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.

7 comments, add yours!:

Anonymous said...


came across your post via PUBLIC curating. These are good views, and a clear parallel exists. One thing you are surely aware of is the number of curatorial platforms that already exist online that offer just such an experience. Rhizome is a great example - although without display in such great quantities - and what we have been doing at Dispatx Art Collective for the last 3 years has a much stronger connection in terms of allowing comments (or judges), lurkers, and having contributors.

Is it possible that the offline experience of seeing and interacting with art will move online, compared with moving 2.0 concepts offline? It seems intuitively more likely.

Nina Simon said...

Thanks for the links to the projects; I look forward to checking them out.

Yes, I agree that intuitively it seems more likely that offline experiences will move online to become more 2.0--and in fact, a lot of that is going on as museums are starting to put more focus on digitizing their collections for virtual access.

However, as a designer for real world experiences in museums, I'd like to think that the transition the web has successfully made--from a platform for one-way content distribution to one that supports sharing and multiple access points--is not restricted to the web alone. Like the web, the museum is a content provider. Like the web, it's a place that people go to interact with content. I'd like us to push ourselves to see if we can make the same kinds of transitions in exhibit design that the web has seen, so that the experience people have in museums can be more present, more engaged, and more essential. People rely on the web today, but they also rely on physical spaces like coffeeshops. Can we make them rely on (and use, and identify with) museums?

Anonymous said...

Great question: can we make people identify with museums?

The real question is not what, but how - and short of a history of museum buildings, or of standard display techniques and so on, what we really need to consider is whether or not it is a question about interaction with space or about interaction with art.

The notion of subjectivity is easy via the web. I like something, or I don't, and I look at it / read it / interact with it - or I don't. When it becomes physically social as opposed to virtually social, this becomes more difficult. How many of us have not nodded our heads appreciatively to what someone else is saying when in reviewing it later or talking on the phone we display other signs of agreement?

You could, of course, reach out to many theorists - a good start might be Goffmann. In order that others think I am a cultured, intelligent individual I should express views about items of 'high' culture that are broadly within the accepted spectrum. To call Picasso a hobbyist and Pollock a Sunday painter would not do; one might say it of William Carlos Williams, or Hart Crane, but these are quite other discussions.

My point is this: without some means of radically altering physically social interactions with the content - or, as it were, the form - of art and artworks, how might one appropriate Web 2.0 discourse and models?

I'm all for pushing the paradigm - the thorny issue is where to start. What do you think?

Anonymous said...

Here's a description of Jeremy Deller's 'Unconvention' show, at the Centre for Visual Arts in Cardiff, South Wales.

"[The] exhibition provoked visual juxtapositions as unlikely as they were profound: key works by Lawrence Weiner, Andy Warhol, Francis Bacon, Edvard Munch, Martin Kippenberger, Pablo Picasso, and Jenny Saville were displayed next to documentary war photographs by Robert Capa, Kevin Carter, and Don McCullin. Archival sections devoted to the Welsh miners' fraternal involvement in the Spanish Civil War sat alongside the complete literature of the Situationist Internationale. For the exhibition's opening weekend, Deller invited numerous local organizations - from Amnesty International and the Campaign Against the Arms Trade to fanzines produced by fans of [the Manic Street Preachers] - to set up stalls amid the artworks. Reminiscent of a (radicalized) village fĂȘte, the opening weekend's events concluded with an impassioned speech by Arthur Scargill - president of the National Union of Mineworkers - and a stirring performance by the Pendryrus Male Choir, singing songs of passion and resistance originally sung in the mining communities of South Wales. Each artwork, each organization, each document, each individual was accorded an emotional and intellectual equality. The usual distinctions between high and low cultural artifacts were abolished."

From "The Edge of Everything - Reflections on Curatorial Practice". Emphasis mine.

It may not be Web 2.0, or even Museum 2.0, but isn't there something here that strikes a chord with the program of using Web 2.0 learnings (the so-called social web)?

Eric Siegel said...

Hello, all:

As part of the graduate class that I have been teaching at NYU in museum studies, I have asked students to do "museum observation" presentations. In each class, the students do a presentation (usually using powerpoint) about a museum they visited, looking at the functioning of the museum as distinct from the content of the museum (to the extent that this is possible.) For whatever reason, many of the students choose the more obscure museums in NYC. Through these presentations, I have noticed a strong pattern...most of these museums are very poorly attended.

To follow Nina's analogy to web sites, the museum of catholic art on E 115th street in NYC is like a web site that was intelligently designed, with reasonable resources, for very admirable reasons. And no one comes. So is Museo del Barrio, the Bronx Museum of the Arts, the Queens Museum of the Arts.

I have really started to question the social dynamics of museum creation and sustenance as it relates to the very american criteria of supply and demand. If there is no demand for something, why does it exist? And more to the point of Nina's original post, if there is no demand, why would we expect participation.

The Web, 1.0 through 2.x, is dominated by sites that no one wants to visit. According to the analyses by people like Barabasi, the power law curve expresses the relationship between the number of sites and the number of links. That is to say, it is only very few sites that have much action (as expressed in number of links) and the number of links drops precipitously along this curve.

So maybe what we see in museums is a commodity with no "pull" no "demand." And a lot of people trying to generate that demand.

That is fair enough, there is no reason that the world should create only things that people want, and it obviously doesn't, what with war, famine, disease, etc. Maybe a good model is to look at a continuum of what people are willing to participate in. On one end is death and the other end is sex (or at least pr0n). It is probably safe to say that museums fall somewhere along that continuum, better than death (for the most part), and not as good as sex (for the most part.)

I am ranting a bit, but with a point. If you can objectively look at what people actually want to do, as opposed to what we would like them to want to do, it might be clearer where museums are in the human and cultural ecology. And it might raise the question...why are there so many museums with so few attendants, and what is their purpose?


Nina Simon said...


My boss told me about an art exhibition at the Hirshhorn a few years ago in which the curators placed two pieces of art next to each other with a question in-between. I love this idea--that the museum conciously encouraged people to make judgments and to open up a path of discourse around art simply through the act of comparison. Compared to history and science museums, whose missions usually are about educating and encouraging questions, art museums have a lot of veneration of the object thrown in, which I think might hamper the creative design possibilities that could, as you put it, "radically alter physically social interactions with the content."

I think the example you give of the living art village in an exhibition is a great one in which a design choice about how art is presented--and the narrative and immersive context of the presentation--can impact the way that people engage with the content and with each other.

I wrote a post about a museum exhibition at Stanford, Question, that I did not see but struck me as hitting exactly what you are talking about.

Lynda Kelly said...

Hey Nina. Just come later to this post. Do you know of any evaluation studies of users with museum online collections by any chance??