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?
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:
- CONTENT (What is being discussed/shared/shown/explored?)
- INTERACTION (How does the user engage? What do they do?)
- NETWORK (How do users link to one another?)
- SOCIAL BENEFIT (How much value does one user get from the participation of other users?)
- 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:
- Social Benefit
- Collective Action
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?