Monday, October 15, 2007

Missed Connections and Matchmaking: A Case for the Desire to Socialize in Museums

I've been thinking recently about the "why" behind encouraging social interactions among strangers in museums. I've been arguing that "visitors as participants" means participating BOTH with content and with other visitors, but that begs the question: do visitors really want to have social experiences with each other? After all, people visit museums in their own pods for a reason. Why am I so interested in breaking down those self-defined constructs? Is this actually about encouraging something visitors want, or is this just about me and what I want?

This question has bubbled to the surface both because of some of your comments (advocating for the personal, contemplative museum experience) and the words of Cynthia Sharpe, an exhibit designer who has brought the message "It's not about you" powerfully to the table here at ASTC. It doesn't matter if you are creating a didactic diorama or a participatory smorgasborg if the experience is fundamentally about your desires rather than visitors'.

So I did some soul-searching and realized that one of the reasons I believe people secretly want to break out of social barriers and interact with strangers is typified by the "missed connections" phenomenon. "Missed connections" or "I saw you" is the section of the personals where people describe people they almost interacted with in real-time... but didn't. This kind of personals ad has overrun sites like craigslist, where on any given day you can find hundreds such submissions mourning missed opportunities and hoping for a second chance.

"Missed connections" browsing reveals that besides being a killer exhibition, Body Worlds (2) is a matchmaker. Witness this posting placed on craigslist yesterday:

Lovely Blonde at The Tech Museum on Sunday - m4w - 46 (san jose downtown)

Date: 2007-10-14, 9:05PM PDT

We chatted briefly while attending the Body World exhibit at The Tech on Sunday in downtown San Jose. You were with what I assume was your mother, and we ended up sitting next to each other inside the Imax theater during the 4pm show. I thought maybe there was a spark, but I didn't pursue. I was with my sister and held back, now I regret not extending myself to you...

You: Caucasian, blonde, late 30's/early 40's
Me: Caucasian, salt-n-pepper, silly grin

If you see this post and say "Hey that's me!" - then send me a message. I'd love to see you again.

This person isn't alone in his desire to reconnect. There were four other Body Worlds-related missed connections in the last week alone. I had a friend who was a waiter at an upscale coffee lounge in DC who once complained to me that everyone in the place would sit there with their laptops in their own private pods, "I saw you'ed-ing" each other. Imagine the postings: "You, brown couch. Me, black sweater." These people aren't missing connections--they're avoiding them out of fear of rejection, social stigma, or just being seen as weird. Technology has filled this gap where we feel more comfortable pursuing the slimmest glimmer of hope from a safe place rather than opening ourselves up to social risk.

There are two ways I think we can be using this in museums. First, I think we should support the proliferation of museum-based "I saw you's." These are random gifts of kindness which make the museum both an environment for desire and one for attention to fellow visitors. And second, we should help bridge the gap. When they foster a spirit of inclusion, museums have the unique ability to turn missed connections into real (desired) interaction. Imagine the drool emitted from marketing folks' mouths if museums were seen as viable places for singles to meet in a friendly, culturally interesting environment.

Devon Hamilton of the Ontario Science Centre told a lovely story about the way hosts (floor staff) are trained in their innovation center to connect visitors with one another. A visitor asked a host how a particular kinetic art piece worked. Instead of answering the visitor or even engaging him/her in exploratory questions, the host called out to another visitor: "Yo! We need your help over here with a question." Devon's spin on this was that visitors in the innovation center start to understand that this is a place where they construct the meaning and share it with each other. But it can also be seen as an example of the host "matchmaking" between visitors.

Matchmakers have a mixed portrayal in our culture. They are the pushy intruders who insert themselves into our lives messily. But they do it with love. They have a genuine interest in connecting people to each other--for romantic, professional, or personal reasons--and it's hard not to appreciate someone who earnestly introduces you to someone else. It's like receiving a gift. Even if the gift is wildly inappropriate, you appreciate the gesture and the feelings of reward and gratitude that accompany it.

It's not too hard to imagine floor staff in this role as social lubricators or party hosts, introducing visitors to each other. The harder challenge is to imagine the unfacilitated matchmaking exhibit, the "connection machine" that could perform the introduction on its own.

But I think it's worth it. There's a lot of talk going on about the "unique value propositions" of museums, and I'm excited about the idea that museums can be a place where people feel safe and encouraged enough that they don't have to miss the connections. While there are plenty of museum competitors offering interactive, immersive experiences, there are few that do it in a deliberately inclusive environment. It sounds like many museum folks are seeing visitor-generated content not just as a way for visitors to speak their minds, but for them to do an activity (creation) that isn't available to them from the competition. Enabling that creation to be social helps cement the uniqueness and inclusion of the museum experience.

I know this is neither a rigorous nor a complete argument for encouraging social interaction among museum visitors. But it's something worth considering, especially when dealing with the precious adult market. Full disclosure: I was once "I saw you'ed." It was a strange and exhiliarating experience to feel noticed and appreciated by an anonymous person. It was an experience I don't get at the movies, or in theme parks, or in museums for that matter. It was special and confidence-boosting. It was something that helped turn me into someone who talks to strangers and matchmakes friends. It was something I'd have bought a ticket for, something I wish everyone could enjoy.

3 comments, add yours!:

wren said...

How funny that this is your first post apres ASTC, because it was in your session on Saturday that I was frantically jotting down notes to myself about WHY social interaction outside family groups was being deity-ized. Apparently, I wasn't the only one with the question!

What I was confused about is the inherent assumption that encouraging inter-family group interaction should be a clear museum goal. I've spent a lot of time watching people in museums, and if I could draw one conclusion about them it would be that they are inherently social places. People are consistently monitoring others actions; watching them, copying them, waiting for them, moving around them, etc. But this isn't what you are interested in. It seems to be something else. In your post today, I hear a plea for museums as social networking sites . . . that's interesting, but its not that interesting. At ASTC I heard more of plea from you for museums to take advantage of the whole 'wisdom of crowds' thing . . . if we could only get people talking outside family groups, then there could be more. More 'what' wasn't quite ever talked about. More . . . learning? More . . . happy people? This remains unclear. Talking to someone else at the conference, I got an admittance that the reason she wanted "Simone-style" social interaction was because she wants people to be nicer to each other. She thinks that social interaction will lead to empathy, and an understanding of how to connect to others as a general skill. Thats pretty good stuff, but it does start to get political here.
Anywho, I say there is more to tease out in this instinct, so keep teasing. And, it was good not to miss our chance to connect at CSC Sunday night!

Nina Simon said...


Thanks for your comments. We had more coherent discussion about this today at the "Web 2.0: What's Next?" session with Bryan Kennedy, Jim Spadaccini, and Kevin von Appen.

Some comments based on what I learned today:
1. When visitors interact with each other, the experience is more about them than about us. Therefore it's a good element to add to the suite of "privileging the visitor experience" activities.
2. If people go to a place because of the potential (positive and interesting) social interactions they will have there with others, they will be incentivized to come back. On Second Life, the majority of people who come back after having logged in once do so because they had a positive experience with others.
3. I think this is less about wisdom of crowds than it is about "bowling alone." Society, technology, etc. increasingly isolates us, and that is often thought of as negative.

I wish I had been more aware when we met and had a longer discussion! Maybe we can do so in Santa Cruz. A debate for the blog, perhaps?

Rob Halpern said...

I think this post goes far beyond a desire for happy people (nica as that is). Nina's vision breaks down the Museum experience from the traditional "We shall tell You what reality and truth is," into "What's going on here? Let's see." A very different paradigm.

Displaying "facts" properly authenticated and officially interpreted by experts (us!) is neither honest nor constructive nor dynamic. We do not own truth and meaning, although we do work hard to discover it.

Wren accepts the family-based model of society and museum-going. Why? That paradigm, as well as the "we are the experts" paradigm maintains the status quo. At the rate the world is changinf, maintaining the status quo seems a bit suicidal. Won't visitors, staff, collections and "truth" exist more like the dynamic social reality that is human experience with more social interaction rather than more consumer behavior? And won't that make museums better in a variety of ways?