Since 2006, I've heard terms like "wikimuseum" and "YouTube museum" spring from the mouths of many well-meaning, interested museum directors and leaders, but I haven't seen enough concerted work to define what these metaphors really mean and how they can be used. There are two things that worry me about this:
- Museum executives are often fascinated by the social/cultural outcomes of social media but may not understand the specific characteristics of the platforms (and are too busy to spend their time learning them).
- Museum technology professionals, who are capable of detailing the characteristics of platforms, are not good at or able to communicate with museum directors about what social media translations to the real world might actually entail.
could be one that anyone can add to, one that anyone can edit, one that automatically archives all changes to date, or any combination of these things. The characteristics I imagine are based on my definition of a wiki as a website that anyone can edit. But that is not everyone's definition. In 2008, I worked with one museum director for whom the word "wiki" is synonymous with "Wikipedia." When he talked about a "wikimuseum," he meant a phenomenally popular, encyclopedic institution powered by researchers all over the world. We were using the same word, but we had to break it down into an explicit discussion to really understand each other.
Until we do the hard work of deconstructing these metaphors to understand them and make them actionable, they are like soft porn: pretty and lifeless. I'm a big fan of George Lakoff, a linguist and philosopher who has written prolifically about the use of metaphor in meaning-making across all aspects of our lives. In Metaphors We Live By, Lakoff and his co-author, Mark Johnson, argue that metaphor is literally embedded in our neurological structures from birth and affects how we think and use language. Not only do people use metaphors to understand complicated concepts (i.e. "war is hell" or "close to my goal"), these metaphors affect the way we categorize and understand the world. For example, the concept that "time is money" is a culturally-specific metaphor. If you feel like time is a limited resource and your co-worker feels like time is an infinite garden of forking paths, you might get a little frustrated.
And this is where the linguistics hits the museum. If the metaphor you are using as a basis for a design project is fundamentally different from a colleague's metaphor, you have a problem. There is no one answer to the question "what is a wikimuseum?" There are lots of potential answers. But you need to pick one that works for you and all of your coworkers if you want to move forward with a metaphorical design strategy.
If a word like "wiki" is too much of a linguistic landmine, pick a word or metaphor that is more widely understood. For example, if your concept of a wikimuseum is one which anyone can contribute to, maybe you should talk about a "potluck museum" instead. Then you can deal with the thorny questions ("What happens if everyone brings bean salad?") and have productive working sessions to work out what the metaphor really means for your institution and your project. And if the director wants to revert to using "wiki" when talking about it in the media for the buzz, that's fine. Just as long as everyone knows to think of the potluck (or whatever your straightforward, functional metaphor is) when they're working things out.
This may sound silly--I'm basically suggesting you substitute one metaphor for another. But we've all had experiences where a word or phrase is "loaded" in a way that causes confusion or argument. In those situations, we find other words and try again.
There are some great creative exercises out there to help you reveal new, useful metaphors that connect to your design concepts. Check out Place Storming, a technique developed by Ken Anderson and Jane McGonigal. Give your team a physical object that is loosely evocative of the design concept. If the concept is around tagging, you might give out stickers. If the concept is around social connections, you might give out string. These objects become physical metaphors for the idea. Assign a metaphorical verb to the object (i.e. “the tagger,” or “the connector”) and then tell the team to go use the object in the museum. As one Intel engineer in Anderson and McGonigal's test group commented: “Having to ‘live with’ it [the metaphorical object] made me think differently about new ideas — It wasn’t about coming up with something clever but something to fit into life.” Similarly, hopefully, museum-based metaphorical design should be not about coming up with a good buzzword but coming up with something to "fit into" the museum experience.
I don't think terms like "wikimuseum" are pure hype. I think they have potential. We just have to make them accessible and meaningful in everybody's native tongue. That's the only way to give them power. Words have power? It's a metaphor I believe in.
What metaphors do you use in your work? Which have you found to be useful in connecting technology concepts to experience design? Any spectacular failures?