Clear Choices in Tagging

Remember my post on Social Change? We’ve been evaluating our digital projects with a careful eye toward what’s working and what isn’t.  At this juncture, we’re making sometimes difficult choices because we are on the road to coding a large scale digital project (more on this soon) and we need to streamline in order to allocate our small staff toward this substantial new initiative.

Every project takes time and energy both to create and maintain over time. As we evaluate we consider several factors: institutional goals, comparative engagement metrics across many projects, and a careful look at what’s going on within any given offering.

As of today, we are retiring the Brooklyn Museum Posse along with our tagging games, Tag! You’re It and Freeze Tag. The decision to pull these activities was difficult because we fully believe in how important tagging is to the health of our collection online. After all, one person’s “landscape” may be another person’s “tree,” and all of these terms help make our objects discoverable online. As invested as we were in the program…

  • Engagement within the games and posse has been incredibly low in numbers, but high in yield.  Launched in 2008, our Posse only numbered 1100 users over all these years. While 1100 users many not seem like many, collectively their contribution was quite a lot given Posse members had contributed 230,186 tags. That’s a lot of SEO in our collection online and represents an incredible effort that cannot be ignored.
  • Posse members were using both games and object pages to tag objects. In fact, more than half of the tags were being delivered directly via the object pages showing the games were not necessarily a more compelling option.
  • Tagging has shifted to a more social language, not a descriptive one. For as much as we want the keywords, the notion of tags as keywords has changed considerably. We need to change along with our audience and recognize that our games are outdated conceptually.
  • Over the years, tagging has decreased substantially.  Within the games, tagging contribution peaked in 2009 with 32,409 tags, but by 2014 we were logging 8,089 (ytd).

When we started seeing the above, we began asking ourselves who we were engaging.  If our institutional mission centers around community with the aim to engage a broad audience, are the Posse and our tagging games doing that effectively? No…

  • I’ll preface this one by saying “we love you, we really do.”  Our core taggers were likely the very niche audience reading this blog.  When we looked carefully at all the bio statements people were giving us when they signed up for a Posse account, it was incredibly clear these activities were engaging museum professionals and museum studies students with a smattering of art history students. 30% of the tags were coming from Brooklyn Museum staff who used the games to contribute their own tags (and were encouraged to do this through accounts so we could track internal participation), 22% were coming from museum professionals, and 8% were coming from other accounts not identified as one of the other two buckets.
  • Staff were the most consistently engaged with an average activity rate of 338 days.  Museum professionals were with us an average of 102 days.  Other accounts held on for an average of 97 days.  Even though the metrics between Museum professionals and other accounts were roughly similar, when we compare that with the tagging percentages it shows us that the people fitting into the “other” account bucketthe core audience we were hoping to engagewere far less engaged given the numbers of tags they were contributing.
Hiroko Okada (Japanese, born 1970). Future Plan #2, 2003. Chromogenic photograph, 54 13/16 x 35 1/8 in. (139.2 x 89.2 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Gift of the artist and Robert A. Levinson Fund, 2008.25. © Hiroko Okada

Hiroko Okada (Japanese, born 1970). Future Plan #2, 2003. Chromogenic photograph, 54 13/16 x 35 1/8 in. (139.2 x 89.2 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Gift of the artist and Robert A. Levinson Fund, 2008.25. © Hiroko Okada

So, we faced a bit of a conundrum. We know tagging is incredibly valuable, but our statistics were showing that we had a small audience for it and, in addition, that audience was more one of insiders than the general public.  If tagging is meant to democratize collections by applying everyday words instead of specialized ones, you have to wonder how much traction we were getting if the majority of tags were coming from specialized voices. That insider aspect is pretty interesting…

  • In looking at our analytics we can see the majority of the search terms for the collection are actually specific. People are looking for artists, movements, types, specific cultures and fewer people seem to be searching by general themes. (It’s important to note that we are not looking in depth at the analytics, just glancing for trends.) The biggest exception to this in the last year was 169 searches on the term “seaweed,” likely owing to this tumblr post.
  • Analytics is also showing users browsing by tags and this represents 4% of our collection traffic. At a glance, the majority of these terms are specific (egypt, tissot, sculpture, painting, watercolor, amarna) and fewer are thematic (woman, erotic, mask, glass, bird).
  • In presentations, I’ve always cited Hiroko Okada’s Future Plan #2 as a key example to the benefits of tagging. The object metadata tells us practically nothing about this image.  If you didn’t know the name of the artist or the title of the work, you’d likely never find it.  Tagging allows the image to be now be searched on the term “pregnant.” This is clearly an isolated example, but when only two searches cropped up “pregnant” in the last year it makes you take a close look at where time and energy is being spent.

At this point it was pretty clear that tagging wasn’t working on many levels, but why not keep these activities around in the hopes that some data is better than none? Well, tagging isn’t gone from our site totally and you can still add and delete tags from any object page.  What’s gone is the technical overhead that is required for signing in, creating a profile that attributes your tags to your identity, and the games. We decided we needed to eliminate the games because we have to allocate the limited resources of our staff carefully. We simply had to acknowledge this was not working well enough to keep the staff time going.

This was not a decision we took lightly especially given this a program that we hold dearly and are known for; it took us months of wrangling before concluding this was the route. The path, however, comes with the learning there’s a better way for our community to contribute to our web presence and this is something you’ll be hearing about very soon.

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