Thursday, October 30, 2008

Scratch: An Educational, Multi-Generational Online Community that Works

Last week, I was reintroduced to Scratch, a graphical programming language designed by the Lifelong Kindergarten group at the MIT Media Lab. I first saw Scratch a few years ago, when I had friends working at the Media Lab, and at the time it seemed like a neat way for kids who were unfamiliar with programming to jump in and start designing their own interactive stories and games. It was a serious improvement on tools like Logo Turtle and Hypercard that I grew up with... but still, a programming environment.

Then, in May 2007, the Scratch online community (called ScratchR) was released. It's a place for Scratch users to upload, share, and remix their Scratch projects. ScratchR is a true social network, connecting hundreds of thousands of people--kids and adults--in about 200 countries around the world. It's an inspiration to anyone trying to create an online community around informal learning. In this post, a look at the intentional design choices that make ScratchR work.

There are four sections to this post:
  1. An overview of ScratchR user types and related statistics.
  2. Why people participate.
  3. How kids and adults are able to play together safely.
  4. How ScratchR makes strong use of platform power and social objects.
You may want to open a window with the ScratchR homepage so you can refer to it throughout this post.

First, a look at statistics on user types.

As of today, ScratchR boasts 236,997 projects created by 37,820 contributors of ScratchR's 174,425 registered members. Those are big user numbers. What do they mean?

As in any online community, ScratchR has spectators, joiners, collectors, critics, and creators. The ScratchR spectators are part of the 5 million+ ScratchR website visitors who check out projects but don't join. If you've clicked on a link to the site from this post, congratulations--you are a ScratchR spectator.

The 174, 425 registered members are all joiners. I'm one of them. I've joined the site, but I haven't yet uploaded anything or commented on anything. I'm still a "passive consumer" in the eyes of ScratchR, but my actions are tracked every time I view a Scratch project (as are spectators'). In this way, like on YouTube, my actions as a viewer still affect the creator community, because creators are aware of the number of views on their projects.

ScratchR provides four tools for collectors and critics. For any project, you can "love it" (which is like giving it a thumbs-up), "add it to your favorites" (which is a private collecting function), "flag it as inappropriate," and write comments about it.

And finally, ScratchR focuses most of their love on the creators--people who actually design Scratch projects and upload them to ScratchR. It's worth pointing out that there are many people out there who use Scratch to make things but don't share them with the online community. For this reason, part of ScratchR's goal--besides attracting new creators--is to seduce experienced creators to join the community. These experienced creators already have a relationship with Scratch, and ScratchR was originally created to help these people connect with each other and build more sophisticated projects together.

Here is the user profile by age circa July 2008 (per this report). While the largest grouping is from age 9-18, you can see the long tail of participants up into their 60s. Many adults have become engaged with Scratch both as mentors/educators and as creators in their own right.

And here is the creator profile by participation. While the majority of creators only upload one project to ScratchR, there is a long tail of usage. The spike at 21 projects is for creators who have created more than 20 projects.

Okay, so that's who is using ScratchR. But what makes it special? What makes them use it?

Why people participate.

Scratch's lead creator, Mitchel Resnick, likes to say that Scratch has a "low floor, high ceiling, and wide walls." That means that it's easy to start using it, you can use it to varied levels of sophistication, and you can use it for a diversity of purposes. Some people make games where you catch fireflies. Others make shows where hamsters sing and dance.

But all of those functions, and the extent to which Scratch is low, high, and wide, don't relate specifically to ScratchR. What make Scratch users come to the online community?

Some of the reasons are obvious. People want to share their projects to get a little bit of fame, to connect with others who create similar projects, and to be inspired by what others have created. And ScratchR provides tools to support these interests. Yes, you can mark projects as your favorites, comment on them, and "love" them. But you can also join galleries (like Flickr pools) for specific affinities. There are almost 15,000 design galleries on ScratchR, ranging from small critique groups to tutorial groups to Christian groups to anything goes groups.

You can also remix other projects. This is the most novel sharing tool I've seen on any social network. It's comparable to the tools that allow you to re-blog items of interest, but unlike situations where I make a response video on YouTube, ScratchR actually allows you to download the original project, add or alter the programming, and then upload the result as a remix (with credit to the original creator). This is a HUGE value-added for people to join the community--they gain access to the code to every project on the site, and are encouraged to share what they've made with it.

Adults and Kids, All in One Place.

Before seeing ScratchR, I pretty much thought it was impossible to design an online community that could safely support kids under 13 (the age that COPPA kicks in) working with people of all ages. ScratchR is not 100% safe, as I'll explain, but they have created a site that is fully functional for both kids and adults. Let's take a look at the safety of each aspect of the site.

Sign up: Pretty Safe.
When you sign up, ScratchR asks for your age. If you are under 13, instead of asking for your email address, it asks for your parent or guardian's email address (email addresses are only used to help you retrieve lost passwords). If you are under 18, ScratchR will display your home country but not your state or city. Everyone is instructed not to create usernames identical to their real names. Yes, people can lie about these things, but the worst that can happen is that a child will willfully lie about her age and enter her own email address and city/state. But that email address is never accessible to other users, and unless she is from a town of 1, she's somewhat protected.

Profiles: Very Safe.
Unlike other online communities, ScratchR does not allow you to "pimp your profile" with all kinds of information. As an adult, my profile shows my username, photo, city, state, and country. For kids, the profile only shows username, photo, and country (and most people use "sprites"--Scratch characters--for their photos). In fact, profile isn't even a tab--instead, it's called "My Stuff," and it is primarily for showcasing each user's projects, favorites, galleries, and friends.

Communication: Pretty Safe.
Unlike other online communities, there is no way to privately message anyone in ScratchR. If you designate someone as your "friend," that just means that you link to their projects from your page. There is no private chat. All inter-user communication happens in public comment boards connected to projects and galleries. Yes, it is possible for someone to reveal private information on a public comment board, but the number of community eyes on each board means that that kind of content can be seen publicly and addressed quickly.

Inappropriate Content: Debatable.
So if all of this is safe, why are there still some teachers and parents who won't let their kids participate? There is one section of ScratchR that could be deemed "unsafe": the Newest Projects section, featured prominently on the homepage of the website. Because projects are not vetted before they are uploaded and placed in Newest Projects, it is possible for projects to show up there that are inappropriate. Once they are up, they are likely to be flagged as such and removed--but there is the possibility for people to be exposed to offensive content during the narrow window of time when projects first go up. While this doesn't constitute a safety danger for any given user, it does mean that the content is not 100% controlled. It was more important to the ScratchR team to acknowledge every new submission prominently on the homepage than to check each one first. More generally, ScratchR relies on the community to largely self-police via the Flag as Inappropriate tag. Some adults may be skeptical of the efficacy of this policy, but as ScratchR scales up, it is hard to imagine another form of policing that wouldn't significantly reduce participation.

Of course, the question of putting adults and kids together isn't all about safety. There are so many awesome and fascinating educational interactions on ScratchR that emerge from the interplay among users. The adults aren't solely there as monitors--many are creators. The "high ceiling" means that many adults use Scratch for their own enjoyment. And that gets kids and adults discussing all kinds of things. For example, check out this discussion about the Monte Carlo method, Pi, and what it means to be forty.

How ScratchR makes good use of platform power and social objects.

ScratchR is really well-designed. In the platform power post, I wrote about the four powers a platform has:
  1. the power to set the rules of behavior
  2. the power to preserve and exploit user-generated content
  3. the power to promote and feature preferred content
  4. the power to define the types of interaction available to users
We've already addressed some ways that ScratchR does 1, 2, and 4. Let's look at #3--the promotion and featuring of content.

When you look at the homepage for ScratchR, you'll notice that there are seven starting points for checking out projects of interest. These are (in order):
  1. Newest Projects
  2. Featured Projects
  3. Top Remixed Lately
  4. Surprise Projects
  5. Top Loved Lately
  6. Top Downloaded Lately
  7. Top Viewed Lately
It's worth noting that on a standard browser window, you can only see 1 & 2 before you have to scroll down the page. So order really matters here--and when we look at the order, we see the priorities that ScratchR supports:
  1. Newest Projects - encouraging people to upload projects
  2. Featured Projects - showing what the team considers to be high quality & diversity
  3. Top Remixed Lately - encouraging creators to build on each other
  4. Surprise Projects - suggesting that you explore all kinds of projects
  5. Top Loved Lately - recency of users' preferences (encourages you to love projects)
  6. Top Downloaded Lately - recency of users' preferences (encourages remixes)
  7. Top Viewed Lately - recency of users' activities (encourages exploration)
Looking at this list, you see that the top four types reflect the values of the ScratchR designers. The last three reflect the interests of the users--and not in quantity (i.e. most views) but in recency. The ScratchR team intentionally wanted to avoid a massive popularity contest, so they promote activity on the site, not aggregate growth of views, loves, or downloads.

There are also ways from the homepage, without scrolling down, to download Scratch (of course!), join a gallery, and participate in a "design studio" (a ScratchR team-led gallery). Again, the ScratchR team is promoting use of Scratch and community-building around the programming environment.

Does it work? One of the most interesting things about ScratchR is the small range of views for each project. A featured project may have 200 views, and a very popular project may have as many as 1000 views, but most projects have somewhere in the 10s of views. On most user-generated content sites, the vast majority of content is barely viewed. But this is often obscured by design that focuses attention on the top viewed-content. On YouTube, the disparity between the top and the bottom has created famous users, and may make some newbies feel like they can never succeed. ScratchR's intentional avoidance of popularity as a metric of success may foster more participation in small community groups, like galleries, that can give satisfaction in loves, comments, and remixes, if not in huge view counts.

Of course, there are people who try to game the system, or translate an unhealthy interest in popularity to an unhealthy interest in something more valued by ScratchR, like "loves." There are many projects with comments from their creators like "I know this sux but if I get 10 loves I will make another one." But again, because it's not about popularity, some of the gaming can have really positive effects. If someone decides only to make remixes because that's more likely to land them on the homepage, they've made a choice to constructively build on the work of others. And that's a good thing.

The only criticism I have of ScratchR's design is that there is no way to embed Scratch projects in other places on the Web. UPDATE--this is not true. To embed a Scratch project, you need to scroll down on the project's page and look for the "Link to this project" on the right column. Thanks to Tom for pointing this out!

One final comment about ScratchR. Last month I wrote about Jyri Engeström and his theory that social networks only work if they are organized around a core social object and a verb that defines how people manipulate that object. ScratchR is incredibly strong on Jyri's list of requirements for strong social networks. The objects are the Scratch projects. The verb that people do is create. People share their projects via ScratchR. And the remixes are a true "gift" to participants to continue using the program.

I bring this up because I think ultimately the success of ScratchR comes down to the fact that it is a social network designed around an object that the Scratch team had already identified as social. The initial NSF proposal for ScratchR focused on creating networked opportunities for teams of kids who were already using Scratch and for whom a social component would add value to their education experiences.

And so I conclude this very lengthy post with a question:
What social objects do you already have in your programs, collections, and visitor experiences that are itching to have a broader social environment in which to grow?

Monday, October 27, 2008

How (and Why) to Develop a Social Media Handbook

What is the ideal role of your marketing or PR team in the creation and distribution of content on the social Web? I'd aruge that it doesn’t make sense for marketing to create and control all of the content produced in Web 2.0-land. After all, they control very little of the content produced in exhibitions, shared via programs, and expressed by public-facing staff and volunteers. If your museum has many voices in the real world, you will most powerfully and honestly convey yourself virtually if you can reflect the diversity of your institution. The trick is figuring out how to organize and track it all.

Let me give you an example. The marketing director for a mid-size science museum, Jeff, recently showed me a YouTube channel he’d discovered which was created by a camp staff member at the museum. The channel consisted of a few videos of kids making stuff at camp. Jeff said, “I don’t have a problem with this. I love that they are doing this. I have a problem with the fact that they aren’t clearly identifying themselves with the museum, aren’t linking back to the museum’s website, and just generally aren’t making it clear that this camp is a product of our museum.”

His concerns are valid. Whenever visitors enjoy a program or exhibit at the museum, it’s clear to them where they are. They are in the museum. They aren’t going to be confused about what institution created and distributed the content. On the Web, this is not so clear. If staff start blogging, posting videos and photos, etc., it’s important for them to clearly convey their association, so that visitors who check out that content know that they are (virtually) in the museum as they do so. And on the marketing and tracking side, "rogue" blogs, YouTube channels, and Flickr pools that aren't clearly identified can become an annoyance as staff try to get a handle on institutional impact on the Web.

Much as HR distributes an employee handbook that explains both regulations (i.e. no sandals) and opportunities (i.e. health benefits), the marketing or PR team should create a social media handbook that contains both rules and useful resources. This is different from having a social media policy, which is typically all stick, no carrot. Marketing directors like Jeff don’t want to be traffic cops. They want to enable social media activity, and that means providing both guidelines and resources. In this way, the marketing or PR director becomes a gateway in the most positive light--helping staff figure out what tools to use, how to use them, and how to get the most out of them.

On the guidelines side, a social media handbook would include:
  • what is considered appropriate for internal and external distribution
  • any rules about things that should not be shared with the public or need approval before being released (financials, pictures of kids without permission... this list should be small and discrete)
  • how to get a new initiative approved by your manager
  • elements that must be included in any initiative. These may include:
    • museum logo
    • analytics code
    • link back to the institution
    • links to other social media initiatives (i.e. staff Flickr users must friend each other)
    • specific text, tags, or keywords

On the resources side, a social media handbook would include:
  • lists of recommended tools and social sites
  • information about how to pick the best Web tool for your program/exhibit/initiative
  • recommendations for screen names and a list of screen names currently in use per tool
  • approved logos in color, black and white, and a square version
  • approved photos that can be used
  • stylesheets and other graphical elements created for various types of Web templates
  • information about where to find legal-to-use images, audio, and video and any licensing rules of the science centre
  • a list of other social media initiatives at the museum

The ideal place for such a handbook would be on a wiki, where staff could easily upload links to new content they’ve created on the Web. That way, the wiki becomes both the handbook and a growing catalog of projects. It may make sense for the marketing team to track all of museum’s efforts cumulatively, and having access to such a list would allow them to ensure that they are seeing the whole picture.

The existence of such a handbook doesn’t mean there won’t also be times when there is controversy about the appropriateness of a given piece of Web content. But it will help that conversation happen in a way that is fair to all parties involved.

What would you include in your social media handbook? What guidelines or resources does your organization offer in this regard?

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Self-Censorship for Museum Professionals

There are lots of things visitors can’t do in museums. But what about the things that museum professionals can’t (or feel they can’t) do? This week at the ASTC conference, Kathy McLean, Tom Rockwell, Eric Siegel and I presented a session called “You Can’t Do That in Museums!” in which we explored the peculiarities of self-censorship in the creation of museum exhibitions. You can view (and download) the slides and audio here, which feature our provocations and the discussion that followed. The audio starts noisy... but it gets better. Trust me.

As part of the session, Tom led live drawing (click for high-res image), and we invited the audience to add their own “can’t dos” to a large map of things that are “safe,” “iffy,” and “no way”--more on that later.

Here are a few things I learned from this session:
  1. Self-censorship is different in different museum types. In science and technology centers, there are some “can’t”s that are alive and well in other museums. For example, “Nazi science” came up several times as a “can’t”—but the Holocaust Museum’s Deadly Medicine exhibition was a successful project that didn’t bring the walls down. And while narrative-based museums have long dispensed with the concept that museums present a neutral point of view, science centers still feel that their trustworthiness rests on their objectivity. This is not to say that science centers are more censored than art or history museums—every kind of museum has its own hang-ups. Imagine an art museum that allowed patrons to bang on the exhibits the way you can in a science center.
  2. Focusing on youth audiences can lead to heavy and sometimes inappropriate self-censorship. Our desire to "protect kids"--which reflects twenty years of clamping down (at least in the U.S.) on kids' freedom--keeps science and technology museums from hard topics and edgy presentation styles. As Eric said at one point, "kids--our target audience--are living in a world of things they choose to consume that is so full of sex, so full of irony, so full of subjectivity, and when they come to the museum it is one of the few places in the world they don't see that stuff. And so my question is, why are we keeping them away? Why aren't we developing our audiences?"
  3. Science is political, and science museums have a hard time grappling with that fact. Tom compared public perception of racial intelligence to that of sexual orientation, commenting that over the last thirty years, the left has advocated to have racial intelligence categorized as nurture and sexual orientation categorized as nature. The right advocates for the opposite. The way we think about science—and possibly the way we do it—is connected to our political leanings.
  4. Museum professionals don’t have the tools to make wise decisions about when and why to self-censor. Many people mentioned the intelligent design/evolution debate, raising examples of angry homeschoolers and religious groups. Few were able to articulate a response policy that wasn't based entirely on the volume of the ire raised. If you do offend, ask yourself—who do you offend and why? Do they have a valid claim or not? Do they represent a major constituency or not? One woman shared an anecdote about a label at a zoo that suggested that humans are crowding out elephants. She was pleased to receive angry letters about the label. It let her know that people were reading it and cared.
So how do we evaluate and make decisions about self-censorship? To prepare for the session, we talked about a metaphorical "comfort map" in the form of a bullseye, with the center circle for safe things, the intemediate ring for iffy things, and the outer ring for things outside our comfort zone. The important thing is not where you "draw the line" but how--and how we understand what is inside and outside our personal comfort zones. For the session, we made that concept real. Over 100 participants contributed post-its to the comfort map (shown at right) with examples in the categories of "safe," "iffy," and "no way." As you can see, most of the examples were in the iffy category--the hazy borders of our comfort. To that end, I have captured the examples on the post-its in five categories, separating the "iffy" layer into three categories (creatively named 1, 2, 3). Here are the words that came up on the comfort zone map:And here is the complete transcription of the post-its. There's a lot of great content in them. Note that the authors did not identify whether these examples represent real situations, fictitious potential, risks taken or avoided. I encourage you to add your own examples and thoughts on this list to the comments. Thank you to everyone who participated and I hope that this is just the beginning of a larger discussion about courage, thoughtfulness, and consideration of self-censorship.

Safe Zone:
  • Politics
  • Medical testing on animals… leading to death. Experimental trails on humans
  • Historical antecedents to modern day “hot button” topics
  • Lecture series
  • Population growth (down arrow)
  • What technology is developed reflects the political structure of a society and its values
  • An exhibit of a plastinated cow or pig as part of a larger Children’s museum exhibition on agriculture. The cow or pig exhibit is called “Meet Your Meat.”
  • Poverty – the data, causes, models behind the experiences
  • Reproduction (not sex)
Iffy layer 1:
  • Debunking bad science
  • Genocide aftermath
  • Museums satirizing their “museumness”
  • Social engineering of science communication by foundation interests
  • Existence and effect and causes of unequal educational access, i.e. achievement gap
  • Politics of Start Trek –prime directive, -what our government could learn to improve international policies
  • Advertising and psychological manipulation
  • The science of class
  • Aging-physical aging-more than just faces
  • Paradox
  • Love, lust, and human sexuality.
  • Use expert-only vocabulary – stop making entry points for general public, students, families
  • Social science of war. If humans have become so much more intelligent in the last 100,000 years, why can’t we evolve out of wars?
Iffy layer 2:
  • Death (x2)
  • Local controversies
  • Selfishness
  • Methods of population control
  • Schadenfrode
  • Population control and climate change
  • Race
  • Homosexuality in the animal kingdom
  • Urban legends
  • Personal responsibility and body politics with the obesity epidemic
  • Debunking contemporary, real-world examples of bad science used to sell products (arguably the greatest genuine need citizens have for selective thinking)
  • Teen pregnancy, contraception, STDs
  • Addiction
  • A large student-made flag, sent to Iraq, signed by troops, returned to the U.S., and displayed in the museum.
  • Challenge a board member’s company or a sponsor –environmental issues, -research ethics
  • I’m gay – I was born that way
  • Equivalent of a wiki, but in exhibit form – group creation over time
  • Tuskegee and similar “experiments” and current pharmacological research
  • The technology of war
  • Pub science
  • Relationship between culturally, specific traditional values and contemporary political correctness
  • Common themes across all creation myths – fire, blood, famine… “chosenness”
Iffy layer 3:
  • Why did people need to invent god?
  • Resettlement scenarios due to sea level rise.
  • Science of homosexuality
  • Strongly political figures presenting advocacy positions in science
  • Fundamental religion and evolution
  • Condom science, or Polymer Barriers and You
  • Enhancement, mental and physical – enhancing drugs and biotechnology
  • Freakonomics – statistical connections between social policies (eg availability of abortion) and economic impact…
  • Abortion
  • Let visitors talk back to exhibits – encourage anyone to challenge the exhibit’s expertise or authority (soapbox, stage)
  • Race
  • Documentation, excerpts, and outtakes from science issues forum held with local politicians
  • Inherent cognitive sex differences
  • Science of immigration
  • War exhibits
  • An exhibit without words
  • Understanding human violence and violence against each other
  • Environmental/ecological justice (greater impact of environmental harm on minorities – health/community)
  • Cultural native knowledge issue – native peoples disagree about what can or can’t be shared with non-native people and what can be shared period.
  • Science of sexual deviance
  • Economics of oppression
  • The nature of faith
  • Bad science, scientific errors, disproven theories and frauds throughout history
  • Nuclear power
  • Endorsing politicians or policy

No way
  • Bible stories as metaphor versus history
  • Scientists/experts admitting they don’t know the answer or how to solve the problem
  • After death experience exhibit
  • Inviting sarah palin to our climate change exhibition
  • Nazi science
  • Nazi science and how it is used today
  • Valuable info came from nazi/death camp science experiments
  • Let kids go into collections storage unaccompanied
  • Sasquatch and yeti
  • Be rating exhibits – “you’re a dumb dumb!” “Why do homeless people smell bad?”
  • Very dangerous things (health and safety)
  • Adult camp-in “Partner Swap Among the Dinosaurs”
  • An exhibition on techniques, tips, and tools for covert eco-terrorism aimed at affecting government policy.
  • Child predators psychology
  • Public program: “How Eli Lily’s Drugs Ruined My Life” (Eli Lily is a major donor)
  • Intelligence (examination of low or lack of…)
  • Science of abortion
  • Death penalty
  • You should vote for X political party for a good climate change solution
  • Hallucinogenic drugs – positive effects (artists/imagination, spirituality)
  • Adult-only time (perceived as anti-kid)
  • Killers within you (i.e. cancer, stroke, heart attacks)
  • Animal testing
  • Hate crimes
  • Pedophilia
  • Other countries, not ours, are to blame for this problem.
  • Failure of NIH drug testing design
  • An exhibit only in a language other than English
  • Santa Claus – Real or Not? A scientific investigation for all ages.
  • Fight global warming by making the museum cafĂ© 100% vegan. *more effective than solar panels*
  • God
  • Chemistry did (does) a lot of damage to our planet.
  • The science of capital punishment from DNA to execution
  • Religion
  • Teen suicide, teen cutting – I wanted to include these in my museum’s “Hall of Human Life” teen area. Management was horrified.
  • “high risk” physicality, e.g. slides and climbing poles (liability-phobia)
  • the science behind butchering animals
  • pedophile science
  • science of sedition, e.g. extolling the virtues of socialism to the detriment of capitalism
  • orgasmic science
  • the science related to the Holocaust
  • bra and panties made of early nylon – show them together, hanging bra over panties.
  • How to perform an abortion
What would you add? What's in your comfort zone?

Monday, October 13, 2008

Quick Hit: Meet Me in Philadelphia!

I'll be in Philadelphia October 17-21 for the ASTC (Association of Science and Technology Centers) annual conference. I'd love to meet many of you there, whether you will be at the conference or will just be in town for the annual Art Buggy Derby.

I'm speaking in a few sessions, and all of them include opportunities for you to participate and lend your thoughts. On Saturday, Bryan Kennedy (Science Museum of Minnesota), Jim Spadaccini (Ideum), Kevin Von Appen (Ontario Science Centre), and I will be reprising our annual Web 2.0 session. Because attendees at these Web 2.0 sessions come from all walks of museum/technology, this year we're taking a new approach. We've identified four questions that we think you might be interested in. We'll ask for additional questions from the audience then use an applause-o-meter to select the questions of greatest interest, which we will discuss. Our four starter questions are:
  1. How do I convince those above me that it's a good idea and what are the quick, cheap and low-risk social media tools I can use to get started?
  2. Who should "own" social media initiatives internally--marketing, content, floor staff, or a combination?
  3. How do we measure return on investment?
  4. How do I tell if social media's the right approach for the topic/project at hand? What should I consider in terms of strategy?
Please come to the session with your (better) questions, or share them in the comments here. We have been collecting resources to address these questions on Delicious here.

Then! On Sunday, I'll be hosting You Can't Do That in Museums! with Kathy Maclean (Independent Exhibitions), Tom Rockwell (Exploratorium), and Eric Siegel (NY Hall of Science). We'll be taking a look at five topics that science centers tend to avoid--subjectivity, religion, politics, humor, and sex, presenting examples of what is considered "safe" and "not safe" in each category. Then, we're going to open it up to the audience to share your examples and opinions on the why of what's not safe. Tom will be creating a live mind-map of the session and it should be an energetic creative delving into the negative space of museum practice. Please come to the session with your own "can'ts" and "shoulds," or share them in the comments here.

Finally, on Monday, I'll be hosting an informal meetup about the Superstruct alternate reality game. Join us at noon at the Franklin to explore the world of ARGs, discuss how your institution might participate in Superstruct, and play with the future a bit.

If you don't want to come to any of this stuff but would like to meet up, let me know. I'm particularly keen to talk while exercising. Benchpress brainstorming? I'm there.

For those who won't be at the conference, I'll be twittering and will post reflections next week.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

The Future of Authority: Platform Power

I have a lot of conversations with people that go like this:
Other person: "So, you think that museums should let visitors control the museum experience?"
Me: "Sort of."
Other person: "But doesn't that erode museums' authority?"
Me: "No."
One of the primary fears museum professionals (and all professionals) have about entering new relationships with audiences is the fear of losing control. For hundreds of years, we've owned the content and the message. While we may grudgingly acknowledge the fact that visitors create their own versions of the message around subsets of the content, we don't consciously empower visitors to redistribute their own substandard, non-authoritative messages. So when people like me start advocating for the creation of tools and opportunities by which visitors can share their stories, reaggregate the artifacts, even rate and review each others' creations, museum professionals of all stripes get concerned. If the museum isn't in control, how can it thrive?

We have to change the framing of this conversation. There is a difference between control and expertise. In these conversations, people often say, "don't expert voices matter?" and my emphatic response is YES. Content expertise matters. Content control shouldn't.

Museums should feel protective of the expertise reflected in their staff, exhibits, programs, and collections. In most museums, the professional experience of the staff--to preserve objects, to design exhibits, to deliver programs--is not based on content control. It's based on creation and delivery of experiences. And in a world where visitors want to create, remix, and interpret content messages on their own, museums can assume a new role of authority as "platforms" for those creations and recombinations.

The problem arises when expertise creates a feeling of entitlement to control the entire visitor experience. Power is attractive. Being in control is pleasant. It lets you be the only expert with a voice. But if our expertise is real, then we don't need to rule content messages with an iron fist. As Ian Rogers has said, "losers wish for scarcity. Winners leverage scale."

Single voices represented on single labels is not scalable. I believe we need to develop museum "platforms" that allow us to harness, prioritize, and present the diversity of voices around a given object, exhibit, or idea. This does not mean we are giving all the power to visitors. We will grant them a few opportunities--to create their own messages, to prioritize the messages that resonate best for them personally--in the context of a larger overall platform. The platform is what's important. It's a framework that museums can (and should) control, and there's power in platform management.

When you think of a platform for user-generated content, you may not think of that platform as having power. But the companies that run YouTube, Flickr, and other major Web 2.0 sites have lots of power. There are four main powers that platforms have:
  1. the power to set the rules of behavior
  2. the power to preserve and exploit user-generated content
  3. the power to promote and feature preferred content
  4. the power to define the types of interaction available to users
These powers constitute a set of controls which constitutes a real and valuable authority. Let's take a look at each one and how it might be applied in museums.

1. The power to set the rules of behavior.
User-generated content sites control user and community behavior, both implicitly through the tools that are and aren't offered, and explicitly through community management. Every Web 2.0 site has rules about acceptable content and ways that users can engage with each other--consider this article about the complicated and often highly subjective (read: powerful) Flickr community guidelines. These rules are not uniform, and their differences often influence the makeup of users who feel welcome and choose to engage.

When it comes to museums, comparable rules can guarantee that the museum remains a safe, welcoming place for visitors of all kinds. There are some "rules" already in place--like the rule that you have to pay to enter--that may have great effect on the types of users who engage in museums and the behavior they display within. Museums should consider, as Web 2.0 community managers do, what behaviors and visitors they want to support and which rules will make those people feel most at home in the institution.

2. The power to use and exploit user-generated content.
Platforms also have the power to set rules related to preservation and ownership of the content on them--often with quite strict IP statutes that favor the platform over users. Every time you post a photo on Flickr, you give its owner, Yahoo!, the right to use that photo however they see fit. The same is true on YouTube, and on sites like Facebook, which are "walled gardens," you can't even easily export your user-generated content (friends, events, updates) outside of Facebook itself.

Again, these rules reflect platform control, and when the control is too heavy-handed, users get annoyed and stay away. Museums will always need to retain some powers to manage the preservation of objects, to wield IP controls properly, and to manage the digital reproduction and dissemination of content. There are many models as well for what we do with user-generated content in the museum. There are some emerging case studies for this. The Smithsonian American Art Museum's current Ghosts of a Chance game is accessioning player-generated objects into a temporary part of their collection database, with clear rules about what happens to the objects at the end of the game (they are the responsibility of a sub-contractor). In the same way that Web 2.0 sites display a range of respect for user-retained intellectual property, museums can navigate and create their own rules--and related powers--for content developed by visitors on site.

3. The power to promote and feature preferred content.

When you go onto a user-generated content site like YouTube, you don't just see a jumble of videos. One of the greatest powers retained by these platforms is the power to feature content that reflects the values of the platform. These values may skew towards promoting content with the most popularity/views, the newest content, or content that is unique in some way. The choice of what to display on the front page is not just about design. There have been huge user-protests of both YouTube and Digg for perceived bias in the "featured content" algorithms that vault some content to the top. And while some sites strive for transparency, most find ways to feature the kind of content and behavior that they want to see modeled for other users.

This may be the most important platform power when it comes to museums because it is the one that allows the platform to present its values and model preferred behavior. And many museums are far from assuming this power. Most museum projects that allow visitors to create content only allow for the most basic of prioritization. Consider video kiosks where visitors can create their own short clips (a pet peeve of mine). Many museum video kiosks will feature clips from famous people but do nothing to prioritize and prominently display high-quality visitor submissions. The kiosks are organized by recency, not content value--and so new visitors walking up are not given a model for the kind of content the museum would most like to receive.

When museums do assume this power, it is often in a zero-transparency way that doesn't model behavior for users. When I spoke with Kate Roberts about MN150, the Minnesota History Center exhibition based on visitor-generated nominations, she explained that after the nomination period was over, they entirely shut down visitor engagement in the selection process. It just felt too messy to do anything but lock the staff in a room and sort through the nominations. When the exhibition opened a year later, visitors could see which nominations were valued and featured, but they couldn't get this information in an early feedback loop that would have allowed them to improve their nominations during the submission process.

4. The power to define available interactions.

This power is so basic that it is often forgotten. On YouTube, you can share videos. On Craigslist, you can buy and sell stuff. On LibraryThing, you can tag and talk about books. Each Web 2.0 platform has a limited feature set and focuses on one or two basic actions that users can take. Museums don't need to offer every kind of interaction under the sun--we just have to pick the few interactions that most support the kind of behavior and content creation that we value. Again, there's a lot of power in the decision of whether visitors will be allowed to contact each other, rate artifacts, or make their own exhibits. As long as you create a platform that is consistent in its values and the interactions provided, you will be able to control the experience as you open up content authority.

There are real opportunities here for museums to retain authority related to values, experiences, and community behavior. The power of the platform may not let you dictate every message that floats through your doors. But with good, thoughtful design, it can ensure that those messages enhance the overall museum experience.

Monday, October 06, 2008

What Cross-Platform Gaming is Doing for Books... and Can Do for Museums

A few weeks ago, I learned about Scholastic Books' new series, The 39 Clues, which ties together a ten-book mystery with an online gaming environment. I've long been interested in the power of cross-platform experiences, so I was excited to see today's New York Times article about the evolving relationship between books and video games. But the Times missed the boat. Their article focuses on an "either-or" relationships, tackling the question of whether reading or gaming is more conducive to learning. It's an interesting discussion, but it's not what makes The 39 Clues and other projects like it worth studying. The point of these endeavors is that video games and books provide different kinds of experiences, and by putting them together, audiences can experience more varied, layered overall content.

Consider the problem that Scholastic is trying to solve with The 39 Clues. They have paid for ten books written by ten different authors, and the books are being released every few months over the next two years. How can Scholastic keep readers interested enough between releases to bring them back for each subsequent episode?

Scholastic realizes that their books can't do everything. Reading a book can be an intense and powerful experience, but it is a punctuated moment in time. Few people obsessively reread the same book over and over, especially if the "next" book is coming in only 4 months. Is the intense experience of one book enough to hook readers to that author or series? And if the author is changing each time, how do you build allegiance to the content rather than the writer?

This problem is analagous to the repeat visit problem for museums. Museum visits, like book reading, can be an intense and wonderful experience. But is one museum visit enough to compel a second visit? If exhibits are organized by different staff members on different topics at different times, how do you build allegiance to the museum rather than a specific exhibit? How do you encourage visitors to have a sense of pervasive experience with the museum?

Most museums try to solve this by convincing visitors that there is more to do at the museum--that the deeper, layered experience can happen within the galleries. But that strategy requires audiences to deepen their engagement with the museum by visiting, which is necessarily a time-limited, location-specific experience. Time-limited, location-specific experiences don't lend themselves easily to pervasive relationships.

Scholastic realized that. They knew there was a desire among some readers to engage more deeply and continuously with characters and stories, and that there was an opportunity to draw some lukewarm readers into fandom with other avenues into and around the books' content. Rather than trying to solve this problem by releasing longer books (for the obsessed) or more books (for the skeptical), they went to another medium: online gaming. Scholastic realized that they were already good at achieving a primary goal: publishing great books for readers. To achieve new goals--deepening the experience for obsessives and bringing new readers into their empire--they turned to another medium that was better at achieving those desired user effects.

Here's a breakdown of how The 39 Clues cross-platform experience works. There are 39 clues to find. Each book unlocks a clue. Each book also comes with 6 game cards that help you find clues. These two elements guarantee that people will not only read but purchase books (to get the cards). While the books follow a team of orphaned siblings who hunt for clues, the online game reveals that you the player are also related to them (surprise!) and can hunt alongside them. There are online puzzles to solve and new book-related content to absorb. As a reader, you consume the fictitious experiences of others. As a player, you are the main event. And both experiences enhance each other.

There are also some creepy advertising components of The 39 Clues. They are offering cash prizes for participation, which seems both inappropriate and non-conducive to the creation of real online community. And the whole approach--manufacturing a series featuring a range of authors--is not exactly an entrance to literary heights.

But the approach is valuable. It takes humility to acknowledge that museum visits can't--in most cases--accommodate every kind of relationship museums would like to have with visitors. There are content-related experiences and preferences that would be better served in alternate environments. Art museums have always created catalogues to accompany exhibitions, which are one cross-platform way for obsessives to deepen their relationships with content. But what about the grazers, the visitors who come once but never make it back to that time- and location-specific experience of visitation? What other engagement platforms could connect those individual museum experiences into a more continuous, growing relationship?

The Web is certainly one of these platforms. Too many museums have an overly structured concept of the online pre- and post-visit experience that limit the opportunities for pervasive engagement. Rather than thinking of extending one museum visit with a pre- and post-visit, we should be thinking about linking many museum visits with online experiences. Scholastic has the audacious attitude that people will want to read all ten books, and The 39 Clues online experience is unapologetically geared toward that long-term investment. Imagine a museum game that requires visitors to visit six times in a year to connect with six different exhibits that punctuate a more open-ended online narrative. Forget "build the exhibit and they will come". This is "build the narrative and they will return".

These narratives need not be crass advertising grabs; they can become opportunities for visitors to educate themselves in a range of ways about museum-related content. Because despite what the New York Times may say, it's not an OR situation. All of the media experiences in our lives--of objects, of books, of games, of video--can be ANDs. We just need a good enough story to help people make the connection.

For profiles of other cross-platform experiences, check out these that blend books with treasure hunts, TV shows with online narrative, even labels with objects.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Intranets, Yammer, and Other Web 2.0 Tools for Staff Communication

What's the most immediately useful application of Web 2.0 tools to your museum? It probably isn't new forms of visitor engagement (no matter how much I write about those relationships). So many museums suffer from departmental siloing, deluges of all-staff emails, the painful jujitsu required to collate seven versions of the same document... the list goes on. And while defining new relationships with visitors may be a complex institutional process requiring buy-in on many levels, there's no reason not to move quickly and confidently to improve the ways that staff communicate inside your institution.

Here are seven frequent staff communication problems, and tools to address them. They all involve tearing down silos, removing gatekeepers, and making it easy to get the information you want when you want it. Oh, and they're mostly all free.

1. Is your staff directory perpetually out-of-date?

Create a shared Google spreadsheet that lives on the Web and can be updated by everyone. This way, each new staff person can enter her own name, email, phone, etc., and change things as needed. You can even create a handy form to send out so people don't have to edit the spreadsheet itself. The document will always available in its most recent version on the Web, and you can easily add new fields as needed by your institution. Here's an example that took me 3 minutes to create: fill out this form to be added to our imaginary directory!

2. Do you have no idea what's going on beyond your department or team except when an annoying all-staff email announces locker cleanup this Friday?

Set up Yammer to host an internal, private free Twitter feed for your institution. Yammer works like Twitter--people send out short messages that anyone can read or follow. You can receive the messages on the Web, on your desktop, on your phone, or in an instant messaging client. The difference is that all of the messages are internal to your institution. This means a quick way to:
  • let staff know about fundraising successes
  • share funny visitor stories from the floor
  • make staff aware of a big group, program, or event in the museum
  • tell people there are cupcakes in the break room
  • update folks on new media hits
  • let staff know that an important donor is coming into the offices
Right now, most museums share this information via all-staff emails (or not at all when it comes to the quick stories that give the pulse of the institution). By using a service like Yammer, people don't have to read and delete emails clogging their inbox--they can let the messages they don't care about go by, and hone in on the ones that really interest them.

You don't need everyone to sign up to start using Yammer--you can start with a small team or a few interested staff members. The more people use it, the more diversity of information from across the institution you'll start sharing on a daily basis. Not only can it reduce the all-staff email frustration, it can give you a pulse on what's happening in every area of your institution.

3. Do you need a way to report, document, and share day-to-day information on a project or within your department?

Many museum teams don't see each other in person every day. This is true for operations teams, which often include part-time staff who don't intersect, as well as for development teams, which often involve outside contractors or remote staff. Some operations teams use a log book to keep staff updated on the activities of the previous day, but too many rely on word-of-mouth and lose the opportunity to document institutional history and convey knowledge from staff member to staff member.

Internal team blogs can ameliorate these gaps in interaction by providing a group-authored space where staff can share everything from daily log reports to research thoughts. You can set up a free blog via Blogger (my preferred platform) and set it to private, identifying a key set of people who are allowed to author and read posts. You will effectively have a departmental journal of work going on, discoveries made, major events that deserve to be discussed and memorialized. And since people can subscribe to blogs via RSS, staff can select the departments they want to follow "on-demand" without getting bogged down by lots of all-staff emails.

4. Do you need a way to do research and brainstorm collaboratively with your team?

Whereas blogs are a good reporting mechanism, wikis are a better collaborative tool. An internal, shared group wiki will allow you to explore different topics (i.e. create new pages for new areas of interest), refine mission statements, and aggregate research resources in a central area. I like as a free, no-ad, easy to use tool, and have been using it with many clients to keep notes from meetings, organize information, and share resources. Most wiki systems also allow you to easily attach documents. A good wiki can easily become the homebase for creative group work.

5. Do you need a way to share links, images, and videos besides emailing them around?

You can create lists of links on wikis and blogs, but there are also tools that allow you to connect directly to other staff members while you are in the process of discovering and bookmarking items across the Web. Delicious is an online bookmarking system that makes it easy for you to "tag" websites of interest and save them on a single webpage. By sharing your bookmarks with other staff members, you can create targeted link lists for a variety of projects. For example, here's my Delicious page. You can see my network--the people who I'm connected with. We can surf each others' bookmarks, and if we choose a shared tag for a project, then anyone can search Delicious for that tag and see all bookmarks related to that project.

You can do similar things on Flickr and YouTube to share images and videos of interest. I "friend" people I'm working with, and our cumulative "favorites" on these sites become useful resources for image and video reference.

6. Do you need a way to author and revise documents with others?

Many people use Google Docs for this, though I find the interface a bit confusing. I prefer to use wikis to create group-authored documents. All of the text is available directly on the wiki page (no attachments to save or links to click on), easy to edit, and every revision is automatically saved. You can even subscribe to the recent changes and get them sent directly to your email inbox or to a feed reader like Google Reader. Here's a sample document that you can add to and change to get the feel for wiki editing, this time using a wiki service called WetPaint. (I chose WetPaint instead of my favorite wiki provider,, because WetPaint allows non-registered users to edit pages.)

7. Do you need a way to put all of these activities in one place?

You may look at all of the above suggestions and think, "Oy. She wants me to sign up for blogs, wikis, yammer... this is way too many different tools to learn! How will I keep track of them all?"

There are two ways to organize all these kinds of Web 2.0 communication: you can do it for free by creating a custom homepage, or you can pay someone else to aggregate it in something like an intranet.

First, two ways to do it yourself:
  1. For all staff: create a wiki that just features links to each of the different services you are using. You can easily edit it to add new blogs, shared documents, or other wikis that different teams are using. The wiki becomes both a record of all internal social media work and an easy place from which to access it. If you are really tech-competent, you can download the open-source version of Mindtouch (makers of to create your own custom community site.
  2. For yourself: create a Google homepage that has individual links to the different wikis and shared documents in use. You can embed a Google Reader into your homepage and enter all of the addresses for blogs and wiki updates into that reader to create an aggregate feed of posts and changes across all your internal sites.
Paying someone else to create an intranet--a webspace that provides all of the functions listed above (directory, wikis, blogs, updates)--can be very useful IF you are ready to make these new communication systems institution-wide requirements. Web 2.0-enabled intranets are fabulous because they don't require an administrative gate-keeper, but if no one uses them, they're not worth the money. If you're not sure you need an intranet, I recommend starting with some experimental, small projects and see how things go. If you get critical mass and want a more integrated system, you can spring for the intranet.

Here are three robust intranet solutions to consider:
  1. ThoughtFarmer. This is my favorite "wiki-inspired" intranet solution, which provides dynamic, integrated staff directory, departmental wikis, and individual blogs, all connected in an attractive and simple to use interface. ThoughtFarmer costs $109/user (20% discount for non-profits, about $5000/year for updates) and requires a minimum of 100 users. ThoughtFarmer is the best option if you are a large institution with an interest in collaborative documentation, creative work, and messaging.
  2. SocialText, like ThoughtFarmer, is a wiki-based collaborative internal workspace. The pricing is comparable ($5000 minimum startup), though there is a small business version for $10/user/month. SocialText is more customizable than ThoughtFarmer but lacks some of the more attractive user interface elements of ThoughtFarmer. SocialText is best for highly tech-literate folks who want to customize their own experience.
  3. Google Apps. Google Apps provides more standard enterprise needs, like email, calendar, and instant messaging, and fewer Web 2.0 applications (Google Docs and Google sites). This is a good solution if you are looking for a new email and calendar server, but may not be perfect if you really want dynamic shared spaces.While you can use Google Apps for free, to have a version with no ads and good backup systems you'll pay $50 per user per year.

Remember, you don't have to do all of this at once. But if even just one of these seven problems is something that has you banging your head against the ticket counter every day, consider trying one of these suggestions. It will change your workflow--reducing your reliance on email, allowing you to get and receive on-demand information--and it will require you to be more proactive about "following" activities across the institution. The benefit is more flexible, varied content from across the museum, and smarter collaboration with team members. Fewer headaches guaranteed.

What tools do you use to make your collaborative work easier?