commentary of interspace. They don't edit, do they? And might not a noticeable increase in the general erudition of comments point to an evolution in social expression? If the numbers of "Eric stinks"-brand comments decreased over time, could we be said to be moving towards a more Eric-friendly, or even generally friendlier, society? Oh, what brave new world that would have such comments in it.

Or will people always be idiots, and is there some comfort in that? Is it worth addressing the pessimistic conception that a majority museumgoers are not above-average, are not geniuses, are only worth the admission they pay and the tacky gifts they buy? I can't say I go to places like MySpace looking for intellectual satisfaction...

Rambling as always,

Isara said...

Excellent post, Nina. I am trying to convince a wary staff that it's ok to have the "refrigerator" model, as, ultimately, the conversation will flow around the background chatter of "THX 4 TEH ADDD!!!" and other contentless posts. And, if necessary, we can wield the big hammer, but I suspect that it'll stay in the shed most of the time.

I think I'll forward this link...

Sheila said...

Good discussion, also interesting to hear USHMM's perspective on the commenting.

On our digital memory bank sites, like 911 Digital Archive and Hurricane Digial Memory Bank, the only stuff we delete in the vetting process are spam comments. We reserve the right to delete, or just not make public, super offensive writing, but we haven't encountered anything like that so far.

Most people aren't going to contribute long, thought-out pieces, as you pointed to comment books. But that's okay because then we also learn more about how visitors want to interact with us.

David K said...


As always, I love the issues raised here (and honored to find my name dropped in your hallowed blog).

I believe that learning requires an interesting mixture of risk-taking and safety (or "comfortable discomfort"). We want our classrooms to be places where students feel safe enough to take risks, ask questions, raise their hand and contribute. We also know that learning rarely happens if we are not challenged to ask difficult questions, made uncomfortable enough to test assumptions, etc. The big question that concerns me is how we can facilitate such spaces online -- safe comfort zones for our visitors (and our institutions)that is also a space where folks can engage in risky behavior and experimentation to foster growth and learning.

I don't believe that comment boards alone fit the bill for this kind of space. However, I agree with "n" (and you) that they are wonderful spaces for graffiti-like expression, and often a greater degree of belonging and ownership.

The Anne Frank comment board was conceived largely as a memorial space (and not as a more general graffiti space). Memorial spaces present an interesting conundrum -- how to balance 1) an *institutional* responsibility to *protect* the memory of a people/tragedy/event/etc. with 2)the desire to provide visitors with a *safe space* in which they can *freely engage* in the memorialization process by contributing their own thoughts/feelings/memories
Personally, I believe that we should have allowed folks to post more freely (only vetting out the obscenities, nonsensical, spam, etc.). As you have correctly stated, it is highly motivational (and emotional) for visitors to contribute, and inhibiting that process can alienate visitors.

That said, one question not raised in your blog post is "WHY was the Anne Frank comment board so popular with our visitors?" I believe it was for two reasons: 1) It involved Anne Frank, and 2) We posed a very concrete question... "Do you remember when... you engaged in a specific action? Tell us about it."

BTW -- We do warn our visitors that their message will not necessarily be published on the site. The following disclaimer is provided:

"... A selection of comments may be posted on our web site at the discretion of the curatorial staff after review."