Tag Archives: User-Generated Content

Review: The Participatory Museum

In The Participatory Museum, Nina Simon argues that the social web has changed the way that people relate to one another and the world, and makes a case for introducing participatory design to cultural institutions.

I am a longtime reader and fan of Nina Simon’s blog Museum 2.0 and so I jumped at the chance to review her book. Both Simon’s blog and The Participatory Museum offer compelling real-life examples and case studies of cultural institutions that have adopted new media strategies to help fulfill their institutional missions. These new media strategies do not always (and often do not) take place on the web. Rather, Simon is concerned with gleaning knowledge from web and new media interactions, and apply this knowledge to the real world.

Simon looks for inspiration in unexpected places. The case studies and examples that Simon cites are not limited to the museum world nor even to cultural institutions. She broadens her case studies to include for-profit corporations including Netflix, Nike, and Harrah’s Casinos.

Translating the participatory nature of social media to a museum sounds like a great idea. But as Simon is quick to acknowledge, this process is harder than it sounds. Simon begins her first chapter with an eloquent example of bad design.

It’s 2004. I’m in Chicago with my family, visiting a museum. We’re checking out the final exhibit—a comment station where visitors can make their own videos in response to the exhibition. I’m flipping through videos that visitors have made about freedom, and they are really, really bad. The videos fall into two categories:

  1. Person stares at camera and mumbles something incomprehensible.
  2. Group of teens, overflowing with enthusiasm, “express themselves” via shout-outs and walk-ons.

I am sure that every museum-goer has had a similar experience in the past 10 years. Despite the fact that I am an avid user of social media online, I cringe at the thought of video-taping my response to an exhibit. Yet Simon argues that this is not because people do not want to participate; it is just a case of bad design.

So how can museums design good participatory experiences? The bulk of the book is devoted to answering that question, so I will just briefly summarize some of Simon’s most compelling points.

First, Simon acknowledges that not everyone WANTS to participate. Some museum visitors truly appreciate a traditional museum environment; they visit to learn from experts or to view exhibits. They are  not expecting to add their own voice to the museum and might find this experience off-putting. For this reason, Simon suggests that participatory techniques should only be one of the interpretive techniques used by a museum.

Second, even when people do want to participate, they will participate in different ways. Learning from online audience research, Simon grouped participants into six categories by activity.

  • Creators (24%) who produce content, upload videos, write blogs
  • Critics (37%) who submit reviews, rate content, and comment on social media sites
  • Collectors (21%) who organize links and aggregate content for personal or social consumption
  • Joiners (51%) who maintain accounts on social networking sites like Facebook and LinkedIn
  • Spectators (73%) who read blogs, watch YouTube videos, visit social sites
  • Inactives (18%) who don’t visit social sites

The percentages add up to greater than 100% because many users prefer to participate in different ways. For instance, in this blog post, I am acting as a creator, critic, collector. In order to research this blog post, I also acted as a joiner and a spectator. In order to build a successful  participatory experiences, designers need to consider more than just the creators and find a way to encourage all of these categories of use.

Third, the use of cutting-edge technology is not neccessary to build a good participatory experience. Some of the options that Simon explores are decidedly low-tech. For instance, Simon suggests using entrance stickers or punch-cards to personalize the experience for the visitor and allow front-line staff to recognize repeat visitors, or other data points that are important to an institution. I recently visited President Lincoln’s Cottage  and viewed an exhibit on modern day slavery called, Can You Walk Away? The exhibit featured a wall of postcards with different facts about slavery. I was able to choose my own postcard off the wall, tear it off, and take it home as a reminder of the exhibit. This experience was low-tech, but participatory and effective.

Can You Walk Away? Postcard

This postcard from the Can You Walk Away? exhibit at President Lincoln’s Cottage was a low-tech but effective way to engage audiences with content.

Fourth, Simon argues that new media tactics work best when they are easily integrated into your institutions current practices. Simon uses an example of a library in Sweden that wanted to crowd-source “tagging” of their book collections to contribute reader recommendations to their online catalog. However, the library had a low success rate of users visiting the website and adding feedback. So, the library did something very clever; they added more book drops. Now when patrons returned books, they could chose the drop that best described their review: “good for kids”, “boring”, “funny” etc. The tags were also electronically connected back to the online catalog when the librarian scanned the books back into the collection.

Finally, museums should not pursue participatory unless it is really relevant to their mission. Institutions should only be asking questions that they care about and always, always, always be prepared to listen to the answers. 

Most importantly to me as a reader, Simon is not just talking the talk. She posted her book online creating a dynamic piece of content where users can access her bibliography, review the book, comment on specific chapters, and add their own case studies. Simon is walking the walk by designing a truly participatory reader experience.

Now please excuse me, I am off to share my thoughts with the author and thousands of her closest friends.

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Like It’s Going Out of Fashion

Scholars such as Roy Rosenzweig and Dan Cohen have long been pointing to the ephemeral nature of internet content and the importance of collecting history online. Rapidly changing technology, limited budgets, and  priorities make internet preservation uncertain. Future historians looking back on our times might be missing much of the robust and dynamic activity that occurs on the web. Keeping this threat in mind, what website would I wish to save for posterity? J.Crew.com

J. Crew Looks

Women’s Clothing Looks Featured on the J. Crew Website During the Month of February 2014

Before you click away in disgust, hear me out. There is more to J.Crew.com than overpriced t-shirts (although, I do own a fair amount of those. And overpriced dresses, blazers, jewelry, etc.). The various pages, fashion spreads, and price-points on J.Crew.com reveal more than what is “in” this season; the website reflects and constructs expectations about gender, race, class, and consumerism.

Spring & Summer 1886 - Bloomingdale Brother's Price List

A page out of Bloomingdale’s Illustrated 1886 Catalog , featuring Ladies’ Tailor Made Suits. The Catalog was originally published as Spring & Summer 1886 – Bloomingdale Brother’s Price List

Perhaps it is easiest to make the case for the importance of J.Crew’s fashion by comparing it to a historical example. The Bloomingdale’s Illustrated 1886 Catalog is a window to the world of the Victorian era consumer. Geared primarily towards the female consumer, the catalog offers a wide variety of goods, including corsets, bustles, parasols and other items that have fallen out of fashion in the 21st century.

Yet, just as things have changed, many things have stayed the same. Both Bloomingdale’s in 1886 and J.Crew in 2014 sell maternity wear and wedding gowns, reflecting the societal norm of a woman as a wife and mother and the importance of domesticity.

The fashion spreads also share certain similarities. The illustrations in the Bloomingdale’s catalog and the models on the J.Crew.com are often posed together; whether socializing, bathing, or attending a wedding, the women are dressed appropriately and impeccably.

Although separated by over a century, Bloomingdale’s and J.Crew are selling the same thing: a vision of the ideal woman.

Of course, that ideal has changed over the years. While the Bloomingdale’s Illustrated 1886 Catalog sold day-suits for paying calls, J.Crew has a section of the website focused on professional wear. And while the ideal woman sketched in the 1886 catalog was clearly upper-class and white, the J.Crew website has added some (but not enough!) racial diversity to its cast of models.

Obama Women at Inauguration

First Lady Michelle Obama has made numerous public appearances wearing J.Crew and she made it a family affair at the Presidential Inauguration in January, 2013.

Perhaps J.Crew’s most famous brand ambassador is First Lady Michelle Obama. Obama has worn J.Crew at numerous public functions, including appearances on talk shows, Presidential Inaugurations and even a spread in Vogue.  All of these occasions have been documented on the J.Crew site. As the brand tries to use the First Lady to attract aspirational consumers, the First Lady arguably uses the brand to sell herself as a typical American woman.

Hopefully, I have made a strong case for the historical importance of J.Crew.com. Yet, why do I think that J. Crew is even in need of preservation? J.Crew is a profitable company with its own personal archives. But should a business really be trusted to preserve its full history, the good with the bad? And while J.Crew no doubt archives its designs, fabric samples, and print catalogs, the company must struggle with digital archiving like the rest of the world. How does one archive a dynamic website?

The Internet Archive has saved the J.Crew website 1,208 times between December 19, 1996 and February 9, 2014.  Yet what it is preserving is a static image of a website, without interactives or even active hyperlinks. Interactive features on the site such as “Looks We Love” are lost.

In addition, these archives do not account for the robust social media presence that J.Crew maintains on sites such as Pinterest and Tumblr. Or the vibrant community of online users that create their own blogs such as J. Crew Aficionada (check out her long blog roll call!) Users comment on these sites, often praising J.Crew, but just as often questioning their styling, their marketing tactics (“Dude. Settle down with the whole personal stylist spiel on every single pin. We know what to do if we like what we see.”),  or if they would really wear these fashions.

Whether they accept or challenge J.Crew’s vision of the ideal, women are able to add their voices to fashion publishing in ways that were not possible in 1886.


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Hey Girl, Let’s Not Forget to Preserve User-Generated Ephemera

Hey girl. I mean...WOMAN.

Feminist Ryan Gosling Respects Women

On October 8, 2011, University of Wisconsin student Danielle Henderson started the Tumblr, Feminist Ryan Gosling. According to her FAQ, the Tumblr was a humorous way to explore feminist theory. Henderson was inspired by another fan-made Tumblr, F#$% Yeah! Ryan Goslingthat paired pictures of the actor with pickup lines beginning, “Hey Girl.” However, Feminist Ryan Gosling was more sensitive to gender constructs than his F#$% Yeah! counterpart.

Feminist Ryan Gosling became a bonafide internet meme, earning Henderson a book-deal, attracting massive media attention, and inspiring countless imitations. Henderson may have retired her blog, but there are plenty of active Ryan Gosling blogs dispensing wisdom on almost any topic: Vegan Ryan Gosling, Programmer Ryan Gosling, and the most recent addition to the canon, Muslim Ryan Gosling.

Hey Girl, I have a problem with the authoritative tone of museum exhibits.Want to join me in creating a dialogic space for visitors?

Ryan Gosling seduces you with Public History theory

And then of course there is my personal favorite, Public History Ryan Gosling.

Currently, all of the various Ryan Gosling Tumblrs are accessible online, but that might not always be the case. There are many questions to consider before preserving these sites, such as whether the images should be preserved individually, or as a random sampling, or as an entire group. There are also big concerns about how to archive social media (do you archive every Like?), and about copyright restrictions.

But the biggest question of all is: should we even try to preserve these sites? Certainly, the Ryan Gosling Tumblrs are humorous.  However, are they candidates for digital preservation? What are the processes of appraisal and selection that can help determine what belongs in an internet archive?

From one perspective, there is nothing especially unique about these Ryan Gosling Tumblrs. They are one example of many, many, many internet memes that rely on user-generated contributions. Some memes use a very similar format, substituting pictures of other celebrities or grumpy cats for Ryan Gosling. Other memes use entirely different formats such as  moving .gifs, or YouTube parodies. Some memes are meant to instruct, but others are just there to entertain.

In a great article from The Atlantic, Alexis Madrigal explores pre-internet forms of user-generated artwork including typewriter text art from the 1890s (Please click over, it is worth a read and the artwork is really cool!) The portraits and line drawings featured in the article remind me of precursors of internet memes. Users create art by following templates, but add their own dashes of individuality and creativity. The art is not particularly highbrow, but Madrigal finds in it a deeper meaning.

“Bending these machines of industry to something so frivolous asserts something like what used to be called the human spirit.”- Alexis Madrigal

Part of the allure of the internet lies in its frivolous user-generated content. Will future historians really be getting an accurate picture of the past if we do not preserve internet ephemera? As historians, we need to be sure to develop collection and preservation standards that reflect the diversity, community, inclusiveness, and just plain silliness of the web.

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A Working Group Combining Public History & Public Radio

Let them hear it

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