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?

5 comments, add yours!:

Anonymous said...

At an exhibit of Joan Steiner's Look-Alikes at the NY State Museum in Albany last year, people were gathered around the pieces, pointing out the objects as they found and recognized them. It was very social. I think a key ingredient is that Steiner uses everyday objects to create her scenes. The visitor isn't intimidated by her work or by commenting on it. It might be challenge to help visitors feel as comfortable with brand new subject matter or "high art" or other objects that they feel require expertise to interpret.qeo

Unknown said...

All the five points which you have described its good and i am agree with those points. Turn invitations into gifts. Really,Gifting is a powerful participatory behavior. You can give gift certificates too. Gifts to india is following same method.

Anonymous said...

Everyday objects are the key to socialiation between visitors. So are the objects that can be touched. I commend the museums that keep all the period objects behind glass as a means for preservation. However the interest only last but so long when an item is looked at. If the individual can touch the item, (push the button or open the draw) thier interrest of the object last longer by creating a longer time span with an object. This is done at children's museums, however interraction should be more of a focuse at art and history museums.

Jason said...

Nice article. I wonder, could content expert staff such as astronomers, paleontologist, etc also be considered an "object" or "stuff" along with exhibits, artifacts, coffections?

Also, with regard to sharing objects how about the sharing of data too? This might work well were visitors compare their results from working various exhibits?

Nina Simon said...

Yes to both ideas! Check out this post about the living library concept--it's a program that could facilitate the use of humans as artifacts etc... and I think that data sharing is a key bridge to "me-to-we" design in which social experiences are facilitated by networked ratings, polling, and more.