Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The Spectator Spectrum: Who Do You Count as a Participant?

Ready for a math problem?

A museum holds a free program in a semi-public space. Fifteen people engage in the prescribed activities. Approximately 100 people walk by while the program is going on. Some of them look and point, some talk about the program, and some completely ignore it.

How many people participated?

This is the question I've been toying with this week. Last weekend, my museum did a little pilot of a new program, Downward Draw. We held a free yoga class in the plaza outside the museum and invited artists to come and draw/paint the yoga-doers in motion. It was a creative stretch for everyone involved--people who had to draw quickly, exercisers who had to hold poses for longer-than-normal time periods--and everyone had a good time.

That included spectators. People looked and talked and pointed. One guy stayed to watch the entire session and then talked to the yoga practitioners afterwards. A woman convinced her husband to draw and then sat watching him over his shoulder. A couple of dads watched and chatted about the event with partial attention as their kids cavorted in the fountain.

For me, Downward Draw provided an unusual opportunity to examine the more casual end of the participatory spectrum. For years, I've used Forrester Research's five social media user categories--creators, critics, collectors, joiners, and spectators--as a guide when thinking about how to design participatory experiences in physical space. But I've tended to focus in the middle of the spectrum, seeking ways to offer more options for engagement than just "create the thing" and "see the thing."

And so I've spent a lot of time piloting exhibits and programs that invite people to critique, to join, to collect, and to create. When prototyping, I'm frequently in a cajoling mode, trying to entice people to try the active form of participation to see what works and doesn't.

But that wasn't my role with Downward Draw. Or rather, when I tried it (offering paper and pens to spectators in case they wanted to draw), I failed completely. The activity was so specific and required sufficient planning/equipment/strength on the part of participants that it was in no way a drop-in experience. And so I tried something else. I watched what spectators did.

No one did anything shocking. People cruised by. They watched. They pointed. They ignored. They asked. Once I dropped the pretense of pushing active participation on spectators and just engaged with them in conversation, I found I was having a whole other kind of participatory experience--one in which strangers were using the spectacle of the event as a social object of conversation. The spectators weren't passive; instead, they were active participants in a different activity: looking, evaluating, discussing the thing in front of them. Even though the participation was pretty simple, I realized I don't have a good framework to measure or describe what they were doing.

How would you measure spectator participation in this event? Would you set a bar for "active participation" (looks for more than one minute, points at something, talks about the event/object) and count incidences? Setting a bar would allow you to eliminate the passers-by who ignored or barely noticed the event. On the other hand, we don't set this kind of bar when it comes to counting audiences inside our walls. You can sleep through the symphony and it still counts as showing up. You can walk through a museum while having a heated debate about your love life and it still counts as visitation. By the same argument, you could say that anyone who passed by Downward Draw was a participant, however uncommitted. They still got that "contact high" of engagement, and who knows what that may inspire.

When I really think about it, I think it's important to attempt to define indicators of participation--at every level. It may be impossible to measure how many visitors are pointing or talking about an exhibit or asking a question, but knowing that those are indicators of active engagement helps staff know what to look for and what outcomes to try to achieve. Binary measures of participation--inside the walls or out, doing yoga or not--only scratch the surface of helping institutions understand what's really going on.

I want to honestly be able to say to my board, "nine people did yoga, six people painted or drew, twelve people engaged a staff member in discussion, fifteen people had private conversations about the experience, fourteen people gawked, and thirty people strolled by with a fleeting glance in our direction." I don't have the framework to make this useful yet. For now, the math problem's answer is the favorite cop-out of every struggling student: "not enough information."

Can you help me develop a framework for indicators of spectator participation? What behaviors would you put on the list?
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