User-Generated Content: Where’s the Opportunity for Mobile?

On March 22nd, 2011, posted in: different perspective, learning by 5 Comments

I’ve spent a fair few hours at various conferences over the last couple of months and in recent days I’ve been thinking about what I heard and how that might impact our work.  Two presentations stood out for me. Neither were about mobile but I feel they might be important nevertheless. Both had user-generated content at their heart.

Now I confess that I have often ranted on this very subject – I have little patience for the idea that we will soon dispense with professional content producers – frankly I don’t want to hear fatuous nonsense from random strangers. I love expertise.  And while I have integrated polling and other similar devices into my productions and enjoy the professional community I’ve found on Twitter I remain at heart a sceptic. But these two speakers really challenged my thinking.

The first was Phil Gyford speaking at The Story ( about – a day-by-day presentation of the diaries of Samuel Pepys.  This site presents an original and un-edited historic source – the diaries – and combines it with in-depth and expert analysis and context for readers provided by a largely amateur community.

The second presentation was Kevin Sumption from the NMM speaking at the MA event Creating Effective Digital Content (follow the conversations on twitter #digitalmuseum).  Kevin’s talk focussed on two projects that you can find here and here

Both of Kevin’s projects rely on amateurs being actively involved in the doing of science – getting members of the public to review scientific data or to transcribe historic records – just as Phil’s site seems to me to get people involved in the doing of history.

And for me this was the important bit: involving amateurs didn’t mean letting go of standards or expertise.  While the projects were profoundly different Phil and Kevin both spoke about the need to guide their participants to deliver quality.  I was particularly struck by Phil’s description of the impact made by changing the standard heading ‘comments’ to ‘annotations’ and the way in which Kevin had created pleasurable online activities that in effect ‘trained’ participants.

But what has this got to do with mobile? Well, I’m not sure yet. Perhaps there are mobile projects out there already doing something similar and if you know about them do please let me know. In the meantime, questions and ideas are already forming…

Kevin warned us to be careful making assumptions about what is boring – clearly there is a committed and enthusiastic audience out there with time on their hands that enjoys the process of transcribing historic records.  What’s this got to do with mobile? Well, we know there are people out there killing time at the bus stop or on the tube with their mobile device – how can we hijack this time? How can we reach these very particular and passionate audiences? What would the activity be?

The projects described are aimed at niche audiences something organisations feel uncomfortable about particularly in these financially challenging times.  But these projects have found a way to make their core academic activities cheaper and faster and – just as importantly – to harness the passion of the ‘niche’ to deliver to a wider audience. What projects do you have that could benefit from putting fans to work? What would it look like on a mobile device and how would it feel?

Sometimes we need to dive in deep rather than dabbling our toes.  Engaging amateurs in the very stuff of our work – in the data and facts – seems to produce something really profound. Opinion and response are driven by informed debate and content is rigorously researched. How can we connect with users on mobile in this deep and active way rather than just dabbling on the edges?

None of these projects are situated in a gallery of museum building but they deliver on organisational mission nonetheless. What needs to be done outside your walls that mobile could support?  Is their evidence in the environment that needs to be gathered? Are there documents in your archives that will provide an insight into your collection?

5 Responses to “User-Generated Content: Where’s the Opportunity for Mobile?”

  • Ed Rodley says:

    Great post, and very topical given all the mobile surveys and conferences going on. It also restates a point that both the Learning Times and AAM surveys made clear regarding museums and mobile users, namely that we don’t do a good job defining our audiences. All these projects are aimed at a defined niche community. What could we do in a mobile setting that was a s compelling?

    I am a big fan of Old Weather. It’s a great counter-intuitive example. “You’re gonna get people to read old weather reports from Royal Navy ships and transcribe the barometric pressure and stuff? Yeah, right!”

    But it works. The interface scaffolds you enough to make it fun, and the narrative of picking a ship and seeing a journey unfold as you plot locations was really compelling to me. It held me for a few weeks, and I’m not much of a 20th c. naval history buff.

    • Lindsey says:

      Thanks for the comment Ed. It is an interesting one – I went to a conference where they called it the ‘Untapped Middle Age Geek’ market, which isn’t particularly flattering but is definitely a niche audience likely to have smartphones and be interested in playing with data.

      One thing that struck me is that science/technology/engineering focused museums have always been a tough place for in-gallery mobile. Often too many interesting buttons to press and things to waggle or peer into to make offer great mobile experience. It does strike me as an opportunity – particularly if you’re looking to raise finance for an app…

  • Lynda Kelly says:

    Great post. I think it is relevant across all the three spaces museums operate within, not just mobile. Been thinking about this a lot recently and more can be found here:

    I don’t think we should be confining these conversations to just one of these spheres, they are all intimately linked imv.

    Thnx for your blog also – it’s a great resource!

  • Wonderful synthesis of many important ideas in this post! “Recruit the world” is the vision and mantra I have proposed for the Smithsonian’s mobile strategy. It is hugely inspired by crowdsourcing (which has been going on at the Smithsonian since its founding) and also mobile initiatives like The Extraordinaries’ microvolunteering as well as fixed web-based projects like the ones you cite here.

    I also think that niche audiences are strategically critical to museums: as I have mentioned in several recent presentations (MW2010, Tate Handheld 2010, MuseumID 2010), niche audiences and the content and expertise they want are precisely what museums are best at. As Max Anderson has said (if I may paraphrase), trying to compete with a mass-market entertainment business model like Disney’s that doesn’t play to our strengths and our unique business constraints as institutions for the public good is setting ourselves up to fail. I’m really interested in the work of theorists like Chris Anderson, who are studying alternative business models that succeed precisely by serving the “long tail.” I hope we’ll discover that the network effects of connecting all of those niche audiences, through mobile platforms among others, will help the museum succeed against its key metrics of quality, relevance, sustainability and accountability in this connected world – anyway, I aim to try to find out!

    • alyson says:

      Thanks everyone for these positive comments and suggestions – it’s a real help and good to know we’re not way off track with these ideas!

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