Self-expression and Participation

I came across Nina Simon’s Self-Expression is Overrated: Better Constraints Make Better Participatory Experiences via @jonmott, and I have to say it is one of the better meditations on teaching in a participatory culture that I’ve read.

The main premise of the post is that we design our so-called 2.0 experiences around creators, and this is wrong. The majority of people faced with an exhibit (or a class) don’t want to create, but are happy to participate, or critique, or fill a half dozen other roles. Structure a participatory exercise that devalues roles other than CREATOR, and your exercise is bound to fail. One has to set well thought-out constraints to participation so that people can participate meaningfully:

Why aren’t more museums designing highly constrained participatory platforms in which visitors contribute to collaborative projects? The misguided answer is that we think it’s more respectful to allow visitors to do their own thing, that their ultimate learning experience will come from unfettered self-expression. But that’s mostly born from laziness and a misunderstanding of what motivates participation. It’s easy for museums to assign a corner and a kiosk to visitors and say, “we’ll put their stories over there.” It’s harder to design an experience that leverages many visitors’ expression and puts their contributions to meaningful use. It’s like cooking. If you have a bunch of novice friends, it can be maddening to find appropriate “sous chef” roles for them to fill. Many cooks prefer just to get those clumsy hands out of the kitchen. It takes a special kind of cook, artist, or scientist to want to support the contributions of novices. It takes people who want to be educators, not just executors.

There’s a lot here that reminds me of the Curatorial Teaching idea that that George Siemens put forth a couple years back, and more particularly of some conversations with Jon Udell, who told me one day that he’d imagined this world where everybody was blogging locally, until he realized that most people hate writing. Of any sort. Public writing is right up there with public speaking for a lot of people, and an endeavor based on everybody writing publicly may be bound to fail.

And so a truly participatory culture will find other ways for people to participate. For Jon, the answer was trying to get people to share their calendars so that they could participate in a public calendaring project. Facebook, which knows a thing or two about participation, puts a “like” button on comments now, for the writing-shy. YouTube viewers have long been able to rate things up. Delicious bookmarkers can show what they think is interesting while remaining mum. Crowdsourcing projects like the Guardian’s give people very directed tasks to accomplish — look at some pages, and just categorize these things. Professional astronomers work with amateur astronomers in supernova search networks, by dividing up the sky.

These experiences aren’t necessarily creative — but they are meaningful to those involved. And what’s more, they are often meaningful precisely because everyone is working together to achieve what is ultimately someone else’s vision rather than being presented that blank canvas Nina talks about. It’s a hard thing sometimes for us creative sorts to remember that not everybody wants to be Cezanne — but it is worth remembering.

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