Thursday, March 12, 2009

Join Me for A Social Design Experiment on April 5

Spring is here and it’s time to talk to strangers. On Sunday April 5, I’ll be conducting a collaborative experiment with 15 intrepid University of Washington graduate students, and I’d like to invite you to join in from your own hometown. April 5 is the first day of a class I’m teaching called Social Technology, in which we are focusing on designing an exhibition that features social objects, that is, exhibits or artifacts that inspire interpersonal dialogue.

To kick off the course, we’re doing a simple exercise at the Seattle zoo (but you can do it anywhere). The experiment requires you to go to a public space and do three things:
  1. Talk to a stranger.
  2. Get two strangers talking to each other.
  3. Make and install an object or condition which motivates two strangers to talk to each other without your intervention/involvement. That is, you should be able to watch the strangers talk to each other about the designed social object you have created without being directly involved in the action.
The point of this experiment is to play with design conditions that support both facilitated and unfacilitated engagement with strangers. This is something I am obsessively curious about. And while I’ve been exploring venues, situations, and apparel that serve as social objects, I’ve found few examples of explicitly designed social objects. Most social objects that mediate conversation among strangers are incidental. For example, my dog, while a highly evolved social matchmaking device, is not deliberately designed for that task. I believe that focusing specifically on the social capacity of an object, rather than its content or interpretation, yields new design techniques for museum exhibits and other participatory spaces.

There are three reasons you might value this activity:
  1. It will be fun and kind of unusual.
  2. It will help you understand the challenges involved in supporting user self-expression.
  3. It will help you develop ways to encourage inter-visitor dialogue and engagement around objects in your institution.
And there are three reasons I’d really value your participation:
  1. I want to suck your brain and revel in your inventiveness.
  2. I want to aggregate all the data, synthesize it and share it. More data means more interesting, nuanced conclusions for everyone.
  3. I want to connect these students to a larger group of people interested in exploring topics around social technology in museums.
If you want to participate, please leave a comment here or send me an email at You don’t have to be a museum person or have any qualifications beyond your interest in participating and documenting your experience.

I recommend performing the experiment with friends or family to enhance both the fun and safety of the activities. Don't just plunk your cute baby down in the park, walk away, and call it a social object. You have to actually design something—a sign, an incident, an object, an environment. It’s ok if you fail as long as you try. We’ll learn as much from the social objects that don’t work as from the ones that are astounding successes.

Participants will be asked to write up their experiences (photos/video enthusiastically supported!), which will all be featured on a dedicated website. We’ll also be live-twittering the experiment on April 5 using the hashtag #strangemuse.

I’ll produce a report that will be shared here on the Museum 2.0 blog. And if you happen to be in the Seattle area, I invite you to join us for a post-experiment dinner on April 5, location TBD (suggestions welcome).

So how about it? Ready for a stranger April?

14 comments, add yours!:

Unknown said...

This class kind of gets better everyday.

Is this social object something we conjure up and fabricate before we get there, or is it more of an on site synthesis? cause I'm getting ideas.

Beck said...

I'm in.

Nina Simon said...

It will be an on the spot creation, but you are welcome to bring prior ideas to the table!

Matt said...

I'm offering it as extra-credit for my Arts Administration class - we'll see if there are any takers!

Anonymous said...

Are we creating the social object WITH the strangers we talk to (i.e., we talk to strangers, then get them involved in creating an object that will connect future strangers to the spot) or are we, as separate experiments, comparing the successes of:
1. Talking to a stranger and then incorporating another stranger into the conversation;
2. Creating a site-specific object, on our own or with our "team," that gets strangers to talk to one another?

Anonymous said...

I'm also needing some clarification - same as Megan - could you rephrase the "steps" there?
Also, let me tell you how I'm reading this, as it could apply in our museum:
Our goal is to get visitors who don't know each other to interact, where they would normally respond only within their own group/family, through indirect means. Set something up with the goal that people will be strongly compelled to talk with others. It seems this would be easier in a museum where people attend alone. It seems individuals are more likely to, if the "social object" is powerful enough, say something to a stranger if they have noone else to say it to. Here, cross-group interaction is extra challenging because the visit is about family-time. People's focus on their kids/adults almost serves as headphones-on-the-train as far as being oblivious to the outside world.
I find confusion and irritation are the most common triggers for talking to strangers in our museum. If a sign is unclear, etc.
Does that "count"?
Lastly, I don't think this is as "pure" a sample in terms of a social experiment at large, since educational institutions tend to prime people for unusual behaviors and folks are cued to respond to objects differently than say, on the street. "Oh! How novel! This must be another learning opportunity! Let's use our words!"

This is really interesting! Let me know if I'm on the right track here.

Voices For the Lake said...

Sweet, gonna see if I can get our Ed Head Team in on this. Oooo, fun!

Bridget Butler
Voices For the Lake Manager
ECHO Lake Aquarium & Science Center
at the Leahy Center for Lake Champlain

Eric Siegel said...

In New Yawk? OMG, I totally deserve extra credit if I can get people to talk to each other here.

In california, strangers chat about anything, the news, the weather, etc. It will be interesting to see if there are regional differences. I'd be curious about Minnesota...

Great idea! I might be teaching at ITP this summer, we can talk about it you about it when you are in the City. Can I steal this?

See ya.


Nina Simon said...

Here's some clarification...
To answer Megan's question, I was intending the second version: you create an object, stick it on the floor (or sidewalk, or wherever), and watch what happens.

As Bridget says, the goal here is to get strangers in the museum to interact with each other. Usually, when this happens in a designed way, it is via a program that features live facilitation. I'm interested in the potential to design objects/exhibits that can do this on their own without a staff member. My reasoning is twofold:
1. Floor staff are not always available, and direct conversations with each visitor are not scalable.
2. In the same way that social objects are intentionally designed on the Web to be the basis of conversation, we should be able to design social objects in real space.

I agree that this is not a pure test but it's a little exercise worth trying to help get in the practice of designing for social interaction.

And yes, Eric--and anyone--steal away! Steal every idea on this blog and make it real and you will make my dreams come true. Ideally your students/colleagues/friends will share the stories of their experiments with me so I can aggregate all of the results, but that's just icing on the participatory cake.

Anonymous said...

I'm doing it.

mh said...

I'm in Portland, Maine and am planning on contributing to you project with my son, Isaac, and a couple friends.

Anonymous said...

Am contacting the coordinators of the minor Public and Participation at the Reinwardt Academy in Amsterdam (Museology/cultural heritage)today. Hopefully they will rally up the class for the experiment. I'm in to begin with.

But first of all my all time favorite social object..the Mariko Mori Aliens. A circle of six knee length aliens.. the installation only works when the aliens are simultaniously being hugged. The hearts start beating and they light up. Because everyone has to kneel down in order to hug them, allot of conversations were started..

Anonymous said...

The Postal Museum is intrigued!

Maybe a crime scene a la Postal Inspectors: the Silent Service exhibition?

Maybe an unattended pile of international stamps with a sign that encourages visitors to select stamps to give to each other?


Unknown said...

I am in, can you send me the details how I can register on the 5th? e-mail is rokambur at