Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Visitor Voices Book Club: Talking Back

Welcome to the first installment of the Visitor Voices book club. This week, we're looking at the first section, Talking Back and Talking Together, which features comment boards, talk-back walls, and discussion forums at a variety of museums. Rather than rehash each of the projects (hint: read the book!), I'm offering a bit of analysis through the lessons I learned from this section. I invite you to do the same in the comments. A bit of business before we get started: next Tuesday, we'll cover section 2, Contributing Personal Experience.

And now onto the show.

Lesson 1: People want to talk, but not necessarily about the topics you suggest.

At the Boston Museum of Science's video kiosk on wind power, 3/4 of people were most interested in making their own video (as opposed to watching others). Both the Ontario Science Centre (OSC) and the London Science Museum (LSM) provide quantitative data about the ways visitors engaged with comment cards in selected exhibitions. Over three exhibitions at the LSM, 20-35% of visitor comment cards were deemed "relevant" to the exhibition. At an exhibition at the OSC, 68% of cards received were deemed useful, of which about 25% were relevant to the exhibition. In the OSC study, only 1.4% of comments directly addressed questions posed by the curators, whereas 2.4% responded to other visitors' comments.

In both places, the majority of cards received were "not relevant" to the exhibition. What were they about? Some were nonsensical, graffiti, or obscenities, but many were comments on the quality and content of the museum generally. People had opinions to offer and corrections to make. This hijacking of exhibition comment cards for more general use suggests that museums might benefit from more open-ended talk-back areas in common spaces--as long as those common areas can preserve the spirit of respect and encouragement that elicited the visitors' participation in exhibition talk-backs.

Lesson 2: Anger is good.

Several authors commented on the utility of visitor comment boards as a place for visitors to vent--about the exhibition or the institution. In cases where the topic was controversial or the exhibition style risky, including a space for visitor talk-back ameliorated visitor anger about perceived biased portrayal of content. In this way, exhibit designers were sometimes able to rely on visitors to determine the balance and spectrum of the exhibition.

This may seem like a sloppy, "leave it to visitors" way to deal with controversy. In the best examples, visitor comments were not only displayed but integrated back into the exhibitions themselves to make the "museum voice" more inclusive. One such example was at the New York Historical Society's exhibition Slavery in New York. The show was the society's most popular ever, and about 3% (6,000 of 175,000 visitors) offered their own video commentary about the exhibition's topics, and, by extension, the institution itself. Both authors commented that reviewing and editing the videos for use in the exhibition made them more aware of the Society's perceived image, particularly in the eyes of nontraditional (African-american) visitors. Chris Lawrence writes about one group of teens who addressed the Society directly as a "you" embodying white privilege. How often does your enemy acknowledge you? Chris and others saw the videos as special, personal, instructive resources
for their own staff about current and potential visitors.

Lesson 3: Indifference is bad.

Receiving angry responses from visitors isn't just educational; it also indicates that the visitors' reactions are strong enough, and their perception of the comment area as valued enough, to accommodate their voice. An old married couple once told me, "fighting is good. When you get disinterested in each other, the relationship is on the rocks." While our relationship with visitors, as with lovers, shouldn't be adversarial, getting a reaction means visitors care--and think we will as well.

How do we ask visitors to give comments in a way that conveys this spirit of care and respect? Janet Kamien gives an honest insight into a talk-back that didn't succeed:
One important lesson learned at the Field Museum was in Animal Kingdom. An early talk-back in that conservation-minded exhibition asked, 'What can you do to help the environment?' and provided some prompts, such as recycling, or saving gas or electricity. To this, visitors responded with observations like 'Charlie loves Sally' and a variety of four-letter words. Why? Because they knew they were being set up. We weren't really asking them what they thought, we just wanted them to parrot something back to us, and they refused. We took it out.
Interestingly, the Monterey Bay Aquarium took the same basic visitor question ("what can you do?") and transformed it into legitimate visitor talk-backs in a series of campaigns to provoke personal and political action to protect ocean life. Jenny Sayre Ramberg writes about their evolution, from a basic question (which elicited generic comments like "I like the ocean") to requests for visitors to make personal pledges ("I will stop eating shrimp"), to a letter-writing campaign to the governor ("Please sign this bill to save marine protected areas").

What made these solicitations meaningful? The pledge talk-back was in the context of an exhibition explicitly about conservation controversies (and many visitors responded emotionally to the exhibit rather than making pledges). Also, the Aquarium posted pledges made by staff about changing their own everyday behaviors. This approach, using staff as peers instead of experts, conveyed respect and "we-ness" for visitor contributions.

The letter-writing campaign didn't provide a forum for a variety of visitor comments; instead, it focused visitors on a specific advocacy action. Rather than challenging people (with a wink) to write about what "they" will do, the letter-writing campaign offered a framework for what "we" will do, including visitors in the we with the Aquarium. This is the key to any respectful solicitation for visitor input--that we think of them as part of us, rather than a class or group to be pandered to and dealt with.

Lesson 4: The unique properties of different implementations have yet to be defined.

Throughout this whole book, I would have liked more direct analysis of the merits of different platforms for visitor contribution. When is a video kiosk most effective? When a comment book? Janet Kamien makes an argument for comment cards over books because cards can be filled out and reviewed socially and in parallel, rather than sequentially. Similarly, some might argue that some uniquely social outcomes of talk-backs--discussion, debate, even protest--can only happen in an environment that supports emergent interaction among users.

Video is a whole other animal. It's compelling, but not as browsable as text. It feels special, but that also encourages people to use it for other purposes ("Hi, mom!"). The browsing problem is exacerbated by the fact that staff rarely actively monitor and curate videos as they do comment cards--moving the gems to the front and removing the duds. Browsing visitor-created videos often means suffering through the most recent, rather than the most interesting, content.

Finally, there were a few examples of programmatic rather than exhibition-based projects. These primarily were about "talking together" and required a serious time investment on the part of participants. The Boston MOS forums and the DeCiDe program in Europe have both been quite successful engaging visitors with one another in deep, literally "mind-changing" interactions. The challenge is distributing these programs either to mass audiences or without heavy facilitation.

Lesson 5: Talk-backs are discussions.

When I first read the book, I wondered how Wendy and Kathy (the editors) decided which essays to put where. Many essays in other sections also deal with comment cards, videos, and visitor feedback. But all of the essays in this section deal with these talk-backs not as opportunities for visitors to uniquely express themselves (next week!) but as ways to converse with the museum and each other.

And in some ways, that makes imagining the best implementations less daunting. What makes a good discussion? Interesting topics. Engaged and lively participants. Respect for different viewpoints. Energy. Think of the great debates and dinner parties in your life. What would you put on the list?

Friday, October 26, 2007

Game Friday: Games as Gateways to Open-Ended Experiences

This past Wednesday (October 24), CBS aired an episode of CSI: NY in which a killer uses Second Life to attract and hunt down her victims. The episode was a cliff-hanger, and viewers were invited to log on to a special CSI:NY-themed island in Second Life to continue the hunt for the murderer. The mysteries—and killings—will continue in Second Life until players find the murderer, at which point she will be “turned over” to Gary Sinise and the rest of the “real” CSI:NY cast for resolution on air.

I’m one of many people associated with The Electric Sheep Company who have worked on this (free, still available) cross-platform experience, and I was lucky enough to write the narrative games that weave through the Second Life experience. As we designed virtual CSI:NY, the constant mantra was to address the “What do I do now?” question that plagues many newcomers to Second Life. Second Life, and virtual worlds in general, with their infinite opportunities for exploration, socializing, and creation, can be overwhelming and unappealing to people who are not specifically seeking a “liberating” experience. Most of us get stressed out by total freedom. We’re in a consumer culture. We want schedules and missions and assignments and grade breakdowns. We want the lights to go down, the music to swell, and the experience to sweep us away.

For that reason, virtual CSI:NY is an intentionally atypical Second Life experience. Everything from orientation to the downloadable toolbar/HUD gives you clear suggestions for what to do and where to go. Rather than “liberating” people to the whole virtual world, we constrain them to a world of directed content and clear goals. Operation Spy, the narrative immersion experience at the International Spy Museum, does the same thing. There, we combined the constraints of highly themed, intimate environments, timed challenges, and specific missions with a sense that “you control the experience.” It’s not surprising that the ad campaign for Operation Spy: “like the most intense movie you’ve ever seen, except you’re in it” is similar to that for virtual CSI:NY: “you’ve seen the show… now BE the show.” In both cases, the focus is on taking a more active role in what is typically a very directed experience, not as a creator, but as an actor.

There are many Second Life and museum purists who bristle at these kinds of projects. If the whole point of Second Life (or a museum visit) is for people to have an exploratory experience free of consumer B.S., why push them into a didactic mode of interaction? The answer is that in most cases, it makes for a less stressful user experience. We didn’t create the virtual CSI:NY games to limit people; we did it to offer clear activities with clear rewards. Over time, we hope that people will use virtual CSI:NY, and virtual worlds in general, in a more experimental, freeform way—but some people aren’t ready for instant liberation. They need to work their way in from interactions that make them feel comfortable and successful.

Similarly, one might argue that a simple museum game, such as a scavenger hunt, could be an entrance to museum-going that takes the stress out of meaning-making by transferring visitors’ energy to the game. But here the tension rises. Won’t we cheapen and distort the wonder of museums by shepherding visitors into fill-in-the-blanks, crossword puzzles and bingo cards?

Maybe not. Ultimately, this is about overcoming threshold fear. I don’t have threshold fear when entering museums, but I do when it comes to Second Life. Still a newbie, I’m uncomfortable jumping in-world without a clear destination. Working on virtual CSI:NY was deeply satisfying because we were always focused on that new user (with whom I identify), on answering the question, “What do I do now?”

The barriers to entry in Second Life are perceived as huge, so they have to be addressed in design (and games are considered an acceptable approach). But the barriers to entry in museums are also significant: we museum professionals have just grown inured to them. While we advocate for visitors, we rarely advocate for newbies to the museum experience. We expect a certain level of interest in the open-ended interaction offered, and if people don’t have previous experience with such interactions, we expect them to rise to our level.

Imagine a museum dealing with the same skepticism and fear that accompanies virtual worlds Second Life. Imagine news reporters probing unpopulated galleries or castigating science centers as places for hordes of zooming campers. Imagine if every article about a museum was written from the perspective: “Why would you ever go there?”

It’s been a privilege and a challenge to tackle these questions with virtual CSI:NY. We used games as one way to provide a gateway across a vast and confusing threshold. But the games are just an entrance. We can’t hide forever behind directed experiences, nor do the core users (either of museums or virtual worlds) want people to. At their best, these games and other tricks are early steps on the path towards understanding and appreciating the essential openness of virtual worlds (and museums).

What other games or non-gaming techniques could be used to usher museum “newbies” across the museum threshold? And how can these techniques help reveal the essential, delightful nature of exploration rather than masking it?

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Fall Book Club Commencing: Visitor Voices in Museum Exhibitions

One of my most exciting moments of ASTC this year was picking up a copy of the newly released Visitor Voices in Museum Exhibitions, a collection of essays ten years in the making, edited by Kathy McLean and Wendy Pollock.

This book provides a plethora of case studies and reflections on visitor contributions, co-expression, and creations in museum exhibitions over the last thirty years. It’s an inspiring and varied collection.

The book opens with a list of reasons why museums might use "visitor-response elements in exhibitions." The list is so darn good I'm reproducing it here. As Kathy and Wendy write, visitor-response elements can:
-validate visitors' experiences, knowledge and emotions
-support visitors in personalizing and integrating their exhibition experiences
-redress a perceived imbalance in the content of an exhibition
-enable the institution to engage with a wider audience
-expose visitors and museum staff to diverse perspectives
-open up possibilities for dialogue and exchange
-extend participation beyond a programmatic event
-reinforce visitors' intentions to take action
-help people find others with common interests
-provide a constructive way for a community to respond to a contentious or emotional issue
-deepen museum staff's understanding of visitors' experiences
-honor public creativity
To me, incorporating visitor-generated content into exhibitions is a natural extension of the reality that visitors "make their own meaning" in museums--and therefore, the design of such components must be meaningful. And while all of these outcomes are positive, visitor-response elements are not always successful or valuable components of every exhibition. The examples in this book are a great starting point for dialogue about the bigger questions about how, when, and why of visitor-generated content.

So let's start talking! Over the next few weeks (starting next Tuesday), I’ll be leading a book club on pieces from this book. I encourage you to get the book, and add comments to this post if there are particular projects or authors you’d like to see covered. I will try to track down as many of the “real” authors or participants as possible for interviews so these can be follow-up discussions answering my and your burning questions brought about by these brief and enticing essays.

The book is split into four sections: Talking Back and Talking Together, Contributing Personal Experience, Expressing and Co-Creating, and Starting to Listen. Each week, we'll cover a different section, starting with the first one on talk-backs next Tuesday.

But until then, in the spirit of the book, I invite you to add your comments here about how you perceive the value of visitor-generated content, or descriptions of successful or unsuccessful examples of exhibitions where you’ve seen incorporation of visitors’ expression.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Layer On for the Long Haul: Sustaining Visitor Co-created Experiences

Frank Warren has released the third PostSecret book, A Lifetime of Secrets. I was struck, looking at the Amazon page for the book, by one of its negative reviews. The reviewer, madhatter, wrote:
This project ran its course two books ago. Frank Warren had a charming and intriguing concept when starting his PostSecret project. … In some way, PostSecret has morphed into something of a parody of itself...less an intimate human project and more a corporate product.
Of course, for every madhatter, there are thousands of people still discovering PostSecret and sending Frank their heartfelt missives. To those newcomers and satisfied returners, it’s still astounding. But for others like madhatter, PostSecret has changed... by not changing. What does it mean when your audience is tired of itself?

Meanwhile, in Toronto, the fine folks at the Ontario Science Centre are grappling with the one-year anniversary of the Weston Innovation Centre, a wing devoted to visitors as creators and active participants. In 2006, their publication Next proclaimed that the Weston Innovation Centre, and the accompanying Agents of Change initiative, represented the “new” face of the Ontario Science Centre.

But what do you do when your new face is a year old? Now, as is 2006, visitors are still taking things apart, making shoes out of junk, and tackling real world challenges (and each other). Some staff are wearying of the messiness, noise, and lack of structure in their new face. Yes, Agents of Change was a transformative experience. But can’t they stop peeling hot glue off the tables now and move on?

Both of these examples illuminate a basic challenge in co-created experiences or exhibitions—growth. How does a project grow and sustain itself when the creators are a mix of new and returning users? If the project keeps moving, but new people are always coming to it, does it ever grow? Or does it constantly reinvent itself, to the delight of newcomers and the frustration of the old?

This is a problem specific to open-ended projects. No one would contest the idea that most museum exhibitions, art shows, films, books, in short, most content experiences, have value both for the new and return user. There’s no expectation that the content will have evolved in your absence; instead, the user evolves, and brings new meaning-making to the content experience.

Even visitor-generated exhibits and experiences can be treated this way—when they have an end date. Imagine a version of the shoe-making component of the Weston Innovation Centre where shoes were only submitted in a window of time, say through the end of 2006, after which they became a permanent display. People would ooh and ah and create their own meaning--but no more shoes. After all, once you have a thousand visitor-created shoes, do you really need more? It’s much more efficient, staff- and money-wise, to call it quits. Why continue to do the tedious work of support visitor creation, when the newer submissions don’t vary or evolve in any substantive way from the early ones?

It takes a serious labor of love to resist the impulse to call it done and walk away. PostSecret survives not on the persistent deluge of cards coming to Frank Warren’s door but on his gracious, insatiable desire to continue collecting and exhibiting them. Similarly, it is the respect and love that the Agents of Change staff have for their users that allows them to see past the cyclic mess to the unrelenting value of the creative visitor experience.

But love doesn’t pay the bills, and over time, staff and frequent users get tired of the same tricks, no matter how flashy they are. The content refreshes, but the space never seems to change. It’s both inspiring and frustrating. If an environment is built for first-time users, how will anyone ever build up a meaningful sustained community?

To create sustained “projects” in co-creation, I think we have to address three different constituencies:
  1. the newcomer, for whom everything is a first experience.
  2. our returners and core audience, who’ve been there done that.
  3. our staff and leaders, who are uncomfortable with open-endedness and are ready for us to move on to the next, hopefully more structured, thing.

First, the newcomer. We’ll spend the least time here, since these are the people who are presumably being served well by the co-creation models at hand. Both PostSecret and the Weston Innovation Centre do a good job accommodating newcomers’ needs. There are examples to follow, but not so many that you feel that your unique contribution is not valued. There are materials to work with. There are people to support you. The experience is fundamentally entry-level; you have the tools you need to succeed.

Next, the returners. This is the group who come as newcomers a few times, and then start searching for more. The Amazon Post Secret reviewer falls in this category—someone whose interest in the project waned as he or she ceased to get something new from the experience.

Layering the experience accommodates returners. At the Weston Innovation Centre, there are visitors who bring in their own “equipment” from home (toys, personal items) to make short films at the stop-motion animation stations. These are people who came as newbies and enjoyed using the stop-motion equipment, but realized they could go further if they brought in their own stuff.

The stop-motion example lets visitors go more deeply into their own experiences, a technique I’ll call “layering in”. And while layering in, like leveling up in a game, can offer visitors new ways to engage, the returner engagement becomes more personal than social. And as the returner’s actions become more divergent from the newcomer’s, the extent to which both are contributing to a socially-rooted, multi-voice experience lessens. Instead of the exhibition or project evolving, individuals within the environment evolve.

Personal growth is compelling for those individuals, but it may not satisfy the desires of the third group: staff and project leaders. These are the people who spend the most time with the project, and as time goes on and little changes, their discomfort with it increases. If everyone who comes to the Weston Innovation Centre makes a shoe, and all those shoes are at a general level of creativity and ingenuity, when can we stop? When can we stop assembling the materials, cleaning the space, doing all this work just so people can keep making shoes?

And if newcomers love making shoes, and we don’t stop, what can we do to continue to feel engaged? Ultimately, the kind of layering I’m most interested in is “layering on”—where returners (and staff) operate not on their own developing content, but on the body of content as a whole.

Consider again the Amazon reviewer madhatter. She or he’s clearly someone who enjoys, or has enjoyed, looking at Post Secret postcards. It’s not that madhatter doesn’t like the content—she’s just done with the introductory experience of looking at the cards. Madhatter is ready for the next layer of meaning-making around them.

This is where things get interesting. Most visitor-generated museum experiences are about creating, not curating, content. But I’ve argued that for many people, judging, sorting, tagging, and commenting on content are just as valuable—if not more compelling—activities as making the content itself. In the past, I’ve talked about this as an alternate newcomer experience: you want to make a video, I want to put them in a meaningful order. But judging is also a useful layered experience that builds on creation, as well as a meaningful educational experience about synthesizing data sets.

Let’s go back to the shoes. What if floor staff at the Weston Innovation Centre put up signs like “Shoes of History” or “Shoes for Divas” and worked with visitors to sort shoes and create mini-exhibitions? What if there was an ongoing project to weigh all the shoes or measure them and create an ongoing statistics project? What if PostSecret readers could organize and purchase their own PostSecret books filled with their favorite cards in a self-determined order?

There's so much talk in museums about simulating the experience of being a scientist, a historian, or an art critic. Layering on visitor-created content can offer those experiences legitimately, without expensive simulation or concern that visitors will draw the "wrong" conclusions. Museums can't afford to evaluate, analyze, and generalize all the visitor-created content out there--so why not offer that opportunity to visitors instead of throwing it away?

When we talk about tagging or mash-ups in the museum, there’s often a question of incentive. Why would someone want to contribute metadata to the museum experience? For the newcomer, it may be dull. But for the returner or for staff, defining, ordering, and analyzing content can be a way to continue to add value to the project after the initial visitor contribution activity has been completed. Additional meaning is added, both to the project and to the returner, and the stress that this thing doesn’t “go” anywhere starts to dissipate. Perhaps this is a reasonable "phase 2" to grants for visitor-generated exhibits--to move on to visitor-curated and analyzed ones. Heck, maybe one of them will even write a white paper. Real research is done on the ways people use MySpace and YouTube. Why not museums?

Layering on helps projects like this grow without requiring funding for development of deeper second-level (layer in) experiences. Layering on offers people a way to look outward rather than inward, to operate on a larger scale than individual creation. It makes the experience more social, and hopefully supports the project evolving into something more than a set of "mess around" stations. At its best, layering on can allow users and staff to make meaning out of individual shots in the dark, to stop gazing at stars and start drawing the constellations.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Game Friday: Vocabulary, Poverty, and Meaningful Score Keeping

This week, Free Rice, a very casual game that can allow you to use your erudite mastery of the English language to provide rice to hungry people via the United Nations World Food Program (UN WFP).

Here's how it works: define a word properly, and the site's sponsors will donate the equivalent of ten grains of rice to the UN WFP. There is no limit on how many words you can define, and the level changes dynamically based on your ability.

It's not rocket science--just another variation on the "click to donate" phenomena, which has debated value. Free Rice is linked to a sister site, poverty.com, which disseminates information about world hunger and other issues. This is an interesting sort of hybrid--supporting a content site with a game that seems unrelated. Yes, you continually see your bowl of rice fill up, but it's not one of those games where the challenge is to figure out how to distribute the food. It's a simple vocabulary game, and fifty words in I haven't encountered any underlying thread of words associated with poverty or hunger. It's just a game.

It's also pretty addictive, especially if you're a word nut like me. Unlike click to donate, where the incentive is purely about charity, Free Rice gives you a strange secondary incentive to contribute: leveling up in play. When I read the comments on lazylaces (where I found this game), they're split about 50-50 between people wondering about the rice donation strategy and those celebrating their high scores. Many people do both in the same comment.

To me, this is a really clever application of meaning to addictive gaming. How long would I play a vocabulary game like this if there were no poverty.com tie-in? The level, while compelling, isn't as exciting as the score--which is measured in grains of rice. Unlike click to donate, where you get a "win" for doing almost nothing, Free Rice only gives you rice to donate when you define words correctly. Each time you fail to do so, no more rice for the UN WFP, which, instead of disincentivizing me to play further, made me more committed to defining words properly.

How many games of pinball or pacman have you played without so much as a glance towards the score, constantly ticking up, seemingly inconsequential? Free Rice applies a simple, powerful consequence to scoring.

It's also a nice "put your money where your mouth is," not wholy unlike that at the Bronx Zoo's Congo Gorilla Forest, where you choose which gorilla advocacy group your admission fee will support. These kinds of games could be a great way to publicize and support advocacy that museums are already doing. Imagine a simple math game where high scores donated dollars to programs like the Girls Math and Science Partnership. Or a fish-identification game where scores related to work done to protect the marine protected areas. Particularly when sponsors are willing to foot the bill (as on Free Rice and many click to donate sites), this can be a win-win for the museum, the cause, and the player.

And it seems apropos here to mention Beth Kanter's current blog-based effort to collect $10 donations to send a Cambodian orphan to college. If you are interested in the leveraging of social media sites to raise money for charity causes, Beth's blog is a great resource.

Human + coLAB Experiment Post Mortem

Thanks to all who visited the coLAB and participated in the Human + collaborative experiment over the past ten days. For those who didn’t see it, this project was an open conversation about development of a planned traveling exhibition on human enhancement technology (Human +). The exhibition is being developed by the New York Hall of Science, and I worked with Eric Siegel, the Director of NY Science, to initiate this project. The project is powered by a free software called Voicethread. To view the conversation, turn on your speakers and click the play button below. There’s about 30 minutes of content here, but you can flip through the slides and voices as you see fit.

In terms of numbers, this collaboration was a success. 206 unique people from 131 cities all over the world viewed the site 358 times. (See map on right for distribution.) There were 54 comments made by 17 people. It was blogged by three sites, including Beth Kanter of the highly regarded non-profit social media site Beth’s Blog.

Logistically, it was simple. It took Eric and I about 2 hours each to get the site up and running (content plus distribution plan). We each spent another 2 hours throughout the week checking in on the voicethread and responding to comments. There were no financial costs. There were no problems with spam or inappropriate comments. This was an unmoderated experiment, though I did add additional slides halfway through the experiment to add more venues for contribution.
But impact is what really counts.

Here are some observations from this experiment, gleaned from my impressions and yours:

A lot of you like this technology. Several people were impressed by the sound quality, the personal nature of voice, and the ease of use, and a few indicated that they would use Voicethread in their own institutions. Some of you were more fascinated by the technology’s demonstration than the specific content (which is fine!).

Participation was high. On this blog, about 0.5% of people who read a given post comment on it. On the voicethread, 8.5% who viewed it made comments, and many came back a second time to see how it had evolved. The participants were diverse, ranging from museum exhibit developers to NPR accessibility engineers to content experts to e-learning professionals. There was some emergent behavior where content experts previously unknown to Eric or me offered their support to the exhibition.

There was an inverse relationship between time of first view and participation. Participation dropped significantly after the first four days. The conversation reached a critical mass of participants quickly. After that point, many people emailed me to comment that it felt unwieldy, or that they perceived it as something already completed. It's hard to browse through lots of audio. As one person said, “it felt like watching a disjointed play.” It seems that there’s a sweet spot where just a few people have contributed to the conversation and you feel like it’s open to you. Too many and it feels overwhelming or like your contribution is not needed. It’s easier later in the process to look at the voicethread and feel like enough has already been said—thus promoting lurking over participating.

The content was interesting, but not always what was asked for. Some (including the creators of the technology) found it varied and fascinating. But there was no easy way to spin off individual “threads” of conversation on a single slide, so a divergent (interesting) point brought up by a couple people became hard to follow. The content stayed fairly surface-level, though many interesting comments, both personal and professional, were contributed.
-The purpose wasn’t totally clear. While Eric and I actively responded to other contributors, I think we could have done better to give people explicit challenges or goals so they could apply themselves concretely to solving a problem. The problem given, related to collaboration, was somewhat open-ended and proved less appealing than the Human + controversies themselves.

There was no clear way to identify the people speaking, except via their name, image, and voice. A few people commented that it would have been nice to see some basic information about speakers’ expertise and professional interest in the topic. I also would have liked an update function where people (myself included) could be notified when a new comment was added to the stream.

I left the experiment with a few core questions:

  • How can we encourage sustained participation throughout the life of a project, rather than just at its outset? How do we encourage new users to join partway through?
  • How can we guide collaboration towards a goal? What’s the balance between inviting people to talk about what they want versus what you want?
  • What platforms or technologies humanize rather than dehumanize the process?

What are your questions or comments? I look forward to doing more experiments with other technologies in the future. If you or your institution wants to get involved, let me know.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Missed Connections and Matchmaking: A Case for the Desire to Socialize in Museums

I've been thinking recently about the "why" behind encouraging social interactions among strangers in museums. I've been arguing that "visitors as participants" means participating BOTH with content and with other visitors, but that begs the question: do visitors really want to have social experiences with each other? After all, people visit museums in their own pods for a reason. Why am I so interested in breaking down those self-defined constructs? Is this actually about encouraging something visitors want, or is this just about me and what I want?

This question has bubbled to the surface both because of some of your comments (advocating for the personal, contemplative museum experience) and the words of Cynthia Sharpe, an exhibit designer who has brought the message "It's not about you" powerfully to the table here at ASTC. It doesn't matter if you are creating a didactic diorama or a participatory smorgasborg if the experience is fundamentally about your desires rather than visitors'.

So I did some soul-searching and realized that one of the reasons I believe people secretly want to break out of social barriers and interact with strangers is typified by the "missed connections" phenomenon. "Missed connections" or "I saw you" is the section of the personals where people describe people they almost interacted with in real-time... but didn't. This kind of personals ad has overrun sites like craigslist, where on any given day you can find hundreds such submissions mourning missed opportunities and hoping for a second chance.

"Missed connections" browsing reveals that besides being a killer exhibition, Body Worlds (2) is a matchmaker. Witness this posting placed on craigslist yesterday:

Lovely Blonde at The Tech Museum on Sunday - m4w - 46 (san jose downtown)

Date: 2007-10-14, 9:05PM PDT

We chatted briefly while attending the Body World exhibit at The Tech on Sunday in downtown San Jose. You were with what I assume was your mother, and we ended up sitting next to each other inside the Imax theater during the 4pm show. I thought maybe there was a spark, but I didn't pursue. I was with my sister and held back, now I regret not extending myself to you...

You: Caucasian, blonde, late 30's/early 40's
Me: Caucasian, salt-n-pepper, silly grin

If you see this post and say "Hey that's me!" - then send me a message. I'd love to see you again.

This person isn't alone in his desire to reconnect. There were four other Body Worlds-related missed connections in the last week alone. I had a friend who was a waiter at an upscale coffee lounge in DC who once complained to me that everyone in the place would sit there with their laptops in their own private pods, "I saw you'ed-ing" each other. Imagine the postings: "You, brown couch. Me, black sweater." These people aren't missing connections--they're avoiding them out of fear of rejection, social stigma, or just being seen as weird. Technology has filled this gap where we feel more comfortable pursuing the slimmest glimmer of hope from a safe place rather than opening ourselves up to social risk.

There are two ways I think we can be using this in museums. First, I think we should support the proliferation of museum-based "I saw you's." These are random gifts of kindness which make the museum both an environment for desire and one for attention to fellow visitors. And second, we should help bridge the gap. When they foster a spirit of inclusion, museums have the unique ability to turn missed connections into real (desired) interaction. Imagine the drool emitted from marketing folks' mouths if museums were seen as viable places for singles to meet in a friendly, culturally interesting environment.

Devon Hamilton of the Ontario Science Centre told a lovely story about the way hosts (floor staff) are trained in their innovation center to connect visitors with one another. A visitor asked a host how a particular kinetic art piece worked. Instead of answering the visitor or even engaging him/her in exploratory questions, the host called out to another visitor: "Yo! We need your help over here with a question." Devon's spin on this was that visitors in the innovation center start to understand that this is a place where they construct the meaning and share it with each other. But it can also be seen as an example of the host "matchmaking" between visitors.

Matchmakers have a mixed portrayal in our culture. They are the pushy intruders who insert themselves into our lives messily. But they do it with love. They have a genuine interest in connecting people to each other--for romantic, professional, or personal reasons--and it's hard not to appreciate someone who earnestly introduces you to someone else. It's like receiving a gift. Even if the gift is wildly inappropriate, you appreciate the gesture and the feelings of reward and gratitude that accompany it.

It's not too hard to imagine floor staff in this role as social lubricators or party hosts, introducing visitors to each other. The harder challenge is to imagine the unfacilitated matchmaking exhibit, the "connection machine" that could perform the introduction on its own.

But I think it's worth it. There's a lot of talk going on about the "unique value propositions" of museums, and I'm excited about the idea that museums can be a place where people feel safe and encouraged enough that they don't have to miss the connections. While there are plenty of museum competitors offering interactive, immersive experiences, there are few that do it in a deliberately inclusive environment. It sounds like many museum folks are seeing visitor-generated content not just as a way for visitors to speak their minds, but for them to do an activity (creation) that isn't available to them from the competition. Enabling that creation to be social helps cement the uniqueness and inclusion of the museum experience.

I know this is neither a rigorous nor a complete argument for encouraging social interaction among museum visitors. But it's something worth considering, especially when dealing with the precious adult market. Full disclosure: I was once "I saw you'ed." It was a strange and exhiliarating experience to feel noticed and appreciated by an anonymous person. It was an experience I don't get at the movies, or in theme parks, or in museums for that matter. It was special and confidence-boosting. It was something that helped turn me into someone who talks to strangers and matchmakes friends. It was something I'd have bought a ticket for, something I wish everyone could enjoy.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Game Friday: Open Worlds, Open Museums

First of all, thanks to all who have contributed to the Human + coLAB. We're learning a lot, and your comments and contributions are wonderful. The site will be active until Oct 16, so keep the ideas coming!

And now, back to Game Friday. Gamasutra has a feature up entitled Game Design Essentials: 20 Open World Games. In it, John Harris provides a whirlwind tour through arcades, Ataris, and Nintendos, discussing the design principles and evolution of video games described as “open world” or “exploration." John defines these as

games where generally the player is left to his own devices to explore a large world. What all of these games share is the seeking of new, interesting regions at whatever time the player deems fit. No force forces the player's motion into new areas. There's no auto-scroll, and there are no artificial level barriers.
Wandering around, exploring, collecting experiences… sounds like a museum visit to me! I read the (long) article fascinated, wondering if such a resource might exist for museum exhibitions, charting the top 10 exhibitions that use play, or storytelling, or any other core museum design tenet. So, with the caveat that I've played a grand total of one of these games, here are some real-world lessons I learned from John's commentary on this genre and its evolution.

There must be meaningful interplay between the map and the gamespace.
When you are playing over a vast landscape (say, a 100,000 sq ft science center) with no rules governing sequence of travel, the map becomes an essential counterpart to gameplay. John points to the Nintendo game Super Metroid as a pioneer of the "automap" which fills in with icons to remind you where you've been, where you've conquered, and the places left to explore. Reading this, I was struck by the extent to which players rely on and consult the map as a useful, updated source of information that helps them structure their gameplay. I know plenty of museums that hand out maps, but few that structure those maps as core parts of the visitor experience. It might be interesting to create a map that could be scanned at the entrance and exit from exhibitions to chart your progress, or, simpler, stamps available to mark the exhibitions you've visited.

The second interesting thing about maps in open world games is the design decisions that govern what is included and what concealed. Most game maps do not reveal all of the secret passages, hidden doors, potential obstacles and rewards in each area--they just offer a basic structure. In fact, game designers are constantly trying to strike a balance such that the map is a jumping off point but not a cheat sheet. How might we think about this in museums--giving people maps that give thm the information that gets them interested in an area, with the expectation that there are surprises in store?

There are surprises in store. Every one of the games covered includes easter eggs and hidden wonders, ranging from cool objects to collect to secret worlds to explore. All of these games rely on the expectation that exploration is a worthwhile and fun activity, but designers also recognize that players like to be rewarded for their travels with more than just another interesting landscape. Yes, these rewards can affect gameplay (points, powerups), but just as compelling are surprise characters, corridors, or cut scenes made special by their scarcity. Grand Theft Auto is the master of this kind of reward, so much so that many players abandon the traditional game story to pursue the myriad of colorful characters and opportunities found in random corners of the game space.

Of course, one thing that enables this kind of reward is the near-infinite availability of virtual "space" for players to explore. In a museum, we're limited by the physical. And yet, how many museums take advantage of blank walls and random corridors to reward guests with something new? I love museums that put content in the bathroom--I'm always pleasantly surprised to close the stall door and feel like I'm getting some special, personal content. Similarly, at the Spy Museum, we converted a boring mechanical room, used as a pass-through for large school groups, into a clandestine "spy lab" that looked as if someone had just been twiddling with the oscilloscope. Instead of being a transition room with no content, that room became something private and surprising for the groups that walked through it.

There are meaningful transitions between areas. When the world or museum is vast and has an open architecture, clearly defined thresholds help people understand where one area ends and another begins. John seems conflicted about whether it's better for the areas to share basic design concepts (i.e. rooms of a castle) or be highly differentiated (sewer area versus cloud area versus warehouse area). But in either situation, the transition from area to area is consistently marked by a variety of changes: in architecture, in audio, in difficulty, in gameplay. And unless it's a trip back to the map, the threshold between areas is fluid--there isn't an interstitial no man's land.

Compare this to the experience in most "exploratory" museums. In sequential narrative museums, the exhibits flow from one to the next, following the designed expectation that visitors will follow a particular path. But when there is no recommended path, museum design tends to trend towards no thresholds and no contextualized transitions. Or, if the museum is divided into many individual exhibit rooms, the rooms open out on a central hallway that is more "no man's land" than transition area. Such hallways, like main thoroughfares of malls, are disorienting and can disrupt the flow of the museum experience. In games, on the other hand, exit from one area is clearly marked, rewarded, and signals the entrance into the next. The barriers can be "hard," such as levels, or "soft," like the bridges in Dragonquest 3, which signal entering areas of differing difficulty.

Partway through the article, John comments that:
Action games are about fighting, and the maps are a setting for the fighting to happen. Exploration games are about place, with the fighting being what you do there.

It's interesting to turn this statement towards open world style museums, and think about how we are (or are not) consciously designing the place to be as interactive, feedback-providing, and engaging as the exhibits within. Happy exploring!

Monday, October 08, 2007

Try This! Experiment in the Museum 2.0 coLAB

This week, with the gracious help of Eric Siegel of the New York Hall of Science, Museum 2.0 is launching an experiment in collaborative exhibition design. This one-week test will hopefully be followed by many more progressively ambitious projects to develop new tools for museums, scientists, artists, experience designers, visitors, and all kinds of folks to work together to create high-quality exhibitions.

I (and probably many of you) have always wondered about the basic challenge of deriving quality from mass participation. When is the wisdom of crowds really successful? In the spirit of that question, Museum 2.0 will be sponsoring a number of test projects in collaboration under the banner of coLAB.

The first of these is up now and will be active for the next week. In it, Eric Siegel shares some of the planning concepts for a proposed traveling exhibition, Human +, about human enhancement technologies. We are soliciting your feedback and thoughts on these concepts, using VoiceThread, a very cool application that allows you to literally add your voice to the conversation.

To participate, you need about 10 minutes. A microphone (most laptops and newer computers have them embedded) is highly recommended, as is a photo of you so people have a face to put to the voice. If you don't have a microphone, you can contribute text, but the voice component is pretty powerful.

This conversation will only be active until Oct 17. On October 18, I'll publish a post-mortem with some of your comments about what worked and didn't in this experiment.

Go to the coLAB site to get started now!

Friday, October 05, 2007

Game Friday: Conference Bingo!

Starting Tuesday, I'm headed to three conferences (Virtual Worlds Summit, WMA, ASTC) in one week. In the spirit of "networking" and related social conference challenges, I offer this simple game. Print out the image below (click to download fullsize powerpoint version), bring it to the conference of your choice, and enjoy!

And if you're going to ASTC and want to play, there's a prize in store. Complete the whole card (blackout) with unique individuals you've never met before, and find me (Nina). I'll be there until the end. The blackout with the best story wins a post on the topic of your choice on Museum 2.0. It can be a guest post, an interview with you or your dream person, or I'll write on your topic.

I'm using this as a way to a. motivate to meet new people and b. find out something interesting about them. I hope it's useful for you as well. Happy Bingo-ing!

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Quickie Excitement: My Current Project in the News

There's a New York Times article today about the virtual CSI:NY experience that will be launching in Second Life on October 24. There's a link to a video clip from the episode that will kick it off here. I've had a blast working with The Electric Sheep Company and Anthony Zuiker (creator of CSI) to design the narrative game that will accompany the superlative CSI:NY virtual environment. For all those who wonder whether Second Life can be used for a mainstream, mass audience experience, the virtual CSI:NY experience will be a great test. Stay tuned for more...

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Participation through Collaboration: Making Visitors Feel Needed

This summer, I got married. My husband and I moved to Santa Cruz in June, and then spent the next seven weekends having a distributed wedding at our new home. Each weekend we had a new group of folks, a theme, and a related activity. It was our way of having a small wedding and inviting everyone we knew.

It also allowed us to experiment and iterate. As part of each weekend, we did a project. At first, we’d planned for these to vary from fun activities (i.e. Frisbee golf) to manual labor (tree house construction). But after a couple weekends, we learned, strangely enough, that the manual labor activities were far more successful than fun ones. People told us again and again how much they enjoyed smashing concrete, clearing brush, pulling weeds, and splitting wood. Almost every part of each weekend, from the ceremonies (open guided discussion) to the meals (homemade) was participatory. But the most social, energized part—no matter the mix of guests—was the manual labor.

Are our friends and family psychotic closet workhorses? I don’t think so. Instead, I think we uncovered one of the secrets to creating successful participatory experiences: people like to feel useful. If there’s a project to be done, they like to feel like contributors. They like seeing the tangible results of their labor. They like assuming a clear role and performing. And they bond with each other when they are working side by side. Contributing to the discussion about “balance in relationships”—that’s fuzzy. Smashing concrete together is clear.

I bring this up in the context of thinking about how to design exhibits and programs to be meaningful participatory experiences for visitors. Now that the concept of “turning visitors from consumers into participants” is out there, I’m starting to think beyond the soft and fuzzy to the practical. What does it mean for visitors to be participants? How can we do more than just give it lip service?

I think we have to couch participatory museum experiences in terms of collaborating with visitors. Collaboration is only meaningful when the parties involved actually have some stake in and influence over the outcome. Have you ever been part of a fake collaboration, one in which a project leader purported to want everyone’s input but really just wanted everyone to say yes to theirs? Those situations are exasperating at best, and at worst, can make you lose faith in the leader’s (and the institution’s) commitment to the team approach.

The same dynamic plays out when it comes to participatory museum experiences. If we let visitors give their opinion of an exhibit in a video kiosk, but then we don’t follow up, they’re fake collaborators. If we let them build inventions but don’t display or engage with them, their effort is an exercise in futility. These incomplete experiences make visitors suspicious of the museum’s level of interest in their input—which eventually leads to no input at all.

People who are attracted by participatory experiences want them to be purposeful. We would never have asked people at the wedding to move dirt without a reason. Purposefulness serves the visitor (they feel involved) and the museum (getting stuff done, making the visitor experience more engaging).

I’ve always loved Citizen Science initiatives that bring scientists into museums not to showcase their work, but to use visitors as assistants to help further it. Why do a simulation of an experiment when you can get involved in the real thing? Similarly, visitors who may not care to use an art station may get passionately involved in a mural painting. It’s exciting to see yourself as a member of the team and to see the tangible, useful results of your efforts.

I know this is a tall order. “Sheesh.” you may be thinking. “First she wants us to open up discussion about museum content via blogs and other forums, and NOW she wants that discussion to be actionable?”

And I know that collaborating—especially with large numbers of disparate visitors—won’t be easy. But collaboration is a two-way street; we should be doing so in the service of actually learning how to make museums better.

If participatory experiences aren’t actionable, they won’t be taken seriously by institutions or visitors. Every meaningful relationship is based on this concept: that all parties take each other’s contributions seriously. We can’t play benevolent dictator to visitors, parceling out opportunities for them to share comments in some kind of democratic “exercise.” If we want to encourage participation, we have to create new platforms for visitors’ contributions to mean something. We have to stop putting exhibits out as fait accompli. We have to find ways to smash concrete with visitors side by side.

Wedding ceremonies often include some acknowledgement of the importance of the guests as witnesses to and supporters of the commitment between the two partners. This acknowledgement often feels false to me: is the memory of Aunt Elma nodding off in the sun really going to pull you through those tough times? The people who support a project or a commitment are the ones who work on it, care about it, and are rewarded by it. Museums are starting to do a great job holding weddings, acknowledging their audiences, calling their visitors participants. It’s time to dispense with the ceremony and start making it real.

I don’t have the answers on how to do this. Please join me, collaborate with me, to figure it out.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Wielding Web 2.0 Intelligently: the SFMOMA Experiment

Last week, I saw the new Olafur Eliasson show at SFMOMA. Artwork aside, SFMOMA deserves kudos for taking on every maintenance nightmare short of fire—the exhibition includes falling water, pools of water, moving floorboards, and the piece de resistance—a room permanently kept at 14 degrees F to preserve the icy art car inside.

But this exhibition isn’t just a descent into sub-freezing temperatures; it’s also a tentative first step for SFMOMA using blog technology as part of the online accompaniment to the exhibition. I say “blog technology” instead of “blog” because SFMOMA has done something unusual and admirable; rather than creating a standard blog, they created an online tool,
using a third party blogging application (Wordpress) as a base, that specifically suits their needs. So often, people struggle to shoehorn museum content into new technologies. Instead of letting the technology take control, SFMOMA put their needs first and used the technology as a tool to create an intelligent, simple application for visitor comments.

The Eliasson blog doesn’t look like a blog. There are no posts. There’s no RSS feed. It’s not separate (either in design or location) from the rest of the Eliasson online exhibition. SFMOMA’s goal was to create a way for visitors—online and onsite in their learning lab—to "share their experience" of the Eliasson show. To achieve this goal, they hacked the Wordpress blogging application, stripping it down a comment sharing/moderating/displaying system. When you go to the Eliasson online interactive feature, you can click on images from the show, leave your own comment, and view other comments on the image. That’s it.

Of course, Web 2.0 purists may say, “This isn’t a blog! It’s just a glorified comment board!” It is true that the Eliasson application doesn’t fit the standard definition of a blog: it does not present content in a chronological order nor can it be accessed as a feed. That’s a negative if the goal is to get out into the blogging or social network community. There’s no way to add the Eliasson blog to your blogroll, or even to access it through traditional blog links or sources. When I asked Tim Svenonius, the SFMOMA producer of the online interaction feature, why they call it a blog, he agreed that it's not a blog--it's just run by a blog engine. He surmised that the marketing folks may have branded it as a blog because the word has more cache than a phrase like "share your own experience."

But whether it's called a blog or not doesn't really matter. What matters is that SFMOMA recognizes the value of Web 2.0--and is willing to do some work to repurpose the technology to fit their goals. SFMOMA looked at themselves, and realized they didn’t want to publish original content in posts and try to elicit related visitor comments. They wanted to use the museum content directly, with no chronological timed release. They wanted a way for people in the museum’s learning lab and people at home to share comments and to see each others’ submissions.

On the technical side, working with the Wordpress engine offered Tim and his team some powerful readymade featurees. Wordpress has a built in comment and comment moderation system. Multiple users can be logged in at the same time to work on or moderate the site. Of course, on the flip side, the SFMOMA team had the challenging task of modifying the wordpress application to remove unwanted features and, most significantly, to massage the comment style seamlessly into the larger Eliasson site. Tim commented that next time, they will either be less vigilant about style-matching, or they will host the content completely on their own server (for greater flexibility in modification). Despite the headaches, however, using wordpress as an engine allowed SFMOMA to quickly get off the ground running with this pilot project in visitor participation.

A few other museums are also using third party applications to allow visitors to comment on images or content from their site without having to commit to continual content updates. Blogging applications aren’t the only or necessarily the best ones to use, especially if you are willing to have your content reside on another server and play by someone else's style rules. Some museums are using Flickr to allow people to comment on exhibit images. Others are uploading videos of their public programs to YouTube. SFMOMA went for a more customized approach, skinning the Wordpress comment service as part of the online experience.

This all excites me because it implies some mastery and ownership of Web 2.0 as a tool. At its best, all technologies are tools--things we know how and when to use to our benefit. Think of a chef’s knife. I’m an average knife-user: I know how to mince garlic and slice eggplant, but fundamentally I only know about three ways to wield a knife. My friend who’s a chef, however, is a knife master. She can effortlessly use the same knife in a huge range of cutting situations. That versatility allows her to do more with less, and to know when and how to use knives.

Right now, most museums are at the beginner stage in their comfort with Web 2.0 technologies. They’ve just been handed their first knife, know it’s sharp and potentially dangerous, and are more than a little nervous that they will use it incorrectly. The fact that the Eliasson blog is SFMOMA’s first foray into online visitor participation means their team spent a lot of time thinking about and getting comfortable with the potential value of blogs before they ever picked up the knife for the first time.

There’s a huge range of Web 2.0 applications out there to explore. Many have the same core functionality (create, share, and comment) with different content, visual interface, or focus. It’s worth spending some time in the virtual knife shop, as SFMOMA did, to see what you like and what works for your needs. And then, once you’re ready, you’ll be able to cut through the hype and the techno babble to create something that truly works for you and your visitors. And isn’t that what this is all about?