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Chapter 3: From Me to We

Page history last edited by Nina Simon 14 years, 3 months ago


  1. Chapter 3, Part 1: Defining Socially Networked Experiences
  2. Chapter 3, Part 2: Programmatic and Low-Tech Networked Experiences
  3. Chapter 3, Part 3: Platforms, Values, and Power



In the previous chapter, we discussed tools that "get better the more you use them."  The more videos you rate on Netflix, the better a job it does at recommending new ones to you.  The more frequently you visit the museum, the more the institution can tailor experiences to you.  These techniques reflect a responsive system in which the user and the experience provider exist in a symbiotic relationship.  Two-way relationships are powerful ways for visitors and staff to connect with each other deeply and for visitors to have content experiences that are appropriately and enticingly crafted "for them."


But if your goal involves social participation, personalization is only a start.  Highly personalized and responsive tools can lead to isolation--me with my customized museum experience, you with yours.  In the same way that people bemoan the reduced social urban experience of people wandering with their heads in their own bluetooth phones and books and iPods, you could imagine a museum experience that is more individual and less social.  I remember a particularly frightening hard hat tour of the Newseum in which staff proudly showed off a room full of identical interactive kiosks, so that no one would have to wait in line to have his own individualized experience.  It reminded me of a giant fitness center packed with treadmills, each one occupied by someone grimly pounding out his daily allotment of interactivity.


The path to the museum as townsquare may start with personalization, but it is not paved with single-user experiences.  And so, in this chapter, we look at the ways that personalization is an entrypoint not to an individual experience but a social one.  To do so, we will consider tools that "get better the more people use them."  Again, this is a statement with two meanings: the tools are improved by a greater number of users as well as a greater frequency of use.  Whereas in the last chapter we looked at ways to make tools that get better the more YOU use them, in this chapter we explore ways to enhance your experience via the experiences of other visitors.


It's easy to design interactive exhibits for individual users.  You can focus the content to a single learner. You don't have to worry about resource sharing. If the visitor leaves the interactive before it's over, she hasn't let anyone down or "ruined the game."  Designing exhibits that accommodate more visitors introduces operational challenges. If no one else is around, a single visitor won't get the full impact of the experience. She might even think the exhibit is broken. If the exhibit requires all users to start at the same time, visitors may have a hard time gathering the crowd needed for the whole experience. If visitors have to work with others, they have to trust that their new partners will approach the experience with the same level of respect and interest that they have. You have to believe that they will help you, that they won't just kick over your sand castle and run away laughing.


Despite these challenges, designing museum experiences that support multiple users is incredibly important.  A significant percentage of visitors come to the museum in large groups, and these groups are often poorly served by exhibits that have been designed for small families or individuals.  There are many cases where visitors queue up to use a single-user interactive exhibit, and the exhibit offers no affordance either for more players or for other visitors to engage as spectators, helpers, or partners.  While some museums like the Newseum may choose to resolve this problem by introducing more interactive kiosks, there are others looking for ways to scale the impact of individual exhibits by making them more open to multi-person participation.


Scaling the experience of playing with an exhibit is one thing.  Scaling the experience of interacting with other humans is another.  Visitors have self-reported that the most impactful and positive aspects of a museum visit are frequently personal, live interactions with staff (GET SOURCE - SUSIE?) whether via structured activities like tours and workshops or more informal conversations in the galleries.  Like single-user interactive exhibits, one-on-one conversations are not scalable across the institution, and unlike exhibit, visitors are unlikely to wait in line to talk to a staff member.  Designing museum experiences that get better the more people use them isn't just about building exhibits that serve more visitors; it's also about designing exhibits as infrastructure that can link visitors to visitors rather than only supporting interactions with staff.  As a very simple example, consider the Science Museum of Minnesota's exhibition, Staff and staff interactions are still an essential part of the museum experience, but the one-on-one conversational model is not scalable, and the one-to-many models of docent tours frequently don't support responsive engagement with each visitor.  In cases where staff can serve as social connectors rather than content distributors, they can help individuals (visitors and staff alike) connect with the other people who will be of most interest and value to them.


The key to designing successful multi-person museum experiences--whether via exhibits, staff interactions, or educational programs--is combining the flexibility of individual activities with the collective power of community outcomes. Most multi-person museum experiences are designed for communal activities (let's build a bridge, let's make a newscast). These activities can be stressful and require real-time coordination of people who might not want to work with each other.  They can also have operational challenges involved in designing experiences so that enough visitors show up on time and participate in the experience together in real-time to "make it work."  But there are other multi-person exhibits that let each individual do his own thing with compounding benefits to the group.  For example, at the New York Hall of Science in Queens, there is a floor-mounted installation, Near, in the Connections exhibition that demonstrates how different elements are related in nodal networks. When you step on the mat, you become a node, represented by your location on the mat.  When other people step on the mat, lighted lines indicate abstracted relationships with other nodes/people on the mat.  The exhibit employs a simple mathematical rule: draw a line between each node and the node nearest to it.  If there are just two people, there will be two lines, one from me to you, and one from you to me.  If there are several people, there will be several lines, and not all nodes will be in reciprocal relationships with just one other close node.  As you move around the mat, the lines change as you get closer to some people and further from others.  This exhibit does not work for just one person, but once you have two or more people on the mat it starts to get interesting.  The more people there are moving on the mat, the more the light display indicates the dynamic ways that nodes can be related in a complex system. 


Near illustrates the powerful combination of individual action and community benefit.  The exhibit is flexible and scalable for groups who drift in and out.  The activity of walking on the mat is individual, so each visitor doesn't have to worry about how others' contributions affect goal attainment. I don't have to let you down if I leave before you are done. But the exhibit also immediately and transparently communicates the benefits of multiple individuals all acting at once, and thus incentivizes group play.  The Near exhibit doesn't require visitors to explicitly work together, but it provides additional rewards when people do so.


It's no coincidence that Near is an exhibit about network science.  Network theory operates on connections among individual nodes in both complex and simple systems.  These nodes can be people, objects, or data points, and the connections among them may describe biological systems (like the neural nets in your brain), social structures (like the network of friends with whom you correspond), or machine relationships (like the network of computers connected to the Web).  In Near, the relationships between individuals is abstracted down to a single question: how physically proximate is one person to another?  This question isn't just geometric; specialized versions of it are used to determine how close individuals are in a social group, how close your movie preferences are to other movie-watchers, and so on.  The network effect, in which outcomes are tied to interactions among individuals, has many powerful and diverse applications in content experiences, whether in retail shopping, recommendation systems, or museums.  By designing intelligent systems that harness and leverage the actions of many individuals, we can deliver higher-quality experiences back to each person in the network, as well as to the community as a whole. 



Individual Actions, Community Benefits


The network effect is the backbone of many websites that provide individual services in a socially networked setting.  Consider the example of Librarything, the site which allows you to make a library-quality catalog of your own books.  The more books you add to your personal catalog, the better a personal storage device it is.  That's the individual action--the cataloging of personal books.  The community benefit is an outcome of the networking of all of the individual libraries together.  Librarything links you to potential books of interest by networking your books with those owned by other users of the site.  Each book is effectively a node, and Librarything's system can see across thousands of personal libraries which books are most likely to be grouped with others, that is, which books and book groupings are nearest to each other.  If you and I share several books in common, we are likely to be more interested in the other books in each other's personal libraries.  Our personal networks of books overlap, or parts of our personal networks do.  I may be sympatico with you when it comes to poetry but very different when we're talking about science fiction.  The unique value of Librarything isn't the cataloging function; it's the connection of lots of users with lots of books that generate valuable recommendations.  The more people use Librarything to catalog their books, the more books and libraries are in the system, and the more likely any single user is to get quality recommendations.


The same is true of Amazon, which provides recommendations for purchases based on what "people like you" bought, and Netflix, which offers movie ratings both in the aggregate across all Netflix users and weighted for "users like you."  Wikipedia increases in knowledge value the more people contribute to it.  Social networks like YouTube, Flickr, and Facebook, are as valuable as their user base is diverse, populous, and active.  And perhaps most powerfully (and invisibly), the network effect guides the way that search engines like Google work.  Google serves you responses to your queries based on what users across the web have linked to and found valuable.  Every computer that is hooked up to the Web gives Google information every time a search is completed.  Your experience of the Web is thus shaped on the most basic level by the concept of software that gets better the more people use it.


This concept is fundamental to the definition of Web 2.0.  In 2006, Tim O'Reilly, who is credited with coining and defining Web 2.0, gave the commencement address at the UC Berkeley School of Information and said: 


"A true Web 2.0 application is one that gets better the more people use it. Google gets smarter every time someone makes a link on the web. Google gets smarter every time someone makes a search. It gets smarter every time someone clicks on an ad. And it immediately acts on that information to improve the experience for everyone else.


It's for this reason that I argue that the real heart of Web 2.0 is harnessing collective intelligence."(SOURCE)


"Harnessing collective intelligence" is another way to think of the networked effects of individuals.  It's a tricky phrase, because we often think of collective intelligence rising from a group of people who are known to each other.  But O'Reilly and other technologists use the phrase to describe a kind of mass collaboration in which the participants are not necessarily aware of or working in concert with each other.  The system--in the case of the example above, Google--performs the harnessing or collaborative function, operating on the individual actions of many people to improve the overall value of the network.  These kinds of systems are often called "platforms" because they are sets of rules and environments that support users sharing their own content (as if from a stage) rather than content distributors in their own right.  When I use the word platform, I use it in this sense as a system that is designed to support users creating, sharing, and responding to each other's content in a networked way.  This separates content producers or distributors (like movie studios) from content platforms (like YouTube and other video-sharing sites).


Of course, not every contribution improves the value of a platform.  A person who chooses to spray a community blog with hateful comments is adding to the content on the site but is likely not to be seen as a positive contributor.  Systems like YouTube maintain internal algorithms that are highly likely to serve you popular videos but not necessarily the ones that will be most valuable to you.  How do you build a system--physical or virtual--that harnesses collective intelligence in accordance with institutional values?  To do this successfully, you need an architecture of participation that focuses the network effect of many users in a direction you deem positive. 


This may sound complicated.  But consider the simple example of the Facing Mars exhibition discussed in the previous chapter.  The exhibit starts and closes with a pair of turnstiles.  Visitors must walk through one or the other to enter and exit the exhibit.  Above the turnstiles is the question, "Would you go to Mars?" and the turnstiles are labeled "Yes" and "No."  In the context of personalization, this experience primes you emotionally for the exhibit and contextualizes it relative to your own identity.  But there's one more element to the turnstiles.  Above each one is an LED display that shows the aggregate number of visitors who have selected each option to date.  This is a very simple approach to harnessing collective intelligence.  The intelligence in this case is the cumulative response of thousands of visitors to a hypothetical invitation to Mars.  What is valuable about this intelligence?  When the exhibition was open at the Ontario Science Centre, about 2/3 of visitors answered at the entrance that they would go to Mars.  By the exit, the numbers had flipped, and only 1/3 were still confident about their desire to visit the red planet.


The collective intelligence thus told visitors something very simple: lots of people think they want to go to Mars, but when they find out what's really involved, they change their minds.  This insight is interesting and potentially surprising.  Because it is based on visitor data, that statement could not be as convincingly offered in label text as it is via the LED displays (even if it is an underlying message of the whole exhibit). 


Providing the LED displays also does a host of things beyond offering a few simple data points with an interpolated narrative lesson.  Each visitor can see the number tick up when she walks through the turnstile, which makes her feel that she has made an impression on the exhibit.  While it's debateable whether the exhibit has gotten "better" because she has entered, it certainly has been altered in an additive way.  For visitors whose minds are changed by the exhibition, the LED displays offer confirmation of a shared social shift.  For visitors who do not experience a change of heart from the beginning to the end of the exhibit, the LED displays provide a piece of information that may cause them to reconsider their own experience and reflect on what makes them different from those who changed their mind.  The LED displays create a social context for what is already a compelling personal experience by networking the individual selections of each visitor.


The Facing Mars exhibit provides a limited but powerful form of networked intelligence.  The architecture of participation was designed in a way that reflects the following values:

  • visitors' voices matter
  • exhibits can make you change your mind
  • visitors experience exhibits in a social context


The Facing Mars example is an elegant demonstration of a familiar museum device: the polling system.  There are many interactive kiosks at many institutions that ask you a question, invite you to respond, and then show you your response relative to others who have engaged with the kiosk.  Polling and voting systems are embodiments of "stage 3" engagement, in which individual users' actions are networked and presented to each other in aggregate.  Most user-generated content experiences in museums are also in stage 3.  Visitors can produce content (write their own labels, produce stop-motion videos, etc.) and other visitors can view them.  While the visitor-created products in these cases are more personalized than answers to a poll, the social element of the experience is still limited.  I can't respond specifically to the person who wrote the provocative message on the talkback board--I can only respond to the masses.  My contribution can be accessed by others, but they can't talk directly to me.  In most cases, visitor contributions are unsigned.  I see the aggregate response to a poll.  I read an anonymous comment on the wall.  I'm having a socially informed experience, but not an interpersonal one. 


This distinction highlights the "glass ceiling" between stage 3 and stage 4 in me-to-we design.  Whether for reasons of privacy, technological complexity, or lack of understanding of its value, museums very rarely try to move to socially networked experiences in which visitors are explicitly and personally connected to each other through their actions.  In many cases, this is appropriate. There is little value to seeing the names attached to each visitor who has answered yes or no to the Facing Mars question as they enter the exhibition.   But it is worth considering the relative merits of stage 4 experiences before settling for stage 3.


The Difference Between Networked and Social Experiences


The difference between stage 3 and stage 4 lies in the extent to which the institution serves as a platform that mediates direct social engagement among users.  As a visitor, I have access to the same user-created content in both stages, but only in stage 4 can I access the user behind the creation.  Whereas in stages 2 and 3, individuals' profiles are for their consumption alone, on stage 4, they are accessible by other visitors.  For example, imagine coupling the Facing Mars entry turnstiles with a system that offers each visitor a sticker as they walk through indicating whether they chose yes or no.  Now, if visitors wear the stickers, they not only can see the aggregate responses of visitors-to-date, they can also walk up to individuals in real-time in the exhibition and say, "Hey, I chose yes too!" or "Huh.  I chose yes and you chose no.  What makes us different?"  This is an experience that cannot happen based solely on the LED aggregator (stage 3).  It also cannot happen based solely on people making selections privately for themselves (stage 2).


As another example, consider the loyalty card.  In most cases, loyalty punch cards are individual items used for a personal, responsive relationship between institution and user (stage 2).  Tina, We Salute You, a hip coffee shop in London, networks the experience of the loyalty card, and makes their punch cards a social in-venue experience. Rather than carrying your own card, you are invited to write your name on the wall and draw a star for every coffee you’ve drunk. Purchase ten and you receive a free coffee—and a new color to continue advancing your stars. This creates a feeling of community and entices new visitors to the shop to add their own name and get involved. There’s a game-like “keeping up with the Joneses” aspect where people feel motivated to get more stars, to have a more adorned name, etc. because their participation is being publicly showcased. Instead of the reward when you reach ten and get a free coffee being a private feeling, you get to celebrate with the store and the rest of its patrons. Again, this could be a lovely way, particularly for a small museum, to encourage visitors to think of themselves as part of the museum community and to desire a “level up” in their nameplate on the wall. It’s like a low-budget, dynamic donor wall.


Tina, We Salute You's loyalty scheme is somewhere on the border of stage 3 and stage 4.  The fact that the stars go on the wall networks the impact of the loyalty cards.  Like admissions stickers piled up on a specific spot on the way out of a museum, the accumulation of everyone's stars in one place has an additive effect that makes more customers aware that there is a loyalty system and that there are many people using it.  Incorporating individuals' names (and their unique handwriting and star-drawing flair) adds a touch of stage 4 to the experience.  You may not be able to directly connect with a person on the wall, but you have access to a tiny bit of their personal profile--their first name and a sense of their coffee-drinking habits.


There's a familiar fundraising concept of the big goal and the incremental gifts pushing the needle towards the sought amount.  We typically think of making donations as a private act, unless you are operating at the major gifts level.  It's not surprising that Web 2.0 services have developed ways to move from this basic, networked fundraising tactic to one that is more socialized. For example, Kickstarter.com allows people to propose projects and invites others to fund them in variable increments (as low as $1).  For any project, I can see the list of people who have backed it, and then I can click through to those backers' profiles to see what other projects they are supporting.  In this way, Kickstarter creates a light social network of people and projects.  If I back a project and Clarice backs it too, I might also want to back the other projects Clarice supports.  This kind of interaction happens frequently among tight social groups, but sites like Kickstarter make it possible for me to socially network my actions based on all kinds of affinities with people I otherwise don't know.


And here lies the delicate distinction between stage 3 and stage 4 experiences.  On stage 3, I might still get the recommendation automatically from a site that "if you like this, you may also like that."  Those recommendations may be driven by individuals' other profiles.  But I don't get to make the link explicitly through those other profiles.


This may seem like a very small difference, but it has significant impact on user experience.  Consider Amazon.com.  Amazon uses an algorithm based on "users like you" to recommend items to you for purchase.  Amazon also provides user reviews of items on every item page.  The algorithm is stage 3; the reviews are stage 4.  Which do you find more valuable?  I prefer the reviews, because I can make an assessment of how relevant each user's opinion is to my likely experience with the product.  I can also form relationships over time, following a reviewer I trust from item to item, seeing how they weigh in.  Socially networked experiences are superior to networked ones in cases where the individual taste of different users has bearing on a personal decision.  You may not need the stage four experience if you are reading visitors' memories about a historic event or enjoying an exhibition of visitor-submitted toys.  But you may want to have access to or at least awareness of the individuals behind opinionated content about which exhibits are most inspiring, educational, or dull.



Socially networked experiences allow you to have access to the people behind their products.  This naturally leads to the opportunity for direct social engagement with these people.  And in some venues, that can happen in real time.  One of the best illustrations of a stage 3 experience that could easily shift to stage 4 is in the Free2Choose exhibition at the Anne Frank Museum in Amsterdam.  Free2choose is a very simple exhibition. It is one room, with a long, semi-circular bench with cushions and room for about 30 people to comfortably sit and stand. Every few feet on the bench, there is a small box about the size of a lightswitch with two buttons on it, one red and one green. The visitors on the bench face a large projection screen. The screen plays an interactive show that invites visitors to vote on a variety of issues related to human rights. The setup is always the same. A one-minute video clip presents the issue (for example, whether students should be allowed to wear headscarves to school). Then, a screen pops up with a statement like “Students should be allowed to wear religious symbols in school.” Visitors see a ticking countdown and are told to vote by pressing either the green or red button on one of the small boxes. Green indicates yes, red, no. At the end of the voting countdown, the results are shown, both for “Visitors Now” and for “All Visitors” (meaning all visitors to date).


Free2choose is a walk-in exhibition—visitors can freely enter and leave at any time. Each issue takes about 90 seconds between the setup video and the voting, and the entire loop takes about 20 minutes. I spent over an hour in Free2choose on a Sunday afternoon, and while it was not as busy as the rest of the museum, it had 20 to 40 occupants at any time. People stayed through several topics, many as long as ten minutes. The show content was compelling, but the voting was what really energized people.


What did people like so much about the voting? Pressing the buttons was not particularly thrilling, and I never saw kids playing the usual bang-on-the-buttons game. The thing people liked was seeing the results. Every issue cycle was the same: visitors would watch the video in silence, and then as soon as the voting opened, a murmur of conversation would run through the room. It increased to a loud buzz when the results were displayed, and then cut off when the next issue video began.


What's so interesting about the results? When you take a poll alone, there’s no suspense about how you voted. I vote yes for headscarves, and then I see that 65% of other visitors over time agreed with me. But Free2choose was more like being part of a deliberating jury than acting as a solo judge. In Free2choose, I voted yes for headscarves, saw that 65% of all visitors agreed with me, but also saw that only 40% of the people currently in the room agreed with me. When the results of the room differed greatly from those of “All Visitors,” the surprise was audible. I was in one group where 100% of us voted that Protestants should be able to parade through Catholic areas in Northern Ireland, and we looked around with wonder and complicity when we saw that only 60% of “All Visitors” agreed with us. Every group was different, so every outcome was different.


Free2choose is powerful because it introduces social tension. When I voted in the minority, I felt that I was in the minority not just conceptually but physically, in that crowd, in real-time. Because the room was often full, I found myself looking for people “like me" in the crowd. But I had no way to identify them in the faceless group of button-pushers.


And that’s where the social dimension of Free2choose (and of all stage 3 experiences) is limited. There is no component to the exhibition that highlights the specific selections made by individuals in the room, and no vehicle to incite conversation among differing groups. Yes, there was lots of talking in that room—but only in whispers among familiars. At one point, I was standing next to a group of British people who voted that flag-burning should be illegal. I had voted the opposite. We were standing close enough—a few inches apart—that I could “spy” on them as they hit the button, but I was not comfortable asking them about it or having a discussion about why.


Right now, Free2choose is a game that illuminates diversity of opinion on tough issues. But it could go further. It could become a game that encourages people to talk with each other about these issues. There are many ways that the game could do this:

  • Voting could be (more) public. There could be spotlights in the ceiling that would illuminate different areas of the room in different colors of light corresponding to those who had selected red or green when the results are shown.
  • Instead of voting in place, visitors could be directed to vote by moving to one side of the room or another.
  • After the results are up, the screen could instruct visitors to find someone in the room who voted differently from them, or just to ask their neighbor what they think about the issue and or the results.
  • The game could instruct people to share voting stations and to use a brief discussion to come to a consensus vote. As it was, there were too few stations and people awkwardly looked on as others used them.


There are many other options. They aren’t hard to implement and they needn’t dramatically change the exhibition, but they could dramatically change the social experience. Free2choose is a perfect example of the limits of a stage three experience. Even though you are densely packed in a room with other people expressing your opinions about important issues, you don’t turn to your neighbor and start talking. The social stigma is too great, and the tools don’t help you cross those barriers. You vote and see the results (stage 3), but the voting mechanism is not a social object that mediates and motivates engagement with others (stage 4). And so, even though you are all together in the same room, grappling with tough issues, you will never launch into group discourse (stage 5).


Not all people would want to go to the next level and have a conversation with strangers, but it was clear that people did want to talk about the results (based on their conversations with companions) and were absorbed by the overall experience. And in an international city like Amsterdam, in a museum focused on one girl's extreme story that has touched the whole world, it seems to me there is an enormous opportunity to go to the next level and facilitate cross-cultural discussion. Why do you oppose flag-burning? How is it related to your nationality, your age, your gender, your experience? I was aching to ask these questions. It would have made for an extraordinary and unique museum experience in line with the overall mission of the Anne Frank House.


As it stands, I had an interesting time comparing the results from different groups in my head. But I didn’t understand why those groups were different, and I didn’t gain more insight about how different people think about complicated issues related to human rights. I wanted more than just a fun interactive—I wanted to understand the other people in the room. And I don’t think I was alone in that feeling. Perhaps we should have put it to a vote.


Activity: Take it up a Notch

Choose a content element of your museum--an exhibit, a tour, a program.  Determine what stage of participatory experience it offers.  Brainstorm ways that you could take this experience to the next participatory stage.  Ideally, work your way all the way to stage 4.  Draw your own answers into the empty circles.

  • Going from 1 to 2: We could make this responsive by...
  • 2 to 3: We could network people's interactions by...
  • 3 to 4: We could create ways for people to connect with each other socially by...



Programmatic Socially Networked Experiences


Free2Choose is an example of an exhibition at stage 3 that could be altered to offer some stage 4 experiences.  What does a stage 4 museum experience look like?  Let's turn away from exhibits and look at staffing and educational program models intended to connect strangers to each other via their unique individual user profiles.


The Ontario Science Center employs a novel staffing technique in their Weston Family Innovation Centre, a dynamic space focused on innovation learning and contemporary science issues geared towards teens and young adults.  There are many exhibits in the Innovation Centre that feature no instructional text or graphics.  This didactic approach is intended to support visitors exploring innovation practices like discovery and collaboration in the space, but understandably, a lot of visitors have questions.  Staff in the Innovation Centre are called "hosts," and they act more like they are putting on a party than instructing people about science.  They are social and highly visible throughout the space.  When a visitor approaches a host with a question about how something works or what it's for, the host will often pull in another visitor, saying, "Hey, can you help us out?  We have a question."  The hosts thus link visitors--often strangers--to each other, and provide a supportive environment for those visitors to play and learn together.  Obviously there are some people for whom this kind of host strategy would be very off-putting, but in the context of the Innovation Centre, it both fits in with the overall vibe of the space and supports the educational goals for the Centre.


When my sister was in high school, she worked with a DJ company as a dancer.  Her job was to go to social events--mostly weddings and bar mitzvahs--and motivate guests to dance.  She would pull people onto the dance floor, lead structured dances and dance floor games, and generally help get guests over the threshold fear that kept them rooted to their seats.  She modeled the desired participant behavior in a highly welcoming, friendly way.  She wasn't a superstar there to perform; she was there to motivate people to enjoy dancing on their own.  In this way, she could pursue a series of one-on-one interactions (dancing with individuals) that were highly networked because of their proximity to the crowd.  Like the Innovation Centre hosts, her approach to interaction with guests fundamentally encouraged them to connect to each other.




Of course, the Innovation Centre hosts and DJ dancers are randomly choosing visitors to bring together; they aren't networking them based on any underlying strategy beyond gathering visitors who are proximate to each other in real time (again, Near isn't quite as abstract as it seems).  But consider the example of the Experience Music Project in Seattle and their Sound Off! program.  Sound Off! is an annual teen battle of the bands in which twelve bands composed of musicians 13-21 compete for record contracts and professional mentorships via a series of highly produced concerts at the museum.  For years, this program has successfully brought together teen musicians and their fans, but in 2010, the museum decided to take it one step further.  As part of an institution-wide project to engage teen audiences more broadly and deeply, we looked at the potential for Sound Off! to grow.  Rather than institute more concerts or expand the slate of bands from twelve to twenty, we looked at the teen musicians from the bands who don't make the cut for Sound Off!  Applications for the competition have grown steadily over the years, and by 2009, over 120 bands competed for the twelve slots in competition.  We realized that those 108 other bands represented a large group of aspiring young musicians with whom the museum had a highly limited and specific interaction: band sends in application, band gets a nice rejection letter, the end until next year.


For 2010, the Experience Music Project experimented with an online Sound Off! social network, in which would-be participants could connect with each other before the event, discuss what goes into a good application, and generally learn about the different bands and their music.  What had been a series of personal, non-networked relationships between bands and the museum was networked to allow for many relationships among bands and young musicians.  If the 2010 experiment works, the plan is to take this networked approach further in the future by inviting non-musicians to join the community, comment on bands, and eventually, to aid in the winnowing process that leads to the twelve who are in final competition.  By networking the people across this program, the Experience Music Project is promoting more teen musicians connecting with each other, with the museum as the central platform facilitating the connections.


The Sound Off! network is for a very specific, self-selecting group of teenagers with a shared affinity for music.  How would you design a platform that networks people who don't have a shared affinity, or, in an extreme case, may distrust and fear each other?  Consider the extraordinary  platform at work in the Living Library program.  The Living Library was conceived in Denmark in 2000 as a way to engage youth in dialogue about ending violence by encouraging people to meet their prejudices and fears in a safe, fun, facilitated environment. It's a program that creates opportunities for regular people to have conversations with people who fit certain stereotypes.  And it's based on a really clever metaphor.  As its organizers put it: 

"The Living Library works exactly like a normal library – readers come and borrow a 'book' for a limited period of time. After reading it they return the Book to the library and – if they want – they can borrow another Book. There is only one difference: the Books in the Living Library are human beings, and the Books and readers enter into a personal dialogue. The Books in the Living Library are people representing groups frequently confronted with prejudices and stereotypes, and who are often victims of discrimination or social exclusion. The 'reader' of the library can be anybody who is ready to talk with his or her own prejudice and stereotype and wants to spend an hour of time on this experience. In the Living Library, Books cannot only speak, but they are able to reply to the readers' questions, and the Books can even ask questions and learn themselves." 

In other words, people look through the catalog, pick the stereotype they are interested in "meeting", and enter into a 45-minute conversation with a real person who embodies that stereotype.


A Living Library requires three kinds of people:

  • Books, who openly and authentically represent certain stereotyped groups (i.e. Feminists, Disabled People, Muslims, Police, Goths, Gays)
  • Readers, who check out the Books for 45-minute to 2-hour discussions
  • Librarians, who facilitate the whole process


Since 2000, Living Libraries have been produced primarily in Europe at festivals and libraries with support from the Council of Europe youth sector. They are often one-offs for events but are increasingly included in the regular slate of programming at major libraries and cultural facilities (but at my count, only one museum). While a four-hour Living Library may only draw 100 Readers, it engages those 100 people (along with 20 or more Books) in substantive dialogue, and the spectator/lurker effect on those who just browse the catalog or take a quick glance around can be much greater. The organizers are careful to state that the Living Library is not a publicity stunt for an organization nor an advertisement for the Books involved. Instead, “The Living Library is a tool to foster peaceful cohabitation and bring people closer together in mutual and careful respect for the human dignity of the individual. This is true for the readers, the Books and the organisers alike.”


The Living Library is an inspirational example of a socially networked program.  The librarians are the connectors who make it possible for Books and Readers to come together in conversation.  You could easily imagine a program like this in which the librarians are docents or actors who deliver tours or content related to your interest in a given stereotype, but the Living Library doesn't work that way.  Instead, the librarians are just the gate-keepers who connect you with other people.  As one librarian commented:

"Readers often ask: 'If I choose someone from the catalogue, will you bring an actor or an actress who will play the role of the book?' When I say 'no', ,and as soon as they understand that the Book is authentic with the title, they become very excited. "


By serving as the connectors instead of delivering content, the Living Library can scale up to as many Books are available and interested.  The Librarians can spend their time recruiting new and interesting books rather than learning how to deliver the content (less effectively) themselves.  And more Books can reach more Readers.  Here's a reflection from a Book who is a Subway Ticket Inspector:


"The policemen and I were some of the most popular Books, and out on loan almost all the time. So I decided to begin taking my readers to a place not far from the Library where we could have a drink and chat. As it turned out, it was very interesting to meet and learn about how these young people experienced us (ticket inspectors) on duty in the trains.


Some of the most frequently asked questions were 'Do you have to be a bastard to get a job like yours?', 'Don't you ever feel sorry for those people who somehow find themselves in a situation without a ticket but needing transportation?' or 'Isn't it terribly difficult for you to have to do this to other people?'. In several cases they had questions that related to a specific situation they themselves had been involved in. I heard many of the readers' personal experiences with my colleagues, good and bad. But the advantage of the situation was that I was right there, sitting with them and ready to try to answer their questions. I often had to cut the conversation short when the time ran out.


I especially remember one situation with a young couple, sworn members of the Punk scene with their colourful hair and black leather outfits; we had a very interesting discussion and some more people joined us and started to ask questions. It ended up being 20 people joining in and listening to me babble about my work as 'the bad guy who writes out the tickets'."


The Living Library uses the power of networking to support powerful learning experiences for Books, Readers, and onlookers.  Unlike other networks we've explored in this chapter, the Living Library does not function on a proximate model.  It doesn't give you Books that are most "like you" or related to your lived experience.  Instead, it challenges you to connect with something foreign and unfamiliar.  The value system that underlies the Living Library network is one focused on confronting long-held beliefs and moving outside your comfort zone.  


And in this way, the Librarians play a very special role.  They are the heart of the system, and they set the values that make the Living Library work.  One of the surprising things about the Living Library methodology is how closely it mimics traditional library experiences. The Reader experience is mediated by a gate-keeping Librarian and a catalogue. The Living Library spaces are often decorated to simulate libraries (except in cases where they are staged in real libraries). The design encourages visitors to fill out a library card, browse of the catalogue before selecting of a Book, and spend a significant amount of time with any Book selected.  Librarians maintain these conventions, even in a context in which they seem a bit absurd.  The creators of the Living Library project recognized an essential civic value of libraries as civil, safe places and capitalized on that value to make a risky proposition to users. By framing the whole experience in the context of a library, which has widely understood implicit rules and expectations, they turned something that could have simply been about provocation and bravado into a true learning opportunity.


This contextual framing sets the Living Library apart from other dialogue programs intended to connect strangers or to invite visitors to confront foreignness.  In 2009, artist Jeremey Deller facilitated a dialogue program called "It Is What It Is: Conversations About Iraq," which traveled to several museums in the US.  The piece features two guests, an Iraqi translator and a US Army reservists, who sit on couches in a conversational space, flanked by a powerful artifact--a car that was destroyed in a suicide bomb attack in Baghdad.  The goal is to support "messy, open-ended discussion," and the draw is the idea that you can go to the museum and talk about Iraq with someone who has actually been there during the war.


I saw "It Is What It Is" twice at the Hammer Museum in LA.  Both times, the central square it was situated in was well-trafficked with people enjoying the art, hanging out with friends, and working.  I never saw anyone engage in dialogue with the program participants.  Even with a couple of comfortable couches, a provocative object, and a sign that said, "Talk to X from 3-5," the barriers to participation were high.  Why would I want to talk about Iraq?  Why would I want to talk about it with a stranger?  Why would I want to sit on a couch and engage in a conversation with a stranger?


This is what distinguishes the Living Library as a remarkable program.  The library setting introduces deliberately designed conventions that make it comfortable to get over these questions and talk with strangers about unpleasant topics.  The librarian plays a key role as a structured facilitator of the experience.  And while the discussions may often get messy and open-ended, they don't start that way.  They start via a formal structure in which a Book is selected from the catalog and the Book is introduced to the Reader for the lending time.  The Living Library has designed their dialogue platform intentionally to help people enter through personal activities of self-identification (Books) and personal choice (Readers).  "It Is What It Is" and other unstructured platforms just plunk down the people and hope for dialogue.  Occasionally, some really interesting and surprising things may happen.  But they are a lot less likely than in designed settings.


Activity: Floor Staff as Connectors

Spend an hour (or a day!) interacting with visitors on the museum floor.  Set a goal for yourself to always engage more than one visitor or group of visitors in each conversation, demonstration, or interaction.  What kinds of interactions lend themselves easily to networked discussions among visitors?  How can your floor programming and everyday operations support these kinds of experiences?



Low-Tech Socially Networked Exhibitions


What is the exhibition equivalent of the Living Library?  How do you design physical infrastructure that ties individuals together in meaningful ways?  Designing exhibitions, or whole institutions, that operate on stage 4 socially networked principles is incredibly difficult.  It requires that each individual have a personalized profile that evolves with her growing relationship with the institution.  It requires that the profiles of each visitor be networked in some common system with rules for how different profile items interrelate.  And then it requires an output mechanism that helps visitors physically connect to the people and experiences with which they have network affinity.  Throw in the real-time nature of a museum visit, visitors' reticence to participate socially in the museum, and archaic data systems, and this may sound downright impossible.


But designing an entire museum that functions this way might not be the goal.  The goal is to promote social learning, participation by visitors, and interpersonal exchange around museum content.  And with these goals in mind, there are low-tech ways to perform or simulate every component of a stage 4 system, many of which are more effective than their high-tech counterparts.  Consider the example of people being able to save their favorite exhibits and share them with others.  We can all imagine complex ways to do this with mobile devices (and many museums and private companies are experimenting with such systems).  A visitor could register her phone with the museum, so that her number is uniquely associated with her personal profile.  As she moves through the museum, she uses a web-based application to tag her favorite exhibits, or perhaps she texts a rating for each exhibit to SMS short codes posted at the bottom of each label.  She can choose to "send" her favorites to individuals, or to broadcast them to the whole network of people using the system.  As an even higher-tech alternative, you could imagine a system in which visitors' motions are tracked, and standing in front of an exhibit for an abnormally long period of time would trigger an entry marking that exhibit as "compelling" whereas exhibits that occupy just a few seconds might be marked "dull" or "skipped."  Again, the technology today may be unsavory or clunky, but these possibilities are on the horizon and there are some institutions experimenting in this domain.


Want a low-tech alternative?  When the Science Museum of Minnesota launched the exhibition Race: Are We So Different? they knew it would generate conversation.  Paul Martin, VP of exhibits, took several photos of people in the exhibition over its run, and he noted something strange: there was an incredibly high percentage of photos in which someone was pointing at an exhibit label, artifact, or component.  In many cases people were pointing at things that were simple in design and form--quotes, statistics, facts and figures.  But the content was so remarkable that visitors felt the need to just to consume it but to point it out to others.  As Paul commented, "you don't point at things when you're alone."  Pointing is an incredibly low-tech version of the favoriting system.  When you point at something, you are effectively suggesting to the people around you, "look at that."  Visitors see things that intrigue them, point at them, and other visitor look.  The Race exhibit served as a facilitation of potential dialogue based on a very simple finger-based exchange. 


Pointing is a social behavior that works best in physically proximate, real-time situations.  Past incidences of pointing in Race or any exhibit are not saved and networked for future use; you can't look at the exhibit label and see that "57 people pointed at this in the last week."  Nor would that information necessarily be compelling to most visitors.  The thing that makes pointing compelling is the fact that it is an interpersonal interaction.  If you are a stranger, and you point something out to me, you are taking a risk.  You are effectively saying, "this thing I am pointing at is so important, so cool or special or surprising, that despite the fact that I know next to nothing about you, I think you should see it."  It makes the pointee feel special to be singled out (even if only selected for physical proximity to the pointer), and both people enjoy the intimacy of a shared experience.  This intimacy and specialness is lost if you move to a more generalized "57 people pointed at this" networked system.  That statement has very little meaning to most people because it is entirely decontextualized.  What do I care what 57 random visitors thought?  I only care what a stranger points at if they are pointing it out to me.


Of course, the riskiness of the exchange also makes stranger-to-stranger pointing quite rare.  You are more likely to point something out to a friend or companion.   The better you know someone, the more you can tailor the things you point out to them in a variety of settings.  When talking about the social network of people whose profiles are known to us, we are able to meaningfully abstract the pointing experience.  That's where it becomes useful to send certain tidbits of information to particular people, or groups of people.  The news I want to share with my rock-climbing friends is different from that I want to share with my museum friends.  When I'm with them, I point out different things.


Online, people have been pushing the boundaries of both the personal and urgent nature of the pointing experience. I comfortably "point things out" to different people remotely by clipping articles, sending links, and flagging online content. I also point things out to a mass audience when I post ideas to Twitter or Facebook. While these situations appear to erode the personal, urgent requirements discussed above, the most effectively "pointed" content online is still personal and urgent. You are more likely to look at a link I send directly to you, or to a small group of people with a shared affinity including you, than one I send out to my entire network. From the urgency perspective, on Twitter (which is a kind of virtual museum we are all slowly walking through), you only have a few minutes from the time that you post something for it to be noticed before your comment is lost in the sea of others. The more the agency to act on a shared link is placed on the pointee rather than the pointer, the less likely he or she is to follow through. When you make a direct, personal, immediate appeal, you can get anyone--even a stranger's--attention.


The "pointiness" of an exhibit is a metric that reflects the extent to which the content motivates visitors to share things with strangers and friends alike.  What affects how likely a visitor is to point things out in an exhibit?  The content certainly matters (and we'll discuss that in the next chapter on social objects) but so does the extent to which visitors feel that they are pointing things out to friends or associates rather than strangers.  The better individuals can express their unique interests and orientations, the more easily they can form affinity networks with other visitors, and the more likely they are to perceive those people as less strange.  this exploration boils down to two design questions:

  1. How do we let people personalize their identity in the museum such that they feel less like strangers and more like potential associates? 
  2. How do we design spaces that support sharing and intimacy among associated visitors?


These questions take us away from the design of nonsensical "pointing data networks" and towards something more essential: supporting interpersonal connections.  If we think about network effects not in terms of data collection but in terms of a useful outcome for visitors and institutions, we can design platforms that reflect our participatory values.  For some institutions or exhibits, promoting dialogue may be a value, in which case the "pointiness" of an exhibit is a useful goal to work into the design process.  In other cases, other values, like creativity, authentic sharing, group collaboration, or reflection on others' experiences might be primary, in which case different platforms (and related metrics and mechanisms) would be more appropriate.



Activity: Metaphorical Metric Design

Write down some of your evaluation goals for your next participatory project.  Pick a goal which you have not yet figured out how to measure.  Find an object that is loosely evocative of the design goal. If the goal is around listening to others, you might use a tin can. If the concept is around social connections, you might give out string. Assign an evocative verb to the object (i.e. “the listener,” or “the connector”) and then tell the team to go use the object in the museum.  Look for the patterns of use, where the tool works, what it does, and how it might be tracked.  Change contexts by taking the object to the gift shop, the restaurant, the parking lots, and out on the street to explore the ways that usage of the object integrates into the visitors’ experience beyond the museum galleries. The more time you spend ‘using’ your evocative object in a variety of real environments, the more creative observations you will make about its value and limitations.  (This exercise is based on the Place Storming technique.)



Platforms and Values


We rarely think about the ways that the networked presentation of visitor-generated content reflects the values of an institution or a particular exhibit.  When visitors are asked to add a comment to an exhibit, whether via video, audio, artistic expression, or written comment, the display of that content is fairly straightforward.  Museums tend to use two types of platforms: those that value recency and those that value quality (or a mixture of both).  The platforms that value recency make the newest visitor comments or videos most available, and previous comments either archived or accessible on secondary layers.  The platforms that value quality use some system (almost always staff-based) to select featured content to make most accessible to visitors.  


The recency approach reflects a value on visitor creation.  If you show the most recent content to visitors, that effectively says, "if you make a video or a comment at this station, it will be available for everyone to see, right now."  This incentivizes comment-creation among the visitors for whom momentary fame (or fame in the eyes of their companions) is appealing.  However, recency is deficient as a model on its own because it makes no claim for the relative value of the comments made.  If I walk into a comment space after a group of teenage boys has been inside, I may see a lot of silly contributions and be turned off by the experience.  Worse, my exposure only to the most recent contributions may distort my understanding of the intent of the exhibit or the potential for how I might use it.  Recency drowns out the gems.


The featured approach reflects a value on comment quality.  This solves the problem of displaying poor submissions, but it introduces its own challenges.  Strangely, most museums are reluctant to allow visitors to rate the quality of others' contributions and use an entirely staff-based model for moderation and selection of featured content.  This often leads to museums with stacks of visitor contributions languishing for weeks until the beleagured staff member in charge can sort through them and select the best for display.  In this case, the featured content loses the ability to be responsive to contemporary issues.  Featured content may also disincentivize sharing by setting a standard that is too high for the average visitor to feel she can approximate.  In many story-sharing platforms, museums solicit experts or celebrities to create the featured content (often using production techniques that are higher quality than those available to visitors), in which case there is a serious disconnect between the featured content and the sense of what a visitors might be able to create.  Featured content promotes quality, but it can also promote the kind of elitist black box approach that many museums are trying to avoid.


There are successful ways to blend recency and featured content in ways that can offer spectating visitors dynamic and interesting content to consume.  One of the obvious ways to do this is to invite visitors themselves to rate and sort the content.  As noted in the first chapter, there are many more people who enjoy spectating and critiquing content than there are those who enjoy creating it.  If visitors can sort and rate visitor-generated content, it takes the load off of staff (who rarely have the time to do it).  It also provides "critical" visitors with an activity that makes useful outputs out of their frustration at poor contributions and delight at quality ones.  This activity is not only about expressing likes and dislikes; it's a useful cognitive activity that promotes learning how to make judgments and connections among content sources.  There are many historians, curators, and scientists who spend more time evaluating and analyzing content than generating it.  Why not promote a participatory activity that reflects these important learning skills?


By networking the preferences of visitors over time, a visitor-generated exhibit could dynamically provide higher-quality, more dynamic offerings to spectators.  But with this potential comes a justifiable worry that visitors will just select the funniest items, or the ones made by their friends, or will generally use criteria that is not in line with museum values.  For this reason, it's essential for museums to think bigger than just recency and featured content.  There are many other values upon which we can design platforms for content-sharing.


Consider the example of a video kiosk in a history museum intended to invite you to "share your story" related to a historic event on display.  A platform that values "diverse sharing" might be designed with kiosks that use different questions and theming to solicit at different perspectives on an experience.  Critics might be asked not to pick their favorite videos or to rate them but to sort them into different perspective categories.  At another station, critics might be able to then select favorites within each category.  In this scenario, spectators would not just see "the best" videos overall, but the best videos reflecting a diversity of perspectives.


Now imagine the same exhibit with a different platform that values "reflective discourse." This exhibit might use heavier consistent theming across the video creation stations.  Visitors might be prompted to select another visitor's video as a starting point and make a response video rather than an original statement.  For critics, commenting rather than rating or sorting would be participatory activity.  Videos might be featured not based on the diversity of perspectives represented, but on the chain of response videos generated.  In this scenario, spectators would see long multi-vocal dialogues played out across videos and text comments.


Two platforms, two implementations, two different goals and desired visitor experiences.  Let's leave the world of the theoretical video kiosk and take a look at two real platforms--ScratchR and Signtific--that are successfully designed to reflect distinct values in their networked experiences. 




Well-designed networks can support whatever values are most important to your institution.  On the web, we are bombarded by networks that focus on popularity and proximity--what everyone likes, and what we might like.  For example, YouTube's network is tuned to promote its value as a source of entertainment, and thus, to encourage you to spend more time using it.  YouTube displays the total views and ratings for each video and uses those metrics to determine what content to recommend to you, even if your personal interests are not likely to be correlated with what millions of people watched or liked.


But consider another website that looks very similar to YouTube on the surface, ScratchR.  ScratchR is an online community associated with the program Scratch, a graphical programming language designed by the Lifelong Kindergarten group at the MIT Media Lab. Scratch was designed to invite non-programmers (mostly kids) to design their own interactive stories and games.  Scratch is versatile; Scratch's lead creator, Mitchel Resnick, likes to say that Scratch has a "low floor, high ceiling, and wide walls." That means that it's easy to start using it, you can use it to varied levels of sophistication, and you can use it for a diversity of purposes. Some people make games where you catch fireflies. Others make shows where hamsters sing and dance.  It is a very versatile tool.


In May 2007, the Scratch online community (called ScratchR) was released. It's a place for Scratch users to upload, share, and remix their Scratch projects. ScratchR is a true social network, connecting hundreds of thousands of people--kids and adults--in about 200 countries around the world.  It's incredibly successful, with a highly active and engaged user base who regularly share their Scratch projects, help each other with programming challenges, and celebrate their love of Scratch.


What makes ScratchR unique among social networks associated with user-generated content is the highly intentional way that the platform was designed to prioritize certain values.  The core values that the Scratch team want to promote are creativity (making Scratch projects) and sharing (uploading Scratch projects for others to see).  ScratchR provides an innovative feature, called Remixing, in which a registered user can download the programming code for any project on the site, alter it, and reupload it as a "remixed" version.  It's comparable to the tools that allow you to re-blog items of interest, but unlike situations where you make a video in response to another on YouTube, ScratchR actually allows you to download the original project, add to or alter the programming, and then upload the result as a remix (with credit to the original creator). This is a huge value-added for engaged Scratch users to join the community--they gain access to the code to every project on the site, and are encouraged to share what they've made with it.  The Remix feature isn't about bragging rights--it's about encouraging people to make more Scratch programs based on the experience of other users.


The homepage of ScratchR reflects the team's values in another way.  Every Scratch project on the site has a tally for number of views, number of "loves," and number of downloads, but you won't see those numbers show up on the homepage.  Instead, the homepage focuses on featured Scratch programs, multi-user projects, and recency.  When you look at the homepage for ScratchR (as of August 2009), you'll notice that there are six starting points for checking out projects of interest. These are (in order):

  1. Newest Projects (only shown if you are logged in, due to risks of displaying unvetted content)
  2. Featured Projects
  3. Community-Curated Projects
  4. Projects from the Scratch Design Studio
  5. Top Remixed Lately
  6. Top Loved Lately
  7. Top Viewed Lately


It's worth noting that on a standard browser window, you can only see 1 & 2 before you have to scroll down the page. So order really matters here--and when we look at the order, we see the priorities that ScratchR supports:


  1. Newest Projects supports creating Scratch programs--if you make and upload something, no matter the topic or quality, you can be at the top of the homepage (for a short time). 
  2. Featured Projects supports creating Scratch programs that the staff team considers to be of high quality and diversity.
  3. Community-Curated Projects supports the ability of Scratch community members to be leading taste-makers and voices in the community.
  4. Projects from the Scratch Design Studio supports the active collaboration of users on projects that are designed by staff to explore particular techniques and content.
  5. Top Remixed Lately supports creators building on each others' work.
  6. Top Loved Lately supports the recency of users' preferences (and encourages you to "love" other projects).
  7. Top Viewed Lately supports the recency of users' activities (and encourages you to explore the site and check out new projects).


Looking at this list, you see that the top three types reflect the values of the ScratchR designers--creativity, sharing, collaboration. The last three reflect the interests of the users--and not in quantity (i.e. most views) but in recency. The ScratchR team intentionally wanted to avoid a massive popularity contest, so they promote activity on the site, not aggregate growth of views, loves, or downloads.


There are also ways from the homepage, without scrolling down, to download Scratch (of course!), join a gallery, and participate in a "design studio" (a ScratchR team-led gallery). Again, the ScratchR team is promoting use of Scratch and community-building around the programming environment.


Does it work?  30% of ScratchR's registered users upload a project.  This is much higher than the statistics for YouTube or Flickr (both with creator rates of less than 1%) and is particularly remarkable considering that it is much harder to learn how to program in Scratch than it is to take a photo or video.  Scratch's core user base is 9-18 years old, and young people are more likely to act as creators in participatory environments than older adults, but this is still a very high rate compared to comparable platforms in which users create multi-media content.  So the ScratchR design does a good job supporting creativity. 


What about supporting a friendly, equitable community in which users remix each others' work and help each other out?  One of the most interesting things about ScratchR is the small range of views for each project. A featured project may have 200 views, and a very popular project may have as many as 1000 views, but most projects have somewhere in the 10s of views. On most user-generated content sites, the vast majority of content is barely viewed. But this is often obscured by design that focuses attention on the top viewed-content. On YouTube, the disparity between the top and the bottom has created famous users, and may make some newbies feel like they can never succeed.  ScratchR doesn't have celebrities and nobodies in the same way.  ScratchR's intentional avoidance of popularity as a metric of success may foster more participation in small community groups and support networks that offer feedback, comments, and remixes, if not huge view counts.


ScratchR provides the functionality for user-led "galleries," which are small affinity groups of Scratch users who work together on projects featuring everything from "cats doing stuff,"  to "biological role playing games."  These groups range from informal associations to clubs to small business working together.  The ScratchR platform isn't optimized to make users famous; instead, it focuses on helping them find small supportive communities of like-minded creators.


One of the problems that has emerged over time is rivalry among Scratch user-groups and concern about splintering in the overall Scratch user community.  As Andres Monroy-Hernandez, ScratchR's lead web developer, told me in Aug 2009: 

"There is been a split between the animators and the game creator where the game creators complain of the fact that the fornt page is "taken over" by "simple and stupid" projects that are "just art" and no programming. Of course we are delighted to have artists get engaged with Scratch but at the same time we don't want to aleniate the game creators. Seems to me that Scratch is not the only community where two or more factions fight for the control of the front page and the best solutions I've seen come from sites like reddit.com where they have been able to create sub-communities interested in specific things giving less importance to the front page. However, I worry that doing something like this would divide the community and reduce the chances for collaboration and mutual learning between the two groups."




There are also people who try to game the system, or translate an unhealthy interest in popularity to an unhealthy interest in something more valued by ScratchR, like "loves." There are many projects with comments from their creators like "I know this sux but if I get 10 loves I will make another one." But again, because it's not about popularity, some of the gaming can have really positive effects. If someone decides only to make remixes because that's more likely to land them on the homepage, they've made a choice to constructively build on the work of others. And that feeds into the Scratch team's values, because those values are baked into the platform's design.  Mitch Resnick, the project lead, sees Scratch as part of an ambition to "sow the seeds of a more creative society."  The ScratchR platform reflects that goal.




Like ScratchR, Signtific is also a digital project that lives on the Web.  But where the ScratchR platform focuses on promoting creative supportive communities, Signtific focuses on promoting dialogic discourse about wild ideas.  Signtific is a project of the Institute for the Future, a Palo Alto-based think tank that focuses on corporate-facing futurecasting.  Signtific is a mass collaborative game in which users are invited to contribute to thought experiments about the future of science.  It was developed as an experimenta; platform for crowdsourced future-casting, and has been played both by the public and by audiences at several technology conferences. 


Signtific is a card-based game in which players play cards that represent different kinds of arguments in response to each other.  It starts with a "what if" question--an instigating, provocative yet possible future scenario.  In the first version of the game, the question was: "What will you do when space is as cheap and accessible as the Web is today?" In other words, what if anyone could launch a satellite into space for $100?


Players are invited to play one of two kinds of cards based on the scenario: "positive imagination" cards or "dark imagination" cards. A card includes 140 characters of text either envisioning a positive or negative outcome of the suppositional scenario. 


Other players can follow up on the positive and negative imaginations with four different kinds of response cards: momentum, antagonism, adaptation, or investigation.  Play a momentum card to add additional ideas, an antagonism card to raise disagreements, an adaptation card to suggest other potential manifestations of the same idea, or an investigation card to ask a question.  These response cards can be played successively, generating expanding trees of debate and discourse.  The result is a network diagram of cards, a threaded dialogue that takes place across many nodes. Players are rewarded with points for playing their own cards as well as for motivating other players to contribute response cards.  Start a great discussion among many people, and you will earn more points than if you keep talking.  The organizers also curate some of the most interesting cards and offer rewards for "outlier" ideas that are improbable but fascinating.


Signtific provides a very deliberate framework that prioritizes collaborative thinking and dialogue. The cards are kept short, which allows users to scan many ideas quickly and focus on responding rather than generating long personal manifestos.  It's easy to generate 140 characters, which lowers the barrier to play and also kep users from over-focusing on how well-written their contributions are.  The types of cards represent very specific forms of dialogue.  On each player's personal profile, the number of each type of cards is tracked.  The game encourages you to play more cards in the areas where you are weak, thus encouraging users to experiment with different types of argumentation.  And the scoring rewards people for two unusual actions: motivating other people to play, and suggesting ideas that are highly abberant.  The first of these supports the value of collaboration; the second, the value of coming up with wild ideas when future-casting.


If Signtific just posed the instigating scenario and allowed open response, it would not be as good. If they just had positive and dark cards, it would not be as good. Signtific is not an open mushy conversation about the future. It's a structured platform of specific interactions guided by clear values of collaborative discourse and imagining multiple outcomes for a potential scenario.  It is a well-designed platform embued with the Institute for the Future's value on "helping people make better, more informed decisions about the future".


Whether you want to inspire visitors to create original content, engage in dialogue with each other, or work together in community, you can design a platform to reflect your goals.  ScratchR and Signtific are both examples of deliberate, thoughtful platforms that reflect their parent institutions' values.  All it takes to make this happen is a clear definition of values, and a commitment to good design.





Activity: Your Platform, Your Values

What are the values you wish to express through your next participatory project?  Write down these values, and for each of them, list the ways that that value could be positively expressed (i.e. enhanced) and negatively expressed (i.e. diminished) via design.  For example, if one of your values is around constructive feedback, that value could be positively expressed by putting comments front and center in the spectator experience and designing commenting systems that only allow comments structured in specific ways.  The value of supportive listening could be diminished by systems that allow visitors to make harsh comments about each others' work or to skip around the content quickly without paying full attention to the story at hand.





Platforms and Power


The vision of museum programs and exhibits that connect visitors to each other has political underpinnings.  If exhibits and docents no longer deliver content (exclusively) but also serve as platforms connecting one visitors' experience to anothers', the institutions' role as the content authority diminishes.  It's not a coincidence that Paulo Friere talked about networked education in his provocative manifesto, Pedagogy of the Oppressed.  In this 1968 book, Friere suggested an educational model based on a person-to-person network in which each individual would list his skills in a kind of phonebook.  The phonebook would serve as the "available curriculum," and people could call each other and solicit instruction from each other on everything from auto mechanics to poetry.  Friere argued that this kind of citizen-powered education would be much more powerful and valuable to communities than schools.  Friere perceived schools as oppressive systems promoting non-reciprocal relationships between teachers and students and sought alternatives that would engage equitable communities of learners.


What Friere didn't discuss was the politics of designing his hypothetical phone book.  As we've seen in the above examples, there are significant value judgments inherent in the design of platforms that connect users and their contributions with each other.  How would you design Friere's learning phone book?  Would you organize it by skill offered, location of the instructor, or the name of the person offering it?  Would you include information about each person's relevant experience and credentials?  Would you encourage learners to rate their learning experiences and use those ratings to reorder the list?  Would you introduce a feedback loop to help people find the most popular teachers, or would you design the platform to distribute learning experiences as equitably as possible across participants?  


Platform designers have incredible power over the user experience, but it's a different kind of power than that wielded by content designers and owners.  To be successful leaders in a socially networked world, museums must feel comfortable transitioning from controlling content to managing platforms.  One of the primary fears museum professionals (and all professionals) have about entering new relationships with audiences is the fear of losing control. For hundreds of years, museums have owned the content and the message.  While exhibit designers may acknowledge the fact that visitors create their own versions of the message around subsets of the content, they haven't traditionally empowered visitors to redistribute their own substandard, non-authoritative messages.


In most museums, the professional expertise of the staff--to preserve objects, to design exhibits, to deliver programs--is not based on content control. It's based on creation and delivery of experiences. And in a world where visitors want to create, remix, and interpret content messages on their own, museums can assume a new role of authority as "platforms" for those creations and recombinations.  The problem arises when expertise creates a feeling of entitlement to control the entire visitor experience. Power is attractive. Being in control is pleasant. It lets you be the only expert with a voice. But if our expertise is real, then we don't need to rule content messages with an iron fist. We can manage the phone book instead of oppressing the classroom. 


Developing museum platforms that allow us to harness, prioritize, and present a diversity of voices around content does not mean we are giving all the power to visitors. We will grant them a few specific, designed opportunities--to create their own messages, to prioritize the messages that resonate best for them personally--in the context of a larger overall platform. The platform is what's important. It's a framework that museums can (and should) control, and there's power in platform management.


There are four main powers that platform managers have:

  1. the power to define the types of interaction available to users
  2. the power to set the rules of behavior
  3. the power to preserve and exploit user-generated content
  4. the power to promote and feature preferred content


These powers constitute a set of controls which constitutes a real and valuable authority. Let's take a look at each one and how it might be applied in museums.


1. The power to define available interactions.

This power is so basic that it is often overlooked. On YouTube, you can share videos. In Free2Choose, you can vote on questions of personal freedoms.  On ScratchR, you can share Scratch programs.  In the Living Library, you can have one-on-one conversations.  On Signtific, you can talk about the future of science.  Every platform has a limited feature set and focuses on one or two basic actions that users can take. Museums don't need to offer every kind of interaction under the sun--you just have to pick the few interactions that most support the kind of behavior and content creation that you value. There's a lot of power in the specific decisions about whether visitors will be allowed to contact each other directly, rate artifacts, or make their own exhibits. As long as you create a platform that is consistent in its values and the interactions provided, you will be able to control the experience as you open up content authority.


2. The power to set the rules of behavior.

User-generated content sites control user and community behavior, both implicitly through the tools that are and aren't offered, and explicitly through community management.  Every Web 2.0 site has rules about acceptable content and ways that users can engage with each other, and those rules have serious implications about the overall tone of interaction on the site.  Consider the difference between the type of comments found on YouTube and those on Flickr.  On YouTube, the comments are often so poor and inconsistent that there are programming scripts you can download to your computer to remove comments with excessive profanity, terrible spelling, overuse of punctuation and capitalization.  The Brooklyn Museum, which has won awards for their open, transparent engagement with online communities, was forced to moderate comments on YouTube during tehir Blacklist Project exhibition, in which visitors were able to make videos in teh museum taht were directly uploaded to YouTube.  As Shelley Bernstein, the museum's director of technology, put it:

"I was surprised by how many members of the community were sharing racist statements at YouTube (we have never had this problem on other platforms). *wow* can only describe some of the comments that were deleted because they were in such clear violation our comment guidelines.  Only one video was deleted due to a violation in guidelines, but the opposite was true on YouTube, where in my entire career, I have never deleted more comments or blocked so many users. We have a very high threshold, so just know this problem was significant.  There was something about the subject matter of the show, what we were asking and how people were responding, combined with this particular on-line community that generated a lot of issues in this arena.  Now that the show has closed, we will go in and turn off comments on every video and that’s a first for us."


Meanwhile, on Flickr, comments tend to be focused on the image at hand and are generally supportive. The environment feels different than that of YouTube, and that is partly due to the highly active community management team, which employs highly subjective (read: powerful) criteria to enforce Flickr community guidelines. The differences between the tone of conversation on YouTube Flickr is partly due to the different user demographics, but it is largely dictated by what the platform designates as appropriate and inappropriate behavior.


Differences in community guidelines and rules often influence the makeup of users who feel welcome and choose to engage.  When it comes to museums, comparable rules can guarantee that the museum remains a safe, welcoming place for visitors of all kinds. There are some "rules" already in place--like the rule that you have to pay to enter--that may have great effect on the types of users who engage in museums and the behavior they display within. Museums should consider, as Web 2.0 community managers do, what behaviors and visitors they want to support and which rules will make those people feel most at home in the institution.


3. The power to use and exploit user-generated content.

Platforms also have the power to set rules related to preservation and ownership of the content on them--often with quite strict intellectual property statutes that favor the platform over users. Every time you post a photo on Flickr, you give its owner, Yahoo!, the right to use that photo however they see fit. The same is true on YouTube, and on sites like Facebook, which are "walled gardens," you can't even easily export your user-generated content (friends, events, updates) outside of Facebook itself.


Again, these rules reflect platform control, and when the control is too heavy-handed, users get annoyed and stay away. Museums will always need to retain some powers to manage the preservation of objects, to wield IP controls properly, and to manage the digital reproduction and dissemination of content. There are many models as well for what we do with user-generated content in the museum. The Smithsonian American Art Museum's Ghosts of a Chance game accessioned player-generated objects into a temporary part of their collection database, with clear rules about what happened to the objects at the end of the game (they became the responsibility of the game designers, a sub-contractor to the museum).  The Metropolitan Museum has used visitor-generated photos from Flickr in their advertising campaigns, following explicit rules about the ways that visitors are credited for their work.  The Chicago Children's Museum uses visitor-generated multimedia stories in their Skyline exhibit as the basis for research on cognitive development.  The Powerhouse Museum and the Brooklyn Museum have both created on-demand print books of content generated by visitors for community exhibits and online projects.  At the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, Gail Durbin has discussed using content created in museums as the basis for customized on-demand retail items, like personalized calendars showing images of your favorite exhibits, or one-off books of images captured at a fabric-making workshop.  In the same way that Web 2.0 sites display a range of respect for user-retained intellectual property, museums can navigate and create their own rules--and related powers--for content developed by visitors on site.


4. The power to promote and feature preferred content.

One of the greatest powers retained by these platforms is the power to feature content that reflects the values of the platform.  The discussion of ScratchR above demonstrates the power inherent in design decisions about what to offer users on the homepage.  Just as the question of which stories to feature and bury in a newspaper is a question of power, so too is the question of how to feature content in social networks.  Remember the questions about how to design Friere's phonebook; many come down to the question of how content will be selected for promotion.  These values may skew towards promoting content with the most popularity/views, the newest content, or content that is unique in some way. The choice of what to display on the front page is not just about design. There have been huge user-protests of both YouTube and Digg for perceived bias in the "featured content" algorithms that vault some content to the top. And while some sites strive for transparency, most find ways to feature the kind of content and behavior that they want to see modeled for other users.


There was a fascinating example of the power of platform design in the successive redesigns of Facebook from mid-2008 to mid-2009.  Over this time, Facebook evolved from focusing on personal profiles shared with small groups of known individuals to focusing on publishing lifestream-style feeds of status updates and short-format content for mass audiences.  The Facebook user experience significantly changed, and the behavior of users evolved to match the new design.  Whereas previously Facebook, like MySpace, was a place to maintain your profile and connect to a web of friends and acquaintances, by spring of 2009 it had become a personally-relevant content stream, a dynamic newspaper created just for you.   


This may be the most important platform power when it comes to museums because it is the one that allows the platform to present its values and model preferred behavior. And many museums are far from assuming this power. When museums do assume this power, it is often in a zero-transparency way that doesn't model behavior for users. When I spoke with Kate Roberts about MN150, the Minnesota History Center exhibition based on visitor-generated nominations, she explained that after the nomination period was over, they entirely shut down visitor engagement in the selection process. It just felt too messy to do anything but lock the staff in a room and sort through the nominations. When the exhibition opened a year later, visitors could see which nominations were valued and featured, but they couldn't get this information in an early feedback loop that would have allowed them to improve their nominations during the submission process.


There are real opportunities here for museums to retain authority related to values, experiences, and community behavior. The power of the platform may not let you dictate every message that floats through your doors. But with good, thoughtful design, it can ensure that those messages enhance the overall museum experience.  When you are able to network individual visitors' experiences in ways that are both useful and beautiful, you will be able to motivate new experiences and relationships that are exciting and valuable for the institution and users alike.


Final Activity: TBD




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