Challenges facing online forums:Scalability: Where am I? What are the best comments?Civility: Failures of decorum?Constructive Interaction The good: “Posting comments in both onlinenewspaper and blogs appears to increase participants‟ interestin politics” (Mitchelstein, 2011). The bad: Faced with “fallacious symptomaticarguments” and “ad hominem attacks,” “the deliberativedemocratic potential of online discussion is a long way fromthe deliberative ideal” (Richardson & Stanyer, 2011).
But what ifdeliberation is notthe highestfunction of onlinecomment areas?
Narration, notdeliberation—it‟s all aboutthe story
Storytelling and the museum visitorThe engaged visitor makes meaning of the stories museumstell, these impressions and encounters; the engaged onlineforum member on a museum-hosted site should beprompted to do the same. And if the stories told by themuseum yield fragments of thoughtful narratives from onlinecommenters, the value of online forums may not be indeliberation, but in narration.
Institutional goals and the forumThe goal of the museum online comment area, then, shouldbe to encourage visitors‟ storytelling: about their trip to the museum, about how they reacted to an exhibit, about how they responded to another visitor‟s interpretation, and about how they meet and match the museum‟s story as they make it relevant to their own lives and identities.
Why bother?The creation of a thoughtful, well designed comment space serves twobasic visitor-directed functions for the museum:1) It allows visitors to interact with museum stories and staff, and2) 2) it creates a space that non-commenters can visit to re-engage with an exhibit or to investigate other visitors‟ experiences with an exhibit.
Nina Simon (2010) argues that engaged visitors who feelvalued by the institution are “more likely to visitagain, become members, renew their memberships, anddonate time and money to the institution.”
Allen-Greil and MacArthur (2010) report that the number ofusers who communicate with their museum online “is growingbut still pales in comparison to the number who “lurk” ormake use of our static Web pages.” And they concludethat, despite the low numbers of direct participants on theirmuseum‟s site, these projects should continue because of abelief that “the benefits extend beyond just the relative fewwho directly participate.”
The Challenge: 90-9-1The data on online interaction with museums seems tovalidate Jakob Neilson‟s observation (2006) that “90% ofusers are lurkers (i.e., read or observe, but don‟t contribute),”“9% of users contribute from time to time, but otherpriorities dominate their time,” and only “1% of usersparticipate a lot and account for most contributions.”The Solution:Simple.Turn lurkers into participants.What, not so simple?
People who have seen this exhibit are ready to embrace the museum as aforum, and users of the website can become themselves become editors andnarrators of the forum material.The writers seek knowledge and feel empowered by the museum to add theirown information and reaction to the exhibit narrative.These writers demonstrate through these comments that they want to becomeactors in the narrative they‟re adding themselves to or rejecting in favor of othernarratives.The use of new media, with its implication that visitor voices deserve to ascendthe stage in a formal virtual environment, shows us how prepared the audience isto offer a supplementary Taranaki Wars narrative and potentially enter into amore active discussion with others. Puke Ariki has given these voices a forumand has implicitly acknowledged the value of this user-directed narrative.
The number of prompts, the general nature of the first forum (The BigPicture), and the overlap of topic material might not have been aconcern if the message boards had had heavy numbers of users.However, the total of 1273 comments, with 57 (6%) comments removedby moderation, is notable both because the board was open for almost 5months and because only 88 (7.4%) of the comments were in responseto other comments.Of that 88, 20 were removed by moderation, or almost 23%. Threadedcomment forum setup carries with it the expectation that people willinteract with each other. The “What If ?” forums generated initialstatements, but few users chose to respond to these initial statementseven though they had the opportunity.
“Even in an irreverent community likeSlashdot, “I-statements” are indicators of goodcontent and civility matters” (Brennan, Wrazienand Greenstadt 2010).
From museums to online newssites, we‟re realizing users needscaffolding:Simon (2010) points out, “The best participatoryexperiences are not wide open. They are scaffolded tohelp people feel comfortable engaging in the activity.”In a discussion about existing newspaper commentareas, Stijn Debrouwere (2011) writes that “Were givingreaders a blank canvas: a text area and a generalinstruction to „respond to this story.‟” He argues thatthis indeterminate invitation contributes to the currentunsatisfactory state of online comments and argues that“We need to change the language that invites readersinto the conversation to reflect what the story is about.”
Designs should allow museum viewers to grasp themajor conversations inspired by the exhibit. Thesedesigns can be adapted to reflect the institution‟sgoals and exhibit-specific content: • A non-linear platform, one that uses design elements thatcomplement and incorporate the artwork associated with the exhibit or institution.
Relating user identificationto the institution• Museum collection-inspired icons for commenters: Users shouldbe able to create user names and display profile icons that haveconnections to both their identities and the museum. From aneasily searched thumbnail list of objects in the museumcollection, users can select an icon that will be displayed along withtheir comments. Visitors can then see connections they share withother users, possibly facilitating goodwill between visitors whoadmire the same museum objects. The goal is to keep the museumcollection, exhibits, and experience as central to how a useridentifies himself or herself on the museum-hosted forum site.
• Give users a way to pull in visual or linked content from acentral museum-hosted exhibit site: Each exhibit‟s onlineofferings should include easily linkedmaterial, images, charts, videos, that a user may feel supportshis/her comment. A click and drag mechanism mightautomatically insert a link and add text to a comment such as“Go here to see what I‟m talking about.”• Curatorial roles for lurkers: Simon (2010) points out that“there are many more people who enjoy spectating andcritiquing content than there are those who enjoy creating it.”Simple instructions might ask for help in ranking comments“most helpful” or “best museum links.”
And most importantly:• Emphasize storytelling: Questions andprompts that begin discussions shouldseek to identify the stories presented bythe museum and encourage visitors torespond to these narratives with storiesof their own.
Keep the museum centralSuch design guidelines would allow the community a vibrantplace in which to talk about museum visits and to see whatothers thought of an exhibits message andimplications, resulting in a greater connection to theinstitution for commenters and lurkers.Design and linguistic prompts should keep the museumcentral to the forum‟s users; a museum exhibit comment areashould use the museum as a reflection of community andcultural identities and offer users a way to declare their ownidentities and communicate with others.