I had a great conversation with Darcie Fohrman yesterday about visitor input exhibits like video kiosks. She told me an anecdote about an experience with the Stanford Art Museum exhibition, Question, which included a keyboard where visitors could type their own thoughts about art, to be projected on a wall along with quotes by famous people. One day while Darcie was observing, some kids took charge of the keyboard and started keying in some swear words. A guard stepped in to stop them--and then Darcie stepped in to pull back the guard and let the kids be.
This story highlights the existence of the audience for visitor input exhibits. Arguably, all exhibits are relational--you lifting the giant lever affects me as an observer and fellow visitor. But by displaying visitor content, visitor input exhibits take this relation to the next level. Who is the visitor input experience for? Is it for the inputter, who has the experience of recording their thoughts? Or is it for the inputtee, who sees those thoughts displayed? What is the relationship between visitors and their audiences?
My impression is that most such exhibits are designed to be inputter-focused. But the audience can't be ignored. At Stanford, the kids were the inputters/performers, and the guard was the audience--an audience who didn't like what s/he was seeing. Were the kids aware of their audience? Was the idea of other people seeing "Shit" projected on the wall part of its appeal? Or did they do it for themselves?
We're already comfortable with the idea that museum exhibit and program designers create content for an audience. That audience--our visitors--expects that museum content has been developed with them in mind. If the Stanford Art Museum had chosen to exhibit a quote from a famous person that included an expletive, the guard probably wouldn't have raised a complaint--he or she would have rationalized that the exhibit designers had a good reason for including the swear word.
But are visitors as audience-minded as we are? It depends. It's partially our choice. One of the design considerations when creating visitor input exhibits should be signaling who the audience is and how the input will be displayed, if at all. A video booth with signage that says, "Record your thoughts for our archives" might garner different submissions than one that says, "Record your thoughts for inclusion in this exhibit." This signaling may result in different content, or, more significantly, different users.
Some people are excited by the idea of performing for an audience; others get scared off. In museums, there's rarely clear signaling about how or where visitor input will be displayed, so the museum gets neither the positives of audience awareness (desire to do one's best and be "famous") nor those of the private experience (potentially more personal content). Perhaps designers should think about the kind of content they want to elicit, and whether a public or private display best accomodates that.
The Experience Music Project in Seattle is a great model for skillful use of both audience-centric and private visitor experiences. Creating music can be both a private and public experience, and they address both. I appreciated getting to be behind closed (sound-proofed) doors, banging away on instruments I didn't know how to play. Had I been recorded and broadcast, I would have put the drumsticks down. But I also enjoyed the sound stage where you could "perform" a song for a crowd. Sometimes you want to be famous. Sometimes you just want to be alone with your guitar.
Of course, even when signaled, different people interpret their own actions differently. This is a fascinating component of Web 2.0--the balance between public and private audiences. Is your MySpace page a vehicle to promote yourself to the world, or a personal place to communicate with friends? Is your Flickr page a handy place to store photos, or a public exposition of your travels and exploits?
We do a disservice to our visitors when we don't encourage them to consider these questions, to consider their own audiences. One of the things that makes YouTube successful is the overt presence of the public audience; it makes you aware that people are going to watch your content and judge it. It makes you feel like there are people out there who want your content--people you are doing this for. The same goes for blogging. I could be writing this for myself in a journal, but I'm sharing it with you instead. I'm thinking about you as I write this. I'm wondering how you'll react, where I got too long-winded, etc.
And that awareness, hopefully, makes my content more useful to you. If visitors were more aware that their input was being produced for an audience--whether online, in the collection, or in the museum--they might take the input experience a little more seriously, and spend less time just giggling at the webcam. Or, maybe they'd hijack the opportunity and use it to put on their own off-topic, inappropriate shows. Either way, the resulting content would be made FOR someone, not just by someone. The visitor experience wouldn't just be input--it would be an output experience as well. Instead of just using the exhibit, visitors would get a slice of what it's like to create an exhibit, on a small scale, for someone else. And when that happens, we can start honestly talking about visitors contributing to the museum experience.