Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The Voicemail Museum: A Call-In Collection

This week, I'm launching a new site: the Voicemail Museum. It's an experiment that merges two of my greatest interests:
  1. finding novel, easy ways for visitors to contribute content to museums
  2. finding questions that draw such compelling responses that random peoples' answers would be worth browsing
To participate, all you need is a phone. Call 641.715.3900 ext. 60138, listen to the recorded question, and leave a message with your response. Once I have a few responses I'll start posting them and adding new questions.

Why am I doing this? There are a few reasons...
  1. To explore the potential use of cellphones as feedback devices. Right now, most museums that use handhelds and cellphones use them to serve content, not to receive it. Cellphone tours are smart for a lot of reasons: they use devices visitors already own and are comfortable with, they allow museums to change content flexibly, and they allow visitors to drop in on a tour as they choose. But they only activate one side of the cellphone. How often in your everyday life do you use your cellphone to call a number and listen to someone talk at you?

    There are at least three reasons that cellphones may be great feedback devices. First, device familiarity. People already know how to leave voice and text messages and don't have to grapple with a comment system to do so. Second, granularity.
    Rather than having one talkback station per exhibition, you could have a talkback for every exhibit--a unique phone/SMS number to which visitors could address their thoughts. This may improve quality as well as quantity of comments; if visitors can comment directly on individual artifacts, there may be fewer generic "this exhibition was great!" contributions. Finally, there's diversity of comment format. Visitors can send audio, text, or even video from their phones and need not be constrained by whatever particular format the museum offers in a kiosk.

  2. To learn more about the relationship between feedback format and quantity/quality of input. Last year, I did an experiment with Eric Siegel of the New York Hall of Science using the Voicethread technology to invite people to offer suggestions and critique on an exhibition plan. One of the surprises that arose from that experiment was the high participant-to-spectator ratio. On this blog, there's about a 0.5% comment rate. On the voicethread during the time it was active, there was a 20% comment rate. This was surprising given that participants were required to do a lot more to post a comment on the voicethread than on the blog: they had to register an account, have a microphone, and record their voice. Many uploaded a personal photo as well.

    Why did so many people participate? My guess is that the voicethread technology looks and feels more like a conversation than blog comments do. You can hear and see the people talking, and that's compelling. For the Voicemail Museum, I wanted to strip this down to an even simpler system to see how audio comments work in isolation, without the nice (and somewhat hindering) Voicethread interface.

  3. To find questions that yield amazing visitor-created content. I've often talked about my belief that Post Secret is a model user-generated content project that hinges on a great question: what is a secret you've never told before? I believe there are other great questions out there that can draw out comparably rich, surprising responses that are worth experiencing as a spectator. I figure by trying out different questions, I can see which ones are promising and which ones are duds.

This could be a really simple and powerful way for visitors to share comments using their own devices. The museum would set up a bunch of unique voicemail accounts for different exhibits and then post the phone numbers on text labels. A museum without a phone system could even do this the way I did: register free phone numbers with a web-based voicemail service and receive the messages directly to your email inbox.

I'll be keeping you posted here about the direction and findings from this experiment. If you'd like to share your own questions to be used in the experiment, or would like to participate as a partner venue (and test this with your own visitors), please let me know. In the meantime, share your own compelling questions in the comments here on the blog, and give the Voicemail Museum a call! The inaugural question asks you to share an aha! moment of any kind in your life (my most recent one had to do with being an elitist jerk...).

9 comments, add yours!:

Matt said...

Interestingly, because I'm in my office, I'm reluctant to call up (others can hear me speak!) and am much more willing to type a comment (looks more like work!) I guess the more ways you offer for people to give feedback, the more likely you are to get feedback.

Kooz said...

I think this is a fantastic idea. Make sure to update us on how simplevoicebox.com works out!
I've also been experimenting with personal devices that visitors could use for more information on exhibits, to provide feedback, and possibly extend engagement with certain exhibits. And, do it on the cheap with open source software. For example, I created an iPhone/iPod Touch tour of my gallery. (To see the protoytpe: http://kooz.net/iphone This site only works with mobile Safari.). I deliver it locally through a Linksys router running DD-WRT and an old laptop running Ubuntu server and LAMPP. I can deliver audio and video through this! So, I'm definitely addressing the first third of my ambitions. When that's done, I'm going to include visitor feedback and some activities that can extend stays at certain exhibits. Hopefully, we can do this throughout our museum for each gallery and include more mobile devices!

Kooz said...

Oh, I'm also wondering what barcodes (like qode.com or semacode.com) could do for this!? Use your mobile phone's camera to take a picture of a barcode to direct a person to a website, more interaction, etc.

Kooz said...

Ok, I'm sorry Nina for comment spamming, but 2dsense.com has an iPhone app that does the barcoding and you can create your own custom barcodes! You could have someone take a picture of the QRCode and it can automatically dial your voicemail number! Oh, the ideas are coming fast and furious....

Paolo Amoroso said...

Possible questions for the experiment: 1) What did you always wanted to know, did ask, but got an unsatisfactory answer or none at all? 2) Who is your favorite artist, scientist, thinker or intellectual in the history of culture? 3) What are you most passionate about?

Mariana said...

It kind of reminds me the audio encyclopedia with mobile phones. http://flosse.dicole.org/?item=wikipedia-for-the-rest-of-us-audio-encyclopaedia-with-your-mobile-phone. In our lab there is a project that deals with it: http://mobiled.uiah.fi/

But I expect much more about this because it will come with all the freshness and personal creativity that visitors generated content can bring. Eager to listen more about it.

BTW it could be great for visually impaired also

Anonymous said...

Great idea but participation might be improved by modifying the execution.

I was psyched to participate but then hung up without answering when I heard the question. I probably will call back and try again, but it would have helped me personally to have known the question in advance, whether or not I could edit/delete it after recording and how the message was going to be used.

I look forward to hearing the results and continuing the conversation about this new dimension in exhibit design.

Nina Simon said...


Great point. You'll now see the collection page is up with the first few submissions... as well as text and audio versions of the current outgoing message to help prime people's expectations.

I see this as a living experiment and look forward to all of your feedback and thoughts about how to improve it!

Sarah said...

Nina, this is a great idea! We've been messing about with ways to do some oral history recording for an exhibit, that still allows us editing/moderating ability and doesnt involve costly tech. This could be a solution! I can't wait to see how this turns out.