Monday, August 10, 2009

Pointing at Exhibits, Part 2: No-Tech Social Networks

I've spent the last two weeks working on the third chapter of my book about network effects of social participation. This can be an incredibly technical topic, as it focuses on the ways that platforms (online, exhibits, museums) can harness the individual activities of many visitors and create meaningful experiential outputs that connect people to each other. And it's brought me back to a blog post I wrote a year ago about the Science Museum of Minnesota's Race: Are We So Different? exhibition.

Race is a remarkably social exhibit; visitors spend a lot of time pointing things out to each other and talking about them. Paul Martin, VP of Exhibits at SMM, took several photos of people in the exhibition over its run, and he noted something strange: there was an incredibly high percentage of photos in which someone was pointing at an exhibit label, artifact, or component. In many cases people were pointing at things that were simple in design and form--quotes, statistics, facts and figures. But the content was so remarkable that visitors felt the need to just to consume it but to point it out to others.

When I wrote about this in 2008, I focused on the question of how to design exhibits to be optimized for "pointiness." But now, I'm looking at the story of visitors pointing in Race in a different way: as a low-tech example of a socially networked platform.

The Complexities of Socially Networked Museum Platforms

How do you design physical infrastructure that ties individuals together in meaningful ways? Designing exhibitions, or whole institutions, that operate on socially networked principles is incredibly difficult. It requires that each individual have a personalized profile that evolves with her growing relationship with the institution. It requires that the profiles of each visitor be networked in some common system with rules for how different profile items interrelate. And then it requires an output mechanism that helps visitors physically connect to the people and experiences with which they have network affinity. Throw in the real-time nature of a museum visit, visitors' reticence to participate socially in the museum, and archaic data systems, and this may sound downright impossible.

But designing an entire museum that functions this way probably isn't your goal. The goal is more likely to promote social learning, participation by visitors, and interpersonal exchange around museum content. And with these goals in mind, there are low-tech ways to perform or simulate every component of a socially networked platform, many of which are more effective than their high-tech counterparts.

Consider the example of people being able to save their favorite exhibits and share them with others. We can all imagine complex ways to do this with mobile devices (and many museums and private companies are experimenting with such systems). A visitor could register her phone with the museum, so that her number is uniquely associated with her personal profile. As she moves through the museum, she uses a web-based application to tag her favorite exhibits, or perhaps she texts a rating for each exhibit to SMS short codes posted at the bottom of each label. She can choose to "send" her favorites to individuals, or to broadcast them to the whole network of people using the system. As a higher-tech alternative, you could imagine a system in which visitors' motions are tracked, and standing in front of an exhibit for an abnormally long period of time would trigger an entry marking that exhibit as "compelling" whereas exhibits that occupy just a few seconds might be marked "dull" or "skipped." Again, the technology today may be unsavory or clunky, but these possibilities are on the horizon and there are some institutions experimenting in this domain.

The Simplicity of Pointing

And this brings us back to Race. As Paul commented, "you don't point at things when you're alone." Pointing is a no-tech version of the favoriting system. When you point at something, you are effectively suggesting to the people around you, "look at that." Visitors see things that intrigue them, point at them, and other visitor look. The Race exhibit served as a facilitation of potential dialogue based on a very simple finger-based exchange.

Pointing is a social behavior that works best in physically proximate, real-time situations. Past incidences of pointing in Race or any exhibit are not saved and networked for future use; you can't look at the exhibit label and see that "57 people pointed at this in the last week." Nor would that information necessarily be compelling to most visitors. The thing that makes pointing compelling is the fact that it is an interpersonal interaction. If you are a stranger, and you point something out to me, you are taking a risk. You are effectively saying, "this thing I am pointing at is so important, so cool or special or surprising, that despite the fact that I know next to nothing about you, I think you should see it." It makes the pointee feel special to be singled out (even if only selected for physical proximity to the pointer), and both people enjoy the intimacy of a shared experience.

This intimacy and specialness is lost if you move to a more generalized "57 people pointed at this" networked system. That statement has very little meaning to most people because it is entirely decontextualized. What do I care what 57 random visitors thought? I only care what a stranger points at if they are pointing it out to me. It's the personal, immediate nature of the experience that makes it compelling.

Of course, the riskiness of the exchange also makes stranger-to-stranger pointing quite rare. You are more likely to point something out to a friend or companion. The better you know someone, the more you can tailor the things you point out to them in a variety of settings. When talking about the social network of people whose profiles are known to us, we are able to meaningfully abstract the pointing experience. That's where it becomes useful to send certain tidbits of information to particular people, or groups of people. The news I want to share with my rock-climbing friends is different from that I want to share with my museum friends. When I'm with them, I point out different things.

Online, people have been pushing the boundaries of both the personal and urgent nature of the pointing experience. I comfortably "point things out" to different people remotely by clipping articles, sending links, and flagging online content. I also point things out to a mass audience when I post ideas to Twitter or Facebook. While these situations appear to erode the personal, urgent requirements discussed above, the most effectively "pointed" content online is still personal and urgent. You are more likely to look at a link I send directly to you, or to a small group of people with a shared affinity including you, than one I send out to my entire network. From the urgency perspective, on Twitter (which is a kind of virtual museum we are all slowly walking through), you only have a few minutes from the time that you post something for it to be noticed before your comment is lost in the sea of others. The more the agency to act on a shared link is placed on the pointee rather than the pointer, the less likely he or she is to follow through. When you make a direct, personal, immediate appeal, you can get anyone--even a stranger's--attention.

Design Implications

The "pointiness" of an exhibit is a metric that reflects the extent to which the content motivates visitors to share things with strangers and friends alike. What affects how likely a visitor is to point things out in an exhibit? The content certainly matters but so does the extent to which visitors feel that they are pointing things out to friends or associates rather than strangers. The better individuals can express their unique interests and orientations, the more easily they can form affinity networks with other visitors, and the more likely they are to perceive those people as less strange. To me, this exploration boils down to two design questions:
  1. How do we let people personalize their identity in the museum such that they feel less like strangers and more like potential associates?
  2. How do we design spaces that support sharing and intimacy among associated visitors?

These questions take us away from the design of nonsensical "pointing data networks" and towards something more essential: supporting interpersonal connections. If we think about network effects not in terms of data collection but in terms of a useful outcome for visitors and institutions, we can design platforms that reflect our participatory values. For some institutions or exhibits, promoting dialogue may be a value, in which case the "pointiness" of an exhibit is a useful goal to work into the design process. In other cases, other values, like creativity, authentic sharing, group collaboration, or reflection on others' experiences might be primary, in which case different platforms (and related metrics and mechanisms) would be more appropriate.

What "no-tech" visitor actions or interrelations reflect your participatory goals? How can you identify metrics for success that are not based on how many people have bought a ticket or left a comment? Design for participation in museums still struggles on the evaluative side--we don't have well-documented ways to measure how many people connect with a stranger or learn something from another visitor. "Pointiness" may be the first of many new metrics we use to understand how visitors relate to each other through museum content. What others should we consider?

5 comments, add yours!:

Susan said...


I don't have time just at the moment to expand on all of the thoughts that come through my head here, but in your backyard is the Reflections exhibition at the Exploratorium that has a Giant Mirror that causes an explosion of pointing behavior and visitor interaction. It is somewhat a funhouse experience, but the scale and "reflection" of the visitors to each other makes for an immediately engaging group experience. You can even point at yourself. It is great fun to witness and play with visually. I watched people interact for longer than usual, and want to go back again.

Eric Siegel said...

Another really useful post. One thing I enjoy about this blog is that you seem to be feeling out answers to your own questions as you write. If you can capture that in your book, it will give it a different and memorable flavor.

Anyway, one way to support interpersonal connections is to build the capacity (and number) of staff on the exhibition floor. People whose job it is to start dialogue...About 10 years ago, I played a gig at a cocktail party that rich adults sometimes have for the parents during their kids bar mitzvahs. I wandered out to see what the dj's were doing, and there were these "motivators" on the dance floor, getting 13 year old kids first to dance with them, and then to dance with each other. At first I found it kind of appalling, but it was incredibly successful and the kids really liked the motivators (who were hired as part of the DJ package).

So, if the floor staff (new name for our explainers: "motivators") could serve the same function, break the surface tension of visitors' bubbles with some artful interaction, they might bridge the gap into more general conversations among visitors.

People are better at doing social stuff than computer-based systems. Probably cheaper and more effective a lot of the time too.


Nina Simon said...

Hopefully others will look as generously on the "feeling it out" writing style as you do. This post (and several other recent ones) are taken directly from the first draft and feedback on them is particularly valuable.

My sister actually worked as one of those bar mitzvah "motivators" in LA when we were in high school. An interesting model that is predicated on the idea that people who are slightly older, more attractive, and better dancers than you can pull you into an experience with which you are otherwise uncomfortable. I feel another family guest post coming on...

Unknown said...

Hi Nina

Really like the idea of pointing being a physical version of adding a favourite.

Turning that around for a moment, our ethnography curator has used Twitpic as an online way of pointing at the collection whilst our museum is closed.

This pointing has worked with plenty of online response. Just hope the virtual pointing turns into real pointing when we reopen in 2011!

Rick Lawrence


Anonymous said...

Pointing can also be a useful tour evaluation method, I just discovered. I was reviewing some photos of a special tour from earlier this spring and was amazed at the body language going on with both docents and guests throughout the photoset and across all the participants...bending, leaning, pointing, engaged facial expressions...almost no "thousand yard stare" or crossed arms, which I see more than I would like in our daily tours. Now to see what about that experience might be replicable...