Why are teens over-represented in participatory projects? I see four main reasons:
- Most participatory experimentation in museums starts in educational departments, and many educators primarily engage (and are funded to work with) students. Teens are a known (and somewhat controllable) entity.
- Teens are developmentally focused on social identity-building and may feel more compelled to share their voices and express themselves than others than other visitors.
- Teens are perceived as more interested in technology-mediated experiences and more familiar with social technologies in particular than their adult counterparts.
- Teens are perceived as an audience that is particularly disaffected and hard to reach, and institutions are continually seeking new techniques that might connect them to core content experiences.
Here are four reasons I think that cultural institutions should look more broadly at potential audiences for participatory experiences:
- While teens are heavy social media users, they may not be the right audience for content-focused social experiences. Teens more commonly use the Web to stay in touch with their pre-existing social groups than to join new communities based on content affinities or interests. As researcher Danah Boyd has pointed out, teens spend time on Facebook, MySpace, and other social networks because that's where their friends are. This means that teens are not necessarily more savvy or more interested than other groups in engaging in communities of practice around content experiences. Users active in online social environments based on social objects like Flickr (photography), Ravelry (knitting), and Wikipedia (information) often trend older. Presumably, cultural institutions are more interested in providing opportunities for people to participate with and around content than providing venues for pre-existing friend groups to hang out, and this suggests reaching out to a broader audience.
- If your activity is compelling because it involves gimmicky new technology, it's not a good activity. In several instances, I've heard about new gadgets and handhelds that are targeted at teens because of their novelty. While some youth (and adults) may be seduced by sexy technology, is that really the reason you want people to engage with your content experiences? I'm working on one cellphone-based game project that was originally conceived as being focused towards teens because, the thinking goes, teens like using their cellphones. In the end, we've developed a program that uses phones in such a simple way that the client is now talking excitedly about how much fun seniors are going to have playing the game. Complex technology integration may appeal more to some audiences than others, but it's denigrating to suggest that teens will engage just because an experience involves something shiny that beeps.
- Teens are already frequently engaged as active participants in museums, and while they are a good starting point, focusing on them may have less significant institutional returns than expanding to other audiences. I suspect that one reason teens are often a core audience is that museums are already comfortable providing participatory experiences to youth in the form of camps, internships, and classes. It's potentially easier and more in-line with standard institutional practice to add a new special kind of internship or camp that focuses on teens contributing or collaborating on production of new content under the guise of youth outreach. For example, the National Building Museum offers an excellent summer program called Investigating Where We Live (IWWL), in which thirty local teens work with museum staff for four weeks to create a temporary exhibition of photographs and creative writing about a neighborhood of D.C. The program is coordinated and directed by staff, who select the neighborhood for the season, provide photography and writing instruction, and generally shepherd the project to completion. The program operates like a camp that is co-led by the teens involved. While this program is wonderful, it's very enclosed within the "youth education outreach" activities of the museum, and doesn't necessarily push other staff members in design or curatorial to consider integrating community members into their exhibit development processes. Also, from the teen perspective, while IWWL is a unique and valuable experience, participants may not differentiate it from any other ways they engage with the museum. This means that it may have less impact on their perception of and relationship to the institution overall, as compared to the potential impact on audiences with whom there are no pre-existing collaborative relationships. Imagine if instead of working with teens at the museum, IWWL was conducted as a collaborative project with mixed-age residents of the neighborhoods to be exhibited. IWWL would undoubtably get more complicated (and potentially harder to fund), but it might connect the National Building Museum with a much broader community of locals who care deeply about their neighborhoods and have more varied prior relationships with the museum.
- Teens are not the only people with stories to tell. Teens may be particularly drawn to self-expression, but that doesn't mean that their contributions are any better than those of others. Because of their comfort with expressive technologies, teens are low-hanging fruit when it comes to participatory projects, but again, the impact of participatory experiences on them (and on other museum audiences) may be lower than that on participants with less access or ability to share their stories, skills, and memories. I'd like to see more multi-generational participatory projects in which young people are employed as staff or volunteers to help older audiences contribute their own content. Museums are not in the business of giving anyone who wants one a soapbox. Cultural institutions should be deliberate about setting up opportunities for communities of interest to participate, whether those be artists or amateur astronomers, veterans or housekeepers, gardeners or genealogists. The more thoughtfully we design participatory platforms, the broader our opportunities to use them to work with the visitors and audiences who matter most to us.