Monday, October 26, 2009

Please Don't Send Me to My Personal Webpage

Yesterday, I visited the Experimentarium, a science center just north of Copenhagen in Denmark. There were many intriguing exhibits and a novel cellphone game (more on that in another post), but I was particularly interested in their new special exhibition on the brain. This exhibition uses RFID tags to allow visitors to save their work throughout the space--something that many institutions have been experimenting with for almost ten years now. And while the Brain exhibition has some qualities that were significantly improved over other RFID-enabled exhibitions (better scanning of the tags, more content-rich personalized welcome screens, effective timeouts if you walked away, a semi-useful group option to accommodate families), it offered an output mechanism that is dated and downright frustrating: the personal webpage.

Many institutions that are pursuing online/onsite experience connections have lighted on the personal webpage as THE way to deliver post-visit experiences. Here's the basic idea: while you are at the museum, you save digitizable content--either content you make (photos of yourself) or content you collect (museum-supplied text or media of interest). When you get home, you type a long code into a web browser or receive an email with a link. Go to that link, and you will find a custom webpage featuring all of the assets you saved or made onsite.

The personal webpage has many adherents, and some institutions, like The Tech Museum in San Jose, have been offering them for almost a decade. There are some obvious positives to this strategy. It provides visitors with a "special place" for their content, which is both highly customized to their experience and out of view from other visitors to the museum's website. But these positives are outweighed by a glaring negative: these personal webpages are (usually) an experiential dead end. They provide the bare bones of what you've created in a totally decontextualized way, outside the infrastructure of other institutional digital content and outside the social context of other visitors. These pages often look barren. They don't live in an ecosystem of other experiences. They display the assets you've created and beyond that, nothing but a link to the institution's main website.

This makes for a very low-engagement post-visit experience. For example, check out this personal webpage I produced with my partner, Sibley, at the Experimentarium yesterday. We swiped our RFID tags all over the Brain exhibition to save our actions, scores, and preferences. We spent time on a digital profile-building activity that required us to enter many fields, including name, age, gender, and four screens of subjective questions about how we think (so much that our friend Nynne didn't do it because it was taking so long). Given all of the time commitment we were asked to put into the tag system onsite, I assumed that when we got home, we'd get some kind of personal profile that showed what we'd done, how it mapped to our profiles and our behavior relative to each other or other visitors to date.

Instead, we each got a basic set of text recommendations to cultivate our brains, against a psychedelic background that provides links to the exhibition's webpage but no substantial ties between our experience and the exhibition content, or even with each other. In some cases, we were provided with the same results we saw onsite (Sibley's time in a learning curve activity... not sure what happened to mine), but onsite, we were able to explore that data relative to other visitors to date, whereas the webpage just provides a static image. At the bottom of the page, there's an option to "remove my personal data" (please don't click this) - and I found myself staring at it semi-incredulous that this impersonal website had anything to do with the data I had generated onsite.

I will not be using this webpage to dig deeper. I will not be coming back to it for more in the future. While it has generated a single click from an email to the web (and many more clicks if you check it out), it has not sent me down the road towards a deeper relationship with the content, the exhibition, or the institution. It didn't even let Sibley and I laugh at how we compared to each other! It's an outpost for some cheap content, and that's immediately obvious to me when I get there.

The Tech's system is barely better in what is provided, offering a glimpse into the actual exhibits you visited and the content (mostly photos) you took onsite. But again, this content is not connected either to more content nor to other visitors. I'd love to see my thermal camera shot in a gallery of many thermal camera shots, and learn from how other visitors used the camera to generate strange images. Instead, I just get my narcissistic output, which may be a reasonable souvenir but is little else.

How can museums improve on this personal webpage strategy?
Contextualize the output with more content. There are some museums which, instead of giving you your content on a bare webpage, create an "account" for you on a more dynamic and content-rich site. The US Holocaust Memorial Museum's Take Action website does this. Associated with a small exhibition on genocide in which visitors can make personal pledges (extensive coverage here) that are digitally tracked, the website allows visitors to "log in" with their pledge number to access custom content--but that content is layered into the multi-media site rather than living in a barren online outpost. This means that visitors are encouraged to keep exploring the rich content on the site related to genocide, rather than checking out their creations and then closing the page.

Contextualize the output socially. It's perhaps even better (and cheaper) to wrap visitors' digital creations in a social enviroment than to do so with authoritative content. You don't even need your own platform to do this. Exhibits that produce content that goes to social websites like YouTube or Flickr are automatically presented in relation to other visitors' productions. When you make a video in the Mattress Factory's iConfess booth, it shows up on the iConfess YouTube channel. When you augment a photo in the Chicago History Museum's Get Lincolnized! system, your image becomes part of a Flickr stream. This allows each visitor to see her actions in the context of what others have done, and to become part of a light "community" of participants.

The Holocaust Museum's Take Action website incorporates this social context with a digital display allowing online and onsite visitors to browse pledges made and see their own words amongst those of others. Particularly for activities that emphasize the collective power of many individuals working toward the same goal, showing how each visitor's action is connected to the larger effort is essential.

Finally, if visitors are saving their activities in competitive environments like games, being able to see your score relative to others--either in your party or overall--is incredibly engaging. Imagine the return visit potential if the institution could automatically send visitors online alerts that someone else has bumped their top score off the chart, or if it challenged dad to try a comeback game against mom next month.

Motivate further active engagement. Remember, the people who chose to produce content onsite--to track themselves, to play games, to make pledges, to mess with their photos--were drawn specifically to active participatory experiences. They may not be the same people who are driven to read or consume lots of authoritative content on a topic. And so while some may appreciate deeper content experiences based on their initial entries, more may seek further ways to actively engage with the institution. If visitors make stop-motion animations at the museum and come back to the web to view them, why not provide a tool or links to places where you can make really complex animation products (which can also then be shared with the visitor community)? If visitors make pledges to reduce waste or stop genocide, why not provide more activities for them to do and ways to track them? I worked with the Boston Children's Museum on a project called Our Green Trail (check it out!) that encourages visitors who play games at the museum related to green behaviors to keep doing those behaviors and playing associated games online in a social virtual world. In this way, Our Green Trail tries to keep people motivated and focused on the activities that initially attracted them while opening up more and more content and social experiences to fuel continued action, in their own lives and on museum visits.

What online/onsite connections have you seen that work particularly well or poorly? What do you want from the digital component to your next cultural experience?

1 comments, add yours!:

Kelly C. Porter said...

I had a very similar reaction to the London Natural History Museum's "Nature Plus Card" system at the new Darwin Centre. I loved the Darwin Centre but was fairly nonplussed with the result when I took my card home, took about 85 years to register it and confirm my account and then only got a few extra pictures for my trouble. 80% of the content of my 'personal page' was exactly the same as the home page. It felt neither personal, nor easy and didn't add any value to my experience of the Darwin Centre.

I do, however, LOVE social media exportables like those you described, precisely because you can then invoke a community of friends to discuss your experience. I think a lot of folks tend to downplay the power of being able, say, to export content or a photo from a gallery floor to Facebook, but they have to understand that the value isn't in the upload, it's in the potential for socially-rich engagement with a much better half-life than the average museum experience, not to mention good PR for your institution.