Friday, April 25, 2008

We Tell Stories: Thinking Inside New Boxes

On Tuesday, I'll be chairing a session at the AAM (American Association of Museums) conference called Eye on Design: Inspiration from Outside the Museum, in which we will feature creative and intriguing design elements from worlds away from museums--guitar stores, baseball stadiums, and more. Today, a teaser--an recent design project that didn't make the cut for the session but offers unique insights into innovative practice.

It's easy for people in any industry to get siloed in our own knowledge prejudices, even though research has shown that innovation happens when we strike out and try something outside of our comfort or knowledge zone. As Janet Rae-Dupree, author of this NY Times article puts it:
IT’S a pickle of a paradox: As our knowledge and expertise increase, our creativity and ability to innovate tend to taper off. Why? Because the walls of the proverbial box in which we think are thickening along with our experience.
We often talk about overcoming these barriers by thinking outside the box. But today, we look at a project that innovates not by thinking outside the box, but by defining a very strange set of small boxes in which to operate.

We Tell Stories is a digital fiction project sponsored by Penguin Books that explores the idea that "there are at least six different ways to tell a story." Penguin commissioned authors to create stories in unique, often interactive forms. One is a garden of forking paths. One winds along a google map. One unfolds word by word in real-time. One is distributed across blogs and twitter feeds. One lets you put yourself into the tale. And one is composed entirely of infographics.

Reading the stories, I flashed back to the writing exercises I used to give students in poetry classes. Few contemporary poets publish sonnets, sestinas, and other form poetry, but these devices are still used to stretch creative abilities. Can I express this concept in verse? Can I shift the mood while using the same words?

When you put yourself under strict and novel constraints, you struggle against them, and that struggle often creates something new. We've seen that happen with The Tech Virtual Museum Workshop. Being forced to design inside the bizarre physics of the Second Life design environment has taken us places we wouldn't have gone with traditional exhibit design tools.

Because this is the REAL paradox of "out of the box" thinking: it's overwhelmingly, stultifyingly open. When we want to do "something new," we cast our eyes everywhere, looking for the most compelling design, the wildest technology, the most intriguing label copy. But creativity isn't about hitting the global buffet. It's about training our minds to go down unfamiliar paths--to put ourselves in new, weird, snug boxes and see what comes out. It's not always pleasant. It should be hard. And that's one of the reasons we avoid it.

But the other reason we avoid these little boxes is suspicion about the quality of the result. Are the products of We Tell Stories great art? Would the stories have been "better" if written in a standard narrative form? That's a question of personal taste. But testing out different forms is useful as an early design exercise even if the products never make it to primetime. If any part of our process needs diversification, it's the beginning. The ways we initiate and prototype projects are the processes that are most likely to cement our thinking into well-worn paths.

Getting into new boxes also can bring teams together. By setting up stringent, strange rules for expression, people who come to the table with very different expectations and predilections are forced onto "the same page." I often have problems in meetings understanding what people really mean. I rarely have that problem when playing a game with set rules.

I think this can be a particularly powerful tool if several forms are tested in parallel for the same project. What are some novel "exhibit forms" that we can use to rethink the way we tell stories in museums? Let's go to the very beginning--the definition of an exhibition and its goals. Some starter ideas for new ways to attack that...
  • Write the exhibition goals and big idea as a story. Does it have a surprise ending? Is there a main character to root for? Too many exhibitions lack a strong narrative, and some of the ones that do it most convincingly tell stories we'd rather not hear.
  • Write them as a conversation between two visitors as they leave. If visitors make their own experience, what experience do you want that to be?
  • Write them as positive and negative reviews on a community website. What will people love and hate? Who will love and hate what?
  • Show them as photographs taken by imaginary visitors. What will they remember? What will they ooh and ahh over?
  • Write them as a series of "I wish" statements. We all have desires about what the exhibit will do, and when we personalize and voice them they become less generic (and highlight differences in the group).
None of these ideas require tools more complex then pen and paper. They do require some bravery and honesty--to confront the fact that some visitors may walk out saying, "Eh. What's for lunch?" But the benefit is an opening up of conversation, of what ifs, and, hopefully, new smart directions for the final result.

What sneaky boxes do you put yourself in to move your brain in new directions?

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Participation through Gifting: Pass It On

Last week, a coworker came in with a big smile on his face. When I asked what had happened, he explained that he had been the recipient of an act of tollbooth goodwill; the person in front of him in line had paid his toll.

This simple act, a $2.50 donation to the universe, is a gift. We've all received (and hopefully given) gifts from strangers before--the woman who lets you go to the bathroom first, the family that hands you some carnival tickets on their way out and your way in. We're suspicious of gifts given by corporations and organizations, casting a wary eye on the cheerful Red Bull guy or anyone handing out religious leaflets. But a gift given from one person to another, however small, feels magical.

Why discuss gifting on Museum 2.0? No, I'm not angling for a present. One of my greatest interests is the "participatory museum," in which there is substantive, unfacilitated visitor-to-visitor interaction. When I heard the tollbooth story, I started thinking about gifting as a model for participatory experiences in museums.

This post discusses participatory gifting in three parts: the why, the what, and finally, the how.

Why is gifting a model worth exploring?

  1. Gifting is a powerful game mechanic. In her fabulous presentation on game mechanics in functional environments, Amy Jo Kim lists "social exchange" as one of five key elements that make experiences sticky. These exchanges can be explicit (trades) or implicit (gifts). Why does Ebay email you a certificate to celebrate "your first positive feedback" on their site? Why do people pay a dollar to send each other virtual hot dogs and pinatas via Facebook? Giving and receiving gifts is a strong reason to come back to a site (whether virtual or real). Collect the e-card. Spend the certificate. And when the gifts are public, as on Facebook, the perception of the site as a "place of giving" serves both the individuals using the service and the site's image.
  2. Gifting makes you feel good. The University of British Columbia recently published a study in the journal Science demonstrating that people who give away a small amount of money in the form of a gift are happier than those who spend the same amount on themselves. One of the authors of the study commented, "This suggests that even making really small changes in how one spends money can make a difference for happiness." Often, when we think of stranger-to-stranger participatory experiences, we think of stressful events like elevator outages. It's hard to convince a museum or other institution that they should intentionally create stressful environments to encourage visitors to talk with each other. It's much more palatable to use something that makes you feel warm and fuzzy, like gifting, to get there.
  3. Gifting extends your message. If your kid gets his photo taken at the museum and can instantly "send that photo to grandma," two things happen. 1: kid gives gift to grandma (and both are happy). 2: museum brand leaves the walls and goes to grandma's house. When you give someone a brochure or take-home element in an exhibition, it ends up in the trash. But if you give them something to give to someone ELSE, then your content spreads, packaged in a bundle of goodwill.

OK, so gifting sounds good. What are its forms, and which are most effective?

Most gifting is personal, both in real life and on the web. I give my friend a cookie. My dad sends me a NYTimes article. Personal gifting makes for powerful participation because you are directly interacting with another individual. But it's small-scale and typically occurs between people with a pre-existing relationship. We aren't culturally comfortable giving gifts directly to perfect strangers.

Web 2.0 encourages a lot of semi-anonymous gifting. Whenever you review a restaurant on Yelp, post a video on YouTube, or heck, write a blog post, you are giving content to an unknown audience of other user/recipients. You're not recommending something to a specific stranger, so it lessens the ick factor. There's a lot of argument about whether the Web 2.0 gift economy exploits users, but the benefit for the content creators is a kind of fame and recognition. There's some participation among givers and receivers, but that participation most commonly takes the form of "in kind" actions. You gift the community a book review, I gift an overlapping community a music review.

Then there's anonymous gifting. My Hebrew school teachers told me this is the best kind because it's truly selfless, yada yada. That may be true. But when it comes to encouraging participation among givers and receivers, this kind of gift is low on the list. Whether you are writing checks to charities or sticking quarters in expired parking meters, you have only an abstract relationship with the other people involved in the transaction.

How can we improve on these models to becomes sites for participatory giving?

The real participatory power comes when we create a kind of hybrid model of facilitated or site-enabled giving. By serving as a safe barrier, websites, museums, and other venues can triangulate and match-make personal gifting, packing the punch of one-to-one giving without the ick factor of dealing with strangers.

This is where the tollbooth fits in. It would be extremely strange to walk up to someone's car window and offer them $2.50 for the toll. They might be offended. They might be suspicious. But by giving this gift through the toll booth operator, you shuttle the unsafe personal transaction through a safe transaction venue. It's semi-anonymous: the receiver can perceive the giver and his little blue Honda, but neither party is threatened by the requirement to actually engage with the other. And rather than impacting two people (giver and receiver), it impacts three (tollbooth operator).

The tollbooth enables personal giving between strangers and brings a third person into the experience. Arguably, three people who would never have met now get to share a nice experience and memory of generosity.

But we can take it even further. In the tollbooth case, it's up to the giver to take the initiative to pay for the person behind him or her. It's not a ready option that the tollbooth operator provides; in fact, in some cases it may take a bit of convincing to make this gift happen.

Sites that are serious about participatory giving don't leave all the work to the inspiration of the giver.

Here are some
key actions that encourage gifting:
  • provide "gift kits" that are easy and rewarding to assemble (e-cards, lanyards).
  • make it easy to send or share the gift.
  • make the gifts public so that others who are neither the giver nor recipient can bask in the glow of the giving experience and be encouraged to participate themselves. This is what Facebook does. I've also been to ice cream shops and bars that feature a "gift wall" of statements like "Ben buys Susie a pint" so you can pick up your free beer next time you visit. An interesting public version of the formerly private gift certificate.
  • find a way for givers and receivers to track the gift if it passes from hand to hand. This can be Web-enabled, like sites that track messages written on dollar bills via serial number. Or, it can be charmingly low-tech, like books with previous owners' names written in them.
  • thank the giver for giving, suggest to both giver and receiver that they give again.
How can you integrate facilitated gifting into your institution? Where have you seen it succeed (or fail)? Give us the semi-anonymous gift of your comment, and we'll respond with affection and interest!

Friday, April 18, 2008

Guest Post from Museums and the Web: Bryan Kennedy

Thanks to Bryan Kennedy from the Science Museum of Minnesota for providing this overview/reflection on the Museums and the Web conference that recently concluded in Montreal. I was particularly interested in the ECHO project and Bryan's comments about the lack of in-house technical staff in museums and how that affects ability to innovate.

Museums and the Web 2008 guest blogger Bryan Kennedy here. For those who haven't attended, the Museums and the Web conference brings an international audience from art, history, cultural, and science museums together to talk about new ways to engage with their audiences via the web. Because of the dynamic and changing nature of the internet this conference serves as a good barometer of new and innovative approaches in the museum world.

If you want the quick and dirty look at the conference, check out the
ephemera tagged #mw2008 (twitter posts, flickr images, a blog entires). The back-channel was an especially active and important part of the conference this year.

And now, on to the exciting bits.

Sharing Authority

...or prying it from the clenched fists of staunchly opinionated old-schoolers. It was refreshing to see a wide array of projects and presentations that put sharing authority at the center of the visitor experience. Who's sharing authority and how?
  • Flickr's Commons project - Flickr is offering up its powerful community tools for museum photo collections. Institutions like the Library of Congress and the Powerhouse Museum are getting thousands of quality tags and comments on previously hidden away images. (paper). And apparently people are also discussing how this will mesh with more nuanced approaches like the project.

  • The Walker Art Center is turning its teen website over to the teens. Recognizing the power of the mullet, they put the business-end up front and the party in the back. You can drag a literal splitter bar across the page and view a community-created site blinged out by the teens or the business site for funders and professionals. Sure, they need both, but take a guess which one is a more compelling read.

  • Developers of the ECHO project are exploring new ways to use web technology to bring native voices into museum exhibits and research. Their task is both especially important and challenging. If the new web is about a spirit of openness and sharing how do you incorporate a group of people into the process who have historically shared to the point of exploitation? Many native groups are not eager to offer up their cultural stories and history for mash-ups on the web. This multi-museum collaborative is undertaking a thoughtful process to tackle these issues.

New This Year: Life After Facebook

The last couple years at Museums and the Web were dominated by discussion about the need for museums to engage with visitors in new social spaces like facebook, blogs, flickr, and the like. Our argument was that if we didn't participate we would be defined in these spaces in our absence. Many institutions that have experimented in these new social realms have seen that this isn't only an imperative but also enormously rewarding. So what's next?

A New Trend: Diggin' Data

The new year brings some new trends in how people are using the web and with them brings new realms for museums to explore. Some of the largest web ventures are opening the doors to their content by giving savvy scripters direct access to the databases that drive these sites using programatic interfaces or
APIs. Want to plot all the Wal-Marts on a map over time? You don't need Wal-Mart's permission, just an API and a source for the data.

Data is also getting stored in new places. Efforts like Freebase, which hopes to be the wikipedia for data, are giving communities the ability to collaboratively share data. If these trends continue museums will need to adapt. Museums hold the objects in our collections in the public trust, but will we trust the public with our object's data? Would you post your entire collections database as a downloadable file on the public website? What if the government said you had to?

Frankie Roberto from the London Science Museum gave what I thought to be the most compelling talk at the conference on this very topic. By submitting Freedom of Information Requests he was able to get listings of several major UK museum collections. He then set out aggregating and displaying this data in a unique fashion, "eschewing details in favor of high-level overviews and visualizations." (public site coming soon) Frankie was able to create compelling maps and graphs of many interesting aspects of these collections in aggregate.

But what is truly interesting about this research project was not what he did but how he did it. Even though this was done by a museum employee it could just as easily been undertaken by a museum visitor. Once acquired, the data could have been placed in a public site such as Freebase. Maybe the data could even have been improved upon making the public copy more accurate in some ways than the version in the museum's enterprise collections database. This seems simultaneously exciting and terrifying for those who manage this data.

What exciting mashups will our visitors create if we open up our collections data? One of the Best of the Web winners, IMA's Dashboard, goes a step further than collections alone, exposing all kinds of data about their museum online to give visitors a unique look into the organization, from memberships sold to energy consumed.

P.S. Hire Programmers

As a final note I want to remind everyone out there in museumland that the people writing the code (programmers, scripters, those computer nerds on level 2) are at the core of many of these new initiatives. Aaron Straup Cope of Flickr presented on this very idea and wrote that:
Computer programming is the acid bath of the Internet. In its purest form it can be harsh and threatening but it is also the vehicle that allows a cold sheet of metal becomes a lush and absorbent canvas.

More museums should be building these programming skills in internal teams that grow expertise from project to project. Far too many museums small and large rely on outside companies for almost all of their technical development on the web. By and large the most innovation at Museums and the Web came from teams of people who have built expertise into the core operations of their institution.

I fundamentally believe that at least in the museum world there isn't much danger of the technology folks unseating the curators of the world from their positions of power. I'm more interested in building skilled teams within museums so that the intelligent content people aren't beholden to external media companies but rather their internal programmers who feel like they are part of the team and understand the overall mission of the museum as well as how to pull UTF-8 data out of a MySQL database.

Did any other Museum 2.0 readers attend the conference? Like any conference there were entire threads of thought (specifically some exciting discussions about the semantic web) that I simply wasn't able to attend. Please post any other reactions in the comments below.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Brooklyn Clicks with the Crowd: What Makes a Smart Mob?

I've written before about the inspiring work that the Brooklyn Museum of Art is doing with their community-focused efforts. They're now running a compelling experiment in crowd-sourced exhibition creation and curation via the photography exhibition Click. This post provides an overview of the project, what makes it stand out, and some analysis of the strategic implications.

What is Click?

Click is an exhibition process in three parts:

  1. The Museum solicited photographs from artists via an open call on their website, Facebook group, Flickr groups, and outreach to Brooklyn-based arts organizations.
  2. On the web, a jury of the masses (anyone) can evaluate the photographs in terms of aesthetic quality and relevance to the exhibition theme. All evaluations are private; all artists are unnamed. It's very easy to sign up and judge... and you can do so now by registering here.
  3. The photographs will be installed in a physical exhibition running for six weeks this summer. The art will be displayed in order of the average juried scores. Visitors will be able to see how different subgroups (including art experts) ranked and responded to the art. The exhibition will coincide with programs about art theory, online communities, and crowd theory, providing a forum for public evaluation and discussion about the process.

What makes Click special?

There are several tactical and strategic things that differentiate Click. Let's start simple...

It is 100% community-based. Anyone can submit art. Anyone can judge. While there are many juried exhibitions that feature an open call, and a few exhibitions that allow visitor judging or rating, I don't know of any besides Click that do BOTH these things. Usually, the institution wants to maintain some control--whether over where the content comes from or how it is selected and organized. As Shelley Bernstein (exhibition coordinator) put it,
The entire exhibition is based on the participation of the community, both in the open call and in the evaluation stage, so the exhibition's contents are entirely up to the community. We are just providing the container, the mechanism so it can function...
In this way, Click is a powerful example of the "venue as content platform" definition of 2.0.

The internal team is led by a non-curator.
The in-house team for Click included two curators, one interpreter, one artist/designer, and two web developers, but the person managing the whole project (Shelley Bernstein) is from Information Systems, not curatorial. If this were a web-only project, I wouldn't be surprised: many museum directors and curators ignore what happens on their websites (and technology people use those loose reins to create all kinds of content experiences). But it's pretty unusual to have a REAL exhibition led by a web person. This highlights the fact that while participatory design is by no means exclusive to the Web, that is the place most of the current experimentation is happening. You don't need to be a technologist to conceive or lead a project like this, but in many museums, non-techies just aren't as exposed to the ideas and products that typify participatory experiences.

They kept the interface simple.
Register to be a Click judge, and you'll be amazed by how little is asked of you. They don't want your home address to send you brochures. They don't require you to agree to an arduous set of terms and conditions. They ask only what they truly need to make the exhibit and the judging successful. This may sound obvious, but we all fall victim to featuritis when we get seduced by the idea of live bodies. There's a reason they call it "capturing" data. With Click, I don't feel like a prisoner.

They make it easy to evangelize. While Click intentionally doesn't allow you to send your favorite photos to friends (scroll down to the "What Makes Click Really Special" section for more on this), there is a lovely page full of ways to join their virtual street team, telling others about the project through Facebook, Flickr, and more.

They are sensitive to the artists who are being judged. At some institutions, there has been friction when artists find out that their work will be judged or commented on publicly by visitors. Much of that friction arises from the fact that the judging/commenting features are added after the artist has already conceptualized and installed their work. In Click, Brooklyn made the scope and depth of participation clear from the start. There's a specific FAQ for artists that explains not only how to upload art, but what's going to happen to it. Artists could choose to remain anonymous throughout the whole process or to have their names revealed in the final exhibition. While artists couldn't choose whether their score or comments would be shown, they could choose whether and how to participate given that knowledge.

They ask judges to self-define their art knowledge.
I found this part of the experience really interesting. When you first log in, you are asked two things: where you live and how much you know about art. You rate yourself from knowing "nothing" about art to being an "expert" on a 1 to 5 scale. When the exhibition opens in June, visitors will see the photos ordered by aggregate score, but you will also be able to look at the scores by art knowledge (and geography) on the web and on interactive kiosks. How will the art novices' choices compare to the art experts'? What conclusions will we draw from that difference? There could be really interesting research implications of this in terms of what we think we know about how different kinds of visitors respond to art. Relatedly, the geography question could glean some relevant data about how local and non-local visitors view and judge the efforts of a community-based museum.

These research questions are where I start to get really excited about Click. There are implications of Click that represent more than just photo arrangement.

But what makes Click REALLY Special? ... the Strategic Implications!

Click is not just an application of Web 2.0 concepts and technologies to a museum project (which Brooklyn has done successfully before). It establishes Brooklyn as a leader in the development and discovery of participatory experiences more broadly--an institution that community and content managers at all kinds of (museum AND non-museum) organizations can learn from.

Specifically, the Brooklyn Museum is doing research about the role of independence and influence in participatory experiences. The genesis of Click derived from James Surowiecki's book The Wisdom of Crowds. In the book, James asserts that "diversity and independence" are two of the most important factors that make crowds intelligent. If you can see how others have responded to something, that impacts your behavior, thereby making you less independent and minimizing your diversity (and, according to Surowiecki, less able to contribute to collective wisdom).

This makes sense. When you are in a mob, heavily influenced by others, you are not smarter. This is true whether you are tromping around the Dallas airport with thousands of other panicked stranded travelers, as I was last week, or watching the dramatic prairie dog video your friend sent you from YouTube. The fact that 4.3 million people have watched the prairie dog video does not make it a great video or an intelligent use of time.

What it does signal is that you have been highly influenced: to follow the crowd, to watch the video. As manager of information systems, Shelley leads a variety of community-based projects at Brooklyn that exploit this crowd influence--people friending each other on Facebook, sending Flickr favorites to each other via email. For this project, she wanted to see if it was possible to go another way. As she put it:
As we started planning for this phase of the exhibition, I started to recognize that many of the features we see on successful websites today are designed to foster community, but they also create a great deal of influence. The view counts, comments, favorites, most e-mailed, and leader boards of sites we all love (Flickr, Digg, StumbleUpon, NetFlix, The New York Times, etc.) are built on the influence of others, so when thinking about the online components of this exhibition, we wanted to minimize influence as much as possible and re-think features that are now commonplace. Of course, there have been plenty of times I’ve wondered if anyone would take part if we didn’t include some of these features that everyone has come to expect, but we’ll have to wait and see on that one.
How did they promote independence in judging? As a Click judge, you can't view other peoples' comments or ratings, even after you've scored a particular image. You can't set photos as favorites for others to see. You don't see the highest ranked photos first. You see the photos in random order, and the direct URLs are suppressed so you can't mail or save any one photo to share with friends (and encourage them to vote for it).

In other words, you can't have a networked, social experience--the experience we've come to expect from Web 2.0 sites. But in Click's case, that prohibition is deliberate. Museum 2.0 concepts and Web 2.0 technologies are still a major part of the Click experience, but they are more narrowly focused on conferring authority to the public rather than providing a social experience. This allows Brooklyn to study the relationship of curation interface to exhibition output specifically, and to therefore perform some research in the basic question of how participatory experiences work.

Research Potential

Unlike most commercial Web 2.0 sites, the Brooklyn Museum's bottom line is not about making money. It's about making intelligent decisions about how to engage visitor/participants with their institution. To that end, they are blogging their process openly and have scheduled a slate of self-reflective programming to coincide with the Click exhibition.

There are many compelling research questions that can extend from Click. How would you design a crowd-sourced exhibition whose goal is to garner the highest participation (as opposed to the wisest participation)? How would the selections of a group with "social influence" tools available to them differ from the forced independence of Click judges? How do these experiments impact the quality of museum exhibitions for visitors who were not involved in the participatory process? Do those visitors notice, or care about, the difference?

This research, especially when it comes to participatory experiences in public spaces (like museums), is not already happening somewhere else. The Web moves quickly and self-reflection has little value in a young field with a "what's hot this second?" mentality. Museums are uniquely positioned to be these reflective "live research" spaces. We have great content. We have established, trusted platforms. We have qualified researchers. We have a bottom line that's about visitors rather than advertising dollars (hopefully).

In short, museums have the assets to assume a new value proposition as leading participatory institutions,
places you go to have the most content-rich, compelling, networked user experiences. But we'll only get there if we join Brooklyn in the lab and start our own experiments to test the hypotheses, measure the results, and find out what clicks.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Contribute to AAM Eye on Design Session

Are you dazzled by Flickr? Get chills in the American Girl Place store? Can't wait to emulate Epcot? 'Tis the season for conference requests, and I'm looking for your help. I'll be speaking at the end of the month at the AAM meeting in Denver, chairing sessions on virtual worlds (Tuesday 9am) and design inspirations from outside the museum field (Tuesday 10:30am).

For the design inspirations session, we're taking OUR inspiration from one of my favorite gaming presentations: Jane McGonigal, Ian Bogost, and Mia Consalvo's yearly top ten game design research findings. Each year at the Game Developer's Conference, these three share the most interesting gleanings from a year of game design research. It's tight, it's snappy, and it provides a lot of interesting food for thought.

For AAM, we are taking a similar approach to present ten design insights from the wide world outside of museums that can be applied within museums towards exhibition design. If you would like to share YOUR insight with the greater AAM world, please send me:
  • A paragraph on your insight and why it should be included
  • A one-sentence or phrase version of it
  • No more than three examples (images/media plus info)
  • A resulting challenge, question, or takeaway for the museum world
Design inspirations can come from anyone anywhere. (For example, see Christopher's comment on the 826 Valencia project and other similar urban spaces.) You don't have to be a museum professional to have a great contribution. The only rules are:
  • your examples CANNOT come from museums
  • your examples CANNOT come from your own work
I can't guarantee that everyone's additions will be included. Some topics that are already on the docket include: installation art, social objects, rock gardens, and the Falkirk Wheel. My hope is to represent as wide a net as possible of design inspirations that are both new to the audience and jam-packed with aha moments. Each inspiration that is included will be credited with your name in the presentation, and I will post the full set of slides here after the conference is over. If you will be at AAM, you can even present your inspiration yourself!

If you have "just an idea" and want to share it, please do so in the comments and we can start buzzing with good inspiration.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Live Blogging from Museums and the Web

For some truly great coverage of the Museums and the Web conference currently taking place in Montreal, check out the New Media Initiatives blog from the Walker. I'm loving my armchair tour from home. You can also follow the Twitter tweets here (and find some good folks to follow). And next week, come here for a guest post by Bryan Kennedy from the Science Museum of Minnesota reflecting on his experiences at the conference.

Who knew it could be so easy to get the conference content without having to leave home? I'm even getting that inspired feeling, without the severe sleep deprivation.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

How Much Time Does Web 2.0 Take?

On Monday, David Klevan (from the US Holocaust Memorial Museum) and I spoke at the MAAM Creating Exhibitions conference about Web 2.0 and museums. I provided the Web 2.0 framework, and David shared lessons learned from the huge range of projects the Holocaust Museum has initiated.

The biggest question that came up again and again was: how much does it cost? In most cases, the audience wasn’t asking about money: they were asking about time. When David explained that each of the Holocaust Museum’s myriad comment boards, blogs, and online forums is moderated by a staff member, the audience turned a little green. As one woman put it, “spending time on this means time staff isn’t spending on other work.” Absolutely. So in the interest of hers, yours, and everyone else’s time, here’s a rundown on what I see as the real time costs of a variety of Web 2.0 ventures.

The time cost of Web 2.0 is not in product development but in product management, maintenance, and growth. It may take you only a few minutes to create a blog, but doing so means (hopefully) a commitment to frequent content posts. When you start any Web 2.0 initiative, you should think about what (and who) it's going to require over its lifespan, not just pre-release. The time estimates below are written with sustainability in mind--the week-by-week management of Web 2.0.

First, the cheap options... and probably the most valuable. You don't need big time to get started with Web 2.0. Got 1-5 person hours each week? Become a participant.

You don't need a lot of time (or any technical expertise) to jump into the world of Web 2.0 and sniff around. Better yet, some of that sniffing can be appended by friendly actions that require little more than a keyboard and an interest in talking with others about your museum.

In 30 minutes, you can learn a lot about your institution and visitor opinions of it. You can...
  • Search for your institution on Yelp and TripAdvisor. If reviews include incorrect information, add your own comment giving helpful information about hours, prices, and new cool things people might like. If there are negative comments you want to address, commiserate, be friendly, and help them know that you care.
  • Check yourself out in the blogosphere. Go to Technorati or Google Blog Search and put the name of your museum (or exhibit, or program, or...) in quotation marks and hit search. You'll see all the mentions of you in recent blog posts. If something looks interesting, click through and read the post. You might even want to post a comment (and link back to the museum website).
  • Look for photos of you on Flickr and videos about you on Youtube. Again, add comments that give tantalizing information about the ancient vase behind the smiling girl or upcoming programs featuring those video-recorded light sabers. This is also a good place to get an education in how people are using images from your institution--both legally and illegally.
There are also a few Web 2.0 activities you can initiate without requiring frequent content updates. You can...
  • run a Twitter feed. The most time-consuming part of this is not posting content (how time-consuming can 140 characters get?) but attracting followers who will read your content. Search for people or institutions of interest to follow, and the followers will come.
  • post images from museum events on Flickr, upload videos from events on YouTube. The time these require is highly correlated to whether you are currently generating this kind of content, but if you are already snapping shots, putting them up on the web (with a handy link back to the museum website) is a cinch, and it's totally acceptable to do it sporadically.
  • create and manage a Facebook group or page, or a MySpace page. These are arguably the most time-consuming of the "cheap" time options, but if you have staff members who are already using these social networks, you can quickly broadcast out to a large group of people (like Twitter) at infrequent points, and provide a place for that group to meet and interact with each other. You can also have an extremely strange representation of yourself, as does the American Museum of Natural History. It must be working for them--they have over 2000 virtual "friends."
  • manage an online comment board on your website. Yes, it sounds overwhelming when David talks about monitoring all the boards on the USHMM website. But in reality, the monitors are making a very simple designation: is this offensive/dumb/nonsensical, or can it stay up as a comment? It's not hard to make that decision; most of us could do it in a few seconds. And since the average online museum comment board garners just a few comments each week (if you're lucky), this needn't be an onerous activity.

Have a bit more time and energy? Not satisfied with the puny 140 character limit on Twitter? If you have 5-10 hours per week, become a content provider.

You can...
  • Start a blog. There are many third party applications like Wordpress and Blogger on which you can host a blog with very little technical knowledge. Yes, you have to do a bit more than just typing to add the images and format the style of the page, but there are simple templates to work with as well (for example, this blog is served on a standard Blogger template). The challenge with blogging is frequently updating the content; I'd say once a week is a must, and posting two or more times per week is a great goal. If you spread the writing out among staff, it needn't take more than 10 hours a week to get three great posts up and monitor (and respond to!) the comments. For more information about what kind of blog might be right for you, check out this post.
  • Start a podcast. Same as the blog, but requires a microphone and some audio editing software. If you are comfortable producing audio content, it's quite simple to start a podcast... and reasonable to put out new content as infrequently as once a month. You don't need to have fancy machinery to make this happen. What you need is organization, interesting content, a person who can edit audio (which you can do for free with Audacity), and a place to post it. You don't have to host the audio yourself; you can use a service like Feedburner to host, organize, distribute, and market your content. If you want to get really fancy and go video, you can "vodcast" this way, too.

But you want something bigger? Have gobs of time and some technical know-how? Then sheesh! With 10-20 hours per week, become a community director.

These projects tend to be custom and are harder to define in neat bullets than the others. They include projects like...
  • community websites like Science Buzz (Science Museum of Minnesota) and Red Shift Now (Ontario Science Center) that combine a variety of text, video, audio, and image content accessible both from the museum and from the web. In these examples, staff are continually producing new content and interacting with the community via comment boards and other uploaded user-generated content.
  • open collections databases like the Powerhouse Museum's tagging system, where visitors can add their own keyword tags to museum artifacts. In this case, staff are producing digital assets and managing a back-end program (read: software techies) to provide visitors with the content they want via passive tracking of usage.
  • experiments in social networks like those performed by the Brooklyn Museum via their Facebook applications and video contests or by the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in their Google Earth work and myriad comment boards. This pretty much requires dedicated staff.
  • open exhibit development projects like The Tech Virtual Museum Workshop. While it took a full-time effort to launch this Web+Second Life platform where visitors can propose and prototype their own exhibits (the best of which we are now building at The Tech), it now takes only about 10 hours of my time weekly to manage the community, coordinate classes, support virtual exhibit designers, and make it happen.
And that's the reality of many of these projects. The thing that often differentiates the heavy lifting ones from the simple activities is the ongoing development of new content, new platforms, and new experiments. Once they are running, any of these projects, even the ones that sound most ambitious, tend to require part-time maintenance and management, not full-time employees.

These projects require a fundamentally different skill set than many of the other jobs we do in museums.
Think of the folks doing these activities as floor staff working in your virtual galleries. They have some content knowledge and an interest in engaging with visitors. They aren’t super-techies or crack content experts. They manage relationships instead of producing exhibits or events. Some museums are starting to reflect this in their hiring, adding "community management" to job descriptions that formerly were just about content production or distribution.

But you don't have to change your title to get started. Bookmark your hour each week and start wading in. What ideas have I left out that you would add to these lists? What costs are you most concerned about when you consider embarking on Web 2.0 ventures?

Monday, April 07, 2008

New Feature! and the Taxonomy of the Museum 2.0 Collection

If you've been reading this blog from the beginning, this post may look like deja vu. I've tried the "rate this post" before. But I seem to have finally found a widget that will allow you to easily rate each post in one click (scroll to the bottom of this or any post to try it out). Please consider rating posts to help your fellow readers (and me!) see what is most useful and compelling content for you. If you are reasonably active with this, I will integrate a "posts by rating" option in the various ways to view posts on the right column, along with "Past Posts by Topic" and by date.

But rating is just the tip of the organizational iceberg. Now that there are over 200 posts on this blog, I'd like to start acting intelligently to organize the content--beyond the tags I assign to individual posts--so that you can most quickly find the posts you most want to read. Ideally, rather than a taxonomy set by me, we could create a folksonomy (in the Web 2.0 spirit) that is driven by your interests and site use. I'm painfully aware of the fact that 60% of you are coming here for the first time and may not be getting what you want. In many fields, this isn't a big issue since blogs are used to report news--and old news is not as useful as new news. But this blog rarely shares breaking news, and you may find an interview conducted two years ago to be more valuable than the posts of the week. The old news is new for many, but it's deep down in the pile.

The challenge with grouping posts by topic (and I constantly struggle with naming and assigning topics) is that our interests are often both highly specific and hard to define. Are you interested in reading posts about case studies at other institutions or learning about tools you can try out yourself? Do you want conceptual frameworks or inspiring products and processes?
The answer for all of us is yes, no, and primarily "it depends." Help me help you by sharing your own thoughts about what you are looking for and what organizational structures would make sense to you. Some of the suggestions I've been considering: --reader-generated tags (right now I set the topic tags for each post, not sure how to do this with Blogger but it could be possible)
  • pumping up the "What is Museum 2.0?" sidebar link into a more clear narrative "entrance" to the site
  • promoting use of the search tool at the top, which is quite useful if you want to know everything this blog has ever reported about a specific institution, project, or term
  • a second site that groups posts in a variety of ways as a sort of index or resource list
  • downloadable "chapters" that group content book-style

Perhaps the best option is to start soliciting from you the answer to these questions:
What are you looking for when you come to this site? What would you be thrilled to find here?

After all, it's only a 5-star experience if you get what you want. Otherwise this becomes just another collection gathering (virtual) dust. And we all know we don't need more of that.

What tips do you have for organizing this content? And what do you personally wish would be "on top" when you get here?

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Web 2.0 for Museum Professionals Presentation

Tomorrow, I'm headed to beautiful Philadelphia for the MAAM Creating Exhibitions conference. I'll be speaking in two sessions, one on innovative uses of technology in exhibits and the other on Web 2.0 in exhibitions. (And if you will be there, please drop me a line and join me for a pigout on Sunday evening at Kingdom of Vegetarians, one of the best reasons to visit PA.)

I've been frustrated at a few conferences by the loose way some people throw around the term Web 2.0. At the last ASTC, in a session on "Museums 2.0," I heard just as many muddled explanations of doing the same old thing (and wrapping it in new words) as truly interesting, relevant projects. This non-rigorous approach leads skeptics to think we're and doesn't help those who are turned on understand what or why they should be pursuing particular goals.

And so, for this weekend's Web 2.0 session, I'm going to focus more on the what of Web 2.0 than the how--the definitions, not the products. And while that may make for a somewhat cerebral experience, i hope it will also open up some mental doors to the new and compelling innovations of this movement, as well as its connections to our missions, current activities, and dreams.

So here's my draft presentation. Please share your comments via the blog, or, better yet, on the voicethread itself. I will integrate any feedback I get into the final result, to be shared on Monday. Enjoy!
*Update: You can now download the final slides (no audio) here.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Cocktail Party Participation: Revisiting Twitter

Last year, I wrote a post explaining what Twitter is and how it might be applied in museums. At the time, I was a Twitter non-participant, a lurker on the edges. Now, a year later, I’m using Twitter on a daily basis, and it’s brought up some new observations about participation on websites and in interactive venues like museums.

For those who are unfamiliar with it, Twitter is a service that allows you to send messages of 140 characters in length to a set of people (“followers”) who self-elect to receive your messages (“tweets”). A year ago, I wrote about the potential of Twitter as a platform-agnostic service; you can send and receive tweets on the web, on your phone as text messages, on instant message clients, and on a variety of downloadable applications (like Twitterific, which I use for the Mac). Each person with an account on Twitter effectively has two social networks—your outgoing set of followers (people who receive your tweets) and your incoming set of tweets from the people you follow.

Twitter is often categorized as “micro-blogging,” and for the haiku experts among us, you could post very short blog entries via Twitter. If you want to report live from an event or speech, you can use Twitter to send out individual chunks of information, a string of mini-pearls of insights and reactions.
When I previously wrote about Twitter, that was the extent of my knowledge. I thought that Twitter was for broadcasting—a different but related kind of broadcasting from blogging. But now that I’m a Twitter user, I realize that Twitter is not (mostly) about broadcasting. It’s about conversations. If a blog is a lecture with a q&a session at the end, Twitter is a cocktail party, a stream of interrelated one-liners and repartees.

Consider, for example, this blog. It is not a cocktail party. I’d love Museum 2.0 to be a more participatory site with comment streams rampantly debating each post topic, but the reality is that my voice dominates the site. Each week, about 1,500 unique people visit Museum 2.0 and post an average of five comments. That’s lousy participation! If I told you I'd created a participatory website in which 0.3% of visitors add their own content, you'd probably send me to a dictionary to look up "participatory."

But this comment rate is typical for a blog. The format (I write a lot, you get to respond at the end) is a standard push content model. I read lots of blogs and very rarely add comments. My guess is that most of you come here to read content, not to get into a lively conversation. For some people, commenting on blogs is scary; for others, it's just not a compelling way to engage. For some, it's technically inconvenient:
if you’re one of the folks who read this blog via email or RSS feed, you don’t even have easy access to the comments—either as a reader or a contributor (but please, do click through to the site when the spirit moves you to read and participate in the comments).

Twitter is different. On Twitter, I have 54 followers—1/30th of Museum 2.0’s weekly readership. And yet when I send a quick question out on Twitter, I often receive five responses immediately from different sources. On Twitter, my own content production trend is inverted--I more frequently respond to others' tweets than post my own. On this blog, I'm the voice of authority (albeit a non-traditional one). On Twitter, I'm one voice among many.

Thus for some institutions, Twitter may be a better choice than blogging. If your goal is to create an online space that encourages visitor participation, a blog with a 0.3% rate of visitor content production is probably not a good choice. Twitter is a hybrid broadcast/communication platform--part blog, part instant messaging system. It's more discussion-oriented than social networks because there isn't the other content (video, photos, profiles) to get in the way. In short, Twitter provides opportunities for genuine conversations with visitors.

What makes Twitter a conversational space? How can the aspects that make Twitter work be applied to other participatory efforts? Some thoughts on what makes Twitter tick...

There is no dividing line between producers and consumers. On a blog, users have clear roles: someone writes the posts, and someone else reads (and potentially comments on) them. On Twitter, everyone is a Twitterer. You may follow lots of people and rarely tweet, but very few people sign up as pure followers and never tweet themselves. It's like signing up for a social network--the expectation is that you will build your profile and then use it to link to others. Even if you sign up for Twitter in the beginning as a lurker, you quickly can get hooked into participating, just as some people get hooked on updating their Facebook status (which, incidentally, you can do from Twitter). This lack of a line also applies to authorities--I admit it gave me a thrill to know that Obama (via some 20 year old lackey, probably) is one of my followers. It's the same frivolous pleasure that comes from "friending" the City Museum on Facebook. It's a party where no cliques are closed.

The limits on expression level the playing field. In a world where everyone only gets 140 characters in which to express oneself, the trivial and the profound are on roughly equal footing. This brevity encourages the timid to participate and limits the long-winded from crowding the stage.

You are broadcasting to a network, not an audience. When you send a tweet, you know exactly which individuals are receiving it (your followers). This social knowledge makes people more comfortable tweeting personal content and observations. Blog producers are always looking outward towards a larger future audience. Twitterers are speaking to a known group, and may have more respect, familiarity, and interest in them. It's a party of friends and acquaintances, not an auditorium of strangers.

You get immediate feedback. When I send a tweet, I get responses within minutes. When I see someone's tweet of interest, I respond immediately. The short format makes it easy to feel comfortable just dashing something off--no email signature necessary. There are negatives to this; while a person may comment on a blog post months after it was created, tweets have a short lifespan. If you make a witty remark at the party and your friends were turned the other way, it dies. But when it sparks, the energy and chatter swells.

You can spend as much time as you like. If your institution starts a blog, you need a blogging strategy which hopefully includes frequent, high-quality posts. That can be hours of work each week. Twitter is not as professional a broadcast medium, and it's acceptable to use it intermittently (as the Obama campaign does) or inconsistently (flurries of tweets followed by low activity). While it's important to grow your following/follower network to have impact, the focus is more on attracting and engaging with people than producing content. Be a lively party guest and you don't have to host the shindig to command some attention.

There are plenty of reasons to dislike Twitter. Not everyone wants a round-the-clock party running on their desktop full of guests announcing lunch plans and their new favorite web tool. But it's another tool in the spectrum of participatory web experiences, something worth understanding and putting in context alongside social networks and blogs. And it's one of the easier ones to get started with if you want to test the waters. If you've got your dancing shoes on, sign up and join the party. Open invite--BYO Insights.

Oh, and add a comment here sometime. We'd love to hear your thoughts.