Thursday, December 28, 2006

Game Friday: Interactive Conversation

Remember "You Don't Know Jack"? First released in 1995 by an educational films company, the game has grown into the Obama of the trivia world. It's sassy, smart, and successful. The company that created it, now called Jellyvision, Inc., has gone on to build other games and tutorials, but their bread and butter is the crafting of honest, successful "interactive conversation interfaces."

What's an "interactive conversation interface"? At its worst, it's the automated voice from your bank that you'd like to shove back into whatever mechanized hellbox she came from. At its best, it's a lively, clear, trustworthy AI program that responds to your inputs appropriately and usefully. It reacts when you move. It goes at your pace. It gives you the suggestions you want. In short, it's a killer interactive.

Jellyvision has now released a list of Jack Principles on Interactive Conversation Interface design. You may want to skim them and then try one of their simple games, like Dis or Dat, or check out one of their more serious applications in the iCi showroom. They seem pithy at first, but after seen in practice, you'll go back for more.

There's nothing too shocking in this design list, but it's a great alternate view into the window of interactive exhibit design. So often people bemoan the limitations of unfacilitated exhibits--the phenomena that goes unnoticed, the deep learning overlooked. Folks like Jellyvision are creating interactive educational experiences that are totally computer-facilitated, and yet they look, sound, and feel like you are interacting with a human--or, if not a human, something infinitely more pleasant and interesting than the automated phone demon.

The guidelines start with pacing--pretty well-trod territory--but then move to creating and maintaining the illusion of awareness (of the user). Game designers try as hard as they can to make you feel like the game is a responsive thing created solely to serve the player, your own private butler handing you machetes or poker chips as needed. The guidelines talk about responding to users' inactions as well as actions, taking into account their real time and place, creating a sense of intimacy. In short, creating a consistent, positive environment for user interaction.

Everyone who walks up to a museum kiosk knows it isn't "alive". But the Jellyvision demos convince me that people's engagement with museum content could increase significantly if people feel that the exhibits are there not as conversation pieces, but "interactive conversation" partners. That's right, Calder mobile. Talk to me. Tell me something good.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Game Friday: Collection Management in the Garden

Every year, there’s a Flash festival/conference, Flashforward, that highlights novel uses of flash in web navigation, art, games, instructional demos, and more. Today, I want to share a small application that was nominated for the prize in Navigation… but it’s a lot more than that. Appropriate for the holiday time, forget e-cards and give someone a flower from the Hope Garden… and think a bit about collection organization at the same time.

The Hope Garden was set up by BSD Medical, a company in Utah that specializes in a kind of cancer treatment called hyperthermia. I didn’t know that when I first arrived and planted a flower for a friend who was struggling (who was then perplexed by my linking her with cancer, which was not her issue). But no matter. This is the first social e-carding I’ve experienced. You can plant a flower for someone with a small message, and then you can also wander around the garden, reading the (mostly inspirational and loving) flower messages that have been planted by others. You can “water” flowers with prerecorded responses (Thank you, All the best, etc), and you can search for specific flowers with a text search.

This is a powerful example of how a collection of user-generated messages—most of which are rather generic—can accomplish something impactful. I have an emotional reaction to all of these flowers of goodwill, in different languages, shared for different reasons. I know how much I love and care for the person to whom I gave a flower—and it makes me (and her) feel good to see others expressing the same feelings in the same space. The metaphor of a garden is apt; I feel like my contribution is helping “grow” a more loving place.

That all sounds pretty New Age-y. There’s another way to think about this garden—as a way to present a collection for viewing. The Hope Garden won accolades for navigation, and indeed, it offers an addicting way to “surf” through largely generic material. You are focused on individual flowers, but always in the context of other flowers in the garden. There’s no map or locator; just click and explore.

What if a museum’s virtual collection was presented in an abstract form like this? Rather than viewing one artifact with pertinent info at a time, having the opportunity to navigate through many artifacts in a contextualized location? Space exhibits in a meteor shower? Sculptures in a garden? Coins in a fountain? The beauty and consistency of the Hope Garden keeps me tied in and makes me want to keep exploring. I’m immersed. My dwell time goes up. Heck, maybe I could actually learn something.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Thing a Day: Good or Glib?

We all have processes by which we create things. Maybe you’re a painter who sketches the scene outside your window over and over to get started. Or the mathematician with half-proofs splayed around the kitchen. The thing is, most of us take pains to conceal these processes and misfires from others. We use these processes to get us to an end goal, then wipe the desk clean and present the finale as an isolated, perfect thing.

I recently had an experience that changed my perspective on this. I have a side-life as a poet, and had been having trouble finishing some poems I’d been working on for months. Rather than continue banging my head against these poems, I took a break and devised a new plan. For one month, I would write a poem every day in under 30 minutes. I would finish each one in one sitting, without revision. So? Just another personal process, right? Well, there’s a twist: I put them on the internet.

I didn’t decide to post the poems on the internet—initially—to be viewed by anyone else. It was a practical decision; I write poems from different locations and different computers, and a googlepages site seemed the easiest way to keep them all in one place, easily retrievable from anywhere. But then, once I’d set up the site, it seemed silly NOT to share the info about it with others. I sent an email to a few friends and family members letting them know, let out a deep breath, and hit send. I was nervous—previously, I’d only shared published work with others—and I knew that my goal with the poems was not quality but quantity. This was not putting my best foot forward; this was me clumsily learning how to swing dance, on camera.

Shortly after starting the poem-a-day project, I became more aware of the extent to which a vast majority of the internet is about this concept—exposing processes, opening up the innards. Some web applications are banal—Twitter being the ultimate example, an application in which you type and disseminate what you are doing RIGHT NOW. Others are artistic projects—Jonathon Coulton’s popular Thing a Week (he writes a song each week), Scott McCloud's "Morning Improv" comics. And then of course there are blogs, in which millions of people are airing their brains out daily or weekly for everyone—and anyone—to watch and comment on.

Is “process exposure” a valuable way for people to communicate and grow their talents, or does it replace the value of the final product with the instantaneously available one? What’s appealing about this, and what’s prurient? How can museums learn from it?

Process Exposure lets people become more invested in great products. I’m a sucker for the “making of”—if the product is great. When I see something truly breath-taking, I want to understand all the bits of it, whether it’s a piece of art, a commercial, or a boxing match. I assume that the people who chose to look at my poem-a-days were people who already had interest and appreciation in the “finished” poems they’d read—and therefore had some reason to want to experience a little bit of “the making of.” But that leads to…

Process Exposure encourages people to reduce greatness into pieces. Which makes me understand why so few magicians will ever spill their secrets. They know that the magical nature of their work demands that their process remain secret, that, in fact, that guarded secrecy is one of their talents we most appreciate. Which leads me to feel that an artist can only feel comfortable exposing his/her process if either a. they don’t care about protecting their image as a performer or b. they have such a strongly defined and loved image that they can now give away little bits, strategically, as they see fit. But for new artists…

Process Exposure may derail people from ever achieving greatness. This is highly debatable. But I’ve taught hundreds of poetry students—kids and adults—who refuse to edit their poems. Except in very rare cases, people who are unwilling to revise and grow their craft are doomed to mediocrity. If you become famous for what you created right now with no resources, why would you want to develop anything more complex?

Where do museums fit in? Many museums have a fascinating relationship with process exposure—lips sealed when it comes to their own final products, megaphones on when it comes to exposing the processes of others. Many museum exhibits focus on exposing the process of greatness—how did Newton develop his theories on objects in motion? How did impressionists re-envision light?—so that people can understand and unlock love and interest in the material. In some museums, this goes too far and I’m left feeling cold—like everything has been explained away. In other museums, I don’t get enough and I feel lost, like there’s something beautiful nearby but I can’t quite see or articulate it.

The new explorations that everyday people are doing on the web with process exposure can—and should—lead to new explorations inside museums as well. One of the most enjoyable process exposure experiences I’ve ever had in a museum was at the entrance to COSI Columbus, where you can control a small time-lapse video of the construction of their building. Would visitors enjoy seeing the iterations of a label, or an exhibit of failed prototypes? If the museum is perceived as great, a disseminator of extraordinary final products, than the “making of” DVDs may fly off the shelves. If the museum is just another slapdash work in progress, well, save that for your MySpace page.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Some Light Weekend Reading

A blog post by the excellent Kathy Sierra, "Become the Thing that Replaces You," about keeping your eyes on the big picture as you determine how to evolve your institution/product to fit new criteria/expectations...

A 39 page report (don't worry, there are ten pages of notes) from Gyroscope, an exhibit design firm, on "Museums in Transition: Emerging Technologies as Tools for Free-Choice Learning"...

And this is neither in English nor is it reading, but it's a pretty darn funny to connect with visitors. It doesn't become 2.0, I guess, until you let the visitors wear the armor...

Game Friday: The Beauty of Finding Things Out

Games often get a bad rap in the museum world. Too gimmicky. Too goal-oriented, or, paradoxically, too process-oriented. But recently, I've been exploring the world of casual Flash games on the web, and I've been amazed. There are thousands of game developers out there creating unusual, beautiful, fascinating games that have changed the way I think about museum exhibits and game/play spaces.

So, new tradition. Every Friday I'll offer up a couple of games on a theme for you to explore. All are free, and most take about 5-30 minutes to complete. Today, two games about navigating non-linear narrative spaces, The Telephone and The Museum of Broken Memories. Both of these games are museum-esque. They encourage exploration of spaces, focusing on evoking emotion through rich graphics and sound.

The Telephone
presents a very simple collection of spaces, each with its own challenge, strung together by a "magic" telephone that transports you from one space to the next. There is no over-arching story or puzzle (unless you fall into a Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure reverie). I like this as a new way to envision the transition between spaces and experiences--through a device instead of through physical space. Imagine C. S. Lewis's wardrobe parked in the entrance of a museum exhibition, ready and willing to transport you to something wild and unexpected. It's a beautiful quickie. Enjoy.

The Museum of Broken Memories is an extraordinarily beautiful, and disturbing, game. You navigate through a museum-like setting, exploring "artifacts" of a person's emotional life. It is dark and captivating. The Museum of Broken Memories is an outlier in the broader genre of "point and click" Flash games (like Myst) where your goal is unclear, but the compulsion to keep clicking is high. I'm fascinated by the way that good game design encourages me as a user/player to delve deeply into scenes, looking for items to interact with, never sure that I've "seen it all." When the game is easy to use and the puzzles are not frustrating, I find myself doing things I rarely do in museums--taking a closer look, trying it again to see if something changes, wondering what could possibly happen next. This one is longer, and requires download to your computer.

My game source is Casual Gameplay, where you can also find reviews and hints on these and other games. If you have other sources to recommend, I'd love to hear about them. And where does the Telephone take you?

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Two Notes from O'Reilly Radar on Web 2.0

There have been two good posts on the O'Reilly Radar recently that I wanted to bring to attention of these folks, both on the definition and use of "Web 2.0".

The first was a post offering a brief definition of Web 2.0: Web 2.0 is the business revolution in the computer industry caused by the move to the internet as platform, and an attempt to understand the rules for success on that new platform. Chief among those rules is this: Build applications that harness network effects to get better the more people use them. (This is what I've elsewhere called "harnessing collective intelligence.")

The second is about pre-roll advertising, but contains this generalized gem: So if you want to build a business around digital media, you have to be the best place to view/consume the media. Being the only place to see it is a naive strategy that won't work. You have to make digital media easy to find, easy to watch/listen/view, easy to comment/tag/share, and easy to replicate/reblog/republish.
Both of these ideas can be applied to museums and potential approaches to use of 2.0 in museums. The first is the familiar concept of museums transitioning to being a platform for specific kinds of encounters and experiences. The second quote builds on this by pointing out that it's essential, when you build a platform for user information, to make it the most appealing place to access that information.

Many museums share content beyond their four walls through virtual exhibits, online collections, etc., which begs the question of whether visitors will pay for the cow when they can get the milk for free. Why go to the museum if you can see it all online in your pajamas? The answer is--or should be--that the museum is the best place to experience the content. If you are confident in this fact, then making all kinds of content open source is a benefit to the museum--extending the reach of the content, motivating interest in the brand, encouraging others to use and experiment with your content.

There are certain advantages to starting as a content provider and then expanding services as a platform. Museums already have strong brand identity, and people expect that the best (and mostly, unfortunately, only) place they can connect with their content is in the museum.

With that in mind, I'd love to see museums opening up their content to users on the web--and in the galleries. There are some interesting comments out there from people who are pissed off about not being able to take photographs in art museums. If there's a copyright issue or a safety of the artifacts issue, I understand, but if not, what do you gain from protecting your content in this way? Wouldn't you rather have 42,000 photos from your museum logged on Flickr (MoMA, which does allow photography) or 3,900 (SFMOMA, which does not allow photography)? Similarly, encouraging people (staff AND visitors) to post videos on YouTube, blog about museum experiences, podcast programs... it all generates interest in the museum itself.

Seeing a video of someone walking through an exhibit doesn't make me think, been there done that. It makes me want to see the exhibition. Imagine if we applied the same fearful logic to sex. Reading about it hasn't been shown to diminish interest in the genuine article, the "best place" to experience it.

How can/are you opening up the content at your institution to become more "platformesque"?

Friday, December 08, 2006

Interview with Elisa Giaccardi

Today, a conversation with Elisa Giaccardi, from the Center for Lifelong Learning and Design at University of Colorado, Boulder. Elisa’s focus is interactive arts, media design, and cultural management, and she has been involved in many pertinent projects, such as MUVI (the Virtual Museum of the Collective Memory of Lombardia). Elisa calls the virtual museum a “living organism linking the people, visions, interpretations, and values” of various locations and stakeholders, and we sat down to poke that organism a bit and see what makes it squirm.

My favorite pieces of this conversation dealt with 1. the question of how cultural objects are defined and valued and 2. our final thoughts about the value of “encounters” as opposed to “experiences.” Enjoy!

I’d like to start by asking you to tell us a little more about your current project, the Silence of the Lands.

The primary objective of the Silence of the Lands is to engage the Boulder community in a focused way of listening to natural quiet. And then, to provide them with a narrative mechanism to express and share and learn from that experience. In doing so, we want to achieve a way for the community to access the natural heritage through the sonic filter, and basically be able to connect to each other’s perceptions about quiet through the ability to record the sounds directly from the natural environment.

What motivated you to start this project?

The anecdote behind the project was a lecture by Patty Limerick at CU—the Director for the Center of the American West—where she was explaining a project they had that related to natural quiet. She talked about how hard it was to get different social groups to share perspectives on how sound should be managed.

This is an interesting problem related to natural heritage and how it is shared and enjoyed. So we wanted to create a mechanism to have these connections over sustained time. Environmentalists, the Museum of Natural History at CU, they all responded very enthusiastically to this. The stakeholders are really engaged.

How are you selecting the people who will record the sounds?

This year, we will complete the development of the first two technologies—the recording mechanism and the collaborative mapping tools. We will engage volunteers to evaluate the technologies for how usable—and socially adaptable—they are. We have to see how this mechanism will help create a meaningful social experience. So in summer 2007, we will have 30 volunteers from Boulder, from different social groups, use the technologies and we will evaluate.

How do you develop mechanisms specifically to encourage connection?

What we’re interested in is not only user content generation in the sense of starting from an artifact that is out there in a museum and adding meaning… I’m really interested in the process of defining what is a cultural object, and how we assign value to that. The way in which we appreciate and interpret cultural objects changes over time, and I believe things should be really tied into the values and experiences of the people who use them.

So the value of the mechanisms is to let people find and reflect on what natural heritage is—how it can be defined, represented, and shared. Using social software mechanisms allows people to browse and aggregate content in a way that is very fluid and flexible, but it is also critical that they are allowed to collect the object itself. And then giving it back to the community through a social interface—to share that knowledge back with the community.

So how do you connect this kind of ongoing project to a museum, which has the challenges of displaying something for people who were not involved in generating the data?

We are discussing how to do that [with the CU Museum]. Basically, they will renovate their space and incorporate an interactive table that allows visitors to access this content. There are two strategies. We have the City of Boulder naturalists, who are involved in organizing field activities for the community—bringing the community into the open spaces—to facilitate that collection. Then we have the museum that is doing the same but drawing from the installation in the museum—so they will plan activities around that installation—to bring groups of visitors out to collect data. The idea is to have a migration path between these different spaces—so people who usually take the naturalist hikes get interested in the museum side. What the museum will do is, once you have this set of social practices and a set of data that’s accessible—how can they build a narrative on top of that. For example, the museum is very interested in biodiversity. Ccan you engage visitors who weren’t part of the process of generating the sounds to use and manipulate the soundscape and learn about biodiversity?

Who chooses the narratives for the museum? Is it the curator or the people?

That’s the critical point—how far do we want to push this. As you’ve said, we often have projects where users can create content without letting them understand how the content is chosen or aggregated. I think it really depends on the kind of project and the objectives of the museum. When can people do it themselves and when do they need help? We let users do it themselves when they have an emotional connection to the content—we need to get them engaged deeply in emotions, socially, in social practices. Then on top of that—we either find a way through the design itself for people to self-organize the content—but that’s a challenge that will take 5-10 years, to find out how the combination of generating cultural items and social practices for sharing… or develop a close relationship with an institution—museum, publisher—or a set of stakeholders who want to overlay their own narrative. When social practice of collection becomes very active—when this solidifies—then one solution is to have the present stakeholders collaboratively come in and help them guide them to create the narrative.

I don’t know if you have seen the yahoo time capsule—this is a project of everyday archeology—people could submit all kinds of electronic information (images, text, sounds, video) to be included in a digital time capsule. Basically, they took a snapshot to see what kind of content people provide—but I don’t find it successful because you really lose the sense of a narrative. It’s interesting, but the content is so diverse, and the overarching thought is not powerful enough to converge to a narrative.

It sounds like you are saying that you need to start with a strong narrative framework to drive collection of data… which can then be used to generate new narratives.

Definitely. You need a narrative to engage users in the process itself. It’s not that you have to tell them, “collect these things and these will be your cultural objects,” but you need a narrative to engage people. If it’s too loose, it just doesn’t work.

You talked about it taking many years for us to develop the “social practices” around user generation and sharing to really see this come to fruition. Can you explain what you mean by that—what are we lacking now and where do we have to go?

I really don’t have an answer to this. I want to see what happens next summer with these volunteers—this experience is supposed to change their properties of reflection and how they react to each other and what they’ve collected. We’re working on the semantics of what kinds of social processes may be involved.

What are the barriers to developing these social practices?

One major barrier is a difficulty in opening up the deep conversation of what the role of the museum is today. We are working with new technology in old frameworks. We are trying to find out how to use social tagging in big museums to engage more users. In a standard museum, I can’t change the way the content is aggregated. That, to me, is a major cultural barrier to investigating the ways that we can use technology to see how these changes can be enacted.

Technologically, we are very early in the use of social technology, so there are so many usability and design issues that it will probably take time to get a good grasp of and use to full potential.

You talk about the cultural challenge of working with museums. One thing that occurs to me as I’ve been exploring these ideas is the possibility that this can’t work with museums as they currently exist. On the web, user generation isn’t just an add-on—it fundamentally changed the platform. Can regular museums even do this?

I think that some museums will need a much longer period of time—for example, art museums—there are valuable artifacts and it’s much harder to play with these museum pieces and think how the museum could change. And that will probably happen when the kind of artistic production that uses new media will become predominant in the museums. At that point, there may be two kinds of museums—one kind holding cultural objects from the past that won’t change their identity as much. But I see as one of the most promising areas to explore and experimenting is tangible and intangible heritage in local museums that traffic in cultural objects. Because even when you have a museum focused on intangible heritage, material objects will always have a connection—the intangibles are embodied there.

If we go down the path of cultural objects that are created by and for current users, what happens to historical cultural objects? Where do they belong?

I hope they won’t become isolated pieces—that we will somehow find ways to put them into the interpretation. I think the Steve museum project is a very good example of this.

Social tagging in art museums?

Yes. Here they are experimenting with engaging museums and users in playing with social tagging and seeing what are the patterns of usage. I think we’ll learn some good things from that.

What is your dream museum of the future?

My dream museum is a museum without walls, where the objects are very much embedded in the social and cultural practices of the community. And more people have a stake in telling each other what is worth being told and shared and communicated. And we have a more collaborative way of defining our cultural process and identity.

Elisa, this all sounds very exciting. But then I have these nagging concerns… You know, when the National Museum of the American Indian opened on the Mall here last year, there was a lot of criticism because they reached out to tribes and gave them a large role in determining what would be in the exhibits. The result was that for many visitors, the larger narrative—of the experience and history of American Indians—was not present. I had that reaction too—and it made me wary of situations where people are generating their own cultural content and how that works (or doesn’t) for the visitor.

This is an example where they have two different audiences—you do not belong to the tribe, so you go to the museum with an external perspective and expectations, so you cannot share the same values through the content provided because that says something to them but not to you. So you want a birds-eye view, not a view from within.

Hm. I don’t think I want a third-person perspective. But in a way, you’re right—I don’t want something that’s all about the creator, whoever it is. It’s like if you went to a kid’s house and he had a museum that was all “me” stuff. I want the “you” stuff—the museum experience that reaches out to the visitor. The You Museum.

Yes, exactly. It also makes a clear analysis—if you have user-generated content, it’s still unclear how your audiences will connect and engage with it. Do you want a result that is meaningful only to the users or to someone else as well? If you look to the MUVI project, the stories—even though they are about a foreign place—they are so engaging and captivating. It’s so interesting to have that window into their experience. The point is the encounter—how do you create a space for someone else to encounter and have a meaningful experience with your content.

That’s a great way to put it. Because we all have had experiences where a story or object reached out to us—even though there was no obvious link. So the question is how to focus on that—creating successful encounters with visitors.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

You're the One that I Want

From the technology blogosphere:

Tim O'Reilly wrote an excellent commentary on the "economics of disaggregation"--basically, the idea that new technologies (digital cameras, iTunes store) are allowing users to unbundle content (like an image or song) from traditional packaging (roll of film, album) so that they get just the content they want. And, surprise! People prefer purchasing unbundled content to the more traditional alternative.

Seb Chan of fresh + new, the blog from the Powerhouse Museum in Australia, ran with this idea to comment on the impact of disaggregation on the way that visitors use museum collections available on the web. He discusses the fact that many online museum collections are set up in ways that impede this kind of personalization, because the content is embedded in Flash or other "locked" applications. There are positives and negatives to disaggregating collections content--you lose the opportunity to develop rich "expert narrative" experiences that weave everything together, but gain the opportunity for users to plug in wherever works best for them.

I'd like to approach this concept from a physical, in-museum perspective. All museums are models of aggregated content; heck, we're the boxed music sets of physical content. You wade through the galleries, hunting down your favorite objects/experiences/tracks. In museums like mine, the flow is narrative, and you have no choice but to follow our path through the objects. Imagine if you had a CD player that only allowed you to play an album from start to finish. Some music purists would applaud such efforts--but most of us would go out and buy a new player.

The question of whether or not to aggregate is closely linked to the most exciting--and most complex--element of exhibit design: the creation and dissemination of the meta-structure, the story, of the exhibit. There's a difference between organization and aggregation; libraries organize their content, museums aggregate. Some museums are breaking down this barrier by allowing visitors behind the scenes to explore their collection storage facilities--organized, but not aggregated.

At its best, the meta-structure gives the content in an exhibit a soul. It connects the dots. Think of the difference between Disneyland and other theme parks; Disney creates much more than a collection of rides by layering on the story. There are many exhibits--and museums--that would devolve into reductive, context-less spaces without the meta-structure.

I'm not advocating for total disaggregation, but the model of meta-structure development most museums pursue--aggregation by one individual/company--represents a particularly arrogant view about the ownership of meaning. I'd like to see more museums move towards more flexible aggregation. Let people make their own "mix CDs" of museum content. Take the bubble project to the next step and put two objects near each other with a blank space in-between for the two objects to "have a conversation." Create a physical version of like better and spit out a story about visitors based on which objects they prefer.

The real question is how to do this affordably and practically in a physical space. The inclination of objects at rest is to stay at rest, and few museums can do anything approximating the shuffling and mash-ups possible on the web. The inclination, if one chooses to go in this direction, is to move towards disaggregation, which is simple, as opposed to re-aggregation, which is complex.

Aggregation is often a very personal thing. When you make a mix CD for someone, you are stamping your meaning and connections onto that content. When you buy into someone else's powers of aggregation as a user, you are accepting that inconvenience with the expectation that you will receive some value from the particular slant of that person's meta-structure. It's important for exhibit developers to examine what parts of the meta-structure around objects/ideas are valuable, and what parts are wasteful, confusing, or self-serving. And now, perhaps, to also ask which parts are flexible enough for re-interpretation by others.

Monday, December 04, 2006

If These Exhibits Could Talk

Here's a fun alternative to the "comment book" or talkback wall... now the question is now to make the adhesive on the bubble stickers non-damaging.

And could you go one further, post multiple bubbles and encourage visitors to generate whole conversations between inanimate objects?

Yes, now you have to look.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Conferences and Presentations

Upcoming events:
November 14, 2008 - opening speaker at Kom je Ook? symposium in Amsterdam, NL, organized by Mediamatic

December 11-12, 2008 - Future of the Tropenmuseum symposium in Amsterdam, NL, organized by the Tropenmuseum

February 25-27, 2009 - IMLS WebWise conference in Washington DC

March 30, 2009 - keynote speaker at Museums in Conversation conference in Tarrytown, NY

April 14-18, 2009 - Museums and the Web conference in Indianapolis, IA

April 30-May 4, 2009 - American Association of Museums annual meeting in Philadelphia, PA

May 31-June 2, 2009 - Creativity and Collaboration NAME retreat in Monterey, CA

You can access the slides from many of these presentations here.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Professional Associations that Don't Suck

Originally uploaded by Blazenhoff.
I had dinner last week with some excellent folks from the board of NAME, the National Association for Museum Exhibition, a standing professional committee under AAM (American Association of Museums). They are trying to find better ways to provide value to their members, so that they can a. have a more active, engaged, useful role in people's work and b. attract and retain members. We discussed a variety of ideas from book clubs to Second Life meet-ups to exhibition critiques... but I left wondering more about the bigger picture of professional associations and their use and value.

There are three basic reasons to be part of a professional association: to learn, to network, and to get a job. There are also the “perks”—the magazine, free admission to museums—which enhance learning.

Feeling pumped and ready to join? I’m not. I’m a perfect example of the challenge these associations are facing. I joined AAM just to get a cheaper ticket to the conference. I can’t even join ASTC as an individual. And since I can access their resources, the list-servs, and the conferences without being a member, why bother?

What’s the value of being a member of a professional association? I think about things I'm a member of. A co-op: we live and cook and clean--but in exchange we get a manufactured family. A political party: I check a box, and get to be "part of something" bigger that acts on my behalf (theoretically). A temple: A community for ethical learning, emotional connections, singing, and eating challah. In all of these cases, I'm giving a lot more than $40, and getting a lot more than a tote bag. If membership in a professional organization is going to become highly relevant and valuable to people, the experiences available have to got to step up.

What kind of professional organization would I want to be a member of?

-One that has a clear vision and stands for values that are important to me. This is the "spiritual center" model of an organization. I want an organization that is totally dedicated to exploring the "best self" possible for museums, so in the time I slice off to focus on that organization, I feel that I am getting a deeper, more substantive learning experience than just swapping war stories.

-One that has diverse membership for me to learn from and engage with. I'm already talking to colleagues at work. It's hard to be motivated to initiate the same kind of conversations with strangers--give me someone with a different take on it.

-One that provides me with great services. Yes, the museum admission perk for AAM is substantive, but what about the kind of mentoring, education, and experiences that take me outside of my comfort zone? How about monthly meetups ala Dorkbot? Mentor partners? Blog/web hosting space?

-One that is so cool, visionary, and exciting that I want to be a member just so I can put the bumper sticker on my car and say to the world, I'm part of this gang. And this is the key, I think, to actually wanting to go the extra mile from being a user/participant to signing the dotted line for membership. I want to be a member of an organization that makes me feel the way I feel about my favorite bands and writers. I want my membership to make me proud, passionate, heck-even sexy-the way I feel when I have paint on my jeans or I'm reading Bitch on the subway. I want an organization with heart, that can help define who I am and want to be.

And then, bring on the tote bags.

Friday, December 01, 2006

What is Museum 2.0?

Hi. I'm Nina Simon. I started the Museum 2.0 blog in November of 2006 to explore the ways that the philosophies of Web 2.0 can be applied in museums to make them more engaging, community-based, vital elements of society.

What started as a humble research project turned into a community space. Since 2006, Museum 2.0 has been read by over 650,000 people, with about 30,000 accessing it every week from countries around the world. I hope you will join this community of thoughtful people sharing experiences around active audience participation--Museum 2.0.

What do I mean by 2.0? “Web 2.0” is not just a buzzword; it’s a definition of web-based applications with an “architecture of participation,” that is, one in which users generate, share, and curate the content. The web started with sites (1.0) that are authoritative content distributors--like traditional museums. The user experience with web 1.0 is passive; you are a viewer, a consumer. Web 2.0 removes the authority from the content provider and places it in the hands of the user. Now, you are a participant. You determine what’s on the site, and you judge which content is most valuable. For a longer explanation, press play below.

I believe that museums have the potential to undergo a similar (r)evolution as that on the web, to transform from static content authorities to dynamic platforms for content generation and sharing. I believe that visitors can become users, and museums central to social interactions. Web 2.0 opens up opportunity, but it also demonstrates where museums are lacking. The intention of this blog is to explore these opportunities and shortcomings with regard to museums and interactive design. I hope you will join the discussion, and help frame the future of museums--Museum 2.0.

There are lots of useful blog posts here, from explanations of technologies to reviews of exhibitions to design methodologies. To start exploring, click a post or label in the topic list on the right, or click here to see the "core" Museum 2.0 posts in reverse chronological order. You can also check out my 2010 book, The Participatory Museum, which is a comprehensive, practical guide to visitor participation in cultural institutions.

And what about me? As of May of 2011, I am serving as the Executive Director of The Museum of Art & History in Santa Cruz, CA. Previously, I ran a consulting firm, curated The Tech Virtual Test Zone at The Tech Museum, designed virtual experiences with the Electric Sheep Company, and worked as the Experience Development Specialist at the International Spy Museum. If you would like to discuss opportunities for collaboration, internships, or wild projects, contact me.

Museum 2.0 Professional Services

Ready to turn your institution into a site of participatory engagement? Want to bring the spirit of this blog to your colleagues and projects? Have an audacious idea but don't know where to start?

Museum 2.0 specializes in designing museum experiences and exhibitions that are community informed, socially stimulating, technologically ambitious, and intriguingly experimental. With expertise in gaming, the social web, and collaborative exhibit development, I can bring new perspectives to the way you do business across your institution.

I am available for consulting and strategic development, and creative design and leadership of exhibition, technology, and museum planning projects.

I also offer training workshops on the following topics:
    • From Me to We: Creating visitor social networks around museum content
    • Gaming the Museum: Using game mechanics and techniques to design engaging visitor experiences
    • The Participatory Museum: IT-free ways to turn visitors into users and involve staff at all levels as content generators and moderators
    • Web 2.0 for Museum Professionals: The tools, the language, and the opportunities that fit your institution's needs

Recent projects include:

Contact me today to start discussing your crazy idea!

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Good Sharing v. Bad Sharing

There have now been a couple comments on this blog to the effect of: "Visitors already create content in museums through their thoughts and social interactions." One person commented that the more interesting question is not how we build a platform for visitor content creation but how we facilitate sharing of that content.

Great point. Smart point. Instead of jumping to developing new content platforms to enable a particular kind of visitor creation, let's try to exploit (in the best possible way) the content created in response to the stuff we already have. And so, informed by my experiences as a kindegardener, I humbly submit a couple good (and bad) points on sharing.

Good sharing point 1: Encourage social interactions.

The most immediate place to start sharing is with the people with whom you came to the museum. So give them access to do or view together so they start talking about it. Then go one better and give them exhibits that give better experiences the more people use them so that they pull strangers into the act.

Give people tools to interact socially while in the museum. This can be low tech (talking) to high tech (mobile devices). Create portals and applications such that people can communicate and share when they are neither temporally nor spatially co-located.

Bad sharing point #1: Don't put up unnecessary walls between strangers.

The Tate Modern has a great web application where you can create your own collection of six pieces of art around a theme, with your own labels. Sadly, however, you can only choose to keep the collection or email it to friends. There's no option to add it to their web catalog of such collections, which is currently limited to 5 collections created by their curators. Maybe this is a copyright issue, but I don't think you can call a guest a "curator" just because you allow them to arrange 6 images for themselves. If you don't want to put it out on the web for anyone to see, create a membership base of users who are creators and or viewers. deviantART does an awesome job of this, allowing people to "skin" websites with art/graffiti which is then accessible to members.

Good sharing point #2: Share with others who don't have access.

Later this week, I'll be interviewing Jerry Paffendorf, co-inventor of Destroy TV. Destroy TV is, among other things, an application that allows people who have the web but can't access Second Life (a 3D virtual world application), to operate a live camera in Second Life and chat with avatars in the world. There are many cool things about DTV, but on a basic level it's a great way to share Second Life, and what's going on there, with other people--not just as passive viewers but as active participants. We're going to talk about ways to bring the same thinking to museums...

Bad sharing point #2: Don't expect a free-for-all to work out. Sharing requires special structure.

This post started with the idea that you could have strong sharing around already-produced content. While that's true, the best sharing requires some thought as to the structure of that sharing. Sometimes, something as simple as a map can serve as an organizational (and inspirational) structure for people to share personal stories. Or, you can get much more complex and create interfaces for give and take. How about exhibit challenges where one person posts content that a non-simultaneous partner has to complete/judge/operate on? Am I Hot or Not for exhibit content? Post Secret in museums? Sending mail to strangers in museums? I'm ready for a resurgence of the chain penpals...

Monday, November 20, 2006

Why I (heart) Installation Art

Image courtesy of Luke Tan

What you are looking at is a raining tree in front of the Asian Civilisations Museum, created by Dutch-born artist Iepe B. T. Rubingh in conjunction with the first annual Singapore Biennale. Sporadically, bursts of misty rain come down magically from the tree; in fact, Iepe has stated that he uncovered the tree's supernatural powers after talking to it for three weeks.

This tree/sprite/installation is a perfect example of what is, in my mind, the optimal tension between awesome content creation and visitor involvement. This is an installation that causes people to stop, drop, and nudge total strangers to encourage them to get in on the act. It is so extraordinary and unusual that the social barrier that prevents us from whooping aloud breaks down.

I'm a content snob. I want museums to give me, the visitor, the most beautiful, awesome experiences possible. And when those experiences are unusual enough, I feel compelled to share it with strangers because it's just THAT good. I become an evangelist for that experience--which is a golden egg for the marketing and development folks.

This is the way that I can justify my interest (in a 2.0 sense) in content that is not explicitly geared towards social involvment. There are places like the Museum of Jurassic Technology that seem antithetical to visitor involvement--spooky, hard to navigate--and yet the high and wonderful weird factor of the place invites reaction and discussion. These are artists and exhibit developers who are comfortable taking a risk to put something challenging and provocative out there--and when that thing is something as delightful as a raining tree or as bizarre as "failed" dice--people rise to the challenge and respond.

A lot of 2.0 ideas are about creating a vanilla, flexible platform so the users can make it their own. But this is another option--to create experiences that are so immersive and wowing that people can't help but respond. I think one of the challenges in museums is that we want it both ways--experiences that are inviting, but not too inviting; provocative, but not too provocative. The shared value of user platforms and challenging installations is respect for the visitor/user. The common museum compromise belies a lack of respect on our part that visitors can handle wild experiences... or create them on their own.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Collaborative Storytelling and Open Source Interviews

Here's what I love about the internet.

I was planning to write a post today about the use of story in museums. A lot of museums--and web, radio, etc--are pursuing projects in which visitors share their personal stories around a topic, whether that be broad and profound ( or light and specific (map mashup of Overheard in NY). But I'm interested in how we can go from individual stories--which are interesting--to The Story that drives an exhibit.

But back to my love of the internet. I found a paper online by Elisa Giaccardi entitled "Toward an Evolution of Virtual Museums: Collective Storytelling and Social Creativity." It was interesting. I thought my web journey ended there. I had good content, and a link to the outside world. I was ready to write the post.

Or, so I thought. Turns out I could go one better. The internet gave me content, but then, it also gave me connection. I emailed Elisa and asked if I could interview her for the blog. She wrote back a few hours later and said yes. Holy schmoly. What if I could do this in a museum--receive content and then connect with the people who created that content? Yes, some of you are doing this--please, share.

And in the meantime, check out Elisa's new project about collecting natural soundscapes to create a Story about stakeholders in the controversy over public quiet and noise. Looks like she is pursuing one form of the kind of question I set out to explore with regard to storytelling.

But this is about collaboration! And 2.0! So. The interview won't happen for about 2 weeks. In the meantime, please, post your questions that you'd like me to include in our conversation. My greatest interest is in discussing how public content can be more than just raw data--it can frame the focus and the direction of the story/exhibit/experience itself. Granted, I'm also a big content snob and wonder if it's possible that such a thing could be done well. Writing stories by consensus hasn't produced many masterpieces, and writing stories by mass public generation seems dubious. Of course, there are other stories that involve the public and literally get under their skin.

Don't let me rule the interview. Comment and question away!

Thursday, November 09, 2006

What if it's Ugly?

A few weeks ago, a friend shared this video with me about people who intentionally create ugly MySpace pages. Warning: you may find it annoying. And that's part of the point.

The core of Ze Frank's argument is this:
“Ugly when compared to pre-existing notions of taste is a bummer. But ugly as a representation of mass experimentation and learning is pretty damn cool.”

I have a schizophrenic reaction to this argument. One side of me, the pro-2.0 let's all get involved side, cheers. The other side, the poet who's been to WAY too many bad open mics, shudders. Philosophically, I want everyone to feel empowered to raise their creative flag--but I only want to be in the audience for the good stuff.

Would you go to a museum of bad visitor-generated content? Would it be worth it if the process of developing that content brought those visitors to new levels of thinking and engagement? Museums are designed spaces, and I'd venture to answer no--that I wouldn't enjoy or return to a museum that featured random visitor-created crap--even if I appreciated the fact that it was enabling visitors to have a quality learning experience.

Museums will be most successful not if they throw open their doors without oversight, as MySpace has, but if they can evolve into structured venues for participation. I have more experience with this in the poetry world than the museum world. Some poetry venues foster communities of quality poets; others are hotbeds of mediocrity. What's the difference? The same newbies are showing up the first time, clutching a poem scribbled under the covers in hand. The difference is the quality of the venue, the community, and the host.

Imagine a museum as a "venue" rather than a content provider. Museum staff become the "hosts"--the people who BOTH set the rules and inspire participation. A good host leads by example and creates an environment where the community rewards growth and ignores/chastises derivative, derogatory work. A good venue is conducive to participation while setting a high standard.

Is this different from what museums are today? Absolutely. I'm curious to see what programs like Agents of Change at Ontario Science Centre are doing in this regard. But I think most museums are too afraid of the "ugly" that comes with total visitor participation to consider the possible beauty that could be generated in a well-thought-out venue.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

What's My Score? Gaming in Museums

"Putting Fun into Functional"is a really fabulous powerpoint presentation by Amy Jo Kim of shufflebrain, a unique game design company. In this presentation, she details five core "game mechanics" that make games compelling, fun, and addictive, and talks about how they are being applied in successful web applications like MySpace and Netflix.

The five mechanics are: collecting (accumulating monopoly bucks or dragon-slaying swords), points/score, feedback from the system/game, social exchanges (trading stuff, giving and receiving gifts or comments), and customization/personalization. Each one of these amplifies the extent to which the player/user feels connected to the game or experience offered.

There have got to be some great ways to apply these mechanics to museums. Here are some ideas... and a lot of questions.

Collecting: Some museums are using barcodes or RFID to track what exhibits the visitor uses. The visitor can leave with a printout of the activities they did, or come home to a website full of links/images that were "saved" at the museum. Is this a gimmick or does it give visitors a sense of accomplishment? In a game, collecting tools/money "matters" because it allows you to get to the next level or face a tougher challenge. How can you "level up" in a museum? What will collecting more experiences/artifacts "get" you?

Points: In a game, points get you closer to your goal, or, in some games (Pacman, pinball), they make you feel good and give you a secondary goal besides staying alive. Is there any value to getting a score for your museum experience? This may sound gross. But I've enjoyed plenty of museum interactives that take a long time to "reward" me with some kind of aha. Many guests probably walk away before they get there. What if we had a way to communicate how close you are to your goal, a compelling and accessible reason-like points-to stick around?

Feedback: At a basic level, this is what a good interactive provides. Am I doing it right? Am I good? The more flexibly the experience can adapt to its user, the better.

Social Exchanges: This is fascinating and somewhat unexplored in museums. What if instead of emailing something I enjoyed back to myself, I generated an ecard to send to someone else? Perhaps I'd be more compelled because I now have an audience I'm creating FOR, and I'm also bringing a non-visitor into the experience, which is great. Could there be ways in museums to foster social interactions between strangers by incentivizing them in some way?

Customization: Very tricky. The museum is a fixed space--how do you create a highly personalized experience within it?

I'd love to see a museum approach a "standard" content topic and apply game rules rather than exhibit rules to its design. Anyone up for it?

Monday, November 06, 2006

Video Kiosks: Let the Visitors Curate

I'm in a museum. It's the end of the experience. I'm flipping through videos that visitors have made about "freedom." And they're really, really bad. The videos fall into two genres: 1. Person stares at camera, then mumbles an inane, marginally decipherable sentence. Static. Or, 2. Group of people, overflowing with enthusiasm, "express themselves" via shout-outs and walk-ons.

No wonder I end up watching the celebrity clips. The visitor-generated videos are a minefield of disappointment.

How can museums encourage visitors to generate higher quality content? How can they create experiences that are better for me, the visitor who views that content? Ironically, the answer lies in giving visitors more agency, not less. What do I want? Ratings.

When I watch a video that consists entirely of someone looking off into space and then walking offscreen, I want to be able to rate that video terribly, so that no one else will waste their time viewing it. I want the system to automatically receive and integrate each rating, and prioritize highly rated videos in the menus so I see those first.

Some curators say this is going too far. I could give bad ratings to videos that express opinions different from mine. I could give high ratings to my friends. But the bar is so low with these kiosks--there are so many lousy videos--that even a simple "On Topic?" rating would substantially increase the number of interesting videos at the top of the heap without necessarily imposing a value judgment on their content.

And would such value judgments really arise? Would it matter? If curators are not selecting the best of the visitor crop for display--indeed, if no one is curating and weeding the content--why not allow visitors to determine what's "best?" Some may argue that this could lead to tyrannical censorship. But I bet that adding a rating system will increase the number of videos viewed by average visitors (and arguably their levels of engagement), because they will not throw up their arms in disgust after watching a couple, as I often do. And isn't that a better outcome--to have more visitors engaging with each others' content--even if there's some risk implied?

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Good Lord, another blog.

I just returned from the annual ASTC (Association of Science and Technology Centers) conference, where there were LOTS of good conversations and controversy. But the aspect that most excited me were the discussions about active participation in museums. The transition from "visitor" to "user." From curator-generated to user-generated. From closed content to open-source forums.

Yes, these are buzzwords. But the concepts behind them are powerful and useful in the discussion about the future of museums. In some ways, the best thing about the Web is its ability as a platform to rapidly evolve. The Web showed that one way to keep a content delivery platform current is to involve its users as meaningful participants rather than passive recipients of that content. No museum is as flexible or participatory as the Web has become. Should they be? What are the possibilities and challenges in creating "an architecture of participation?"

This blog will explore the ways that museums do and can evolve from 1.0 (static content delivery machines) to 2.0 (dynamic content aggregation and network machines).

If you want to know more about where this 2.0 craze got its start, here's a great (but lengthy) article by Tim O'Reilly entitled "What is Web 2.0?" Or, check out the wikipedia article, which is more readable.