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.

7 comments, add yours!:

Anonymous said...

super interesting concept - and this is a bit OT, but actually, got me thinking about your previous post re: interactive art at SFMOMA etc. I admit - I'm not much of a "museum" goer - and in thinking harder why, it's they typical "museum" that doesn't interest me - I love ones that encourage you to interact with the exhibitions (science, tech, children's museums etc), but just plain old "art on the walls" or "this is a historical building" - not so much.

I wonder why the museum in amsterdam didn't take it to the next level of interaction - fear? lack of imagination? controversy?

Anonymous said...

Interesting post.

Is there, in your assessment, a correlation between moving up the pyramid and loss of participation?

It would seem to me that some people may be less comfortable (and therefore less likely to participate) without the cloak of anonymity that this exhibit provides.

What's the proper balance between quantity of participants (inclusiveness) and quality of experience?

Matt said...

I wonder how an idea like this could work in the theatre. Could you have members of the audience vote about issues raised in a play? Could we compare those votes with the votes of the actors? or perhaps the "votes" of the "characters"?

Many theatres have an audience talkback, when the audience can ask the cast about the show - this type of ongoing interactivity could make those talkback sessions more like the top of your pyramid.

It strikes me that for the top of your pyramid to happen, you need someone in the minority to start the conversation - perhaps a museum official could take the unpopular position to spur a wider discussion?

Nina Simon said...

Great and provocative comments!

Jacob: Many people, especially those who tend to enjoy visiting museums, may be turned off by such social engineering. But there are others--people like me and Jennifer Caleshu!--who would actually prefer it. I don't think that all museum experiences should be at (any) specific level, but I think we need a greater diversity of experience types to attract a broader audience. Right now, I see a real deficit of highly social experiences in museums, which is sort of self-fulfilling as the people who align themselves with museums tend to prefer what is already there.

Matt: The National Constitution Center is (sort of) trying this in at least one theater show I attended, although it was quite frustrating in its limitations. The actors put on a wonderful show for 15 minutes raising lots of tough questions, then put some of them to a hands-raised vote at the end. There were only about 10 of us in the audience, and they could have easily facilitated a discussion between people who, for example, supported creating paths to citizenship for illegal immigrants and those who did not. But they didn't. They did the show, we voted, and then it was over. I was almost physically sick with frustration at the lack of dialogue opportunity. Here we were, all adults in a room, being opened up to interesting questions, and the educators did not feel that us really talking about these things was valuable enough to be part of the experience. That may be a harsh judgement on the experience, but it was an obvious missed opportunity. I think it takes, if not training, a special kind of courageous and interested staff member to really want to facilitate and spur discussion with visitors. I know many good docents who are trying.

Mariana said...

Richard Sandell in his book "Museums Prejudice and the Reframing of Difference" has been conducting interviews in that museum. I think it was a previous version of the same exhibition. He involved in conversations about prejudice with the visitors of that exhibition. It is really worthy to check it out.

Anonymous said...

Great Post! My name is Catia, I am from Argentina and had the opportunity to go to Anna Frank museum and participate in Free2choose. I share with you the feeling of a missed opportunity to get the better of the experience, getting involve in dialogue about the issues at stake. Anyway, the project is a good iniciative.

pd: sorry if my english is not so good.

Unknown said...

I was googling "social engagement" in the context of social media when I stumbled on your post. We're an internet start-up that provide Facebook page owners campaign tools to engage with their fans. One of the campaign module we provide is polling. The poll results could be tied back to people's sex, age, country of residence etc. because it's based on users' facebook identities.
I was wondering in the world of museums, have people thought about integrating virtual social networks into the actual exhibitions to provide a fuller experience for the attendees, ie allowing people to participating in museum events via facebook apps. This can be achieved readily with QR code and smartphones.