Thursday, November 30, 2006

Good Sharing v. Bad Sharing

There have now been a couple comments on this blog to the effect of: "Visitors already create content in museums through their thoughts and social interactions." One person commented that the more interesting question is not how we build a platform for visitor content creation but how we facilitate sharing of that content.

Great point. Smart point. Instead of jumping to developing new content platforms to enable a particular kind of visitor creation, let's try to exploit (in the best possible way) the content created in response to the stuff we already have. And so, informed by my experiences as a kindegardener, I humbly submit a couple good (and bad) points on sharing.

Good sharing point 1: Encourage social interactions.

The most immediate place to start sharing is with the people with whom you came to the museum. So give them access to do or view together so they start talking about it. Then go one better and give them exhibits that give better experiences the more people use them so that they pull strangers into the act.

Give people tools to interact socially while in the museum. This can be low tech (talking) to high tech (mobile devices). Create portals and applications such that people can communicate and share when they are neither temporally nor spatially co-located.

Bad sharing point #1: Don't put up unnecessary walls between strangers.

The Tate Modern has a great web application where you can create your own collection of six pieces of art around a theme, with your own labels. Sadly, however, you can only choose to keep the collection or email it to friends. There's no option to add it to their web catalog of such collections, which is currently limited to 5 collections created by their curators. Maybe this is a copyright issue, but I don't think you can call a guest a "curator" just because you allow them to arrange 6 images for themselves. If you don't want to put it out on the web for anyone to see, create a membership base of users who are creators and or viewers. deviantART does an awesome job of this, allowing people to "skin" websites with art/graffiti which is then accessible to members.

Good sharing point #2: Share with others who don't have access.

Later this week, I'll be interviewing Jerry Paffendorf, co-inventor of Destroy TV. Destroy TV is, among other things, an application that allows people who have the web but can't access Second Life (a 3D virtual world application), to operate a live camera in Second Life and chat with avatars in the world. There are many cool things about DTV, but on a basic level it's a great way to share Second Life, and what's going on there, with other people--not just as passive viewers but as active participants. We're going to talk about ways to bring the same thinking to museums...

Bad sharing point #2: Don't expect a free-for-all to work out. Sharing requires special structure.

This post started with the idea that you could have strong sharing around already-produced content. While that's true, the best sharing requires some thought as to the structure of that sharing. Sometimes, something as simple as a map can serve as an organizational (and inspirational) structure for people to share personal stories. Or, you can get much more complex and create interfaces for give and take. How about exhibit challenges where one person posts content that a non-simultaneous partner has to complete/judge/operate on? Am I Hot or Not for exhibit content? Post Secret in museums? Sending mail to strangers in museums? I'm ready for a resurgence of the chain penpals...

Monday, November 20, 2006

Why I (heart) Installation Art

Image courtesy of Luke Tan

What you are looking at is a raining tree in front of the Asian Civilisations Museum, created by Dutch-born artist Iepe B. T. Rubingh in conjunction with the first annual Singapore Biennale. Sporadically, bursts of misty rain come down magically from the tree; in fact, Iepe has stated that he uncovered the tree's supernatural powers after talking to it for three weeks.

This tree/sprite/installation is a perfect example of what is, in my mind, the optimal tension between awesome content creation and visitor involvement. This is an installation that causes people to stop, drop, and nudge total strangers to encourage them to get in on the act. It is so extraordinary and unusual that the social barrier that prevents us from whooping aloud breaks down.

I'm a content snob. I want museums to give me, the visitor, the most beautiful, awesome experiences possible. And when those experiences are unusual enough, I feel compelled to share it with strangers because it's just THAT good. I become an evangelist for that experience--which is a golden egg for the marketing and development folks.

This is the way that I can justify my interest (in a 2.0 sense) in content that is not explicitly geared towards social involvment. There are places like the Museum of Jurassic Technology that seem antithetical to visitor involvement--spooky, hard to navigate--and yet the high and wonderful weird factor of the place invites reaction and discussion. These are artists and exhibit developers who are comfortable taking a risk to put something challenging and provocative out there--and when that thing is something as delightful as a raining tree or as bizarre as "failed" dice--people rise to the challenge and respond.

A lot of 2.0 ideas are about creating a vanilla, flexible platform so the users can make it their own. But this is another option--to create experiences that are so immersive and wowing that people can't help but respond. I think one of the challenges in museums is that we want it both ways--experiences that are inviting, but not too inviting; provocative, but not too provocative. The shared value of user platforms and challenging installations is respect for the visitor/user. The common museum compromise belies a lack of respect on our part that visitors can handle wild experiences... or create them on their own.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Collaborative Storytelling and Open Source Interviews

Here's what I love about the internet.

I was planning to write a post today about the use of story in museums. A lot of museums--and web, radio, etc--are pursuing projects in which visitors share their personal stories around a topic, whether that be broad and profound ( or light and specific (map mashup of Overheard in NY). But I'm interested in how we can go from individual stories--which are interesting--to The Story that drives an exhibit.

But back to my love of the internet. I found a paper online by Elisa Giaccardi entitled "Toward an Evolution of Virtual Museums: Collective Storytelling and Social Creativity." It was interesting. I thought my web journey ended there. I had good content, and a link to the outside world. I was ready to write the post.

Or, so I thought. Turns out I could go one better. The internet gave me content, but then, it also gave me connection. I emailed Elisa and asked if I could interview her for the blog. She wrote back a few hours later and said yes. Holy schmoly. What if I could do this in a museum--receive content and then connect with the people who created that content? Yes, some of you are doing this--please, share.

And in the meantime, check out Elisa's new project about collecting natural soundscapes to create a Story about stakeholders in the controversy over public quiet and noise. Looks like she is pursuing one form of the kind of question I set out to explore with regard to storytelling.

But this is about collaboration! And 2.0! So. The interview won't happen for about 2 weeks. In the meantime, please, post your questions that you'd like me to include in our conversation. My greatest interest is in discussing how public content can be more than just raw data--it can frame the focus and the direction of the story/exhibit/experience itself. Granted, I'm also a big content snob and wonder if it's possible that such a thing could be done well. Writing stories by consensus hasn't produced many masterpieces, and writing stories by mass public generation seems dubious. Of course, there are other stories that involve the public and literally get under their skin.

Don't let me rule the interview. Comment and question away!

Thursday, November 09, 2006

What if it's Ugly?

A few weeks ago, a friend shared this video with me about people who intentionally create ugly MySpace pages. Warning: you may find it annoying. And that's part of the point.

The core of Ze Frank's argument is this:
“Ugly when compared to pre-existing notions of taste is a bummer. But ugly as a representation of mass experimentation and learning is pretty damn cool.”

I have a schizophrenic reaction to this argument. One side of me, the pro-2.0 let's all get involved side, cheers. The other side, the poet who's been to WAY too many bad open mics, shudders. Philosophically, I want everyone to feel empowered to raise their creative flag--but I only want to be in the audience for the good stuff.

Would you go to a museum of bad visitor-generated content? Would it be worth it if the process of developing that content brought those visitors to new levels of thinking and engagement? Museums are designed spaces, and I'd venture to answer no--that I wouldn't enjoy or return to a museum that featured random visitor-created crap--even if I appreciated the fact that it was enabling visitors to have a quality learning experience.

Museums will be most successful not if they throw open their doors without oversight, as MySpace has, but if they can evolve into structured venues for participation. I have more experience with this in the poetry world than the museum world. Some poetry venues foster communities of quality poets; others are hotbeds of mediocrity. What's the difference? The same newbies are showing up the first time, clutching a poem scribbled under the covers in hand. The difference is the quality of the venue, the community, and the host.

Imagine a museum as a "venue" rather than a content provider. Museum staff become the "hosts"--the people who BOTH set the rules and inspire participation. A good host leads by example and creates an environment where the community rewards growth and ignores/chastises derivative, derogatory work. A good venue is conducive to participation while setting a high standard.

Is this different from what museums are today? Absolutely. I'm curious to see what programs like Agents of Change at Ontario Science Centre are doing in this regard. But I think most museums are too afraid of the "ugly" that comes with total visitor participation to consider the possible beauty that could be generated in a well-thought-out venue.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

What's My Score? Gaming in Museums

"Putting Fun into Functional"is a really fabulous powerpoint presentation by Amy Jo Kim of shufflebrain, a unique game design company. In this presentation, she details five core "game mechanics" that make games compelling, fun, and addictive, and talks about how they are being applied in successful web applications like MySpace and Netflix.

The five mechanics are: collecting (accumulating monopoly bucks or dragon-slaying swords), points/score, feedback from the system/game, social exchanges (trading stuff, giving and receiving gifts or comments), and customization/personalization. Each one of these amplifies the extent to which the player/user feels connected to the game or experience offered.

There have got to be some great ways to apply these mechanics to museums. Here are some ideas... and a lot of questions.

Collecting: Some museums are using barcodes or RFID to track what exhibits the visitor uses. The visitor can leave with a printout of the activities they did, or come home to a website full of links/images that were "saved" at the museum. Is this a gimmick or does it give visitors a sense of accomplishment? In a game, collecting tools/money "matters" because it allows you to get to the next level or face a tougher challenge. How can you "level up" in a museum? What will collecting more experiences/artifacts "get" you?

Points: In a game, points get you closer to your goal, or, in some games (Pacman, pinball), they make you feel good and give you a secondary goal besides staying alive. Is there any value to getting a score for your museum experience? This may sound gross. But I've enjoyed plenty of museum interactives that take a long time to "reward" me with some kind of aha. Many guests probably walk away before they get there. What if we had a way to communicate how close you are to your goal, a compelling and accessible reason-like points-to stick around?

Feedback: At a basic level, this is what a good interactive provides. Am I doing it right? Am I good? The more flexibly the experience can adapt to its user, the better.

Social Exchanges: This is fascinating and somewhat unexplored in museums. What if instead of emailing something I enjoyed back to myself, I generated an ecard to send to someone else? Perhaps I'd be more compelled because I now have an audience I'm creating FOR, and I'm also bringing a non-visitor into the experience, which is great. Could there be ways in museums to foster social interactions between strangers by incentivizing them in some way?

Customization: Very tricky. The museum is a fixed space--how do you create a highly personalized experience within it?

I'd love to see a museum approach a "standard" content topic and apply game rules rather than exhibit rules to its design. Anyone up for it?

Monday, November 06, 2006

Video Kiosks: Let the Visitors Curate

I'm in a museum. It's the end of the experience. I'm flipping through videos that visitors have made about "freedom." And they're really, really bad. The videos fall into two genres: 1. Person stares at camera, then mumbles an inane, marginally decipherable sentence. Static. Or, 2. Group of people, overflowing with enthusiasm, "express themselves" via shout-outs and walk-ons.

No wonder I end up watching the celebrity clips. The visitor-generated videos are a minefield of disappointment.

How can museums encourage visitors to generate higher quality content? How can they create experiences that are better for me, the visitor who views that content? Ironically, the answer lies in giving visitors more agency, not less. What do I want? Ratings.

When I watch a video that consists entirely of someone looking off into space and then walking offscreen, I want to be able to rate that video terribly, so that no one else will waste their time viewing it. I want the system to automatically receive and integrate each rating, and prioritize highly rated videos in the menus so I see those first.

Some curators say this is going too far. I could give bad ratings to videos that express opinions different from mine. I could give high ratings to my friends. But the bar is so low with these kiosks--there are so many lousy videos--that even a simple "On Topic?" rating would substantially increase the number of interesting videos at the top of the heap without necessarily imposing a value judgment on their content.

And would such value judgments really arise? Would it matter? If curators are not selecting the best of the visitor crop for display--indeed, if no one is curating and weeding the content--why not allow visitors to determine what's "best?" Some may argue that this could lead to tyrannical censorship. But I bet that adding a rating system will increase the number of videos viewed by average visitors (and arguably their levels of engagement), because they will not throw up their arms in disgust after watching a couple, as I often do. And isn't that a better outcome--to have more visitors engaging with each others' content--even if there's some risk implied?

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Good Lord, another blog.

I just returned from the annual ASTC (Association of Science and Technology Centers) conference, where there were LOTS of good conversations and controversy. But the aspect that most excited me were the discussions about active participation in museums. The transition from "visitor" to "user." From curator-generated to user-generated. From closed content to open-source forums.

Yes, these are buzzwords. But the concepts behind them are powerful and useful in the discussion about the future of museums. In some ways, the best thing about the Web is its ability as a platform to rapidly evolve. The Web showed that one way to keep a content delivery platform current is to involve its users as meaningful participants rather than passive recipients of that content. No museum is as flexible or participatory as the Web has become. Should they be? What are the possibilities and challenges in creating "an architecture of participation?"

This blog will explore the ways that museums do and can evolve from 1.0 (static content delivery machines) to 2.0 (dynamic content aggregation and network machines).

If you want to know more about where this 2.0 craze got its start, here's a great (but lengthy) article by Tim O'Reilly entitled "What is Web 2.0?" Or, check out the wikipedia article, which is more readable.