Thursday, March 22, 2007

Social Architecture Part 2: Hierarchy, Taxonomy, Ideology (and Comics)

Jeremy Price offered a comment on my last blog post with a link to an excellent article by Lee Shulman on the uses and abuses of taxonomies in educational theory. Dr. Shulman argues that taxonomies, which are often created to distinguish individual elements of a set, are often transformed into hardened ideologies with an implied value on the “higher” or “better” elements in the taxonomy.

As she puts it:

Taxonomies exist to classify and to clarify, but they also serve to guide and to goad. A taxonomy’s rapid progression from analytic description to normative system—literally becoming a pedagogical conscience—warrants caution.
When I created the hierarchy of social participation shown in this diagram, I debated what shape it should take. Was it a spectrum from individual to collective experience? Could it be cyclic? The pyramid I created implies hierarchy, and it also implies that these levels need to be moved through in a sequential manner to get to the “top”—presumably the goal. Was this the right decision?

In Shulman’s article, she points out the folly of a rigid sequential theory when it comes to learning (and my case, I’ll expand that to social engagement). For example, in Bloom’s taxonomy of Educational Objectives, knowledge and comprehension of content comes before application. Narratively, this makes sense. Once you learn about something, you are ready to act on and do it. But how often, and easily, do we go in the other direction? Do you understand physics before you start skateboarding? Dr. Shulman offers the great example of doctors, relating a comment from a surgeon that, “’Internists make a diagnosis in order to act. Surgeons act in order to make a diagnosis.’” As Shulman puts out, “the directionality of the taxonomy is situational.”

Back to my diagram. I created a directional pyramid to make a point about social content in museum; namely, that museums are not offering networked, social experiences—and therefore will have a hard time jumping to initiating meaningful social discourse. I talked about leveling up, and indeed I do believe that museums should consider engaging more in levels 3 and 4—whether their goal is making it to level 5 or not.

But perhaps a hierarchy is not appropriate. After all, you don’t have to have great content to get to a networked, social experience (Twitter certainly proves that fact). And I’m not advocating that the dream museum would be all level 5 experiences, all the time. So here’s a reenvisioning of this hierarchy as a taxonomy.

Looking at the pyramid, each level is typified by an element: the content, the interaction, the network, the social benefit, and the collective action. So let’s create a taxonomy of Social Participation that's a simple list:

  1. CONTENT (What is being discussed/shared/shown/explored?)
  2. INTERACTION (How does the user engage? What do they do?)
  3. NETWORK (How do users link to one another?)
  4. SOCIAL BENEFIT (How much value does one user get from the participation of other users?)
  5. COLLECTIVE ACTION (How much do people work together?)

Now. Rather than thinking of these elements as levels or experiences to move through, let’s consider them to be the building blocks of an experience. Here I’m using as a template one of the most impressive (and esoteric) taxonomies I’ve ever seen: Scott McCloud’s taxonomy of panel-to-panel transitions in comics.

Scott McCloud is the author of hands-down my favorite design book: Understanding Comics. In Chapter 3, McCloud identifies six different methods by which comic artists transition from one panel to another (for example, scene-to-scene or action-to-action). Then, he charts the incidence of each of these six for many different major comic empires (i.e. X-Men) and artists. His charts look like this:
McCloud uses these charts to demonstrate that most American and European comic artists employ only three of the six transitions (as shown in the example on the left). Some radical artists used a dramatically higher portion of the other three, but most of these, McCloud argues, are examples of comics well out of the mainstream. And yet Japanese comics—arguably the most popular in the world—consistently draw from at least five of the six transitions (example on the right).

So. Back to the new Taxonomy of Social Participation. If we number the five elements as follows:

  1. Content
  2. Interaction
  3. Network
  4. Social Benefit
  5. Collective Action

then I’d argue that most museums provide something very different from Web 2.0:

Of course, there are distinctions to be made among different kinds of venues. On the 2.0 side, consider these different major venues:

A little explanation:

Wikipedia is mostly about content. The value of that content is strongly impacted by the number of active users (social benefit), and there is some collective action around the development of wikipedia articles.

Twitter is mostly about connecting to others. The content sucks, and the interaction is simple, but the feeling of empathy with others is high (if debatable).

MySpace is mostly about personal identity within networks. The interactivity in page personalization is high, but primacy is put on engaging with others from your personal profile. You are a “me” in a space of many—a perfect 3 experience.

Flickr is similar to Wikipedia in that the focus is content, but there’s a lot more emphasis on networks (groups, establishing a personal profile with your pics).

Now there’s a new judgement to be made. Is it bad to be unbalanced? Why does it matter that museums are not engaging much in 3, 4, and 5?

Web 2.0 is the reason it matters. Web 2.0 has introduced people to a new way of interacting with web content. The web used to also be heavy on 1 and 2; you go to web pages, you look at stuff, you click on stuff. But now, web usage is different. Where do I get my content? On blogs and aggregators that draw heavily from 3 and 4. How do I search? Google relies on 3 to provide me the results that are most likely to be useful to me. How do I buy stuff? I use Amazon, which provides me 3 and 4 benefits of seeing what other people bought, which then helps me make my purchasing decision.

When we lived in a 1 and 2 world, it was acceptable for museums to rely on 1 and 2. But now, people walk into museums and are aware of the dearth of 3 and 4 elements. They have come to take the experiences that emerge from those elements for granted. Level 2 used to be the hot thing, but now, pushing buttons is old hat. People want to connect, they want network benefits, and they want them in content experiences in museums.

Imbalance also matters because museums are venues that (hopefully) offer diverse experiences that attract and sustain diverse audiences (though I would argue that this is best achieved by offering a variety of powerful singular experiences.) Designers strive to make sure there is “something for everyone” when it comes to learning styles and developmental stages. Why not also for social engagement?

And there’s a third reason that imbalance matters. I created this pyramid for an article on civic discourse in museums, which depends heavily on 5. Level 5 is a question mark in my mind. How do we get there? How do we sustain it? Moving through 3 and 4 to get there may not be the answer. When the content is provocative, as in Bodyworlds or gay animals (thanks, Nik), a museum may be able to jump directly from 1 to 5. But for bread-and-butter content, 5 is a mystery. And while no one has cracked the code, there are many web-based 3 and 4 applications (like LibraryThing) that are successfully creating some 5 experiences via 3 and 4, especially 4. Level 4 experiences make you aware of, comfortable with, and appreciative of the extent to which a social experience is better than an individual one. That understanding may then lead to the application of collective action—level 5. As Shulman said, the directionality is situational. How else can we connect to 5-based experiences?

4 comments, add yours!:

Seb Chan said...

Hi Nina

This is an interesting post but I do wonder whether museums actually *need* to make a 'level 5' connection/experience on site..

Perhaps the purpose is to allow audiences to have those sort of collective interactions outside of their museum experience - when they leave and reflect on their experience post-visit?

I'd argue that museums have been supplying level 5 experience to school visitors (especially) for decades. That's often why schools visit - to stimulate their students to engage in collective action *back at school*.

Seb

Nina Simon said...

Seb,

Great point about outreach--and I think there are probably some ways with technology that the classroom "collective action experience" could be even more encouraged by the museum.

No one can design a connection. But do designers need to think about what they are making possible--or closing off--in their design? Definitely. Things like learning styles are deeply engrained in the designer conciousness. I think social styles need their place as well... Also, granted, I'm putting this together in the framing of civic discourse. IF a museum chooses to put up exhibitions about voting, civic involvement, debate, etc., then I think this kind of design goes from helpful to important.

Taren said...

Nina, this is all fascinating to me. I'm still working through it but I'm wondering whether you can point me to some resources or people who are thinking about any of this in the context of political activism? That is, I'd really love to see similar analyses of web-based political movements such as MoveOn.org, Howard Dean's campaign, the 2008 presidential campaigns, grassfire.org, etc. I think MoveOn and the like are largely at your Level 3, at least in terms of content generation. House parties are probably level 5.

But I also think the analogy can't be perfectly extended from museums and the web in general, because the goal isn't just to generate social participation around content -- though that's definitely part of it -- it's also to develop a distributed workforce to accomplish specific goals (e.g. voter turnout efforts).

So, basically, I'm musing about all of this as it applies to political organising, especially web-based organising, and was wondering whether you know of anyone else who is as well...

Taren

Robert Hughes Jr, PhD said...

I have read both of your posts on this topic and I think you have captured some important ideas. However, I think the "collective action" level is far more complex and needs to be pulled apart in ways that allow us to think about various types of action and the different tools one might need to engage in that action.
I have written some extensive comments here: http://open2learn.blogspot.com/2008/04/levels-of-social-participation-museum.html