Paper: Sharing authorship and authority: user generated content and the cultural heritage sector

Presentation for the Museums Computer Group's Web Adept: UK Museums and the Web 2007, Leicester, June 22, 2007.

Sharing authorship and authority: user generated content and the cultural heritage sector

Mia Ridge, Museum of London Group.

2007 Web Adept – UK Museums on the Web, Museums Computer Group conference

Summary: User-generated content complements and enhances institutional knowledge and authority while creating an engaging experience for the user. We can follow emerging best practices so that user-generated content is presented appropriately; but if user-generated content is still a challenge for museums, how should we move forward? This paper does not attempt to answer all of the questions about UGC in the cultural heritage sector but instead aims to name and problematise some of these issues and provide some pointers on what can be done so that we can begin to address them.

User-generated content

In this context user-generated content is defined as content produced by people outside cultural heritage organisations.

As you've seen in previous presentations, user-generated content is good for users and good for museums because users can help other users in ways that we don't have the resources to do. Some of the talks today should already have convinced you that UGC is beneficial for museums and the cultural heritage sector, particularly for its ability to promote our collections.

Types of user-generated content

I'm sure by now you're familiar with the various types of UGC but just in case…

Deliberate or explicitly created UGC includes textual content such as forums (web applications where users can post messages on common topics or areas of interest), blogs (generally centrally authored content posted regularly in a format that allows users to comment), wikis (collaboratively created content), mailing lists (soooo ten years ago), and comments (free text responses to existing content such as blog posts or photos), tags and folksonomies.

It may also include polls or votes, photos, graphic images, videos, podcasts and relationships (whether between people on social networking sites or between objects 'favourited' or added to a personalised 'lightbox').

Implicitly generated UGC is not deliberately created, and is often revealed only through analysis of site logs, search terms and choices between results, and user paths. Relationships between items and clusters of tags can also be revealed through analysis. [This can be mined to create recommendations, or highlight items other visitors have found interesting.]

Who are these users?

Users who create content in the cultural heritage sector include professional or amateur subject specialists; users who wish to share an emotional response or reminiscence about an object or topic; users who can contribute factual information or corrections about particular objects; users who create images, photos or fiction in response to cultural heritage content, (whether self-motivated or as part of a competition); and website visitors who create paths for others to follow by linking content through tags or paths through our sites. Users

also include peers from other museums or research institutions, including retired museum professionals.

User-created content often resides outside museum sites – if you search for your institution name or URLs within Flickr, Digg, YouTube or even Second Life you may be surprised at how much content people have already created about your institution. UGC can introduce us to audiences we didn't even know we have.

We're still learning about why users create content and what do they get out of it? And what are the risks for users?

What are the participation models?

There are a few different reports out there but one that's propagated quite widely is Jakob Neilsen's research which says that user participation often follows a 90-9-1 rule:

  • 90% of users are lurkers (they read or observe, but don't contribute).
  • 9% of users contribute from time to time, but other priorities dominate their time.
  • 1% of users participate a lot and account for most contributions

This creates the possibility that the requirements of the highly active and visible 1% of users are disproportionately represented. So what does this mean for museums and UGC? If resources are scarce, how much should be allocated to engaging with UGC? Do we design for the 90%, the 9% or the 1%? Are we focussing on some users at the expense of others?

More research is needed into participation models within our sector. In the meantime, we should address this by being sure to consult with or observe the silent majority when conducting user evaluation. Much as we balance the requirements of specialist and general users when designing projects, we must strike a balance between the requirements for supporting user-generated content and those of traditional publishing models.

The demonstrable return on investment has been covered in previous talks so we agree that UGC is valuable and enhances the experience of all users, then enabling the 1% and encouraging the 9% means that the 90% also benefit.

What are the best practices for user-generated content in the cultural heritage sector?

I've included examples from sites that you're probably familiar with to show how user-generated content can be integrated with trusted and authoritative content without compromising either source of content.

Trust and authority

I think some of the big fears around UGC relate to trust and authority: how does UGC affect our users' trust in the authority of museum content? And how do museum staff react to UGC, and what are their particular fears? Perhaps they are generally comfortable with the idea of UGC as a thin layer of fluff above the reassuringly chunky content produced by a museum; but should UGC such as tagging be presented along museum taxonomies. Is there a role for UGC inside the museum or should it be kept separately?

Other questions: how do we deal with 'bad' UGC? Does the concept of 'incorrect' UGC vary according to the type of content? Does the 'halo effect' apply to 'bad' UGC on museum sites?

In answer, it seems that as long as the difference between UGC and museum authored content is clear, for example through the use of labels and careful presentation, users are able to differentiate between user-generated and museum content.

What models are there for creating trust in UGC? It is important to note that user-generated content is not written by random voices from an undifferentiated mass of users. Users can have identities and profiles. Most sites require users to create a login and published content is usually associated with a user name or user account.

E-commerce sites shows that reputation and trust are important, whether 'Real Name' reviewers on Amazon, established authors on Wikipedia, or eBay sellers with good feedback. Amazon reviews are a good example of a reputation system – other users can rate user-generated reviews and Amazon gives a special status to the Top 1000 Reviewers.

We need to understand when trust is important to our users so we can act accordingly. Trust is important when users are learning or will act on information, but may not be as important when reading about the experience of other users.

I haven't addressed the issue of radical trust today but obviously it's an issue to think about.

Building community

Building community may not always be part of the goals of a project but if it is, we should allow users to view content created by others along with information about those users, such as links to other content created by them, the number of items they have contributed and the length of time they've been involved with the site. Other possibilities include voting, rating, ranking or commenting on content generated by other users as well as direct interaction with other users. Consider partnerships with museums in the same geographical or specialist area to help build a critical mass of users. This also helps users who no longer have to understand which project or institutional 'silo' the content they seek is in.

Differentiating museum and UGC

The simplest method for differentiating between internally and externally authored content is labelling content by author. Presentation and design elements can also be used differentiate content sources/authors.

Always state the source of content and ideally state the date of content creation, the date last edited/updated and the source of the last change.

Don't mix product placement with museum or UGC. This will fundamentally shake user confidence in us as institutions that sit above market concerns. Keep external branding and sponsorship within well defined areas.

What can your institution do?

Web 2.0 and participatory web technologies mean that it's possible to start exploring UGC without massive budgets and timelines. You could ask for comments or user responses to rich object or information records online with a simple HTML form – this should be within the reach of even the most poorly resourced organisations. If you have object records online you could ask people to tag their photos or add them to a pool in Flickr link to the Flickr pages for those tags from the object or collection pages.

Be user centred

The requirements of our users should be at the heart of all our online offerings, whether or not we're incorporating UGC. It's important to understand what our users will want to do and how they'll interact with museum content when planning projects. If you are going to integrate UGC consider that the motivations and benefits for users creating content depends on the type of content they're creating. In theory we should all play a user advocate role through the project design and development process, but in practice consider nominating a 'user advocate' on each project – someone who asks, "how does this help the user?" at every stage.

Define your users and understand their requirements

Check whether you can actually fill a gap or whether those conversations already happening somewhere else – the market might be saturated with similar offerings. If that content doesn't exist elsewhere, are there existing models or infrastructure that you can re-use? Resources are scarce so re-invest in existing applications when possible. Re-using applications and existing conventions also provides benefits in user familiarity and ease of use. Make a decision about the levels of community and trust required and design user interactions and presentation accordingly.

Terms of Service and moderation

Choose an appropriate moderation model and allow resources for moderation. Ideally UGC will be self-moderating, with review required only when inappropriate content is reported.

Decide how to respond to issues that arise through UGC. Define clear Terms of Service and enforce them consistently. Consider having a very short, plain language Welcome/Rules notice as well as a more in-depth Terms of Service.

Define and decide how to deal with inappropriate or controversial content and make that part of the Terms of Service. Also decide how to deal with negative feedback or criticism before it happens.

Decide how actively museum staff will be involved – will they just respond to requests for moderation, active encourage users to submit content (e.g. to photo pools on Flickr) or will they work with user groups to create new content in response to museum content?

Consider the accessibility of UGC. This can be intellectual accessibility as well as the usual accessibility issues such as visual impairment. It may be appropriate to provide tools for expanding acronyms and explaining jargon or provide guidelines for users creating content.

Manage expectations

Make the scope of your project clear. Define your purpose, and follow it up with the design, information architecture and user interface elements – consistency counts. Think about the expectations you might be creating amongst your users and manage those expectations through clear statements of your capabilities and purpose. If you offer information services, tell users how soon you aim to respond, and if appropriate tell them how they can phrase questions for a best response.

Decide to what extent UGC will filter back into the museum and how that will be stored and presented. Also let users know how much control you'll give them over their user profiles and the information you hold about them.

Choose appropriate technology

Match the technology to the content. Points of analysis for each possible technology should include how much interaction it allows with other users (bear in mind that users will sometimes find ways of interacting even if you don't provide them! E.g. V&A tiles); how does it support community building; who are your audiences, why will they want to contribute; are those particular audiences already clustered around those technologies; what form will the UGC take (discrete responses to prompts in museum content, reminiscence, creative responses to suggested topics, sustained discussion on abstract topics, social networking, forums, comments, votes)?

Sustainability, re-usability and interoperability should also be considered. Ensure that any content created can be exported into an interoperable or portable format in case the application or supporting organisation fails, and take regular back-ups. Be aware that the publishers of APIs usually reserve the right to change their terms. Models of archiving for UGC are still developing, particularly on distributed services; so decide what suits your and your users' requirements.

Copyright and IPR

Decide who owns the copyright for UGC for each project at the outside and provide a clear statement of copyright for each type of content on the site. Appropriate copyright clearance must be confirmed for object metadata, images and GIS data before publication. Provide a clear statement of how those rights apply across content used remotely via web services or in mash-ups.

Make data available and shareable

Mash-ups aren't just technical – they can also combine different sources and fields of content to create radically new content.

You could publish a feed or API into your collections data or information records so that it can be used in mash-ups, or just make sure that your webpages are well-structured. Feeds of events information have an immediate application in social calendar sites like, online event listings.

Our visitors will 'push' content to their networks of friends and associates and market our content or us so make it easy for people to recommend or share your content: use stable URLs so that bookmarks always point to the same content. Be careful about how you use Flash/AJAX and don't use frames. Good use of page titles and HTML metadata also helps.

It's not up to us to reinvent technologies and create more information silos or social networks, but we should make it easy for people in social networks to engage with our content.


Scepticism about new fads is healthy but there are too many benefits for both our users and our institutions are too many to ignore the possibilities and challenges of UGC.

We can only prove the worth of UGC in the cultural heritage sector by working with it, and we can only address institutional fears about the ways in which UGC may offer to traditional authorship and authority by building UGC into our online offerings, one small step at a time.

[Was originally posted at Sharing authorship and authority: user generated content and the cultural heritage sector]

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