Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Participatory Museum Process Part 3: My Experience

This is the third in a four-part series about writing The Participatory Museum. Check out the other parts here.

When I decided to write a book about visitor participation in cultural institutions, I knew I'd do it in a way that reflected the values behind the book itself--transparency, inclusion, and meaningful community participation. I didn't just want to "walk the talk"--I truly believed that the book would be better for the participation. The challenge was to figure out how to do it and end up with a high-quality book. This post covers my personal process of encouraging--and harnessing--participation in the creation of The Participatory Museum.

Promoting Transparency: What it Felt Like to Write a Book on a Wiki

I wrote the first three drafts of the book--every word--on a public wiki. I made the decision early on to limit editing capability to people who signed up, so I could vet each person to make sure she wasn't a spammer, but anyone could read the content at any time. Every non-spammer editor who signed up was granted full access to change and comment on the content.

As it turned out, few people chose to participate during the formative development of the book, except during outlining, when their thoughts were incredibly helpful. But that didn't matter. Writing the book on a wiki helped me imagine that there were people out there who actively wanted and were expecting more content. I couldn't drop the project for months or abandon it entirely. I felt accountable to an audience, and that kept me going throughout the writing.

My big challenge during this stage was feeling comfortable putting my roughest work out for people to read. I'm a proponent of Peter Elbow's theory that you should separate the content generation part of writing from the editing part, so that you can create freely without letting your internal editor stifle you too much. This means my first drafts are often rambling, full of errors, "ADD EXAMPLE HERE"s and redundancies. I overwrite, and then I go back and ruthlessly edit. So the first drafts I put out were really quite a mess.

I remember the first draft of the first section that I put up. I was desperately nervous about how it would be received--and at the same time, consoled by the small number of people choosing to read it. One of the first comments I received was a private email from a respected colleague telling me he hated the tone of the introduction. It was a shock that helped me realize three things:
  1. Participants would be honest.
  2. They could criticize book content without criticizing me.
  3. Their critiques would help me improve the book.
From that point forward, I became more confident about putting out unfinished sections unapologetically. Every critique was an opportunity to make the book better--and I felt sure that I could make the required improvements when I got to the editing stage.

Occasionally, I'd write a really rough first draft of a section that was overly personal or inappropriately opinionated, and I thought twice about doing so in a public venue. But those sections were the ones with which I needed the most outside help, because I had a hard time being objective about the content (these were mostly sections discussing projects I worked on directly). In the end, I was consoled by the small number of supportive wiki readers and felt that their contributions were more important than my fears. I intentionally didn't blog frequently about the progress, not wanting thousands of eyes on my halting first steps.

One more note on the wiki: while it was a community site, I felt very in control of the content. This book was not a multiple author project; I was generating 99.9% of the words on the wiki. So when people contributed, I always felt that they were helping me, supporting the project, sharing an insight or critique for me to use. I never felt like the contributors were going to take the project in another direction, and I felt confident making decisions NOT to use contributions that didn't work for me. I was actively part of every discussion raised by participants about the content, but I was the ultimate arbiter, and I think everyone felt comfortable with that.

Being Inclusive: Finding ways to open up the process

Only a few people chose to participate actively as content reviewers during the draft stages of the book, so I knew I had to find a way to encourage more people to help once I had a completed third draft. I decided to take a two-pronged approach. I would solicited a few respected colleagues directly to review either the entire manuscript or a specific chapter, based on their expertise and availability. But I also made the opportunity to review more publicly available, figuring that there were many people out there beyond the ones I'd selected who might be able to make meaningful contributions. I blogged about the opportunity in September 2009, and then faced a new problem: 92 people expressed their interest in helping. How could I possibly integrate the contributions of 92 people?

It was really important to me that anyone who expended effort on the project felt that they were making a useful contribution. I wanted to be able to respond to and thoughtfully consider everyone's comments. I was worried about my ability to do that across 92 people. I also wondered how truly useful their comments would be and whether I'd spend all my time chatting and not enough revising.

I ended up integrating a few of the 92 into my solicited group, ending up with eight people I asked to read the entire manuscript and eight I asked to review specific chapters. I'd asked everyone to explain why they were interested in helping, and it was obvious that a few people unknown to me would be really helpful (for example, a woman from a children's museum, a type of institution unrepresented in my handpicked group). The solicited group received hard copy or Word document versions of their sections, and generally had a more formal relationship with the process. I gave them a due date for their edits, and they took the work seriously and did it mostly outside the community wiki space.

But then I invited the rest of the 92 to join me on the wiki. I gave them fewer explicit instructions or support, figuring that those who were most motivated would get engaged and that I didn't really need to spend time cultivating more than that. As it turned out, about fifteen people got incredibly involved, and that was a sustainable number for me.

The contributions of these fifteen people were tremendous. They completely erased any bias I had against working with volunteers I didn't know personally. (It was also useful to read their bios on the Awesome Helpers page, so I got a bit of a sense of who each person was.) Unlike the solicited reviewers, who submitted their work in one chunk, the wiki-based reviewers tended to follow my progress and post comments on sections as I posted them. That gave me some immediate feedback to think about, even as I kept writing. When I finally went back to start a serious edit on the whole draft, I started with the wiki comments. They were a reminder of the conversations we'd had about the content, and they got me started more usefully than the solicited comments, which I hadn't lived with and thought about for weeks or months.

Of course, fifteen is not 92. It was obvious that there were people who were inclined to help but for whom the wiki or the content review activity was not appealing. As the participatory content review progressed well, I started looking for other ways for people to help. I decided to crowdsource the copy editing. Many of the 92 people were professional or amateur editors and I felt that with a clear process and style guide (suggested by a participant!), a group of strangers could successfully root out the errors. I also put out frequent calls on Twitter, Facebook, and this blog for quick comment on various bits, from the cover design to the blurbs for the back to the title. These quick requests brought a huge number of comments in from people who otherwise were not involved. The blog also became a useful conversation space for sticky sections (and a good way for me to provide content to blog readers even as I was working nonstop on the book).

At all times, I tried to project the sense that I would listen to and engage with all comments, but that I would make the ultimate decision. My goal was to be open-minded and supportive of disagreement while retaining control. This became particularly clear when it came to the cover design. Many people disliked the cover, suggesting that it was too '70s or Shel Silverstein or demeaned the content. I disagreed. I took their comments and we did alter some of the graphical elements based on some of the most egregious issues, but I stood firm with the original vision of the cover, which I love. The illustrator, Jennifer Rae Atkins, was fabulous about making changes, but she didn't feel as comfortable with the negative comments as I did. They were more of a personal attack on her work (which nobody wants), and she didn't have the same relationship with participants or the same confident stance about who controlled the project. It reminded me that the person who runs a participatory project should help other team members understand the process so no one feels threatened or confused by the role of outside comments and contributions.

Putting it all together

On December 16, 2009, I got home from a month of work in New Zealand and Australia to a gift: sixteen manuscripts from the solicited reviewers. For the next two months, I focused full-time on the book in its most intense phase. I would sit every day in my kitchen, often for sixteen hours at a stretch, surrounded by stacks of manuscripts. I'd edit chapter by chapter, starting first by rereading and addressing comments on the wiki, and then flipping pages in the stacks around me, finding the comments and making changes. This was a solo activity. I'd go days without talking to anyone but my husband about the changes I was making. I did not update the wiki or share the work.

The vast majority of the revision was not based on direct response to reviewer's comments, but rather on an indirect confidence they gave me to make major changes. The book changed significantly from the third to fourth draft. I cut the length by 25%, added new chapters, eliminated and shifted case studies, and changed the tone of the book overall. Few of these changes were specifically requested by reviewers, but their voices, sitting in stacks around me, urged me on as I figured out how to rework each chapter. Some had complained of redundancies in chapter 2, so I started looking for and slashing them everywhere. Others had pointed out a tone that was overly aggressive in chapter 6, so I made the whole draft more generous and relaxed. I started the edit on every chapter freaked out by the huge amount of change required. Reading participants' comments would focus me and help me figure out where to take it. By the third day of reworking a given chapter, I'd be on a roll, confidently cutting and pasting and flipping and rewriting. It was one of the most intense, fun work experiences of my life.

Because I made so many major changes to the book, I was a bit uncomfortable calling it done without going back to the participants for their thoughts on what I'd done with their comments. But I didn't feel like I had the time to do another full round on the wiki, and I didn't want to ask people who had already given so much to do more. Instead, I took a different approach, focusing on the book tone and style instead of the content. I asked a few people I trust who are not museum folks to read the third draft. My dad, my friend Robin Sloan, and my husband all spent time with the third draft and made valuable comments. I also sent out the book for advance review at this point, and a few of the reviewers--especially Kathleen McLean, Elaine Heumann Gurian, Dan Spock, and Leslie Bedford--gave me some additional comments that helped me tweak the final draft.

At this point, the copy editors got their hands on the draft. I structured the copy editing very tightly. There was a style guide, and I signed up for a shared account on the Chicago Manual of Style website so all copy editors could have access to that reference. There were two weeks of copy editing, and in a given week, a person could sign up for a chapter and download it as a Word document to edit, tracking their changes. Then, they'd email the document to me. I'd review and integrate their edits and reupload a new draft for the second week of signups. In this way, each chapter was edited by two people (and me).

I also asked a participant, Karen Braiser, to help me edit some images for inclusion in the book. This was pure grunt work--taking screengrabs, making them black and white, cropping them. But it was no more grunt work than copy editing, and I felt comfortable asking because Karen had volunteered way back in September to help in this way. By February, I felt like I could ask participants for anything. I felt confident that they wanted to support the project. And I was exhausted and really needed the help. The challenge was that the deadlines were so tight that I didn't feel right asking people to contribute with little notice. I relied mostly on a couple of friends and family members for these final steps. I am grateful to them for being available to pick a color for the cover, run out and take a photo in a bookstore, do a final run through the book, and respond to random phone calls in the middle of the workday. Thanks especially to Dave Mayfield, my climbing partner, who kept doing little favors for me in hopes I'd be able to go climbing with him again soon.

I've always been a bit perplexed as to why so many authors start or end their acknowledgments with some form of "Thanks above all go to my spouse, who suffered tirelessly through this process." While I was writing the book, my partner Sibley and I joked that it was one of the easiest times for him and that I asked little throughout the process. This is partly due to the fabulous participants, on whom I could directly and conceptually rely when I needed help. But I do want to thank Sibley for being the only participant during the stressful two months at the end of the book writing. Every time I'd start reworking a new chapter, I'd inevitably start moaning that I didn't know what it needed and that it was all screwed up. Sibley weathered my emotional outbursts and long stretches of noncommunication. And he fed me every single night, even if I went back to work while eating.

In a funny way, the thing that all participants provided me with most throughout this entire process was emotional support. Everyone who got involved believed in the project and wanted to see it succeed. They held me accountable, argued about how to make the manuscript better, and pitched in when I asked. In no way do I want to belittle the significant content and editing contributions that participants made. But the thing I want to thank them for most was just being there, showing support, helping me through, listening and reacting and contributing. Without them, I could never have written this book with such confidence and vigor in such a short time. Thank you for being there, for reading the words, for sharing your response, and for making this project worthwhile.

5 comments, add yours!:

Maria said...

From someone who has only just found out about you(and so glad I did!) at TAM a couple of weeks ago- and has just been wondering "How did she do it?"-thank you for taking time to explain through these posts! I was curious as to how you actually put this whole thing together, and what that process really looks like. You clearly put long hours into making the book happen- but I am relieved to see that you made it a "group" project as much as possible and actually reflected your values of sharing, transparency, honesty etc. in the process.
I am so excited to read it (I ordered one since you ran out at TAM ;) ), but for now I will keep up with your blog and getting a behind the scenes preview.

Happy Friday :)

gih said...

I want to experience that too.

Jenna said...

I would be curious to know how many of the wiki contributers were members of the museum field, and how many would better identify as the visiting public. This seems like a fascinating process. Do you know if any other authors are currently working with the same method? Thank you, very much, for sharing. I am looking forward to reading your book!

Nina Simon said...

Hi Jenna -

Almost all of the wiki participants were museum professionals, although several were from related fields (a community education guy, arts administrators, teachers, students, a couple religious leaders). The only "visitor reps" were friends and family who I pulled in to help out, and not specifically for their visitor street cred.

I'm not sure of others using this process to write a book, but there are plenty of folks engaging participants in book-making. One of my favorites was my friend Robin Sloan's approach to writing the novella Anabelle Scheme. He funded it on Kickstarter, shared behind-the-scenes updates with funders, and did some novel user research using Google AdWords. Then, once the book was out, he used some of the money to fund a "remix" contest for people to make their own derivative works based on the book.

Jenna said...

I was browsing the Center for the Future of Museums website, and came across their "Museums and Society 2019" report, which also allows for wiki editing, but is based off of the Institute for the Future's Superstruct game. A bit different, but also an interesting idea!