Collection-tagging projects (in which visitors assign keywords to items in a collection) have always left me cold. Tagging is such a functional activity, and if you don't see direct benefit from doing it, the interest in it as a fun afternoon activity is pretty low. But over the last couple of months, I've learned about two tagging projects that actually get me excited--CamClickr at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the Posse at the Brooklyn Museum. Why am I suddenly compelled to check out owl nests and describe Asian pottery? Because these projects take the basic act of tagging and wrap it in two powerful motivators--gaming and community.
If you think about it, there are two reasons to tag things:
- to bookmark them for yourself so you can use them later
- to describe them for a large group of users who might find them helpful in finding things later
When museums embark on collections-tagging projects, they are almost entirely focused on this secondary benefit. They aren't letting visitors bookmark objects; they are asking for descriptors to help people find them. Because museum staff are deeply entwined with the online collection and know the statistics on how many users are accessing it, they see a huge opportunity for tags to serve their online visitors. But here's the problem: visitors don't see the same opportunity. If each individual who uses your database doesn't think of herself as part of a user community, she has very little motivation to tag. When I view a museum collection online, I'm not thinking, "how could I make this easier for someone else?" I'm thinking, "how can I find the thing I want to see?" Unless I'm sufficiently dedicated to the institution to think of myself as a community member or repeat user, it's hard for me to imagine a good reason to tag.
That's why some institutions have used game mechanics to incentivize tagging. A year and a half ago, I wrote about Carnegie Mellon-created two games that allow you to competitively tag images on the Web. At the time, I commented that museums and other institutions pursuing tagging as a way to get user-generated content about collections should consider using gaming to motivate participation as well. And that brings us to CamClickr.
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology's CamClickr project integrates a simple set of game mechanics (levels and points). CamClickr and its parent project, NestWatch, are the newest public offerings in the Lab's suite of citizen science activities, which engage ordinary people in the collection of scientific data about birds. CamClickr is based on a mundane activity: look at photos snapped by webcams pointed at nests and describe what's happening. Are there chicks? Are there eggs? Is there an adult? Are there two adults? What are they doing? And while looking at nests is interesting for a while, the intrinsic motivation to look at another set of 15 photos of chicks with their mouths open is (for me) pretty low.
But Cornell did a wonderful job turning this tagging activity into a game with levels, score, and a leader board. Their promise that it is "fun, easy, and addicting!" is scarily true. I'm only at 99 points, but the leading players have logged tens of thousands of points--each of which corresponds a set of tags applied to an image. The CamClickr game gives you mini-wins (accruing points, moving to the next set) as well as larger motivators (jumping from level 1 to level 2). The game also blends the point-based motivation with changes in what is expected of the tagger. When you advance to level 2, you advance to a more challenging set of activities. Instead of just identifying how many birds are in the nest, you have to actually identify what they're doing. At first, this was a little scary for me--how do I know what a bird's doing? But because this activity was couched in a "level 2" construct, I got to first build my confidence on level 1, and when I got to level 2, I was willing to spend some extra time reading the additional material so I could "do it right." In this way, CamClickr gently ushers users into more sophisticated tagging activities, using the game mechanic both for motivation and as a gateway to build up user expertise.
CamClickr is a well-designed game, but there is minimal interaction among the players. Like any arcade game, I can view the top scorers on the homepage, but I don't have a sense of where I am in the list or who all these folks are. And I have only the haziest notion of the real audience for the tagging: the scientists who will use the data in their work. And that's where the Brooklyn Posse comes in.
The Brooklyn Posse
The Brooklyn Museum's project goes a step further, combining game mechanics with community membership to create a social tagging experience. The Brooklyn team decided to directly tackle the #2 problem with tagging by raising awareness among users of each other, thus creating a community for whom you are tagging. Here's how it works.
Step 1: join the posse. This is a community-building step in which you create a basic profile (selecting an artwork from the museum's collection as your avatar) and join the community of collection taggers. Suddenly, I know who the other folks are who will benefit from my tags--the other members of the posse. I may not have a prior relationship with them, but just perceiving their presence and my membership in their gang increases my interest in doing work for them. It's interesting that Brooklyn's tagging project is centered entirely around this posse. The page is clearly about members, not objects.
Step 2: tag stuff. When the Posse first opened, I joined, but then I ran into the same problem I've had with other museum tagging projects--I didn't feel compelled to tag. Yes, they allow you to both favorite and tag artifacts, and that's nice, but since I don't have a strong connection with their online collection, why would I tag it? I took a couple of half-hearted clicks, but that wasn't going to drive my interest, and it didn't connect me to the other users.
Then, in September, they opened up a game called, shockingly, tag. It's similar to CamClickr; you tag artifacts from the collection, accruing points for each tag assigned. But instead of levels, you play relative to other members of the Posse. The game tells you each time you have passed another Posse member's score, and gives you some reference for Posse members in your score vicinity to motivate you to keep playing. Best of all, the game features a really charming set of thank you videos that pop up when you pass other Posse members in which Brooklyn Museum staff (and their sock puppets) say thank you for tagging. That whimsical, friendly connection was enough to make me keep going to get to see the next video. It's like the little dramas that happen between PacMan levels--not great cinematography, but something with enough of a hook to drive you to keep playing.
For me, the tag game made all the difference in my interest in tagging. Suddenly, I had a reason to tag (albeit a silly one) - to get points. The game made me more aware of other Posse members by showing my status in relation to them, and subtly signaling to me that other people care about this stuff and are involved with it. It's also worth mentioning the friendly, fun attitude that the whole Posse site takes towards tagging. When you register your username, the system tells you it's awesome. It uses words like "yay!" liberally. And while that may turn some people off, it made me feel like I was in a fun environment--a Posse with whom I wanted to associate.
These projects ably address a key problem with tagging: motivating users to do it. But once I, a non-expert in either birds or art, started tagging, I ran into another problem. I was afraid I was doing it wrong. Once I was aware of the usefulness of my tags to someone else--whether a group of scientists or a posse--I started getting nervous. What if the game was encouraging me to tag beyond my abilities? What if that bird wasn't actually eating?
I raised this fear with Shelley Bernstein at the Brooklyn Museum. She was surprised, and commented that (like all tagging projects), the Posse is looking for whatever words you associate with a piece of art. Right or wrong, they may add value to another searcher's experience. We talked about the confidence problem, and whether the game mechanic of points should be coupled with more instruction and or reinforcing language that might help me be more comfortable with the tags. These games do a great job motivating you TO tag. Now, maybe, they can do a better job rewarding you not just for the points you accrue but the useful work you are doing.
Because ultimately, the problem with tagging is that it doesn't always seem useful. If people are doing work for you with your collection, they want to know that it's going to help in some way. One of the best parts of Cornell's citizen science projects is the very real sense that you are helping people--scientists, no less--do their work. I'm willing to tag for non-visitors; if a museum told me they needed my tags to help their research, I might be interested. But I need to be tagging for someone. If it's visitors, show me the tags and how I might use them. If it's professionals, let me see where the work goes and have them say thank you.
We have to give visitors a real sense of how their tags are helping others (or themselves). That's the only way tagging can evolve into a true "visitor experience."