Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Should Museums Be Happiness Engines?

What role does “promoting human happiness” play in the mission statements and actions of museums? That’s the question I’m pondering thanks to Jane McGonigal and the Center for the Future of Museums (CFM). Earlier today, the CFM offered a free webcast of Jane McGonigal’s talk on gaming, happiness, and museums. You can now view the video in its entirety as well as the chatlog from the webcast. UPDATE: You must register an account with AAM to view the video and chatlog.

I'm a huge fan of Jane's and have been writing about her work since the early days of this blog, so I was thrilled to learn that the CFM was bringing in Jane to speak live and then opening up the lecture to a wider audience of about 300 online. We had a very active chat-based discussion during and after the webcast, and the chatlog will be available at the CFM site soon.

Jane’s main happiness argument has three points:
  1. Happiness research shows that four things make people happy: having satisfying work to do, the experience of being good at something, time spent with people you like, and the chance to be a part of something bigger.
  2. Games are happiness engines that are designed to support these four things. They provide clear instructions and rules for how to succeed, better feedback on how well you are doing, better community with which to experience the game, and induce more intense emotions of personal pride and accomplishment (fiero!).
  3. Non-game social platforms like museums should use game design techniques to make these institutions more successful at supporting user happiness.
This is not an argument that is specific to museums. Jane believes that introducing clear, intentionally designed gaming structures can make people happier as they work, explore their communities, and deal with tough personal and collective challenges (like climate change, as evidenced in the game World Without Oil).

Many game designers talk about how game mechanics can be applied to functional activities and “boring” topics, but Jane is unique in her argument that game structures don’t just make real life more fun, they help increase human happiness. One of the things that makes Jane’s work so popular and appealing is that her argument can be applied to many industries. Many industries have adopted “serious games” for use in training, but Jane is talking about pervasive gaming, gaming that is integrated into “real” life and work. A recycling bin that cheers for you when you flatten your cans. A workplace in which the path to career advancement is clearly laid out in the rules that come with the job. It’s easy to imagine ways that game structures could make life seem less capricious, more fair, more responsive, and more controllable.

However, I'm wary of the limitations of game structures to support human happiness. Games provide a powerful extrinsic motivation and reward structure via points, levels, flashing lights, slain dragons, etc. For people who receive poor extrinsic feedback in their lives--students who are told they are dumb, workers in unstimulating jobs, people who feel shy and lonely--games may provide an alternative motivational structure that supports their growth and happiness. But the motivation is still external. There are few games that teach you to "feel rewarded within" or appreciate the ways that you are part of something greater, and so I wonder whether games become an assistive technology, a happiness engine, upon which people become too reliant.

For example, consider voting. Voting is a real-life activity that suffers from poor extrinsic structure. People who don't vote (and there are lots of them) don't see the benefit of doing so, and perhaps a game structure could create an artificial benefit, like "citizen points," that would make voting feel more valuable. But would it translate to the citizen/player actually feeling that voting IS valuable? That their voice DOES matter? If not, the game becomes a crutch, a patch on a system that exacerbates our dependence on extrinsic motivation.

Early in Jane's talk, she showed statistics from a "happiness index" of countries that are most and least happy. The people in countries that are most happy--mostly small, incredibly poor countries in Central and South America--may not be as reliant on external indicators, like money and status, to feel valued, connected, and important to their communities. As Elsa Bailey asked in the chat: "Don't cultural attitudes toward the definitions/descriptions of happiness come into play here? Might relate to how to interpret the global happiness findings. Expectations may affect how people judge their ''happiness rating.'"

I'm not suggesting that games don't induce happiness, or that game mechanics are not powerful design agents of change. I think there are LOTS of ways in a society to use game structures to rewire our values and feelings of self-worth. I see games and game design methods as underutilized, exciting systems that museums should add to our experience design toolbox. But I don't believe that games are the only structures we should consider as we try to design experiences to promote feelings of self-worth, connections to community, and value. We need to make sure that we are also using design mechanisms that promote introspection, personal discovery, and intrinsically motivated exploration. There may be ways to marry these; for example, the Exploratorium has created an oxymoronic game called Be Here Now in which you see how long you can meditate on nothingness without your mind wandering.

This long reflection on external motivation relates directly to the core mission of museums. I think one reason museum professionals struggle with gaming is that many see it as a crass external substitute for the elegant, intrinsic rewards of museum-going. But for people who don't perceive those rewards (and there are many), games may offer a powerful connection point to help uninitiated visitors experience the kind of happiness, wonder, and discovery possible in museums.

And this leads to the broader question: are museums fundamentally in the business of promoting human happiness? I think many of us would like to be. As Mary Case put it in the discussion: "The point is that museums can provide satisfying work, help people be good at something, help them spend time with people they like, and be a part of something bigger. If we can do that (some of which we already do), we will all live happily ever after..." But others weren't so sure. Matthew Jenkins commented: "Still don't grasp why is creating sustainable world happiness the primary mission of a museum? What about learning?"

If we can use game design techniques to help people feel happier exploring collections, discovering exhibits, and messing with interactives, then we will help them learn. Happiness is an "enabling" emotion that makes people more open to new or uncomfortable experiences, and games may be a happiness-delivery system that enables people to be more energized and curious about museums.

And we have an enormous and unique opportunity to enable happiness. I think the point is not that museums should be happiness engines but that we can be. Museums are already good at connecting people to friends and letting them be part of something greater--we just have to work on the meaningful work and feedback part. And that's very doable. Unlike many other designed experiences, museum consumers have a great deal of agency in their visits. It is much easier to imagine museum-goers as "players" than to imagine book-readers or movie-goers as players. Museums are flexible, open spaces that support visitors creating their own connections with content. And one of the ways we should do so is via games and game mechanics.

I'll be thinking more about this and hope to play further with the idea of what a museum-specific "happiness engine" might look like. In the meantime, I'm curious to hear your thoughts. I also want to point out that you can find a LOT of game-related posts on this blog by clicking "game" in the tag cloud on the sidebar, or by clicking this link. Happy playing!

Monday, January 26, 2009

What the Inauguration Taught Me About Live Events

Last week, while my husband stood in a crowd of 1.8 million on the mall in DC, I sat down with 7.7 million of my closest friends to watch Barack Obama's inauguration via live streaming video on the internet. The experience was the culmination of an election season of escalating intersection between produced events and social media. And while many people have written ably about the ways the Obama administration is bringing a new social media sensibility to Washington, I want to share my experience of the inauguration and how it changed my attitude towards virtual participation in live events. I hope you'll share your own story in the comments.

I used the application to watch the inauguration live. The image at top is a screenshot from my experience. The video was streamed live, and on the right, you could see status updates from your Facebook friends and or all of Facebook. This is similar to watching the Twitter stream go by, but Twitter was so clogged during the inauguration that I mostly ignored it.

Watching the video plus status stream was an incredibly social experience. I was sitting alone in my cabin in the woods, but I felt like I was at a party with dozens of friends and colleagues around the world. We talked about the atmosphere in our offices, classrooms, and homes. We cheered and booed, questioned some parts and added additional content about others. While the viewing of the speech and related ceremonies would have likely been more powerful in person, the discussion and social engagement around the speech was as good as at any live event I've ever experienced. Not only could I feel the excitement of the crowd, I could also get direct, specific messages from individuals--the equivalent of people whispering in your ear. I could also tune them out at my discretion without being rude, and so I alternately drank at the social media firehouse and focused fully on Obama. I didn't have to choose between the noisy chatter and the highly produced push content. I could have both, instantaneously.

Some features of the platform worth noting:
  • The focus on status updates, rather than open chat, encouraged people to share their own original expressions rather than getting caught up in digital discussions that could easily spiral away from the experience at hand. This was a "me-to-we" experience rather than one big "we" chat room.
  • You could comment on someone else's update (see example about the celebratory bottle of wine), which provided a limited chat-type interaction. This enhanced the sense of connecting to other people and their experience of the event.
  • You could access the historical updates via the scroll bar on the right. You could experience the chatter in real-time and asynchronously.
  • URLs typed into the status updates were all live. While Facebook is in many ways a walled garden, they let you jump out to explore links easily.
  • You did not have to be watching via the portal to have your comments included in the live feed. Of the four friends whose updates you see in the screengrab, only Darius' were made via the portal. The others were folks who were using Facebook real-time to comment on their inauguration-viewing experience (which they were doing via another stream or on TV). In this case, this is an example of Facebook not creating a "wall within a wall" and restricting the activity to people only using the portal. Among my friend group, it appeared that only about 5% of friends who were updating their Facebook statuses were using the portal, so the experience would have been significantly less active without this openness.
  • There was advertising (Vicks ad, top right) and two commercial entities were presenting it. My social experience was brought to me by CNN and Facebook. This does not thrill me, but I understand that commercialism is the reality of the social media landscape.
Having had this experience, I can easily imagine myself watching other major events in the same way. I say "major" because the single biggest factor in the success of this social media/live event mash-up was its scale. The inauguration was such a self-consciously historic moment with so much media saturation that the majority of my acquaintances watched it live. I didn't have to plan in advance to use the CNN/Facebook portal; in fact, I didn't even know it existed until I saw a message on Twitter about it during the convocation. I went to a link, waited to be connected, and jumped into a discussion in full swing. Facebook averaged 4,000 status updates per minute during the broadcast, with over 600,000 updates posted directly via the platform. I just showed up--the party was guaranteed.

This isn't true of most live events. When museums and theaters try similarly to create a back-channel digital feeds for live events, the content and impact is heavily determined by the (relatively small) number of participants who actually use the platforms as creators and as spectators. This diminishes the sense of "live presence" that I felt during the inauguration into something choppier--the sporadic reports and interactions of a minority.

So what can a museum, arts organization, or event host do to create opportunities for experiences as rich as the one I had during the inauguration without millions of eyeballs?
  • Promote a sense of drama or urgency. If the event feels like it must be experienced live, people will be more likely to tune in at the same time rather than watching a recording later.
  • If it isn't live, make an event out of it. On Wednesday, the Center for the Future of Museums will be streaming Jane McGonigal's talk in December on Gaming and the Future of Museums. This is decidedly not a live talk, but the CFM is hosting a real-time screening (with chat opportunities) as a way to connect people with each other and the experience (and don't worry, the video will be available on YouTube as well).
  • Let people know in advance and give content creators perks. Check out this account of how a Portland theater set up an intentional live blogging/twittering experience for a recent play. They didn't just expect people to come and start typing--they set up a special area and way for them to do so.
  • Find ways for people to engage with friends they already know. I was not interested in the "Everyone Watching" feed on Facebook, nor do I care for the public timeline on Twitter. I find social network tools valuable because they connect me to people I value, not faceless masses. Similarly, I care much more about connecting with my family, colleagues, and friends during live events than with strangers.
  • Use the simplest platform possible. I use Today's Meet to create back channel chat rooms for live lectures because it doesn't require users to register accounts or learn a complicated system.
  • Integrate as many platforms as possible. The most powerful way to visualize all the conversations around an event is to find a way to capture them where they happen, walled gardens be damned. Digitally, this can mean using APIs to pull data from multiple feeds, but conceptually, it just means finding ways to retrieve and display content in many ways. If you have only one kind of feedback mechanism (i.e. comment cards, phone message machine, Facebook, etc.) you will only hear from the people who use that platform comfortably.
How did you experience the inauguration socially? What role (if any) did social media play in your experience?

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Guest Post: Shaking up the Ecological Landscape

Elizabeth Merritt is the director of the Center for the Future of Museums, a new project of the American Association of Museums (AAM). In this post, she describes the thinking behind the Center and asks for your help in shaping its future.

When I was given the opportunity to found the Center for the Future of Museums (CFM) I had been working for nearly 10 years with Museum Assessment and Accreditation at AAM. These are programs that encourage museums to conform to proven models of success (standards and best practices). I had begun to see potential drawbacks to relying entirely on this approach, and CFM is an opportunity to provide a counterbalance. My training is in biology, so I am going to use an ecological metaphor to explain my thinking on this.

In a stable environment, like a climax forest or the African savanna, animals that have few young and invest a lot of effort in rearing them tend to be highly successful. (Think elephants, for example.) Often these organisms have little variation, from generation to generation, because they have worked out a near-perfect fit to the niche they occupy. Change is more likely to be bad (maladaptive) than good. This is called a “K” strategy. In rapidly changing environments, more species adopt an “r” strategy—they have lots and lots of offspring, most of which die, and often high levels of genetic variation. (Grasshoppers, for example.) They flood the unstable, disturbed landscape with the potential next generation, and see who survives. r-selected species are sometimes called opportunistic, while K-selected species are described as being in equilibrium.

I would argue that for the past century, museums have been operating in equilibrium. Individually and as a field they have flourished by adopting a K strategy. Relatively few new museums are started each year, and those that do rarely fail (compared, for example, to the rate of start ups and failures for small businesses). And when individual museums invest in projects, such as exhibits, they tend to put a lot of their resources into proven models (gallery, furniture, labels, marketing, audio guides, associated programs), and count on them succeeding. In a stable environment, that worked pretty well. But everything now points to a profound shift in the economic, demographic, political, social and technological environment in which we operate. I think we need to encourage museums to be more opportunistic—try lots of new things with relatively small investment of resources, knowing that most of them will fail and learning from those that succeed. Maybe we need to encourage experimental start-up museums to try entirely new ways of operating, accepting that many of them might close if their approaches don’t work out.

This proposition begs two big questions: what new things might museums try, and how can they afford the risk, even those requiring relatively small investments? I am trying to engineer CFM to help provide solutions to those questions—to be a kind of “skunk works” for the whole museum field.

First—where do we get new ideas about how museums might operate? Preferably ideas that come with some sort of track record suggesting they might be good ideas rather than duds. Here’s where another ecological concept comes in handy, something called the “edge effect,”—the phenomenon of two different habitats butting up against each other. Where a forest gives way to grassland, for example, or a lake meets the shore, the biological diversity of this edge tends to be richer and more varied than in either habitat alone. Museums benefit from the intellectual equivalent of the edge effect. If we rub up against other fields—political science, psychology, games theory, the entertainment industry—we will encounter concepts that may be old hat (or cool innovations) in those fields, but have interesting new applications when transposed to museums. In fact, I am demonstrating the intellectual edge effect here, exploring how an ecological concept applies to museology!

I am acutely aware, however, that most museum staff don’t have time to go looking in other sectors for good ideas that might shake up their thinking, especially stretched as thin as they are by the national financial crisis. This is one area where CFM can help—we can spend time trawling for innovative thinkers who are interested in contributing their ideas to how discoveries in their fields of work might be adapted by museums. Some museums are already pioneering this approach, and CFM can help share what they find so that other museums can benefit. For example, Gary Vikan at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore is starting the Center for Applied Research in the Arts to explore new ways to fulfill the museum’s mission, drawing from fields of study not usually associated with research in art museums, such as anthropology and neuroscience, and theoretical work on cognitive behavior and creativity. That is a fascinating approach to taking a new look at the way people interact with and benefit from art.

The Center is reaching outside the field to begin making such connections. Working with Dr. Jane McGonigal of the Institute for the Future (IFTF) we are mining her expertise on futures forecasting and games design to explore what games can teach museums about creating compelling experiences and influencing people’s behavior. Over 100 museum practitioners have participated in the IFTF Massive Multiplayer Online Forecasting game Superstruct, exploring how society and museums can adapt to challenges that may face us ten years from now. IFTF’s forecasters created a future scenario that is entirely plausible, though at the extreme end of the spectrum, combining the “superthreats” including a worsening energy crisis, increased epidemic disease and refugees displaced by economic, political and climatic upheavals. One of the results is a report from the future CFM (on its ten-year anniversary!) Museums and Society 2019. This wiki document is a collaborative picture of how museums are affected by the future described in the IFTF game forecasts, and how they are helping society to cope. This document is still being edited through April 2009, and will be shared at the AAM annual meeting—I encourage you to contribute your thoughts! Dr. McGonigal’s CFM lecture on “Gaming the Future of Museums” (given at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. on Dec. 2, 2008) will be offered as a free webcast on Jan. 28. We are encouraging people to watch in groups and participate in the online reception following the lecture, to debate her ideas about the nature of happiness and what museums can learn from computer games.

We have also worked with James Chung and Susie Wilkening of Reach Advisors to create a somewhat more conservative forecast of the future of museums in twenty-five years: Museums and Society 2034: Threats and Potential Futures. This report is a jumping off point for an exploration of how we as a field will deal with these trends. For example, in twenty-five years this country will be majority minority. Currently, only one in ten museum visitors and twenty-five percent of staff are non-Caucasian. This does not bode well. It gets even more alarming when considered in light of James’ and Susie’s other research which suggests that most people who become life-long passionate museum advocates have a seminal museum experience between the ages of five and nine. What can museums do now to increase the opportunities for minority children to have a “museum conversion” experience? If we miss this opportunity, we decrease the chance that this growing segment of the population will support museums in the future, or transmit a love of museums to their children and grandchildren.

Other quick previews of projects CFM is exploring:
  • Working with Peter Bishop of the Futures Studies program of the University of Houston to conduct scenario planning with the field, based on the Reach Advisors report, modeling what museums can do now to shape a better future.
  • Exploring, with Peter Linett of Slover-Linett Strategies and the Cultural Policy Center at the University of Chicago the possibility of creating an experimental laboratory for museum practice – a way to encourage radical thinking about what an exhibit (or a museum experience more generally) can be.
  • Creating a National Museum Forecasting network, modeled on programs such as the Millennium Project, identifying people across the country who can contribute to ongoing projections of trends in the museum field, analyze how trends in economics, culture, policy etc. will affect museums, and invite input from museum practitioners.
These projects may all take off or they may all fail, and that’s ok. Modeling the behavior we are encouraging in museums, we know we may test 10 ideas that flop for everyone that works. We are going to apply the principles of “evolutionary design”--start with a small, simple system, test it against the real world, and modify it incrementally to make it function better. This approach creates a nimble system, responsive to the need for rapid change. It also minimizes risk, as CFM will not invest heavily in pre-designed infrastructure that may turn out to be inappropriate. Instead, it will test many small pieces, building on those that work and discarding those that don’t. Evolutionary design encourages innovation by making failure of any trial component less expensive.

Speaking of feedback, the most important help I need right now is input from the field. We are looking for people who want to be involved in CFM—generating and testing ideas, making connections with creative thinkers outside the field, crowd-sourcing our museum forecasting. Please email me at or write a comment here if you want to join us in creating the future!

Monday, January 19, 2009

Diamond-Encrusted Skull Spawns Video Feedback Interactive: News at 11

In December, I saw Damien Hirst’s piece For the Love of God while it was exhibited at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. It’s a platinum-cast skull encrusted with over 1100 carats of diamonds: a hype machine in death’s clothing. Advertisements for the skull blanketed Amsterdam, and other museums even tried to get in on the buzz generated by its presentation. Entering the exhibit involved standing in line in galleries full of Dutch masterpieces (mostly ignored) and then emerging into a dark room with guards and the skull terrifically lit in the center. You weren’t sure how much time you were supposed to spend with the object or what to get out of it. There was no interpretative content in the room, and you were not allowed to take pictures. I walked in, self-consciously watched myself watching other people watching the skull, then walked out.

The reason I’m writing about For the Love Of God is not the skull but the post-visit feedback interactive that accompanied it. At the physical museum, visitors who wished to provide feedback on the skull were instructed to leave the building and walk into a temporary structure that served as both a For the Love of God gift shop and feedback environment. The feedback stations themselves were little closed booths where you could record a video with your opinion about the skull.

By positioning the feedback stations outside the flow of the museum (and within a solely skull-branded structure), the resultant videos were more topical and focused than museum standard. But the thing that makes this project stand out is the way these videos are shared on the Web. They are displayed on the For the Love of God website, which was created for the museum by an outside vendor, skipintro. The format is reminiscent of Jonathan Harris’ We Feel Fine project, allowing users to view the videos by country of origin, gender, age, and some key concepts (love it/hate it, think it’s art/think it's hype). The videos were automatically chromakeyed (i.e. masked or cropped) so that each person appears as a floating head, which creates an eerie, appealing visual consistency. The browsing experience is somewhat clunky and the filters are not always accurate, but the overall website is impressive in its display and aggregation of videos. Note that not all of the recorded videos were used on the website; videos were culled for volume, and "harsh and insulting" ones were removed.

This is the first attempt I’ve seen to meaningfully aggregate visitor feedback videos and present them in a way that is consistent with the rest of the exhibit experience. It’s no coincidence that Hirst is known for art that aggressively courts and plays with hype. The visitors' videos on the website are couched in self-conciousness buzz, with a welcome screen informing you that, “never before has a work of art provoked as much dialogue as Damien Hirst’s ‘For the Love of God.’” Oh really? Never?

Whether true or not, the website implies that the visitors’ videos are a justification for this claim, a demonstration of the rich dialogue supposedly surrounding this skull. In this way, the visitors’ videos are integrated into the larger art piece and are arguably as much a part of the skull experience as the posters, the lines, and the guards. The existence of controversy is part of the intentional setting of the skull, and so visitors are encouraged to talk.

Are visitors’ reactions really proof of dialogue or controversy? No. But I'm enthused by the suggestion that feedback stations needn't be just an add-on to pander to visitors, but instead, a supporting framework for the overall goals of the exhibit. If you are creating an exhibition about controversy, how are you promoting controversial actions and reactions by visitors? If you are creating an exhibition about democracy, how do you encourage visitors to behave democratically during their visit? How can you create participatory elements that support your overall exhibit goals?

Unfortunately, you can't look to the For the Love of God website for a perfect answer. The interface is lovely and portrays the videos in an artistic way, but the content doesn't convey dialogue or controversy. The visitor videos are interesting for several reasons—the range of languages spoken, the presentation of the floating heads, opinions expressed about one singular piece of art rather than general commentary on the museum visit--but they are fundamentally individual, discontinuous sound bites. They are grouped, but they aren't threaded or placed head-to-head in a way that would convey dialogue. From the perspective of the hierarchy of participation, For the Love of God, like Free2Choose, straddles the barrier between level 3 and level 4. It has some "me-to-we" elements, since each person's video ("me") is aggregated into various filtered "we" groups, but there is no way for an individual to connect with anyone else, to comment on their video, see what else they've said, or express their support or lack thereof for the opinion expressed.

The result is an overall viewer experience of dislocated, strange beauty, not discussion about art. If the designers had really wanted to promote the dialogue around the skull, they might have created feedback stations that required visitors to interview each other, or answer questions posed by other visitor videos. Instead, they created a prettier visualization of the same old system.

I'm still waiting for the video feedback system that truly encourages visitors to engage with each other by curating and commenting on each other's videos, let alone recording videos in reference to each other. For the Love of God is an attractive website that values visitor feedback as part of the meaning-making around a piece of art. But provoking dialogue? We’ve still got a long way to go.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

The Exclusivity Paradox

What's the best way to maximize participation in a social platform? There are some tried-and-true answers: make the platform easy to use, welcome people in. Tell prospective users, "anyone can contribute!" "This is for everyone!"

I used to believe this, but recently, I've started to wonder if the message that these projects are "for everyone" undercuts our ability to serve the relatively few people who will actually contribute. They're special, and maybe we should start treating them as unique members of an exclusive society. Let me explain.

It’s common to have low expectations with regard to the number of people who will create content in participatory platforms (online media-sharing sites, contributory projects, story-sharing exhibits). In social media, the rule of thumb is 90-9-1: 90% spectate, 9% comment or rate content, and 1% produce content. On sites like Wikipedia and YouTube, the ratio of spectators to producers is even more pronounced; on sites like Flickr or Facebook, the ratio is lower.

1% is a pretty exclusive club. And yet ironically, we spend most of our time with participatory projects accentuating how open they are. We think we must design these platforms to be as open and welcoming as possible, so that everyone feels able to contribute content.

But the truth is that very few people participate as content creators. Only some people are motivated that way. And so I wonder if we wouldn’t be better served as designers by accentuating the uniqueness of these creative participants. Think of Harry Potter. Not everyone is a wizard in J. K. Rowling's world—in fact, very few people are wizards. The thing that’s captivating about Harry Potter, and Willy Wonka, and Jedi knights, and X-Men, is that they are part of a special, highly exclusive club. They have some innate ability, deformity, or lucky moment that vaults them into secret societies where their full talents are expressed and appreciated.

And so imagine if, instead of launching a community project and stating, “this is a place where anyone can contribute,” you launched and said, “Only one in a hundred people will share something here. Are you that one?” The idea that the user might be someone special, someone in the minority, is evocative and immensely appealing. If everyone can do it, why bother? If only YOU can do it, the motivation goes up.

For example, I’m working with a museum on an exhibition platform to support people becoming “more green,” and for obvious reasons, we want to encourage everyone to feel like there is some action they can take to reduce their carbon footprint. But if only 1% of the museum visitors will really use the platform, perhaps we should be designing a secret underground society of green warriors and inviting visitors to see if they have what it takes to be part of it. That fantasy, that users might be something greater than anticipated, might ironically drive participation up above 1% as more people want to be “part of the club.”

This secret power impulse is often overlooked by people like me, who are mostly focused on the democratic, communal elements of social technology. But for many people, the chance to show off abilities as a writer, a photographer, a videographer—talents that may not be appreciated in a day job--are primary motivators for participation. This goes beyond having your fifteen minutes of internet fame. It’s about finding a venue where you feel validated as the superhero you secretly know you are.

Games do this. Why don't social community projects? I’ve seen some projects that play a bit by asking you to sort yourself into a group, to narrow your participation via an affinity or ability. But I haven’t seen any that message prominently the concept that this ISN’T for everyone—it’s for the superheroes who secretly live among us. Maybe if we focus on supporting users' inner superpowers, we’ll attract more active content creators, people who were just waiting to throw on a cape and get moving.

What do you think? Is this a flawed argument that will lead to less participation, not more? Are you part of the rare superhero species (0.1% of Museum 2.0 readers) who will read this post… and comment on it?

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Quick Hit: Good Reads, Webcasts, and Retreats

A few good links that have been zooming across my screen:
  • A long and incredibly thoughtful piece by Diana Ragsdale about the value proposition of arts organizations in the midst of a "culture change." Diana starts with an analysis of the psychology of survivors and extends her view to the potential for museums, orchestras, and arts institutions to survive and thrive. As she puts it: To survive the culture change, we need to start by accepting that (1) it exists and it has fundamentally changed our world; and (2) to solve the mystery of why 30-year-olds won’t buy tickets to the symphony, we’re going to need to put more on the autopsy table than the season brochure.
  • There's an excellent newish blog, New Curator, focused on the future of museums. If you feel that Museum 2.0 posts are too long, too infrequent, too editorial, then New Curator may be the blog of your dreams. Of course, I hope there is room for both these blogs (and others) in your dreams.
  • You can now listen to all the segments in NPR's series on Museums in the 21st Century online. The most recent segment, about interactivity and gaming, features superstar game designer Jane McGonigal's recent presentation for AAM's new Center for the Future of Museums (CFM). Next week, Museum 2.0 will feature a guest post from the director of the CFM, Beth Merritt, and in two weeks, the CFM will be streaming the video of Jane's talk for free.
  • The NAME/AAM Creativity and Collaboration retreat (May 31-June 2, 2009) is now open for registration. It's a great opportunity to learn from amazingly creative leaders from Burning Man, Lucas Films, World Without Oil, and the Exploratorium Learning Studio, and work with exhibit and experience design colleagues in a beautiful natural setting. I set up a participatory site for the retreat alongside the more traditional AAM offering to provide a more interactive interface. We're curious to hear your thoughts about the site, but more importantly, I hope you'll consider coming to the retreat. I know that money for travel is exceedingly tight right now, but I can't think many better ways to find new direction, inspiration, or a job than by coming to something like this.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Guest Post: Participation Rocks!

This post was written by Screamin’ Scott Simon, member of the band Sha Na Na since 1970 and Nina’s father. While this post is not about museums, it tells the story of how a performance group developed participatory elements as an integral part of their show.

For most rock bands, the signature moment of audience participation is when the singer shouts “HELLO, CLEVELAND!” If the band happens to be in Cleveland that night, the audience feels included…”He’s talking to US!”

For the band I’ve been working with since 1970—Sha Na Na—this is not quite enough. We’ve always been a band that engages in play, whether that means wearing crazy costumes or interacting with the audience. We see the stage as a safe place for taking some participatory risks—we handpick volunteers who come up to dance and compete, and their terror, fame, and hijinks only last a few minutes. For our band, blending of audience members into the show (and the show into the audience) reinforces the idea that the show is “for kids of all ages” and that older guys onstage doing the Hokey Pokey or young kids coming up and doing the Hand Jive is something that is entertaining for everyone.

We started as ten guys in gold lame suits and 50’s street garb doing a rapidfire series of classic oldies. By 1973, we’d added our first audience participation segment, the Dance Contest. The idea came from the wife of one of the guys, although certainly dance contests have been a feature of rock & roll since Dick Clark hosted American Bandstand. The contest happened about 2/3 of the way through the show, and created a break from the endless stream of songs which preceded it. Originally the contestants were pre-screened and told to be at a specific place (the security gate keeping the audience away from backstage) at a specific time (“when we play In The Still of the Night, come to the security gate….”). As time went by, we realized we could actually descend into the audience in real time and pick women from the crowd, so that the impression that the dancers were “ringers” would be dispelled. It was a real contest, with actual contestants “who these guys have never met before.”

Since the contestants were legitimate, when asked their name, age, and high school the audience would feel an intense connection with the moment. And when the crowd became the judges and jury determining the outcome by their applause, their votes designated the winner (who won a dance with the ample Lennie Baker, the sensuous king of rock and roll). For a shining moment, it was the hometown women/girls who were the “stars.” Although the segment lasted less than 10 minutes, it was a bonding with the city we were playing in. It also provided some female presence onstage which otherwise was full of our guys only. The dancing guys from the band might even inquire about local high schools that THEY could claim to be from, and all of a sudden EVERYBODY in the contest was apparently from Cleveland (or wherever). Local kids make good!

In 1984, we replaced the Dance Contest with a new audience participation segment inspired by the presence of the Olympic Games in Los Angeles: The Greaser Olympics. Again it was three contestants competing, this time in a Greaser Triathalon: the limbo, the hula hoop, and the twist. The big payoff was the presentation of the gold, silver, and bronze medals against a backdrop of the three coaches holding 5 hula hoops in the Olympic symbol, while the contestants were being serenaded by the Statue of Lennie (dressed as the Statue of Liberty) singing a slightly altered version of “Only in America.” For the Olympics, we broadened our reach, choosing contestants without regard to age or gender. In fact, the then 5-year-old Nina Simon was a repeat gold medal Olympian. Her hula-hooping was show-stopping. If there were two females and one male as contestants, the boy/man would often win mainly because of the audience’s sympathy for the poor guy.

Another ten years passed, a period during which there was a female in the act. When the last of the four women who filled the role departed, there were some couple-dance segments that needed to be filled, and once again we looked to the audience. We’d grab one woman for a twist dance (“Cmon baby, Let’s do the Twist” being taken literally). Then another woman is chosen to do the Stroll. Eventually we also invited people onstage to prove they were “Born to Hand Jive,” males to do the Hokey Pokey, and finally a female to be the object of desire during “Save the Last Dance for Me.” These five songs in a row are still a staple of the opening “At the Hop” segment of the show, frontloading the audience participation and literally bringing the audience into the show right from the start. The performers are no longer icons to be stared at from afar. The audience is literally in on it.

How do we pick our participants? Finding “willing victims” from the audience involves a very quick sizing-up of people who are seated near the stage and actively engaged as audience. Some of these participatory songs give us only 12 measures (not a lot of time!) to get someone onstage. The most basic rule of thumb is that willing participants add more vitality to their role than those who are reluctant and resist being dragged onstage. We don’t bring anyone onstage who doesn’t want to be there if possible, because they won’t put energy into whatever it is we ask them to do, and the show will suffer for their discomfort being so obvious. No one is forced to participate. We try and find likely suspects, and “pick on” them. We want them to succeed, to win.

But it’s not easy. They don’t know what they are getting into when they show up at the concert. They shrink from participating. They look down. Or they are drunk and you don’t want them onstage because they’ll be out of control. You want them to be a little cowed, a little awed, but you also want them to be enthusiastic.

Sometimes no one wants to volunteer—but they want to volunteer someone else. I often see someone who is actively volunteering their spouse, their kid, their friend….standing and waving and pointing “Pick THIS ONE” while the person they are pointing at is looking very uncomfortable. I approach the person doing all the waving and pointing, look at the person they are pointing at, then look back to the waver… and grab the waver’s hand. Invariably they shrink in horror at thought of going onstage themselves. The person who was being pointed at immediately springs to life…supporting the justice in their victimizer being transformed into the victim. I merely say “This is what you get for volunteering someone ELSE” and drag the waver/pointer onstage. All in good fun.

Are there times when we don’t do the Olympics or bring people up to dance? It’s rare. Sometimes, we’ll read the audience, see that they are having a great time on their own—especially at a private party where we’re a kind of live jukebox for their dancing and fun—and skip it. You can’t create enough energy to support the participation without a critical mass. It’s one thing to grab a person and do a dance. It’s another thing to pull up three people and ask everyone else to applaud and vote when there are only 60 of them in the room—it feels like there’s nobody there.

Ultimately the use of the audience onstage is a demystification of the theory that only “professionals” should be exposed to performing in the spotlight, as “regular” people turn out in many cases to take very entertaining turns onstage. It’s their enthusiasm that shines through. After thousands of performances, we’ve developed a sixth sense as to which audience members will most likely enhance the moment. We grab them, we briefly coach them as to what they have to do, and they succeed almost every time. For a brief moment they become stars. They get their five minutes of fame. Friends and family rush to the front to take cellphone photos and memorialize the moment that someone they know was onstage with Sha Na Na. We let them take a bow and escort them back beyond the footlights to rejoin their fellows. And then…… on with the show!

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

A Starting Exercise for Designing Online/Onsite Engagement

Several of the projects I'm working on these days relate to the concept of "extending the museum experience." Every time I hear that phrase, I have this uneasy vision of a visitor being stretched on a rack, hands and feet pulled in opposite directions towards mythical pre- and post-visit experiences. It's easy to (erroneously) extrapolate the linear, fixed experience of the museum visit to create comparably linear experiences that happen before the visitor shows up (in the plan a visit section of the website) and after the visitor leaves (when he or she might receive an email with a photo snapped at the museum). But most online experiences are not linear. They are not restricted to a single place and time. And so when it comes to designing online extensions to the museum experience, we need to apply a different set of expectations from those we use to design onsite experiences.

I want to share with you an exercise I've been using to tease out the role of the online and onsite components of a blended museum experience. This is somewhat related to a previous post on cross-platform engagement, but can be generalized to any type of project. It's a useful exercise if you know you want to combine an exhibit or program with the Web in "some amazing way" but don't have an obvious path to get there.

The outcome is a map that helps you focus your actions and choices in the online and onsite environment. The example shown is from a museum with a new green building trying to use the example of the building to encourage visitors to adopt eco-friendly behaviors. How did we make this map and how are we using it? Read on.

Step 1: Identify your goal. This should be expressed in terms of visitor outcome, i.e. "visitors will understand how their decisions impact the environment," or "visitors will see themselves as historians who have something to contribute to the collective record." You can see the goal at the top of the map in the example.

Step 2: List the ways that this goal can be accomplished onsite and online... separately.
Take a piece of paper, write ONSITE on one side, ONLINE on the other, and then start listing the ways that the platform accommodates the goal. For example, taking the "historians" goal above, one onsite way to accomplish it would be to exhibit some visitor-submitted artifacts with an explanation of their historical relevance. An online way might be to invite visitors to participate in a forum and share their own opinions about what deserves to be saved and conserved. These lists can be specific ideas, such as the two suggested here, or they can be general attributes. For example, onsite you can engage in immersive sensory environments, online you can visit from the comfort of your own home, and so on.

Step 3: Sort the lists based on what is unique and common to each platform. Move the concepts that can be accomplished both onsite and online to the middle and the unique ideas to the sides. This allows you to start to see which kinds of activities will reinforce each other (because the experiences will be overlapping between the Web and the museum) and which will add new value (because the experiences will not overlap). Depending on your goal, you may prefer to focus on the commonalities or unique differences. If you are trying to reach diverse, potentially global audiences, pursuing multiple distinct approaches may be most useful. If you are trying to create an online/onsite experience that is as seamless and aligned as possible, you may trend towards the middle.

Step 4: Sort the lists based on what is most important or valuable in pursuit of your goals. Ask your team to underline or mark the concepts--no matter where they fall on the map--that they think are most fundamental to your overall concept and strategy. For example, if your goal is related to empathy, interpersonal concepts--like group play at interactives or social engagement on the Web--may be most important.

Step 5: Make it pretty. When I do this exercise with people, the result is a pretty messy map of phrases with different colored dots and underlines and stars all over the place. I reorganize it into a tag cloud so it's easier to interpret and use.

Step 6: Use it to drive design decisions. In the sample map shown above, you can see in bold the most important elements (per step 4). For example, online "repeat visits" are important to this museum, which means that the online component needs to provide enough diversity of experience to support multiple visits. You can also see that concepts like "museum provides validation and value" are key to both online and onsite experiences, which suggests building feedback mechanisms for both platforms that help visitors feel the presence and encouragement of the institution. However, interaction with staff, while acknowledged as important to onsite experiences, is not one that they see as most relevant to their goal, so that is not highlighted and is not being built into the design.

One of the strange things about this exercise is that you'll find at the end that the phrases you've written down are not solely related to your singular goal--many are generic attributes of onsite and online platforms. If you use this exercise more than once, some of the same phrases and words will come up again and again. But that's good. You are articulating the design opportunities and limitations of each platform, and then picking the options most relevant to your goal. You aren't using one platform (like the onsite experience) as the base and then sticking the Web onto and around it. Instead, you are using your conceptual goal as the lens through which to design and evaluate online and onsite experiences. The result is a design strategy that isn't stuck in the "exhibit way" of doing things. I hope it's helpful to you.