For three years, I've been using a "hierarchy of participation" diagram to talk about the ways that cultural institutions and platforms can scaffold social experiences among users. It's been problematic for several reasons - a bit confusing, hideous colors, and most of all, a pyramid shape that suggested that some kinds of social participation were better than others.
I've finally completed a redesign of the five stages of social participation, as shown above. The basic concept remains the same: if you want to support social engagement among people, especially in an unfacilitated setting (i.e. no tour guides or game masters), you need to start by designing personal services for users, then linking up users through shared interests or objects to promote interpersonal connections. You don't start by designing "for the crowd." Instead, you design ways for each person to feel acknowledged and valued as an individual. You make them comfortable interacting on their own, and then start providing opportunities to connect with others.
This new diagram is meant to imply progression while treating the stages more democratically. No stage is better than another, and each has something to offer visitors in the context of a cultural institution. Stage one provides people with access to the content that they seek. Stage two provides an opportunity for inquiry and for visitors to take action and ask questions. Stage three lets people see where their interests and actions fit in the wider community of visitors to the institution. Stage four helps visitors connect with particular people—staff members and other visitors—who share their content and activity interests. Stage five makes the entire institution feel like a social place, full of potentially interesting, challenging, enriching encounters with other people.
A simple example: the cocktail party
The best place to start conceptualizing structures for social participation is via familiar social experiences. Consider a cocktail party. There are some parties where hosts go out of their way to welcome guests individually and to introduce them to others via shared interests - making sure Susie the winemaker meets George the restauranteur and so on. At the best parties, each guest feels like his contributions to the conversation are desired, and everyone feels complicit in creating a wonderful social experience. People meet strangers comfortably and confidently, based on their sense of personal worth and welcome.
And then there are the less pleasant parties, the ones where guests arrive to be welcomed by someone with a vacant stare who waves them in and doesn't ask (or know) their names. Guests may feel isolated or unacknowledged, lonely in the crowd.
The difference between the first and second party is the extent to which guests can move from "me to we" instead of being expected to plunge headfirst into interpersonal engagement. In cultural institutions, this can be applied to motivate dialogue around the core focus of the organization. By introducing individuals through the content they love, hate, or have a personal connection to, you motivate relationship-building around the objects and stories on display.
What do unfacilitated me-to-we experiences look like?
Not every cultural experience requires a party host (though they are always useful). The me-to-we design stages become even more important when facilitation is not possible. Designing stage three and four experiences can lay the groundwork to support and encourage unfacilitated social experiences. These frameworks enable visitors to do it for themselves whenever they like.
The social Web provides some of the most powerful examples of unfacilitated me-to-we participation. Consider Flickr, the photo-sharing community site. Many people engage directly with strangers on stage five to discuss images, the stories behind photos, and photographic technique. But most of them start with a stage one experience: looking at photographs.
Here's how the Flickr experience maps to me-to-we design:
For a museum example, consider the Walters Art Museum's Heroes exhibition. Visitors were invited to wear tags indicating their personal connection to one of eight characters in Greek mythology and to use those tags to navigate the exhibition (see longer explanation here). The tags were incredibly low-tech, but they successfully set the stage for some surprising and powerful social dialogue among friends and strangers alike who compared their tags and discussed related exhibits. The tags allowed some visitors to go from a typical stage one experience--looking at artworks singly--to stage five experiences--discussing the artworks with strangers.
Here's how the Heroes experience maps to me-to-we design:
In both these examples, the institution provided tools at stages three and four to encourage people to make the leap from their own personal experience to a collective one without staff intervention. Whether applied in a low-tech or high-tech platform, me-to-we design can help people feel welcome, confident, and eager to participate socially.
What do you think? Does this new diagram work for you? It's a big part of my forthcoming book, and I'd love your thoughts about its use, what it communicates visually, and how it helps you think about designing for social participation.