Rousing The Mobile Herd: Museum Apps that Encourage Real Space Social Engagement


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Do museums’ mobile apps encourage their visitors to spend more time looking down at their phones and less time interacting with their environment and each other? Matthew Fisher and Jennifer Moses' paper for the 2013 Museums and the Web conference entitled Rousing the Mobile Herd: Apps that Encourage Real Space Engagement, explores how mobile apps can encourage social engagement, tapping into the museum’s distinct potential as a social learning space.

This paper seeks to answer the question: How can mobile apps encourage and support meaningful, face-to-face social interaction in museum spaces? Museums are increasingly focused on creating more engaging visitor experiences, in part by encouraging participation in dialogue and social interaction in the exhibit space. At the same time, we are embracing mobile technologies. At first glance, social interaction and mobile engagement might seem to be antithetical. Many popular museum mobile apps divert visitors from interacting with exhibits, objects, and each other, undermining social interaction and dialogue.

In surveying the top-rated museum apps in the iTunes store, as well as popular social apps outside the industry, we examine how apps both limit and nurture real-space social interaction. We identify key characteristics of mobile-supported social exchange, assessing which app features provide the best opportunities for fostering meaningful social interaction, both between visitors and other visitors, and between visitors and the museum. We explore specific social interactions conducive to the museum environment—game play, team work, polls, affinity-mapping, creating and sharing content, conversation prompts—and align them with mobile app features. We both analyze existing social engagement models with the greatest potential for contributing to mobile-museum projects, and identify opportunities to leverage those successful engagement models to create new types of mobile experiences.

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  • Rousing the Mobile Herd is a provocative title, but my co-author Jennifer Moses and I are not anti-mobile, nor are we advocating against mobile devices and their use in museums.
  • Mobile is here to stay, growing at leaps and bounds. I am a devoted mobile user and my company develops mobile apps.
  • But like MIT technology and society professor Sherry Turkle, and perhaps many of you, I have gone from being a technovangelist to becoming increasingly concerned about the impact of mobile usage on all aspects of social engagement, both public and private. It seems a new study unfolds each day regarding the effect of mobile device usage on our capacity and commitment to communicate in real space, to engage in conversation.
  • It is impacting how we learn and how our minds develop
  • Our ability to relax and connect with friends and family
  • Its even impacting our most intimate, loving relationships. Some might say that our definition of “social” is evolving into a hybrid of virtual and real space behaviors.
  • While this is true, we felt it important to focus on being social in real space, as we believe this is a key ingredient to the museum experience.When we talk about being social in this paper, we are NOT talking about social media. We are not questioning the value of social media, we are simply defining social behavior in this context as being social in real space, or what we whimsically refer to as “real social”.
  • We understand this narrow definition will make some uncomfortable, particularly when we identify anything that is not social in real space (including social media) as ANTI-social. But keep in mind that virtually no matter what people are doing on a device, while they are doing it, they are NOT being social in real space.
  • Yet within that narrow definition of “real social”, we are broadly defining social as any behavior undertaken within the dynamics of a group, including cooperation, conflict, social exchange, even coercion and conformity
  • We argue that museums and their peers are unique in the continuum of informal leaning environments, in that they inhabit the rare intersection of real space and social space. They provide direct access to material culture and natural phenomena on the one hand AND they support a wide range of social behaviors on the other. This defining characteristic is one of the museum’s key competitive strengths.
  • To tease out this concept of “real social”, we’ve mapped social behaviors into four quadrants with anti-social on the left, social on the right, the virtual below and the real above. Those activities in the lower left quadrant, that are both anti-social and virtual, take the least advantage of the museum space. Imagine, for example, a tween sitting on a bench playing angry birds. Those activities in the upper right quadrant, that are both social and real, take the greatest advantage of the museum space. Imagine a family on a walk through the nature center, sharing thoughts and reflections as all five senses come alive with the experience.
  • There is a wellspring of research identifying social engagement as a key ingredient in effective museum experiences, as our paper explores in greater depth. I’ll simply reference two key points, one being that: “conversation is a primary mechanism of knowledge construction and distributed meaning-making”, and the other, that dialogue and debate are not the only form of social learning:groups observe each other to learn, to understand exhibit interactions and model behavior. (Falk & Storksdieck, 2005)
  • By mapping typical mobile behaviors to our continuum, we show that the vast majority of things that we do with our mobile devices fall into the virtual quadrants below, such as browsing the web and social media. And while we do these things online, in real space we are looking at our screens, or occasionally being social, most often when we are taking and sharing photos.
  • So if “real social” engagement is a key goal, and our apps don’t encourage it, then what? If we discourage device usage, visitors will gravitate to places that support it. We would argue that unless museums provide unconventional mobile experiences that actively facilitate “real social” behavior, visitor engagement could continue to trend in the opposite direction. More problematic, the more engaging and effective our apps are in conventional ways, the more anti-social visitors could become.
  • So if we a) want to be social in the museum, and b) want to make apps, we need to c) think radically differently about their design.It seemed unfair for us to suggest radical shifts in the direction of museum mobile design without carefully considering current practice in museum mobile app design.
  • To this end, we downloaded more than 80 of the top museum apps in the iTunes store, identified by looking at the quantity and quality of user reviews and comments. In assessing their features we found that, so far, museums have largely NOT designed their apps to effectively harness the full social learning potential of mobile devices. For the most part, museums have provided mobile experiences that are relatively anti-social in real space—although there are examples that break the mold. We are not attempting to call anyone out. Most of these apps a very effective at meeting the goals they were designed to meet. But they do not necessary encourage social engagement in real space.
  • Some current museum apps ARE “real social”. For example, The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s app Murder at the Met engages teenage visitors in team play and close-looking exercises as they solve a mystery.
  • Another app I will shamelessly plug is one we collaborated on with the SFMOMA and Sandbox Studios, designed for families visiting the museum. This “gallery game” encourages close-looking , evokes personal responses to the artwork and prompts visual literacy exchanges for between parents and children. It contains NO information about artwork in the museum. Instead, it provides prompts that anybody can relate to any artwork. Sort of like the popular parlor game apples-to-apples, if you’ve every played it.
  • Please note that we almost exclusively reviewed commercially available apps in the iTunes store during the summer of 2012. This leaves out a significant quantity of new apps and apps only available on museum devices. I am happy to say that I have seen and heard of a number of apps just in the past few days that more social than most of those we surveyed.Certainly there are others and I would encourage you to share those with me on twitter @mefisher.
  • To design apps that are “real social”, it is worthwhile considering the types of behaviors we want to encourage in the museum space, such as talking about the exhibit, playing a game in the space, engaging in facilitated discussions, participating in multi-person interactives, and photographing or observing others. What are the app features that encourage visitors to engage in these activities?
  • Here is an initial list. Most of these are not explicitly social in real space, with the exception perhaps of gaming. Rather there are implicit aspects of each that provide key ingredients to a social experience. Location awareness is a critical component to engaging visitors in the space. This addresses the “real” in real social. Gaming is cooperative and competitive, two primary social modes. Crowdsourcing allows visitors to contribute, touching on a key aspect of human nature: We are often more comfortable and invested in talking about ourselves. Polling elicits our opinions and places us in a larger social context, often spurring discussion and debate. Personalization engages us in experiences that align with our interests and expertise. Where affinity mapping builds on our personal choices to recommend new and sometimes unexpected connections, also encouraging conversation.
  • Roughly a third of the museum apps we surveyed provided location awareness of one kind or another. American Museum of Natural History’s Explorer, MOMA and London Museum’s Streetmuseum are just a few examples. Museums so far have used the technology primarily for the purposes of wayfinding and tracking progress.Another related approach to location awareness is the High Museum’s Art Clix, which uses visual recognition software to identify artwork in the camera frame. While the technology is still labor and cost-prohibitive for most museums, it provides a tantalizing window into the future of environmental recognition.
  • Beyond museum apps, Kismet, LoKast, FriendRadar, Skout, and the notorious Grindrall use location awareness and affinity-mapping based on profile preferences to help users connect to like-minds in real space. Of course we recognize that -- while museums might host the occasional singles mixer -- they are not in the business off facilitating hook-ups. But we believe that visitors could enjoy the social potential of location aware technologies to share aspects of their profiles with other visitors. They can compare themselves anonymously to the aggregate or bump devices to share with friends, and even the occasional stranger. If this seems too radically trusting for most museums, there are still ways to share your location privately…
  • For example, the London Zoo’s Friend Finder has found a safe and practical means for friends to locate each other throughout their visit.
  • Most app games are either single player or multiple players on multiple devices, neither of which is designed to be particularly social in real space. But the gaming model is highly effective in facilitating collaboration and competition, behaviors that are otherwise rare in conventional museum-going experience. Apps which allow one visitor to act as a host or game master for a group of users provide the greatest social opportunities, while players sharing this role can also be social.
  • One time-honored game construct is the scavenger hunt. Although perhaps limited in its implicit educational merit, there are valuable social learning opportunities of a well-designed scavenger hunt, particularly those which ask compelling questions requiring analysis and discussion among the team. SCVNGR is pictured here, with checkins, rewards, readymade treks and sharing.Scavenger Hunt Classic offers a few twists on the traditional model, allowing users to join existing hunts, create custom hunts, and bump devices to coordinate rules and lists among competing teams.
  • Museum Hunt is a scavenger hunt designed to be used in any of the publishers’ partner museums. It allows educators to include lesson questions integrated into their hunts for a more educational experience.
  • There are more sophisticated games that integrate aspects of a scavenger hunt, yet compel the player to do more than simply check items off a list. The Murder at the Met is a great example of this.The British Museum’s Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead game presents the user with quiz questions, the answers to which must be found in the museums’ exhibit.
  • While there are many crowdsourcing projects online and in exhibits, we only encountered one museum mobile app that was designed to provide visitors a chance to have an immediate effect on exhibit content. With the Access American Stories app at the Smithsonian’s American History, visitors can use their devices to record their own oral interpretations of objects within the exhibits. This was originally designed to provide greater accessibility for the visually-impaired, but has also resulted in new content, available for any user.
  • While we didn’t find polling in any of the museum apps we surveyed, we looked closely at two social apps that use polling to elicit users’ responses to a variety of statements and questions. Amen lets users compose and vote on polls within a predetermined range of topics by voting “amen” or “hell no” in response to short statements about a variety of topics. 
  • Show of Hands similarly asks users to vote on a range of mostly political or ethical topics. We believe this feature lends itself to fostering social exchange in the exhibit space. Polls could be designed to spur conversation among visitors and encourage them to think critically about exhibit content. Providing latest poll results, in-app or on exhibit walls, not only motivates visitors to vote, it places visitors within the larger social context of their community.
  • Several museum apps include features that allow the user to personalize their museum experience in various ways. The Hermitage Museum and several others offer users the ability to tick favorites on the app to customize their own tour of the exhibits, and to and share their lists on Twitter and Facebook.While not inherently social, personalization allows visitors to concentrate their interactions with personally relevant content, a more comfortable area for visitor conversation and reflection.
  • Affinity mapping utilizes a user’s preferences or choices to identify affinities to virtually anything, including people, places and objects.A number of museum websites provide visitors with related objects from the collection based on controlled vocabularies and the visitor’s browsing choices. Optimized for mobile devices and tied to location or object-aware technology, this can provide compelling, unexpected connections in the galleries. While also not inherently social, the unexpected often invites further discussion.Tapping into visitor affinities is a feature that we have not seen, but could be a fantastic way to encourage social engagement.
  • In developing a model for “real social” museum apps, we felt it was just as important to identify what NOT to do as it was to identify what TO DO. To encourage social interaction, we need to first discard many of the conventional, narrative approaches to mobile experiences. If we don’t, we run the risk of overloading the visitor and inadvertently encouraging the conventional approach.
  • Think of it like inviting your friends to play a parlor game while leaving the TV on. To truly get visitors to interact, we must give them space to do so. Please note that I am not suggesting that all museum apps should follow these guidelines, simply that if social engagement is your goal, then it is worth considering them…
  • What an app SHOULD NOT do: Be a guide.Be too engaging: If visitors are saying: “This is super cool! I just want to play with my mobile device!” then something is wrong.Provide too much text: By providing all the copy that didn’t fit on the label, we are not acknowledging that visitors don’t read much of what is already on the walls.Play lengthy audio: Narrative audio that requires headphones ensures that visitors will be disconnected from their peers and unlikely to engage in dialog.Play lengthy video: Even more than audio, video takes the visitor out of the space, particularly if it includes narrative audio.Require too much interaction: Lots of buttons and filters and facets ensure visitors are spending too much time interacting with the device, not their environment.Require typing: If visitors are invited to Facebook it, tweet it, email it, and provide meaningful and nuanced comments, we ensure their rapt focus on their device.
  • What an app SHOULD do: Be a host!Engage you in your environment: Encourage and facilitate engagement with the material cultureand natural phenomena of the physical space.Provide prompts for thought and discussion: Offer brief insights or pointed topics that invite reflection and discussion.Engage you with your group: Provide opportunities for interacting with your friends/family/visiting group on a variety of levelsEngage you with other visitors: Give you ways to engage with other visitors in meaningful, non-threatening ways.Provide insights into your community: Display information and statistics about the thoughts, perceptions and beliefs of your fellow visitors.Reflect back what’s important to you: Serve up small doses of information and content based on your interests and preferences (but not too much!)Make unexpected connections: Utilize curatorial expertise, rich institutional resources and the wisdom of the crowd to provide new insights.
  • At Night Kitchen we have outlined a prototype for social learning experiences in the museum gallery space that integrates many of these features into what we call a museum parlor game and I would welcome your thoughts on it if you’d like to share them.
  • I’d like to thank my co-author, Jennifer Moses, the MWEB committee and all of you for letting me share this presentation. A scrubbed up version will be available on slideshare complete with the proper attributions for all creative commons images used.
  • Rousing The Mobile Herd: Museum Apps that Encourage Real Space Social Engagement

    1. 1. Rousing the Mobile HerdApps that Encourage Real Space EngagementMatthew Fisher 4/18/13
    2. 2. 1996 vs 2012
    3. 3. Social in real space or “real social”
    4. 4. Things we doin real spacewith other people
    5. 5. Social engagement supports moreeffective museum experiences―conversation is a primary mechanism ofknowledge construction and distributed meaning-making.‖Lienhardt & Crowley, 1998groups observe each other to learn, to understandexhibit interactions and model behavior.Falk & Storksdieck, 2005
    6. 6. Playing single-playergamesWeb browsingListening to audioWatching videoPlaying multi-playergamesPosting/commentingSharing links/retweetingFavoriting/friendingShopping/bidding
    7. 7. • A) want to be social in the museum• B) want to make apps• C) think radically differently about their design.
    8. 8. So how are museums using mobile?• Over 80 of the top museum apps in the iTunesstore*• Quantity and quality of user reviews and comments• Assessed their social and anti-social features• Apps were NOT designed to be social in real space* Complete list available at
    9. 9. by Don Pollard
    10. 10. Twitter: @mefisher
    11. 11. What we missedA LOT…• New apps since summer 2012• Apps installed on museum devices
    12. 12. Talking about the exhibitGames in the spaceFacilitated discussionsTouch-tables & multi-person interactivesPhotographing/observingothers
    13. 13. Getting social: app features• Location awareness• Gaming• Crowdsourcing• Polling• Personalization• Affinity-mapping
    14. 14. Location awareness• AMNH Explorer• MOMA• London Museum• High Museum
    15. 15. social location awarenessKismet: Seemutual Facebookfriends & interestsLoKast: Create―spaces‖ fordifferent types of―conversation‖Highlight: alertsyou whenpotential ―friends‖are near
    16. 16. The London Zoo app’s “Friend Finder”• Have to have a PIN• Can see whereyour friends are onthe zoo map for 24hours if you bothhave the app open.
    17. 17. GamingNOT real social• Single player• Multiplayer– One device per playerReal social• Group plays together– ―Host‖ controls device– Players share device
    18. 18. SCVNGRLocation checkin & participatein challenges toget rewardsView check-insby FacebookfriendsLocatepre-packagedtreks nearbyShare pictureswith other users
    19. 19. Museum HuntFind a nearbymuseum orsearch for one inanother cityChoose from alist ofscavengerhuntsFollow the cluesin a galleryspecific huntShare your finalscore
    20. 20. Murder at the Met: Metropolitan Museum of ArtChoose a pathand follow thecluesFind witnesses,possible suspects,and crime scenesthroughout thegalleriesTake notes onyour findingsChoose asuspect, weapon,and crime sceneto solve themurder
    21. 21. Crowdsourcing: Access American Stories
    22. 22. Polling - AmenMore ―popular‖statements―Nearby‖ sort
    23. 23. Polling – Show of Handsvote on numerouspolls—political,social, culturalFilter results: state,national, gender,age, income, politicsMake and readcomments onresults
    24. 24. Personalization• Hermitage Museum• Powerhouse Museum PHM Walks• AMNH ExplorerAllows visitors to focus their interactions withpersonally relevant content, a more comfortablearea for visitor conversation and reflection.
    25. 25. Affinity Mapping• Object or experience affinities– ―Related‖ objects in museum online collections• Visitor affinities– Compare interests and favorites with other visitors
    26. 26. A model for “real social” museum apps• What NOT to do important as what TO DO• Discard conventional approaches• Don’t overload the visitor
    27. 27. Give visitors space Family watching television. Evert F. Baumgardner, ca. 1958.National Archives and Records Administration
    28. 28. What an app SHOULD NOT do:Be a guide.• Be too engaging• Provide too much text• Play lengthy audio• Play length video• Require too much interaction• Require typing
    29. 29. What an app SHOULD do:Be a host!• Engage you in your environment• Provide prompts for discussion• Engage you with your group• Engage you with other visitors(comfortably, safely, optionally)• Provide insights into the community• Reflect back what’s important to you• Make unexpected connections
    30. 30. Personalize your visit?OKSkipMuseumparlor gameA prototype thatprovides a sociallearning experience inthe museum galleryspace facilitated by amobile app.Welcome to the Fisher/MosesMuseum of Curiosity!
    31. 31. Thank you!• Jennifer Moses, Ph.D., co-author• MWEB committee• All articles copyright New York Times• All screenshots copyright of the app publisher• Contact:–– @mefisher