This week, a cute, deceptively simple activity called Just Letters. Just Letters is an online version of refrigerator magnets in which you use your cursor to move around letters to make words. There's no particular goal. No score to shoot for. Instead, what makes Just Letters special is the fact that you aren't playing alone. Just Letters is a multiplayer activity; log on, and you are shifting around letters with 20 or 30 strangers. Sometimes it's collaborative, but more frequently, you'll find yourself exclaiming the game's tag line: "Someone keeps stealing my letters..."
And that's what makes it unpredictable, lively, and fun. The online interface enables strangers to do something that would be considered rather rude in person--to steal and swap without asking. If you encountered a similar experience in a museum--a giant magnetic poetry wall, perhaps--it's likely that people would interact with the wall singly or in their pre-determined groups, reading and creating their own poems. But I doubt that visitors would often interact real-time with other users of the wall--even to ask nicely if they could borrow a word. The social barriers to interaction among strangers are too high.
Thus, Just Letters is great example of the ways that technology (web or otherwise) can be used to promote, rather than discourage, communication among users. The fact that individual users engage from the safe dominion of their own computers empowers them to play games together, debate each other on discussion boards, and connect on social networking sites. Plus, the anonymity of the web decreases the chances for social stigma and judgment. Of course, there's a downside to these technology-based interactions; the same disassociation that makes users comfortable enough to share with one another makes them comfortable enough to "flame" each other with cruel remarks that would never pass muster in the real world. However, when the context is respectful and/or the interaction limited, most experiences are positive. (Check out the collaborative jigsaw puzzles and drawing boards offered by the same design team as Just Letters for more examples.)
It's interesting to think about how the same trick that makes Just Letters work could be employed in museums to help people overcome discomfort in interactions with strangers. There are many interactives in which multiple inputs from different visitors can affect the output; however, it's rare that the input of strangers is construed positively. Usually, you're just staring frustratedly at that kid who's "screwing it all up" by interacting in a way that doesn't support your vision or goal.
But there are some examples that work, and they usually work by encouraging visitors to interact with one another through the lens of technology. Consider, for example, robots. If you put a bunch of visitors in a pen and asked them to try to grab the most balls, few would aggressively steal balls from others. But give those same visitors remote controls for robots in a pen, and all bets are off. The robot, like the online persona, serves as an "extender" that imparts your energy and motivation without making you or other visitors uncomfortable.
I'd love to see more interactive design that focuses on promoting social behavior, whether collaborative or competitive. Imagine a real world version of Just Letters where there are two magnetic walls, back to back. They look disconnected, but as soon as you move a word on one side, a word on the other side moves too. Suddenly, you start peeking around the wall, wondering what the heck that other person is doing. The literal barrier between you creates a social environment for play, a bridge for stranger-to-stranger interaction.
How simple can the technology be and still create enough emotional distance for people to be comfortable playing with strangers? And once people start playing with the aid of the technology, what happens when the technology is removed?