Friday, November 30, 2007

Pick of the Week: WNYC's RadioLab

This week, I was surprised to look at my podcast list on iTunes and see a new episode of RadioLab. Turns out it isn't a true episode, but an excerpt from a talk that the cohosts gave earlier this year on the making of RadioLab. It's a worthwhile 30 minutes of discussion about the use of sound to provide an emotional context for stories--specifically, stories about science. It also has some interesting lessons about collaboration in design; there's a lot of acknowledgment and discussion about the positives and negatives of bringing new technologies (digital audio manipulation) into a classic venue (radio).

For those who haven't heard of it, RadioLab is a newish (since 2005) NPR show that comes out of WNYC, and it is hands-down my favorite NPR show. It's This American Life meets Science Friday with a whole slew of strange audio tweaks thrown in. I realized, after listening to the "making of" piece, that one of the things I love most about it is its ability to merge the tried and true with the cutting edge. RadioLab is a superlative model of how we can think of new ideas and new technology as an "and" instead of an "instead".

Here are some other things to love about RadioLab:
  • The two hosts, Robert Krulwich (seasoned science journalist) and Jad Abumrad (young techy) are a wonderful team. Sure, they're each good on their own, but the magic happens in their exchanges. They have arguments about consciousness without sounding pretentious. They each do interviews with outsiders separately, and then they set up those interviews on air by "explaining" them to each other. They ask each other the dumb questions a listener wonders. They complete each other's sentences and make talking about science seem like a reasonable and fascinating thing to do at the dinner table. They make radio a discussion, not a tutorial. And that makes it feel much more participatory.
  • They also are an instructive model of the fusion of the old and the new, a gentle voiceprint of a world where new and traditional technologies come together without posturing or fear. Jad is the newcomer, Robert the established one, and those roles are openly acknowledged. They discuss, on air, their feelings about how stories should be represented, discussed, and spiced up. They are a pair of designers working it out.
  • They take big complex ideas, like emergence, and examine them in concrete and fantastical ways. Heck, they take simple ideas, like zoos, and do the same thing.
  • They are storytellers, not fact sharers. I feel strongly about this. So many people only report on science, as if science were too objective to have emotional content worth exposing. They use tried-and-true radio formats like interviews and profiles, and then sequence in unusual audio effects to create an emotional landscape to the stories.
Listen to the piece, listen to the show. Enjoy.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Looking for Your Input: What Might Bring You to Second Life?

Dear Museum 2.0ers,

As many of you know, I'm now working for The Tech Museum of Innovation on a new project in which exhibit designers, fabricators, curators, and visitors from all over the world can hook up to develop exhibit concepts and virtual prototypes in Second Life. We're launching very soon (mid-Dec), and I hope you'll all be a part of it.

But that's not what this post is about. I appreciate that Second Life is complex, frustrating, and has a very steep learning curve (but it makes great snapshots :)). Toward that end, I'm developing a set of classes and programs to welcome collaborators into Second Life and work with you from the perspective of museum/design work. I'd like to know...
  • What's the biggest barrier keeping you from getting into Second Life?
  • What might entice you to enter?
  • Would you be interested in single events (i.e. a one-hour how to build session) or a multi-session program?
  • Would you want events scheduled during the workday or after? On your time or on a fixed schedule?
  • What kind of support would be most useful to you? Documents, people, videos?
In particular, I'm imagining creating a multi-session program that would take you from a first time experience in Second Life to a place where you would feel reasonably comfortable building, prototyping, and working with others in that environment. I do believe there's a professional development incentive here (especially if you can be "in class" with other awesome museum folk), but I also understand that everyone is busy and the desire to learn has to be balanced against the need to finish tasks.

My plan is to offer a smattering of classes and times in December, and then start more formal programs in January. So let me know what you think, and I'll integrate it into the planning! And if you want to be a test bunny for any of this, please get in touch.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Cross-Platform Experiences: Searching for Symbiosis

I had a surprisingly good label-reading experience at the de Young museum recently. I was looking at a large sculpture in the Africa section. I glanced at the sculpture, then looked to the label. The first sentence said, "This figure, which has two bodies and seven heads..." and I looked back up to confirm. "A bird on the top of the head," and again, I looked up. I was having one of those rare experiences where literally every sentence of the label sent me back to the object, to examine and explore further.

I bring up this story as a window into the field of cross-platform experience design. As the name suggests, cross-platform experiences provide a variety of playing fields for engagement.

At the simplest level, cross-platform can mean a single action in one environment inducing action in another. For example, some TV shows like American Idol allow you to vote on the performers (and thus affect the "game") via a dial-in phone number or text message. A computer kiosk in a museum might allow you to send a link home to yourself related to a physical exhibit experienced at the museum.

The intent is for these cross-platform experiences to engage you more persistently and completely with the content; the TV show is not only occupying your viewing experience with your television, but also engaging your communication experience via the phone. Instead of associating content, for example, museum exhibition content, with one location (the museum) alone, you take the content with you and engage with it in other parts of your life.

Most cross-platform experimentation, however, is too simple and infrequent to truly generate pervasive engagement. There's a quick feedback loop--watch this clip, dial this number, keep watching the show--and you're done. Most examples are stunts that don't create an environment of cross-platform play. People don't watch shows clutching their phones in hand, and few people ever access the "personal" websites generated in museum experiences.

Great cross-platform experiences, on the other hand, are like the label at the de Young. The platforms complement each other, and the player ping pongs from one to the other and back again.

One of the best examples of a complex, multi-faceted cross-platform game was I Love Bees, a creation of Jane McGonigal and 42 Entertainment. I Love Bees was created as part of the marketing campaign for Halo 2, a video game released in 2004. Technically an ARG (alternate reality game), I Love Bees combined online and real-world activities to reveal the Halo 2 narrative. The game ran for three months, counting down to the release of Halo 2. The core idea was brilliant: a list of GPS coordinates throughout the US and western Europe was released on the web, along with dates and times. Those GPS coordinates pointed to real-world payphones. When people went to the right payphone at the right time with the right puzzle message, they received a call from an actor portraying one of the fictitious characters in the game. Players banded together to get to the pay phones at the right time with the right messages, and they shared their findings online afterwards. The play was intense and the players described themselves as hardcore. You can read more about the game on Wikipedia, and some commentary on it from Wired.

Of course, the same thing that made I Love Bees intense and wonderful for some made it inaccessible to others. I Love Bees was described as "elaborate and convoluted," and even its basic tools--dedicated websites and payphones--are outside the sphere of most people's day to day actions. I Love Bees raises some interesting questions about what makes a cross-platform experience successful. It's not just about meeting people "where they are"--by putting applications on Facebook, videos on YouTube, etc. That's a good start, It's about creating a surprising and necessary relationship between one platform and another.

What unexpected platforms have symbiotic relationships with one another? What are the metaphors and connections that can be exploited to push people in new directions? My experience at the de Young stood out because frequently these two basic platforms--text labels and art--are not well-connected. How can we do a better job connecting the dots both inside and beyond museum walls?

Friday, November 23, 2007

Rethinking Membership: What Does it Mean to Belong to a Museum?

'Twas the night before Thanksgiving, and my mother-in-law had an important meeting to attend. She's only been a member for a few months, and we're visiting from a thousand miles away, but there are about 40 other members expecting her. When she has to travel, she finds a group of members in that other town and meets up with them. If things keep going well, soon she'll "graduate" to a lifetime membership (free), and she's considering getting training to become a leader for a group in her own town. As a member, she enjoys a weekly interactive, social experience that supports her personal goals.

What kind of membership inspires such loyalty and participation? Weight Watchers. It's social, it's supportive, and the membership is sustaining. They have an innovative model: pay when you start, then attend for free once you have reached your weight goal. Slip, and you're back to a paying membership. The leaders, who are paid, are all former members who reached their goal.

Museum membership is not nearly as healthy as that of Weight Watchers. Museum members aren't ideological, like members of a political party or a movement. They aren't social, like members of a church or team. They aren't motivated by support for a perceived community service, like members of NPR or the Sierra Club. Today's museum members are mostly "value" members, people who join based on a calculation of savings in admissions fees over a number of yearly visits.

What's wrong with value members? Consider the largest vendor of value memberships: fitness centers. Gym memberships, like museum memberships, are often bought based on future intentions rather than current activities. If you are not someone who works out, you assume that buying a gym membership will motivate you to attend. But the gym experience, like the museum experience, doesn't welcome you into a social, supportive environment that rewards your membership. It just offers services and equipment, to be used or ignored. And the reality is that 9 out of 10 gym memberships are abandoned. The financial incentive to use the services of the gym are not great enough to overcome personal obstacles to use.

The same argument may be made of value members at museums. Museum memberships are bought based on a calculated intention to return, not a realistic assessment of museum use. Membership does not a frequent visitor make. Most membership purchases are made before entry (at point of sale) rather than after a visit. This means that people assess the "value" of membership based on the cost of admission, not the quality of the visit. I'd offer an uninformed guess that people who join a museum on their first visit are much less likely to renew than those who join after one or more visits. It's the difference between buying a subsidized perk for something already in your life and something you intend to, but do not currently, do.

So the first problem with value members is churn rate; like delinquent gym members, museum members who find at the end of the year to have under-visited do not renew. But the other problem with value members is that they are hard to cultivate into higher-level donors. They didn't join to support the institution and are unlikely to respond to calls to do so. The membership is a personal purchase, not an investment in their organization.

How did value membership rise to prominence? Over the last twenty years, the museum industry has moved towards greater reliance on gate sales, due to rising commercialism and diminishing government support. And the result, in part, is the invention of a new, successful product: the membership as discount. Membership effectively packages the museum experience--in some cities, a group of local museum experiences--into something repeatable at low cost.

But value membership is an impersonal commodity, one among many in the experience economy. It doesn't inspire the same kind of volunteerism, social engagement, or support as other membership models. How can museums move towards more successful models for membership, while retaining the expected perk of free admission?

Hook members as donors by giving them some control of their funds.
Value members think about how the membership affects their wallets, not how it (positively) impacts the museum. Museums can make the relationship between members and donors clearer by giving members an option to elect (partially) what their membership fee supports, the way alumni associations allow people to flag their donation for athletics, scholarships, arts, etc. The Bronx Zoo's Gorilla Sanctuary transformed the "value" of admission from one of experience cost into an exercise in donation. Why not do the same with members, and allow them to flag dollars for camps, exhibits, or other programs? This has the added value of generating data about new members' interests, which can then be cultivated with targeted marketing of programs and giving campaigns.

Provide a peer-to-peer social environment for members.
Why is Weight Watchers so much more successful at retention than the average gym? The motivation to join is comparable, but the membership investment is in people, not equipment. The number one reason people return to specific museums is positive interaction with others (usually staff). If we want members to become active, true members of the museum community, we need to provide a social space for them to get involved. This may be as volunteers, or, more usefully, as partners and friends to one another. This is the church model of participation. Yes, church members support the core functions of the facility, but more importantly, they create youth groups, book circles, and activity teams to spend time with each other. The more socially engaged you are with other members, the more positively you feel about your membership and the institution in general. I don't think we need to provide fancy members-only programs. Instead, we should seek out and encourage alpha members to form groups and clubs that use the museum--home school groups, retired groups, date nights for singles. Providing the basics--snacks, a space, and enthusiastic support--could be enough to get members motivating each other so we don't have to do it for them.

Create a slate of member benefits that support the kinds of members you want to have. Look at your list of member benefits. Are they all financial? If you are primarily offering discounts, you're going to attract a value member base. Imagine your ideal member. Is it someone who comes to the museum frequently? Someone who comes to programs? Someone who offers money or time? Someone who loves the content? Someone who wants to learn more? Some members might be best served by opportunities to serve as test rats for exhibit evalation. Others want something to do. Others want a cool set of people to connect with. Museums could be offering entirely different sets of benefits: an email address at the museum, a lending library to take artifacts home for a bit, a happy hour. Weight Watchers did this very successfully, transitioning from a business where the emphasis was on discounted food to one where the emphasis is on group support. Few people pay for their special food anymore. What they pay for is the social, educational programs.

If you find it challenging to imagine what these benefits could be in a museum context, start with a similar business and extrapolate. What makes Curves such a successful fitness franchise? Each attendee has a personal interaction with a trainer--and other members--every time. What differentiates local food coops from big member stores like Costco? Food coops don't just offer discounts, they also require some level of participation by members as volunteers. Sometimes, the "benefit" of membership appears onerous from the outside, but in the food coop case, the "pitch in" spirit of volunteer work contributes to the communal ideology to which members subscribe.

Move the point of sale for membership away from the admissions desk. This relates to the previous point. Selling memberships at the admissions desk reinforces the concept that it is a ticket discount rather than a more global program. If the membership is about repeat museum visits, sell memberships on the way out the door rather than the way in. If it's about supporting the museum financially, put the member desk near the donor thank you wall so that your nice staff member can explain how important financial support is to the museum. If it's about encouraging participation in programs, include it with your program announcements, and make sure you are giving members advance notice about such programs.

Answer the question: what does it mean to be a member? Honor the idea of membership, make it meaningful, and make it valuable. Membership can be as simple as the click of a Facebook link or as convoluted as a secret society. But being a member should make you feel proud, connected, and energized about the group or institution to which you belong. Right now, few museums offer a membership that truly connotes belonging. Make members part of your family, and they will reward you. They might even pay to show up the night before Thanksgiving.

What great membership mentalities or programs have you encountered, in museums or otherwise?

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Visitor Voices Book Club Part 4: Starting to Listen

This is the final installment of Museum 2.0’s book club on Visitor Voices in Museum Exhibitions, a collection of essays edited by Wendy Pollock and Kathy McLean. Over the past three weeks, we’ve looked at the energetic conversation embodied by talk-backs, the intimate gift of personal experience, and the collaborative effort of co-expression and co-creation. Today, commentary on the book’s final section, Starting to Listen.

What does it mean to truly listen to visitors? On the most basic level, it means closing our mouths and giving visitors trust and attention. The best visitor voices projects don’t come out of marketing blitzes or grudging concessions to visitors. They come from a desire to listen to and learn from visitors.

Ultimately, the arguments against including visitor voices come down to a lack of respect for visitors as meaning-makers in museums. They don’t have anything interesting to say. They don’t have a nuanced perspective. They’ll just use it to screw around. All of these arguments drive fear and resistance to visitor inclusion, and most are borne out of an essential distrust for visitors. It seems so basic. Who wants a teacher—for themselves or their children—who ignores or despises students? Who wants an exhibit designer who does the same? While it may seem New Age-y, approaching visitors with love and interest is the core perspective that should guide the development and implementation of these (and dare I say all) museum projects.

But love is just a starting point, not a road map to success. Some of these essays in this section offer some much-needed perspective on that road map, a perspective lacking in some of the more specific case studies. Liza Pryor, from the Science Museum of Minnesota, offers a list of arguments why museums should be engaging with social technologies—worth co-opting for any tough chats with marketing or executives about the value of blogging, public comment-sharing, and the like. Richard Toon, reflecting on a series of talk-backs at the Arizona Science Center, starts promisingly by acknowledging an unsuccessful talk-back (he blames the low value of materials provided), but applies less rigor to analysis of follow-up talk-backs.

The lack of analysis across projects frustrated me throughout this book. I understand that Visitor Voices is primarily a reference for individual projects and case studies—many of which I found fascinating and inspiring—but I’d also hoped to get some analysis, guidelines, and benchmarks for what makes visitor content successful in exhibitions and programs. Most of the case studies in the book are expository, not analytical, and it was sometimes hard to evaluate how one kind of outcome (e.g. high quality visitor content) related to others (e.g. low percentage of on-topic content). Very few of the case studies deconstructed what made one initiative or project component more successful than another; was it the materials, the medium, the questions posed, the location of the feedback station, or…?

Clearly all of these are important. One of my favorite stories (not from this book) about designing for visitor voices was shared by Devon Hamilton of the Ontario Science Centre, who told me about a kiosk in their Innovation Centre on which visitors can type messages that are then broadcast in real-time to a huge screen in the Centre. They were getting more obscene and off-topic responses on this kiosk than on others and couldn’t figure out what was going on. They decided to relocate the kiosk—which had been in a corner—to a public area close to the women’s restroom. Physical context thus altered, the issues with content dissolved immediately.

There’s a potential essay in that story about placement of visitor content components in an exhibition. Do you want to convey an intimate privacy? Perhaps Wendy Clarke’s set-up for the Love Tapes, in which visitors enter a private room, is best. Do you want to discourage obscenity? Take a page from Ontario and install it in a public, high-traffic area. I think a lot of these authors have specific lessons to impart, but I found few of them here. While this book offers examples from which one might infer answers to these kinds of questions—where to put it, what to use—it doesn’t tackle these questions comprehensively. I think that does a disservice to readers who want to actually apply these ideas in new projects at their own institutions.

But maybe that’s the sequel—moving from Visitor Voices in Museum Exhibitions to Designing for Visitor Voices in Museums. Visitor Voices is a great resource as a compendium of projects all over the map. I can imagine museum professionals using it to great effect to understand the landscape of such projects. My imagined sequel would be a workbook that addresses more specifically the design elements of creating an exhibition or program piece that incorporates visitor voices, walking people through the options, questions, and possibilities to help them craft a coherent project.

Wendy Pollock closes the book with a list of provocative questions about visitor voices. She asks about the ways design might be impact, wonders if post-its and comment books really constitute substantive dialogue about museum content, and inquires about how museums will respond to these voices we so lovingly receive. All of these questions are worth analyzing. I don’t think we can address them with case studies alone.

To close, a quote that Wendy cited by Thomas Zeldin, who wrote Conversation: How Talk Can Change Our Lives: "
Real conversation catches fire. It involves more than sending and receiving messages."

How can we design visitor experiences that catch fire? Sounds like a great start for part two.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

The Wildness in the Corner: A Discussion with Jason Nelson

Okay, I lied. Last week I announced the end of Game Friday. But this week, I got the opportunity to interview Jason Nelson, creator of digital art and avant garde game wonder game, game, game, and again game and how could I resist?

Jason Nelson is a lecturer in cyberstudies/digital art/digital creative writing at Griffith University in Queensland, AU. He started out as a poet, started messing around on the internet with digital media, and launched into a series of highly unusual interactive projects.

These include:
  • this is how you will die, a slot machine style game that generates unique deaths as a series of sequential clauses (see example image above)
  • Speech/Media_To_Text_Translation, in which an imperfect speech-to-text translator is applied to generate poetry from sound effects, natural disasters, and media events
  • Dispersed Fiction, in which a story is doled out via the content-submission forms on a variety of public websites
Jason kindly stayed up until 3am to talk with me about art, poetry, and the challenges of engaging users in something really weird. The interview includes stories about some of his projects, and a delving into questions about what makes viral content compelling, how to draw people into an uncomfortable environment, and ways that art--or museum content--can become more pervasive by being hidden in the corners of life.

What do you think has made you successful?

At first, it was a surprise. game, game, has had about 5 million hits. I released it in a decentralized way—which means I didn’t know what I was doing. I’d find a blog and say you might be interested by this—and then it spread out. I’m really fascinated by the viral web.
I grew up in Oklahoma. No one knows about it, no one wants to live there. But there’s a lot of unexpected beauty in Oklahoma—weird folk art with plastic deer, a beautiful house. And I think that’s kind of what happened with some of my work—people didn’t really expect it. So it felt like something they found, an experience they owned, and they wanted to share it.

I find it fascinating how on Youtube, something will get 2 million hits really quickly, and then it dies off. People don’t want to share it anymore once it’s huge.
game, game, and... just won an Italian art award. As an artist and a lecturer at the university, I'm expected to put my work up in competitions as art. But then these kids blogging it on car mod sites—they’re finding it without realizing it’s an art work. That lack of expectation is kind of a wonderful thing. For institutions, which brand themselves with a consistent experience, it’s really hard to translate an unexpected find.

You're bringing up a great point--that the things that become successful on the viral web do so because they feel personal, like you found a secret to share with someone else. How could we embed these secrets, these hidden discoveries, into museums?

I think you could easily go into a physical space and hide things. Everyone else, make your exhibitions. And then we’re going to hide something underneath the exhibit about eggs. Or about gravity. And then it becomes this great thing that people discover—the surprise. That’s what I think a lot of physical spaces are lacking.

This is what I'm trying to do with dispersed fiction: to hide it all over the web. It’s this idea of taking your fiction or poetry and dispersing it out on the web in places where people can enter things—like into an Amazon book review. You make up a unique keyword and use that in all the entries. So then someone can search google and find everything out on the web via that searchable term.

It’s kind of like—let’s put our exhibitions in the corner of a grocery store, in a gas station. And I think museums would like to do that, but they don’t really have controls over what happens with the material in those public places. So when you deal with Second Life, for example, it seems like an ideal place to do that, because you don't have to worry so much about the physical materials, so you could actually go in and put bits of an exhibition in lots of different places. So as people wander around, they could find these things.

There’s a Smithsonian fellowship from Australia where you can research at the Smithsonian for 6 months. My idea is to explore the museums, find those hidden objects, and make small digital art projects based on these objects that don’t fit. Then people find those digital pieces on the web and find their way back to the institution

I also think people connect with my stuff because it flirts with failure. How do you make something that’s messy, that isn't polished, that seems almost kind of broken? A lot of the content on the net is so polished. And I think there’s something engrained in us that wants error.

The messiness of your work is definitely something that makes it really distinctive. But when we talk about hiddenness, there's this problem. Does this kind of stuff have to exist as a reaction to and on the edges of something more polished? Or do you think it can hold up on its own? How much messiness could people handle?

When I lived in Bowling Green, the museums in Ohio used to bother me with exhibitions like The Art of Star Wars. I understand why they're doing it, but it's no anti-failure that it becomes dull. And really it’s just designed to meet the centerpoint. Here in Queensland they have an Andy Warhol exhibit coming up, and it’s just plastered everywhere. And I think these shows really injure institutions by not sharing the diversity and range of work out there, by focusing on these standard things.

The blockbusters. They're safe. So where does that leave risk and messiness?

I think people want it, and they're willing to tolerate a lot of weirdness if it reaches them in some way. Uncontrollable semantics was this project I did that had a hidden page in it that I'd forgotten about. I kept getting these email messages that said "Cease Me Cease You." I thought it was spam. But then I started getting hundreds of these emails, and finally someone sent me an email address that referenced a file name. And I found this hidden page again, where you have to wait for two minutes, and then it says, “Email me at this address with the words Cease Me Cease You."

And I think people wanting to come to these sites would really be open to these kinds of things. If you’re in academia, or art, or museums, you sort of focus on the boundaries, wanting to learn where they are. And I think we could leap way outside the boundaries and people would be really accepting of it.
In the case of my work, people are reacting to something highly unusual in the field, but they don't see it that way--they don't know where the boundaries are.

What they do need is some kind of foothold or entry point, something that makes them comfortable saying, "I have no idea what it means but I really enjoy it." Is that entry point a game interface? A sound? Anything that can draw them in and then the rest gets really wild and crazy. As long as you give them small rewards along the way and congratulate them when they reach some goal.

Doing something weird always comes back to comfort with failure.

How do you identify failure when you're working in an extremely strange space? Is it about numbers? Or about how you personally feel about the piece? Can you give me an example?

The most recent example would be the zombie game. When I finished it, I hated it. I was glad it was over. I think it has a lot of nuances in it, but it’s also really difficult to get through. It’s a little annoying. And I usually love art that's annoying—but it wasn’t accessible enough. But it was also a failure because I tried to reach an audience rather than approaching it from my own voice, and the result was that that audience--game people--felt that maybe I was mocking them.

One thing I think is important is making exhibitions that don’t require a lot of prefacing. I find conceptually-based art very problematic. I want to jump right into the middle of it. Maybe the experience won’t be totally obvious or opaque, but it will be enjoyable.

There's a contradiction here. You're talking about avoiding targeting a particular audience, but then also giving users an access point. In museums, we often start by thinking about the access point--how can we draw visitors in and connect with them. How do you reconcile the personal desire for wildness with a desire to support an audience?

You just need one access point. You can have eight facets of a project that are wild and one that connects to people to be accessible.

For example, I’m modifying a digital midi theremin as an alternative mouse device. It's a normal theremin with a midi output. I’m using the data sets from the midi to drive the mouse motion. It’s just an interface device, a part of a larger artwork. The theremin interface is the carrot, a performative way to interact. The idea is to draw them in that way.

Are there any other projects you are working on that you're really excited about?

I'm working with speech to text software to filter outside sound and create poems. I’ll play a movie or political speech, run it through the speech to text program, and it will spit out this crazy, very poetic stuff. I started doing it because I was playing with the program one evening and I accidentally left it on during a thunderstorm. And when I woke up the screen was full of text. At first I was afraid that someone had broken in—and then I realized the software was getting the sounds from the storm and turning them into words.


This conversation with Jason really inspired me to hunt out strange phenomena and find ways to slide them in under the rug in museums. But I'm left with the same question we batted about during the talk: how much of this can museums handle? Does it have to be on the periphery to be appreciated? What do you think?

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Interview with Brooklyn Museum's Shelley Bernstein

Let’s say you wanted to find a model museum using Web 2.0 to support programs and exhibits. A place that blogs, that engages in social networking sites, that tries experiments, and reports about all of it honestly. A place that truly sees these initiatives as part of their mission to serve their local community. A place that does all this in the context of a fairly traditional collections-based museum. A place that makes it all pretty darn cool.

Is there such a place? You bet. It’s the Brooklyn Museum. They've played with Twitter. They just finished a YouTube video contest. They even created a Facebook application. Today, an interview with Shelley Bernstein, the Manager of Information Systems at the Brooklyn Museum, and the engine behind that museum’s fabulous forays into Web 2.0.

Tell me about the background for the Brooklyn Museum’s community web component. How did this all start?

We started in earnest a year and a half ago. Everything here is mission-driven, and we have a mission that’s very much about the visitor experience and community. And we looked around and said: what does community mean on the web? And it was so clear at the time.

We started slowly with the MySpace page, and we started in earnest with Flickr. We did this graffiti interactive via Flickr. The real show in the museum was a series of canvasses showing tags--graffiti--and the curator and education department installed a wall in the middle of the gallery so that visitors could tag (we provided colored pencils, and people brought their own markers and stickers). We let it layer to a point and then cleared sections for reuse. We were taking photos of the wall every week and the changes that were taking place. We were finding that so many people were coming to the exhibition just to tag the wall. The Flickr site became this vital thing to get that information about the changes back out to them.

Did you find that people who had been to the exhibition were commenting on the Flickr page? Were they really using it as a post-visit resource?

Oh yeah. We learned a lot about graffiti from Flickr. They would comment on the photos we'd taken and add notes with links to their own profiles. We saw that these artists were using the wall, then telling us about it on Flickr. We also had a thing where you could email photos of graffiti in Brooklyn and we put them on our Flickr wall. We also created the Brooklyn Graffiti Group.

How hard is it for you and your team to manage the work flow of all of these projects?

The great thing about any really strong community on the net—we’ve never ever had to remove a comment on Flickr or even worry about it. Even criticism has been very contructive. Spam, obscenity--they just aren't an issue at all.

I keep telling people, I’m really honest that these are communities, not marketing opportunities. MySpace is, but Facebook isn’t. It’s a long term commitment. Once you start you can’t stop. It’s a community-level thing that you’re doing. It’s not about marketing or advertising. If you post interesting content, the word of mouth aspects will follow.

We get so much spam on MySpace, whereas on Flickr and Facebook and the blog we never get spam.

One thing that can make it more manageable is the use of third party systems. We use Wordpress to power our blogs. It's great to see so many museums using 3rd party systems, like SFMOMA or LA MOCA's Wack!. You don’t know it’s a blog. Using existing tools to run your site allows for plug-ins. Because we want to keep up with new software, and we’re never going to have the programmers to keep up.

Do you think of your efforts as trying to draw new audiences into the museum or reach out to meet them where they are?

I think about it as going to them rather than the audience coming to us. Just as we might go to Prospect Heights or Crown Heights. We know that the actual statistics of people coming through the door is not quantifiable yet—we haven’t done a visitor survey in a couple years. Within the museum, we have a big initiative to tie together comment books electronically, so that gallery comments go on the web and web comments go in the galleries.

How you do decide what experiments to do?

It depends. If it’s connected with an exhibition, I work with our interpretative materials person really closely on the goals and we have a discussion. She’s really great at responding flexibly. There’s a lot of discussion about what would be appropriate when it comes from an exhibition standpoint. But other things--the twitter thing, the video contest was my idea. We’d received a video PSA from Pratt students,
and I proposed the contest.

There’s a lot of communication in the building about what we could do.
For us it always goes back to mission, so we’re a kind of unique case. For us, it’s not about targeting or marketing--it's about serving the community.

We try to be really really careful here. That’s why we’re not in Second Life. #1, it would be a lot of work. And #2 it doesn’t fit our accessibility mission. Flickr photos and Youtube videos are open and available to all. We look at the equation and say maybe Second Life isn’t the right fit for us. You have to have a really good computer and internet connection. And I’m not sure that our visitors would really benefit from it. One of the things I think about is capturing video in SL to share with others. Any time you see an interactive on our site—we have a plaintext version of that wherever possible. It’s really fabulous when Flickr or YouTube or can really provide content for audiences who use those sites—AND it provides a way to broadcast on your own site.

One of the best services you provide the museum community is your honest post-mortems on projects. Do you ever run into institutional challenges for being so honest?

Not really. Even when it’s kind of a disaster, I try to be methodical about it instead of just ranting. So it’s a calmer discussion, and the people here appreciate that. With the blog, we really try to own up to what blogging is about. It’s a multi-author approach, and the authors are not edited. We have a policy, but for the most part, I think all of the authors have been pretty good at keeping it personal and trying to be transparent.

Do you have any dream projects in the near future?

We really try and go on a case by case basis, fitting things into the context of the larger museum. I read a lot and I look at a lot, and I just sort of keep things in the back of my head. Oh, we could do this. The facebook thing was very organic. I read an article by the founder in Wired about how that platform was so different in terms of application development. My developer had wanted to do an app on it for his own curiousity. We checked with a few people around here and we tried it out. We’d been using Facebook for awhile for groups, but then I happened to read about apps, file it away, and then a week later it came up in conversation.

All of these communities require a real commitment—that you’re there, that you’re updating. It’s funny; I think it’s something we do really well on Flickr, because we’ve been there so long and we know the audience there. If you look at the IMA (Indianapolis Museum of Art), they’ve got that going on in YouTube. Maybe the Tech will have that with your new project in Second Life.

Jim Spadaccini often talks about how you have to learn about and respect the native community on these sites.

Exactly. You want to concentrate on something and make it fabulous. The Walker has it with their blogs. Us on Facebook. IMA on YouTube.

For a museum new to this scene, that isn't ready to make a full commitment, how would you recommend getting started? Programmatically, I think there are some individual projects--like the video contest--that could allow you to dip your foot in the water.

I think you could easily do it on Flickr—the Tate did that with How We Are Now. I don’t know what their commitment is now, but they had a great commitment during that project, which had a beginning and an end. And that was such a fabulous project, and a great experience.

I hesitate though a bit because I don’t think that people should necessarily go do a one-off because I think it doesn’t really build the community. I worry about that. There was a museum that put a series of photos up on Flickr for one project. They did that one thing, and it was clear to me that they were not interested in being there.

We were on before Youtube—it allows longer vids. Blip doesn’t expose the views, but some of these videos have 100,000s of hits. We’ve been there longer (than YouTube) and the audience is responding to our content. One of the reasons we did the video competition was because YouTube is a space that shouldn't be about us pushing content out—it’s YouTube—it’s what they produce, not what we do.

Do you have any image rights issues?

Most of the stuff in our museum is public domain, and we have a very good policy that non-commerical photography is okay. We’re very clear about our photography policy everywhere.

Any special projects you'd like to highlight?

Well, we have electronic, web-connected comment books coming soon to all exhibit spaces. The comment architecture is going to get a lot bigger in the next several months. And then there's the Facebook application, Artshare—the Walker and the Powerhouse are going to come on board with that. My hope is that ArtShare becomes an app not just for the facebook community but for the museum community as well.

Amen! If you're on Facebook, check out the Artshare application. Browse the Brooklyn community site. Check out the links above from the projects Shelley mentioned. And leave your comments and questions (for Shelley, me, or other readers) here!

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Visitor Voices Part 3: Co-Creating and Control

This week, a look at the third section of Visitor Voices, the excellent book coedited by Kathy McLean and Wendy Pollock. The essays in this section, on “Expressing and Co-Creating,” present projects in which visitors create exhibition content, contribute to its creation, or get a heavy done of meaning-making in their experience of museum content. If talkbacks are analogous to discussions, contributing personal experiences analogous to gifts, then co-creation is about inclusion and control.

Who controls the content in the museum? Who controls the meaning making? Who controls the museum experience? How do we transition to co-ownership with visitors?

Each of the projects profiled in this section offers visitors partial ownership in at least one of these categories. Let's examine each of these questions, and the related projects, more closely.

First, museum content. Several of the projects profiled allowed visitors a hand in creating museum content. There is the Art Gallery of Ontario's portrait exhibition In Your Face, for which the museum solicited and displayed thousands of visitor-created self-portraits. The Exploratorium's Nanoscape project, in which visitors and volunteers built giant walk-through models of nanoscale structures, had a different kind of impact; instead of displaying visitors' unique expressions of self, it displayed the power of collective action by visitors, harnessed by an institution.

What's the control difference between
Nanoscapes and In Your Face? In both cases, visitors felt as though they were part of the final result, yet In Your Face offered visitors more control. In Nanoscapes, visitors own the experience of production, whereas In Your Face participants own the content itself. It's like the difference between helping to paint a community mural and writing your own name on the wall. At the Exploratorium, people felt connected to the museum by their involvement in a group event; At AGO, they connected through personal expression.

Is one of these better than the other? Of course not. But they may attract different people. One of the things that made In Your Face so overwhelmingly successful is people's natural self-interest. People like to talk about and show themselves--that's why MySpace is so popular. In his piece about interaction design for StoryCorps, Jake Barton comments that "for most people the value of the experience will be in making and submitting a story, not seeing it shared with everyone else."

In the above examples visitors were responding to a call by the museum for a specific type of content. More experimental are the projects where the museum sets up a platform for visitor co-creation and then lets the visitors run with it. At Liberty Science Center, exhibits are designed with support for visitor-created "hacks" and improvements in mind. On the Ontario Science Center's 2.0 site RedShiftNow, visitor content not only populates but steers the experience. And at the Ontario Science Center's Weston Innovation Center, the exhibits are designed with visitors--not just tested by them.

In these and other examples (the Walker Art Center's new teen site comes to mind), the museum specifically sets up a site in a way that is not most comfortable, useful, or familiar to the museum staff. They allow visitors, often acknowledged to have different backgrounds from staff, to set the tone.

This is what I'd call visitors "controlling the experience." This is hard and painful work, often requiring exhibit designers to intentionally create platforms that allow ugly and chaotic things to happen. The intentionality is necessary; giving control to visitors without giving them a supportive platform is just laziness, and visitors respond with non-participation. These challenges are complicated by legitimate questions about the value of the output of such experiences. If only 1% of our audience wants to participate as creators (a generous estimate by Web 2.0 standards), does the experience created better serve the other 99%?

This relates to an interesting question: are museum FOR visitors or are they BY visitors? Some people talk about creating "with visitors," which is good tactically, but strategically, I'd argue that "for" is the key. If you lose sight of the "for," then the end result is not compelling. Honest delving into what makes a good experience "for visitors" certainly means doing some "by" and "with." But it also means accomodating those who prefer to receive rather than generate content. To me, involving visitors means getting them on the bus, not handing them the keys and deserting them. We need a spot for everyone, not just drivers.

Which leads to the third kind of co-creation discussed in this section, meaning-making. In some ways, these experiences are the least revolutionary. The two examples in the book, the installation Explore a Painting in Depth at AGO and Question at the Cantor Arts Center, give visitors the chance to insert their own voice--personally or as a broadcast--in the understanding of art.

How is this different from the talkbacks discussed in section 1? Rather than just giving people a chance to give feedback on museum content, both of these installations represented new platforms for visitors to interact with and interpret content. It wasn't the visitor part that changed; it was the museum part. The exhibits supported questions people had about art--what it meant, how it was valued--and allowed visitors to explore art from their own points of reference rather than those of the curators.

These projects may not be as sexy as Exhibit Commons or other visitor-generated experiences. The idea that visitors make their own meaning is hardly new. What makes these examples special is the fact that these exhibitions supported rather than fought that fact. Instead of throwing curators' expertise out the window, the curators in these examples tried to find new ways to welcome and open themselves to visitors' specific interests. In that way, these projects are no different than RedShiftNow. Both seek to meet and support visitors at their own level. The difference is that these meaning-making experiences serve a different audience--the large percentage who prefer a consumptive to a generative museum experience.

Being successful with visitor co-creation requires a great deal of selflessness--a willingness on the part of museum staff to see ourselves as support staff, rather than content providers, for visitors. We have to manage the back end and let the visitors do all the fun stuff. Imagine the Art Gallery of Ontario staff, sorting, hanging, and managing the 17,000 self-portraits they received for In Your Face. They weren't curating. They weren't interpreting. They were just carrying out the will and enthusiasm of their visitors (and I'm sure that was both exhiliarating and dull). Hopefully, we can make the mental transition that makes the reception and management of visitor content as satisfying as the creation of the content on our own. Because ultimately, loving, supporting, and encouraging our visitors is what makes these institutions for them. Not for us.

Next week, some comments on the final section of the book and the book overall.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Goodbye, Game Friday. Hello Open Source Museum.

One of my mentors, Michael Brown, told me, “The only way to get better is to change.” He was talking poetry, but over time I’ve found it to be one of the most useful, challenging ways to approach a range of situations. So now, after almost a year of Game Fridays, it’s time for a change. Not that I won’t still occasionally write about games, but they will no longer have a weekly presence on this blog (though you can always find lots of them by clicking the "game" tag in the topic list to the right).

Why the change? In this case, it has less to do with getting better than choosing a new direction. My interest in gaming in museums was ignited by working on Operation Spy, an immersive, narrative, live-action game experience at the International Spy Museum, and fueled by the CSI:NY virtual experience. But last week, I took a new job with The Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose, working on a very different kind of project involving collaborative distributed exhibit design. So where visions of Flash games used to dance in my head, I’m now starting to fantasize about team-building, inclusion, and, of all things, Second Life.

The Open Source Museum project at The Tech is a grant-funded grand experiment. The concept is practical: cut the time and expense of exhibit development by creating a social space where exhibit developers from many museums—along with scientists, artists, visitors—can collaborate to design concepts for exhibits. These virtual, polyglot teams will devise experiences that are not hindered by the cultural predilections of any single institution, and hopefully, will reflect a more diverse, inclusive voice and design. The Tech (and other museums down the road) will be able to offer up themes for upcoming major exhibitions, and the best of the concepts developed by the collaborative crew will be realized in the physical institution.

So what does this collaborative platform look like? We’re using a combination of a wiki-style website and a Second Life presence to make it happen. On the website, participants can propose exhibit projects, join teams, and maintain presences for themselves and their exhibits in progress. Those exhibits will be prototyped, discussed, and explored by visitors in virtual form in Second Life. All of the project ideas and virtual creations will be shared under a Creative Commons license, so the content truly is open to all.

This is happening very, very quickly. The project will launch in December, and we are planning to have our first exhibits developed by this process on the floor at The Tech in summer of 2008. We’re going to make mistakes. We’re playing it fast and loose. Of course, the good news about all of this haste is that it forces us to be honest to the spirit of the project, which is about openness, sharing, releasing things before their done for feedback and redesign by a cast of thousands.

All of this is sweeping many new questions into my mind. Will exhibit developers really use (and derive any value from) Second Life? How much structure is motivating and how much becomes a chore? What will incentivize different kinds of people to participate? How do we make this a growing social space and not a one-hit wonder? Will this project thrive or fall flat?

Ultimately, the biggest question in my mind is about value propositions. How can we design this project to give value to participants throughout the process? We’re trying to construe this as a professional development opportunity—to work with others, design for different kinds of museums, learn about Second Life and collaboration tools—as much as an exhibit design process.

What are the questions in your mind about team exhibit design? What would you want a project of this nature to include?

I look forward to discussing these and many other questions about this experiment in the months to come. Viva the distributed conversation!

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Visitor Voices Book Club: Loving the Love Tapes

Last week, we looked at the first section of Visitor Voices, on Talk-backs, and came to the conclusion that comment boards and the like are functionally conversations, and that their design, therefore, should focus on encouraging positive, lively, thoughtful, engaged discussion. This week, we look at the second section, Contributing Personal Experiences.

What makes this section distinct? Contributing personal experience is less about discussion and more about gifts--gifts our visitors give to us in the form of their stories and observations. These gifts may be emotional, analytical, even activist. They are not boisterous dinner parties. They are personal, sometimes private. And rather than forming a sequential narrative via responses and counter-responses, they form a collective narrative, a dataset of primary experiences from which meaning (and exhibitions) can be created.

What better example of this distinction than the Love Tapes? Created by video artist Wendy Clarke, and eventually part of the Exploratorium's collection, the Love Tapes project features visitors of all kinds sharing their personal experiences of love. Again, this is not a discussion about what love is or isn't. People aren't responding to each other. Yes, most visitors are encouraged to watch other videos before submitting their own, but the video creation process is set up as wholy about you and your experiences.

Wendy has a very specific set of ground rules about how someone is supposed to approach the Love Tapes: first, by watching others to get the feel for it, then, recording their own (to background music of their choice), then, deciding whether to include it in the total collection, and finally, viewing their own tape as part of that collection.

The "view, then record, then review" model is not surprising, but there are other elements here that are. First, the music. Rather than sit a person in a room in front of a camera with no context, creators speak over a song. In the beginning, everyone had the same song; later, people could choose preferred background songs. The songs serve a few functions: they set expectations about the time duration of the video, they set a relaxing mood, and finally, they offer accompaniment.

The accompaniment is a strange one. Robert Garfinkle of the Science Museum of Minnesota commented at ASTC that the cacophony of voices from videos in the exhibition RACE make people feel more comfortable talking about the issues the exhibition raises, since they are in the environment of other people's words. I think the musical accompaniment to the Love Tapes may play the same role--giving people something to sink into and become part of, rather than being cognizant of the stark aloneness of their own voice.

Another unusual element of the Love Tapes is the positioning of the subject, who faces a screen hooked directly to the camera. The effect is to let you watch yourself as you speak. At first I thought this might be terribly distracting, but what are the alternatives? To look at a blank wall? Label text? An evocative image? Ultimately, looking at yourself may keep the creator focused on what he or she is saying, on the extent to which the video is a mirror of his or her true expression.

The Love Tapes stand out for their power. Even just reading about them, I was moved and wanted desperately to see them. Part of their power, like that of the PostSecret project, is their originator's love for them and desire to see them grow. Wendy Clarke's reaction after recording hundreds of these wasn't, "thank goodness that's over." It was, "I wish I could do these with every single person in the whole world." The Love Tapes weren't a sideshow to a bigger exhibition--they were worth working for on their own. The content was serious, important, and deeply cared for. And clearly, that showed in what came out.

Supporting safe spaces for personal expression isn't all about empowering visitors--it can create new opportunities for staff as well. In some cases, those expressions aren't even the visitors' own. The Darkened Waters story--of an Exxon-Valdez spill exhibition at a tiny museum that became their first ever traveling exhibition based on visitor demand--is a heartening example where that expression was "show this to others." The Pratt Museum in AK should be extremely proud of the fact that they created something their visitors thought was so valuable it had to be seen by others. The visitors adopted the content and empowered the museum to go further. It's nice to see visitors and museums switch roles like that.

To me, these projects are successful when the museum is willing to do something with visitor contributions--to base an exhibit on them (as in the Love Tapes) or to act on them (as in Darkened Waters). In the examples where the visitor contribution was seen as a limited, non-essential component of the exhibit experience, the impact seemed minimal. So if last week's core lesson was about supporting engaging discussion, this week's is about caring for visitors, and thinking of them as integral to the exhibition content or direction. Again, a universal theme, easy to imagine, hard to implement honestly.

It's also hard to implement when the content is not deeply personal--as in the Love Tapes, Exxon-Valdez, or the Vietnam War (in an Oakland Museum exhibition). I don't think the question should be: how can we get people to share deep personal expression about topic X? The question should be: does topic X evoke deep personal expression? For whom? If not for our visitors, how can we share it? If we can't share it, what are we doing?

I did some digging and found this link, where you can watch a half hour of the Love Tapes from 1982. Share the love.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Happy Birthday, Museum 2.0! ...And Some Post Sorting Tools

Museum 2.0 is celebrating one year in the blogosphere. I started blogging in 2006 after ASTC as a way to continue exploring the intersections between Web 2.0 and museums discussed at the “Hot Topics in Exhibit Design” session. A year later, and it’s been an incredible learning experience for me (and hopefully has had some benefit for you, too). I offer a heartfelt thank you to everyone who has read, commented on, and supported this highly non-academic researching, poking, and wandering.

As you know, Museum 2.0 isn't as focused on late-breaking news as most blogs are. There's a lot of useful content in the archives. But there are now 177 posts on this blog. Sheesh. That's a lot. And Museum 2.0 is still drawing a large number of new readers. Where should you start? Which is the good stuff?

To aid you in your search, I'd like to point out a few tools.

First, at the very top left corner of this page, there's a search box. You can enter any term or phrase there, and Blogger will return any posts that include that term in the title or body of the post.

Second, there's the topic list on the right, which allows you to see posts tagged with a certain subject keyword, like design or virtual worlds.
I've added four new tags that are more general: Core Museum 2.0 Theories, Technology Tools Worth Checking Out, Museums Engaging in 2.0 Projects, and Unusual Projects and Influences. Let me know if there are other groupings or tags that might be useful to you (I wish I could let you tag the posts... sigh).

Finally, there are the most popular posts, as well as a chronological list of posts.

And I'd like to take this opportunity to recognize a few posts made better by your challenging and thoughtful comments:

Warning: Museum Graduate Prograns Spawn Legions of Zombies! The Most Contentious Post (and Most Commented Upon). This post spawned intense debate, a few friendships, and teaching engagements at JFKU, where the debate, thankfully, continues.

Talking Through Objects 2: The Rollercoaster Conundrum The Most Educational Post. Wherein I learned from you all kinds of theories about why people slap each other's hands on rollercoasters, including a particularly gross one involving saliva.

Participation Through Collaboration: Making Visitors Feel Needed The Most Religious Post. In which rabbis, biblical archaeologists, and laity take their seats at the commenting table and get to the core of whether 2.0 is good or not.

PostSecret: Lessons in Meaningful User-Generated Content The Most Famous Post. In which Frank Warren, originator of PostSecret, made a comment.

Finally, two good posts worth catching: one on the
Creation Museum, and another on the value of floor staff.

Again, I thank y
ou for your comments, critiques, questions, and lively discussion. You make this a wonderful experience--hopefully for other readers, and certainly for me. Please leave a comment if there are any ways that I--and we--could make this a better blog. In particular, I'd love any suggestions on how to make the site more user-friendly as a resource.

Here's to the next year!

Friday, November 02, 2007

Game Friday: A Museum Kind of Dream

A quickie today, a quirky little wandering game in the Things Came up to my brain museum. Feed apples to frogs, spin the Victorian ladies round, and come upon a variety of bizarre delights in this factory of oddity. It's a point-and-click, so start opening doors and moving things around.

These kinds of flash games are like a slice of theater; with a few sketched lines and simple interaction, you're immersed in a world. A shadow box of stories, an attic to colonize. How wondrous and under-utilized in museums, the design strokes that do more with (distinctive) less.


Thursday, November 01, 2007

2.0 Culture Wars: Luddites and 2.0topians

I've been doing some reading recently about 2.0 on the library side of the fence. It's fascinating: the term "Library 2.0" was coined in 2005 and has a Wikipedia page and several bloggers, conferences, and active debates surrounding it.

Are the debates about what applications to use and which are a waste of time? Sometimes. But the most heated battles seem to be focused on the perceived divide between those obsessed with Web 2.0 and its power for good (2.0topians) and those alienated by and against it (luddites). Even the ones who are trying to make sense of it all come out swinging. Consider, for example, the above image, created by David Lee King, which describes less a spectrum than an ascension to 2.0topia. The image below, created by Meredith Farkas, is more balanced, providing a "cultural landscape" of fear, loathing, and obsession with Web 2.0.

Why are people religious about technology?
Or rather, why do people group themselves religiously around technology?

Technology isn't supposed to be religious. It's supposed to be about practical application of scientific knowledge, not fear, dependence, or belief. And yet we all get caught up in it--addicted to XM radio, extolling the value of real wrench sets over adjustables, fuming at the jerk who takes a call during dinner--because it affects and relates to culture.

To many people, the culture of Web 2.0 is threatening, overwhelming, and generally unappealing.
If we want to work with directors, trustees, and other skeptics to evolve museums and other content providers alongside Web 2.0, we have to work first on establishing a culture that makes Web 2.0 non-threatening and inviting.

What are the perceived negative aspects of Web 2.0 culture that need to be addressed?

Churn rate. Web 2.0 thrives on a constant stream of new applications and products. These products are entirely virtual and are distributed virtually, so the time from launch to editorial review is instantaneous. The result is a rapid boom and bust cycle that conveys the worst of "next big thing" mania. Toy stores have their toy of the year; Web 2.0 has its hot app of the moment. Why waste your time learning how to use something that will be out the door tomorrow?

In-crowds. The people who keep on top of Web 2.0 literally speak a different language from the rest of us. They don't just keep bookmarks, they Digg things and save them to They don't call a friend to share news; they blog, twitter, facebook, and myspace it. It's not unlike a hippie commune; everyone on the inside is ecstatic, whereas people on the outside wish they'd shower more. But unlike the commune, the insiders are constantly, ruthlessly spearing each other on blogs and message boards. Outsiders fear that they will be derided or discounted for their lack of savviness.

General Web skepticism. There are still many people out there who don't think it's a good thing to spend lots of time in front of a computer, who are perturbed by the idea of virtual social networks and online communities. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the constant question, "If your first life is good, why do you need a Second Life?"

Unclear application. Why should I use Facebook? Does my virtual pet really need a social network? While there are some sites, like YouTube, Wikipedia, and Flickr, that are fairly easy to understand, there are hundreds of others with no clear differentiated value. And even if you understand what a site does, what can it do for your museum? Can it generate revenue? Can it attract more visitors? "It's cool" is not a winning board room argument. The term "killer app" is only meaningful if it is "killer" for the audience at hand.

Addressing the Challenges

So if you're someone (like me) who cares about sharing Web 2.0 with others, where do you start? The first part of ending this war between luddites and 2.0topians is acknowledging and separating the cultural issues from the technology.

If you're an insider, defy expectations. Be thoughtful about why you recommend an application to others. Think of it like giving gifts; it's more important to give someone something they will like than something you like. Laugh with them about how crazy the volume of stuff out there is. Admit to them that you only really follow a few things. Tell them why you think a particular application does or doesn't have legs. Help them login and get started the first time.

If you are trying to convince your institution/boss/board that something is useful, justify it in terms of their goals. Talk resources and impact. If it's an experiment, say so. There are resources out there--experts, leaders of projects already underway--who can furnish you with stats to serve as arsenal.

Most of all, you have to identify with the folks you are talking with and give up your insider status. Pull back the curtain constantly. Be an ambassador (as cheesy as that sounds), validate fears, and then assuage them.

Once the culture war is over, we can start talking technology, looking for the applications that provide methods or content that help solve practical problems. Bridging the culture gap doesn't mean the technology will be any less exciting, useful, or impractical. What it means is that we can share that excitement without vitriol or fear. We can start making things happen. Together.