Sunday, October 21, 2007

Layer On for the Long Haul: Sustaining Visitor Co-created Experiences

Frank Warren has released the third PostSecret book, A Lifetime of Secrets. I was struck, looking at the Amazon page for the book, by one of its negative reviews. The reviewer, madhatter, wrote:
This project ran its course two books ago. Frank Warren had a charming and intriguing concept when starting his PostSecret project. … In some way, PostSecret has morphed into something of a parody of itself...less an intimate human project and more a corporate product.
Of course, for every madhatter, there are thousands of people still discovering PostSecret and sending Frank their heartfelt missives. To those newcomers and satisfied returners, it’s still astounding. But for others like madhatter, PostSecret has changed... by not changing. What does it mean when your audience is tired of itself?

Meanwhile, in Toronto, the fine folks at the Ontario Science Centre are grappling with the one-year anniversary of the Weston Innovation Centre, a wing devoted to visitors as creators and active participants. In 2006, their publication Next proclaimed that the Weston Innovation Centre, and the accompanying Agents of Change initiative, represented the “new” face of the Ontario Science Centre.

But what do you do when your new face is a year old? Now, as is 2006, visitors are still taking things apart, making shoes out of junk, and tackling real world challenges (and each other). Some staff are wearying of the messiness, noise, and lack of structure in their new face. Yes, Agents of Change was a transformative experience. But can’t they stop peeling hot glue off the tables now and move on?

Both of these examples illuminate a basic challenge in co-created experiences or exhibitions—growth. How does a project grow and sustain itself when the creators are a mix of new and returning users? If the project keeps moving, but new people are always coming to it, does it ever grow? Or does it constantly reinvent itself, to the delight of newcomers and the frustration of the old?

This is a problem specific to open-ended projects. No one would contest the idea that most museum exhibitions, art shows, films, books, in short, most content experiences, have value both for the new and return user. There’s no expectation that the content will have evolved in your absence; instead, the user evolves, and brings new meaning-making to the content experience.

Even visitor-generated exhibits and experiences can be treated this way—when they have an end date. Imagine a version of the shoe-making component of the Weston Innovation Centre where shoes were only submitted in a window of time, say through the end of 2006, after which they became a permanent display. People would ooh and ah and create their own meaning--but no more shoes. After all, once you have a thousand visitor-created shoes, do you really need more? It’s much more efficient, staff- and money-wise, to call it quits. Why continue to do the tedious work of support visitor creation, when the newer submissions don’t vary or evolve in any substantive way from the early ones?

It takes a serious labor of love to resist the impulse to call it done and walk away. PostSecret survives not on the persistent deluge of cards coming to Frank Warren’s door but on his gracious, insatiable desire to continue collecting and exhibiting them. Similarly, it is the respect and love that the Agents of Change staff have for their users that allows them to see past the cyclic mess to the unrelenting value of the creative visitor experience.

But love doesn’t pay the bills, and over time, staff and frequent users get tired of the same tricks, no matter how flashy they are. The content refreshes, but the space never seems to change. It’s both inspiring and frustrating. If an environment is built for first-time users, how will anyone ever build up a meaningful sustained community?

To create sustained “projects” in co-creation, I think we have to address three different constituencies:
  1. the newcomer, for whom everything is a first experience.
  2. our returners and core audience, who’ve been there done that.
  3. our staff and leaders, who are uncomfortable with open-endedness and are ready for us to move on to the next, hopefully more structured, thing.

First, the newcomer. We’ll spend the least time here, since these are the people who are presumably being served well by the co-creation models at hand. Both PostSecret and the Weston Innovation Centre do a good job accommodating newcomers’ needs. There are examples to follow, but not so many that you feel that your unique contribution is not valued. There are materials to work with. There are people to support you. The experience is fundamentally entry-level; you have the tools you need to succeed.

Next, the returners. This is the group who come as newcomers a few times, and then start searching for more. The Amazon Post Secret reviewer falls in this category—someone whose interest in the project waned as he or she ceased to get something new from the experience.

Layering the experience accommodates returners. At the Weston Innovation Centre, there are visitors who bring in their own “equipment” from home (toys, personal items) to make short films at the stop-motion animation stations. These are people who came as newbies and enjoyed using the stop-motion equipment, but realized they could go further if they brought in their own stuff.

The stop-motion example lets visitors go more deeply into their own experiences, a technique I’ll call “layering in”. And while layering in, like leveling up in a game, can offer visitors new ways to engage, the returner engagement becomes more personal than social. And as the returner’s actions become more divergent from the newcomer’s, the extent to which both are contributing to a socially-rooted, multi-voice experience lessens. Instead of the exhibition or project evolving, individuals within the environment evolve.

Personal growth is compelling for those individuals, but it may not satisfy the desires of the third group: staff and project leaders. These are the people who spend the most time with the project, and as time goes on and little changes, their discomfort with it increases. If everyone who comes to the Weston Innovation Centre makes a shoe, and all those shoes are at a general level of creativity and ingenuity, when can we stop? When can we stop assembling the materials, cleaning the space, doing all this work just so people can keep making shoes?

And if newcomers love making shoes, and we don’t stop, what can we do to continue to feel engaged? Ultimately, the kind of layering I’m most interested in is “layering on”—where returners (and staff) operate not on their own developing content, but on the body of content as a whole.

Consider again the Amazon reviewer madhatter. She or he’s clearly someone who enjoys, or has enjoyed, looking at Post Secret postcards. It’s not that madhatter doesn’t like the content—she’s just done with the introductory experience of looking at the cards. Madhatter is ready for the next layer of meaning-making around them.

This is where things get interesting. Most visitor-generated museum experiences are about creating, not curating, content. But I’ve argued that for many people, judging, sorting, tagging, and commenting on content are just as valuable—if not more compelling—activities as making the content itself. In the past, I’ve talked about this as an alternate newcomer experience: you want to make a video, I want to put them in a meaningful order. But judging is also a useful layered experience that builds on creation, as well as a meaningful educational experience about synthesizing data sets.

Let’s go back to the shoes. What if floor staff at the Weston Innovation Centre put up signs like “Shoes of History” or “Shoes for Divas” and worked with visitors to sort shoes and create mini-exhibitions? What if there was an ongoing project to weigh all the shoes or measure them and create an ongoing statistics project? What if PostSecret readers could organize and purchase their own PostSecret books filled with their favorite cards in a self-determined order?

There's so much talk in museums about simulating the experience of being a scientist, a historian, or an art critic. Layering on visitor-created content can offer those experiences legitimately, without expensive simulation or concern that visitors will draw the "wrong" conclusions. Museums can't afford to evaluate, analyze, and generalize all the visitor-created content out there--so why not offer that opportunity to visitors instead of throwing it away?

When we talk about tagging or mash-ups in the museum, there’s often a question of incentive. Why would someone want to contribute metadata to the museum experience? For the newcomer, it may be dull. But for the returner or for staff, defining, ordering, and analyzing content can be a way to continue to add value to the project after the initial visitor contribution activity has been completed. Additional meaning is added, both to the project and to the returner, and the stress that this thing doesn’t “go” anywhere starts to dissipate. Perhaps this is a reasonable "phase 2" to grants for visitor-generated exhibits--to move on to visitor-curated and analyzed ones. Heck, maybe one of them will even write a white paper. Real research is done on the ways people use MySpace and YouTube. Why not museums?

Layering on helps projects like this grow without requiring funding for development of deeper second-level (layer in) experiences. Layering on offers people a way to look outward rather than inward, to operate on a larger scale than individual creation. It makes the experience more social, and hopefully supports the project evolving into something more than a set of "mess around" stations. At its best, layering on can allow users and staff to make meaning out of individual shots in the dark, to stop gazing at stars and start drawing the constellations.

2 comments, add yours!:

Audra said...

Always a fun read (and great alternative to just clicking on I've just read this entry and the one about grains of rice and the thought came up that "why not let people making shoes at the Weston be able to donate them to someone who needs shoes, locally or around the world?" I'm not sure how sturdy the shoes that people make are, but if they were at least a bit sturdy, you'd be connecting making them with making them for someone. Suddenly you have to think more about the shoe and about how it will work for another person. And that may work more for repeat visitors as well.

Nina Simon said...


Great idea! Julie Bowen from OSC commented that teens told them that the Weston Innovation Center "challenge zone" had to have meaningful challenges with real impact. The kids didn't want to design bridges to nowhere--they wanted to deal with real problems. She told a story about a challenge during the tsunami where visitors built low-cost shelters that could pack down flat for shipping. When people finished the exercise, they wanted to know how to send the shelters to the afflicted...

So why not complete the cycle and partner for advocacy in this way? I think one of the challenges is a concern among leadership about political repercussions of advocacy. Of course, I think there are great causes out there associated with ironclad organizations that museums could partner with very positively.

Any examples out there of people doing this? I did a small project with teens at Boston MOS where we built a ping pong table and some science games for a Boys and Girls club, but this incremental mass deployment would be much more exciting.