Social obligation, crowdsourcing, and an experimental lecture

When I was asked to give a lecture on professional arts practice and technology at short notice a couple of weeks ago, I decided to use the opportunity to get a little experimental in my approach. This occurred in two ways. The first was that I reached out to my networks on Twitter, asked for your help here on the blog, and contacted a few specific individuals in the Australian arts community with whom I had a relationship, in order to seek ideas and content that I might not think of. The second was by playing with the lecture format itself in order to move out of transmission mode and take a more discursive approach.

So what worked and what didn’t? The crowdsourcing process was interesting. It yielded many useful responses and results which broadened my perspectives and highlighted issues relevant to the students that I probably wouldn’t have otherwise thought of, like Kim’s comment about the cross-over between marketing and IP. I was introduced to new artists too, and received links for useful resources which I was able to pass along to the students. So that was great.

Not all responses were equal, of course. Those links and connections that came from Twitter tended to be shallower and at times less useful than those I received from other sources. The most useful were, in general, those responses that came from people whose specific contributions I sought out. This aligns with what the Social Media Collective at Microsoft Research New England found when they conducted their own remixing/crowdsourcing projects last year. In the first project they ran, which “consisted first in creating a novel piece of content, an image, to serve as a creative seed and then ask specific people, using plain old e-mail, to turn it into something else, i.e., to remix it,” worthwhile responses came from more than half their targetted crowd. A subsequent project was executed using a mailing list and Facebook group, but failed to attract participants and good responses. In this second project, the message was not personalised, and there were many strangers in the groups. From this, the Collective proposed that the factors of success for the first project were that it utilised “pre-existing personal relationships”, had “well-crafted, personalized tasks directed at specific individuals, compared to the diffusion of responsibilities”, and that these tasks were more detailed than the messages to the broader group. I think my experience reflects something similar.

But crowdsourcing my lecture also led to something of a social dilemma. In the odd case where I received results that were not useful in the context of this particular lecture could I ignore them, or did I owe those people who had contributed the respect of using their links or ideas regardless? The act of reaching out asking for help and receiving it, both from people I knew and from strangers, left me to confront questions around social obligation and reciprocity. It became apparent to me quite quickly that asking for help was not value-free. While it might be appropriate to simply thank someone who’d replied to my Tweeted call for help and fold their response into my written document for the students, doing the same with a longer response on the blog felt insufficient to acknowledge the time and effort that had gone into helping me out. I felt particularly obliged to make good use of the contributions that art writer Sharne Wolff, MCA Curatorial Assistant Kelly McDonald, artist and technoevangelist Fee Plumley, and artist and curator Todd Fuller gave, since I had sought them out in person. These invisible social elements of participation became apparent to me through this process in ways they hadn’t previously.

The variety of responses that I received from this approach was, in part, what led to the experiment with lecture delivery. With only an hour with all the students in a single room, it feel like I had too little time to cover a topic as massive as “art, technology, and professional practice” in any real depth, so I wanted to get the students thinking and talking about the pros and cons of being online as an artist, and the impact such choices could have on their careers. I started with ten minutes or so giving a general lay of the land about some ways that artists were using the Internet in their work and what some of the issues were, and then opened up the floor to conversation, maintaining faith that I would be able to live-mix in examples from the responses I’d received from the crowdsourcing experiment.

The approach seemed to work quite well in some ways, but not others. The discussion in the room was great, with many students contributing and almost all appearing to be engaged in it. We were able to cover some interesting theoretical ground, and I did have ready resources at my fingertips for most of the ideas that came up. However, while there were definitely some bright eyes and eager students – those excited to have technology on the agenda and to share their experiences with me and the class – many others seemed to lack confidence, both in regards to individual platforms like Twitter, and about digital experimentation itself, and I don’t know that my approach would have equipped them with many practical takeaways.

So would I take these approaches to either lecture delivery or lecture sourcing again? Delivery yes, but not on every topic. The approach seemed to work well for the particular subject, especially given the time restrictions, but I don’t think it would be appropriate in every situation. By opening up to a more dialogic teaching method probably also meant that it was close to impossible to have predictable outcomes, inviting the risk that important issues could be overlooked. So although it was effective for engagement, it wasn’t necessarily effective for all types of teaching or all subjects.

What about lecture crowd-sourcing? Honestly, I probably wouldn’t do it again, or not without more forethought about how to seek involvement, what sort of involvement to seek, and how to incorporate the responses that I received. I’d want to develop better feedback mechanisms or ways to acknowledge contributors because in some ways it felt like I was taking more from contributors than I could give back. Inviting participation can be great, but should ultimately benefit both parties, and I don’t think I thought enough about how it might benefit those who gave feedback.

Both parts of this experiment helped me better understand some of the complexities around participation; about the social obligations it engenders and the importance of designing such projects well in order to benefit all participants. Now that I’m on the other side of the experiment, the takeaways seem so obvious. But I suppose that is part of learning too, that it is often from doing that we gain insight.

I’d love to hear about your experiences with these sorts of projects. Have you encountered similar issues from those I came across? How have you dealt with the invisible social elements of participation?

And, of course, thank you to all those who did participate in my crowdsourcing experiment. It was appreciated.

Do rats chase chocolate in your museum? Thoughts on organisational habituation.

Ed Rodley’s thought experiment on making a museum from scratch has only just started, but the responses to his initial post are provocative. Almost all of them question Ed’s initial assumptions about the scope and definition of the problem. After setting some conditional ground rules for the museum (it has about 200,000 objects, you have an old building in which they can be housed, and a big enough budget to get started, but you’ll need to be judicious with hiring etc), Ed’s starting place was the collection. He asked “Who are the audiences for this material and what are their needs?”

Instead of answering this question, however, almost all of the commenters have problematised the starting place of the inquiry. Why does this need to be a museum? If it is a museum, does the building necessarily have to be used for display? What kind of baggage comes with the collection that necessarily has to be dealt with before the museum can move forward? What is the museum’s mission, and how early into the process of creating the museum does it need this to be defined? Already the exercise has really brought home to me both the complexity of starting a project like this, and just how many assumptions we carry with us about museums. It has almost certainly brought such questions home to Ed too, since his second post seeks to address many of these questions.

But while I was thinking about this, a friend linked to a fascinating if slightly old article from the New York Times that explores consumer behaviour and the ways that companies target consumers. Amongst other things, it addresses the way behaviours become habituated and ingrained:

An M.I.T. neuroscientist named Ann Graybiel told me that she and her colleagues began exploring habits more than a decade ago by putting their wired rats into a T-shaped maze with chocolate at one end. The maze was structured so that each animal was positioned behind a barrier that opened after a loud click. The first time a rat was placed in the maze, it would usually wander slowly up and down the center aisle after the barrier slid away, sniffing in corners and scratching at walls. It appeared to smell the chocolate but couldn’t figure out how to find it. There was no discernible pattern in the rat’s meanderings and no indication it was working hard to find the treat.

The probes in the rats’ heads, however, told a different story. While each animal wandered through the maze, its brain was working furiously. Every time a rat sniffed the air or scratched a wall, the neurosensors inside the animal’s head exploded with activity. As the scientists repeated the experiment, again and again, the rats eventually stopped sniffing corners and making wrong turns and began to zip through the maze with more and more speed. And within their brains, something unexpected occurred: as each rat learned how to complete the maze more quickly, its mental activity decreased. As the path became more and more automatic — as it became a habit — the rats started thinking less and less.

It seems to me that right now, all of us who are participating in Ed’s thought experiment are like the rats with overstimulated neurosensors, trying to make sense of the maze of questions and possibilities of a new museum. We know there is a reward at the end (chocolate!), but the path to that reward is anything but clear. We are scratching at the walls, and trying to work out where the edges of the maze are. We are most engaged with the puzzle and most able to find new solutions.

But if this was a real situation, it likely wouldn’t be long before our behaviours habituated, and the thinking process was short-cut. In order to progress and move forward with the business of running a museum, rather than trying to solve every puzzle that comes up along the way to building a museum from scratch, there would surely be less and less opportunity for deep thinking and questioning of assumptions. As things progress, our organisational processes and behaviours become ingrained. They require less thought and make action faster. They are known and therefore likely safe. As a survival tactic, habituating behaviours make sense.

This is also likely one reason that museums continue to be modelled on similar ideas from one to the next. Doing so means that these difficult discussions that question every assumption can be circumvented. Rather than waging a near-constant intellectual battle, the business can pick a few key questions to concentrate on, and rely on habits and experience for the rest. But this also means that the process takes less thought and the outcomes are less likely to be substantially different from those that have come before. Is this why many museums fall back to default methods for dealing with their collections and publics? Is this why it is so hard to really challenge many of the ingrained organisational habits found in museums (or any business that accompanied by a legacy of tradition)? And if so, is there an alternative that might help staff within a museum find a balance between habits and critical thought?

Nina Simon just wrote a post about building a culture of experimentation in which staff are experimenters who are “driven by the desire to try things out and see what works, to collect data, to learn from the results.” In describing what such a culture looks like, she writes:

Whenever an intern takes a prototype out on the floor, I ask her, “What might change about this project based on this test?” If she is not willing or able to articulate a potential change, it’s not a prototype—it’s just a model of a foregone conclusion. At the MAH, prototypes have to be used to test a hypothesis, or to decide among options. This becomes more and more automatic as people feel the confidence that comes with making a decision based on data instead of arbitrary soothsaying.

Essentially, it seems like what Simon is trying to encourage experimentation to become the habituated and ingrained path, rather than outlier behaviour that only occurs when a new maze needs to be mapped or puzzle solved. I wonder whether it is possible to really make critical engagement and experimentation the habituated path across an organisation? What would make that happen? Other behaviours and habits would need to be effective in their automation, so that staff could rely on them and not have to be engaged with thinking through every action (which would be simply exhausting). So is it about getting the right balance?

What do you think? How hard is it for organisations to question their own assumptions and engage with ideas that could lead to new and more effective modes of doing business? Is this why the museum tech sector is so filled with conversation, because the changing landscape has meant that our behaviours and attitudes are not yet ingrained?