- users do something that generates information (they upload content, rate things, comment, buy things, or click search results)
- the system adapts responsively to those participatory actions, providing customized experiences based on user behavior
Museum professionals tend to think this is OK because they think of the contributory act as the important part of the participation. But without responsiveness, you have a broken feedback loop. The response is what makes participation useful and meaningful to future users, including participants themselves.
Imagine if Netflix encouraged people to rate movies but did not provide customized recommendations based on their ratings. Or if YouTube allowed people to upload videos but gave them no information about when those videos would be available for viewing. Such participatory activities would be seen as a waste of time. Why go to the trouble of creating content if nothing is going to happen because of it?
This sounds ridiculous, but it’s the way many museums approach participatory projects. Staff members design ways for visitors to contribute, but they don’t always provide clear feedback mechanisms so that visitors understand how and where their contributions will affect the institution overall. In many cases, museum staff erroneously assume that visitors want to participate “for the fun of it” and don’t care how and if their work will be used.
Why does this happen? It’s easy to look at participatory websites and see the user-generated content without noting the underlying architecture that responds to user actions. Consider the activity of rating videos on YouTube. Why does YouTube allow users to rate videos? It’s not simply because it’s fun to rate things. YouTube invites users to rate videos because those ratings can then be used to prioritize which videos are better than others. The ratings provide valuable information about the relative value of videos, and the system architecture then uses that information to sort and present videos to subsequent consumers. The ratings are worthless without the architecture to respond to them.
I think this is why the Top 40 exhibition at the Worcester City Gallery and Museum was such a success. In that exhibition, visitors could vote for paintings to move them up in a weekly "top 40" ranking chart. The paintings' ranks were tallied weekly and displayed on physical labels in the gallery as well as online and in the local newspaper. Visitors came back again and again to see how the ranks had changed and to advocate for their favorites. It wasn't the voting mechanism that drew them back--it was the fact that the institution consistently responded to their votes in a compelling way. Seeing that their votes mattered likely made people feel more invested in the exhibition (and by extension, the institution) overall.
The concept of responsiveness can easily be extended to all kinds of participatory museum projects. Consider video kiosks in history museums that allow visitors to comment on exhibitions or share their own stories related to the content on display. These kiosks are frequently designed to make contribution as easy as possible. They are rarely designed, however, to “get better the more people use them.” Such kiosks would get better if contributors were informed of when their videos would be reviewed and how their work would be displayed to subsequent visitors. They would get better if visitors were invited to rate other participants’ videos, to sort them by topic or tone, or to comment on them. Most video kiosks don't provide ways for visitors to sit down and watch videos based on their particular interests. Visitors can't flag inappropriate or empty videos. And contributors can't see how others have rated, commented on, and enjoyed their work.
The result is a broken feedback loop. Exhibition video kiosks are degraded to playthings for people who like to see themselves on camera. Occasionally, a visitor will record something truly special, but the review and display systems are rarely set up to highlight those gems, and they certainly aren’t set up to do so based on visitor feedback.
If museums are serious about inviting visitors to participate, they need to design structures for participation that embrace the full spectrum of participatory behavior and provide responsive value to those who engage. It’s already hard enough to ask a visitor to make a video or craft a sculpture or write a label in the course of her visit. These endeavors are considerably more successful when visitors understand how their participation will impact not just their experience but the experience of subsequent visitors and of staff members.
A participatory museum isn’t just open to visitors’ contributions. It acts on those contributions and adapts to better support them. It transforms the contributions into a beautiful, engaging, educational, and meaningful output. By being responsive, it makes participation matter.