Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Don't Talk to Strangers? Safety 2.0

When you think of MySpace, what is the first thing that comes to mind? The irritating design? The bizarre obsession with "adding" friends? The recent flurry of restrictions that has sent teens fleeing? Or is it the stalkers? If your exposure is primarily through news media, your initial reaction may have more to do with child predators than long exchanges about boy bands.

What makes Web 2.0 dangerous? Social networking sites like MySpace, Facebook, LinkedIn, even ExhibitFiles are tools that allows people--strangers and friends--to connect with one another. The tools aren't inherently unsafe. But their basic function--encouraging strangers to talk to each other--is potentially dangerous.

A lot of what interests me about bringing 2.0 into the museum is the potential to encourage more positive in-museum interactions among strangers. I want to see more multi-person exhibits, more prompts for discussion about content, more tools to facilitate connecting wtih other visitors whose interests are similar or in some way useful to your own. I want in-person museum experiences to be more like experiences on social sites like Flickr, where strangers connect and form relationships around content.

But are these potential interactions safe? By the standard set by a culture that judges MySpace as dangerous, perhaps these in-person interactions are even MORE dangerous. On MySpace, you are protected somewhat by the fact that you interact via a virtual rather than real identity. You are not physically exposed to harm by others the way you are when you start chatting in the galleries.

Paradoxically, the anonymity of online interactions both protects and exposes people to harm. On the web, you define your persona, which may make you feel empowered both to be more honest (and therefore potentially offer information you would not give a stranger on the street) and to engage in fantasy. The fact that you engage alone in front of your computer makes you feel in control of the situation. When you create a profile on the web, you don't think about the fact that it will be available to everyone and anyone--that you are doing the online equivalent of wearing a sandwich board around town that lists your favorite films and pet peeves.

I think it's a good thing that people, when given a forum online to individually express themselves, seize the opportunity to make their MySpace pages and post pics of their cats on their blogs. I think it's a good thing that librarything gives me a way to talk to strangers about books that feels safer than approaching the drooling guy at the public library. But I don't think it's good when people engage in these activities unwittingly; that is, when they do so without understanding the full implications of their web presence. Being on the web means being tracked, published, and spread around.

When we think of ways to extend the 2.0 social networking model to the real world, the implications of tracking, publishing, and spreading become obvious. Imagine a town where everyone wears a t-shirt that lists their age, sexual orientation, interests, job, etc. Imagine a music store where each CD lists the names of the last 20 people to pick it up, and what those people ultimately bought. It almost seems quaint to imagine that until very recently, library books listed names of actual people who had actually read the book. These could make for a fabulous world in which people express heightened interest in each other, but the immediate reaction is to assume the worst. While our online world has opened up, the physical world, at least in America, is more suspicious, more private, and more protective of personal space than ever.

Even I find myself buying into the paranoia. I talked to a museum education director recently about extending the social networking concept into museum spaces and he suggested that museums put a whiteboard in the lobby on which interested visitors could list their cell phone number for live, in-gallery chats about different parts of the museum. I wanted to cheer, but the first thought in my mind was, "Are you crazy? Use the authority of the museum to facilitate exchange of phone numbers between strangers?" I can just imagine the headline: CHILD MOLESTERS CALL ON ART, VICTIMS.

So how can we take the best of social networking and use it to create safe, welcoming spaces for interaction among strangers in the museum?

1. Structure the space with a clear story (and commensurate rules).
Structure means context, and context means norms that people can easily grasp and deal with. "When in Rome" doesn't only apply to traveling--it also can apply to created spaces in a museum in your hometown. Travel is a nice analogy; when people travel abroad, they often strike a different balance of engagement with strangers than they do at home, out of a desire to learn the culture, meet "real" people, etc. The "rules" that define how strangers engage are different everywhere, but consistent in their distinctions. So imagine an exhibit space as a foreign destination. Imagine an exhibition space as a desert island, the visitors its shipwrecked inhabitants. If we can create exhibition spaces with a strong enough internal culture/story/rule set, one that reinforces and supports social, friendly, respectful, positive interactions between strangers, people will buy into those rules, even if they are not typical.

2. Use staff and volunteers as monitors/encouragers/facilitators.
Almost all museums already do this, but floor staff are typically trained to monitor and support the ways visitors interact with the artifacts/objects rather than the ways they interact with each other. Children's museums are the exception; staff are on the watch for unaccompanied adults and kids alike. But this isn't just about policing. Many museums do a fabulous job training staff to engage with visitors, but those explainers are not necessarily trained to encourage visitors to talk with one another. Again, these staff are "safe" people who can facilitate a good experience between strangers, using their authority to create a space and a context that allows strangers to connect with one another. Of course, in the same way that floor staff have to balance the value of the content they deliver with the interest of the visitor they are talking to, staff would have to gauge and deal with the initial reservations people have to working with strangers.

3. Give people a clear way to buy in and identify their social interest (or lack thereof).
This can be as simple (and potentially problematic) as the whiteboard phone example, can involve signing up in some way, or just entering a specially marked space. All that's required is an explicit way to physically signal that you want to be part of the social experience. We do that with staff all the time. I once worked in a children's museum once where all the floor staff wore blue vests. I remember how strange it felt after work to be in the grocery store or any other public place, say hi to strangers, and realize they were looking at me suspiciously. The vest was a magical piece of clothing that allowed me to engage with strangers, to make jokes and show them cool things and compliment and encourage them. Why should the staff have all the fun in this way? We could offer hats or stickers in the lobby that say "talk to me" or "I want to play."

4. Exclusivity helps.
Many social networks that pride themselves on fostering community around specific topics--list-servs, conferences, business sites--are open to anyone. Anyone can go to the birders' conference, but the presumption is that once you're in the door, you're part of an exclusive club of people who want to engage around birding. Is it safer to engage with strangers in this faux-exclusive environment? Maybe not, but it does make people more open to doing so. It's interesting to consider the sliding scale between public spaces (mall, park, library) in which interactions with strangers seem intrusive and atypical, and other, slightly exclusive public spaces (convention, concert) where interactions between strangers are commonplace. What makes it okay to turn to your neighbor at a play to chat about Act 1 but prevents you from doing so at the movies? In most cases, I think museums fall on the side of spaces that do not encourage stranger-to-stranger interactions, even though several of the potential exclusivity gates (specialized content, entry fee) are often in place. How can going to an art museum be more like going to a convention for people who love art?

Social networks are unsafe when they are launched without oversight, facilitation, structure, or community development plans. This is by no means unachievable--museums are already great at providing safe, valuable interactions between people and precious objects. I think we can handle the semi-preciousness--and the potential--of encouraging people to talk to strangers.

1 comments, add yours!:

Anonymous said...

If I were your Dad I would say, "You Go Girl."
Wait a minute, I am.
And I did. Thinking of you as the 23rd of May approaches.