Many museums are experimenting with “back channel” platforms that allow visitors and staff to chat and share content while onsite at the museum. For some educators and curators, this may sound like a nightmare. Visitors texting amongst themselves while you are trying to conduct a tour? Their pithy opinions of the exhibits broadcast live in the lobby?
Last week, I had my first serious experience with useful back channels at a conference (WebWise), and it taught me some lessons about how back channels might be used effectively as a learning tool in museums and other experiential venues (like conferences and classrooms).
The back channel isn’t just a social space. I noted three distinct, valuable uses of back channels at WebWise:
- To communicate socially in an environment that does not permit open dialogue. This is the "note passing" or flirting use case.
- To share your onsite experience with a network of people who are not co-located with you. Where the first use case serves co-located people, this use case focuses on broadcasting the highlights of your experience to friends elsewhere.
- To investigate a content experience more deeply using a different set of tools than those used to convey the content. For example, you may listen to a speaker and check out related links from his work as he talks.
- A talkback board. We gave everyone post-its in their registration packets and encouraged them to post their questions and comments, especially on the “gaps” in the conference, to the board. The board was directly outside the main conference room. (addresses use #1)
- A Today’sMeet chat room. This is a really simple online chat interface that allows you to share messages of 140 characters or less. I set it up, demonstrated it in the first session, and then participants were off to the races with their own laptops. (addresses use #1 and #3)
- Twitter. While we did not formally promote Twitter as a back channel, Twitter users quickly gravitated towards a #webwise hashtag and were able to track each other’s tweets via Twitter search. (addresses use #2 primarily, #1 secondarily)
- Delicious. One participant started using webwise as a tag on Delicious for websites referenced during the conference. He promoted its use via both Today’sMeet and Twitter. (addresses use #3 primarily, #2 secondarily)
- 6 post-its were on the talkback board.
- 724 posts on Today’sMeet by about 80 users.
- 380 posts on Twitter by about 40 users.
- 105 links on Delicious by about 8 users (led by one superuser who posted 63 of the links).
Why did Today’sMeet succeed at engaging so many people? It is a low-barrier chat system that does not require registration. It’s really easy to use and promotes discussion, not individual profiles. The majority of people who used Twitter and Delicious during the conference were already registered members of those services, whereas every single person who used Today’sMeet was new to that service.
There was a greater diversity of users on Today’sMeet than Twitter, and many people used both. As noted above, people primarily used Twitter as an external broadcast tool and Today'sMeet as an internal conversation tool. A typical tweet shares a notable conference item with the outside world:
Today’sMeet, on the other hand, was primarily used as a conversational medium among people actually at the conference (image at right, note that newest posts appear at the top). When a speaker would mention a project, someone would immediately post the relevant URL to Today’sMeet. People asked general questions to the group and replied directly to each other. It was sort of like passing notes in class—but the notes were highly on-topic extensions of what was being said real-time onstage. Some session leaders also deliberately watched the back channel for questions and integrated them real time into the onstage discussion. Whereas Twitter provided the conference highlights to a wider audience, Today’sMeet allowed attendees to delve deeper into individual moments and questions.
After the conference, a friend reflected on the positive experience with Today’sMeet, saying, “At first I didn’t understand why you didn’t just rely on Twitter for the back channel. But I liked how Today’sMeet was less formal, how you could be anonymous or use any username you wanted. It felt like something we could use at my museum as a step to get people more comfortable with Twitter and other back channels.”
Here are some of the key lessons I learned from the WebWise experience:
- If you don't engage in multiple back channels, you may not see multiple use cases. Different tools are best for different types of interaction. Just because post-it notes didn't work at WebWise doesn't mean they don't work in galleries... as we know from the success of many talkback boards.
- If you ask visitors/participants to try a new tool, make sure it has as low a barrier to entry as possible. I have yet to see a museum set something up that is as simple to use as Today'sMeet.
- If discussion is the goal, you don't need user profiles - you just need a way to talk. If building up a personal profile/relationship with the institution is a goal, people need to uniquely identify themselves.
- Think about the possibility for asynchronous back channels that allow visitors (and staff) to share deep content with each other over time. Consider, for example, the rich conversation on Flickr about this image from the Chicago World's Fair. You could imagine a comparable conversation available to visitors onsite alongside exhibits or artifacts in the galleries.
- If possible, find ways to show the real-time location of people who are engaging in the back channel. The Mattress Factory's new SCREENtxt application uses a location-based system so that visitors can identify whether other participants are onsite at the museum or not.
- Make allowance for emergent back channels that visitors/users "bring with them" to the experience. These tools are particularly valuable for the "portal to the world" back channel use case. Every time I see a kid take a cellphone photo in an exhibit, I know that photo will immediately travel to Facebook, Flickr, Twitter, etc. How can your system capture that activity?