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.

20 comments, add yours!:

POW! (Paul Orselli Workshop, Inc.) said...

Hi Nina,

I'm wondering if in live, "in-person" museum situations, not necessarily involving computer/on-line adjuncts, like the Walters example you give, if the five stages may look less hierarchical and more like a flow-chart.

For example, I think visitors to the Heroes exhibition could skip from stage 2 to stage 5 and still have a satisfying social/participatory experience as part of their visit.

Mita said...

Just like yourself, Caterina Fake of Flickr also stresses the importance of acting like a good host at a party, as a means to build up a community.

At first, I thought it was just a coincidence but then I started thinking about it and realized that a party is one of the relatively few social situations where one is expected to interact with strangers.

So another way to put it might be, 'in the absence of a host - to connect people of like interest - we need observable objects - like nametags - to fill in for that role...

Joel Tan said...

Hey Nina...Joel here from YBCA. Great effort here with constructing a new way to think of audience engagement machine. There are complementary stage theories that support your theory: Hausen & de Santis' Aesthetic Stage Development and Prochaska's Stages of Change Theory.

balujan26 said...

Good post, nice blog. Thanks for share useful information. I like this post.

Anonymous said...

I really like the new diagram. It's much easier to understand and I love the way it can be expanded as you did in the post. That makes it consistent and yet customizable: yay!

Anonymous said...

Nice frame work. It seems to fit many group interactions. It was fun to makeup my own - engineering projects at a large company:

STAGE 5: contact manager to join the project.
STAGE 4: learn more about the individuals on the project.
STAGE 3: see how many people are on the project, what they say about it.
STAGE 2: pick a project.
STAGE 1: look at projects.

Haritha said...

I agree with Paul Orselli in that the me-to-we experiences are not necessarily linear or hierarchical. Maybe...
A. The stages apply more to the design than the experience, so the subject of this diagram may be the designer and not the visitor?
B. Remove the "stage" column?
Thanks for another great post,

Unknown said...

I think it is a great framework with excellent examples and I will use it and think about for a long time. This is in the context of websites, online communities, even online events.

I keep thinking about football and football teams. I have experienced all the stages upside down when I have been to other countries or if it has been a World Cup. Kids and teenagers also travel from 5 to 1 interacting with their peers and latching on to trends and gangs.

I am never very taken with stages and would like to know at what level of expectation this inversion occurs or the stages break

Nina Simon said...

Thanks for your comments - Paul and Haritha - good points. I'll think about how to remediate this to make it clear that the stages aren't strict... I've also received some feedback saying the vertical orientation introduces a value judgment on the "higher" vs. "lower" interactions... but I haven't found a way to fix that.

S. Mann said...

Hi Nina-
Since it's a me to we, and by default me is part of we, is there a way to think of the framework as concentric instead of hierarchical? My singular experience is going to remain individual in nature even if I'm participating in a more social activity or environment. Rather its the sphere of influence that my participation will have on other participants and the overall experience that expands at each stage.

Brent MacKinnon said...

I haven't being to your site for a while but I made up for it tonight. Your post on the 5 stages of the me to we design was inspiring and timely. I'm starting a community restoration initiative with youth and you have given me fresh ideas for my project. You helped me see the opportunity to support youth as story tellers in their community. You can read my full post on my web site.

PM Katz said...

I agree with those who express some concerns about the hierarchy implicit in this diagram. How does the analysis change if the vertical line between "we" and "me" simply becomes a double-headed arrow? Or if the primary interaction at "stage 1" is relabeled "Individual engages deeply with content" or "Individual assimilates content with other knowledge and values" or "Individual is transformed by contemplation of content," etc?

Nina Simon said...

PMKatz -

At first I thought "yes! Phil's absolutely right!" but then I realized that this _is_ progressive, if not intended to be hierarchical. I'm focusing on going from personal to collective. I don't think a double-sided arrow really works because you don't step down through the stages the way you step up through them. When you want to go from we to me, you can just remove yourself from the party or conversation.

I do think it's interesting to make stages 1/2 more "appealing" which is what I read into your suggestions. But I don't see value judgments that are comparable in the higher levels - just more words. Let me think on this... and thanks!

Kathleen Tinworth said...

I definitely think there's some validity to the concerns about the model's hierarchical nature. Could you revise it to be circular, with each "stage" as a point around a circle? In my mind, they are not so much stages as they are phases; progressive, yes, but not hierarchical. I can see that a "stage" could indeed by skipped, which is why (for me) the linear nature and/or concentric circle doesn't really work.

Mette said...

Hi Nina,
Thanks for a great blog! I was just reading your me-to-we framework – it really inspired me. I just have a comment relating to my own research in the permanent collections at National Gallery in Denmark. I realize that your theory can be used both for web and for the physical exhibition. My comment is when applying it for the actual exhibit. My research clearly shows that people visiting the National Gallery do so for a social purpose and the really want to engage with the exhibits and with each other – but not so much with other visitors. They are there to talk with their friend, family member etc. but want to do it in an interesting stetting. I am therefore working on a stage 4-5 where already formed pairs/groups can engage in conversation, use their personal history ect, There is of course also cultural differences relating to the use of museums – Im also connected to Leicester University in the UK and it is clear that the UK audience is very different from the Danish one.

Anonymous said...

I agree with the comments regarding the looser association of each element in a non-linear manner - I have a rudimentary diagram I worked on that helped clear up the process and would be happy to email copy to you. You can reach me at and I will send.
Rick Oldenburg
Tacoma, WA

Lillian Lewis said...

I appreciate your application of the design to tangible situations. Despite my previous reading of Hausen & de Santis' Aesthetic Stage Development, I had not exactly found the connection to my practice in their writing in the same sense that your work conveys. I enjoy the succinct approach.

RalfLippold said...

A recent private museum tour at Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden ( in Dresden made clear that lots of intangible knowledge is lost when exhibition is moving or closed.

The idea is to capture this knowledge already during the exhibition on a "social container" ("boundary object") called WikiWall (

I am writing on a white paper on further use of such a "social container" in the context of museum. Where would you see the chances of such a tool? If you are interest to learn more about the project please let me know and I will send you the link.

Cheers, Ralf

Isabel Hebert said...

Hi Nina,

I know I'm late to this conversation, but I'm doing a research project on social interactions in museums and am reading The Participatory Museum now. I'm really struck by the notion of "me-to-we" participation and design. My question is, though, what's the difference in a Stage 5 experience if it invokes social interaction between strangers or simply between people who came together in a group? Is there a difference? Should we be aiming for or measuring the former, rather than the latter? Or should we be considering a group of people that come to a museum together as the "individual" who encounters the content? I gather the answers to this question are largely couched in the missions of individual museums, but I'm interested to hear your thoughts on the distinction between inter- and intra-social participation.

Nina Simon said...


One of the ideas that has most influenced me since I wrote the book is the distinction between "bonding" and "bridging" forms of social capital. Bonding happens within intact groups, bridging among strangers. Both are useful and valuable, but social bridging has been eroded as social bonding has increased--leading, in the US at least, to a highly segregated society. For that reason, I would argue that we should focus our energy on bridging but also acknowledge the value of bonding. I do not think that you can think of an intact group as an "individual" for the very good reasons John Falk puts forward in his museum visitor identity work: within any group, there are many agendas and needs.