Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Great Participatory Processes are Open, Discoverable, and Unequal

When I was in college, I spent almost all of my free time in the slam poetry scene. A few years and a few hundred open mics into that experience, it became obvious that some venues fostered amazing poetry communities, others, not so much.

One of my favorite open mics was at the Cantab in Cambridge, MA. The Cantab had a formula. Everyone got five minutes on the mic max. Slots on the list were first-come first-served, though newbies were usually placed early in the set so they would have a gentle onramp (and so seasoned poets could skip the kiddie pool if they chose to). Once the list filled, there were still shadow spots for special poets--but you had to be good to get one of those. The crowd was uniformly supportive of all, but effusive applause was meted out based strictly on quality. Experienced poets worked hard to bring their best to the stage, and they got honest feedback from a motley gang of peers and spectators. The whole experience welcomed newcomers while helping them understand what "value" constituted in that community.

Compare that with any number of lousy open mics. Some were so exclusive that it was impossible to feel welcome as a newcomer. Others lavished praise so indiscriminately that poets were never challenged to improve or bring forward new work. Some had no clear time limits or criteria for participation, and the poetry swung between brilliance and poke-your-eye-out horror.

I was reminded of these experiences when reading Dan Thompson's excellent post about what makes a good jazz jam. Dan writes about the explicit and implied "rules" of participation for musicians that create great music both onstage and for the crowd. He casts the whole idea of a great jazz jam in the context of the tragedy of the commons--like a poetry open mic, the jazz club is a community whose experience is fabulous or awful depending on the extent to the culture cultivates and enforces a healthy participatory process.

When I think about what makes for great participatory experiences in both poetry open mics and jazz jams, it comes down to three basic things:
  • The process is open. There is some way for anyone to walk in the door and sign up.
  • The process is discoverable. If there are implied rules or idiosyncrasies (and in the best cultures, there are), they are not completely shrouded in mystery. Repeated participation can make them knowable and understandable. 
  • The process is unequal. It acknowledges differences in talent, experience, and effort, and has a system--either explicit or implicit--for rewarding greatness.
These might sound obvious, but when you think about how they relate to bad participatory processes, it becomes apparent where things can break down. Here are just three participatory processes I think are in serious need of improvement:
  • Public comment at city council meetings. These suffer from an excess of equality. Have you ever stood in line for your two minutes on an issue at a government meeting? The process is incredibly open and equal. Wackos and experts all get the same amount of time. And the end result--what politicians actually decide--rarely seems meaningfully correlated with the participatory process. These systems are open, but they are also excessively equal and not discoverable. The result is that people get turned off, cynical, and leave. Only the extremists remain. And thus councilmembers have to go outside the process to get good input from community members (if at all). The process becomes even less discoverable. It gets killed by the equality of it.
  • Grant application feedback. These suffer from a lack of discoverability. You spend hours agonizing over the language for a grant application. You put it in, wait a couple months, and then you get a one-page form letter informing you that you did (or more likely, didn't) receive funding. Occasionally, the funder will offer limited opportunities for feedback on the proposal. Even more rarely, you will receive panel comments directly. Grant processes are inherently unequal--the funder is trying to find the best work to support. But they are also problematically not discoverable. It's rare that you get direct feedback about your proposal without aggressively asking for it. The whole process of grant applications would be improved if providing panel comments was a matter of course. Applicants would learn what they lacked, and funders would (hopefully) receive better applications. Opaque funding decisions don't help anyone.
  • Exhibition proposals. These suffer from a lack of openness. This is an issue we are actively grappling with at our museum. We receive frequent inquiries from artists and community members about how thy might submit exhibition proposals for consideration by our institution. At many museums, the curatorial process is completely closed and undiscoverable--"don't call us, we'll call you." Others have clear and open processes for submittal and proposal review. As we figure out what's right for us, I'm guided by the desire to create something open and discoverable--but not necessarily "fair" and equal.
Do these three criteria--open, discoverable, unequal--resonate for you in designing or experiencing participatory processes? 
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