Monday, September 29, 2008

Passionate Experts and the Museums that Avoid Them

I'm not a fan of Olympic gymnastics; I don't really know enough about the sport to be blown away by the action. This summer, however, one little video clip changed that. I was surfing the NBC Olympics site when I stumbled on Bela Karolyi, watching Nastia Liukin's floor routine (unfortunately, this video is only available in the US). It's a 2 minute revelation.

For those of you who can't or choose not to watch the video, Bela was sitting in NBC's New York studio with Bob Costas, reacting energetically and effusively to Nastia's routine. He pounded his fist, clapped his hands and repeatedly exclaimed, "yes, yes!" and "she is an Olympic champion"--and I felt it. Watching him watch her didn't teach me more about gymnastics, but it exposed me to a world of passion about it. It taught me how to care about gymnastics. And that got me thinking about how bad museums are at doing the same thing--using passion to promote visitor engagement in new content.

Museums shy away from presenting passionate views. It's ironic that we expect visitors to fall in love with our artifacts and exhibitions without ever presenting Bela-like models for that kind of passion. I think there are many visitors who wander into museums the same way they'd wander into a foreign sporting event--they don't know what's going on, why people care, and most importantly, why they should care. At a sporting event, there are little Belas everywhere yelling at refs and hooting with glee. By following the cheering, newcomers can start to understand what parts of the game are most valued, and get a window into the deep love some fans show for the sport.

Museums don't have a cheering section. As visitors walk through galleries, it's easy to wonder: where does this stuff come from? Why is it here? Who cares? Museums do a decent job addressing the first two questions, but we rarely tackle the third. The use of an "objective" authoritative voice makes it hard for visitors to assign value or significance to items with which they don't already have a connection. Most museums train their docents to maintain an objective, neutral tone, so they aren't conveying their passion either.

This passion avoidance affects more than just how visitors perceive museums--it affects the kind of content we can convincingly convey. I was recently in a meeting at a museum with a wonderful natural history collection, discussing how we might use their collection to convey urgency about global warming, deforestation, and other natural resource issues. One of the participants commented that scientists are often passionate, even spiritual, about their work when you get them alone--but they never show that face to the world. The fear of professional stigma and the desire to appear objective silences their passion. The love that drives these scientists is off-limits to exhibit designers, even if that love is the key to unlocking related appreciation on the part of visitors.

One astute participant pointed out that "you have to love nature to want to save it." Everyone nodded in assent... and then continued to grapple without how we could inspire visitors' love without presenting love of our own.

It's not going to work. Sure, some people are passionately inspired by museum exhibits--but those are probably people who are already fans of the content or the institution. There are many more visitors walking in without context, without comprehension. They may leave with some facts, but that's not enough to teach them to love the game. This relates to this post from last year about the Creation Museum--when Paul Orselli commented:
The Creation Museum has gathered the "holy trinity" (sorry!) of storytelling in passion, people, and purpose.

Each aspect of their "three ps" is clear and unapologetic. Director Ham has a missionary zeal in getting his simple message across ("everything in the Bible is literally true AND science supports it.)

By contrast, who, most often, delivers the message of science museums? Marketing and Development departments by and large. By the time the "marketing package" is developed for an exhibition much of the original purpose and passion are wrung dry.
Let's not leave passion to the NBCs and Creation Museums of this world. We need to let out our inner fans, the Belas that got us into this business in the first place, and give ourselves permission to tell the deep, passionate stories. We need to tell the funny stories, show our anger, gasps in delight, and help visitors do the same. If we can "co-anchor" our standard content with some passion, we can start help visitors tackle the "why" of exhibitions along with the "what."

And then maybe someone who didn't get it before will learn how to care.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Quick Hits: Funding, Facts, and Futurecasting

First, I want to extend a huge THANK YOU to everyone who has contributed to the nascent Museum 2.0 Living Archive. I'll be adding a bunch of answers to your questions and some other ways to browse the archives this weekend, and then I'll link to it from the main blog site starting on Monday. We're still looking for your Museum 2.0-related questions, starting points, and guides to the blog--for this to truly be a living resource it has to keep growing. All you have to do to participate is write one question here. Please help make this a great resource for everyone.

Now, onto the links:
  • If you have a great idea for a participatory learning project that uses digital tools, the MacArthur Foundation wants to give you money. They are accepting submissions for this Digital Media and Learning Competition through October 15. The requirements for application are fairly broad and the application process doesn't look too onerous. Both individuals and institutions can apply, and there's a Young Innovators category for applicants 18-25.
  • I'm currently doing a project in Canada, and in my hunt for international social media statistics, I came upon this amazing Social Media Tracker report. Great and sometimes surprising statistics on social media use around the world, circa March of 2008. It's part three of an ongoing project, so the authors analyze trends over time as well as providing a snapshot of March 2008. I can't wait for part four.
  • There's a new Pew Research report on teens and gaming showing that 97% of American teens play some kind of video games (console, online, mobile, etc). The report covers both the social and civic aspects of gaming. The press release gives you the highlights, or you can download the whole report.
  • Speaking of games, the scenarios for the futurecasting alternate reality game Superstruct (say that three times fast) are now available. Like last year's World Without Oil, Superstruct will invite players to imagine life in a dramatically different but highly plausible near-future. If your museum is looking for ways to engage visitors in speculative play around deep issues (or you are ready to confront these issues yourself), you may want to check this out. Play starts on October 6, but people are already debating the future on Facebook. I'll be playing in CA and hosting a game event at ASTC in Philadelphia mid-Oct. Stay tuned here for suggestions on how museums can get involved on a programmatic level.
Lastly, the service that provides the rating system at the bottom of each of these posts has recently released a new feature that provides links to other related posts. Great idea, but so far, I'm not convinced that it's doing anything useful. Let me know if you like the feature or think I should scrap it.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Exhibits and Artifacts as Social Objects

How can you design museum spaces so that exhibits and artifacts become social objects--things that people want to share with each other? This summer, I wrote about situations that bring strangers together in conversation by focusing their attention on a third party (the dog, the stuck elevator, the surprising event). While that post focused on conditions for talking to strangers, this one looks at the object of attention itself around which triangulation and social behavior happens.

I was intrigued by this article by Jyri Engeström about "object-centered sociality." Jyri argues that social networks that succeed are based around objects, not relationships. The objects don't have to be physical, but they do have to be distinct entities. Flickr has photos. YouTube has videos. has events. Jyri suggests that more nebulous social networks, like LinkedIn or Facebook, can only succeed if and when objects are at the foundation of the experience. Facebook has a diversified object model--for some people, friend updates are the essential object, for others, it's virtual gifts. LinkedIn is now organizing the network more strongly around jobs instead of connections, which Jyri sees as a move to object-centered design:
Think about the object as the reason why people affiliate with each specific other and not just anyone. For instance, if the object is a job, it will connect me to one set of people whereas a date will link me to a radically different group. This is common sense but unfortunately it's not included in the image of the network diagram that most people imagine when they hear the term 'social network.' The fallacy is to think that social networks are just made up of people. They're not; social networks consist of people who are connected by a shared object.
This is great news for museums. Unlike digital networks, which have to manufacture or solicit online versions of objects around which users can rally, museums are full of objects. We know that the stories and connections between visitors and objects exist--we just have to find ways to use those connections to turn the objects into triangulation points for social behavior. Rather than convincing visitors that they want to be part of "the museum club," if we can find ways to make our objects function socially, the opportunity for a useful network may emerge.

Jyri offers five key principles for the design of such a network or service:
  1. You should be able to define the social object your service is built around
  2. Define your verbs that your users perform on the objects.
  3. How can people share the objects?
  4. Turn invitations into gifts.
  5. Charge the publishers, not the spectators.
Let's look at these briefly one by one. I think that the second one is the most important and potentially useful to museum work, but they're all worth considering.

1. You should be able to define the social object your service is built around.
This one is easy for museums. It's exhibits, artifacts, collections--our stuff.

2. Define the verbs your users perform on the objects.
Currently, these verbs are primarily non-social: visitors watch and interact singly or in pre-defined groups. Occasionally, if the objects are provocative enough, visitors discuss, point, and share.

Ideally, we'd identify verbs that visitors could "do" to exhibits that are more transactive--using the exhibit as a triangulation point for a social interaction. This is hard to do when exhibit interactions are not personalized. On other services, the verbs are not necessarily inherently social, but both input and output verbs are represented. On Flickr, some users post photos and others view them. On Ebay, some users sell and others buy. The roles are fluid and can be redefined each time you have an interaction on the site. How could exhibits be a vehicle for an input and output--and a social tie from in to out?

If every visitor looks, there is no social interaction. If some visitors point and others look, there's a social interaction (as demonstrated in the RACE exhibition). If some visitors create and others consume, there's a social interaction. Thus, every exhibit that aspires to be social should encourage at least two verbs--one that transmits and another that receives. The visitors involved shouldn't have to directly engage with each other to have a social experience.

3. How can people share the objects?
Every time you produce an "object" on a social website like Flickr or YouTube, there are automatically-generated ways to share it. The objects can be emailed, embedded, linked, and blogged (if the owner supports it). There are many collections-rich museums that have created ways for visitors to create their own digital collections. Some, like the Brooklyn Museum's ArtShare Facebook application, make it easy for users to share their art interests with others. But we haven't found good ways in the physical museum for people to share the objects that interest them--beyond visitors taking illicit photos on cellphones to send to friends.

Are there models out there for sharing physical objects that can't be moved? There's an ice cream store in Santa Cruz with a "gift board" where people can leave gifts of sundaes and cones for friends. It's a public gift certificate system that emphasizes the way that ice cream--something you can only get in person at the store--can be shared. Perhaps there's a way for visitors to publicly memorialize the "gift" of artifacts to friends and family in a similar way.

4. Turn invitations into gifts.
How do museums enable visitors to "invite" their friends and family to visit? Imagine creating a mechanism where visitors could tell their friends not just how great the exhibit was, but give them a gift that encourages them to visit. Gifting is a powerful participatory behavior. The gift could be something as pedestrian as a discount pass, but ideally it would be the gift of a museum object or something related to one. Since we can't have visitors giving away exhibits, the invitation can be a gift of access, a gift of a story about an exhibit, a gift of a challenge to find a particular exhibit... anything that will inspire that potential visitor to go to the museum to "cash in" his or her gift.

5. Charge the publishers, not the spectators.
Not all Web 2.0 sites work this way, and museums are (hopefully) far from it. The concept here is that the people who want to share their content--photos, blogs, audio--are the ones who are willing to pay for it. This concept is reflected in the "premium" paid version of many services, which offer you better ways to publish rather than better ways to view content. Flickr only allows you to post 200 photos for free, after which you have to pay. You never have to pay to look at photos--only to publish lots of them.

What would this mean in museums? It only makes sense if museums display visitor-generated objects (in which case the participant/creators would pay for the privilege, or for prime vitrine real estate) or if visitors could republish museum-owned content. This does happen--plenty of museums charge a fee for use of their images--but they also charge spectators to see the exhibits. And museums charge other museums to "republish" content in the form of traveling exhibits. Could museums create a viable business model based on traveling exhibits and licensing fees alone? Probably not--and I'd argue it's a bad idea. Museums should not be in the business of licensing partially publicly-funded objects to visitors. We have enough trouble encouraging the republishing and sharing of museum content without crippling it with fees.

Do you have other interpretations of how these could be applied to museum exhibits (and whether it's worth it)? What are the social verbs that visitors could "perform" on your objects?

Monday, September 22, 2008

How Your Museum Can Be an Online First Responder

Imagine that your museum is ready to start creating content on a small-scale in Web 2.0. You're ready to make a few videos to post on YouTube. You're ready to write commentary about content related to your institutional goals. Where should you start? How should you focus your efforts to get the most viewership for your time spent?

Comment. Rather than starting your own blog or YouTube channel, find the sources out there that relate to your topics of interest and respond to them. Conceptually, commenting on other sites signals your institution's willingness to engage with others on their own terms. And pragmatically, it's a great way to drive traffic. By posting intelligent, insightful, value-adding comments and responses on pre-existing high-traffic sites, you can drive more visitors back to your own site and nascent Web 2.0 efforts than you can if you focus on creating your own little world of content. You can join the conversation that is already happening about your content where the most eyes and ears are engaged.

Let me give you an example. Imagine you are the Boston Museum of Science, and you are ready to make some videos to post on YouTube. Where should you start? When I search for "Boston Museum of Science" on YouTube, I find 83 videos. Sorting them by View Count, I see that two videos--one about wearable technology and the other about C3PO, have generated about 8,000 views apiece, compared to 2,000 or fewer for the rest of the videos on the list. If you scroll down on either of these videos, you'll see that they have generated a few text comments, but no video responses. The Boston Museum of Science could start their own YouTube channel and post videos about whatever they want. But why not link that effort to the videos that are already out there, and focus initial energy towards creating responses to the videos in which others have already expressed interest?

Posting a video response means that people who see the first video, those who were interested in that topic, have a direct and compelling opportunity to view your response video as well without having to click to another page. Unlike the "related videos" list, which is aggregated automatically by YouTube, video responses are self-assigned by their creator. While videos with millions of views often have tens of video responses, there are many in the thousands and hundreds of thousands without video responses.

You don't have to only use this technique to look for instances of your own brand or institution. You can also use it to find sources related to niche content at your museum or breaking news on which you can shed some expert insight. The key is to make your contribution relevant, distinctive, and enticing enough to encourage visitors to "click through" your name to your website.

Your goal with commenting should be to be "one of the few" rather than one of many. If you select sources that are too huge, like blogs that frequently garner hundreds of comments per post, your comment will often be lost in the swarm. But if you can find communities with a tight content fit to yours, a robust audience, and a low number of "first responders," you can make a major impact commenting in those arenas.

How can you find the right places to respond?

First, find yourself. Use a service like HowSociable to search for your brand across many social media sites, or use a more targeted blog search service like Technorati or Google Blog Search to find out what people are saying about you in the blogosphere. Others set up Google Alerts to get a message anytime a particular brand, program, or exhibit is mentioned on the Web. These services will link you directly to real-time conversations happening about your institution, whether via photos uploaded on Flickr or links on Delicious. I use Technorati to watch for anytime someone mentions this blog so I can read what they are saying and comment if it will add to the conversation.

Then, find others. You can use many of these same services to search for terms of interest, like "large hadron collider" or "new mexico arts." If you use Technorati, you can see the authority of each related source, which gives you some idea of how embedded that source is in the larger web community (authority is based on how many other sites link to you). By finding authoritative sites in your niche areas of interest, you can start scoping out the web communities around your content and find the ones that are best fits for your input.

Then, find the match. Just because someone has attracted millions of views by rapping in your museum doesn't mean you have to respond to that content. There is lots of content out there related to your institution, and you should find the conversations that make you most comfortable. Imagine that you are at a cocktail party, flitting between groups. Do you want to swap jokes with the gals in the corner? Sit down for an intense policy discussion? You may even want to engage many staff members--with different comfort zones--to be part of a team of first responders to the range conversations that relate to your institution.

Once you've found the places you want to comment, how should you go about it?

Your comment or video response should do two things: add positive value to the overall conversation, and link back to your own site. Think of this as a game with the goal of intriguing viewers enough to want more of your content. It's like trying to become the hit of someone else's party. You are not commenting just to say, "hey, we have an exhibit/program about this at our museum!" You should be commenting to say, "the most surprising perspective I've heard on this topic came from someone we interviewed while designing this exhibit. We learned that ..." Many comments are neither insightful nor enticing. You can put yourself ahead of the pack by doing both.

And make sure that you are linking back to your own site/blog/YouTube channel. There is a culture on Web 2.0 of "clicking through" to see where a commenter hangs his or her virtual hat. When someone writes a thoughtful comment on this blog, I always click on her/his name to see where it takes me. I often end up exploring a blog or website I hadn't heard of before. When you post a comment anonymously, you miss the opportunity to attract this kind of click-through exploration. Your comment is a dead-end, no matter how intriguing.

One last thought on clicking through: learn how to embed a link in a comment. It's quite easy. If the blog on which you are commenting allows HTML (and most do), here's the syntax you need to put a link in your comment:

If the comment is "check out this exhibit" and you want to link the word "exhibit" to the URL, you type:
check out this <a href="">exhibit</a>

Try it out, and preview your comment before you hit publish. You'll breathe easier knowing you closed your quotation marks and carats properly.

Of course, once you join a conversation, you'll want to keep up with it. Some blogs allow you to subscribe to the comment thread (so you can receive updates when people respond to your comments), but on others, you will just have to manually check back.

What conversation is your museum ready to join?

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Your Help Needed to Steer the Museum 2.0 Live Archive

Over the life and growth of this blog, one statistic has remained the same: 60% of the visitors to the site at any given time are new to it. This has always made me a bit uneasy. I love that new people are coming, but I worry that these people are coming to a resource site that isn't organized in a particularly useful fashion.

Many blogs don't have this problem because they function more like news services--the most recent post is the new news and the archives are history. But here, there are many "evergreen" posts dating back to the beginning with design ideas, analysis, links, and interesting projects.

So I've decided to make a better archive, one that organizes posts by questions ("How do I get familiar with Web 2.0 tools?," etc.) and starting points ("I'm a curator from a small art museum...") rather than by tags which may or may not be relevant to your needs. I was inspired by this site about collection management, which organizes the resources in a sidebar in a really practical, understandable way.

And I need your help. Because while I can guess at some of the major questions and starting points, I don't really know what YOU want... and the archive should be a place that serves you as well as possible. I'll be building the archive over time, and I want to make sure to start with the questions and paths of most interest and importance to you.

There are two super-simple (3 min or less) ways to participate:
  • add a question that brought you to this blog here
  • add your starting point for thinking about 2.0 and museums here
And for those of you who are interested in helping in a more significant way, I invite you to create your own page of preferred posts, the things you've found most useful, etc.

To be clear: ALL YOU HAVE TO DO to contribute is TYPE IN A QUESTION OR STARTING POINT. Then I and other ambitious volunteers will do the rest, and we'll have a great resource.

To contribute to the site, you will need to register an account with the wiki host. It is easy and non-spammy, but I know it's a pain. Once you've done that, you can edit any page on the wiki and create your own as well.
I'll be checking in on your questions and starting points frequently and will try to provide paths within a week of your question or starting point being submitted. Once the site has enough content, I'll tie it into the sidebar of this blog so you can access the archives directly and easily. I particularly want to encourage the 516 people who read this blog via email to click on the links and add your feedback--you are the least likely folks to be accessing the current archive and might find a question-based one quite useful.

And for those of you who are interested in how I created this archive site, here's the process I went through. After asking around, I considered four free-ish options for the wiki: pbwiki, wikispaces, Google sites, and I was looking for something without ads that looked decent, was easy to use, and wasn't going to cost anything. I eliminated wikispaces because you have to pay to be ad-free (though it looks and functions very well). I eliminated pbwiki because you have to pay if you want to have more than 3 contributors. I was going to go with Google sites but I haven't found it to be completely intuitive in past experiments. Then, Dee Elling recommended to me. I was very impressed by how simple it was to use and how clean it looks, so I went with it. With a basic (free) account, the only significant feature that is not available is custom domains, which means you have to suffer with a strange URL (mine is But it's a small price to pay for a nice site with few restrictions.

It took me about 2 hours to set up the whole thing, though that included a bunch of dinking around and creating the first two answer sets (1 and 2). So please check it out, add a question or a starting point, and let's create an archive that can really help you get the information you want.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

How to Design from Virtual Metaphor to Real Experience, and an Example

I often talk about the idea of taking social technology out of the Web and putting it into physical museums as part of our exhibitions and programs. Recently, I learned about an innovative, super-low tech tagging project in a library that does this beautifully. This post explains that project and suggests a process by which you could approach this kind of “virtual-to-real” design. As you read the story in the next few paragraphs, consider the four-step approach in the image above. I’ll come back to it at the end to demonstrate how it maps to the example.

First, some background on tagging. Tagging is a term that refers to people assigning keywords (“tags”) to things. These things could be websites (as in the case of delicious), videos, objects—whatever. In the world of museums, tagging is of great interest to people in the collections world. If visitors can assign their own tags to artifacts, then we can create visitor-generated folksonomies alongside traditional taxonomies—and people who are searching for content can find artifacts of interest via either path. Why are folksonomies
useful? Traditional taxonomies may only cover a certain set of metadata about an object. You may want to see “fossils” but the museum may separate those by species or time periods without a general category for fossils. Tags can allow people to search for artifacts via the real words they’d use to describe those things.

As a tangible example, consider the Powerhouse Museum’s collections database. When you go to the database, you can search for objects by tags, and when you get to an individual artifact, you can add new tags or delete previously assigned ones that you don’t think are appropriate.

But there’s a problem (for me) with this kind of tagging: it only affects the Web. Tagging
could be very useful for people who visit museums if there was a way to access the tags when you arrive and use them to discover artifacts you’d like to see on your visit. Ideally, there would be a complete feedback loop where you would then be able to assign tags to objects as you view them in the galleries, thus creating more data for new visitors walking in the door.

Sounds complicated? The library at Haarlem Oost in the Netherlands wanted to do this same thing—to allow patrons to tag the books they’d finished so they could be displayed on shelves and in the database for others to find books they might enjoy. And so they did something very, very clever. They installed more book drops.

The library created a book drop for every tag. To see pictures of their setup, go here. But for simplicity's sake, imagine a library that does this for just one tag, say, amazing books. When you return books to the library, you’d have a choice: drop it in the regular book drop or the book drop for amazing books. Then, the library staff would take the books in the “amazing” book drop and put them on the shelf called “Books other patrons recommend.” The librarians could also scan those books and add the “amazing” tag to them so that it is captured in the collection database.

This is brilliant on so many levels. Most importantly, the library found a way to embed tagging into the normal use of the library. Patrons don’t have to opt in to some complicated system, log on to the Web after returning books, or add anything to their standard library use. They just have to sort their books when returning them. And the new patrons walking in the door can access the books based on the different tags, which could range from "highly recommended" to "great family books" to "just returned"--a finger on the pulse of what people in the community are reading right now.

No patron would call the activity of putting their books in book drops “tagging,” and that’s a good thing. There’s no concern here about barriers to use, educating the visitor on how to participate, or even significant infrastructure or support costs. The feedback loop is there, and it works because it’s a clever, simple distillation of the core idea of tagging.

And so I would challenge you to take the same approach as that library in trying to make exhibits, programs, and services that emulate social technology. Let’s look at how the four-step approach maps to the library book drop story:
  1. Define the core usefulness of the concept. In this example, the core usefulness of tagging is to help people search through the collection and find stuff of interest more easily.
  2. Define the input and output points of the concept—where do people engage with the concept? In this case, the input point happens when you are looking for a book on the shelves or online. The output (tagging) happens once you’ve finished reading a book.
  3. For both the input and the output, determine if the concept requires a change in behavior. In this example, the input stays the same (except perhaps for familiarizing people with the new shelves and search terms) but the output requires assigning a tag to a book.
  4. Anytime a behavioral change is required, find the simplest, most familiar way possible to enact it. In this case, book drops were the key.

Of course, it’s in number 4 where the real ingenuity comes in. You have to be tremendously clever to distill something to its simplest possible manifestation. But we know what assets we have, and we know what our visitors do. All we have to do is find the right match for the goal at hand.

Is this a useful process for you? What’s missing? How could you imagine applying it?

NOTE: This post was later developed into a peer-reviewed paper and workshop for Museums and the Web 2009.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Wikis: What, When, Why

What's a wiki? What makes them succeed? This post explores the mysteries of Web 2.0's Hawaiian son as applied to museums.

Wikis are websites that are extremely easy for anyone (even you!) to edit. The most well-known example is Wikipedia, a user-generated encyclopedia which boasts over 6 million entries written and edited by about 30,000 volunteer participants. While there are some criticisms of its consensus-based model for information-vetting, there's no doubt of its success as a collaborative knowledge-creation project. Wikipedia has become one of the top ten most-visited websites worldwide and is the only one in the top ten that is a non-profit initiative.

Wikipedia, like YouTube and Facebook, is a giant in the world of Web 2.0. Its success can distort understanding of what makes a wiki work. After all, if Wikipedia could succeed as a collaborative documentation of well, everything, isn't your specific wiki bound to thrive as well?


Consider these two stories of museum-related wikis that struggled. In May of 2007, Woody Sobey released a wiki for science museum educators to share their demos. As the director of education at a small science museum, Woody thought it would be useful for his staff to share and have access to demos being offered by science museums all over the country. Ideally, the site would flourish, and any museum educator could log in to find great chemistry, physics, and biology demos to share with their own visitors.

Great idea, right? But from the beginning, WikiDemo suffered from a lack of participation. People went to check it out, but no one added their own demos. Woody had seeded the site with about 12 demos from his own museum, but the wiki never took off.

My second example is more personal and slightly embarrassing. This spring, I was a member of the advisory board for the New Media Consortium's 2008 Horizon Report on emerging technologies in museums. The convenors set up a lovely wiki and gave us specific instructions to answer research questions posed on a series of pages. On March 22, they released the wiki. In April, a few of us contributed to the wiki. And then on April 29, the conversation really got rolling... over email. We had 40 "emerging technology" professionals on the team, and we couldn't sufficiently self-motivate to do our work on the wiki instead of an antiquated email list. Our final task involved emailing a word document to the convenors. I don't know if that was their original plan or a reaction to our poor use of the wiki, but it certainly didn't reflect our supposed digital chops.

Do these examples mean you should never use wikis? Nope. But wikis are a very specific tool. They require more of their audience in terms of participation than other Web 2.0 sites and don't offer traditional rewards. The participatory "ask" is high--to create original content. Wikis don't explicitly acknowledge individuals with "profile power"--content is prioritized, not identity.

So when do wikis work?

Wikis work best in situations in which content, not socializing, is primary. They work when the individuals involved are motivated to assemble and co-create content.
They are best-used in situations when a team of people is working together on something and needs a central place to document their efforts, or when a group of people come together to share lots of content in parallel and want to document it (i.e. a conference). The wiki has to be the best tool for the job. Otherwise, people won't contribute.

When is a wiki the best tool for the job? Here are two cases with related examples.

1. Wikis are great for documenting events with many parallel content tracks.

In August, I attended a one-day Freelance Camp in Santa Cruz. There were about 200 participants who self-organized 26 hour-long discussion sessions around a variety of topics. We used a wiki to document all of the sessions so that after the conference, participants (and people who weren't able to come) could access the notes from session they missed. The organizers set up the wiki and posted the schedule, and then told everyone that each session had to have a "scribe" who would keep the notes and post them on the wiki, linked from the schedule. It was an extremely easy way for multiple people to document parallel sessions and make them available to everyone.

Why did this wiki work? Because the ask was immediate and specific, and everyone saw the value of having notes from sessions they couldn't attend. After the conference, the wiki switched from being a participatory site to a useful record.

In a more museum-focused environment, check out the
wiki for the Tate Handheld Conference held last week in London (for more on this event, check out this blog post by Nik Honeysett). While the wiki appears to have relied on a core leader instead of randomly selected scribes, the result is the same: documentation of a very interesting event, featuring keynote slideshows, resources cited, and discussion topics. Imagine if every major museum conference had a related wiki with volunteer scribes' notes from each session. It would be a great way to extend and memorialize the conference without putting undue burden on the convenors.

2. Wikis are useful when a distributed team is designing a project together or managing a changing set of projects.

This is the most basic reason to use a wiki. If you are writing a report with other people, creating the content directly on a wiki is much simpler than endlessly emailing around partial documents. Wikis allow you to create the content in discrete segments--pages--and then decide how to organize the content. For example, imagine you are creating a multi-chapter planning document. At the beginning, you can create pages for known components, like schedule, budget, etc. As time goes on, you can easily add new pages and then figure out in the end how to organize and prioritize all of the segmented content.

This ability to organize content segments, like moving post-its around on a table, makes wikis more useful than other collaborative document creation tools like Google Docs. Google docs is good if you are writing a single document or creating a single spreadsheet. But if you are initiating a larger, less defined project, a wiki can help you organize the content as it is generated in parallel by the team members. There are several museums that use wikis on a department-wide basis internally to keep up with projects going on on multiple tracks, share files, maintain staff and volunteer contact information, and generally coordinate work.

A great public example of a wiki-based project is WeAreMedia,
a wiki with the goal of creating a "social media starter kit for non-profits." Funded by the Nonprofit Technology Network and led by Beth Kanter, WeAreMedia is similar to the Horizon Project in that it brings together professionals and asks them to share their expertise towards the creation of something greater for the field. Unlike the Horizon wiki, however, WeAreMedia is a bottom-up project that asks the participants to lead the design and conception of the individual modules. That goal means that a wiki is useful, because participants can contribute segmented content and then work with facilitators to decide how to organize it.

For the Horizon Project, we were asked to use the wiki to answer questions. And while a wiki is useful for answering questions, it was not sufficiently MORE useful for the advisory board than answering the questions via email. We wanted to have a discussion--and the wiki wasn't the right place to do it. WeAreMedia, however, is a wiki to create content for an overall project. There are other places on the Web (like Beth's blog) to have discussions about the content, but the wiki is specifically a place for putting it all together.

Ok, so now we know when to use wikis. But what makes them work well? Since wikis are about content, not socializing, you have to find ways to motivate people to participate. But that involves more than just getting them in the front door.

Here are three rules of thumb for "working wikily":

1. Wikis work when participants are invited in on familiar terms.

The entry point to wikis is steep. Sure, you can start slowly by just joining the wiki community, but in most cases, you have to actually write something on a public pag to be considered a participant. It can feel daunting to edit or add to something that someone else--especially someone else you admire--has created. And if it's not something you've done before, not part of your daily practice, you might want to avoid learning the technology, no matter how simple it is.

WeAreMedia has several entry points that attempt to make participation more comfortable. When you go to the site, you will see many ways to participate, on and off the wiki, along with the anticipated amount of time each contribution might take. I didn't want to add to the wiki directly on my first visit, but I did take their easy suggestions to join a swarm (2 min) and add a slideshow to their slideshare list (1 min). And I did these things without having to register as a member of the wiki.

2. Wikis work when they draw content from a variety of locations.

The goal of a wiki is to aggregate content of interest. If you run a huge wiki, like Wikipedia, you don't have to worry about finding desired content and pulling it in--people think of Wikipedia as a go-to place. But if you are starting a wiki, it is the new kid on the block, and needs to be integrated into pre-existing conversations accordingly.

There are many ways to do this. You can do it physically at an in-person event like a conference. Think back on the WikiDemo example. Woody launched it with an email to the ASTC listserv--a good group to target for his content. But people who read a listserv aren't necessarily incentivized to contribute to the wiki. He had the right people, but not the right time. Imagine if he had instead launched the project at the ASTC conference, and had spent the conference walking around with a laptop, asking people to contribute a demo. There are sessions related to science shows at which he could have reached a hundred science demo performers with a right-time, right-place interest in sharing their demos.

For the WeAreMedia project, Beth has readymade online spaces in which she can do this same kind of targeted solicitation of content. One of the nice things about WeAreMedia is that Beth Kanter is blogging the experience of running the wiki, sharing her observations and experiments. This week, she wrote about the balance between participation on the "homebase" (the wiki) and "outposts" (blogs, twitter, discussion forums). As she puts it:
In facilitating this community discussion to get at the curriculum, I've used blog posts that point people to the wiki page, one-on-one emails to specific people who self-identify, tweets, FriendFeed NpTech Room posts, and a little on Facebook. I'm not trying to control where the conversation takes place - I want it to be as easy as possible for someone to make a contribution and if that happens off the wiki, that's okay. As the wiki gardener, I just need to be able to gather up these valuable nuggets of insights from nonprofit technology professionals, and add them to the wiki curriculum or do some light editing of what's there.
Beth is a very active "wiki gardener," and she realizes that many valuable contributors are not necessarily compelled to go to the wiki and edit it themselves.
So she reaches out to potential participants in a variety of ways and gets their content on the wiki in their own terms. My guess is that once you see your thoughts reflected on the wiki, as written by Beth, you feel affirmed and accepted as a participant, and thus more likely to contribute directly.

3. Wikis work when they are organized in a way appropriate for their content type and volume.

This sounds obvious, but it's not as easy as it sounds. Think of how Wikipedia works. There's one primary way to navigate to pages: the search bar. Since Wikipedia has so much content, that's fine--you don't need an outline of the articles to find what you want. You want to search, find, and go. But most wikis don't have enough content that a search bar is sufficient to find the points of interest within. The wiki from the Tate Handheld conference does a great job addressing this by listing every topic on the right sidebar for easy navigation. The Freelance Camp, however, is lousy at this. You have to know to start from the conference schedule to go to each individual session page, and you have to use the BACK button to navigate to other sessions.

What project or event would you consider coordinating and documenting via wiki? What wiki questions and tips do you have to share with others?

Monday, September 08, 2008

An ARG at the Smithsonian: Games, Collections, and Ghosts

Today, the Luce Center at the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) is launching what they claim is the first ever alternate reality game (ARG) in a museum. Why would an art museum create an ARG? To expand their audiences. To tap into maker culture. To take a new twist on the role of narrative (especially fictional narrative) in the interpretation of artifacts. To experiment with the web as a medium for extension of onsite experiences. And yes, to collect lots of photographs of peoples' eyes.

But the eyes were just the beginning of a major theatrical and experimental project called Ghosts of a Chance. I spoke with Georgina Bath, manager of interpretive programs for the Luce Center, and John Maccabee, game designer from City Mystery, to learn more about SAAM's plans for the next six weeks.

A New Kind of ARG

Like most ARGs, the Luce Center's Ghosts of a Chance is an interactive narrative that rolls out over several weeks. There are no rules or explicit ways to "win"--instead, players hunt down clues, discuss the possibilities, and take actions they think may lead to fruitful new experiences and information. In this case, the setup involves two young curators soliciting contributions for a new exhibition and attempting to cleanse the museum of "spectral interlopers," which are, as we all know, an unacknowledged hazard in modern collecting institutions.

Ghosts of a Chance is in the emerging sub-field of non-commercial ARGs that are directed to a general rather than niche audience. While other major non-commercial ARGs (for example, World Without Oil and the forthcoming Superstruct) are focused on saving the world, Ghosts of a Chance is perhaps the first ARG to use material culture and interpretation as the basis for the experience. And while SAAM is steering the content, Ghosts of a Chance is being produced by City Mystery and the Playtime Anti-Boredom Society, some of the same fine folks who brought you SF0.

Reaching Non-Gamer Audiences

ARGs can be confusing. They thrive on secret websites, mysterious codes, and bizarre incidents. All motivation to play comes from the players themselves, since it's not clear where the game is going or what the point is. Ghosts of a Chance is trying to break down some of the exclusivity of traditional ARGs to appeal both gamers and non-gamers. The initial "ask" on the website is specific: create a necklace and mail it to the Luce Center. Sure, it's the necklace of the subaltern betrayer (who doesn't have one of those hanging around?) and it's being requested by a haunted 23-year-old curator who uses his MySpace page as a professional homebase, but heck, who isn't up for a little ghoulish informality in the world of staff disclosure?

The point is that the City Mystery team is trying to give non-gamers a gentle introduction into the wild world of ARGs.
The game website is clear. The initial rules of engagement are spelled out. And the "stuff" of the game is real stuff, artifacts created by players and sent to the museum. There will be several live events in DC throughout the course of the game, culminating with a five-hour extravaganza on October 25 in which drop-in players of all kinds (families, non-gamers, etc.) can experience the game in full without prior participation. Finally, the game will be packaged as a scaled-down, repeatable 90-minute programmatic experience that the Luce Center can deliver at any time in the future.

That's not to say that Ghosts of a Chance won't also appeal to ARG enthusiasts. While today is the official launch, Ghosts of a Chance had its "trailhead" (ARG-speak for a first entry point or teaser) at July's ARGFest in Boston, when a heavily-hennaed clue (see image) crashed the conference and gave a whole new meaning to the term "marketing exposure" as applied to the Smithsonian. For the last two months, excited gamers have been debating the potential meaning of game-related minutae, including the fact that the Kennedy Center, which is administered by the Smithsonian, opened exactly 27 years to the day before the launch of Ghosts of a Chance. Coincidence? I think so. But comments on the gamers' forum like:
An internet collaborative [sic] art display in a national museum?
Is it me, or is this very frigging cool!
are frigging cool indeed. Ghosts of a Chance is a great example of the museum leveraging a niche community (ARG-ers) to energize and provide seed content for participants who are new to participatory gaming. In the same way that the Bellevue sculptural travel bugs project tapped into the geocaching community to energize new audiences around public art, Ghosts of a Chance brings gamers into the museum as creators of highly interpretative, narrative-laden content.

In most cases, when a museum requests submissions of content created by visitors, whether text, video, or artifacts, the participation level is lower than expected. But the world of ARGs thrives on participation for its own sake, and people on online forums are already planning their subaltern necklace designs. Georgina Bath, the manager of interpretative programs at the Luce Center, has cleared her office to make room for the deluge of packages she expects to receive. In the eight weeks leading up to October 25, Ghosts of a Chance may primarily attract hardcore gamers, but those gamers will in turn create the meat of the experience for more casual participants on October 25 and in the 90-minute program package.

The extended timeline, multiple audiences, and varied points of entry for Ghosts of a Chance has made SAAM reframe what it means for a program to be a success. As Georgina put it:
This museum often focuses primarily on attendance as a yardstick. I was concerned that there would be so much focus on the live event on oct 25 – what the weather would be like, etc. that the attendance on that day would be a real reflection of how the game went. But I think everyone understands now that it’s not about the live event—it’s about the online buzz. The whole game as a package is going to be considered.

The Behind-the-Scenes Process

I was astounded, while talking to Georgina a week before game launch, at how often she said, "I don't know," when I asked how some facet of the game would work. Yes, the Luce Center and City Mystery are seeding the narrative, but they expect the gamers to steer the game. This takes huge trust on the part of the museum. They don't know what they are going to get, and they want it that way. Georgina described the ARG as a natural extension of the Luce Center's focus on open-ended discovery--but it's a long way from one-page scavenger hunts to the necklace of the subaltern betrayer.

And while the contract negotiations sounded hellish, the internal support for the game was surprisingly easy to come by. Staff responded positively to "what if?" questions as in "What if we wanted to accession these artifacts?" or "What if we want to go behind the scenes of the Congressional cemetery?" Georgina told me their original plan was to put the user-submitted art out on coffee tables in the informal Luce Center lounge for visitors to inspect and manipulate. Registrars, however, reacted against this, arguing that it would set a bad precedent for behavior in the rest of the museum if visitors were allowed to touch what looked like artifacts in the Luce Center. Instead, the registrars requested that the game artifacts be officially entered into the collection database and stored (and accessed) the way other artifacts are--via appointment, white gloves, that sort of thing. In this way, the secret rules of museums become new hoops for the gamers to jump through--hoops that will likely add a level of delight as they expose the inner workings of the museum.

ARGs and Museums: Opportunities and Challenges

I'm curious to see how well Ghosts of a Chance accommodates people new to the world of ARGs. If executed well, ARGs can be a powerful interpretative tool for museums, which thrive on obtuse stories and objects, each an opportunity for discovery and relational narrative. As librarian Aaron Schmidt once commented, libraries are also ideal places for ARGs. They have multiple locations throughout municipalities, and their shelves are full of codes. By tapping into familiar tropes of these places--whether art collections for the Luce Center or the Dewey decimal system for libraries--ARGs can hook people more deeply into institutions and their exhibits.

But ARGs require narrative consistency that museums may feel uncomfortable adhering to. Are you ready to construct fictional, alternative narratives about your collection? Are you willing to give visitors intentional misdirection? There are consistency problems on the Ghosts of a Chance website that hurt its fiction: some of the language seems to bounce between meta-explanation and game interior. Why is Ghosts of a Chance called a "Creative Initiative"? Is the initiative the exhibition or the game? Why do they refer to "the Ghosts of a Chance reality" as if it were different from real reality? I have trouble with the use of the words "game" and "initiative" when the narrative context is curators putting out a call for submissions to an exhibition. Is the fiction real, or is it fake?

Hopefully, it's real enough to get lots of people (even you!) participating. To start playing, check out the website, send Georgina a necklace, or contact the Soap Man. And if you want more on the meta-concept behind Ghosts of a Chance and ARGs in general, read this extensive coverage last month from ABC.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Groundswell Book Club Part 5: Embracing

This is the last week of the Groundswell book discussion, in which we've been looking at five strategies (listening, talking, energizing, helping, and embracing) for business use of social technologies, as defined by Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff. Chapter 9 focuses on "embracing" the groundswell, or finding ways to involve users in the development of new products, services, and strategies.

Charlene and Josh define two distinct reasons why embracing audience participation is useful: to develop better products, and to develop them faster. The products get better because real consumers with real issues are telling the business what to fix. The improvements are faster because "innovation happens more quickly because you can iterate--make continuous improvements." You can get information from visitors anytime, and you can go back to them for more when you tweak things.

But getting information from visitors is not enough. How many museums have stacks of comment books that are only culled for the gushing quotes that belong on annual reports? How many educators scan program evaluations and cast off the suggestions for improvement as aberrant grumps who "just didn't get it?" How many exhibit evaluations happen after opening, with no significant money allotted to make changes that arise from research?

Why don't we use visitor feedback as a robust basis for continual improvement? Let's take the most generous view and suggest that it's because there's too much of it, and it's not targeted to our specific needs. Josh and Charlene spend most of this chapter talking about ways to prioritize and focus customer suggestions so that they form a useful basis for informed action.

Prioritizing Customer Suggestions

If you are looking at 15 suggestions from 15 different guests, how do you know which ones to pursue? Many businesses are putting the job of judging and prioritizing suggestions in the hands of their customers by allowing them to rate each other's suggestions. This has several advantages:
  • suggestions that rise to the top reflect the cumulative desires of many users instead of single suggestors
  • customers who are motivated to be critics but not to be creators are engaged in the process of offering suggestions
  • staff have a culled list of suggestions from which to determine strategy
Charlene and Josh discuss the path of, which created an "IdeaExchange" in which customers could itemize their priorities for software changes. Customers' judgments made for more confident, streamlined strategy discussions:
Before this, customers' ideas had fallen like snowflakes, enveloping the development process in an undifferentiated blanket of suggestions. Now the ideas were channeled and directed by the groundswell of's own customers. ... Half of the new features [in rollouts] now come from suggestions in IdeaExchange. Instead of holding big meetings to wrangle over features, developers can move forward knowing what people want.
The IdeaExchange and related programs use a Digg-like interface to allow users to promote preferred suggestions. This same process can also be applied to visitor-generated content. I've long argued that visitors should be able to judge and prioritize the comments, videos, and other media created by visitors in the course of a visit. Many staff react against this, saying that curation is the museum's job and shouldn't be reduced to a popularity contest. But if the content is laying fallow, reviewed by NO ONE, why not let visitors take up the mantle? If the suggestions are ignored because they don't carry the weight of many visitors' desires, why not let others add their vote and support to their priorities?

Staff and visitors who prefer to be spectators would benefit if the noise were culled by those with a predilection for judging. And then staff can spend their time where it's needed most--figuring out how to interpret and add value to those prioritized suggestions and visitor-created elements.

Asking the Right Questions

There's an interesting segment in the chapter about designing the right questions to elicit useful user comments and suggestions. The first point here is that the questions are designed with a serious desire for good answers. The questions are not designed as "activities" for customers but as ways to get substantive, actionable feedback... and that differentiates these questions from throw-away "What do you thinks?" that are often asked without true interest in the answer.

Look at your standard program evaluation. Are the questions written to really give you answers that you are ready and interested in acting on? When I work with non-professionals on exhibit design, I always require that they come up with prototype models or questions that actually answer design questions that they haven't figured out, not questions that give them what they want or already know.

Josh and Charlene give the example of a French bank that created a marketing campaign called "If I were a banker" (in French). They invited people to fill in the end of the sentence: If I were a banker, I would... Charlene and Josh argue that this wording was important to prime customers for good suggestions:
Instead of saying "Tell us what to do," it said, and the difference is subtle, "What would you do if you were us?" By encouraging the customers to develop empathy for the bank, even momentarily, Credit Mutuel gets much more realistic suggestions.
Would it make a difference if our evaluations asked "What would you do if you were us?" Josh and Charlene suggest that this empathic, hypothetical wording allows people to quickly get into the mindset and give a good suggestion, even if they haven't considered the issue explicitly before.

Closing the Loop

The final case study in this chapter is about a Canadian grocery store, Loblaw, that invites customers to review their store brand products and makes changes to those products (to recipes and packaging) based on the reviews. This is a great strategy for a grocery store because they have customers who are, in each visit, both repeat and new customers for different products. The reviews attract users to new products and give them a feedback loop for responsiveness on familiar ones.

The ability of Loblaw to demonstrate, publicly and continuously, how they are responding to customer suggestions, is a huge PR asset. As Charlene and Josh put it:
Everyone who shops knows that products have problems, but it's the rare retailer or manufacturer that actually fixes them. Loblaw has that reputation now, which means a lot to its customers.
Many museums claim to be (or desire to be) accountable to their local communities. What strategies can we pursue to actively receive visitor feedback and suggestions, act on that feedback, and make the whole process as visible as possible? And more importantly, how can these strategies be sustainable parts of our practice instead of one-time gimmicks or marketing campaigns?

Charlene and Josh acknowledge that acting on visitor feedback should not be the sole driver for institutional action. They talk about balancing humility and creativity in our practice. As service organizations (on some level), museums have even more of a responsibility than businesses to serve the needs and interests of the public and user communities. In the best cases, we can involve visitors as participants in ways that positively augment our practice for the benefit of all our stakeholders--participants, spectators, staff, and funders alike.

I admit that I have often jumped directly to "embracing" in exploration of how museums can become more participatory. Reading this book, I am now starting to consider the ways that participatory co-creation follows from a whole set of other actions and experiments, starting with listening to audiences. Museums are all over the map from listening to talking to energizing to helping to embracing visitors--and we can take new steps forward at multiple levels at the same time. You may decide that a progressive strategy is the safest direction for your institution, or you may want to pick and choose the strategies from different stages that are best fits for you. Either way, I hope that this book has helped you (as it has me) prioritize and explore the options available.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Co-Creating Exhibits with Teens and Volunteers: The Importance of Criteria

What's the biggest mistake people make when involving non-professionals in exhibition design? Here's one I've made twice: not providing participants with clear criteria for success. It's a surprising fact that volunteer designers don't want a blank slate for their creativity. They want articulated goals and expectations. In this post, some exploration of this mistake so it doesn't happen to you (or me... again).

This summer, I worked with the Chabot Space & Science Center on a design institute in which eleven teens from their Galaxy Explorers program designed media pieces for an upcoming Smithsonian exhibition on black holes. When we did the final evaluation for the project, one comment from the teens really surprised us: they complained that it felt like we were "hiding" the goals of the project from them in the first of three weeks. At first, we didn't understand what they were talking about. Hiding?! We gave them all the information we had, and on the first day they had a 90-minute conference call with the real exhibit designers.

But we were not entirely specific with them about where their media pieces would fit into the completed exhibition. The answer was: we don't know. The Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics folks knew that the media would be included on the exhibition website, but that website is several months from being initiated. There was no initial design, no graphics, and no idea of where the teen' work would fit into an overall structure.

And the adults thought (as many would) that this was an opportunity, not a setback. The teens were free to be as creative as they wanted, without limitation of specific requirements or criteria. But what staff thought of as "being open," the teens saw as "hiding" the real needs.

Earlier this year, I encountered a similar confusion while working with creative amateurs in virtual concept design of real-world interactives for The Tech Virtual Test Zone. There, we had clear criteria--but the criteria changed during the project. We were hasty experimenters, and when one technique didn't work, we would alter it, much to the perplexion of the volunteers involved. In the end, we learned that the more criteria we added--and the more we spelled out our "hidden" requirements--the more satisfied participants were.

Why did I make this same mistake twice? More importantly, how can you avoid it?
  1. Give people something to work for. The obvious, basic one. People do not sign up to help design exhibits the way they sign up for an afternoon workshop. They want to be contributors, not just dink around. Of course, you can make their work a more fun version of real work (and give them the most fun parts of real work to do), but it's important to maintain the overall stance that their activities are in pursuit of a goal that is valued and needed by the institution.
  2. Find a way to control the structure, even if it's artificial. In both of my examples, the core reason I made the error is that I was not in a position to entirely control the criteria--I had other people to answer to who were fuzzy on their goals and needs. But from the perspective of participants, that's no excuse. You're the authority, so you need to portray that. In the case of Chabot, if we had made up (reasonable) answers to questions like "where will this go?" and "how long should it be?" the participants' desire for clarity would have been satisfied without detriment to the projects. You can always add more criteria if the ones in need cannot be found.
  3. Sharpen the criteria based on your needs. Cloudy criteria make for cloudy evaluations. How do you know if you got what you wanted if you weren't clear what that was? In the case of Minnesota History Museum's user-generated exhibition MN150, sharpening the criteria (and tightening the language) for user submissions made for both better user-created content and easier decisions by the staff on what to include in the final project.
  4. Give your participants a client to serve. At Chabot, we were lucky to have a representative from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics come twice during the design institute to review the projects and offer her feedback. Having a client to embody the goals can help participants get on the right track, even when those goals are not explicit and formal. The client need not even be real. The most extreme example of this is the writing programs at 826 Valencia, which feature a mean, unseen editor who demands books from the students. The editor is portrayed by a staff member who pounds on the door and growls about his needs. He's an entirely fictitious device used to create criteria, add drama, and help focus the kids on what would otherwise be an overwhelmingly open task at hand.
  5. If you can't control the criteria, be honest about it. This saved me with The Tech Virtual participants. When things in my world would change, I communicated as directly and transparently as possible to the volunteers. No one was happy about the changes--but we all understood that they happen. And by inviting discussion about the uncertainty, we became a group of people tackling the challenges together rather than a confused authority and a ticked-off volunteer group.
Someday, we'll have such advanced community co-creation processes that we can engage our co-creators in all the ambiguity and frustration that comes in the exhibit design process. But we've got to start by being benevolent dictators, by letting people design inside well-supported, specific boxes. Think of the first creative work you did for your institution. Didn't you want to know what it would take to succeed?