May 2, 2007

Do users want to be active participants?

Sometimes the assumption is made that most Web users want to take a more active role if given the opportunity. What else explains the meteoric rise of sites like MySpace and YouTube? But is that what users of museum Web sites want? The Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History attempted to find out in a survey they conducted in preparation for a new Web portal on oceans - the survey results are available here (for the time being anyway). It’s worth taking a look at what potential users rated as important (or not) to their online interaction with the museum.

Now that social networks and other collaborative sites have been around for a few years, people are taking a closer look at the dynamics of those communities. What they tend to find is that relatively few users undertake the more intense forms of participation, while most of us “lurk” and remain fairly passive. (See relevant blog posts by Ross Mayfield and Seb Chan.) The most successful applications leverage the efforts of the few into an experience that benefits the many. An oft-mentioned online example of this is Wikipedia; a good museum example is the Conversations exhibition from the L.A. County Natural History Museum.

The practical implications of this are that the participation of even a small sample of our audience can have benefits far beyond the small group of direct participants.

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