What Does it Take to Get a Conversation Going?

Shelly Bernstein at the Brooklyn Museum, wrote a blog post on Oct 4th, in response to Ed Rothstein’s fairly disparaging article “From Picassos to Sarcophagi, Guided by Phone Apps”,in The New York Times, three days earlier, about museum smart phone apps. She defended her museum’s efforts to date, and the efforts of all museums, to bring their content into this all important environment, the mobile landscape. I completely support the arguments she made.

Toward the end of the piece Rothstein dismissed the BklynMuse app’s capacity to allow visitors to leave comments about artworks for other visitors to find, saying “The various votes for “likes” in the museum are equally unilluminating. The result is a kind of scarcely literate cybergraffiti that does nothing to help reach a deeper understanding of the works or reveal their artistic traditions or cultural significance.”

It’s true that Likes and one word tags are not all that illuminating. I’m reminded of Malcolm Gladwell’s New Yorker article, Small Change about social media and revolutions. Pressing the Like button next to an object is easy. It takes a higher level of commitment and interest to write a quick comment about an object, and an even higher level to write a thoughtful comment.

I left a low level comment about a little Figure from the Nicobar Islands via  BklnMuse when they launched the mobile web version back in March. I wrote about my experience in this blog post, expressing excitement about the possibility of being able enter into a dialogue with other visitors and even the curator, about works of art that I love for one reason or another.

But, six months later I see that I’m the only person who left a comment, even though the little figure has been Favorited by four other people. Why did they Favorite him? Do they see what I see? What else do they see? Why has no one else chimed in? Did they not really care enough to comment?

Rothstein’s article got me thinking. How do you prime the pump to get that conversation started? How do you get people to say something that inspires a response? And how do you keep them coming back?

Could one of the curatorial staff have responded? Obviously curators can’t be responding to every comment. But – what about docents or volunteers? Could this be part of their job description?

I know I’d be more likely to leave comments if I thought that someone would read them and respond. No one wants to be lonely.

When SFMOMA created a blog for their Olafur Eliasson show visitors to the show left lots of advice for others about how and what to see. Part of the allure was the time sensitive nature of the exhibition – it was temporary and therefore it was an event.

Perhaps featuring certain objects for a specific period of time – turning them into an event based experience – would generate some action, and interaction.

What are other successful examples?



16 thoughts on “What Does it Take to Get a Conversation Going?

  1. Hi Robin, thanks for your additional thoughts on this. It’s funny, we enabled comments after a round of user testing in the beginning when visitors said they wanted to be able to do this. At the time, I was pretty sure the feature wouldn’t be used, but given that is what people wanted we decided to go for it in round 2. Overall, visitors don’t use the feature. Why? I think it boils down to two reasons: 1) we are not asking directed questions and 2) these devices are difficult to type on.

    For Eliasson, SFMoMA was using kiosks in the gallery and asking directed questions – it is my understanding that the majority of the comments were coming in via the kiosks (Peter Samis can clarify). Kiosks are a much easier system to work with – our comment kiosks in the galleries, for instance, are widely used. There are full sized keyboards, the hardware is there for all (we are not relying on visitors to use their own smartphones). It’s like comparing apples to oranges, I’m afraid.

  2. I should probably also mention that the Nicobar figure went off view due to gallery renovation right after you tried the system. I still don’t think many people would have responded even if the object had been on view the entire time, but it is worth it to note that other visitors didn’t even have a chance.

  3. Hi Shelly, I didn’t mean to compare the SFMOMA kiosk experience and the BklynMuse phone experience per se. Just trying to think of examples I know of where the kind of visitor driven conversations Rothstein might have understood had occurred. I’d say please don’t disable the comment feature without trying to find a way to make it more popular.

  4. We may try directed questions next, which may help a bit. We’ve just got to find something that works for all objects across the board and that can get difficult.

  5. Hi Shelley – I agree with you. To get the conversation started organizations need to integrate social media into the workflow. This is challenging.

    To accomplish this, there needs to be a plan to be a part of the conversation. (This includes goals and objectives) and a plan for conversation monitoring. Listening, engaging and conversing also means that you have to fine-tune what’s not working and try again. (And that’s okay).

    For starters, we have a comment policy in place. And we do our best to respond to comments about us or our blog posts through active monitoring using tools and applications such as Google Alerts, Twitter, Technorati, FaceBook, Squidoo, etc.

    While I’m certain some comments on the Web don’t receive a response from us – our main goal is to “Listen”. This is how we get to deeper understandings and insight.

  6. Hi Jonathan, Thank you for your comment. Brooklyn Museum does a fantastic job of tracking comments on the web – Shelly responded to my post this morning in under five minutes! My original point was in response to Ed Rothstein’s complaint about the pointlessness of visitor comments. One way to encourage meaningful comments is to respond to the ones you get – letting people know the museum is actually interested in what they have to say. Feed these conversations!

  7. When designing for visitor participation, I often ask people to think about where the value of the user contribution lies – does it have the most value for the person who likes an object or leaves a comment, or could it all enhance the experience of later visitors? It takes more work (and ideally more iterations) to get to questions or interactions that will solicit content that can help later visitors, and you might need to find ways to highlight the more insightful, conversational or informative comments if you get a lot of general comments.

    Showing people how their comments will be used and valued can help increase participation rates, but there’s still so much to learn about encouraging participation. I wonder if it’s more difficult in art museums or other places where people feel less expert?

    Personally I think there’s some value in other people’s ‘likes’ – it makes me wonder how and why my tastes differ from theirs. Ideally it’d also be possible for me to take my list of liked objects back home with me, as a souvenir or a reminder to look up the object again in more detail, but that’s a whole other wish list.

  8. Hi Mia,
    I think there’s value for everyone as we can all learn from each other, visitors and staff alike. Also I think you’re right about it being more difficult in art museums since most visitors probably don’t consider themselves knowledgeable enough to comment, so that’s where coming up with the right directed questions, as Shelly was suggesting, could be key.

  9. This is a great thread, and I think all these comments, which are of the third, more deeply reflective variety, point in an encouraging direction. Of course, whether such length and depth of reflection is compatible with museum visitors’ just-in-time mobile phone use patterns is another question!

    We briefly thought Twitter might be a solution, but I think the Museum itself needs to be involved and structuring/incentivizing the exchange for it to rise above the level of a string of “Cool” and “Awesome” comments. Very few people will spontaneously erupt with profound insights when standing in front of a museum object, even if they are stirred by it. After all, you can be vaguely stirred–which is a not yet articulated state–or profoundly stirred, which might be a more complex state even harder to parse into words!

    The Eliasson responses–both the plethora of “cools” and the longer, more thoughtful ones–were composed at a kiosk in the museum or online from home after the visit. For that reason, Mia’s idea of taking a list of “likes” (aka favorites) home from a show might open up an interesting space where it’s less about gaining additional information online from your bookmarks than participating in a post-visit conversation in the tranquility of reflection and with access to a full keyboard.

  10. Thank you for chiming in, Peter. My own comment on the Nicobar figure at Brooklyn is ample evidence of how hard it is to spontaneously erupt with profound insights when standing in front of a museum object! !

    You’re right. Mia’s proposal to allow visitors to take their “likes” home with them could happily help to solve the problem. The point isn’t necessarily to add meaningful comments when you’re in front of the object, but more to be able to see others’ insights when you’re there, and/or be prompted to reflect on why you “liked” an object in the post-visit environment you describe. It seems like everyone in this thread agrees that the museum itself needs to be involved in the exchange.

    Recently a colleague and I tried out the AMNH Explorer app – it tracks objects you’ve visited and allows you to bookmark ones you like and email the links to yourself, but it doesn’t have the component we’re talking about here. It was designed to promote wayfinding, rather than communities of interest. I wonder if it’s too early to compare the apps out there and see if anyone is having success with getting visitors to comment, either on the fly or later.

  11. Hello, all:

    Like others, we have been thinking about how to use mobile apps. We’ve started a project as part of the Macarthur Learning Network to get kids out into the streets to measure pollutant levels using nexus one and some bluetooth enabled sensors and some pretty cool location enabled visualization software. Its going pretty well, we can share more about it if people are interested.

    We found a long time ago that people do what they want to do in museums. While it seems self evident, that’s one of the pleasures of museums, a pleasure rarely found elsewhere in the public sphere. I have been eavesdropping on museum conversations for decades and I have a general sense that we are not following people’s own desires in creating these “rating/favoriting/commenting” apps but rather trying to encourage them to do what *we* want them to do. We map the relatively few successful examples of ratings (amazon, netflix, yelp) onto the museum experience and hope that people will respond. They don’t, by and large (though both Shelly and Peter have created experiences which are exceptions.)

    Two questions: why should they? and why should we want them to? Is it not more than sufficient that they have these conversations with their friends in real space in real time while they are actually in front of the artifacts/experiences? Or even, as Nina is so eloquent about, with strangers in the museum? Why do we hope that these conversations will proliferate away from the actual nub and locus of the museum experience which is the social encounter with objects and phenomena?

    Place is so important, the physical experience is so important, I am not surprised that people do not carry that into the disembodied social sphere of apps and the net.

    There is a book by John Seely Brown and a few others called “from push to pull” which I think addresses this issue well…www.johnseelybrown.com/pushpull.pdf

    Thanks for starting this conversation, Robin.

  12. Just yesterday I (along with Nancy Proctor and Ed Rodley) sampled a program with amazing visitor comments, left as audio recorded in real time, and incorporated in real time. Granted, it’s part of an artwork – at the deCordova Sculpture Park – and the fact of participating in an artwork is a totally different thing. But still, there were major learnings and take-aways for on-site interpretation, which we were discussing with the artist while we were there. Look for a write-up soon on MuseumMobile. In the meantime, here’s a link: http://www.decordova.org/art/exhibitions/current/scapes.html

  13. Hi Sandy,
    Thank you for bringing this to our attention. It’s a lovely, successful example of how to elicit and incorporate visitor comments in an app. I’m listening to the App as I write. I can imagine that using it on site would be a memorable experience, connecting me to other visitors and their observations, showing me things I might not have noticed. And Halsey Burgund’s music feels right for a walk in the deCordova Sculpture Park. Please let us know when the review is on the Museum Mobile Wiki and I’ll add a link.

  14. Hi Eric,
    Your Macarthur Learning Network project sounds like an empowering thing for the kids to be involved with.

    I think that’s one aspect of why museums want to offer people the chance to comment on objects or experiences in museums. Offering them a voice is one way to empower them – but only if the museums respond or do something with the information they get back from visitors. You can easily argue, as Rothstein did, that the comments aren’t meaningful per se, but I agree with Shelly – we’re at the beginning of a process, the R&D phase.

    And of course, everywhere you turn people are talking about “socializing” every type of experience imaginable and there’s huge pressure to jump on the bandwagon and to connect the physical experience with a virtual social one, on the spot, which usually means via mobile phone.

    Museums rightly feel the need to offer mobile experiences because that’s where a lot of the action is. So it comes back to designing virtual social experiences that are at least fun, even if they don’t accomplish something useful.

    So even if we really want the conversations and experiences to happen in the galleries, that shouldn’t exclude the possibility of creating great experiences that happen with our content but outside of our walls.

    I do believe you’ve got to meet people where they are so you can begin to bring them along to the place where you are. But I know it’s one thing to describe it, and another thing altogether to do it successfully.

  15. Hi!

    Nice post. My company specializes in musem and culture apps so it’s interesting to read about your experiences. These kind of social features that the brooklyn museum app has are something that we also implement. The thing is that as a community, one specific museum app is probably not enough to create meaningful dialogue about the items on display.

    The basic idea is solid: visitors comment about items for other visitors to comment back because they all have the same context (they’ve seen and experience the item first hand). The problem is in the medium; mobile phones are not the most pleasant devices to write your thoughts. Especially when you’re on the move in a museum. We believe the solution is to take these user inputs from that narrow setting to a more wider context and share them in other social media services (twitter, facebook etc.) to gain more traction. People who see your thoughts from their home computers might have meaningful things to say about them although they might not have visited the museum personally.

    The dialogue moves from the app community to the more larger social media community and the app merely serves as the input tool.

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