Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Thoughts on 3six5, a Successful Participatory Project

Yesterday, I had the delightful opportunity to participate in the 3six5 project, a yearlong participatory project in which 365 people write 365 journal entries for every day of 2010. The posts are short (365 words or less) and are intended to give a personal snapshot of that individual's day. Participants signed up in advance, and the projects' co-managers shepherd contributions through with a set of clear author guidelines and well-coordinated email correspondence.

3six5 has all the hallmarks of a good participatory project:
  • It offers an enjoyable activity that is scaffolded by simple specifications without prescribing any particular result. Participants can share their days however they please, as long as they write 365 words or less and include a picture.
  • The reward for participants of having your contribution displayed is fairly and clearly structured. Participants only get 24 hours of fame, but they know exactly when they are. It's also easy for participants to promote their posts by sharing them on social networks and via email.
  • It showcases diverse voices. I love the differences among the posts from this past week, which covered Mardi Gras, unemployment, network science, attempts to get pregnant, and technology addiction. Granted, the posts so far have been somewhat tech-heavy, but I think that will diversify more as the year goes on. (Techies knew about the project first and were most likely to sign up for early dates on the calendar.)
  • It combines personal stories with a sense of being part of something bigger. The project's originators call it "a crowdsourced journal of 2010." The story we tell together may not be profound or historically significant, but it's intriguing for its diversity of style and content. I think of 3six5 as a coffee table book that is being written one day at a time.
  • Participants sign up in advance, but then have time to consider their contribution. This separates the desire to participate from the actual generation creative output. Of course, it also causes some stress for the project managers (two Chicagoans named Daniel and Len), who have to track down contributors each day to remind them about their upcoming contributions.
  • The project is easy to set up but complex to administer. In advance, Daniel and Len had only to promote the concept, set up the website, and start soliciting and slotting in contributors. But now, they have to continue to market the project, while also getting a post out the door every day. They run a virtual newspaper written by a reporter they've never met, who is replaced every single day.
Participating in this made me wonder: could a museum or library run a project like 3six5? The reasons to do so are many, particularly for a history-focused institution. Such a project would connect community members to the institution, promote the idea that history is being made everyday by regular people, and showcase local, contemporary stories.

From my perspective, there are two primary barriers that would prevent a museum from running a project like this:
  1. Perception of lack of significance. Even as museum staff try to convince visitors that personal journals from the 1800s are thrilling, staff may not think it worthwhile to help visitors write about their own lives.
  2. Complexities of project management. The 3six5 requires maintenance and communication with contributors every single day of the year, including weekends. Museums and traditional institutions are not typically set up to manage participatory projects at such a high level of detail. These institutions are highly capable of managing the complexities of building maintenance and security on a daily basis, but few other functions of the institution are handled this way.
Both of these barriers are easily overcome, not with dollars or equipment, but with a change in attitude. Could your institution make the change?

I'd love to hear your thoughts on whether projects like 3six5 make sense for cultural institutions, and if so, what you think it would take to make them happen. And you might want to check out my 3six5 post about waking up in the woods on Feb 22. I promise a very different window into my life.

8 comments, add yours!:

Anonymous said...

I think it could be a really wonderful tool for museums as a way of communicating with members and visitors. For my institution, we'd probably do it as part of the established blog. (Although mgmt would have to be more comfortable with less-edited content).

Something like this could be an answer to the comment on my blog from this morning, where someone asked what public historians are doing to make the research and discovery process more apparent to visitors at museums. How 'dangerous' would it be to share our research updates with the world?

Mia said...

It's a lovely idea. It reminds me of the mass observation project (http://www.sussex.ac.uk/library/speccoll/collection_descriptions/massobs_early.html) that started in pre-war Britain. Oddly enough I'd assume those archives were open but it doesn't look like they're easy to access.

Philippa said...

here in the UK there's a whole museum (well they're an archive) that does only this: http://www.massobs.org.uk/index.htm (many people here know the story of Nella Last and her diary during WWII).

I think the difference with the 3six5 project is the intensiveness of the curation - short, snappy, carefully chosen people, the importance of technology. I find it quite interesting that your blog so often shows that the best participation projects are the ones that have very clear parameters.

Nina Simon said...

Wow, the Museum of Mass Observation is fascinating! What's it like to actually go there?

Philippa--the people for 3six5 were not "carefully chosen"--we were all volunteers, and while I'm sure they solicited some folks, many were like me, random individuals who did not know the project originators. I think the clarity of the project does really help it stand out, though looking at the Mass Observation stuff, I'm struck by how much more "Web 2.0" it is in that it relies on a vast body of information in which people can find what they like, as opposed to a highly curated set. Hm...

Unknown said...

"They run a virtual newspaper written by a reporter they've never met, who is replaced every single day."

I love this.

Thanks for the post Nina! And your participation in the project.

Daniel Honigman said...

I'd never heard of the Museum of Mass Observation before. That sounds neat!

While many of the posts may be digital, or Web 2.0-ey, perhaps it's a testament to the connected world we live in today. Also, admittedly, maybe it's the type of project that would primarily attract a digital native.

Depending on the kind of critical mass this project gets, we would like it to appeal to a more diverse audience. Any suggestions would be appreciated!

MvanKriedt said...

Ditto Nina. I too am a "random individual" who shared my POV with the project originators to get a date. It's interesting to see the commentary continue to evolve alongside the project.

Daniel Honigman said...

Nina - We're up for a panel at next year's SXSW conference. Hope you'll be so kind as to vote for us, and share some of these thoughts in a comment on the page!

(I think if we have comments like this, we have a great shot.)

Thanks again. Here's the link: http://panelpicker.sxsw.com/ideas/view/5350