Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Participatory Museum Process Part 2: Participants' Experiences

This is the second in a four-part series about writing The Participatory Museum. Check out the other parts here.

Several hundred people contributed their opinions, stories, suggestions, and edits to The Participatory Museum as it was written. What did they do? Why did they do it? What did they get out of it? That's what this post is all about.

Well actually, this post is about the people who participated at the highest level of engagement. As noted last week, the vast majority of participants got involved for just a few minutes at a time--the time required to read and comment on a blog post or a tweet. But there were 52 people who spent several hours working on the project as content reviewers or copy-editors. These 52 included:
  • 15 people who contributed actively (and voluntarily) to content review on the wiki
  • 16 people who I solicited directly to review the content of specific book chapters (of course these people were also voluntary but they were externally prompted to help)
  • 17 people who copy-edited the final manuscript
  • 4 people who performed specific tasks, including editing for tone and resizing images
Many of the quotes and stats below came from a post-process survey (full results here), in which 31 participants shared their thoughts about the process. With the exception of one respondent, these 31 people all belong to the group of 52 "super participants" who spent several hours working on the project either as content reviewers or copy-editors.

Here's the breakdown of who responded to the survey:

Now on to the good stuff.

Who Participated and Why?

Participants included museum professionals, academics, students, and a few folks from related fields (community centers, arts management). Copy editors tended to be younger and included several students. There were three primary reasons people cited for participating:
  1. Interest in the topic of visitor participation. This was absolutely the top reason--every respondent mentioned it in some way. Many people wrote at length about their passion for participatory design and their desire to contribute to what they saw as an important resource that would "help advance the field."
  2. Interest in the collaborative writing process. Several said things like, "I was curious to see how this kind of participatory, collaborative approach would work in practice." Others noted that they were interested in being part of a community of practice around the project and getting to know and work with the other participants.
  3. Interest in me. Many solicited contributors cited "collegial friendship" as a reason for participating. People who were unknown to me frequently mentioned that they had followed the blog for a long time and felt like this was an exciting opportunity to get involved.
There was a secondary reason that came up that I found quite interesting. Three content reviewers mentioned their desire to "be heard" with regard to this topic. While many people talked about their interest in helping advance the topic in museums, these folks felt they had something specific to offer that needed to be included. One voluntary content reviewer wrote: "I wanted to be part of the debate - I'm really interested in Nina's work, and the issues it raises, and wanted to have a voice in discussions on this topic. So, some of that is about power, about the idea that I might be able to influence something, as well as just being heard."

Finally, a few copy editors in particular mentioned their interest in getting a "sneak peek" of the book before it was released. They were also more likely than content reviewers to talk about their basic pleasure in editing and their desire to do what they saw as a fun activity.

What Was it Like to Participate?

Participants' experiences were generally extremely positive. This is not entirely surprising given that they voluntarily joined the project and then a subset voluntarily filled out the survey, so take this with a grain of salt. Whether they spent a few hours copy editing or reviewing a small portion of the draft, or upwards of 30 hours reviewing the whole book, people called the experience "empowering," "stimulating," "provocative," and "very enjoyable." A prolific voluntary content reviewer described the experience this way:
The material was meaty. The presentation was limited. The challenge was to increase accessibility. Liked the challenge. Good work worth doing.
Responsiveness, both by me and by other folks on the wiki, was a huge contributor to participants' enjoyment of the activity. Many people cited my initial invitation and ongoing engagement and energy as a strong motivation for participating. One wiki editor wrote, "Nina, your active presence as the author / hub for the contributing community was tops. Everyone was both appreciated and seen to be appreciated." Another commented: "At first, I wasn't sure whether or not my responses were useful to anybody. It took a long time for any feedback to filter through. When it did come I really appreciated Nina's thanks and encouragement. That's what kept me coming back to the site."

Responsiveness mattered even when comments weren't integrated; as one content reviewer noted: "It was very important that Nina gave feedback and always commented back on the reviewers' comments. So, you felt that you were listened to, no matter if after all the change you suggested was not finally undertaken."

But it wasn't just me who kept people coming back--it was all the participants. One content reviewer commented that she "LOVED the conversations we reviewers were having with each other and you within the copy - I learned a lot and felt valued." Another wrote: "I loved being able to share my mental margin notes with the author and others, and then getting responses to those. I also really liked reading a bit of text, thinking one thing, then reading others' comments below and having my views changed or expanded." A copy editor commented that the project "had a real "it takes a village" feel - I felt part of something important." The wiki was also useful to people who worked on their own. A solicited reviewer who worked on the entire manuscript from hard copy noted, "It was very empowering to hold the draft in my hands and look at the other comments on the blog as I was reviewing. It really felt like a group effort!"

When I asked people about any frustrations or negative experiences, a few people raised the following issues:
  • The wiki could be confusing. When a page on the wiki became very busy with many voices, it was hard to follow (scroll down on this page for an example). I encouraged people to use different colors to represent themselves on the wiki, which one person commented was not great for colorblind participants.
  • Some people expressed performance anxiety about their ability to contribute. They worried if their comments would be useful, and once the wiki got really active, some felt unable to keep up with the activity. As one person said, "the bar felt high to me, but that was a good thing!" A copy editor expressed "lingering self-doubt" about her technical knowledge and noted that the redundant system by which two people would copy edit each section helped her feel confident in his work.
  • Several people said they felt bad that they couldn't help more and wished they had more time. Lots of people echoed this sentiment: "My only frustration is that I couldn't do more." In a few cases, people felt this way because they didn't want to miss out on contributing to the whole draft, but for most people, it was just a general sense of being too busy to help as much as they wanted. While this may sound like a compliment, I see it as a warning for me as the project manager - I don't want participants who gave so much to feel like they didn't do enough.
The "I wish I could do more" frustration were felt much more acutely by content reviewers than copy editors. Only one copy editor mentioned his regret that he couldn't help more. I attribute this to the relative specificity of copy editing (and a much more organized process). People who copy edited had a very clear job to do, and I did not allow people to copy edit more than one chapter per week. In contrast, the content review took place over several months and was open to as much or little as people wanted to do. While in general this was a good thing (it allowed people to sort themselves into various levels of engagement), I suspect that my continual cheerleading weekly updates may have made some intermittent participants feel like they were underperforming. I never asked people for more, but I always highlighted and celebrated active participants. I did that intentionally to honor them and to subtly hint at what I saw as great participation, but I realize that there are also great participants who only gave a single comment over the course of the project.

I'm not beating myself up about this. The updates also served a valuable purpose in keeping people connected to the project. As one occasional content reviewer wrote, "Nina was very encouraging; she provided interesting updates throughout the process. Other contributors were collegial and a valuable network of museum wonks has developed." The ongoing support from me and active nature of the wiki kept people inspired and engaged. One commenter wrote, "As I mentioned above, your generosity with thanks was an important motivational factor...If I had done some work and it had gone unrecognized, I probably wouldn't have been so willing to help later, not out of negativity, but I would have sensed that lots of other people were helping and my assistance wasn't so necessary." An infrequent content reviewer wrote, "I feel Nina was quite prompt in thanking, recognizing, and infusing comments from the contributors. This thing was alive."

People were willing to debate each other on the wiki, which I found fascinating (again, see this example). These were people who had never met each other, who knew each other only as a set of initials and a short blurb on the wiki. One commenter wrote, "the tone set by both Nina and the other commenters helped me to comment myself - it was positive and supportive, which made it easier to speak out, including sometimes disagreeing or challenging without either attacking or being attacked." There were more "I agree" statements than "I disagree" but I was thrilled to see both happen.

What Rewards did People Get from Participating?

One of the things I didn't handle perfectly (from my perspective, not so much participants') was how to reward participants fairly at the end of the process. I gave everyone as much responsiveness, encouragement, and support during the process as possible, but I wasn't sure exactly what everyone "deserved" as a thank you in the end. In the initial invitation, I asked people to tell me how they wanted to be thanked, and most asked for a free book and or their name in the acknowledgments. When it was clear that the list of participants was much longer than I'd anticipated, and their involvement so variable, I didn't know how to mete out these rewards fairly.

I ended up putting everyone in the Acknowledgments and giving everyone a free digital version of the book and a coupon to buy the paperback at cost. I gave the solicited reviewers a free copy of the paperback - these were people who I felt I had explicitly "put to work" and they put in the vast majority of the participant hours on this project. There was one wiki content reviewer who wrote back surprised that she wasn't getting a free book, and I sent one to her. I'm still not sure exactly how I should have handled rewards overall. It would have required me to evaluate whether XX's 30 hours of moderately helpful participation were "more valuable" than YY's 4 insightful comments that came just when I needed them. Or whether ZZ's copy editing, which was desperately needed, mattered less than QQ's extensive professional expertise. I didn't want to go there, and I didn't feel able to give everyone a free book.

In the end, at least as far as the survey respondents went, this didn't matter. When asked if they felt rewarded for participating, everyone said yes, and only a couple mentioned the discount or free book with appreciation. Most talked about the intrinsic rewards of contributing to the field, learning, and getting involved in an interesting project. They talked about the responsiveness and the liveliness of the experience. A few noted that they'd used this blog as a free resource for so long and felt glad to give back. Some also noted that the ability to introduce themselves on the wiki helped folks feel acknowledged "on their own terms."


I learned so much from this process, and I'm thrilled to hear participants reinforce a lot of the core principles in the book--make the participatory act meaningful, be responsive, support community dialogue. I'll close this post with a quote from a content reviewer:
I felt that participating was professionally rewarding. Participating in the review/editing process provided me with the confidence and insight to be able to work collaboratively with staff members in creating participatory exhibits and design processes in our Museum.

I hope this post helps you do the same.

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