Tuesday, December 30, 2008

An Open Letter to Museums on Twitter

Note: this is a geeky post that assumes familiarity with Twitter. If you are new to Twitter, please check out this post for more context.

Dear Museums on Twitter,

Thanks for experimenting in a new and largely uncharted online environment. It's not easy, and many of you are taking innovative, exciting approaches to it. But not enough of you. Only 80% of Twitter success is showing up, and I've been frustrated by the lack of creativity applied to the other 20%. So here is a list of suggestions that hopefully will improve the way your museum thinks about using Twitter.

1. Don't use Twitter to spam me about visiting. It's warm out so I should go to the zoo? Or it's rainy so you suggest I visit the museum? You are belittling my ability to plan my day without your helpful reminder about the weather and your institution's existence. If a company did this, suggesting that I come to Starbucks or REI every moment of the day, I (and hopefully you) would see it as a spammy intrusion. And do you really think there are people out there, sitting at home with nothing to do, waiting for Twitter to tell them where to go next? If such people exist, they are probably ZOMBIES and are not good for business.

2. It's okay if you start by just following. Twitter is like a big radio party--everyone can broadcast and everyone can listen. If radio was a brand new media format and you had the opportunity to host a show or run a station, you'd probably listen to some other stations before deciding whether and what to broadcast. Following is like listening. Listening is a good thing.

3. Once you decide to tweet, make it interesting. When someone follows me, I go to their page and look at the most recent tweets. I scan through about ten and ask myself: is this content interesting enough for me to follow this person? My standards are pretty low. If there is one link, one phrase, one idea that piques my interest, I follow that person. Think about your followers. The majority are probably coming because they have prior interest in your institution. But you have the potential to reach a whole new world of followers--their friends--if your content is witty, useful, or appealing to those who have never visited your museum. Take a scan at your most recent tweets page. Does it look spammy and dull, or does it look interesting?

4. Tell me something I can't find on your homepage. I'm cool with you using Twitter to let me know about new blog posts, exhibits, programs, or changes to your hours. But if you ONLY use Twitter to do those things, you are just using it as a feeder to the other web content you already produce. You could do better. Give me a little bit of behind-the-scenes insight, like the Palmer Museum twitterer who bragged about helping a registrar move a 700 pound box or the Whitney Museum which trumpeted its "very nice" toilet rating. Give me a game, like the Smithsonian's name that artifact gambit. Give me links to relevant content from elsewhere on the web like the Walker Art Center does. Or just draw me into things I might not discover on my own, like the Getty's elegant quotations about pieces from their collection or the Exploratorium's online interactives.

5. Tell me who you are. It's always a bit strange to see institutions on Twitter, when, hopefully, the accounts are controlled by humans. I love the way that the Heard Museum bio addresses this strangeness, explaining that "I am a museum, or rather someone [ @katecrowley ] who works here, pretending to be the building. I am a museum of Native Cultures and Art!" Jeffrey at the Mattress Factory also does a great job of this. If you're interested in this topic, check out this experiment to root out the people behind big companies on Twitter, which recently included this comment about museums: "When museums tweet to each other in first person, I question why the museums don't include the names of the people tweeting."

6. Respond to people. Make the @ your friend. When I look at the Brooklyn Museum's Twitter page, I see lots of replies to different people across the platform and I think, "this is an institution that is engaged with the community." Same goes for the San Francisco Zoo, which often tweets out visitors' cute photos taken at the zoo. These institutions are showing their appreciation for and interest in other people's comments and discussions. It may sound like work to reply to others, but it can be easier than generating your own content. If you start on Twitter as a follower, eventually you'll see a tweet that you want to respond to... and the conversation begins.

7. Give me content worthy of your institution. I can't tell you what to tweet about. I don't feel, as Tyler Green does, that an art museum MUST tweet about art. But you should tweet in a style and with content that is of a quality consistent with your institution. Remember the radio station analogy. If your museum was hosting a radio show, would you only talk about the open hours and try to entice people to show up? Of course not. You would do something engaging, educational, entertaining, provocative... all the elements that you try to design into every program or exhibit.

So now imagine you have a text-based, short-format radio show. What would fit there? The Brooklyn Museum has an open call for artists who want to use Twitter to communicate with 1stfan members, but you don't need to be an artist to create quality content on Twitter.

Here are some museum Twitter "radio stations" I'd love to follow:
  • Funny things said by visitors.
  • Guard feed! (Thanks for the idea, Shelley.)
  • Institutional superstitions or weird things about the building.
  • The imagined experiences of a famous artifact, heavily loved interactive, or other institutional mascot (see this Twitter feed, which I doubt is written by AMNH staff).
  • Haiku about museum work.
  • A daily or weekly feature on a specific topic.
  • Jokes, recipes, quotes, and interesting facts. Do you know why there are naked ladies on the front of ships?
  • Weird and surprising behind-the-scenes victories and challenges. What's it like to prep an exhibition on poop?
  • Topical, provocative questions.
This is just a short list. So please, get together with the most creative (and concise) brains in your institution and find the idea that will work for you. Twitter may be simpler to produce content for than a blog or podcast (let alone an exhibit), but that's no excuse not to use it to reinforce your brand and your mission by creating top-notch tweets.

The good news is that no one is doing this wonderfully. So go out there and impress the whole world. Oh, and consider joining the museum Twitter group. I'll be following your progress!

Friday, December 26, 2008

2009 Forecast for Museum 2.0

I hope you are enjoying end-of-year festivities. For those of you who are interested, my husband and I chose to crowdsource our future with the video at right and a related future forecasting site here.

I'm writing this quick post to share some ideas and changes to this blog in the year ahead. Huge thanks to everyone who participated in the idea-sharing over the last couple months about how to make Museum 2.0 a more community-oriented place. Per your suggestions, in 2009...
  • this blog will start featuring guest posts more frequently. My goal is 2-4 per month. These posts will be an opportunity to hear from more people who are experimenting, leading, and banging their heads against the challenges of incorporating participation into museums and other public cultural places. If this sounds like you and you would like to contribute as a blogger, please email me (nina @ museumtwo . com)
  • I'm going to host an in-person retreat in the fall of 2009. It will be at my beautiful home in Santa Cruz and you are welcome to crash/camp/experience if you decide to come. The focus will be on developing your wildest dreams as they relate to museums, libraries, etc. I'm hoping that at least 3-5 people will come with a dream they want to make a reality and we can all work together to brainstorm and help those people make it happen. This is an attempt to merge the suggestion of a retreat with the "have a real project" suggestion. Plus, I have been dreaming about opening a museum/bar full of social interactives for a long time and I'd love to explore that concept with such a creative and intelligent group as you.
  • I'm going to write a book. This didn't come from the idea-sharing site, but many of you have prodded me on this, I've thought about it, and I'm really excited to be starting it. Telling family and friends that you are blogging is one thing; saying you are writing a book is another. (The chief difference is that they know what a book is.) The book will be about applying community and participatory design principles to museums, and I'm going to try to complete it by summer of 2009. If you would like to help out with advance reading and editing please let me know. I'll set up a separate site for the book development soon and am grateful for your suggestions and opinions.
If you'd like to get involved with any of these initiatives (or protest them), please share a comment. I look forward to another great year with all of you!

Friday, December 19, 2008

What's a Virtual Visitor Worth?

$5.33. $40.21. $12.74. Every museum has a number for its operating cost per visitor. It's very simple to calculate: you take the total operating expenses for your public-facing efforts and divide by the number of people who walk through the door. Most museums don't strategically set this number--too many operating costs are fixed by building needs--but they can use it to assess how expensive each visitor interaction is and evaluate the efficacy of programs. Some interactions, like educational programs, may be quite expensive per visitor but are considered very high value; others, like retail, are only worthwhile if the interactions are cheap and return financial value to the institution.

So where do online initiatives fit in? Many museums are trying to think strategically about how to maximize value online in serving visitors. But this isn't just a financial question--it's also a question of reach. Is an online interaction with someone who will never visit the physical institution worth less than one with someone who might buy a ticket? Or is it worth more because the museum content is reaching people in distant lands who would otherwise never have engaged with the institution?

There are three key questions museum decision-makers should ask themselves in evaluating the value of virtual visitors:
  1. How much do we value outreach in our educational programming and content delivery?
  2. How much do we value bringing global cultures and opinions into our institution?
  3. How much do we value brand awareness outside of local markets?
Let's look at these one by one.


Let’s say you run your museum's education department, and you have two vans that go out to schools to do in-classroom programs exposing students to museum content. How do you decide how far those vans go? How important is it that some of the students at participating schools gain heightened awareness of the museum and physically show up one day?

Many museums run outreach programs at a variety of levels of local to global reach. Some museums only engage with students who show up at the museum. Others send educators out to schools citywide. Others conduct distance learning programs across the nation. Others produce publications and media for global distribution. Others create traveling exhibits that send their content to other institutions and audiences.

Which of these are appealing or familiar to you? Consider what you are already doing, what you'd like to expand, and what you'd like to try. Creating an online analog to any of these types of outreach should cost less than traditional versions, but it won't be free. You should be able to articulate your goal, whether it is reaching a particular niche audience or a designated level of participation. It might be worth going through an exercise where your team says, "Making a PBS half hour program would cost X. We can't afford X, but we'd like to do this and try to reach 1,000 people with our message. We are willing to spend Y to reach 1,000 people. So we will spend Y to make short videos on our own and post them on video sharing sites like YouTube instead."

Consider, for example, the North Carolina Museum of Life and Science's new Flickr Plant Project. The museum has a database of 300+ plants, and they wanted to "do something" with the related plant images. With Beck Tench, their in-house Web 2.0 aficionado, they came up with a 12-week plan to release a single image each week of a plant along with some basic content about the plant. Then, they encourage others in the Flickr community to post their own images of the same plant and tag them "flickrplantproject." You can see the museum's plants here and the aggregate community submissions here. The museum started with content they wanted to share, a fixed cost they were willing to assume (the cost of posting one photo plus text per week, plus some community engagement), and an audience they wanted to target (Flickr plant lovers). By the end of twelve weeks, they'll be able to evaluate how many people in that audience they've reached and decide how they feel about the volume, diversity, and depth of participation.

Some types of online outreach are more expensive than others. The most expensive is outreach that builds relationships. Why would a museum want to invest in projects that connect a small number of people with the content? For the same reason we do so with individual classes or constituency groups in the real museum. Changing lives is expensive whether you do it with at-risk teen staff members or at-risk teen virtual partners. Either you value that target audience so much that you are willing to spend a high amount per visitor, or you value the result of that relationship and the way it can impact others. When I worked on The Tech Virtual project, I was often discomfited by the fact that I would spend entire days interacting with 10-30 people in Second Life, when I could interact with many more if I worked on the museum floor. But in Second Life, we were building strong relationships and empowering those virtual members as exhibit designers. Once I started thinking of myself as running a very targeted pilot program to have significant impact on the lives of a few dozen people, I felt much more comfortable with my efforts.

Bringing in Global Voices

Does your collection come from far-reaching lands? Does your museum take in traveling exhibitions that feature worldwide cultures? Do you feature lectures by non-locals in your educational programs? Or are you primarily interested in reflecting and presenting local content and perspectives?

The extent to which your institution is interested in showcasing non-local content may dictate your strategic approach to online engagement with a global audience. Consider the community reaction to the Science Museum of Minnesota's Science Buzz blog post about the Pakistani earthquake on Oct. 9, 2005. One of the first comments came in from Jamal Panhwar, a Pakistani who shared his personal experience of the fault area: "The mountains of this region are spectacular; however, this very fact of tectonic plates rubbing each other can be seen in the landslides which come on the Karakorum Highway (a road built along the Indus River) every now and then."

Does Jamal's comment enrich the primarily Minnesotan readers of Science Buzz? From the museum's perspective, having an authentic account from someone in Pakistan is a value added that the museum itself could not supply. In the same way that traveling exhibits from other countries can expose local audiences to wider perspectives, global online communities can connect people across cultures and experiences. And if you are displaying artifacts from cultures that are foreign and prone to stereotype by your local audience, finding ways to bring in the voices of the people associated with those objects may enhance visitor understanding and appreciation of the collection.

Of course, if you are locally-focused, bringing in global voices may distract you from your local relationships and strain your services. For more on this side of the fence, read Shelley Bernstein's recent thoughts about the Brooklyn Museum's complicated experience with Flickr Commons.

Brand Awareness

Do you care if someone 1,000 miles away knows about your museum? While the first two points covered in this post focus on content goals, this last one is about marketing. Your traditional strategic approach to marketing can be directly extended into the virtual space. If your goal is to tightly target a local market, it's probably more important to get involved in local blogs and community sites than to create your own content for global distribution. If your goal is for art lovers worldwide to identify with your institution, the opposite is true.

Brand awareness is often the driving reason for museums to have presences on Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, Flickr, YouTube, and other general-audience social media sites. But the interesting thing about all of these spaces is while they have global reach, they primarily serve niche communities--of cat lovers, vegan knitters, museum professionals, etc.--in localized groups across the service. There is no such thing as reaching "the entire Facebook community," and so without target audiences in each of these environments, the effort is not effective. The opportunity is not to create a single brand concept in each community but to be a unique and useful brand for different communities on multiple platforms in different (but overlapping) ways.

I love COSI and the SMM's new approach to showing off their social media presence across the Web on a single page. Scrolling through COSI's offerings, I see that I can be a friend of their mascot (a basketball-playing rat) on Facebook, read a blog about the development of a new exhibition on Egypt, or join a Ning site to connect with current and former campers. Clearly, each of these is targeted towards a different audience on a different platform, and the brand awareness each achieves focuses on a different facet of the institution.

So what's it worth?

The short answer is pithy: it's different for every institution. The more useful answer is that you can take your non-web-based programs and values and analogize those to come up with the answer that is right for you. How do you decide how much a traveling exhibition is worth? How much is a lecture worth? How much is an educational workshop worth? None of these questions have hard and fast answers, but they do have tolerances and comforts that we've built up over time. If you can cast your online initiatives in the framework of something more familiar, you should be able to step away from the emotional relativism that plagues these kinds of questions and come up with an answer that works for you.

And if anyone has a quantitative answer (or any other opinion on this thorny topic), please share your two cents in the comments. It's worth a lot to all of us!

Monday, December 15, 2008

Hey Baby, Want to See My Artifact?

I've been thinking about online dating recently. No, not because my partner refuses to wash his hair. Online dating sites have two very special attributes:
  1. They make money.
  2. They are primarily used to connect people in real life.
Both of these attributes are of great interest to museums, which are trying to figure out how to monetize the Web and how to use the Web to draw more people to their physical locations. And while not every museum needs to go into the online dating business, it's worth thinking about how online dating serves as an analogy for the intended goal of many museum forays into the social Web.

The top question museum directors ask about online initiatives, especially those in social media, is "can you demonstrate that it will bring more ticket-buying people to the museum?" It's a very hard question to answer. While an IMLS report last year did conclude that visits to museum websites are positively correlated with in-person visits, there is no magic thread tying each online interaction to a person buying a ticket at the door. Even worse, there's a big difference between the perceived impact of the "plan a visit" area of your website and a presence on Facebook or YouTube. The first has a tangible, obvious connection to real-world visits. The second doesn't.

The connections between the online and physical interactions--I meet you at a conference, you post a photo of me on Facebook, we connect on LinkedIn, we make plans via Twitter to have lunch in Chicago--are often dispersed across many services and are hard to follow. So how can you help institutional decision-makers understand the potential relationship between engaging on the social Web and real-world visits? Talk about dating.

Online dating is social networking with an intended result in the physical world. Ironically, while it's easier to understand, online dating is much harder to execute than most social media endeavors. Most social networks start with in-person connections. We meet at the conference, and THEN I connect to you on Facebook. You come to the museum, and THEN you post your photo in the Flickr group. Before the real-world event, there was no reason to connect virtually. But online dating isn't intended to extend real-world relationships virtually; it's intended to start them. People meet online, then they meet in person. In this way, online dating forms new relationships rather than virtually extending those that already exist.

Dating, like museum-going, is more about niche preferences than mass volume. Users are more interested in finding "people like them" than a random sampling of individuals, and niche dating sites have skyrocketed in the last couple of years as members realize that making an intimate connection is easier to do in a limited network. While most niche sites are focused towards people with specific religious, ethnic, or sexual proclivities, there's no reason museums and other recreational niches shouldn't get into the mix. For decades, the New York Review of Books personals section has been the place for Ivy League singles. In the UK, Penguin Books has teamed up with Match.com to offer a book-focused specialty dating site, and in the Netherlands, new media artists can find a "muse, flatmate, or one-night adventure" on the Mediamatic dating site. If you're inspired, you can even create your own dating site for free (profit-sharing agreement included).

Maybe your museum isn't ready to start an online dating service. That's fine. It's worth just thinking about your social media initiatives in the dating context. If your goal on the Web is to attract more people to visit the physical museum, your efforts in that regard should drive people to the door. In the same way that Penguin and Match are using books as the social objects that may bring lonely hearts together, affinity with a particular artist, collection, or museum can bring people--sexually inclined or not--to the institution. Museum membership newsletters could be used to profile and connect members with each other, and artifacts can serve as talking points for nervous folks getting to know each other. The ecosystem of a date--the build-up, the experience, and the reflection afterwards--can be mapped to a fluid online and onsite relationship with a museum.

This isn't appropriate for every kind of relationship-building on the Web, but when your goal is increased visitation, it's worth asking yourself: how are we promoting an in-person visit as part of this online experience? How are we promoting transactions and experiences that can only be consummated at the museum? How are we connecting with people who we've never interacted with before? How can we make the online experience as appealing, flirtatious, and exciting a build-up to a physical visit? And then how can we invite people to come back and reflect, comment, and continue the relationship online after the visit?

People already use museums casually as a way to meet smart, sexy potential partners. Why not formalize that experience for those who want it? I may not be looking for a one-night stand, but I'm always looking for an excuse to meet someone interesting... and I'd rather do it at a museum than just about anywhere else. Wouldn't you?

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Guest Post: An ARG at the Smithsonian--A Success?

This guest post was written by Georgina Bath Goodlander, the Interpretative Programs Manger for the Luce Foundation Center at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Georgina will be monitoring the comments to respond to your questions.

The “Ghosts of a Chance” alternate reality game (ARG) ran from July 18 until October 25, 2008 and was a collaboration between the Smithsonian American Art Museum and CityMystery. For a complete report on this project, please download this PDF. The game website is here. Otherwise, enjoy this blog post about what I consider the successes and challenges of this project.

The Smithsonian American Art Museum originally decided to create and implement an ARG with three goals in mind: to get people talking about our museum, to attract a new audience, and to encourage discovery around our collections. The Luce Foundation Center for American Art, the museum’s innovative open storage and study center, seemed like the perfect fit for the project.

It is difficult to evaluate Ghosts of a Chance (GOAC) as a whole because there were so many different levels of game play, so I have divided it into three sections:
  1. The onsite, 5-hour live event on October 25
  2. The online, hands-on element in which people created and submitted artifacts over six weeks (September 8 – October 25)
  3. The online story development of the fictional curators Daisy Fortunis and Daniel Libbe and their spirit guides (July 18 – October 25)
1. The onsite event

I had a great deal of apprehension about the October 25 event because the quests that the game designers had created seemed to me to be extremely complicated and involved. People were prompted by text message and staff to take on six quests, including “shaking their booty,” finding secret codes, and eating cake. I did not think that many players would have the perseverance and patience to complete all six quests. On that I was happily proven absolutely wrong! Over seventy people played for more than three hours to complete the entire game, and many of those groups spent more than five hours running around the museum solving puzzles. 244 people played in total, and everyone completed at least one quest with the majority completing more than three. The feedback we received was outstanding, with comments that included: “Hopefully innovations like that will help keep art alive for our younger generation,” “I was surprised to have such a fresh and enjoyable experience in a museum. I wish more visits could be this uniquely satisfying and multifaceted,” and “It was a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon, and turned an already interesting museum into an exciting place of wonder, where every question led to another new discovery.” As a result, it is with confidence that I consider the live event to have been a resounding success.

2. The online contributions

I also consider the online hands-on aspect to have been successful. The tasks asked people to create artifacts according to unusual and sometimes obscure requirements with extremely tight deadlines. They also had to mail these to the museum at their own expense, with no expectation that their submissions would be returned. The first week I was on pins and needles as I waited to see if we would receive anything at all! Fortunately, over the course of the six requests, fourteen people participated to create a total of thirty-three artifacts. The most surprising and rewarding element was the high quality of the submissions with players putting a great deal of time and thought into each piece. Initially I had hoped for more submissions, but by the end I thought that the number worked out very well, as it would have been difficult from a logistical standpoint for the museum to have handled more. The feedback from the players about having their works temporarily included in our online collection and on view in the museum was overwhelmingly positive. It was quite a brave thing for the museum to do and definitely helped increase the buzz that was already starting to stir about the game, particularly within the museum community. Players helped with getting the word out too, as they couldn’t wait to share the news with friends and family that their work was going to be in the Smithsonian, albeit temporarily.

Of the people who created artifacts, seven were crafters who participated because of the opportunity to make something, five were hardcore players, and two were unknowns (I define “hardcore” by those players that were active on the ARG discussion forum Unfiction. This does not exclude them from also being crafters!). Many of the artifact-creators also attended the live event on October 25 to play the game and view their work. If we tried something like this again, however, I would extend the deadlines for the submissions so that more people might consider contributing.

3. The Online Story Development

The online story development is the trickiest part to evaluate. The pre-game happenings between the henna-tattooed bodybuilder at ARGfest-o-con on July 18 and the official launch of the game on September 8 actually generated a lot more online interest from hardcore ARG players than the game itself appeared to. During the initial period, the clue hidden in the henna tattoos led players to the GOAC web site, which asked them to send in images of eyes and record an incantation over the phone. The eye images were posted to the site, and the incantations were layered over the top of each other in an ever-growing audio file. We also hid teasers for the game on Smithsonian web sites and in articles about the game. The resulting discussions on Unfiction about these tasks and hints far exceeded the discussions after the game’s launch, with respect to the number of people involved and the frequency of posts. Why? My unconfirmed suspicion is that we lost some of that initial interest once we went “official.” Prior to September 8, the web site was a little haphazard in appearance. It wasn’t really designed further than a simple header, and the eye images were posted in a single column down the page. After September 8, however, the web site was beautifully designed, appeared much more professional, and became formally linked with the Smithsonian. Did this scare people away? I think it might have done. There were also some murmurings on the forum that we were just doing this to generate viral buzz about an exhibition and that it wasn’t really a game.

The story of Daisy and Daniel was emerging on the GOAC web site as well as on Facebook, YouTube, MySpace, Flickr, and the museum’s blog Eye Level. Each artifact submission unlocked another layer of the story, and videos illustrating Daisy’s and Daniel’s descent into madness were posted as if by the two young “curators” themselves. The story was detailed and creative, and the videos were wonderfully believable, but there didn’t seem to be much player discussion around them. We know that people were reading the story and watching the videos, and some players even interacted with Daisy and Daniel on Facebook, but they didn’t seem interested in figuring out the mysteries that we presented. We did maintain a solid core of hardcore players that followed the game to its conclusion, but I was disappointed that we lost a fair amount of the original interest. Conversely, the story combined with the artifacts succeeded in drawing in a wide audience of players who did not have any prior experience of ARGs. Could we do it differently to capture both audiences, or would catering to the hardcore crowd scare away the larger audience of non-ARGers? I’ve also been warned by those-in-the-know about ARGs that the activity on Unfiction does not necessarily reflect overall ARGer participation, so it’s a difficult one to judge.

[Deep breath]
Finally, to return to our original goals…

Ghosts of a Chance did spark discussion about our museum. It helped increase name recognition nationwide with articles in ABC.com, the Smithsonian magazine, this blog, and the Learning Games Network, as well as mentions by the Washington Post, National Public Radio, and several local blogs and news sites. We captured a new audience online with almost 40,000 page views and more than 6,100 unique visitors to the GOAC web site. This boosted traffic on the Luce Foundation Center and the museum’s web sites as people clicked through to view the player-created artifacts and the museum’s blog. We did not draw a new audience to the bricks-and-mortar museum as the people who played the onsite game on October 25 were generally local and had visited the museum before. However, visit length and level of engagement did increase. I am also optimistic that some of the people who played across the country might now consider including us in their itinerary next time they visit D.C., particularly if we consider the opinion of one hardcore player from New York: “I, for one, have really enjoyed the experience. Even from afar, my interest in the Smithsonian has been raised. I haven't visited for quite a few years, and the last couple weeks I've been pondering how much I can let myself spend for a weekend visit.”

The game absolutely encouraged discovery around the museums collection, both virtually and in the real world, as the tasks led people to new artworks, galleries, and interpretation. And most importantly to me, a whole lot of people had a whole lot of fun, staff included.

What now?

The project with CityMystery also included creation of a packaged game that SAAM can run on a recurring basis. This is essentially a shorter version of the onsite event, capturing the most successful quests and clues, and will be available by appointment (starting in January) and as a recurring public program (starting sometime in the spring). After hearing such positive reviews from players on October 25, I’m extremely excited about the chance to play the game with more people. I’m hopeful that teachers in particular will pick up on this as a great activity for their students.

I also believe that the Smithsonian has an opportunity to create an ARG across several if not all of its museums. How wonderful would it be to create an experience that would take players across the entire Institution (physical and virtual) in search of clues?

Thanks so much to Georgina for writing this! I found her thoughts (and the exhaustive PDF report on the project) quite useful. And you?

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Quick Hits: Projects, Workshops, Tools, and a Job

There's a lot of great stuff flooding my inbox these days. Here's what I'm most excited about right now. Keep 'em coming, and enjoy!

Museum Projects
  • COSI has done a lovely job aggregating all of their social media efforts into one "Share" tab on their website. Not only do they tell you where you can connect with them in Web 2.0-land, they explain what the different Web services do, which makes the invitation to connect less threatening for visitors who (like many of us) aren't really sure what Twitter is.
  • The Brooklyn Museum is offering a new "socially networked" membership called 1stfans starting Jan 3. This $20 membership is organized around the First Friday live events and a private feed on Twitter. This is the first attempt to monetize the value of being part of an affinity group that spans online and onsite experiences, and it's a step in the direction of reconceiving museum membership as being a part of something rather than just receiving discounts and services.
  • LACMA has recently opened their grounds to two pretty unusual art groups, Machine Project and The Public School. Machine Project is a gallery/educational program space with a focus on blending art and technology in craft workshops. The Public School is also a gallery/educational program space, but they are organized around a semi-democratic process where all programs are proposed, voted on, and led by community members. Kudos to LACMA for being a "big tent" willing to let weirdos do art and hold their own discussion groups in and around the Art.
Tools (well, one tool)
  • Do you want to provide a Twitter-like feed of what people are thinking in your galleries or programs without forcing people to go through confusing registration processes? Check out TodaysMeet, a really simple system that allows you to create a backchannel chat room for events, exhibits, etc. with no registration required. I used it last night for backchannel chat during a lecture on gaming in museums with a group of about 20 students, and I was impressed by how easy it was for everyone to use. Let me know if you end up using it for a museum event or exhibit!
Workshops and Conferences (coming in February)
  • The WeAreMedia team, led by Beth Kanter, is finally taking their knowledge on the road. Feb. 12-13 they are offering a Social Media and Non-profit Two Day Intensive Workshop in San Francisco, and I'll be helping teach. It's $199 for NTEN members, $299 for non-members, and they require you to come in two-person teams from your institution. This is a highly interactive workshop that will be useful if you are ready to craft a social media strategy and want a professional jump start.
  • WebWise is a free(!) conference for museum and library professionals in D.C. Feb. 25-27 sponsored by IMLS, the Wolfsonian, the MacArthur Foundation, and the Florida Center for Library Automation. I've never attended before, but I'm helping out with the program this year and it's shaping into a good high-level exploration of the hot issues around community engagement, legal rights and restrictions, and strategies for managing innovation. The theme is "Digital Debates" and we are structuring the sessions to encourage panelist discussion rather than show-and-tell.
Job Opportunity
  • The Scratch team at the MIT Media Lab is looking for an online community coordinator. I think their project and team are great, and this could be a wonderful opportunity for some web-savvy, education-loving, somewhat geeky person who wants to play with the cool kids in Cambridge, MA. Warning: I lived there. It's cold.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Case Study: A Participatory Road Trip takes the SJMA on a Wild Ride

Reason #258 I'm glad to live in California: Cultural Connections. Cultural Connections is a group of museum professionals who meet up a few times a year and host excellent programs on a variety of topics. This week, they hosted "Let Them Be Heard: Visitor Participation in the Museum Experience," featuring four presentations on incorporating visitors' content into museums.

I was captivated by Chris Alexander's story about participatory online/onsite efforts at the San Jose Museum of Art (SJMA). Their recent experiments with the exhibition Road Trip provides a useful case study of a mid-sized institution, a simple project, and some surprising results. Here are his slides, or if you prefer a text rendition, continue reading.

Here's what they did. Chris and Lucy Larson, the SJMA manager of interpretation, wanted to create something that would be both a marketing tool for the Road Trip exhibition and add an interactive element to the physical exhibition. So, they decided to solicit postcards from real people's road trips, to be displayed in the exhibition. They created a quirky video promoting the postcard project, put it on YouTube (the video shown at top), and waited for the postcards to roll in. The marketing team promoted the project with outreach to several road trip and roadside attraction-related websites and blogs, but the creative control of the project belonged to Chris and Lucy.

What happened? For the first couple of months, not a lot. There were about 1,000 views of the YouTube video and 20 postcards submitted by August 15, at which point, something strange happened. Chris left work that Friday afternoon having noticed the YouTube viewcount on the video suddenly rising. By the time he got home, 10,000 new people had seen the video. After some puzzling, he realized that the video had been featured on the homepage of YouTube. The mysterious unseen gods of YouTube had anointed the Road Trip video with top billing, which shot the views way up (over 80,000 to date) and sent comments and video responses pouring in. The comments, which were previously unmoderated, suddenly were overloaded with opportunists who wanted their voice to be heard on the YouTube homepage. Chris spent an exhausting (but rewarding) weekend moderating comments and taking control of the video's newfound fame.

The attention from being featured on the homepage of YouTube motivated an energized burst of postcards from around the world. Overall, the museum received about 250 postcards. Chris had expected more, but the contributory ask was fairly high--go to an attraction, buy a postcard, write something clever, mail it in. I'm impressed he got 250 in such a short time frame--these projects often take months to build. Many of the postcards are gems that provide powerful connections to strange people and places. They are featured in the exhibition in a little sitting area along with the video and will be kept in the museum's interpretative archive at the end of the project.

This was a relatively quick, easy project that generated a lot of positive publicity and participation for the museum. But there are some places where it falls short. The SJMA team could not afford to scan or transcribe the postcards, so they are only viewable in the museum, not online. This was a one-shot approach--put out the video, collect the postcards. The people who sent in postcards don't have a way to see their content as part of the collection (unless they visit in person), and they aren't recognized for their contribution in a place online where they could both spread the word and enjoy a little fame. This is not a project that will take on a life of its own beyond this exhibition (probably). It doesn't launch new relationships.

Of course, the beauty of this project is its manageability. It is small and focused and highly repeatable (Chris and Lucy are producing a new YouTube series for the new exhibition on The Art of Cardboard). It reflects the overall mission of the institution in its creative implementation, raises awareness of the institution, and brings visitors' experiences into the galleries.

Was the Road Trip experiment successful? Certainly. But some of that success is contingent on the freak event of being featured on the YouTube homepage. At the end of Chris' presentation, one woman asked, "Why WOULDN'T a museum want to do this? It's so cheap compared to other kinds of marketing!" But her enthusiasm might have been different if the project had concluded with 2,000 views and 40 postcards.

Would my enthusiasm have been different? I've struggled thinking about the answer to that question. I think this is an excellent project that can be a model for small museums and limited budgets, a not-so-scary way to wade into online/onsite connections and visitor participation. Ultimately, those features of this project are the ones that are most important to me. But its allure comes from the high visibility and success. And so I guess the point is this: there can be a fine line between success and not-success in these experiments, and that line is often driven by luck or circumstance, not design. Not all viruses go viral. As long as the experiment is a reasonable approach to the challenge at hand, it's probably worth trying. It's no different from trying a new kind of educational program format or a new approach to an interactive exhibit. And in the same way that we struggle to define success metrics other than visitation for a variety of museum activities, we need to think about what "success" and "value" mean in this context. It's not appropriate to force everything into a numbers game. After all, as naysayers of participatory design often remind me, the museum is not a popularity contest.

If you have questions about this project, leave a comment and Chris will respond, or you can reach him directly via his website.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Why Doesn't Anyone Comment on Your Blog?

When people ask about blogging, the question of comments comes up more frequently than any other. It's a bit strange. Why not ask more typical website questions, "why don't more people visit my blog?" or "why don't more people link to my blog?" There are many good ways to measure a blog's value, but somewhere inside ourselves, we feel that comments are the thing that validate a blog's existence. They prove that the conversation is two-way. They demonstrate that the blog is a more participatory vehicle than other kinds of media. So when people ask, "Why don't more people comment?," it gets me excited. It means that you are blogging because you want to hear from someone else.

But here's the problem: the vast majority of people who read your blog aren't reading it because they want or plan to comment on it. They are reading it to read it--to learn, absorb, and gain awareness of new things. When you read other peoples' blogs, do you comment? I do so rarely. I have to feel like the post is open enough to my experience, that the blogger and the community of that blog would find my voice worthwhile, that I have some strong reaction I want to share, that I won't sound stupid... and most of the blog reading I do isn't like that. 95% of the blog posts I read are exciting to me because they provide me with useful, interesting windows into new information. They're like magazine articles. I may talk about them with friends or pass them on, but only once in a blue moon will I write a letter "to the editor" to share my thoughts back to the author.

I push myself to comment wherever it feels right, and still, it often feels scary, weird, and hard. I don't want to validate non-commenting--I want to do whatever I can to encourage commenting--but I acknowledge the barriers. I feel them every day.

Museum 2.0's comment rate, on average, is 7 comments per post, and about 10,000 unique people read the blog each month. That's a lousy percentage--too low to print without several zeroes (and a little complicated to calculate on a per-post basis). Social media experts talk about the 90-9-1 rule: 90% of users are consumers, 9% are occasional producers, and 1% are frequent contributors. Most "successful" blogs are nowhere near 90-9-1. Consider Beth Kanter's blog about non-profits and technology, which is read by about 25,000 people per month. Her average comment rate is 3 comments per post. Does it make her blog less valuable or influential? No. It's just one part of the picture.

There are some blogs that have much higher comment rates than these examples. They tend to be small community blogs that serve a set of people who already know each other and want to connect with each other, like a family, friend group, or work team. If my dad blogged, I'd comment all the time. In fact, there are MORE blogs of this type in the world than blogs that are primarily expository, but the communities they serve are so small (often 10 people or fewer) that they are invisible to most of us. If you do indeed want to cultivate a community discussion, start with a blog "family" to fuel the blog, or, better yet, consider another venue like Twitter or a social network that is a more conducive environment to active participation among strangers.

The other reason not to let comments drive your efforts is that the posts which elicit the most comments are not necessarily the ones that readers value most. It's easy as the blogger to feel this way--after all, I get the most value as a content recipient when you comment back to me, so I (probably incorrectly) inflate the value of those posts. When people do vault over all the psychological barriers to comment, it's not necessarily an indication of a superlative post; it more likely means the post induces a strong reaction. The top three most commented-on posts on this blog are:
What do these posts have in common? They are all personal and provocative. They aren't better than other posts, and they are certainly less informative than many. But in them, I wrote something personal which put me on a conversational level. There are many other stories and opinions besides mine to contribute to the conversations on these posts, and you have done so incredibly richly.

When I wrote the Where I'm Coming From post last week, I had no idea it would be so commented upon. I almost didn't post it because I thought it was overly self-absorbed. Instead, it generated the best comments I've ever seen here--thoughtful, long manifestos about why all of you do what you do. It's awesome. I'm grateful. I hope it happens again. But I'm not planning to shift all of my writing to this kind of personal self-reflection nor to the hyper-provocative content of the Zombies post. I'm not writing to get comments. I'm writing to learn, and hopefully to connect with you through that experience.

And so while I WISH that all of you feel comfortable enough in this space and close enough to me and responsive to my writing that you want to comment, I know that you, like me, probably aren't here for that. You're here to read, to think, and only very occasionally to discuss. That's ok. I want you for that, too.

There are many good tips and strategies for improving blog conduciveness to comments. But it's OK if no one comments on your blog. It can even be OK if no one reads your blog as long as you are getting something out of it. At ASTC in October, museum evaluation rockstar Randi Korn gave a great talk about the role of self-reflection in museum practice. She argued that reflection may be even more important than evaluation in the cycle of creating impact through your work. Blogging can be a wonderful way to take time out from your life to reflect, even if no one reads it. You have the chronicle of content, and that's really valuable, too.

Of course, if you are writing your blog for marketing purposes, you should care about the number of readers. If you are writing to have industry impact, you should care about the number of people who link to you. And if you are writing your blog for conversational purposes, you should care about the quantity and quality of comments. So think about why you are writing before you worry about how to get more comments.

Having said all of this, I know, deep down, why you care about comments. They are the most obvious way that you can see that all of your hard work has had impact on someone. Someone cares! Blogging means giving a lot to a faceless community, and every comment fills in a face. Getting a good comment is like getting a million puppies in the mail. I am so so so grateful whenever you write back and share your thoughts with all those faceless people and with me. But I've also learned not to rely on or have an unhealthy relationship with that gratitude. I'm ecstatic when you comment. I'm thrilled when someone links to me. I'm elated by reader numbers. But what keeps me going is an interest in writing, learning, and sharing.

And so I want to end with my own thanks. Thank you to the intrepid commenters who have jumped in on this blog and shared your stories. Thanks in particular to people like Paul Orselli, who always asks hard questions, and people like Alli, who was inspired just last week to share her first amazing comment. I encourage you all to make a practice of reading the comments on blogs as well as the posts--they reflect a diversity of experience that you can never find in the posts alone. But thank you also to all the bloggers whose work I read and rarely comment on. Thank you to Reach Advisors for sharing FASCINATING insight into visitors' brains. Thank you to Ira Socol who writes a great blog about education and accessibility and comments here frequently. Thank you to the Exploratorium Explainers who give me a window into the frontlines. Thanks to Maria Mortati and David Cheseborough and Dimitry van den Berg and Beck Tench and Shelley Bernstein and Paul Orselli (again) and all the museum bloggers whose work inspires and instructs me. I promise to try to comment more often, but if I don't, know that I still value and appreciate your work.

And if you have a question, an objection, a suggestion, an experience, or a friendly word to share, for god's sake, leave a comment.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Where I'm Coming From

Why do you care about and or work in museums? This post tells my (weird) story. I hope you'll share yours in the comments below (or on your own blog). And check out the comments. They are active and awesome.

My story is about radical educational philosophy. I don't work in museums because I love them. I didn't grow up staring open-mouthed at natural history dioramas or wandering through art galleries. When I visit a new city, I don't clamor to visit museums. I go on hikes. I go to farmer's markets. I walk around and get a sense for people and place. And while I'll visit museums out of professional (and occasionally personal) interest, I don't do it because of a deep emotional connection. Yes, there are some extraordinary museum experiences that have changed my life, but they are the exception, not the norm.

I don't work in museums because I love them. I love the promise of what they can be. I work in museums because I hate schools and see museums as a viable alternative. I'm a strong believer in free-choice learning, and I see museums as places to circumvent the hazards of compulsory education and support a democratic, engaged society of learners.

What is free-choice learning? I first encountered the term as a teenager through the writings of John Holt and the unschooling movement. "Unschooling" is an an educational theory that argues that people of all ages (including children) learn best when their work is self-directed--and that children are better at determining what and how they should learn than any accredited school or instructor. As John Holt wrote, "Learning is not the product of teaching. Learning is the product of the activity of learners." Unschoolers generally believe that schools perpetuate undemocratic processes that hinder rather than help learning happen.

I agreed. I was great at school, and I hated it. I didn't want to care what was going to be on the test. I didn't feel supported pursuing intrinsically motivated projects. Much to my mom's relief, I stayed in school but remained deeply suspicious of the artificial structure of grades and gold stars. I went to a project-based engineering college where I could set my own curriculum and graduated early. Professors always encouraged me to go to graduate school, but I wanted to get into "real life"--and real learning--as soon as possible.

I started working in museums because I idealized them as places that support user-directed learning (I still do). In college, I stumbled onto the Institute for Learning Innovation and John Falk and Lynn Dierking's work on free-choice learning in museums, dropped my plan to design pinball machines for a living (probably not that lucrative) and started investigating hands-on museums. I took the two things I was most passionate about--math and non-compulsory learning experiences--and smooshed them together into a string of internships and part-time jobs in science museum education departments. Eventually, I slid into exhibits, and meandered my way to the present.

When I started working in museums, I didn't realize that free-choice learning was a radical proposition. When I first explored the ILI website, I assumed that free-choice learning was the backbone of all museums. I thought I'd found the place for unschooling to thrive. I didn't have a clue about the other rationales for museums--places of stored knowledge, places to keep stuff, places to colonize minds. It wasn't until I started working in museums that I discovered that the museum as a place where you make your own meaning is more a promise than a reality.

There are many parallels between free-choice learning and participatory design. Both are based on the premise that given the opportunity, regular people (learners) will create extraordinary stories and experiences that serve their own purposes better than anything experts can design for them. They don't need to be cajoled or threatened into learning. As museum professionals, or educators, or librarians, or humans who want to support learning, it's not our job to teach people everything. What we can do is design conditions and tools for access to those opportunities and a supportive infrastructure to encourage learning.

Unlike John Holt, who ultimately argued that schools were ineffective in any form, I believe that museums can live up to the promise of free-choice learning. Museum professionals repeat Frank Oppenheimer's words, "no one ever failed museum" with pride. And yet we are increasingly caving to the purse strings and demands of the traditional K-12 and higher education sectors, becoming more like school add-ons than school alternatives. Even the training of museum professionals has gotten more academic with the explosion of university-based graduate programs. Why are we training future leaders of alternative learning using traditional academic techniques and facilities? Instead of trying to align ourselves more closely with K-12 and universities, why aren't museums charting new territory in free-choice learning? Why are we in bed with institutions that fail to acknowledge people as learners rather than vessels to be filled?

I know the practical answers. There is money in traditional education, lots more than what MacArthur and other foundations are starting to offer for alternative learning environments. The contemporary culture of user-generated content is bringing self-directed learning to the forefront, but that doesn't mean there's money or traditional rewards to be found there. No teacher is going to book a field trip to a place that is not tightly tied to school curriculum. A graduate degree looks good on a resume. University people also care about learning, even if they execute it in traditional ways.

But the practicalities are only one part of the story. It took me a long time to realize that supporting free-choice learning isn't the primary goal for most museum professionals. We like designing the experience. We like telling visitors what's important. Whenever someone points out that "visitors make their own experiences," it's usually followed by a but. BUT we will try to force them to do what we want them to anyway. BUT we will make sure the only stuff they encounter in the galleries is vetted. BUT we won't acknowledge their voices and their meaning.

My goal is to break down those BUTs. That goal isn't based on technology or social media. It's based on liberation, idealism, and activism. It's based on inviting visitors to participate in museums as active learners so the institutions become as meaningful and relevant as possible.

What's your goal? Where are you coming from?

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Free2choose and the Social Dimension of Polling Interactives

Early in the life of this blog, I stumbled into a taxonomy of how social platforms work that I call the hierarchy of participation. The hierarchy comprises five levels, shown above, from passive consumption of content (level one) to collective social engagement (level five). I’ve argued that you can only achieve level five engagement by moving “through” the intermediate levels. This post provides a tangible example for the why behind that argument.

When I talk about the hierarchy, I use the theoretical construct of an issue-based museum exhibit. At level one, the museum preaches to visitors about the issue. At level two, the visitor has some interactive experience (pushing buttons, etc.) with the issue. At level three, the visitor is polled about the issue and sees her result compared to the cumulative aggregate. At level four, the visitor has some awareness of how other distinct visitors respond to the issue and can access their comments and opinions. At level five, the visitors start discussing the issue together.

Last week, I visited a museum with an exhibition that powerfully illustrated the barriers that prevent people from jumping from level three to level five. It is a small exhibition called Free2choose at the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam.

Free2choose is a very simple exhibition. It is one room, with a long, semi-circular bench with cushions and room for about 30 people to comfortably sit and stand. Every few feet on the bench, there is a small box about the size of a lightswitch with two buttons on it, one red and one green. The visitors on the bench face a large projection screen. The screen plays an interactive show that invites visitors to vote on a variety of issues related to human rights. The setup is always the same. A one-minute video clip presents the issue (for example, whether students should be allowed to wear headscarves to school). Then, a screen pops up with a statement like “Students should be allowed to wear religious symbols in school.” Visitors see a ticking countdown and are told to vote by pressing either the green or red button on one of the small boxes. Green indicates yes, red, no. At the end of the voting countdown, the results are shown, both for “Visitors Now” and for “All Visitors.”

Free2choose is a walk-in exhibition—visitors can freely enter and leave at any time. Each issue takes about 90 seconds between the setup video and the voting, and the entire loop takes about 20 minutes. I spent over an hour in Free2choose on a Sunday afternoon, and while it was not as busy as the rest of the museum, it had 20 to 40 occupants at any time. People stayed through several topics, many as long as ten minutes. The show content was compelling, but the voting was what really energized people.

What did people like so much about the voting? Pressing the buttons was not particularly thrilling, and I never saw kids playing the usual bang-on-the-buttons game. The thing people liked was seeing the results. Every issue cycle was the same: visitors would watch the video in silence, and then as soon as the voting opened, a murmur of conversation would run through the room. It increased to a loud buzz when the results were displayed, and then cut off when the next issue video began.

What's so interesting about the results? When you take a poll alone, there’s no suspense about how you voted. I vote yes for headscarves, and then I see that 65% of other visitors over time agreed with me. But Free2choose was more like being part of a deliberating jury than acting as a solo judge. In Free2choose, I voted yes for headscarves, saw that 65% of all visitors agreed with me, but also saw that only 40% of the people currently in the room agreed with me. When the results of the room differed greatly from those of “All Visitors,” the surprise was audible. I was in one group where 100% of us voted that Protestants should be able to parade through Catholic areas in Northern Ireland, and we looked around with wonder and complicity when we saw that only 60% of “All Visitors” agreed with us. Every group was different, so every outcome was different.

Free2choose is powerful because it introduces social tension. When I voted in the minority, I felt that I was in the minority not just conceptually but physically, in that crowd, in that moment. Because the room was often full, I found myself looking for people “like me" in the crowd. But I had no way to identify them in the faceless group of button-pushers.

And that’s where the social dimension of Free2choose is limited. There is no component to the exhibition that highlights the specific selections made by individuals in the room, and no vehicle to incite conversation among differing groups. Yes, there was lots of talking in that room—but only in whispers among familiars. At one point, I was standing next to a group of British people who voted that flag-burning should be illegal. I had voted the opposite. We were standing close enough—a few inches apart—that I could “spy” on them as they hit the button, but I was not comfortable asking them about it or having a discussion about why.

Right now, Free2choose is a game that illuminates diversity of opinion on tough issues. But it could go further. It could become a game that encourages people to talk with each other about these issues. There are many ways that the game could do this:
  • Voting could be (more) public. There could be spotlights in the ceiling that would illuminate different areas of the room in different colors of light corresponding to those who had selected red or green when the results are shown.
  • Instead of voting in place, visitors could be directed to vote by moving to one side of the room or another.
  • After the results are up, the screen could instruct visitors to find someone in the room who voted differently from them, or just to ask their neighbor what they think about the issue and or the results.
  • The game could instruct people to share voting stations and to use a brief discussion to come to a consensus vote. As it was, there were too few stations and people awkwardly looked on as others used them.
There are many other options. They aren’t hard to implement and they needn’t dramatically change the exhibition, but they could dramatically change the social experience. Free2choose is a perfect example of the limits of a level three experience. Even though you are densely packed in a room with other people expressing your opinions about important issues, you don’t turn to your neighbor and start talking. The social stigma is too great, and the tools don’t help you cross those barriers. You vote and see the results (level 3), but the voting mechanism is not a social object that mediates and motivates engagement with others (level 4). And so, even though you are all together in the same room, grappling with tough issues, you will never launch into group discourse (level 5).

Not all people would want to go to the next level and have a conversation with strangers, but it was clear that people did want to talk about the results (based on their conversations with companions) and were absorbed by the overall experience. And in an international city like Amsterdam, in a museum focused on one girl's extreme story that has touched the whole world, it seems to me there is an enormous opportunity to go to the next level and facilitate cross-cultural discussion. Why do you oppose flag-burning? How is it related to your nationality, your age, your gender, your experience? I was aching to ask these questions. It would have made for an extraordinary and unique museum experience in line with the overall mission of the Anne Frank House.

As it stands, I had an interesting time comparing the results from different groups in my head. But I didn’t understand why those groups were different, and I didn’t gain more insight about how different people think about complicated issues related to human rights. I wanted more than just a fun interactive—I wanted to understand the other people in the room. And I don’t think I was alone in that feeling. Perhaps we should have put it to a vote.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Comment Cards 2.0: Three Tools to Check Out

In many museums, comment cards are currently the most "participatory" part of the visitor experience. It's the one place where visitors can offer direct, open-ended feedback on the institution's content and services. But there are three problems with museum comment cards:
  1. The comments are so scattered over a wide range of topics (including generic ones like, "Thank you!") that the signal-to-noise ratio is low. Unless you digitize them, they become unwieldy and impossible to search through and derive meaning from.
  2. In most institutions, the suggestions on comment cards don't get to the people in power. If they are read, it is primarily to address any chronic problems (i.e. complaints about the third floor bathroom), not ideas or opportunities.
  3. There are few, if any, ways to write back and continue the conversation with the visitor who commented. Relatedly, there is no way for other visitors to easily join threads of conversation--to do anything but offer their own discrete atomized comments.
In other words, comment cards aren't effectively organized for use. Enter the internet. Recently, a whole slew of new web-based applications have popped up to make it easier for companies to gather and prioritize feedback from users. While these began in the pretty geeky world of people suggesting new features for software (see featurelist as an example), there are now several services with slick user interfaces that allow you to offer feedback on everything from Whole Foods markets to Barack Obama's presidential agenda. Because these services present individual feedback in a social environment and allow users to vote for their favorite suggestions or questions, the institution can easily see the prioritized desires and concerns of visitors without having to read hundreds of cards.

These services could be a powerful, cheap alternative to comment cards--especially those that are focused towards making suggestions about the museum. If you are considering replacing comment books or cards with digital kiosks, why not put the kiosk online and use a system that will allow visitors to vote for others' suggestions, comment on new ideas, join conversations with staff about opportunities, see which suggestions have been adopted by the institution? These third-party applications provide a ready-made environment for comment cards to become more useful and usable to visitors and staff alike.

Here are the top three tools I've been exploring: IdeaScale, GetSatisfaction, and uservoice.

prioritizing suggestions for specific programs

A couple of weeks ago, I opened this Ideascale website to invite readers of this blog to suggest and vote on Museum 2.0 community activities of interest (please vote and comment--I will move to action stage at the end of the month). Ideascale is the most basic of these three tools, offering three actions a user can take: suggest an idea, vote for or against an idea, and comment on an idea. The ideas can be tagged and grouped into categories, and can be browsed in time order, by most popular, or by category.

My account is free, but you can pay $15 per month for a bunch of moderation tools and secure portals. There is also a way to award rewards based on the number of points accrued by a given user (you receive points for commenting, voting, and suggesting) - for example, IdeaScale's parent company, QuestionPro, will give you a $10 Amazon gift certificate when you accrue 100 points on their own virtual suggestion box.

IdeaScale is best for individual programs or events because it focuses on prioritizing via voting. The suggestions have to be reasonably focused so that people can make comparative judgments. It may be useful if you want to ask "What kind of teen programs should our museum offer?" because all of the answers will be related and can be judged as better or worse than each other. IdeaScale is less useful for questions like, "What should we change about our museum?"--it may be hard to compare suggestions like, "new bathrooms," to "longer hours" to "more tours"--and therefore, the content becomes less useful.

Two interesting examples to check out: ChoiceHotels, a booking software used by hotel managers, and AsktheSpeaker, in which Ideascale was used by Netroots Nation to select questions to ask Nancy Pelosi in an interview. Both of these are specific; the first, about the feature set for a software service, and the second, focused on a single event.

Positives of Ideascale: Easy to customize the look and feel to brand to your site. Simple, understandable functionality. Focuses users on prioritizing ideas. No ads in any version.

Negatives of Ideascale: users must register an account to comment, suggest, or vote.

Best use for museums:
When you want people to share their suggestions for a specific element of the institution (i.e. exhibition name, what kinds of programs do you want, what should we offer in our cafeteria) and want to gather both ideas and votes for each idea. While IdeaScale could be used as a standalone kiosk or a link from the website, but probably is better for specific, targeted projects than as an entire comment card solution.

ongoing conversation with users about visitor experiences

GetSatisfaction is the youthful giant of this field. While IdeaScale is about sharing suggestions for particular programs or services, GetSatisfaction is a "customer service and support" system. Rather than just suggesting ideas, users can "ask a question," "share an idea," "report a problem," or "give praise" to the company or institution. These types are color-coded so a user can quickly scan down and see the problem reports (red), which they may want to respond to quickly. Users can also submit their emotional feeling about the idea or problem via a set of emoticons that let you know generally whether people are happy or pissed off. GetSatisfaction makes it very clear which users are employees and which are customers, and lets users know at the top of the page how many employees are engaged in the forum (so you know whether you are in an entirely customer-based discussion environment or one that has a lot of active participation by the company).

GetSatisfaction is more about conversations with customers than prioritizing suggestions. There are great secondary tools to allow you to follow individual conversation threads and users have profiles that can be developed across the site (similar to Yelp!). While you can vote on a given question or item to say that "you also have this question," that feature is not as frequently used as the "reply" function. Where IdeaScale is about sorting suggestions by priority, GetSatisfaction is about connecting with users and their concerns and questions. It is primarily used by web companies, but there are some media providers like the BBC and venues like Whole Foods using it.

Positives of GetSatisfaction: Creates an ongoing forum for communication with users. Can be used for multiple kinds of requests--content questions as well as concerns about the cleanliness of the bathroom. Great user interface; see this in-depth article about its design.

Negatives of GetSatisfaction:
Free version has ads. Users must register an account to comment, suggest, or vote. Requires ongoing feedback and use by staff to adequately address user concerns.

Best use for museums: If you want to have ongoing conversations with visitors about their questions and concerns, GetSatisfaction is a good option. This is like a comment card system in which you are expected to respond to most of the questions and concerns. It could be a robust complete system, but there is a heavy staff time investment required.

voting fairly for new ideas

uservoice is still in beta, and it got on my radar through their clever creation of a Obama agenda suggestion implementation (it does not appear to be affiliated with or sponsored by the Obama team). It is very similar to IdeaScale, focusing on making suggestions, voting, and commenting, with one unique difference: users are given a set number of votes (10) to distribute among the ideas listed. While suggesting a new idea is up front on the site, the fact that you only have ten votes to spread around adds a game-like element that focuses you on checking out many ideas and distributing your votes wisely.

For this reason, uservoice may be an interesting tool to use if you want people to vote for options in a controlled way where different users' contributions are balanced (i.e. voting for a favorite exhibit). The concept is that some of the ideas in the uservoice list will be adopted by the institution, and then the votes for that idea will be "freed" back to the voters for use on other ideas. That concept relies on users returning to the site multiple times--something no museum can really count on.

Positives of uservoice: Does not require registering an account to suggest an idea, comment, or vote. There is only a free version currently with no ads.

Negatives of uservoice: The vote cap may be confusing and or limiting to users.

Best use for museums: If you want to invite people to vote on topics and require them to really value their votes, uservoice could be a strong tool. I could imagine it being used, for example, in a climate change exhibition to invite visitors and staff to recommend energy-saving options for the institution and for visitors to vote on which they think the institution should prioritize.

One key requirement to make any of these systems successful is that you must place it prominently in your physical museum or on your website such that people can easily access it when they have their question or comment. That is more likely to happen in the museum than online. This could even be the start of a great "online extension" activity for visitors. Rather than dropping their comment cards into the black hole of a suggestion box, they could start conversations and engagement with the institution--originating with both positive and negative impressions--that continue for a long time. One of the most interesting things I noticed as I scanned the Whole Foods GetSatisfaction site was how many topics started negative and ended up becoming polite, engaging conversations between customers and employees. And while the tone of the Whole Foods employees is very marketing-ish, it's also personal, and it seems to work. Annoyed people are converted. They are spending more virtual time with the brand, and with real people associated with it. They are having conversations. And I think that's encouraging some of them to go back to the store.

Why let Whole Foods have all the fun? How do you use comment cards in your museum, and how would you like to see them evolve?

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Lessons in Participatory Design from SFMOMA's Exhibition on (you guessed) The Art of Participation

Here are two pictures. The first one is me. The second one is George. George is a stranger I met last week at SFMOMA’s new show, The Art of Participation:1950 to Now. We didn’t need a staff member or a program to meet each other. We weren’t trying to pick each other up. We engaged in an exhibit together, making "one minute sculptures" and taking photos of each other. We talked afterwards. We connected virtually later. We were strangers, and now we are not, and we have SFMOMA to thank for it.

The Art of Participation provides a retrospective on participatory art as well as presenting opportunities for visitors to engage in contemporary (“now”) works. As the museum's website puts it, "this exhibition examines how artists have engaged members of the public as essential collaborators in the art-making process." While many of the artifacts of historical art pieces are arresting, the pieces of “now” form an exciting testbed for gallery-based participatory engagement, albeit in a meta way around the topic of participation. The participatory art pieces are physical, social objects that mediate visitor-to-visitor engagement, and the exhibition suggests a set of dos and don’ts that are transferable to any museum or institution seeking to support visitor-to-visitor social experiences.

DO message clearly. SFMOMA uses a variety of methods to make visitors aware of the opportunity to engage physically with the art. At the front of the exhibition is this simple sign (shown at right) explaining that labels written in orange are opportunities to “do, take, or touch something.” This label set up a casual game for me: look for orange, do the thing. Even if you don’t see this label on the way in, the use of a different color allows visitors to become familiar with the use of the color orange as they see it across many labels in the gallery. If the participatory instructions were integrated into the standard black labels, visitors would not be as aware of the commonalities across the interactive art pieces. The repetition of the orange may also encourage some reluctant visitors to engage, as it suggests multiple opportunities for participation.

DO train your floor staff.
Staff play a major role in setting expectations about what visitors can and can not do-especially in art museums. There were several guards and gallery guides in the museum when I attended, and they seemed to serve contradictory roles. The guards interpreted the labels in strict ways and intervened anytime visitors deviated from the prescribed activities. The guides had a much more open approach, encouraging visitors to play. I was involved in one situation where a guide and a guard argued about whether a plastic orange could be placed inside a prop fridge. This kind of confusion among staff translates negatively to visitors, who lose confidence in participating for fear of being chastised.

DON’T make the participatory activity too narrow or difficult. There were a couple of exhibits that had complicated instruction sets, and participating felt more like an unpleasant IKEA flashback than an opportunity to explore art. This doesn’t mean that there isn’t a place for challenging exhibits, but the starting point for entry into a participatory experience should always be gentle and friendly. Also, the more open-ended pieces, in which visitors could express some of our own creativity, allowed me to feel more like a participant and less like an unpaid art lackey.

DO think about visitor flow when situating participatory experiences. The Art of Participation has elements throughout the SFMOMA building, and while some are well-placed, others feel ill-suited to their environment. The quiet, less-trafficked education center is a perfect place for contemplative, individual exhibits like the 1000 Journals project, in which visitors can flip through and contribute to a set of journals launched into the world by artist Brian Singer. But a set of DIY foldable furniture, which is performative, social, and challenging to use, felt out of place in the otherwise empty education space. Similarly, the one minute sculptures, where I spent the most time and interacted with many strangers, was successful because it was positioned in an open part of the gallery that generated lots of traffic and sightlines—two key elements for drawing people in.

DON’T make the social ask too uncomfortable. There was a set of eyeglasses in the exhibition meant for two people to wear (see left, the glasses are linked so the viewers face each other). While some people traveling in groups may feel comfortable using a device to stand inches from each other, many strangers (and familiars) do not. In contrast, the exhibit in which I met George—one minute sculptures—requires a simple and non-threatening social action: taking a photo of someone else. It’s minimal enough to feel safe asking a stranger for help but leads easily to deeper interaction.

DO delineate the space, but design easy ways to disengage.
George and my experience in the one-minute sculpture activity was also facilitated by the space provided. We were standing on a low platform in the middle of a large gallery. It was clear where to participate (on the platform), which enhanced the performative quality of the experience. People could watch what was happening and join in. People on the platform could turn in multiple directions to entice newcomers into the action. But it was also easy to step off the platform and out of the activity. Too often, we design participatory experiences into their own rooms, thinking we should create a dedicated space for the noise and activity. But openness is safe. I would feel less comfortable playing with strangers in a room shut off from the rest of the museum.

DO provide examples and create a valued context.
This is the most obvious way that The Art of Participation succeeds. For every opportunity to engage creatively, there are many examples of how other artists have interpreted participation. This happens on a small scale (for example, the one minute sculpture platform was flanked by photos documenting sculptures created by artist Lygia Clark) as well as throughout the gallery. There is no question in my mind that the art around us encouraged me and other participants to take more risks, and to think of ourselves as making art. We were on display at a huge and powerful museum, a part of the exhibition rather than consumers of an interactive element. And that felt important. It was a feeling that was harder to access in the education center, where participation felt less transgressive and more like a “designed learning moment.”

Some of these dos and don'ts may seem generic. But without all of them, the participatory experience is diminished—and that was readily apparent as I wandered the highly active to not-at-all active exhibits. Context and framing are unbelievably important. Think of what happened to George and me: we had an opportunity to take pictures of people doing silly things with broom handles, plastic fruit, and a dorm fridge with a hole in it. That description does not scream "amazing participatory experience." And yet the setup—the platform, the gallery location, the examples, the encouragement, the low barrier to entry—made it extraordinary. It created a situation where a perfect stranger paused, looked at me, and said, “I think I’m going to take off my shirt.” It created an opportunity for each of us to do things that were individually comfortable but socially extraordinary.

It didn’t take exhaustive resources to create the one minute sculpture platform. I'd argue that it didn't even take unprecedented genius on the part of the artist and curators. But it did take a serious interest in connecting with visitors, valuing their participation, and putting their work front and center in a contextualized museum experience.