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    So far, we've focused on designing platforms for connections among people in cultural institutions. This leads to an obvious and uneasy question: what about the objects? If museums evolve to support visitors creating, sharing, and learning from each other, where does institutionally-held content fit in? What is the object of the new conversation?

    This is a more pressing question for some types of institutions than others. For community arts organizations and informal programs, objects may not play a major role in audience programming. If you work in a children's or science museum, you're probably already comfortable with the idea of exhibits as designed experiences, a set of props and moving parts that help visitors connect with concepts. Many public libraries, though still stocked with books and physical media, have moved from focusing on objects to focusing on access to information and content experiences. But for specialized libraries, archives, and history and art museums, where authentic objects are the heart of the visitor experience and business model, the question of what to do with real artifacts--not abstract, malleable exhibits but tangible objects in drawers--is a concern.

    You don't need to toss your collection to the wayside to engage visitors in social participation; in fact, the opposite is true. Objects are the engine of socially networked experiences, the content around which conversation happens. Every social network is fueled by content. Without something to talk about and share affinity, there's little reason for people to connect. Some social networks are about celebrity gossip. Others center around custom car-building. Others focus on religion. We connect with people through our interests and shared experience of the world around us.

    But "content" is a pretty general term. In 2005, engineer and sociologist Jyri Engstrom coined the term "social objects" and the related phrase "object-centered sociality." In an influential blog post, Jyri argued that discrete objects, not general content or interpersonal relationships, form the basis for the most successful online social networks. The objects don't have to be physical, but they do have to be distinct entities. For example, on Flickr, you don't socialize generally about photography or pictures, as you might on a photography-focused listserv. Instead, you socialize around specific shared images, having mini-conversation around discrete photographic objects. Users upload photos and comment on each others’. Users exhibit their photos in various groups and galleries. Each photo is a node in the social network that triangulates the users who create, critique, and consume it. Just as on LibraryThing people are connected via books instead of reading, on Flickr people are connected via photos instead of art-making.

    Flickr has photos. YouTube has videos. Upcoming.com has events. Jyri suggested that more generalized social networks, like LinkedIn or Facebook, can only succeed if and when objects are at the foundation of the experience. Facebook has a diversified object model--for some people, status updates are the essential object, for others, it's virtual gifts or games. In the mid-2000s, LinkedIn changed its design to focus its network more strongly around jobs instead of professional connections, which Jyri sees as a move to object-centered design: “Think about the object as the reason why people affiliate with each specific other and not just anyone. For instance, if the object is a job, it will connect me to one set of people whereas a date will link me to a radically different group. This is common sense but unfortunately it's not included in the image of the network diagram that most people imagine when they hear the term 'social network.' The fallacy is to think that social networks are just made up of people. They're not; social networks consist of people who are connected by a shared object.”

    This is great news for museums. Jyri suggested that creating online social networks around objects requires the ability to "create digital instances of the object." But physical social networks have no such need for digitization--just access to the physical objects themselves. While web developers scramble for object catalogues upon which to base new online ventures, museums can tap into pre-existing stories and connections between visitors and collections. The challenge is to find ways to use those connections to turn the objects into triangulation points for social behavior. Rather than convincing visitors that they want to be part of "the museum club," if we can find ways to make our objects function socially, they can form the nodes of useful and appealing social networks.

    Social objects are a cornerstone of the me-to-we engagement pattern. Objects can serve as focal points for discussion, whether physically, as in the Race: Are We So Different? exhibition, or virtually, as on LibraryThing. Objects mediate the uncomfortable experience of talking directly to strangers, and thus can facilitate comfortable discourse. My favorite social object for talking with strangers is my dog. When I walk around town with my dog, lots of people talk to me, or, more precisely, talk through the dog to me. The dog allows for transference of attention from person-to-person to person-to-object-to-person. It’s much less threatening to approach someone by approaching and interacting with his/her dog, which will inevitably lead to interaction with its owner. Unsurprisingly, enterprising dog owners looking for dates often use their dogs as social instigators, steering their pups towards attractive people they’d like to meet.

    Dogs generally are positive social objects. With the exception of the rare people who move away from me because they are fearful of dogs, most strangers are effusive conversationalists about the dog. There are other social objects with mixed impact. Pregnant women, people in wheelchairs, and heavily tattooed individuals have all experienced both positive and negative reactions to the social objects to which they are bound. The ideal social object is both reflective of personal aspirations and flexible. By displaying your relationship with it, you feel like you are expressing your best self  But you can also dispose of that relationship or put it aside when it is not useful to you.

    How can we activate cultural objects, both pre-existing artifacts and designed exhibits, as social objects?  How are social objects useful in a museum context, and how can they help you achieve specific participatory goals in your institution? 

    To answer these questions, we have to dig deeper into the characteristics of social objects, the ways they are used, and the impact they make.


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