Sebastian Chan on Museums for the Next Generation Part 2: Do tag lists get unwieldy over time?

I first saw Sebastian Chan speak at Web Direction on 2007. He presented on social tagging (“folksonomy”) projects at the Powerhouse museum. The first of these projects was the digitisation of electronic fabric swatches. After that the entire collection was digitised and published available for public classification. I saw him present at Australian Infront where he gave an update on these projects.

When I first saw this case study presented in 2007 the stats amazed me:

  • 95% of all available objects were visited at least once in the first 10 weeks of the collection being published online
  • 86% of tags created by users were not found in museum (curatorial) descriptions
  • 88% of tags were assessed as useful by museum staff

The results since have been large volumes of web traffic, content sharing and fresh perspectives on objects and audience interests. The technology has developed to include geocoding and search term generated tags or “frictionless” tagging as Chan called it. I had one question for the Q&A:

Does the tag list get unwieldy over time?

The answer was, not really.

“With diverse audiences, unpopular articles with a niche audience have some of the best quality tags. … At a scale of a museum collection, there is such a diversity there – so many user groups and user personas coming into it. They all bring their own languages, methods and intentions – we’ve had a scale issue around that. …

There is a lot more value in using search terms as tags, automatically tagging [an item based on the search keyword], or upvoting that tag. We’ve got a lot more value out of this frictionless tagging that doesn’t require the user to do anythign. This is what Google does. We’ve applied this to search as well. It’s about experimenting with those systems.

Lessons learned 

The museum found that audiences didn’t need incentives to describe objects. The audience tags unveiled a new lexicon of descriptions that in turn led to deeper and wider content exploration. If you have a large library of information, a catalogue, or a huge database of content consider opening it up. Let your audience help you describe it and in turn, help other users find what they are looking for. I encourage you to check out the original 2007 presentation.

Related links:

Sebastian Chan’s own articles on the subject on taxonomy and tagging:


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