Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Teenagers and Social Participation

Last week, I gave a talk about participatory museum practice for a group of university students at UCSC. During the ensuing discussion, one woman asked, "Which audiences are least interested in social participation in museums?"

I immediately flashed to my work with art museums and staff members' concerns that older, traditional audiences will shy away from social engagement in the galleries. But in most cases, that fear hasn't born out; many older visitors enjoy the vibrancy of social events and are more than willing to share stories with other visitors in the context of a museum experience as long as it isn't overly technology mediated. There is another, surprising group that is much less likely to participate in dialogue with strangers: teenagers.

Teenagers are often the target for participatory endeavors, and they definitely have high interest in creative expression, personalizing museum experiences, and using interactive or technological tools as part of their visit. Many teens love to perform for each other. They like to do and touch and make. But when it comes to socializing with strangers, their interest is incredibly low.

This is true for two reasons. First, teens often have incredibly tight social spheres. They can be overly self-focused, and that focus expands only to a limited group of friends with whom they share their lives. They may love to text, take photos, and chat online, but they do so with a small group of friends (see, for example, Danah Boyd's research on how teens use social media to "hang out" with their friends, not to network or connect with strangers). In the lexicon of social capital, teenagers are much more focused on "bonding" experiences than "bridging" ones.

Second, teens today are incredibly aware of "stranger danger." Their parents, teachers, and the nightly news remind them that strangers are stalkers, perverts, and kidnappers. Even though the primary threat to teens online is peer bullying, the media still often focuses on the dangers associated with interacting with strangers, especially strange adults. More so than teens in the past, teens today have grown up in a culture of fear around engagement with strangers. Check out how these girls reacted when I asked them to make social objects and talk to strangers in downtown Santa Cruz--they were terrified, but also curious and ultimately excited by the experience.

So what's a museum to do--especially one that is funded to encourage youth and teen participation? I'm working with one such institution now, and we've had to take a bit of a reality check based on focus groups which have reinforced the fact that teens are interested in social experiences with their friends, but not so much with other visitors (even those with similar interests). I was amazed at how closely the results of the focus groups matched up with the findings from UC Berkeley's Digital Youth Research project, which offers both a white paper and incredibly useful book for free download.

Based on this research, we're refocusing on ways to invite teens to engage with their own friends around museum content--to create and share photos, stories, and ideas with each other instead of with the wider world of the institution. We're trying to contextualize museum content to their social groups, so that groups of friends can use exhibits as touch points for shared experiences--much as children's museums design exhibits explicitly for family use and learning.

We're also looking at simple staff training options to help teens feel more comfortable using the space the way they want to--loitering in large groups, goofing off, doing whatever. One of the positive opportunities for museums comes in the fact that so few public spaces are open to use as social hangouts, and few parents allow kids to loiter on street corners. Museums could potentially become "safe" places for kids to do something that is increasingly difficult: spend time in person with their friends (and yes, the research shows they would rather hang out in person than online but are often restricted by parents from doing so).

Some of these efforts will be harder to track than more public participatory projects; while staff can count the number of comments left on a museum kiosk, we can't easily count the number of personal text messages sent among a group of friends. We're still trying to figure this out, but ultimately, I feel like we'll have much more success creating opportunities for kids to share with their friends than forcing them in uncomfortable positions where they have to expose their preferences and creative expression to people (especially adults) they don't know.

But we're also thinking about ways to gently invite teenagers into bridging experiences with the unknown. Teenagers, like all humans, balance out their self-interest with curiosity about the rest of the world. And while many teens are focused on being where their friends are, listening to what they listen to, liking what they like, they also pursue personal passions. In some cases, they do so on their own, "geeking out" on music or science or web design at home, away from their friends' judgment. These personal pursuits are one of the most common ways that teens pursue bridging experiences; if someone has an intense passion for a particular novel, she might get involved with a fan fiction website and start comfortably communicating with other fans she didn't know previously.

My guess (and one I'm looking forward to testing) is that teens may be more open to this kind of bridging experience if it doesn't require personal exposure in front of their friends. If a group of teens are on a school field trip to an art museum, and a 15-year-old boy finds himself totally thrilled by landscape painting, he may not feel comfortable sharing that immediately with his friends. But he might want an opportunity to geek out on his new interest later on his own or in a private interactive space. I'm really curious to see whether there's a difference in what teenagers do when presented with opportunities to express themselves performatively (i.e. by wearing a button indicating a preference or making a video in a public gallery) vs. privately. The way a museum integrates into teens' social lives might be quite different from the way it integrates into their personal ones.

What have you observed in your own institution with regard to connecting teens to content experiences via their social and personal lives? What have you observed in your own life as a teen, parent, or teacher?
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