Monday, January 25, 2010

A Revised Theory of Social Participation via "Me-to-We" Design

For three years, I've been using a "hierarchy of participation" diagram to talk about the ways that cultural institutions and platforms can scaffold social experiences among users. It's been problematic for several reasons - a bit confusing, hideous colors, and most of all, a pyramid shape that suggested that some kinds of social participation were better than others.

I've finally completed a redesign of the five stages of social participation, as shown above. The basic concept remains the same: if you want to support social engagement among people, especially in an unfacilitated setting (i.e. no tour guides or game masters), you need to start by designing personal services for users, then linking up users through shared interests or objects to promote interpersonal connections. You don't start by designing "for the crowd." Instead, you design ways for each person to feel acknowledged and valued as an individual. You make them comfortable interacting on their own, and then start providing opportunities to connect with others.

This new diagram is meant to imply progression while treating the stages more democratically. No stage is better than another, and each has something to offer visitors in the context of a cultural institution. Stage one provides people with access to the content that they seek. Stage two provides an opportunity for inquiry and for visitors to take action and ask questions. Stage three lets people see where their interests and actions fit in the wider community of visitors to the institution. Stage four helps visitors connect with particular people—staff members and other visitors—who share their content and activity interests. Stage five makes the entire institution feel like a social place, full of potentially interesting, challenging, enriching encounters with other people.

A simple example: the cocktail party

The best place to start conceptualizing structures for social participation is via familiar social experiences. Consider a cocktail party. There are some parties where hosts go out of their way to welcome guests individually and to introduce them to others via shared interests - making sure Susie the winemaker meets George the restauranteur and so on. At the best parties, each guest feels like his contributions to the conversation are desired, and everyone feels complicit in creating a wonderful social experience. People meet strangers comfortably and confidently, based on their sense of personal worth and welcome.

And then there are the less pleasant parties, the ones where guests arrive to be welcomed by someone with a vacant stare who waves them in and doesn't ask (or know) their names. Guests may feel isolated or unacknowledged, lonely in the crowd.

The difference between the first and second party is the extent to which guests can move from "me to we" instead of being expected to plunge headfirst into interpersonal engagement. In cultural institutions, this can be applied to motivate dialogue around the core focus of the organization. By introducing individuals through the content they love, hate, or have a personal connection to, you motivate relationship-building around the objects and stories on display.

What do unfacilitated me-to-we experiences look like?

Not every cultural experience requires a party host (though they are always useful). The me-to-we design stages become even more important when facilitation is not possible. Designing stage three and four experiences can lay the groundwork to support and encourage unfacilitated social experiences. These frameworks enable visitors to do it for themselves whenever they like.

The social Web provides some of the most powerful examples of unfacilitated me-to-we participation. Consider Flickr, the photo-sharing community site. Many people engage directly with strangers on stage five to discuss images, the stories behind photos, and photographic technique. But most of them start with a stage one experience: looking at photographs.

Here's how the Flickr experience maps to me-to-we design:

For a museum example, consider the Walters Art Museum's Heroes exhibition. Visitors were invited to wear tags indicating their personal connection to one of eight characters in Greek mythology and to use those tags to navigate the exhibition (see longer explanation here). The tags were incredibly low-tech, but they successfully set the stage for some surprising and powerful social dialogue among friends and strangers alike who compared their tags and discussed related exhibits. The tags allowed some visitors to go from a typical stage one experience--looking at artworks singly--to stage five experiences--discussing the artworks with strangers.

Here's how the Heroes experience maps to me-to-we design:

In both these examples, the institution provided tools at stages three and four to encourage people to make the leap from their own personal experience to a collective one without staff intervention. Whether applied in a low-tech or high-tech platform, me-to-we design can help people feel welcome, confident, and eager to participate socially.

What do you think? Does this new diagram work for you? It's a big part of my forthcoming book, and I'd love your thoughts about its use, what it communicates visually, and how it helps you think about designing for social participation.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

A Poetic Take on Social Objects: The Third Thing

One of my favorite theoretical constructs is "social objects"--the idea that the most consistent social and dialogue experiences are mediated through shared experience of artifacts, stories, or images. In 2005, Jyri Engestrom coined the term "social objects" and the related "object-centered sociality" in the context of designing successful online social networks, and I've been applying the idea in the physical design of exhibits. The basic idea is that by providing tools for people to discuss and share objects, they can come together in collective experience.

In a physical setting, I've found that successful social objects tend to be provocative, relational, active, or personal. Dogs and stuck elevators are social objects. Exhibits that visitors point at or photograph themselves with are social objects. Exhibits that ask visitors to work together or compete are social objects. Social objects help us connect with others, and they become focal points for conversations with friends and strangers alike.

Today, a colleague introduced me to a different description of social objects, one that comes from the world of poetry instead of technology. The term is "the third thing," and it is the title of a moving essay by poet Donald Hall (also written in 2005), about his relationship with his deceased wife, poet Jane Kenyon. Hall wrote:
We did not spend our days gazing into each other’s eyes. We did that gazing when we made love or when one of us was in trouble, but most of the time our gazes met and entwined as they looked at a third thing. Third things are essential to marriages, objects or practices or habits or arts or institutions or games or human beings that provide a site of joint rapture or contentment. Each member of a couple is separate; the two come together in double attention. Lovemaking is not a third thing but two-in-one. John Keats can be a third thing, or the Boston Symphony Orchestra, or Dutch interiors, or Monopoly.
Have you ever experienced not just a social experience, but "shared rapture" in a cultural institution? My mind immediately jumps to the James Turrell exhibit at the Mattress Factory, which I visited in 2002 with my best friend. It was in the middle of a snowstorm, and we were driving across the country. We'd heard about the museum but didn't know what to expect. What we found was an incredible exhibit of light sculptures, each of which required you to enter through a hallway of pitch darkness. We were nervous. We held hands. We were delighted. It was not just memorable; it was an experience that helped defined our friendship.

Was the exhibit a third thing because of who we were and what we brought with us, or because of what it was? Probably some of both. This leaves me wondering how "designable" third things are.

I think of social objects as (at least somewhat) designable. I often work with museum professionals to design exhibits to be more consistently social for a range of visitors. But third things are about the unique passions and connections between friends and lovers, not general sociality. Could you imagine a way for cultural institutions to help cultivate third thing-ness, or do you see that as something too personal and idiosyncratic to be intentionally encouraged?

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Who Am I? Internal vs. External Role-Playing in Museums

Recently I've been looking at ways cultural institutions invite people to self-identify relative to the visit experience. Having your own profile relative to an exhibition can help you find a way "in" to the experience via your own interests. It can also provide a memorable way to connect with other individuals--people you portray--affected by the historical time period on display.

I've noticed two fundamentally different approaches to visitor profiles in exhibitions:
  1. internal profiles, in which visitors create a profile that in some way reflects who they are
  2. external profiles, in which visitors adopt profiles for historical or fictitious characters
For example, consider the difference between the profiles visitors made in the Walters Art Museum's recently closed Heroes: Mortals and Myths in Ancient Greece exhibition and the traveling Titanic show:
  • In Heroes, visitors created profiles by picking a character from Greek mythology with whom they self-identified. Visitors could take an optional personality quiz at kiosks near the exhibition entrance to determine which of eight Greek heroes, gods, or monsters they were most like. The kiosks prompted visitors to take a personalized tag and ID card from bins nearby for “their” hero. The cards provided more information about the heroes and connected them to specific artifacts in the exhibition. Visitors could follow their heroes through Heroes by looking for his/her special icon on the wall. Staff reported that the profiles were popular and that many visitors wore their tags with pride, talking with friends and strangers about their heroes.
  • In Titanic, visitors are given "boarding passes" that tell the beginning of a story of a real person who traveled on the Titanic. They cannot find out the final fate of their boarding pass personae until the end of the exhibit. This external profile technique was also used at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum when it first opened to let visitors connect with the stories of particular people affected by the Holocaust. Titanic also includes costumed historical characters, which accentuates the "otherness" of the experience.
Both the Heroes and the Titanic profiles allow visitors to connect with characters--some real, some mythological. In the case of Heroes, the power of the experience comes from the feeling that the profile invites you to discover and express who YOU are and to enjoy the exhibition through that lens. By contrast, in Titanic, the power of the experience comes from connecting to a specific person from history, which gives visitors a concrete, personal connection to a historic event.

Internal profiles let visitors get deeper into their own skin, whereas external profiles let them try on someone else's. From a social perspective, both can prompt new discussions. In the case of internal profiles, the conversation tends to be self-focused: What makes me an Athena and you a Heracles? For external profiles, the conversation is other-focused: Why did my person survive the shipwreck but not yours?

There are some profile systems that bridge internal and external identity to help visitors imagine themselves in historical or potential scenarios. Several exhibitions have required visitors to use internal profiles to confront the ugly realities of segregation and profiling. At the Apartheid Museum, visitors are given tickets that reflect their race as perceived by the admissions staff (white or non-white) and are required to enter the museum through separate gates (and different entry exhibits) based on their race. While this kind of profile, like that in Heroes, is internal, it does not allow visitors to present an aspirational version of themselves. Instead, it forces visitors down deterministic paths based on racial identity, and visitors ask themselves: What would it have been like for me to live under apartheid?

Is one of these profile types "better" than the others? I don't think so. But if you are trying to design a profile experience for a particular kind of social reaction, you may want to think about which type is most relevant to your goals. Do you want visitors to learn more about themselves through your exhibition? Or do you want them to connect more deeply with someone else?

Monday, January 11, 2010

Dear Jack, Dear Snoopy: Using Letter-Writing for Visitor Response

Images courtesy Chris Danemayer, Proun Design

I've been collecting stories and images of really effective visitor-response stations for awhile now, and I've noticed an intriguing trend: exhibits that invite visitors to write a letter to someone, especially with a typewriter, tend to yield elaborate and interesting responses.

Three examples:
  1. In the late 1980s, the Brooklyn Children's Museum created an exhibit called Send a Letter to Snoopy. Kids could type letters on a Remington typewriter and put them in a mailbox marked "To Snoopy." Staff exhibited several of their letters nearby for other visitors to read. As Kathy McLean noted in Visitor Voices in Museum Exhibitions, while staff were afraid that typing on the typewriter would be too hard for some young children, "kids lined up to carefully and slowly type their letters." The museum received dozens of letters each week, and many visitors shared personal issues, dreams, and fears in their writings.
  2. In 2007, the Lowell National Historical Park exhibited Jack Kerouac's original manuscript for On The Road to celebrate the 50th anniversary of its publication. Alongside the iconic manuscript, the Park featured a talkback area in which visitors could contribute their own reflections. Instead of offering post-its or pencils, the Park provided a desk with a typewriter (amazingly, donated by the Kerouac family) and an evocative quote from Kerouac: “Never say a commonplace thing.” Visitors responded incredibly, generating over 12,000 messages at the typewriter during the 6-month run. Rather than just saying, “awesome book,” the overall design of the space and the relationship between the typewriter and the manuscript inspired visitors to share highly personal and artistic commentary. Several wrote letters directly to Jack. Some wrote poems. The image at the top of this post comes from one visitor's response.
  3. Also in 2007, the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh opened a new exhibition on the John Murray Archive. John Murray ran the publishing house that represented Lord Byron, Charles Darwin, and Sir Walter Scott, among others. The exhibition was organized around eleven major authors who worked with John Murray Publishing and used the authors' letters to and from the publisher as the central thread of the exhibition story. Visitors entering the exhibition received beautifully typeset letters from John Murray himself (starting "Dear Visitor,") entreating them to interpret a particular artifact or story on display. The exhibition also featured a simple Victorian writing desk at which visitors could write their own long-hand letters to the famous authors themselves. National Library staff promised to write back to all the letter-writers, assuming there would be very few. They quickly found themselves overrun with hundreds of six or seven-page letters from visitors talking about their own adventures, triumphs, and challenges.

What makes these visitor response stations so successful?
  • They force people to slow down. Whether you are working a typewriter or writing longhand at a writing desk, the overall experience implies focus, intent, and taking your time.
  • They have an intended audience. When you write a letter to someone, even someone dead or fictitious, you know who you are writing to. You have a clear image of that person in your mind, and you are motivated by your desire to connect with them, not a general desire to express yourself.
  • They imply a response. When you send someone a letter, it's the beginning of a conversation. In the case of the John Murray Archive exhibition, staff continue that conversation. In the other two examples, while visitors don't receive a response, they have opened up a mental conversation with Snoopy or Jack Kerouac to continue at their leisure.
  • All of these stations were well-designed to fit into the overall exhibit experience. Letter-writing was the heart of John Murray's enterprise. The typewriter was central to both Snoopy and Jack Kerouac's stories. These visitor response stations were natural to the stories being told, and they were designed thoughtfully using the same kinds of tools as those that produced artifacts on display. The response stations allowed visitors to stay within the emotional space of the exhibits rather than wresting them out into a generic comment board or book.
What do you think? Is this letter-writing thing a fluke, or is there really something there? Have you seen examples of this working elsewhere?

Monday, January 04, 2010

Is Wikipedia Loves Art Getting "Better"?

It's rare that a participatory museum project is more than a one-shot affair. But next month, Britain Loves Wikipedia will commence--the third instance of a strange and fascinating collaborative project between museums and the Wikipedia community (Wikimedians). The project's implementation keeps changing, and I can't decide whether it is getting better or just different. I hope you'll share your thoughts in the comments.

Wikipedia Loves Art, Take One

The first version of Wikipedia Loves Art first took place in February 2009. It started with a request from a group of New York Wikimedians to the Brooklyn Museum. The Wikimedians asked if the museum would coordinate a project in which people could photograph artworks in cultural institutions to illustrate Wikipedia articles. The museum agreed and brought fifteen institutions from the US and UK on board to participate.

The museums asked to Wikimedians to provide the institutions with lists of thematic topics that required illustration. Museums used these thematic lists to develop scavenger hunt lists to distribute to participants so that they might find art objects to illustrate Wikipedia topics like "Roman architecture" or "mask." Participants were asked to photograph objects and their accession numbers so staff could identify and describe the objects properly. The museums developed careful rules about what could and couldn't be shot, and how participants could upload their images to Flickr for use by the project.

The event succeeded in donating thousands of images to Wikipedia, but it was plagued by challenges that frustrated museum staff, Wikimedians, and photographers.

Some of these challenges were about mission fit. The Wikimedians’ and museums’ goals were not as aligned as they originally thought. Museums saw this project as an opportunity to engage local photographers to think creatively about how artworks might represent different topics. In contrast, the Wikimedians were focused on making cultural content digitally available online using as open a licensing structure as possible. The museums cared about participants connecting with artworks and identifying them properly, whereas the Wikimedians cared more about participants sharing images under open legal licenses.

Other challenges derived from the complicated and shifting setup (see, for example, this discussion about clarifications to the rules). From the institutional perspective, the best way to deliver good participant experiences was to constrain contributions through the Flickr uploading system. Staff were concerned about losing control of images of their collections, and they wanted to make sure the images were linked to the correct information about each object. But there were many Wikimedians who were confused or frustrated by what they perceived as arbitrary institutional constraints in the submission format. Some people found their own rogue ways to upload museum images outside of the project framework, much to the consternation of museum representatives, who saw these actions as causing confusion and potentially violating intellectual property agreements.

The project's setup also created more work for participants and museum staff than anticipated. Over 13,000 photographs were submitted by 102 photographers at the fifteen different institutions, documenting about 6,200 pieces of art. While these participants had done the hard work of capturing the images, it was up to the institutions to validate, tag, caption, and prepare them for Wikipedia's use. Image verification was a Herculean effort. Using accession numbers to identify the objects was not successful; it was complicated for participants, and staff were not able to verify many images. Some images were disqualified for copyright reasons, others because they could not be identified. Eventually, all of the work was completed and 6,195 photographs were donated to Wikipedia. But when the dust settled, the overall effort for institutions involved in Wikipedia Loves Art was so great that many saw it as an unsustainable collaboration.

Wikipedia Loves Art, Take Two

In June of 2009, Dutch Wikimedians tried again. They partnered with 46 institutions in the Netherlands to produce Wikipedia Loves Art / NL, which took a different approach to the project. Rather than starting with a list of themes provided by Wikimedians and inviting visitors to shoot the objects that they felt fit the topics, the Dutch Wikimedians asked the museums to provide a list of specific objects that participants could photograph. This compromise achieved three things:
  1. The museums knew exactly what would be photographed and could more tightly control the experience. At some institutions, staff members set up specific dates for photography and escorted photographers through the galleries.
  2. The Wikimedians knew that all of the images would be legal for use from a copyright perspective. There was no concern about museums needing to verify that an object on the list was in fact legal for use.
  3. The participants received a numbered list of objects to photograph and could tag their images with these id numbers instead of with accession numbers. This significantly reduced the number of object identification errors and reduced the staff time required to review the images submitted.
Wikipedia Loves Art / NL also included some other changes, most notably a centralized website that coordinated all of the events and information. It ended June 30 with 292 participants contributing 5,447 photographs. There were still validation errors; for example, the "winning" photograph from the project was discovered to have been taken at least a year prior to the event. But in general, the project went smoothly. The images were uploaded more quickly with fewer staff hours than in the original version, and the institutions and Wikimedians considered it a success.

So is it better?

From my outside perspective, Wikipedia Loves Art / NL more successfully served the needs of the museums and the Wikimedians than the original event. But it was also fundamentally different for participating photographers. It offered participating photographers less creative agency and less responsibility... and less attendant confusion.

Did Wikipedia Loves Art get better? The answer to that question depends on your values. It got better at meeting the partners' needs, but worse at allowing individual participants to determine the outcome. I also wonder whether the changes impacted the extent to which participants felt connected to the institutions as opposed to seeing the museums as venues for a project. Ann Beaulieu, a researcher associated with the Tropenmuseum reflected on discussion in the Wikipedia Loves Art / NL Flickr groups, commenting:
the goal is to get photos of the museums’ collections onto Wikipedia. Interestingly, this does not seem to be obvious to some photographers who see photo-making as the ‘end’ or goal of their practice, and consider getting objects in museums photographed and into Wikipedia as secondary.
To me, the newer version of Wikipedia Loves Art seems less suited as an onsite audience engagement program for photographers, but more suited to provide Wikimedia with useful data. This may make it a better project (more useful) or a worse project (less engaging for participants).

I realize, however, that this perspective reflects my own value judgment that local community engagement is a more important part of museum missions than providing digital access to content. There is a large community of people who will use the digital images in their new home on Wikimedia Commons, and who am I to say they are not equally important?

I also am biased in thinking that giving participants creative agency is "better" than giving them a list of photographs to shoot. You could just as easily argue that the project got better by making participation simpler, and that the redesign DID serve the participants who are part of the Wikimedia community.

What do you think?