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  • Whitney Ford-Terry 7:15 pm on April 10, 2009 Permalink | Reply  


    The challenge for the day

    1. talk to strangers.
    2. get strangers talking to each other.
    3. design objects that get strangers talking to each other without facilitated intervention.

    Here is What happened:

    For this experiment I wanted to try something simple with my group. We thought it might be a good idea to devise a simple game that would build on itself. Step one, talk to strangers, find out their favorite things, and give them a card. Step two, approach multiple unrelated groups at one time and ask them together as a group activity, let them talk amongst themselves, and give them each a card. Step three, watch individuals, groups, couples, and families all exchange cards and share their favorite things.
    strangemuseWe had a stack of multi-colored 3 x 5 cards and chose one color for each area of the zoo – Blue Cards for the Gorillas, Green Cards for the Rain Forrest, Yellow for the African Village, etc.  We then went around asking people what their favorite things about gorillas were. As they were talking we wrote down a simplified version of their responses on the card, one thing per card. Some couples got one card, some groups had one card for each person depending on how “into” it they got.  They were then instructed to visibly carry the card around for the rest of their visit. I encouraged folks to make their cards visible through silly gestures, like fanning themselves, and one visitor tucked it into his hat.

    For the second portion I decided to add on to the previous method by approaching a general area and addressing multiple groups at one time. This was a little more awkward because people were waiting for someone else to answer first, but eventually the awkwardness often led to people asking each other their favorite things and divvying up singular traits among people. They then encouraged each other to trade with other groups and egged each other on. I saw two groups exchange cards and walk out of the exhibit area together, only to see them later at the café together. That was kind of neat.

    The third part of the experiment consisted of me lurking around the zoo, watching to see if people would continue to exchange these cards. I saw it happen a number of times, both within the exhibit they were given out at and elsewhere in the Zoo.  Since I had a stack myself, as I was writing them up and handing them out, I was approached a number of times by folks who wanted to trade, so I ended up with quite a few myself.

    The questions and cards provided an easy way to approach strangers individually or in groups.  It became a “thing” – like joining a secret club or game. People got really into it after a while.  The cards gave people an easy excuse to approach each other, and those that were really into playing the game got others more involved too – pulled them out a little. I found that it was easier to outright ask a question with genuine interest, then to approach someone and ask if you can ask a question.  I also found that the less nervous we were when talking to people, the more comfortable they were talking to us.

    • museologiste 9:05 pm on April 11, 2009 Permalink | Reply

      Whitney, I think your card-swapping idea was one of the most elegant solutions developed for this challenge. It really got to the heart of getting strangers to talk to each other with minimal intervention – there was one “point” of prompting for each participant, and then you were eventually able to just sit back and watch your experiment unfold.

  • moreofk 6:07 am on April 9, 2009 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: Alex, Julie, Kathryn,   

    Gorillas and Tic-Tac-Toe 

    Sunday was a beautiful day to enjoy the zoo and talk to strangers, so our team went forth with great gusto. Alex came armed with sidewalk chalk and a game plan, and Julie brought a rather large stuffed gorilla. My contribution: a few half-baked ideas and my very best teacher-voice.

    Talking to strangers proved to be an easy task. Several people spoke to us as we carried our gorilla through the zoo: “ooh, look at that, sweetie!” and “oh my gosh! I thought it was real!” I don’t think any of us would say that talking to strangers is our favorite activity, but we were all fairly comfortable starting conversations. Julie and I spoke to kids about our gorilla and to parents about their kids while Alex got into her role as host of the tic-tac-toe game show. (I also complimented one woman on her “books and cats are all you need” t-shirt — hey, those are words to live by.)

    If I learned anything from these experiences, it was that talking to strangers isn’t actually a big deal — most people are willing to talk back, although everybody has a different threshold for continuing the conversation. Quieting the voice in my head that says “I’m gonna seem so weird” is definitely the hardest part of striking up a conversation.

    The gorilla was a wonderful social object. After all, if you’re carrying around a giant gorilla past the age of 10, you’re already weird, so you’ve got nothing to lose. Like Shin Yu, Kylie, and Nicole, we found that a large stuffed animal was an instant interaction-starter. Kids wanted to hug it, people took pictures with it, and grown-ups tried to put it back where their kids found it. I’m not sure if the gorilla got strangers to talk to each other, but it definitely got family groups talking!

    Stuffed animals are great because they’re inherently engaging, and larger-than-average ones manage to be simultaneously attention-grabbing yet very familiar. Those seem like three useful criteria for a successful social object: it should attract notice, be immediately appealing, and be non-threatening. The tweenbots Nina bookmarked the other day definitely satisfy these criteria, and although the website documents people’s interactions with the bots rather than with other people, I’d be willing to bet that they inspired a least a few conversations between strangers.

    As we discovered, getting strangers to talk to each other is surprisingly tricky! Alex asked people to play tic-tac-toe, and then directed players to ask strangers to compete with them. However, most people seemed reluctant to recruit a stranger, so either they ended up playing with a member of their family group or Alex had to step in to procure the other player. With a great deal of patience and enthusiasm, Alex did manage to get two girls to speak briefly with each other as they played, but one of our real breakthroughs occurred without our prodding and without a script. As Alex led the game, a group of people gathered to watch. One man asked about what we were doing, so Julie and I answered his questions about the experiment and our museum studies program in general. After our conversation was over, a newcomer to the area asked him why people were playing tic-tac-toe and we overheard his explanation.  

    So we have two types of stranger conversations: one where people follow a script imposed upon them, and one where people observe something that drives them to seek information from others.  From the point of view of the museum worker trying to encourage strangers to talk to each other, both have advantages and drawbacks.  The script model provides a fallback and produces a common set of results, but it can be difficult to get people to commit to the script, and without buy-in, it can fall flat.  Creating a situation or experience that generates information-seeking behaviors is a bit of a crapshoot — what if your situation just isn’t that compelling? — but if it works, it can lead to deeper conversations than a script allows for, and it’s obviously more organic.  Is it possible to create a museum experience that facilitates conversations which are both organic and purposeful?  

    Get back to me on that.

    • w h i t n e y 4:14 am on April 13, 2009 Permalink | Reply

      It’s true, social objects should attract notice, be immediately appealing, and non-threatening. However, the main difference between stuffed animals in this experiment and The tweenbots are that they have have a clear mission. People act and react in transience because there isn’t much responsibility. Unless a social object is specifically designed these interactions seem to be easier for audiences.

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