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.

16 comments, add yours!:

Jeremy Price said...

Thanks for providing a preview of what looks to be a really interesting article and framework. I'd recommend you take a look at Making Differences: A Table of Learning by Lee Shulman. Hierarchies are interesting and useful, and Dr. Shulman, a former student of Bloom (of Bloom's taxonomy), explores some of the uses (and abuses) of taxonomies/hierarchies. I think the article can help you reinforce some of the points you hint at (or maybe I'm reading into) and strengthen your case in general. I look forward to seeing this framework evolve and seeing how it turns out.

Nina Simon said...

Thanks, Jeremy. This looks extremely useful. I was just reading an article this morning about Edward Tufte and had a chagrined moment wondering whether this graphic was pithy or useful... I look forward to thinking more to make this a heirarchy/framework that is meaningful and well-considered.

Anonymous said...

Jeremy, I think to get to the top level you need to offer something that a group can do, like solve a mystery.

Museums have an interesting problem. Because they are "repositories of history", and history is in the past, it's easy for them to fall into the lower levels of your hierarchy. To reach the top, people need a reason to be engaged and work with each other. Museums have a unique position in that the reason they exist is so that we can learn from the past to solve today's problems.

To get to the top level, you could propose a problem or mystery to solve; help frame the problem, give people relevant information from the museum's archives to help clarify points.

For example, seeing as you're the International Spy Museum, you could invite people to contribute thoughts on how to solve Alexander Litvinenko's murder. You could be a repository of facts with people's comments on those facts. Or, invite people from around the world to snap photos of where Litvinenko traveled, to see if others can find anything.

I'm sure there are plenty of other things people can contribute to.

Nothing like a good mystery to engage people.

Anonymous said...

Hi Nina
I know it isn't a museum site but this is a great example of using the community around interaction.
Nike runs

The thing I like is the way people with a common interest can form a running relationship with others all over the world. They can compete or collaborate, share ideas and find that affirmation often lacking if they pursue their interest alone. This to me is a lot like enthusiasts who visit museums because of their love of a particular topic. If you could find people who are also passionate about a topic, discuss the exhibition, share first hand vs web based experiences, add links about other resources online and in the physical world, it could be a really interactive community like
the Nike one.

Tom Sakell said...


I'm fascintated by this discussion. I'm a grad student in Instructional Design at George Mason University. I found this blog while researching museum exhibits in Second Life.

I've been reading the blog and comments. I think the question to your original question -- how do you keep museums intresting / relevant to adult learners -- is answered in a progressive Level 1 > 5 experience. Yes, you can bring back school children for decades, if that alone will pay the bills. But the successfull implementation will bring back the adult learner repeatedly. Examples would be the Franklin Institute in Philly and the Experience Music Project in Seattle.

I think the Level 5 experience is essential for museums that want to "retain" users. Nina, in your exhibit, I see you're offering users a way to "extend" their experience after leaving the San Jose museum. I'd like to learn more how that can work.

I visted the International Olympic Museum in Lausanne, Switzerland, and believed it would be a wonderful candidate for a Level 5 experience.

Thank you.

Tom Sakell

Robert Hughes Jr, PhD said...

This is a very good description of the architecture of social participation. In addition to increased "participation" people can also be invited to be involved in creating museum content or in creating/managing experiences of people at lower levels of participation. In short, they become in creating the museum experience itself.

Darlene Cox said...

At one time I worked in a reasonably large, well resourced museum. I worked in education, visitor services and some exhibition development. I now work in the health field with an organisation for which social participation is core business.
In health we advocate for consumers to be at the centre of the system and to be partners in making decisions about their own care and also decisions about the development, monitoring and review of the services themselves.
I'd be interested to hear where, in your model, there is a place for visitors to be involved in decision making about the stories to be told.

Anonymous said...

thank you so much. this article helps me a lot in trying to explain WEB 2 to my director. I got confused with non-exlusives terms like exhange, participation, diffusion, communication...You more precise et behavior oriented approach makes for a more stable et reliable base of thinking...

Tyler said...

What you need is an online dating site based on museum content. Something like matching people up based on what art they like. Then they can meet and go on a date to your museum!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your post. I am inspired by your site, and excited to have an opportunity to have a place to learn more about people and projects committed to participation! I work for a children's museum, and two great thinkers I turn to that might be of interest are Roger Hart at CUNY (http://web.gc.cuny.edu/che/cerg/research_team/roger_hart_index.htm) and Alison Clark at Roehampton University (http://www.roehampton.ac.uk/staff/AlisonClark/). Roger's ladder of participation is similar to the one you've created although yours builds a bridge to museums, which is so helpful. Children's participation is a fascinating topic to me, as much of it comes from a rights-based foundation (articles in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child are dedicated to children's participation). Not enough room to write about it here, but if anyone else is out there who is interested/engaged in this perspective or working in this field, I'd love to connect.

Fumi said...

Hi Nina,

This is a great post. I think that in order to move on to the level 5 type of communication/education, museum professionals also have to be open about the use of Web 2.0 and inclusion of museum visitors in their knowledge construction process.

Thanks for the great blog posts and I am looking forward to reading upcoming posts!


Nina Simon said...

It's interesting to come back to this post, which was written long ago but has become a cornerstone of my work.

Over time, I've concluded that level 5 is an aspirational experience that occasionally emerges, not a level to which you can design. There are many platforms on level 4 which can evoke level 5 experiences for users. These tend to be real-time experiences that erupt and then die down. You suddenly find yourself in a group discussion, and then it's back to manning your own profile. So these days, I focus on level 4 designs, with the hope that level 5 experiences will sometimes eke through.

Ben Shneiderman said...

This is a thoughtful analysis and interesting hierarchy. I'm sorry we didn't get to reference this in our recently published paper that looks at several such progressions:

Preece, J. and Shneiderman, B., The Reader-to-Leader Framework: Motivating technology-mediated social participation, AIS Transactions on Human-Computer Interaction 1, 1 (March 2009), 13-32, available free at http://aisel.aisnet.org/thci/vol1/iss1/5/

Best wishes... Ben Shneiderman

Unknown said...

I work with at-risk boys. I CANNOT get them turned on to museums. The PROBLEM is the hierarchy. "They're for them, not for us," is the chorus and refrain.

"What do you mean, THEM." I ask. I ask. I insist they articulate this conflict.

"The people who work there," are them.

A museum is a place your teacher makes you go. Teachers, curators, exhibition designers, anyone who might wear a suit -- equals them. They would rather surf. Thing is, though, they make extraordinary art. "But it's not for them," I am told. I don't know how to connect the two divergent worlds anymore. FAILURE is a sign around their necks they usually start wearing right around Head Start. I can only get them into a museum (or an art gallery) if I force them to go.

One side says -- they're not excluded we are here for everyone.

Their side says -- it's an institution fundamentally designed by the upper hierarchy that keeps us out.

My side says -- even when they're not kept out, they FEEL kept out.

The answer to this is for you to go to them.

Beyond social hierarchy, it isn't going to happen because you WILL go to them (I believe that you will find a way to reach them) but they will (trust me) keep YOU out. It's what they do.

So. What's the answer.

You won't like hearing it. It's a lot of work.

You are not going to find a way to reach them if you stop trying to reach them. They have already stopped trying to reach you. It is NOT a two-way street. You remaining ensconced in your institutions is the status quo. Their remaining convinced you "don't mean them" is as ensconced as you are. Their institution is a hierarchy of status, violence, failure, separation from society, and restraint.

I honestly wish I could say I don't know the answer but I do.

It's through their art.

Until you start seeing them as participatory artists, kids with a future, adolescent boys who are worth engaging, people who make things imbued with artistic value, your hierarchies and their hierarchies will continue to clash in culture wars that fade, ebb, grow, cycle, recycle, confront, confound, and alienate that keep YOU and THEM in everyone's place.

The answer is in outreach, respect, and reciprocity.

But here's the catch.

Don't expect any of that from them. Until you have modeled it for them. They have NO IDEA what those things ARE. All they know is that "the museum" is an institution and doesn't mean them. Because they are usually caged, segregated, and uninvolved.

Maybe they're not important.

I don't know anymore. But I do know this: I can't get them into a museum. It's too hard. But what I can do is help them make their art. It's usually drawing that is stashed away from prying eyes like mine. So now we simply make a lot of art. It's the only thing I have that isn't pulling teeth. It's also the only success that many of them have ever known. It circulates among the group. It has it's own language, it's own action-packed narratives, and the conflicts they know.

Most of them have HIV. Most of them have been arrested any number of times. When they say: they don't mean us -- they're not being disingenuous; it's not simply attitude. They mean it. To them, it's just a fact. You live in your hierarchies. They live in theirs.

I am here to tell you that you are missing something that would blow you away.

I don't call them "at-risk" boys anymore. It's the hierarchy and the terminology that is disingenuous.

I call them artists. It begins there.

Nina Simon said...

Thanks for your excellent and inspirational comment. There are many museum professionals trying to figure out how to reach out to people who feel excluded from museums, and you are absolutely right--the place to start is for them to feel like empowered experts, to fully live their experience as artists or scientists or historians. Hopefully, eventually, some of the artists with whom you will work will find that they don't just belong in museums--they have something to offer them. And hopefully the institutions will be willing and able to receive it.

Many of us (definitely me) got into this field to get away from the us/them dichotomy and authority issues for formal education. To me, the worst thing would be for people to feel like museums are just another version of school... we should be an alternative, not a facsimile.

Alan said...


As a mature student studying Heritage in the UK, your blod couldn't have been better timed. My own experiences tend to display a tendancy which would suggest an individuals position within the hierachy is an ever moving one where the need, or requirement tends to overshadow a position of permanence. I should also like to offer an additional 6th layer where the social interaction and involvement leaps forward to a constructionist phase. The development of on-line build stuctures and greater accessibility to 'hidden' or 'archived' records will allow for the individual to take resources from the worlds data-bases and erect a purely personal museum, housing and changing exhibits as frequently as the self taught designer determines. Do you think this may invert Simon's Hierachy of Social Participation ?