Friday, March 30, 2007

Game Friday: Tagging For Fun

Let’s play a game. It’s called Tag this Image! Here’s how it works.

You look at this picture.

Now, write down the words that you associate with the picture.

Are you having fun yet?

“Tagging,” or assigning descriptors to pictures, websites, and other content on the internet, is a huge trend in 2.0. With good reason. Whether on Flickr with photos, on with web pages, or on blogs with posts, tagging makes organization of items and search of them easier. Instead of searching based only on the taxonomy assigned by the authority who runs the site (i.e. the name of this site is X or the name of this artifact is Y), you can search based on the terms that users identify with the item.

It’s all about who has the authority to identify things. For example, I identify myself as Nina Simon, the government identifies me by my social security number, some guy on the street identifies me as a woman with curly hair… all of these are valid descriptors or tags for me, and the aggregation of these tags provides a fuller picture of who I am to the outside world.

Tagging is useful. But is it fun? On its own, not so much. Most of the incentives on sites for tagging are related to increased functionality (better organization of my sites on or increased visibility (more searchable content). For internal web managers, tagging also improves accessibility for people who are blind by adding text descriptors to images so that site visitors understand the content of those images.

The ESP Game, and its related game, Phetch, are two games that create a framework to make tagging fun. These games were developed by Carnegie Mellon with funding from the NSF, with the goal of harnessing collective intelligence (and interest in playing games) to tag all of the images on the internet. Why would they want to do that? To increase the functionality, visibility, and accessibility of these images to web users worldwide.

The games take the game I posed in the beginning (Tag this image!) and make it fun by adding another player. Separately at your own computers, you tag images. Every time you and your partner player come up with the same tag for an image, you both get points. It ain’t Risk, but the addition of the social question (do we think alike?) and the game metric of scoring makes for a fairly compelling game. And it’s exciting to be part of an experiment that has a meaningful outcome.

There are many museums that are starting to experiment with allowing visitors to tag their online content, whether to engage them in 2.0 activities or to increase functionality, visibility, and accessibility of content (or both). But tagging is new enough, especially to museum audiences, that just giving web visitors that functionality is not necessarily enough to motivate them to start tagging. I’d love to see museums explore using games like the ESP Game to encourage people to engage with the museum’s content—and each other—and help the museum out, too. The games on the website at my museum are old. We don’t pay attention to them, and yet, they account for a high percentage of our web traffic. Wouldn’t it be nice to offer something useful on the game areas of museum websites?

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

My Unrequited (and Unsubstantiated) Love for Museums and the Web

I won’t be at the Museums and the Web conference next month; my exhibit at the Spy Museum is opening soon and we're in crunch time. But I’m developing a serious crush. MW does something that AAM, ASTC, and a whole slew of other acronym-rich conferences don’t: it gives non-participants substantive content from the meeting.

I’m still wading through the papers, all available for free, being presented in sessions at the conference. I’ve never been to MW, and have heard mixed things about its value anecdotally. But this simple act—requiring session presenters to write papers and then posting those papers freely online—is getting me interested.


It’s better for the attendees…

  • Presenters are forced to think about their presentations in advance and develop substantive content to discuss. No strolling in blind and winging it.
  • Attendees can more fully preview the content that will be presented to help them make better choices about what sessions to attend. No more showing up at “Interactive Theater” expecting improv and getting a sales pitch on IMAX domes instead.
  • Attendees can find people of interest and set up meetings in advance based on content in common, not just on social contacts.

It’s better for the presenters…

  • Presenters can develop more complex arguments that don’t play well as powerpoint bullets. They can expect more from their audience in terms of insightful questions and familiarity with the content.
  • Presenters can get a fuller idea of what other presenters in the same session/content stream are discussing and can tailor their questions and connections to that knowledge.
  • Presenters can send in their papers 10 weeks before the conference. That means things can stay relatively current to the conference, while still depending on solid research.

It’s better for folks at home…

  • I can download papers ranging back to 1997. I can view information about their authors (although, strangely, contact information is not forthcoming).

It’s better for the conference…

  • Buzz is generated around the papers before the conference even happens. People are blogging the papers; it extends the “event” of the conference in time.
  • The papers serve as advertisement for the conference. People like me get a chance to “see what we’re missing” by not attending.
  • People like me feel positively about an organization that makes content available digitally.

But every crush has its downside. Here are my idle concerns:

  • Why are the papers and sessions only browsable by speaker name, not by title, country of origin, year of submittal, or whether there is a corresponding paper?
  • Does the paper-paper-paper session format diminish the potential for interactivity among panelists? Do speakers expand beyond their papers, or mostly explain them? How much more value would I get at the actual conference, content-wise?

I look forward to hearing how the actual conference goes. Until then, I’ll keep sifting through papers all starry-eyed.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Just Looking? Lurkers, Judges, and Contributors

Today, personal ads from three kinds of museum users....
This weekend, I was working on this article about encouraging civic discourse in museums through 2.0 and looked up dizzily to realize I’ve been having too much of a collective action lovefest. As a designer, I believe that museums should strive to offer diverse networked, social experiences. But as a museum-goer, what about the times I don’t WANT to have a networked, social experience? What if I just want to look at the art and be left alone? One of the key aspects of web 2.0 experiences (which I was overlooking) is their flexibility in offering multiple ways to engage with the experience and the content.

Most 2.0 sites allow for many shades of “lurking” and “participating.” Consider YouTube. The large majority of YouTube users are lurkers—they watch videos, but do not submit them. The next group of people are users who rate, tag, and comment on videos, but do not submit videos. These people might be thought of as “judges,” or, at best, curators. They are adding metadata to videos about their value and content, which may be for their own use (for future navigation) or for collective use (to add to the larger conversation about what’s good and what isn’t). The smallest set are the “contributors” who actually upload videos they have made.

Many 2.0 sites that revolve around content, like YouTube, Wikipedia, and Flickr, behave this way. There are other sites, like Delicious and MySpace, that center around a more core personal experience (your tags, your site), and so require a minimum level of individual “contributing” to start getting value from the site.

How does this relate to the experience design in museums? Most museums offer lots of lurking, some contributing, and almost no judging/curating—and most experiences are in one of those buckets without dipping into the others as well. I can make a video, but I can’t rate them. I can touch the Van de Graff generator and have funny hair, and I can watch other people touch it, but I can’t vote on videos of the FUNNIEST Van de Graff hair experiences. I can leave a comment, and read today’s comments, but I can’t flip through the archive of comments going back X years.

There are many awesome museum interactives that are for single users that have an unintended lurker benefit (funny hair from the Van de Graff being just one example). On sites like Flickr, the role of the contributor as performer for an audience is explicit—and a source of motivation to continue contributing. Not every museum visitor wants to be a performer, but when the interactive elicits a funny or exciting or fabulous result that will be watched and enjoyed by surrounding visitors anyway, that “performance” could be captured and enjoyed in other ways, in the museum, on the museum website (live Van de Graff cam?), or on other sites like YouTube for a wider audience of lurkers and curators to enjoy. With clear signage to that effect, of course.

So that’s some perspective on experiences that already exist in museums. What about new experiences, intended to be 2.0ish, that are starting to be designed now? Here are some considerations to satisfy these different kinds of visitors:


  • If the interaction has a performance component, make that clear and reward the active participant with a small slice of fame.
  • If the interaction involves an opinion or a person-specific reaction, show the contributor how their input relates to the larger network of previous contributors.
  • Allow the contributor to develop a personal profile/site/collection of data based on their interactions throughout the museum. Network these profiles at the contributor’s discretion (note: doesn’t have to be totally public… think about how cool it could be if these sites were only networked within a small community, like your class or your family).


  • Wherever comfortable, give people a way to judge and classify content. This can be physical in the museum, or virtual on the web. They can take the form of ratings, tags, or comments.
  • When someone judges something, connect them to other users who have made similar (or dissimilar) judgments/comments.
  • Make the judgments count. Use them to prioritize content for lurkers and other judges. At best, let the judgments drive content presentation--let the users curate.


  • Make the content easy to access from multiple entry points (in-person, on video, web, books).
  • Make the content easy to navigate, and incorporate “frictionless serendipity” (thanks, Seb!) by using automatic tracking to make educated guesses about what the lurker is searching for.
  • Update the content frequently and provide multiple forms of announcement about those changes.

The point here is to develop museum experiences that are available to all of these kinds of users at the same time. We’re all each of these kinds of users at different times of the day or points in our museum experience. I’d love to climb the rock wall but I’d prefer to just watch you throw the baseball. You’d love to give that painting a piece of your mind but will peacefully listen to that installation. So let’s give users an opportunity to do, an opportunity to comment, and an opportunity to watch.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Game Friday: Massively Multiplayer Online Insanity

This week, I drank a little 2.0 koolaid and joined the new Passively Multiplayer Online Game (PMOG) put out by Justin Hall and other nuts like him who want to be tracked for all the time they spend on the web—and rewarded for their actions. You can view a video of Justin talking about his theory here, or you can take the plunge and sign up. It requires Firefox, and yes, it does track every website you go to and then gives you gamer-spoof designations based on that tracking.

Justin links to other similar passive games that reward you with points for your Outlook email traffic or track your overall application usage. Like the fuel meter I talked about last week, this is gaming by passive monitoring. The idea is that the more you “level up” in strange ways (i.e. by looking at lots of websites), the more you will want to optimize your use to achieve certain goals.

There are a couple ways to look at this. On one hand, it’s a silly and somewhat pleasurable way to report on things you are already doing. Imagine a refrigerator that gave you “cheese points” for every lasagna you make. Who cares? Well, on the other hand, perhaps doing this kind of tracking will increase your awareness of certain kinds of behaviors and encourage you to change that behavior (tofu points, anyone?). And in a game context, you can set your own goals and get cheered on by the system for your achievements.

Passive games like this also reflect the continuing breakdown of privacy on the web. I have signed up for an automated personal stalker, for my own entertainment. Worse, the data accumulated about me is (in an aggregated form) available to other players. I’m encouraged to start up relationships with folks based on the fact that we both look at a lot of DIY websites.

Explore for yourself, but before you do, enjoy this very, very funny video on the future of MMOs (Massively Multiplayer Online games).

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Social Architecture Part 2: Hierarchy, Taxonomy, Ideology (and Comics)

Jeremy Price offered a comment on my last blog post with a link to an excellent article by Lee Shulman on the uses and abuses of taxonomies in educational theory. Dr. Shulman argues that taxonomies, which are often created to distinguish individual elements of a set, are often transformed into hardened ideologies with an implied value on the “higher” or “better” elements in the taxonomy.

As she puts it:

Taxonomies exist to classify and to clarify, but they also serve to guide and to goad. A taxonomy’s rapid progression from analytic description to normative system—literally becoming a pedagogical conscience—warrants caution.
When I created the hierarchy of social participation shown in this diagram, I debated what shape it should take. Was it a spectrum from individual to collective experience? Could it be cyclic? The pyramid I created implies hierarchy, and it also implies that these levels need to be moved through in a sequential manner to get to the “top”—presumably the goal. Was this the right decision?

In Shulman’s article, she points out the folly of a rigid sequential theory when it comes to learning (and my case, I’ll expand that to social engagement). For example, in Bloom’s taxonomy of Educational Objectives, knowledge and comprehension of content comes before application. Narratively, this makes sense. Once you learn about something, you are ready to act on and do it. But how often, and easily, do we go in the other direction? Do you understand physics before you start skateboarding? Dr. Shulman offers the great example of doctors, relating a comment from a surgeon that, “’Internists make a diagnosis in order to act. Surgeons act in order to make a diagnosis.’” As Shulman puts out, “the directionality of the taxonomy is situational.”

Back to my diagram. I created a directional pyramid to make a point about social content in museum; namely, that museums are not offering networked, social experiences—and therefore will have a hard time jumping to initiating meaningful social discourse. I talked about leveling up, and indeed I do believe that museums should consider engaging more in levels 3 and 4—whether their goal is making it to level 5 or not.

But perhaps a hierarchy is not appropriate. After all, you don’t have to have great content to get to a networked, social experience (Twitter certainly proves that fact). And I’m not advocating that the dream museum would be all level 5 experiences, all the time. So here’s a reenvisioning of this hierarchy as a taxonomy.

Looking at the pyramid, each level is typified by an element: the content, the interaction, the network, the social benefit, and the collective action. So let’s create a taxonomy of Social Participation that's a simple list:

  1. CONTENT (What is being discussed/shared/shown/explored?)
  2. INTERACTION (How does the user engage? What do they do?)
  3. NETWORK (How do users link to one another?)
  4. SOCIAL BENEFIT (How much value does one user get from the participation of other users?)
  5. COLLECTIVE ACTION (How much do people work together?)

Now. Rather than thinking of these elements as levels or experiences to move through, let’s consider them to be the building blocks of an experience. Here I’m using as a template one of the most impressive (and esoteric) taxonomies I’ve ever seen: Scott McCloud’s taxonomy of panel-to-panel transitions in comics.

Scott McCloud is the author of hands-down my favorite design book: Understanding Comics. In Chapter 3, McCloud identifies six different methods by which comic artists transition from one panel to another (for example, scene-to-scene or action-to-action). Then, he charts the incidence of each of these six for many different major comic empires (i.e. X-Men) and artists. His charts look like this:
McCloud uses these charts to demonstrate that most American and European comic artists employ only three of the six transitions (as shown in the example on the left). Some radical artists used a dramatically higher portion of the other three, but most of these, McCloud argues, are examples of comics well out of the mainstream. And yet Japanese comics—arguably the most popular in the world—consistently draw from at least five of the six transitions (example on the right).

So. Back to the new Taxonomy of Social Participation. If we number the five elements as follows:

  1. Content
  2. Interaction
  3. Network
  4. Social Benefit
  5. Collective Action

then I’d argue that most museums provide something very different from Web 2.0:

Of course, there are distinctions to be made among different kinds of venues. On the 2.0 side, consider these different major venues:

A little explanation:

Wikipedia is mostly about content. The value of that content is strongly impacted by the number of active users (social benefit), and there is some collective action around the development of wikipedia articles.

Twitter is mostly about connecting to others. The content sucks, and the interaction is simple, but the feeling of empathy with others is high (if debatable).

MySpace is mostly about personal identity within networks. The interactivity in page personalization is high, but primacy is put on engaging with others from your personal profile. You are a “me” in a space of many—a perfect 3 experience.

Flickr is similar to Wikipedia in that the focus is content, but there’s a lot more emphasis on networks (groups, establishing a personal profile with your pics).

Now there’s a new judgement to be made. Is it bad to be unbalanced? Why does it matter that museums are not engaging much in 3, 4, and 5?

Web 2.0 is the reason it matters. Web 2.0 has introduced people to a new way of interacting with web content. The web used to also be heavy on 1 and 2; you go to web pages, you look at stuff, you click on stuff. But now, web usage is different. Where do I get my content? On blogs and aggregators that draw heavily from 3 and 4. How do I search? Google relies on 3 to provide me the results that are most likely to be useful to me. How do I buy stuff? I use Amazon, which provides me 3 and 4 benefits of seeing what other people bought, which then helps me make my purchasing decision.

When we lived in a 1 and 2 world, it was acceptable for museums to rely on 1 and 2. But now, people walk into museums and are aware of the dearth of 3 and 4 elements. They have come to take the experiences that emerge from those elements for granted. Level 2 used to be the hot thing, but now, pushing buttons is old hat. People want to connect, they want network benefits, and they want them in content experiences in museums.

Imbalance also matters because museums are venues that (hopefully) offer diverse experiences that attract and sustain diverse audiences (though I would argue that this is best achieved by offering a variety of powerful singular experiences.) Designers strive to make sure there is “something for everyone” when it comes to learning styles and developmental stages. Why not also for social engagement?

And there’s a third reason that imbalance matters. I created this pyramid for an article on civic discourse in museums, which depends heavily on 5. Level 5 is a question mark in my mind. How do we get there? How do we sustain it? Moving through 3 and 4 to get there may not be the answer. When the content is provocative, as in Bodyworlds or gay animals (thanks, Nik), a museum may be able to jump directly from 1 to 5. But for bread-and-butter content, 5 is a mystery. And while no one has cracked the code, there are many web-based 3 and 4 applications (like LibraryThing) that are successfully creating some 5 experiences via 3 and 4, especially 4. Level 4 experiences make you aware of, comfortable with, and appreciative of the extent to which a social experience is better than an individual one. That understanding may then lead to the application of collective action—level 5. As Shulman said, the directionality is situational. How else can we connect to 5-based experiences?

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Hierarchy of Social Participation

As part of the article I’m working on for the journal Museums and Social Issues on using web 2.0 to promote civic discourse in museums, I’m developing an argument about the “hierarchy of social participation.” I believe that, as with basic human needs, experience design in museums (and for other content platforms) can occur on many levels, and that it is hard to achieve the highest level without satisfying, or at least understanding, those that come before it. One of the impediments to discourse in museums is that fact that designers want to jump straight from individuals interacting with content to interacting with each other. It’s a tall order to get strangers to talk to each other, let alone have a meaningful discussion. And so, I offer the following hierarchy of social participation.

As always, comments are encouraged—and in this case, strongly desired as I work on refining this content for the article.

Level 1: Individual Receives Content (Museum to Me)

In this model, the content provider or museum delivers content for the user to passively receive. You look at an artifact. Watch a video. Listen to a news clip. Read a label. The level of user engagement is self-determined by your interest in the content and your motivation to reflect on it, either singly or with your companions. A successful level 1 experience features content that is meaningful and interesting to viewers. If your visitors are hooked on your content, proceed to…

Level 2: Individual Interaction with Content (Museum with Me)

Most interactive content in museums falls into this category. The exhibit provides a opportunity for the user to play with the content. You press the button. You drop the balloon. The content may be responsive to you, but the interactive experience is non-networked; that is, your interactions with the content are not affected by, nor do they affect, other people’s interactions with the content. Again, the level of social engagement is self-determined. A successful level 2 experience builds on killer content (level 1), not interaction for its own sake. The interaction provided enhances the visitor’s engagement with the content. Got that covered? Then, move to…

Level 3: Individual, Networked, Interaction with Content (Me & Me & Me & Museum)

These are experiences in which your individual interaction with the content is networked so that each individual’s interaction is available, in a limited capacity, to the entire group of users. Voting, whether for American Idol, national elections, or museum kiosk surveys, falls in this category. Your action is not influenced nor influences others, but you are aware of how others have acted in the same context. This is where many museum programs lie that allow user-generated content. You can register your own opinion about X at the video kiosk, and others can view your video. A successful level 3 experience makes you feel connected to others who have used the same content; visitors start to wonder why others voted/expressed themselves as they did. And thus you are ready for…

Level 4: Individual, Networked, Social Interaction with Content (Me to We with Museum)

This is the level where web 2.0 sits. Individuals still do their interacting with the content singly, but their interactions are available for comment and connection by other users. And the architecture promotes these connections automatically. For example, on Netflix, when you rate a movie highly, you don’t just see how others have rated it; Netflix recommends other movies to you based on what like-minded viewers also rated highly. By networking the ratings, tags, or comments individuals place on content, individuals are linked to each other and form relationships around the content. A successful level 4 experience uses social interaction to enhance the individual experience; it gets better the more people use it. The social component is a natural extension of the individual actions. Which means, perhaps, users are ready for…

Level 5: Collective Social Interaction with Content (We in Museum)

This is the holy grail of social discourse, where people interact directly with each other around content. Personal discussions, healthy web bulletin boards and list-servs fall in this category. Healthy level 5 experiences promote respect among users, encourage community development, and support interaction beyond the scope of the content.

So how do we level up?

The good news is that moving up the levels does not require new content. At all levels, the interaction and participation can occur around pre-existing content. A lot of museums top out at level 2 or 3, imagining that offering people heightened opportunities to interact with content, or to create their own content, is enough. Granted, I’m not sure if social engagement is the goal for interactive designers. But with side benefits like deeper connection with the content, greater appreciation for the museum as a social venue, and heightened awareness of other visitors, it deserves a place at the drafting table.

UPDATE: I wrote a follow-up to this post based on some comments. It's here.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

The Tate Tastes 2.0: The Turner Prize Exhibition

This week's New Yorker magazine features an article about the Turner Prize, "the world's best-known contemporary-art competition." The Turner Prize was launched in 1984 by the Tate Britain to reward young British artists, and has had controversial effects on both public perception of contemporary art--and the artists themselves.

The article is enjoyable and mostly focuses on the stress that the Prize competition puts on artists, but there were a couple of stand-out elements that flirted with 2.0.

First, the competition's structure. British artists under 50 can be nominated by, well, anyone (even you). A jury of experts shortlists four stand-out artists who are then in contention for the grand prize. Once they are shortlisted, each of the four is given exhibition space at the Tate. For eight weeks, their work is on view, and then the jury reconvenes to select the winner.

The exhibition of the art pre-decision exposes people to the art and creates buzz around the prize, and, more importantly, it brings museum visitors into the decision process. Nick Serota, the Tate's director, commented that "'the public display of four artists' work spurs people to reflect about art.'" The short-listed artists are frequently working in different disciplines with very different motivations. Seeing the exhibitions must inspire people to wonder how anyone--even art experts--could decide among them. How can you compare a painter to a sculpter to an installation artist? And when you feel skeptical of the benefits of expertise, you assume the shroud of the expert yourself. I can imagine people walking the halls of the Tate, passionately arguing for or against a given artist based on their own expertise--real or imagined. The judging of the competition doesn't have to be open to the public to get people involved; the mere fact that SOMEONE is judging it encourages everyone to do so.

Secondly, the Tate appears to take a populist attitude towards the Turner Prize. There's a video booth at the Prize exhibition in which people can register their thoughts, and the best of those commentors are invited to take place in a reality TV show, "The Turner Prize Challenge," in which contestants vie to explain the artists' work to the public. This is a video kiosk I can get behind--one with a (debatably) valuable goal. I imagine that the comments recorded in that booth were decidedly more thoughtful--or at least animated--than standard videos are because of the potential reward of Channel 4 airtime.

With the Turner Prize, it seems, everyone's a competitor. Artists agonize over whether the prize will help them or overexpose them to media. Visitors try to decide what's art, what's crap, and compete with each other for the chance to expound on the different on national TV. Bookies take bets on the final outcome of the competition. The final award ceremony is hosted by a major celebrity (Madonna, Yoko Ono, and Brian Eno among them).

There are two ways to look at the cult of celebrity around the Turner Prize. One can be hopeful and say that the Tate is reaching out to the public, packaging the complexities and absurdities of contemporary art in familiar, popular guises. Or, one could be cynical and say that the Tate is pandering to the celebrity-mad public, violating the sanctity of art for the American Idol generation. (Regardless of who is right, there's no question that the Turner Prize website, which explores many of these issues, is fabulous.)

I know that I would be more likely to engage with art and ask myself and my friends tough questions about what makes art good if I went to see an exhibition where I knew that the artists exhibiting were in competition with one another to be crowned as "best." As Serota said, "there's nothing sacrosanct about the status of any prize." And as another controversial modern figure once said, "If you aren't criticized, you may not be doing much."

Friday, March 16, 2007

Game Friday: Games that Make You a Better Person (Really!)

There's a lot of interesting gaming stuff going on since GDC and SXSW have just finished up, but this week, I want to focus on some gaming in the real world, with an environmental twist.

I read an article this week from Mother Jones about Wayne Gerdes, one of America's premier hypermilers, or folks who try to get really, really high mileage from their cars. In Wayne's case, it's a standard Honda Accord, in which he averages 69 miles per hour. He hasn't changed anything under the hood to accomplish this; he just drives in an extremely efficient manner.

Why does Wayne feel compelled to take 25 mph turns at 52 mph instead of hitting the brakes? He claims his initial interest was political (dependence on foreign oil), but soon enough, hypermiling became an addictive game. It all started when he drove his wife's SUV, which came with a fuel consumption display (fcd) that shows miles per gallon in real time. As the article says:
The fcd changed the driving game for Wayne. "It's a running joke," he says, "but instead of a fuel consumption display, a lot of us call them 'game gauges'"—a reference to the running score posted on video games—"because we're trying to beat our last score—our miles per gallon."
If you've ever driven a car with an fcd, you know what Wayne's talking about. Suddenly, fuel efficiency isn't just a calculation that happens at the gas station. It's the ultimate game: responsive, real-time, and the "points" you score have a real monetary--and environmental--value.

Wayne goes on:
"If the EPA would mandate fcds in every car, this country would save 20 percent on fuel overnight," he says. "They're not expensive for the manufacturers to put in—10 to 20 bucks—and it would save more fuel than all the laws passed in the last 25 years. All from a simple display."
This game matters. There are people posting photos of their fcd displays on the internet to brag about these high fuel efficiency scores. And the fcd phenomena is one that could easily apply to other situations. My gas bill was $600 in January. My six roommates and I put up plastic, wore sweaters, and stoked the fireplace, but we won't know until next week whether our efforts paid off on the Feb. bill. What if our "smart" thermometer, which lets us set different temperatures for morning, noon, and night, also recorded and reported how our gas use fluctuated throughout the day? Or what if our electrical devices told us how much power they consume? I'm pretty careful about unplugging my phone charger when it's not being used, but it would be a heck of a lot easier--and more exciting--if I could see my energy use report at the light switch. At my house, I'm sure it would lead to crazy competitions to see who could get the lowest usage--or, how we could spike the highest or drop the lowest. (At the place I'm moving to in CA, which is all solar power feeding DC batteries, you CAN watch the electricity usage... and play educational games as you switch on and off the lights.)

This doesn't have to be environmental in nature. In broad strokes, the fcd is just an gaming extension of life logging--passive data collection about all kinds of aspects of life. I have a friend with a GPS-enabled running watch that tracks his path, and then shows a little animation of an avatar representing him on his last run to "race" the same trail. You can sign up to track your web travels on Firefox in real time and get rated on different kinds of usage. And then there's Mindball, the competitive "how relaxed are you?" alpha brain waves game I always see at ASTC.

How could museums be part of this? Two ways immediately come to mind:
1. Be a leader and testing ground for people to explore these kinds of logging devices. There are lots of science museums with exhibits that provide simulations of exactly these phenomena. Turn on the light switch, the motor, and the buzzer and see how the voltmeter reacts. And there are also many museums touting their green architecture etc. Why not implement some of these real-time gaming mechanisms not as simulations, but as opportunities for guests to be aware of and log themselves through the museum? Give people pedometers so they can try to get the most steps through the place (or the fewest). Or, report on the exhibits themselves. This exhibit is using X mA of power right now... and now that you hit that button, it's a little higher. Or, sponsor some of these crazy game events--races to see who can maintain the highest mpg over a set path. Give people voice recorders and hold a contest to see who gives the most compliments over a weekend. Who drinks the most water. People are most excited about data collection when the data is about them. And if the games can raise awareness (and change behavior!) about their actions and interactions, even better.

2. Start developing these kinds of devices for sale. I could imagine museums being a hotbed for development of logging devices that make a game out of real life. That's what museum designers are doing all the time--trying to make games out of educational concepts and learning experiences. The fcd is such a simple and compelling game. What other games can we make out of our life experiences? Can museums lead the way in making these analogies--and the positive change (and dollars)--that comes with their execution?

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Better By the Dozen? Exhibits that Require Multiple People

Here's a design question: is an exhibit better or worse if it requires multiple people to "work" properly?

Two quick examples:
1. At the Mary Baker Eddy Library in Boston, there is an inverted fountain in the Hall of Ideas on which projections of letters form inspirational quotations which swirl around the pool towards the center. Motion detectors around the fountain sense people approaching, setting the quotations in motion. When I visited, a friend and I enjoyed the fountain, but we didn't appreciate it in its full glory until a group gathered for a tour. The fountain went wild with words. As the guide explained to us, more minds means more ideas.

2. At the New York Hall of Science in Queens, there is a floor-mounted installation, Near, in the Connections exhibition that demonstrates how different elements are related in nodal networks. When you step on the mat, you become a node, and lights indicate your relationships with other nodes/people on the mat. No other people, no lights. Lots of other people, lots of lights indicating the interesting and changing ways that nodes can be related in a complex system.

There are operational challenges to these kinds of exhibits. If no one else is around, you won't get the full impact of the experience. You might even think the exhibit is broken. If the exhibit requires all users to start at the same time, you may have a hard time gathering the crowd you need for the whole experience. If you have to work with others, you have to trust that they will approach the experience with the same level of respect and interest that you have. You have to believe that they will help you, that they won't just kick over your sand castle and run away laughing.

It's easier for interactive designers to design for single users. You can focus the content to a single learner. You don't have to worry about resource sharing. If the visitor leaves the interactive before it's over, they haven't let anyone down or "ruined the game." Most of the new interactive technology I see is focused on enabling individuals, not groups. Individual headsets. Private viewing rooms. In a hard hat tour of the new Newseum, we were proudly shown a room that will house about one zillion single-user interactive kiosks. I imagined a Bally's Total Fitness, all those people on their individual trajectories, grimacing, interacting.

I'm not satisfied by these interactives, which create their own operational challenges. I hate seeing people waiting in line to use individual interactives. Slightly better are the setups where the people in line can see what the interactor is doing on a big screen. But wouldn't it be best if there were no lines? If people were actually encouraged to interact with each other? The design questions my museum faces are not about serving individual learners but serving them en masse. How can we create an experience that involves fifteen people so that no one feels like they are "just watching?" How can we constructively take advantage of the fact that there are hundreds of people packed in a small space?

One of the tenets of Web 2.0 is the concept that "the software gets better the more people use it." In this case, "more" means both more time and more users. Let's focus on the more users aspect. Consider LibraryThing, on which people catalog and tag the books in their personal libraries. Those tags and catalogs are shared, so that I can check out what other people who enjoy a given book also love. I get recommendations, can chat about books with strangers, all IN ADDITION to having a good way to catalog my own library. If I just had a database system to serve my library, I wouldn't get the benefit of all the social network effects that LibraryThing offers.

In the museum, there's an added challenge: social fear of strangers. On LibraryThing, I get virtually and automatically connected to others; I don't have to seek them out. It's harder in a museum to encourage people to work together. How can museums tackle the "hey, will you join me?" hurdle?

Again, a lesson from 2.0. On LibraryThing, I start with a "me"-oriented operation--cataloging my own books. Then, I perceive the value from the "we" operation--the linking of different users and their books. I'm drawn in by the me, but once the me operation is done, I get hooked as a user on the we stuff.

I've always dreamt of an exhibit on orchestras that has this me-to-we transference. You walk into a room that is themed as a concert hall orchestra pit. There are lots of chairs with sensors, but only one overhead speaker system. Sit in a chair labeled with the instrument it represents, and that instrument will play over the room speakers. The more people in chairs, the more instruments you hear. There's a fun me activity--trying different instruments, and a clear we benefit--hearing more of the music. If the music loops, you can enter at any time and hear the music swell for a large group or, if you're alone, drop down to the murmur of a single cello.

I think the key to designing successful multi-person exhibits is this combination of me activities and we benefits. Most multi-person exhibits are designed for we activities (let's build a bridge, let's make a newscast). Imagine if LibraryThing asked me to start my discussing books with strangers. Suddenly, my interest is lower and social barriers go up. But if the activity is individual, I don't have to worry about how your contribution is or isn't helping me get to my goal. I don't have to let you down if I leave before you are done. But if the exhibit can immediately and transparently communicate the benefits of multiple "me"s all acting at once, then I start to really appreciate what a whole group of us can accomplish.

For this reason, I think the two examples I gave in the beginning are great multi-person exhibits--both rely on me activities to provide we benefits. They are flexible and scalable for groups who drift in and out. And yet, in both those exhibits, the we benefit is not apparent to visitors who approach them. On the web, there is a strong branding awareness of what a social networking site is. Sites like LibraryThing are explicit about their social utility ("LibraryThing also connects you with people who read the same things."). Exhibits that are maximized with social input are not so explicit. Until a museum sets up areas that are explicitly "social," people don't know when they walk up to an exhibit that it will be better if used with others. What does the sign say that can provide this trigger? Share here?

Monday, March 12, 2007

Using 2.0 to Promote Civic Discourse in Museums: Your Ideas?

Dear folks,

I've been asked to write an article for the journal Museums and Social Issues about "using 2.0 to promote civic discourse in museums" for an upcoming issue on, you guessed it, civic discourse. The editors are particularly interested in museum initiatives that provide a forum for people on opposite sides of any number of ideological fences to have real dialogue.

I'll be putting it together over the next couple of weeks. I get lots and lots of words. In true 2.0 spirit, I want your input. If you have or know of any projects or wild ideas I might want to include, please let me know.

thanks, nina

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Apples to Apples? Users in Libraries and Museums

On Musematic, Holly Witchey has rigorously recorded her recent experience at WebWise, a "IMLS/RLG/OCLC/Getty sponsored conference" on Libraries and Museums in the Digital World that was held March 1-2.

While sub-zero degree collection storage may thrill some of you, I was most interested by Witchey's recap of Elizabeth Broun's (from SAAM) keynote address on "American Art 2.0." Broun talked about SAAM's initiatives both in the museum and on the web to open up their content base for visitors to use in their own ways. Physically, they've added to the viewable collection with their beautiful open storage area, and online, they are publishing and trying to make searchable as much as possible.

These initiatives are a start, and they are driven by a powerful concept. As Broun put it:
2/3 of our visitors don’t come for something we have shaped, they are coming to our core assets—a user-driven kind of traffic. They aren’t coming to hear what we want to tell them, they are coming to find what they want to know.

I wonder what the library people in the room thought when they heard this. To museum ears, this is fairly blasphemous--the idea that people want to use our content, not our exhibits. But to librarians, this is old hat. Libraries are the ultimate 2.0 content providers. Everything is available. Professionals aggregate content for maximum findability. Interiors are designed to facilitate diverse use of the content.

This technique isn't exclusive to libraries. Book, video, and music stores are 2.0 meccas. You can search in multiple ways, both directly (computers), and by wandering the aggregated shelves. Put on some headphones. Check out the staff picks. These retailers have found that it is good business to offer these multiple access points to their content. It doesn't confuse or turn people off; it keeps them engaged, exploring the content and hopefully getting hooked into buying something.

So how far should museums go down this path? Should we look forward to a time when we walk into the art museum, search for a painting in the computers at the front, find the painting, and sit down with it for awhile? Here are some elements--at the least--I think we should steal from the card catalog...
  1. Users Have Clear Goals. When you go to the library or the music store, you probably have some clear intentions in mind. You have work to do. You want to find a particular book/vid/cd. You need to return something. All of these motivations are extensions of the fact that you are a USER of these institutions, not a visitor. When you go to a museum, what are your motivations? Do you have specific goals in mind? Recently, when I was stressed about how to look at art, a woman from the National Museum for Women in the Arts suggested that I enter art museums with the goal of seeing a single exhibit. I like this. I walk in, I'm confident about where I'm going, I get into the content, and I feel a sense of accomplishment when I leave. I don't feel like I missed stuff or didn't do it right. Of course, this leads to...
  2. Users Come Back Again. I wouldn't feel comfortable visiting just one exhibit at an art museum if I didn't think it would be easy for me to go back to that museum again. When you walk into the library, you don't feel like you have to absorb all the best books they have there on that one visit. But...
  3. Users Aren't Tourists. How often do you put a library on the list of "must sees" in a new city? (Ironically, because of cool exhibitions and fancy architecture--more standard museum fare--, I've been doing this more and more.) The fact that museums have specialized content contributes to their design as "destination" venues rather than user venues. Every town has a library; not every town has a science museum. (Though that's changing, as science and children's museums continue to multiply like rabbits.) Can you become a user of a non-local venue? Of course. I feel that way about every national park in the country. Non-locality isn't an excuse not to dip into 2.0 and try to attract users, because one of the best things about 2.0 is it allows you to...
  4. Design Local, Access Global. Every image or sound file that SAAM publishes on the web in a searchable fashion is accessible to users all over the world. Heck, I go on the local libary's online catalog frequently before going to the library (usually because all the computers there are broken). The library offers me a resource to "plan my visit" so that I get what I want when I arrive. The content is extended from the local site to my location anywhere. SAAM is doing this with their searchable collection online. It's great--except they don't tell me where to find the piece in the actual museum. They don't even tell me if it's on display. They anticipate that I am only a web user. Which leads to one last thing...
  5. In User Venues, Improvement Means Making Content Easier to Access. Record store managers aren't tearing out their hair trying to figure out what descriptive labels they should put above the classical section. They are concerned when they can't serve their customers' needs--when items are out of stock, misplaced, or unavailable. This doesn't mean pandering to fads or mass culture (necessarily), it means being oriented towards the user instead of towards themselves. Many library websites feature "Ask a Librarian." SAAM has "Ask Joan of Art."
This is not to say there aren't problems with the library/content vendor model. I've been led astray by the Dewey Decimal System on more than one occasion. But if, as Elizabeth Broun suggests, "they aren’t coming to hear what we want to tell them," then we better start preparing so they can "find what they want to know."

Friday, March 09, 2007

Game Friday: Harnessing Collective Intelligence with Jane McGonigal

At the risk of sounding like the biggest dork on the East Coast, a few weeks ago I sat down with some friends to play the new Lord of the Rings board game. It’s a cooperative game, which means that all six of us worked together to defeat Sauron and destroy the Ring. We succeeded. It rocked.

There are millions of people all over the world obsessed with massively multi-player games like World of Warcraft. They form guilds, develop strategies, and hopefully, prevail. I’ve never been too excited about games like this, because the motivations and goals involved (slaying, capturing, questing) don’t resonate with me. But what if the goal was to band together to save the world from a real threat—like global warming, AIDS, or mass genocide? Or even simpler: what if the goal was to work together to advance knowledge, science, and human good?

Jane McGonigal wants to make it happen. She is an expert in alternate reality gaming (ARGs), the first woman to keynote at the Game Developers Conference, and she’s thrown down the gauntlet for a game designer to win a Nobel Prize in the sciences by 2032. She believes that people’s interest in gaming and in 2.0-style collaboration has set the stage for “Massively Popular Scientific Practice,” in which people work with real data to solve real problems through the harnessing of collective intelligence. It’s Citizen Science 2.0—connected, powerful, and possible.

How is this different from the other serious games that are out there? McGonigal comments that we need a new kind of serious game:

Games that are designed as functions with an end result that is a measurable difference in the present state of reality. Serious games now are viewed as “resources” (for education, training, instruction, simulation) or “platforms” (for messages, persuasion). We must start to create serious games as “generative processes” or “solutions to problems”

In other words, she believes that gaming can be more than a simulated tool for learning how to slay dragons, end global conflict, and splice DNA. Gaming can be a vehicle for people to attack real world problems.

I think about this a lot with regard to museums and data. There are many science museums that offer some way for people to get the feel for contributing to science by collecting and analyzing data—but most of these “games” are about exposing people to what science is LIKE, not giving them a chance to do science itself. Similarly, there are lots of museum exhibits that allow visitors to register an opinion or a sensation, but rarely is that data compiled and used for larger studies or work. McGonigal’s idea that massive data collection can be packaged in a way that people are compelled, and have fun, participating in REAL science resonates with me and gets me excited about the 2.0 museum, in which every time a guest hits a button their entry is recorded and used to create something great. All it needs is a strong game story, argues McGonigal, and people are hooked.

Of course, McGonigal credits science--and questing/learning itself--as the ultimate hook. It just needs to be packaged in the right contemporary story. She quotes Sean Stewart, ARG storyteller, as saying:
"I do NOT assert that [alternate reality gaming] is the first, or greatest, example of massively multi-player collaborative investigation and problem solving. Science, as a social activity promoted by the Royal Society of Newton's day and persisting to this moment, has a long head start and a damn fine track record.... We just accidentally re-invented Science as pop culture entertainment."

McGonigal has many excellent resources for your perusal. She runs a blog, has posted slides from a AAAS talk she did on the Massive Science concept, and here’s a little CNET article about her GDC keynote on “The future of collective play: Fostering collaboration, network literacy and massively multiplayer problem-solving through alternate-reality games."

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Institutional Blogs: Different Voices, Different Value

Nik inquired as to how I feel about museum blogs. He asked:
Hey Ms. 2.0, what's your take on museums that keep blogs? Worthwhile? Any good ones out there? Or do they just become boring PR vehicles, due to administrative fears over message control?
And the answer is... it depends. In general, yes, I think that museums maintaining blogs is an effective, cheap way to get changing content out to the public frequently. However, there are many different approaches to take--as there are with blogs in general.

Do I have a personal preference among these approaches? That's not the point. The point is that you have to decide WHY your institution is starting a blog (and no, "all my friends are doing it" is not enough) and then find the approach that works for you.

With a nod to Seventeen magazine, here's a flowquiz to help you figure out what kind of blog might be right for your museum... (and here's a link to a downloadable version of this graphic)

And here's what those results mean...

Approach #1: Institutional Info Blog (star example: Eye Level from SAAM)

These are blogs that distribute news about the museum. At the basic level, these are little more than an alternative mouthpiece for the museum's calendar of events. In Eye Level's case at SAAM, there's a nice blend of museum announcements (exhibit openings, podcast postings, and events) and quirky commentary on museum goings-on (photos of the building's construction, answers to visitors' questions about how certain artifacts are maintained). How to maximize this type? Add a personal touch with accounts of the events and responses to guest inquiries, as SAAM does.

Approach #2: Aggregate Content Blog (star example: Food Museum blog)
These blogs distribute news related to the content of the museum.
This is the 2.0 version of the news clippings tackboard on “Current Events” in hallways of some museums. They can serve as a “living” version of the museum collection, and are usually populated by short posts that link to other content sources for the full story. How to maximize this type? Provide content that no one else does--and lots of it.

Approach #2a: Community Content Blog (star example: Science Buzz at SMM)
These blogs take the content of the museum and try to open it up to community input. I say "try" because while many museums, such as the Science Museum of Minnesota, open up the authorship of blog entries to the public, my casual observations suggest that these blogs are still dominated by museum staff, at least as the posters. How to maximize this type? Actively solicit and cultivate a community of public posters by offering incentives to get involved.

Approach #3: Specialized Content Blog (star examples: Voices of Genocide from USHMM, Free Radicals from the Powerhouse Museum)
These blogs are typically linked to an exhibition or sub-specialty of the museum, presenting news about that content. These blogs occasionally showcase some institutional info, but primarily serve as a highly tuned news source on a particular issue. How to maximize this type? Bring in awesome experts to blog for a limited time period, and treat it like special public programming.

Approach #4: Personal Voice Blog (star example: Director's Blog at the Walters Art Museum)
Though this approach is the gold standard for personal blogs, it's incredibly unusual for institutional blogs. These are blogs in which individuals or a small panel of staff offer personal commentary about their museums. What more dangerous--or appealing--way to represent your institution? How to maximize this type? Hold a contest and select several bloggers from across the institution. This is my dream (and I haven't seen it yet): an aggregate blog of individuals, one from the floor staff, one from the store, one from security, one from marketing...

Maybe you come out of this thinking you can cobble together the best of each of these approaches to create a superblog. Bad idea. The best blogs aren't newspapers; they are more like specialty magazines with a distinctive topic, audience, and voice. If you want multiple approaches, follow the Powerhouse Museum's lead and create multiple blogs.

Want more on this topic? Take an armchair tour on And if you run a museum blog, get in touch with Lynn Bethke, who is doing her master's thesis on museum blogs and needs your help with a survey.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

ISO Understanding: Rethinking Art Museum Labels

I don't usually fist-pump while reading the New York Times. But I’d been scribbling notes for an art museum label post for awhile, and then yesterday, the NY Times had a review of a new show at MOMA, Comic Abstraction. The review was harsh. And it ended with this:
No wonder it [MOMA] ends up showing shallow, label-dependent art rather than work that offers deeper, more contradictory encounters. Art becomes a kind of one-liner. The viewer looks a little, reads a label, says “I get it” and shuffles on. If you are new to art, you don’t know what you are missing. If you aren’t, you feel had.

This post is a cry for help from someone who wants to love art. Half the time, I’m the one who doesn’t know what I’m missing. The other half, I feel had. And I don’t blame the art. I blame the labels.

I was at MOMA last week for the first time in their new site. If you haven’t been, it’s a fabulous building stuffed with heavy hitters. I felt like a Midwesterner at the Oscars. Turn left: there’s Picasso! Turn right: there’s Marky Rothko! The collection is disaggregated, grouped by floor (Painting and Sculpture 1) rather than artist, movement, time period, or geography. That was interesting and somewhat challenging in itself. But the thing that challenged me most were the labels.

MOMA has standard art museum labels. Most featured Name of Artist, Name of Piece, Year of Execution, Materials. Period. Is this enough? I constantly found myself standing in front of a painting, wanting to connect with it, and not knowing where to start. When I asked an art museum educator about this (“How should I look at art?”), she said that I had to start a conversation with the piece. Sounds great. How do I start? “So, how’s it hanging?” I found myself listening to the audio pieces not so much for the information as for an excuse to keep standing there, to combat my body’s readiness to “shuffle on.”

How can labels help people have a deeper connection with art? Here are a couple of things I’d like to see:
  1. Labels that instruct you where and how to look. Sometimes I listened to the audio pieces meant for visitors who are blind. Those audio descriptions were lovingly detailed, and listening as I looked, I saw more and grew more interested. Most people aren’t educated in how to look at art. Should you take it all in at once? Should you read it like a story? Should you move around to see it from different angles? Many labels just give you more complementary information about the piece/artist rather than promoting looking more deeply at the piece. Perhaps a successful label is not one you read all the way through, but one you use like an IKEA manual, looking quizzically from it to the art and back again.
  2. Labels that answer the stupid questions in our heads. How long did it take this artist to make this piece? Did the artist like it? What do people love about this piece? When did the artist make it in his/her career? Who’s the girl in the painting? Why is there a weird smudge of red in the corner—is that a mistake? Why did the artist decide that this side is up?
  3. Labels that expose the curator’s thought process. One thing I wondered about a lot at MOMA was how they decided which pieces of art to put next to each other. Was it about color? Diversity? Space? I also wonder about how they choose frames for paintings, and the biggest question, how they decide which pieces to include at all. Is there some wacky donor behind it? Or something a curator advocated for against all odds? I loved the story I heard about how complex it was to house a painting that had been painted in chocolate. How about the challenges of putting up controversial pieces?
  4. Labels that tell contextualized stories and involve visitors. Both 2) and 3) above are really about this. At MOMA, sometimes I listened to the “teenager” and “kids” audio and enjoyed it more than the “adult” selections. When producing for/by kids, there was more of an emphasis on giving the feel of the piece—with music, stories about the artist, comments about other art the artist produced—and those context clues helped me step into the art more emotionally. Also, the teen selections often featured teenagers interviewing visitors about their reactions to the pieces. I loved that. Just hearing other people share their impressions stimulated reactions of my own. They gave me voices to discuss with and helped me start interacting with the piece.
There are surely other tools and methods beyond labels that could improve my art museum experience. But the labels are already there, and for the most part, they’ve been the same for so long. Please. I’m begging here. I want to fall in love with art. But right now, I’m fidgeting in the corner of the bar, unsure how to strike up that first conversation.