Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Tagging in Museums #blowinguppersonal #notwhatweplanned

Here are a few of the hashtags I've seen applied to photographs of museum objects on Instagram lately:

These tags all do a great job capturing the magic of exploring a museum. They do a great job sharing the humor and surprise of collections objects. They position museums as social starting points, experiences worth sharing, braggable moments.

They do something entirely different than what museums professionals thought tags might do for our institutions.

Almost ten years ago, museum techies started to get excited about tagging. In 2005, a group of art museums launched, a project to explore ways that visitors and non-professionals could help assign descriptive tags to online collections. The point was to "bridge the semantic gap [between experts and visitors in describing objects] by engaging users in the time-consuming and expensive task of describing our collections; add a multi-cultural, perhaps multi-lingual perspective to our documentation; and possibly even develop strategies for engaging new types of users in looking at and thinking about art." received significant funding from IMLS, and several museums started experimenting with tagging projects, both within and beyond the Steve universe. This included a bevy of research papers and workshops, as well as innovative tagging projects intended to do everything from provide contextual information about artwork to identifying actions taken by families of birds.

The best projects incorporated heavy game mechanics to turn a chore--describing objects--into a fun plaything. While these projects had some success, tagging museum collections objects never really took off as a visitor-contributed slam dunk. And it declined over time. As Shelley Bernstein at the Brooklyn Museum told me this week: "We've seen far less tagging on our site in recent years and most of the tagging is being contributed via our tag game, Tag You're It, with far less direct activity on object pages within the collection online."

Meanwhile, social media platforms like Twitter, Instagram, and eventually Facebook started to incorporate tagging and hashtags into their interfaces. Tags have morphed from a way to assign a useful, searchable label to an idea (the kind of tagging museums were interested in) to a way to add commentary in an oddly authoritative, winking third-person voice. Tags like #booyah or #cute or #bestdayever allow people to electively apply an external label to a personal moment. On Instagram in particular, tagging has become the way to get noticed and get connected. In the early days of blogging, people would say "links = love." Now, it's more like "tags = love."

Where does this leave museums and dreams of visitor-driven tagging of collections? The good news is that people are finally psyched about tagging stuff. On their own. Without institutional prompting. The complicating news is that the way people want to tag is to document their personal/social experience with objects, not just the object on its own.

I think this means huge potential for museums to better understand visitors' emotional and affective relationship with specific objects and experiences--what surprises, delights, confounds, and connects. In this way, I see the shift in the use of tagging as opening up new opportunities in visitor research. For example, check out this site, where you can see instances of two hashtags applied to the same photo - try entering "museum" and "love" to get a feel for it.

As for the use of tags to document objects in a common vernacular, it's possible... but only if museums can find ways to help people connect those kinds of tags to their own motivations for tagging.

What do you see as the future of tagging and museum collections?
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