Thursday, October 29, 2009

Quick Poll: Progress on the Book and a One-Question Poll

Hi folks. This is just a quick post to update you on the status of my book on design for participation in cultural institutions. Three items worth noting:
  1. I completed the entire draft manuscript. I'm currently slowly uploading the new text to the wiki, and it will all be there for you to review, edit, and explore by the end of this week.
  2. I've retained Jennifer Rae Atkins, superlative graphic lady, to create the cover art and illustrations for the book.
  3. The current schedule is to complete content development by the end of the year, copy-edit and layout in January, and go into final layout and production in February. You should be able to hold a book in your hand in March 2010.
I promise this blog will not be overly book-oriented in the coming months; in fact, I hope to get back to a more regular blogging schedule now that the creative work on the book is mostly completed.

But for now, I have one simple task I hope you can help me with: naming the book. Please fill out the one-question poll below to share your thoughts on the most effective title. And thanks!

Reflections on MuseumNext and Facilitating Brainstorming

Last week, Jim Richardson and I hosted MuseumNext, a 24-hour workshop for museum professionals focused on bringing new, wild museum projects into the world. It was held in Newcastle in the north of England, and about 70 folks from around the world (but mostly Europe) came to play, learn, make stuff, and help each other work out challenges inherent in trying to make risky ideas happen. Thank you to everyone who came and helped co-create an exciting experimental event in a beautiful city.

MuseumNext had four main sections:
  1. Interactive activities, including an opening workshop with a group of designers associated with an extremely wonderful exhibition called Doing it for the Kids featuring sustainable toy designs. Participants sewed sock aliens, injection-molded army men, constructed robots, and drew animals. We also ended the entire event with one of my favorite exercises, the Exquisite Corpse game, in which participants co-created comics of their craziest museum dreams.
  2. "Wild idea" sessions, featuring six dream projects, some already in motion, others firmly ensconsed in their creators' heads. Folks from the Utah Museum of Natural History, Worcester City Museum, Manchester Art Gallery, Centre for Life, Netherlands Architecture Institute, and the Knowledge Media Research Center (Germany) brought projects they wanted to make happen, and each worked with a group of about 10 other participants for about four hours over the course of the two days to work out plans and ideas to move the projects along. The projects ranged from activating a dead collection to developing a mystery game around a strange artifact to developing a hackerspace to planning for massive changes to institutions new and old. Click any link above to see the video from the initial pitch and final report from each group.
  3. Unconference sessions, featuring topics as diverse as "playing an ARG" (with real labyrinth adventures), "engaging visitors who were dragged to the museum," and "measuring and defining success in participatory projects." We only did two rounds of these, but they were very active and I think a lot of people were surprised to find them so useful even though they were organized on the spot.
  4. Facilitator bits. I gave an hour-long talk about participatory design practices (video here), and Jim gave a small tour of an exhibition he had organized nearby. We also had quite an extensive reporting-out session at the end with the Wild Idea session leaders sharing what they had learned and where they would go next. I was thrilled to frequently hear, "I started out thinking X, but my group convinced me Y."
To me, the greatest value of MuseumNext was the Wild Idea sessions, but they were also the component that I would most revise in a future incarnation of this kind of event. On the positive side, the Wild Idea sessions allowed people to do something that is usually very expensive: get outside perspectives and support on their projects. I was very interested in the way an event like this can effectively flip the standard model for brainstorming with outsiders; rather than each project leader paying individuals to come help work on their project, everyone paid to come and help each other. While the program still involved money and travel, to my eyes, it was much more efficient to bring together a large group of smart people, let them pick the projects they thought they could both contribute to and learn from, and then let them go at it. I'd like to see larger conferences incorporating an element like this--a structured opportunity for people to brainstorm with those who are outside their own personal networks.

That said, the phrase "structured opportunity" is where MuseumNext suffered most. While Jim and I explained clearly to Wild Idea proposers what they needed to do to submit their project for consideration before MuseumNext, we didn't give them enough support in actually facilitating their group brainstorming at the event. The groupwork was not easy; few participants knew each other or the institutions in question before showing up the first night. I realized too late that brainstorming with strangers is something I'm used to, but it's not inherent in the job descriptions of most museum collections managers, educators, and researchers who were leading the groups. Everyone worked hard and did do a fabulous job, but we had the typical problems with unbalanced participation, people getting confused or frustrated, and overall project time management.

And so I would like to offer a public apology for this, and to share with you some of the lessons of facilitating brainstorming that I have learned over many years of successful and not so successful workshops. I tried to help workshop leaders work some of these in on the fly, but that put unreasonable stress on them. I'm sorry. You did great.

To remedy this error, here are four things I've learned about facilitating brainstorming sessions. They sound obvious, but several took me years to figure out.
  1. Vary the activities. I like to incorporate talking, writing, and doing/making into workshops. This both breaks up the time and supports participants who feel most comfortable expressing themselves in different ways. By varying activities, you can involve everyone without putting quieter participants on the spot--instead, you find the activity where they shine. This started for me when I worked with a group that included some very vocal and very quiet folks - we used worksheets to balance out the skills and avoid always favoring the big talkers. And I'm a really active person, itchy if sitting too long, so I like to add in some physical exercises to get people moving (and, where reasonable, engaging with visitors). If you need a source for good activities, there's a world of training methodologies on the web.
  2. Give a schedule and list of target goals, even if you don't entirely stick to it. People like to feel that they are making progress, and if you can "check things off the list" as a group, it helps everyone stay focused and motivated.
  3. If you are working for several hours, slot it over two days. In my experience, one-day brainstorming sessions for new projects leave some people a bit uneasy because it moves so quickly. They feel like things are getting "decided" before they can really think things through. Sleeping on it often brings people back on day two focused, confident, and ready to work. At MuseumNext, we used this model, and while many people left on the first night in some form of despair, they were amazed at how everything came together on day two. I've seen this bear out in many kick-off meetings for projects, and that's why if you call me about a one-day workshop, I'll probably ask for two.
  4. Always start and end with something creative. This may reflect my bias towards doing, but I find that if you get people doing something a bit silly, they get out of normal patterns and hangups and are more willing to think broadly. Also, how people feel at the beginning and end of a workshop significantly impacts how they feel about the overall event. At MuseumNext, these creative bits were the design workshop and the Exquisite Corpse activity, but I've done everything from social games to zombie yoga (seriously).
What do you find helpful in facilitating brainstorming on new projects with diverse group members? If you were at MuseumNext, what else can you share about the event to help others understand what you got out of it?

Monday, October 26, 2009

Please Don't Send Me to My Personal Webpage

Yesterday, I visited the Experimentarium, a science center just north of Copenhagen in Denmark. There were many intriguing exhibits and a novel cellphone game (more on that in another post), but I was particularly interested in their new special exhibition on the brain. This exhibition uses RFID tags to allow visitors to save their work throughout the space--something that many institutions have been experimenting with for almost ten years now. And while the Brain exhibition has some qualities that were significantly improved over other RFID-enabled exhibitions (better scanning of the tags, more content-rich personalized welcome screens, effective timeouts if you walked away, a semi-useful group option to accommodate families), it offered an output mechanism that is dated and downright frustrating: the personal webpage.

Many institutions that are pursuing online/onsite experience connections have lighted on the personal webpage as THE way to deliver post-visit experiences. Here's the basic idea: while you are at the museum, you save digitizable content--either content you make (photos of yourself) or content you collect (museum-supplied text or media of interest). When you get home, you type a long code into a web browser or receive an email with a link. Go to that link, and you will find a custom webpage featuring all of the assets you saved or made onsite.

The personal webpage has many adherents, and some institutions, like The Tech Museum in San Jose, have been offering them for almost a decade. There are some obvious positives to this strategy. It provides visitors with a "special place" for their content, which is both highly customized to their experience and out of view from other visitors to the museum's website. But these positives are outweighed by a glaring negative: these personal webpages are (usually) an experiential dead end. They provide the bare bones of what you've created in a totally decontextualized way, outside the infrastructure of other institutional digital content and outside the social context of other visitors. These pages often look barren. They don't live in an ecosystem of other experiences. They display the assets you've created and beyond that, nothing but a link to the institution's main website.

This makes for a very low-engagement post-visit experience. For example, check out this personal webpage I produced with my partner, Sibley, at the Experimentarium yesterday. We swiped our RFID tags all over the Brain exhibition to save our actions, scores, and preferences. We spent time on a digital profile-building activity that required us to enter many fields, including name, age, gender, and four screens of subjective questions about how we think (so much that our friend Nynne didn't do it because it was taking so long). Given all of the time commitment we were asked to put into the tag system onsite, I assumed that when we got home, we'd get some kind of personal profile that showed what we'd done, how it mapped to our profiles and our behavior relative to each other or other visitors to date.

Instead, we each got a basic set of text recommendations to cultivate our brains, against a psychedelic background that provides links to the exhibition's webpage but no substantial ties between our experience and the exhibition content, or even with each other. In some cases, we were provided with the same results we saw onsite (Sibley's time in a learning curve activity... not sure what happened to mine), but onsite, we were able to explore that data relative to other visitors to date, whereas the webpage just provides a static image. At the bottom of the page, there's an option to "remove my personal data" (please don't click this) - and I found myself staring at it semi-incredulous that this impersonal website had anything to do with the data I had generated onsite.

I will not be using this webpage to dig deeper. I will not be coming back to it for more in the future. While it has generated a single click from an email to the web (and many more clicks if you check it out), it has not sent me down the road towards a deeper relationship with the content, the exhibition, or the institution. It didn't even let Sibley and I laugh at how we compared to each other! It's an outpost for some cheap content, and that's immediately obvious to me when I get there.

The Tech's system is barely better in what is provided, offering a glimpse into the actual exhibits you visited and the content (mostly photos) you took onsite. But again, this content is not connected either to more content nor to other visitors. I'd love to see my thermal camera shot in a gallery of many thermal camera shots, and learn from how other visitors used the camera to generate strange images. Instead, I just get my narcissistic output, which may be a reasonable souvenir but is little else.

How can museums improve on this personal webpage strategy?
Contextualize the output with more content. There are some museums which, instead of giving you your content on a bare webpage, create an "account" for you on a more dynamic and content-rich site. The US Holocaust Memorial Museum's Take Action website does this. Associated with a small exhibition on genocide in which visitors can make personal pledges (extensive coverage here) that are digitally tracked, the website allows visitors to "log in" with their pledge number to access custom content--but that content is layered into the multi-media site rather than living in a barren online outpost. This means that visitors are encouraged to keep exploring the rich content on the site related to genocide, rather than checking out their creations and then closing the page.

Contextualize the output socially. It's perhaps even better (and cheaper) to wrap visitors' digital creations in a social enviroment than to do so with authoritative content. You don't even need your own platform to do this. Exhibits that produce content that goes to social websites like YouTube or Flickr are automatically presented in relation to other visitors' productions. When you make a video in the Mattress Factory's iConfess booth, it shows up on the iConfess YouTube channel. When you augment a photo in the Chicago History Museum's Get Lincolnized! system, your image becomes part of a Flickr stream. This allows each visitor to see her actions in the context of what others have done, and to become part of a light "community" of participants.

The Holocaust Museum's Take Action website incorporates this social context with a digital display allowing online and onsite visitors to browse pledges made and see their own words amongst those of others. Particularly for activities that emphasize the collective power of many individuals working toward the same goal, showing how each visitor's action is connected to the larger effort is essential.

Finally, if visitors are saving their activities in competitive environments like games, being able to see your score relative to others--either in your party or overall--is incredibly engaging. Imagine the return visit potential if the institution could automatically send visitors online alerts that someone else has bumped their top score off the chart, or if it challenged dad to try a comeback game against mom next month.

Motivate further active engagement. Remember, the people who chose to produce content onsite--to track themselves, to play games, to make pledges, to mess with their photos--were drawn specifically to active participatory experiences. They may not be the same people who are driven to read or consume lots of authoritative content on a topic. And so while some may appreciate deeper content experiences based on their initial entries, more may seek further ways to actively engage with the institution. If visitors make stop-motion animations at the museum and come back to the web to view them, why not provide a tool or links to places where you can make really complex animation products (which can also then be shared with the visitor community)? If visitors make pledges to reduce waste or stop genocide, why not provide more activities for them to do and ways to track them? I worked with the Boston Children's Museum on a project called Our Green Trail (check it out!) that encourages visitors who play games at the museum related to green behaviors to keep doing those behaviors and playing associated games online in a social virtual world. In this way, Our Green Trail tries to keep people motivated and focused on the activities that initially attracted them while opening up more and more content and social experiences to fuel continued action, in their own lives and on museum visits.

What online/onsite connections have you seen that work particularly well or poorly? What do you want from the digital component to your next cultural experience?

Monday, October 19, 2009

Great Conversationalists: Reflections on Being a Dial-a-Stranger

The afternoon of September 24 was hectic. I called in to participate in a radio show in Seattle, then zoomed downtown for meetings, after which I headed home to cook for a dinner party. I had everything timed to the minute, and was just getting into the chopping zone when my partner yelled that I had a call. I ran in and picked up the phone, fully intending to quickly dispatch whoever was on the line and get back to my tight cooking schedule.

What followed, instead, was a 20 minute phone call that changed my day and has had a powerful impression on me since. The call was from Mercedes Martinez and Zachary Kent, the people behind an internet radio show called Dial-A-Stranger.

Dial-A-Stranger is what it sounds like. People sign up to be called by submitting a phone number to be added to a database. Other people submit questions they'd like to have answered by strangers. Mercedes and Zachary pick people randomly out of the database, call them, and ask a contributed question. They edit the conversations into radio shows, which are then made available as a podcast (you can listen to episode featuring me, #89: Museum Secrets, here).

But it's more complicated than that. I've known about Dial-A-Stranger for awhile, but I haven't written about it before because as a listener I don't find the show that compelling. The conversations are often long--20 minutes or more--and Mercedes and Zachary only get to the question at the end of a meandering conversation with the guest. As a listener, I get frustrated that the show isn't more tightly edited, and I wonder who really cares to hear the conversations Mercedes and Zachary have with perfect strangers.

Now that I have been a Dial-A-Stranger, my perspective on this has changed. I still get fidgety listening to the podcast, but now I see it as an artifact of a supremely conducted participatory project rather the sole product of the process. Dial-A-Stranger was one of the best participant experiences I've ever had. It improved my immediate mood and made me feel special in a lasting way. Mercedes and Zachary did all the work with no apparent effort, carrying the conversation in a friendly, positive, interested and interesting way. And they made me appreciate them as superb facilitators as a particular kind of participatory experience: conversation with strangers.

What made Mercedes and Zach such great conversationalists?

They really cared about me. I've written before about how, when designing questions for use with visitors, staff should make sure they genuinely care to hear the answer. Mercedes and Zachary don't even ask their own questions, and yet they demonstrated unbelievable interest in me and my experiences during our conversation. I even made some gaffes--for example, confusing the University of Texas natural history museum with the Utah natural history museum (the "UT" slipped me up)--but they took it in stride, continuing the conversation without embarrassing me. They made me feel comfortable enough to make some dumb jokes and brag a bit--things I'd probably be reticent to do with strangers in most situations.

They started with a good question. Mercedes and Zachary have a formula to the beginning of their calls. They call in the evening, announce themselves, and then ask, "how was your day?" This is a great question because it is comfortable and open-ended. Everyone has answer to this question, and in the context of a show like Dial-A-Stranger, few people give a one-word answer like "fine." They want to explain themselves, to assert some aspect of their identity (consciously or unconsciously) that then drives the conversation. When I answered their question with a response about work, we spent the rest of the call talking museums, but I suspect if I had talked about moving the woodpile, we would have just as easily continued on that vein.

They listened, responded, and shared. Mercedes and Zach aren't just interrogators; they also shared their own reflections and stories throughout our conversation. We never would have talked about taxidermy (and the basement I shared with dead animals at the Boston Museum of Science) if they hadn't started talking about their local natural history museum. They never steered the conversation in a direction that was jarring or expressed a disinterest in what I was saying; instead, they kept building on a shared experience, validating and querying and scheming, which made me feel like we were in cahoots together rather than having a typical interviewer/interviewee relationship. By the time they got to the actual question at the end of the conversation, I was ready to share personal stories with them and did so enthusiastically.

Of course, all of this greatness is still coupled by the problematic feeling that the product of the conversation--the podcast--is not (for me) a great audience experience. But now I wonder if I was too literal in seeing the only product as the stranger's stories. I've learned to listen in a more nuanced way and to appreciate the skill with which Mercedes and Zachary draw out their guests, who are after all perfect strangers. And there are other products as well: the database, the conversations, the questions and the people behind them. The podcast is take it or leave it, and there are probably people out there who love hearing the relationships Mercedes and Zach build with strangers in a short time over a phone line. I know I hear them differently now that I engaged in one, sort of like how you see art differently if you make it.

When I asked Zachary why they don't edit the shows more tightly to focus on the questions and answers, he explained that they sometimes do edited shows, or shows borne from conversations at live events, or shows that focus on voicemails received on their line. I listened to a couple of voicemail shows and found them more quirky but less satisfying in terms of their depth, and I can see why from Mercedes and Zachary's perspective it might be most valuable to engage in longer conversations with people. He commented that, "When we started this it was an experiment to see what would happen so we thought up a lot of ways that Dial A Stranger might work and we've been trying them. As the show grows and changes we grow and change how we do it and make different kinds of shows along the way."

And so I wonder--in which direction can and should Dial-A-Stranger grow? Should Mercedes and Zachary train others as hosts, to support more conversations and provide more people with transformative experiences as participants? Should they experiment audially with ways to produce an audience-facing podcast that better conveys that transformation? What would you do with this kind of project?

And even if you don't have an answer to that question, I encourage you to sign up with Mercedes and Zachary, be a stranger, and let us know what you think.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Why Are So Many Participatory Experiences Focused on Teens?

Over the past year, I've noticed a strange trend in the calls I receive about upcoming participatory museum projects: the majority of them are being planned for teen audiences. A large number of the collaborative projects of which I'm aware (in which staff partner with community members to co-develop exhibits or programs) are initiated with teens. Even the most traditional museums often manage educational programs in which teens develop their own exhibits, produce youth-focused museum events, or provide educational experiences for younger visitors. And while I enjoy working with youth and consuming their creations as a museum visitor, I'd like to call into question the idea that they are or should be the primary audience for participatory experiences.

Why are teens over-represented in participatory projects? I see four main reasons:
  1. Most participatory experimentation in museums starts in educational departments, and many educators primarily engage (and are funded to work with) students. Teens are a known (and somewhat controllable) entity.
  2. Teens are developmentally focused on social identity-building and may feel more compelled to share their voices and express themselves than others than other visitors.
  3. Teens are perceived as more interested in technology-mediated experiences and more familiar with social technologies in particular than their adult counterparts.
  4. Teens are perceived as an audience that is particularly disaffected and hard to reach, and institutions are continually seeking new techniques that might connect them to core content experiences.
The first of these reasons is practical. The other three are cultural, and I'm not sure how accurate they are. Teens are certainly not the only people who like to express themselves and engage socially through technology. There are plenty of people who don't feel compelled to visit museums, but teens' disinterest may be more immediately evident because droves of students are forced to visit museums on field trips (whereas adult non-visitors are invisible). The challenge of engaging disaffected visitors is not teen-specific, and the potential for participatory techniques to address this challenge need not be limited to this audience.

Here are four reasons I think that cultural institutions should look more broadly at potential audiences for participatory experiences:
  1. While teens are heavy social media users, they may not be the right audience for content-focused social experiences. Teens more commonly use the Web to stay in touch with their pre-existing social groups than to join new communities based on content affinities or interests. As researcher Danah Boyd has pointed out, teens spend time on Facebook, MySpace, and other social networks because that's where their friends are. This means that teens are not necessarily more savvy or more interested than other groups in engaging in communities of practice around content experiences. Users active in online social environments based on social objects like Flickr (photography), Ravelry (knitting), and Wikipedia (information) often trend older. Presumably, cultural institutions are more interested in providing opportunities for people to participate with and around content than providing venues for pre-existing friend groups to hang out, and this suggests reaching out to a broader audience.
  2. If your activity is compelling because it involves gimmicky new technology, it's not a good activity. In several instances, I've heard about new gadgets and handhelds that are targeted at teens because of their novelty. While some youth (and adults) may be seduced by sexy technology, is that really the reason you want people to engage with your content experiences? I'm working on one cellphone-based game project that was originally conceived as being focused towards teens because, the thinking goes, teens like using their cellphones. In the end, we've developed a program that uses phones in such a simple way that the client is now talking excitedly about how much fun seniors are going to have playing the game. Complex technology integration may appeal more to some audiences than others, but it's denigrating to suggest that teens will engage just because an experience involves something shiny that beeps.
  3. Teens are already frequently engaged as active participants in museums, and while they are a good starting point, focusing on them may have less significant institutional returns than expanding to other audiences. I suspect that one reason teens are often a core audience is that museums are already comfortable providing participatory experiences to youth in the form of camps, internships, and classes. It's potentially easier and more in-line with standard institutional practice to add a new special kind of internship or camp that focuses on teens contributing or collaborating on production of new content under the guise of youth outreach. For example, the National Building Museum offers an excellent summer program called Investigating Where We Live (IWWL), in which thirty local teens work with museum staff for four weeks to create a temporary exhibition of photographs and creative writing about a neighborhood of D.C. The program is coordinated and directed by staff, who select the neighborhood for the season, provide photography and writing instruction, and generally shepherd the project to completion. The program operates like a camp that is co-led by the teens involved. While this program is wonderful, it's very enclosed within the "youth education outreach" activities of the museum, and doesn't necessarily push other staff members in design or curatorial to consider integrating community members into their exhibit development processes. Also, from the teen perspective, while IWWL is a unique and valuable experience, participants may not differentiate it from any other ways they engage with the museum. This means that it may have less impact on their perception of and relationship to the institution overall, as compared to the potential impact on audiences with whom there are no pre-existing collaborative relationships. Imagine if instead of working with teens at the museum, IWWL was conducted as a collaborative project with mixed-age residents of the neighborhoods to be exhibited. IWWL would undoubtably get more complicated (and potentially harder to fund), but it might connect the National Building Museum with a much broader community of locals who care deeply about their neighborhoods and have more varied prior relationships with the museum.
  4. Teens are not the only people with stories to tell. Teens may be particularly drawn to self-expression, but that doesn't mean that their contributions are any better than those of others. Because of their comfort with expressive technologies, teens are low-hanging fruit when it comes to participatory projects, but again, the impact of participatory experiences on them (and on other museum audiences) may be lower than that on participants with less access or ability to share their stories, skills, and memories. I'd like to see more multi-generational participatory projects in which young people are employed as staff or volunteers to help older audiences contribute their own content. Museums are not in the business of giving anyone who wants one a soapbox. Cultural institutions should be deliberate about setting up opportunities for communities of interest to participate, whether those be artists or amateur astronomers, veterans or housekeepers, gardeners or genealogists. The more thoughtfully we design participatory platforms, the broader our opportunities to use them to work with the visitors and audiences who matter most to us.
What do you think? Is it a problem or a great starting point to focus on participatory experiences with teens?

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Avoiding the Community Manager Superstar

Every time a colleague tells me her museum has just hired a "community person," a part of me cringes. I whole-heartedly support the goals that motivate the hire--to connect with visitors online and onsite in more meaningful relationships--but I worry about focusing such a broad mandate into the tiny point of a single individual.

When community managers are the sole masters of their own dominions, two problems arise. First, their efforts are not fully integrated into the overall work and focus of other staff, which can lead to conflicts between institutional and community needs. And second, the communities they manage often become unhealthily centered on the managers' personalities and abilities, causing problems if those community managers ever choose to leave.

I've been this community manager and know these problems first-hand. When I was at The Tech Museum developing and leading the Tech Virtual community, I tried to involve a wide range of staff members in the online exhibit development community, so that we could spread out the interactions and relationships built between amateurs and experts. But The Tech's management decided that spending time in the online community space was a "waste of time" for staff whose role was not explicitly focused on that community, and the engineers and fabricators who had enthusiastically engaged early on were forbidden to continue. Left on my own, I put on my best cheerleader face and cultivated a couple volunteers to help manage a growing community of amateur exhibit designers. The project was a chaotic experiment in several ways, and because things kept changing, the community had to keep relying on me as their sole source of information about how things would move forward. We started to form unhealthy relationships in which I was the cheerleader, coach, and point person to all community members. While my energy and enthusiasm as a community leader held the group together, once I left at the end of my project, the community fell apart. While subsequent museum staff have kept the project going, the community had connected with me as the focal point, and there has not been a new person who has been able to comparably rally the community to high levels of activity.

I don't tell this story with pride; I tell it with shame. It was partially my fault that the Tech Virtual community did not thrive beyond my tenure. I was a good community manager, but the system we set up to perform that management and cultivate the community was ill-considered. It's a warning sign when community members make comments like, "it was only boundless encouragement from Avi (Nina's Second Life avatar) that prevented me from giving up more than once." This is a person who was one community manager away from leaving the group. It may be easiest to quickly rally a community around one dynamic or charismatic person, but that doesn't make for a healthy, sustaining project.

Why does this happen in the first place? There are two good reasons that organizations tend to focus community activities around a single individual: it consolidates resources spent on a particular strategy, and it simplifies the interaction for community members. Let's look at each of these briefly.

Institutions are accustomed to associating individual staff members with specific projects and associated resources. But community managers, like floor staff managers, are responsible for interacting with a vast and varied group of people who engage with the institution. In one way, they are like development officers who cultivate small, targeted sets of individuals via personal relationships. But they are more importantly the face and voice of the institution to everyone online, a floor staff army of one. This is a problem. If you only had one person who worked the floor of your museum, and he was incredibly charismatic and quirky, you'd appreciate that his personality puts a unique and specific stamp on the onsite experience, one that attracts some visitors and repels others. The same is true for online communities. The more voices there are in the mix, the more the community management team can effectively welcome community members of all kinds. The Science Buzz blog, which is managed by a team of exhibit developers, science writers, and floor staff at the Science Museum of Minnesota, is a good example of diversified community management that models the inclusion of a range of voices and opinions. The Buzz staff even argue with each other in blog comments, modeling a kind of healthy scientific debate that would be impossible for a single community manager to hold (unless she is schizophrenic, which is not a recommended solution to this problem).

But this leads to the concern that diffusing the community "voice" among multiple staff members can generate confusion and frustration for visitors. This is a valid concern, especially on social sites that are not tightly aggregated. On Buzz, for example, every author is part of the same overall blog, so it is not hard to conceptually manage the idea of multiple institutional authors. But on Twitter or Flickr or across multiple blogs, it can be very hard for visitors to understand who exactly they are connecting with. Many museums are attacking this problem by hosting a central "community" or "social" page on their websites (see COSI's or the Brooklyn Museum's) that aggregates all of the Web 2.0 activities managed by museum staff so that visitors can understand at a glance what is available and who directs it.

Many organizations focus on a single individual as the point person for community engagement for clarity. If you do this, make sure that this individual is devoted to the institutional mission and not their own empire-building. If your community is focused around one person, you must plan for succession and think about what will happen if that individual leaves. Even the most well-intentioned community managers may not be able to transfer their unique personality and style to new staff. Imagine the most popular person in a friend group moving away and anointing a new, unknown person to take her place in the social network--it's nearly impossible.

The best community managers are people who effectively manage networks, not celebrity. They help other staff members understand opportunities for connecting with communities of interest, and they provide support and training so that many individuals across the institution can work with their communities in ways that are sensitive to staff abilities and resources. One of the community managers I most admire is Beck Tench at the Museum of Life and Science. During her tenure as director of web experience, Beck has helped staff across the museum start their own projects on several social websites. With the horticulture team, she set up the Flickr Plant Project, in which the scientists upload a single image of a flower with some information per week and then encourage communities of flower-lovers to share their own photos, stories, and questions about the same plant. The animal keepers run their own blog about the crazy hijinks of their furry team. Online social engagement is also intelligently tied into the efforts of the membership, marketing, and exhibit design teams, without Beck having to be the face of each project to the intended audience. Beck even organizes weekly happy hours for staff to promote community internally. And while she tracks and supports all of these projects, Beck's not the queen of any of them from the visitor perspective.

The ideal community manager is more like a matchmaker than a ringmaster. He points visitors to the networks of greatest interest to them and helps staff connect with communities that they want to serve. She is energetic and passionate about serving the needs of the institution's community. It's fine to have a community manager who is the "go to" person, the face of all of the projects, as long as that person is ultimately pointing visitors to other venues for engagement. After all, you don't want everyone who visits your institution to have a relationship with just one person. You want visitors to connect with the stories, experiences, and staff that are most resonant to them. A good community manager can make that happen.