Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Reflections on a Weekend with Ze Frank and His Online Community

It's not every day that a visitor buys pizza for everyone in the museum. Or that visitors form a spontaneous "laugh circle" on the floor. Or that we take a group photo together at the end of the day.

Then again, Saturday was hardly normal at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History. This past weekend, in conjunction with our exhibition about Ze Frank's current participatory project, A Show, we hosted "Ze Frank Weekend"--a quickie summer camp of workshops, activities, presentations, and lots of hugging. It was an opportunity for people who participate with Ze Frank's projects online to come together in real space and connect with him and with each other.

It was pretty freaking amazing. About 700 people participated over two days, including some who had traveled to Santa Cruz from London, Indonesia, and across the US. The group was mostly young (teens to thirties) and nerd-diverse: a little bit punk, a little bit hacker, a little bit craft grrl. There were two guys with rainbow beards who did not previously know each other. There were some locals who stumbled in unaware, but mostly, this was an insider's event for people who know and love Ze's particular brand of emotional connection mediated through online participation. To get a sense of what it felt like for participants, check out this great video by one visitor from afar about his experience.

A few things I learned/observed/was impressed by:

A spirit of inclusion, generosity, and welcome permeated the event. We were pretty nervous about the unknowns going into the weekend. Ze had issued an invite to tens of thousands of people online, and we had no idea how many people would attend, and who they are. What we DID know is that the people coming would be connected through work that focuses on sharing intense and not always comfortable emotions online. I was concerned about how we could welcome people into the museum in a way that acknowledged the enormous risk they were taking in showing up in a foreign city and space to connect with people they only sort of knew in an online space. 

Online to onsite migration isn't always easy. I feared that the event would feel cliquey and wouldn't represent the creative, inclusive spirit of Ze's work. But three things made the event a success in this regard:
  1. Ze was amazing. He gently acknowledged the fundamental weirdness of meeting people in real-life, in confronting their "fleshiness," giving voice to anyone else's concerns about over-stimulation in the space. Ze was really hands-on with everyone, giving hugs, taking photos, jumping in to do activities with participants. Even though for many of the participants, Ze is a celebrity of epic proportions, he did everything he could to make the event about them and their engagement and not about him. 
  2. The activities had a really low barrier to entry. We collaborated with Ze to develop activities throughout the weekend that were lightweight, fun, and encouraged low-key social interaction--exactly the kinds of activities that we have found encourage social bridging with strangers. When people walked in, they received a program and a sheet to collect finishing stamps (unique marks created by participants at one activity station) from other participants. The sheet gave people a lightweight tool to use in social interaction, to trade and share stamps. And the program helped people feel like they knew what was going on. Again and again, we tried to balance the wackiness and spontaneity of the event with the surety that people were in the right place, that we could help them, etc.
  3. Our volunteers and staff--and the participants!--rocked. Our regular museum volunteers partnered with new volunteers drawn from Ze Frank's online community, which created a nice bridge between people who knew the museum and people who knew the community and its spirit. Participants who felt more confident modeled generous behavior and engaged others. I was so proud to see how our overall ethos of participation and social bridging was manifest in making the experience really wonderful for everyone.  
The museum itself was well-integrated into the event. In some ways, this event reminded me of the Ontario Science Centre's YouTube Meetup in 2008--a real-time, physical event to support an online community. One of the concerns at the YouTube Meetup was the disconnect between the museum and the participation; for many attendees, the science center just became a venue for a social experience. In this case, because our current exhibition includes a gallery of things made by Ze Frank's community, it was natural for weekend participants to be enthralled by and want to engage with the exhibition itself. Also, our museum-wide approach to participation suited this community well; they really enjoyed exploring other floors and participating in activities that had nothing to do with Ze Frank except in the ways that our philosophy and his are well-aligned. I loved meeting so many people who were surprised and delighted by the participatory approach of our museum--it made it feel like this was a place "for them" instead of a place that was hosting them.

As always, I learned a lot from Ze Frank's unique approach to community participation. One of the regrets of this project for me is that Ze and I have had so little time to really talk about how we think about engaging people in active participation--we've just been busy making it happen. But during the weekend, Ze gave a couple talks that opened up new pathways for me, especially around designing participatory experiences that spread and grow. A couple of key points I got from him:
  1. Make sure to develop prompts or projects that are both interesting to DO and to experience as an audience. This is something I strongly subscribe to--a huge percentage of any audience is more likely to spectate than to contribute. But on the web, it's even more important than in a museum. In a museum, if something is appealing to watch, a person might share it by taking a photo or talking about it with a friend. Online, if something is appealing, a person can share it in a million ways via social media. Ze talked about having a personal filter on project ideas that really focuses on ensuring that the activity AND the resulting content is appealing to share.
  2. To get lots of participation, always celebrate the human quality of the work. Ze pointed out that many participatory projects that operate as contests end up focusing on a narrow set of "best" work that can exclude broad participation. When Ze described his Young Me Now Me project, in which people replicated photos of themselves as children, he explained that he really encouraged people not to focus on getting the props or costume right but instead to focus on getting the expressions right. By focusing on that human element of self-expression, people felt that the activity was open to them regardless of their ability to set up a scene or take a great photograph. This point is a really interesting extension of my focus on personalization and using individual experiences as a starting point for community participation. Broad participation is not the goal of every project, but I found Ze's framing here a useful salve to the frequently espoused and flawed idea that "to get lots of participation, make the activity stupidly easy."
All in all, a beautiful and stimulating weekend. You can see more comments from participants here and here and see a photo set from one participant here.

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