Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Where I'm Coming From

Why do you care about and or work in museums? This post tells my (weird) story. I hope you'll share yours in the comments below (or on your own blog). And check out the comments. They are active and awesome.

My story is about radical educational philosophy. I don't work in museums because I love them. I didn't grow up staring open-mouthed at natural history dioramas or wandering through art galleries. When I visit a new city, I don't clamor to visit museums. I go on hikes. I go to farmer's markets. I walk around and get a sense for people and place. And while I'll visit museums out of professional (and occasionally personal) interest, I don't do it because of a deep emotional connection. Yes, there are some extraordinary museum experiences that have changed my life, but they are the exception, not the norm.

I don't work in museums because I love them. I love the promise of what they can be. I work in museums because I hate schools and see museums as a viable alternative. I'm a strong believer in free-choice learning, and I see museums as places to circumvent the hazards of compulsory education and support a democratic, engaged society of learners.

What is free-choice learning? I first encountered the term as a teenager through the writings of John Holt and the unschooling movement. "Unschooling" is an an educational theory that argues that people of all ages (including children) learn best when their work is self-directed--and that children are better at determining what and how they should learn than any accredited school or instructor. As John Holt wrote, "Learning is not the product of teaching. Learning is the product of the activity of learners." Unschoolers generally believe that schools perpetuate undemocratic processes that hinder rather than help learning happen.

I agreed. I was great at school, and I hated it. I didn't want to care what was going to be on the test. I didn't feel supported pursuing intrinsically motivated projects. Much to my mom's relief, I stayed in school but remained deeply suspicious of the artificial structure of grades and gold stars. I went to a project-based engineering college where I could set my own curriculum and graduated early. Professors always encouraged me to go to graduate school, but I wanted to get into "real life"--and real learning--as soon as possible.

I started working in museums because I idealized them as places that support user-directed learning (I still do). In college, I stumbled onto the Institute for Learning Innovation and John Falk and Lynn Dierking's work on free-choice learning in museums, dropped my plan to design pinball machines for a living (probably not that lucrative) and started investigating hands-on museums. I took the two things I was most passionate about--math and non-compulsory learning experiences--and smooshed them together into a string of internships and part-time jobs in science museum education departments. Eventually, I slid into exhibits, and meandered my way to the present.

When I started working in museums, I didn't realize that free-choice learning was a radical proposition. When I first explored the ILI website, I assumed that free-choice learning was the backbone of all museums. I thought I'd found the place for unschooling to thrive. I didn't have a clue about the other rationales for museums--places of stored knowledge, places to keep stuff, places to colonize minds. It wasn't until I started working in museums that I discovered that the museum as a place where you make your own meaning is more a promise than a reality.

There are many parallels between free-choice learning and participatory design. Both are based on the premise that given the opportunity, regular people (learners) will create extraordinary stories and experiences that serve their own purposes better than anything experts can design for them. They don't need to be cajoled or threatened into learning. As museum professionals, or educators, or librarians, or humans who want to support learning, it's not our job to teach people everything. What we can do is design conditions and tools for access to those opportunities and a supportive infrastructure to encourage learning.

Unlike John Holt, who ultimately argued that schools were ineffective in any form, I believe that museums can live up to the promise of free-choice learning. Museum professionals repeat Frank Oppenheimer's words, "no one ever failed museum" with pride. And yet we are increasingly caving to the purse strings and demands of the traditional K-12 and higher education sectors, becoming more like school add-ons than school alternatives. Even the training of museum professionals has gotten more academic with the explosion of university-based graduate programs. Why are we training future leaders of alternative learning using traditional academic techniques and facilities? Instead of trying to align ourselves more closely with K-12 and universities, why aren't museums charting new territory in free-choice learning? Why are we in bed with institutions that fail to acknowledge people as learners rather than vessels to be filled?

I know the practical answers. There is money in traditional education, lots more than what MacArthur and other foundations are starting to offer for alternative learning environments. The contemporary culture of user-generated content is bringing self-directed learning to the forefront, but that doesn't mean there's money or traditional rewards to be found there. No teacher is going to book a field trip to a place that is not tightly tied to school curriculum. A graduate degree looks good on a resume. University people also care about learning, even if they execute it in traditional ways.

But the practicalities are only one part of the story. It took me a long time to realize that supporting free-choice learning isn't the primary goal for most museum professionals. We like designing the experience. We like telling visitors what's important. Whenever someone points out that "visitors make their own experiences," it's usually followed by a but. BUT we will try to force them to do what we want them to anyway. BUT we will make sure the only stuff they encounter in the galleries is vetted. BUT we won't acknowledge their voices and their meaning.

My goal is to break down those BUTs. That goal isn't based on technology or social media. It's based on liberation, idealism, and activism. It's based on inviting visitors to participate in museums as active learners so the institutions become as meaningful and relevant as possible.

What's your goal? Where are you coming from?

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Free2choose and the Social Dimension of Polling Interactives

Early in the life of this blog, I stumbled into a taxonomy of how social platforms work that I call the hierarchy of participation. The hierarchy comprises five levels, shown above, from passive consumption of content (level one) to collective social engagement (level five). I’ve argued that you can only achieve level five engagement by moving “through” the intermediate levels. This post provides a tangible example for the why behind that argument.

When I talk about the hierarchy, I use the theoretical construct of an issue-based museum exhibit. At level one, the museum preaches to visitors about the issue. At level two, the visitor has some interactive experience (pushing buttons, etc.) with the issue. At level three, the visitor is polled about the issue and sees her result compared to the cumulative aggregate. At level four, the visitor has some awareness of how other distinct visitors respond to the issue and can access their comments and opinions. At level five, the visitors start discussing the issue together.

Last week, I visited a museum with an exhibition that powerfully illustrated the barriers that prevent people from jumping from level three to level five. It is a small exhibition called Free2choose at the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam.

Free2choose is a very simple exhibition. It is one room, with a long, semi-circular bench with cushions and room for about 30 people to comfortably sit and stand. Every few feet on the bench, there is a small box about the size of a lightswitch with two buttons on it, one red and one green. The visitors on the bench face a large projection screen. The screen plays an interactive show that invites visitors to vote on a variety of issues related to human rights. The setup is always the same. A one-minute video clip presents the issue (for example, whether students should be allowed to wear headscarves to school). Then, a screen pops up with a statement like “Students should be allowed to wear religious symbols in school.” Visitors see a ticking countdown and are told to vote by pressing either the green or red button on one of the small boxes. Green indicates yes, red, no. At the end of the voting countdown, the results are shown, both for “Visitors Now” and for “All Visitors.”

Free2choose is a walk-in exhibition—visitors can freely enter and leave at any time. Each issue takes about 90 seconds between the setup video and the voting, and the entire loop takes about 20 minutes. I spent over an hour in Free2choose on a Sunday afternoon, and while it was not as busy as the rest of the museum, it had 20 to 40 occupants at any time. People stayed through several topics, many as long as ten minutes. The show content was compelling, but the voting was what really energized people.

What did people like so much about the voting? Pressing the buttons was not particularly thrilling, and I never saw kids playing the usual bang-on-the-buttons game. The thing people liked was seeing the results. Every issue cycle was the same: visitors would watch the video in silence, and then as soon as the voting opened, a murmur of conversation would run through the room. It increased to a loud buzz when the results were displayed, and then cut off when the next issue video began.

What's so interesting about the results? When you take a poll alone, there’s no suspense about how you voted. I vote yes for headscarves, and then I see that 65% of other visitors over time agreed with me. But Free2choose was more like being part of a deliberating jury than acting as a solo judge. In Free2choose, I voted yes for headscarves, saw that 65% of all visitors agreed with me, but also saw that only 40% of the people currently in the room agreed with me. When the results of the room differed greatly from those of “All Visitors,” the surprise was audible. I was in one group where 100% of us voted that Protestants should be able to parade through Catholic areas in Northern Ireland, and we looked around with wonder and complicity when we saw that only 60% of “All Visitors” agreed with us. Every group was different, so every outcome was different.

Free2choose is powerful because it introduces social tension. When I voted in the minority, I felt that I was in the minority not just conceptually but physically, in that crowd, in that moment. Because the room was often full, I found myself looking for people “like me" in the crowd. But I had no way to identify them in the faceless group of button-pushers.

And that’s where the social dimension of Free2choose is limited. There is no component to the exhibition that highlights the specific selections made by individuals in the room, and no vehicle to incite conversation among differing groups. Yes, there was lots of talking in that room—but only in whispers among familiars. At one point, I was standing next to a group of British people who voted that flag-burning should be illegal. I had voted the opposite. We were standing close enough—a few inches apart—that I could “spy” on them as they hit the button, but I was not comfortable asking them about it or having a discussion about why.

Right now, Free2choose is a game that illuminates diversity of opinion on tough issues. But it could go further. It could become a game that encourages people to talk with each other about these issues. There are many ways that the game could do this:
  • Voting could be (more) public. There could be spotlights in the ceiling that would illuminate different areas of the room in different colors of light corresponding to those who had selected red or green when the results are shown.
  • Instead of voting in place, visitors could be directed to vote by moving to one side of the room or another.
  • After the results are up, the screen could instruct visitors to find someone in the room who voted differently from them, or just to ask their neighbor what they think about the issue and or the results.
  • The game could instruct people to share voting stations and to use a brief discussion to come to a consensus vote. As it was, there were too few stations and people awkwardly looked on as others used them.
There are many other options. They aren’t hard to implement and they needn’t dramatically change the exhibition, but they could dramatically change the social experience. Free2choose is a perfect example of the limits of a level three experience. Even though you are densely packed in a room with other people expressing your opinions about important issues, you don’t turn to your neighbor and start talking. The social stigma is too great, and the tools don’t help you cross those barriers. You vote and see the results (level 3), but the voting mechanism is not a social object that mediates and motivates engagement with others (level 4). And so, even though you are all together in the same room, grappling with tough issues, you will never launch into group discourse (level 5).

Not all people would want to go to the next level and have a conversation with strangers, but it was clear that people did want to talk about the results (based on their conversations with companions) and were absorbed by the overall experience. And in an international city like Amsterdam, in a museum focused on one girl's extreme story that has touched the whole world, it seems to me there is an enormous opportunity to go to the next level and facilitate cross-cultural discussion. Why do you oppose flag-burning? How is it related to your nationality, your age, your gender, your experience? I was aching to ask these questions. It would have made for an extraordinary and unique museum experience in line with the overall mission of the Anne Frank House.

As it stands, I had an interesting time comparing the results from different groups in my head. But I didn’t understand why those groups were different, and I didn’t gain more insight about how different people think about complicated issues related to human rights. I wanted more than just a fun interactive—I wanted to understand the other people in the room. And I don’t think I was alone in that feeling. Perhaps we should have put it to a vote.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Comment Cards 2.0: Three Tools to Check Out

In many museums, comment cards are currently the most "participatory" part of the visitor experience. It's the one place where visitors can offer direct, open-ended feedback on the institution's content and services. But there are three problems with museum comment cards:
  1. The comments are so scattered over a wide range of topics (including generic ones like, "Thank you!") that the signal-to-noise ratio is low. Unless you digitize them, they become unwieldy and impossible to search through and derive meaning from.
  2. In most institutions, the suggestions on comment cards don't get to the people in power. If they are read, it is primarily to address any chronic problems (i.e. complaints about the third floor bathroom), not ideas or opportunities.
  3. There are few, if any, ways to write back and continue the conversation with the visitor who commented. Relatedly, there is no way for other visitors to easily join threads of conversation--to do anything but offer their own discrete atomized comments.
In other words, comment cards aren't effectively organized for use. Enter the internet. Recently, a whole slew of new web-based applications have popped up to make it easier for companies to gather and prioritize feedback from users. While these began in the pretty geeky world of people suggesting new features for software (see featurelist as an example), there are now several services with slick user interfaces that allow you to offer feedback on everything from Whole Foods markets to Barack Obama's presidential agenda. Because these services present individual feedback in a social environment and allow users to vote for their favorite suggestions or questions, the institution can easily see the prioritized desires and concerns of visitors without having to read hundreds of cards.

These services could be a powerful, cheap alternative to comment cards--especially those that are focused towards making suggestions about the museum. If you are considering replacing comment books or cards with digital kiosks, why not put the kiosk online and use a system that will allow visitors to vote for others' suggestions, comment on new ideas, join conversations with staff about opportunities, see which suggestions have been adopted by the institution? These third-party applications provide a ready-made environment for comment cards to become more useful and usable to visitors and staff alike.

Here are the top three tools I've been exploring: IdeaScale, GetSatisfaction, and uservoice.

prioritizing suggestions for specific programs

A couple of weeks ago, I opened this Ideascale website to invite readers of this blog to suggest and vote on Museum 2.0 community activities of interest (please vote and comment--I will move to action stage at the end of the month). Ideascale is the most basic of these three tools, offering three actions a user can take: suggest an idea, vote for or against an idea, and comment on an idea. The ideas can be tagged and grouped into categories, and can be browsed in time order, by most popular, or by category.

My account is free, but you can pay $15 per month for a bunch of moderation tools and secure portals. There is also a way to award rewards based on the number of points accrued by a given user (you receive points for commenting, voting, and suggesting) - for example, IdeaScale's parent company, QuestionPro, will give you a $10 Amazon gift certificate when you accrue 100 points on their own virtual suggestion box.

IdeaScale is best for individual programs or events because it focuses on prioritizing via voting. The suggestions have to be reasonably focused so that people can make comparative judgments. It may be useful if you want to ask "What kind of teen programs should our museum offer?" because all of the answers will be related and can be judged as better or worse than each other. IdeaScale is less useful for questions like, "What should we change about our museum?"--it may be hard to compare suggestions like, "new bathrooms," to "longer hours" to "more tours"--and therefore, the content becomes less useful.

Two interesting examples to check out: ChoiceHotels, a booking software used by hotel managers, and AsktheSpeaker, in which Ideascale was used by Netroots Nation to select questions to ask Nancy Pelosi in an interview. Both of these are specific; the first, about the feature set for a software service, and the second, focused on a single event.

Positives of Ideascale: Easy to customize the look and feel to brand to your site. Simple, understandable functionality. Focuses users on prioritizing ideas. No ads in any version.

Negatives of Ideascale: users must register an account to comment, suggest, or vote.

Best use for museums:
When you want people to share their suggestions for a specific element of the institution (i.e. exhibition name, what kinds of programs do you want, what should we offer in our cafeteria) and want to gather both ideas and votes for each idea. While IdeaScale could be used as a standalone kiosk or a link from the website, but probably is better for specific, targeted projects than as an entire comment card solution.

ongoing conversation with users about visitor experiences

GetSatisfaction is the youthful giant of this field. While IdeaScale is about sharing suggestions for particular programs or services, GetSatisfaction is a "customer service and support" system. Rather than just suggesting ideas, users can "ask a question," "share an idea," "report a problem," or "give praise" to the company or institution. These types are color-coded so a user can quickly scan down and see the problem reports (red), which they may want to respond to quickly. Users can also submit their emotional feeling about the idea or problem via a set of emoticons that let you know generally whether people are happy or pissed off. GetSatisfaction makes it very clear which users are employees and which are customers, and lets users know at the top of the page how many employees are engaged in the forum (so you know whether you are in an entirely customer-based discussion environment or one that has a lot of active participation by the company).

GetSatisfaction is more about conversations with customers than prioritizing suggestions. There are great secondary tools to allow you to follow individual conversation threads and users have profiles that can be developed across the site (similar to Yelp!). While you can vote on a given question or item to say that "you also have this question," that feature is not as frequently used as the "reply" function. Where IdeaScale is about sorting suggestions by priority, GetSatisfaction is about connecting with users and their concerns and questions. It is primarily used by web companies, but there are some media providers like the BBC and venues like Whole Foods using it.

Positives of GetSatisfaction: Creates an ongoing forum for communication with users. Can be used for multiple kinds of requests--content questions as well as concerns about the cleanliness of the bathroom. Great user interface; see this in-depth article about its design.

Negatives of GetSatisfaction:
Free version has ads. Users must register an account to comment, suggest, or vote. Requires ongoing feedback and use by staff to adequately address user concerns.

Best use for museums: If you want to have ongoing conversations with visitors about their questions and concerns, GetSatisfaction is a good option. This is like a comment card system in which you are expected to respond to most of the questions and concerns. It could be a robust complete system, but there is a heavy staff time investment required.

voting fairly for new ideas

uservoice is still in beta, and it got on my radar through their clever creation of a Obama agenda suggestion implementation (it does not appear to be affiliated with or sponsored by the Obama team). It is very similar to IdeaScale, focusing on making suggestions, voting, and commenting, with one unique difference: users are given a set number of votes (10) to distribute among the ideas listed. While suggesting a new idea is up front on the site, the fact that you only have ten votes to spread around adds a game-like element that focuses you on checking out many ideas and distributing your votes wisely.

For this reason, uservoice may be an interesting tool to use if you want people to vote for options in a controlled way where different users' contributions are balanced (i.e. voting for a favorite exhibit). The concept is that some of the ideas in the uservoice list will be adopted by the institution, and then the votes for that idea will be "freed" back to the voters for use on other ideas. That concept relies on users returning to the site multiple times--something no museum can really count on.

Positives of uservoice: Does not require registering an account to suggest an idea, comment, or vote. There is only a free version currently with no ads.

Negatives of uservoice: The vote cap may be confusing and or limiting to users.

Best use for museums: If you want to invite people to vote on topics and require them to really value their votes, uservoice could be a strong tool. I could imagine it being used, for example, in a climate change exhibition to invite visitors and staff to recommend energy-saving options for the institution and for visitors to vote on which they think the institution should prioritize.

One key requirement to make any of these systems successful is that you must place it prominently in your physical museum or on your website such that people can easily access it when they have their question or comment. That is more likely to happen in the museum than online. This could even be the start of a great "online extension" activity for visitors. Rather than dropping their comment cards into the black hole of a suggestion box, they could start conversations and engagement with the institution--originating with both positive and negative impressions--that continue for a long time. One of the most interesting things I noticed as I scanned the Whole Foods GetSatisfaction site was how many topics started negative and ended up becoming polite, engaging conversations between customers and employees. And while the tone of the Whole Foods employees is very marketing-ish, it's also personal, and it seems to work. Annoyed people are converted. They are spending more virtual time with the brand, and with real people associated with it. They are having conversations. And I think that's encouraging some of them to go back to the store.

Why let Whole Foods have all the fun? How do you use comment cards in your museum, and how would you like to see them evolve?

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Lessons in Participatory Design from SFMOMA's Exhibition on (you guessed) The Art of Participation

Here are two pictures. The first one is me. The second one is George. George is a stranger I met last week at SFMOMA’s new show, The Art of Participation:1950 to Now. We didn’t need a staff member or a program to meet each other. We weren’t trying to pick each other up. We engaged in an exhibit together, making "one minute sculptures" and taking photos of each other. We talked afterwards. We connected virtually later. We were strangers, and now we are not, and we have SFMOMA to thank for it.

The Art of Participation provides a retrospective on participatory art as well as presenting opportunities for visitors to engage in contemporary (“now”) works. As the museum's website puts it, "this exhibition examines how artists have engaged members of the public as essential collaborators in the art-making process." While many of the artifacts of historical art pieces are arresting, the pieces of “now” form an exciting testbed for gallery-based participatory engagement, albeit in a meta way around the topic of participation. The participatory art pieces are physical, social objects that mediate visitor-to-visitor engagement, and the exhibition suggests a set of dos and don’ts that are transferable to any museum or institution seeking to support visitor-to-visitor social experiences.

DO message clearly. SFMOMA uses a variety of methods to make visitors aware of the opportunity to engage physically with the art. At the front of the exhibition is this simple sign (shown at right) explaining that labels written in orange are opportunities to “do, take, or touch something.” This label set up a casual game for me: look for orange, do the thing. Even if you don’t see this label on the way in, the use of a different color allows visitors to become familiar with the use of the color orange as they see it across many labels in the gallery. If the participatory instructions were integrated into the standard black labels, visitors would not be as aware of the commonalities across the interactive art pieces. The repetition of the orange may also encourage some reluctant visitors to engage, as it suggests multiple opportunities for participation.

DO train your floor staff.
Staff play a major role in setting expectations about what visitors can and can not do-especially in art museums. There were several guards and gallery guides in the museum when I attended, and they seemed to serve contradictory roles. The guards interpreted the labels in strict ways and intervened anytime visitors deviated from the prescribed activities. The guides had a much more open approach, encouraging visitors to play. I was involved in one situation where a guide and a guard argued about whether a plastic orange could be placed inside a prop fridge. This kind of confusion among staff translates negatively to visitors, who lose confidence in participating for fear of being chastised.

DON’T make the participatory activity too narrow or difficult. There were a couple of exhibits that had complicated instruction sets, and participating felt more like an unpleasant IKEA flashback than an opportunity to explore art. This doesn’t mean that there isn’t a place for challenging exhibits, but the starting point for entry into a participatory experience should always be gentle and friendly. Also, the more open-ended pieces, in which visitors could express some of our own creativity, allowed me to feel more like a participant and less like an unpaid art lackey.

DO think about visitor flow when situating participatory experiences. The Art of Participation has elements throughout the SFMOMA building, and while some are well-placed, others feel ill-suited to their environment. The quiet, less-trafficked education center is a perfect place for contemplative, individual exhibits like the 1000 Journals project, in which visitors can flip through and contribute to a set of journals launched into the world by artist Brian Singer. But a set of DIY foldable furniture, which is performative, social, and challenging to use, felt out of place in the otherwise empty education space. Similarly, the one minute sculptures, where I spent the most time and interacted with many strangers, was successful because it was positioned in an open part of the gallery that generated lots of traffic and sightlines—two key elements for drawing people in.

DON’T make the social ask too uncomfortable. There was a set of eyeglasses in the exhibition meant for two people to wear (see left, the glasses are linked so the viewers face each other). While some people traveling in groups may feel comfortable using a device to stand inches from each other, many strangers (and familiars) do not. In contrast, the exhibit in which I met George—one minute sculptures—requires a simple and non-threatening social action: taking a photo of someone else. It’s minimal enough to feel safe asking a stranger for help but leads easily to deeper interaction.

DO delineate the space, but design easy ways to disengage.
George and my experience in the one-minute sculpture activity was also facilitated by the space provided. We were standing on a low platform in the middle of a large gallery. It was clear where to participate (on the platform), which enhanced the performative quality of the experience. People could watch what was happening and join in. People on the platform could turn in multiple directions to entice newcomers into the action. But it was also easy to step off the platform and out of the activity. Too often, we design participatory experiences into their own rooms, thinking we should create a dedicated space for the noise and activity. But openness is safe. I would feel less comfortable playing with strangers in a room shut off from the rest of the museum.

DO provide examples and create a valued context.
This is the most obvious way that The Art of Participation succeeds. For every opportunity to engage creatively, there are many examples of how other artists have interpreted participation. This happens on a small scale (for example, the one minute sculpture platform was flanked by photos documenting sculptures created by artist Lygia Clark) as well as throughout the gallery. There is no question in my mind that the art around us encouraged me and other participants to take more risks, and to think of ourselves as making art. We were on display at a huge and powerful museum, a part of the exhibition rather than consumers of an interactive element. And that felt important. It was a feeling that was harder to access in the education center, where participation felt less transgressive and more like a “designed learning moment.”

Some of these dos and don'ts may seem generic. But without all of them, the participatory experience is diminished—and that was readily apparent as I wandered the highly active to not-at-all active exhibits. Context and framing are unbelievably important. Think of what happened to George and me: we had an opportunity to take pictures of people doing silly things with broom handles, plastic fruit, and a dorm fridge with a hole in it. That description does not scream "amazing participatory experience." And yet the setup—the platform, the gallery location, the examples, the encouragement, the low barrier to entry—made it extraordinary. It created a situation where a perfect stranger paused, looked at me, and said, “I think I’m going to take off my shirt.” It created an opportunity for each of us to do things that were individually comfortable but socially extraordinary.

It didn’t take exhaustive resources to create the one minute sculpture platform. I'd argue that it didn't even take unprecedented genius on the part of the artist and curators. But it did take a serious interest in connecting with visitors, valuing their participation, and putting their work front and center in a contextualized museum experience.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Two Tagging Projects that Make Sense

Collection-tagging projects (in which visitors assign keywords to items in a collection) have always left me cold. Tagging is such a functional activity, and if you don't see direct benefit from doing it, the interest in it as a fun afternoon activity is pretty low. But over the last couple of months, I've learned about two tagging projects that actually get me excited--CamClickr at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the Posse at the Brooklyn Museum. Why am I suddenly compelled to check out owl nests and describe Asian pottery? Because these projects take the basic act of tagging and wrap it in two powerful motivators--gaming and community.

If you think about it, there are two reasons to tag things:
  1. to bookmark them for yourself so you can use them later
  2. to describe them for a large group of users who might find them helpful in finding things later
I tag things on the Web all the time using Delicious. But I do it because it's useful to me as an organizational tool. Yes, I see the secondary benefit it provides to others in my network, but that's not what drives me.

When museums embark on collections-tagging projects, they are almost entirely focused on this secondary benefit. They aren't letting visitors bookmark objects; they are asking for descriptors to help people find them. Because museum staff are deeply entwined with the online collection and know the statistics on how many users are accessing it, they see a huge opportunity for tags to serve their online visitors. But here's the problem: visitors don't see the same opportunity. If each individual who uses your database doesn't think of herself as part of a user community, she has very little motivation to tag. When I view a museum collection online, I'm not thinking, "how could I make this easier for someone else?" I'm thinking, "how can I find the thing I want to see?" Unless I'm sufficiently dedicated to the institution to think of myself as a community member or repeat user, it's hard for me to imagine a good reason to tag.

That's why some institutions have used game mechanics to incentivize tagging. A year and a half ago, I wrote about Carnegie Mellon-created two games that allow you to competitively tag images on the Web. At the time, I commented that museums and other institutions pursuing tagging as a way to get user-generated content about collections should consider using gaming to motivate participation as well. And that brings us to CamClickr.


The Cornell Lab of Ornithology's CamClickr project integrates a simple set of game mechanics (levels and points). CamClickr and its parent project, NestWatch, are the newest public offerings in the Lab's suite of citizen science activities, which engage ordinary people in the collection of scientific data about birds. CamClickr is based on a mundane activity: look at photos snapped by webcams pointed at nests and describe what's happening. Are there chicks? Are there eggs? Is there an adult? Are there two adults? What are they doing? And while looking at nests is interesting for a while, the intrinsic motivation to look at another set of 15 photos of chicks with their mouths open is (for me) pretty low.

But Cornell did a wonderful job turning this tagging activity into a game with levels, score, and a leader board. Their promise that it is "fun, easy, and addicting!" is scarily true. I'm only at 99 points, but the leading players have logged tens of thousands of points--each of which corresponds a set of tags applied to an image. The CamClickr game gives you mini-wins (accruing points, moving to the next set) as well as larger motivators (jumping from level 1 to level 2). The game also blends the point-based motivation with changes in what is expected of the tagger. When you advance to level 2, you advance to a more challenging set of activities. Instead of just identifying how many birds are in the nest, you have to actually identify what they're doing. At first, this was a little scary for me--how do I know what a bird's doing? But because this activity was couched in a "level 2" construct, I got to first build my confidence on level 1, and when I got to level 2, I was willing to spend some extra time reading the additional material so I could "do it right." In this way, CamClickr gently ushers users into more sophisticated tagging activities, using the game mechanic both for motivation and as a gateway to build up user expertise.

CamClickr is a well-designed game, but there is minimal interaction among the players. Like any arcade game, I can view the top scorers on the homepage, but I don't have a sense of where I am in the list or who all these folks are. And I have only the haziest notion of the real audience for the tagging: the scientists who will use the data in their work. And that's where the Brooklyn Posse comes in.

The Brooklyn Posse

The Brooklyn Museum's project goes a step further, combining game mechanics with community membership to create a social tagging experience. The Brooklyn team decided to directly tackle the #2 problem with tagging by raising awareness among users of each other, thus creating a community for whom you are tagging. Here's how it works.

Step 1: join the posse. This is a community-building step in which you create a basic profile (selecting an artwork from the museum's collection as your avatar) and join the community of collection taggers. Suddenly, I know who the other folks are who will benefit from my tags--the other members of the posse. I may not have a prior relationship with them, but just perceiving their presence and my membership in their gang increases my interest in doing work for them. It's interesting that Brooklyn's tagging project is centered entirely around this posse. The page is clearly about members, not objects.

Step 2: tag stuff. When the Posse first opened, I joined, but then I ran into the same problem I've had with other museum tagging projects--I didn't feel compelled to tag. Yes, they allow you to both favorite and tag artifacts, and that's nice, but since I don't have a strong connection with their online collection, why would I tag it? I took a couple of half-hearted clicks, but that wasn't going to drive my interest, and it didn't connect me to the other users.

Then, in September, they opened up a game called, shockingly, tag. It's similar to CamClickr; you tag artifacts from the collection, accruing points for each tag assigned. But instead of levels, you play relative to other members of the Posse. The game tells you each time you have passed another Posse member's score, and gives you some reference for Posse members in your score vicinity to motivate you to keep playing. Best of all, the game features a really charming set of thank you videos that pop up when you pass other Posse members in which Brooklyn Museum staff (and their sock puppets) say thank you for tagging. That whimsical, friendly connection was enough to make me keep going to get to see the next video. It's like the little dramas that happen between PacMan levels--not great cinematography, but something with enough of a hook to drive you to keep playing.

For me, the tag game made all the difference in my interest in tagging. Suddenly, I had a reason to tag (albeit a silly one) - to get points. The game made me more aware of other Posse members by showing my status in relation to them, and subtly signaling to me that other people care about this stuff and are involved with it. It's also worth mentioning the friendly, fun attitude that the whole Posse site takes towards tagging. When you register your username, the system tells you it's awesome. It uses words like "yay!" liberally. And while that may turn some people off, it made me feel like I was in a fun environment--a Posse with whom I wanted to associate.

Next Challenges

These projects ably address a key problem with tagging: motivating users to do it. But once I, a non-expert in either birds or art, started tagging, I ran into another problem. I was afraid I was doing it wrong. Once I was aware of the usefulness of my tags to someone else--whether a group of scientists or a posse--I started getting nervous. What if the game was encouraging me to tag beyond my abilities? What if that bird wasn't actually eating?

I raised this fear with Shelley Bernstein at the Brooklyn Museum. She was surprised, and commented that (like all tagging projects), the Posse is looking for whatever words you associate with a piece of art. Right or wrong, they may add value to another searcher's experience. We talked about the confidence problem, and whether the game mechanic of points should be coupled with more instruction and or reinforcing language that might help me be more comfortable with the tags. These games do a great job motivating you TO tag. Now, maybe, they can do a better job rewarding you not just for the points you accrue but the useful work you are doing.

Because ultimately, the problem with tagging is that it doesn't always seem useful. If people are doing work for you with your collection, they want to know that it's going to help in some way. One of the best parts of Cornell's citizen science projects is the very real sense that you are helping people--scientists, no less--do their work. I'm willing to tag for non-visitors; if a museum told me they needed my tags to help their research, I might be interested. But I need to be tagging for someone. If it's visitors, show me the tags and how I might use them. If it's professionals, let me see where the work goes and have them say thank you.

We have to give visitors a real sense of how their tags are helping others (or themselves). That's the only way tagging can evolve into a true "visitor experience."

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Two Years Later

Thank you.

This is a post to say thank you.

Today, Museum 2.0 is celebrating its second birthday. And when I think back on the last year and how it compared to year one of blogging, the shining difference is you--your interest, your comments, and most of all, your extraordinary example.

I started the Museum 2.0 blog in 2006 as a personal learning exercise about "the ways that museums do and can evolve from 1.0 (static content delivery machines) to 2.0 (dynamic content aggregation and network machines)." I had heard some influential museum leaders raise the question of what a wiki museum might look like, and I wanted to explore that and related concepts. I always assumed that this would be a semi-private endeavor and that the public nature of the blog would just be an efficient vehicle for sharing my ideas with a small group of interested folks.

Two years later, things have changed for the blog--and more importantly, for the museum field. In the last year, I have seen traditional museum attitudes about social media and community co-design go from "why should we care about this?" to "how can my institution do this sustainably and successfully?" and watched the Museum 2.0 blog traffic climb from 600 viewers per week to 4,000. And people aren't just thinking about this stuff; many museums have taken real, exciting action in the last year.

Here are some highlights:
In other words, there's a lot going on. And from my perspective as someone who has been chronicling some of these efforts, they suggest not just experimentation but a new direction for (some) museums. I've sat on several task forces and program committees over the last year, and I'm always surprised to be at the table. I'm new to this side of museums, and I sometimes feel like the eighth party candidate who got invited to the debate. But enough of these experiences have convinced me that the participatory museum is not a fringe concept. There is funding. There is interest. There is (growing, tentative) respect.

That's not to say that we don't still have to fight to make the best arguments for why these new processes and activities should be integrated into our institutions. I still talk to lots of folks, mostly young staff members, who are struggling to find ways to feature visitors' voices and break down standard authoritarian design structures. But now I'm also meeting just as many directors and museum leaders who are new to these topics and are trying to imagine how these kinds of activities can be intelligently integrated into their process. We need more advocates, more voices that can help navigate (and lead!) the future of our institutions.

And so it's time for us to start talking to each other. As the audience for the Museum 2.0 blog has grown, I've grown increasingly uncomfortable with this site as a community-building tool. Yes, I love writing, and I am so grateful that you want to read what I have to say. For me, blogging is a wonderful way to add reflection and analysis to my design practice, and I'm flattered that you want to come along with me on that reflection.

But this blog is mostly push content. It's very me-heavy and is not sufficient to support the energy in this community. I have met so many of you in the last year who are working on projects and new ideas and would really benefit from connecting to others in the loose "museum 2.0" community who are thinking along the same lines. You send me emails (which is awesome and I want you to continue) but I also want you to have access to each other and all of your collective brilliance. I shouldn't get to have all the fun.

And so I'm offering myself up as a hub to help get a community project(s) started. I don't have a lot of free time on my hands, but I do have connections to all of you. I've put up a simple site that you can use to recommend community activities and tools that would be useful to you. You can also vote on others' suggestions and add comments. You'll see that I've put up some seed content; please don't let that constrain you from making your own suggestions. Please try to focus on things that you would actually, not theoretically, like to participate in.

When activity dies down on the site, I'll report back on the outcome here on the blog and will offer what I'm willing to do to get the community started based on your preferences. If you want to take up other ideas from the site and start them on your own, awesome. If you want to start your own renegade thing that's unrelated, even better. We need more voices in this field, and I don't want to be a gatekeeper, just a springboard.

And if you don't want to get involved with other community activities, that's fine. I'll still be here blogging. I hope you'll keep reading and sharing your thoughts and challenges and projects with me. I hope you'll keep commenting on blog posts--I LOVE when you comment on blog posts. I also greatly appreciate the work folks have put into organizing Museum 2.0 posts usefully on the Museum 2.0 Living Archive and hope that will continue.

But no matter what your participation level, I can't overstate my gratitude to all of you. When this started, I never imagined that blogging would have such a positive, dramatic impact on my professional life. You have enabled that, by talking to me, sharing your experiences with me, sending posts to your colleagues, working with me, and supporting me. Thank you so much. Here's to another great year!