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

    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.

  • shinyupai 2:29 pm on April 7, 2009 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: Kylie, Nicole, Shin Yu, Zoo   

    Talking to Strangers at the Woodland Park Zoo 

    Kylie, Nicole and I teamed up as a group with Nicole’s stuffed cheetah/leopard and a small stuffed snow leopard. We headed to the back of the zoo with the strategy that we’d end up in the PNW regional area and be able to ask kids and their families for help in finding where our exotic animals belonged in the zoo.

    Nicole’s stuffed cat got a lot of attention and comments – it’s size was eye-catching and Kylie used the animal as a prop to wave to children and facilitate connection, including making animal noises.

    We completed part 1 of the exercise by asking a stranger if we were on the right path to the North Trail; he pointed us further down the path.

    Parts 2 and 3 proved to be much more difficult, but got a little bit easier when we bumped into Museology student Karin Hoffman in the park, who gave us sheets of animal stickers which we were able to use as incentives or rewards with strangers. With the stickers, Nicole was able to get a child to give away her sticker to another child that she didn’t know, with the incentive that she would receive a sticker after giving the first one away.

    We also attempted to set up a puppet theatre with the stuffed animals and a small rubber hand puppet in the shape of an alligator. We had more success getting strangers to approach the set-up and play with the animals when we left the area alone and watched from a distance. It was inevitably the children that led the way to engagement, vs. the families or parents. We did not have any problems with the objects walking away with zoo visitors.


    • time of day/tired children and families
    • children too young (pre-verbal) to respond to our strategy
    • children too mature to respond to our strategy
    • reluctant parents
    • visitors who had already encountered other student researchers
    • museologiste 9:10 pm on April 11, 2009 Permalink | Reply

      It’s so interesting that you guys had more luck just leaving the stuffed animal alone. We observed that, while leaving our stuffed gorilla conspicuously perched on a statue was certainly an attention-getter, any interaction was cut short by suspicion or concern: Who does this belong to? What kind of creepy person would just leave it sitting there for kids to pick up? Where has this been? Maybe our approach was just too open-ended (we did talk about specificity and instructions in class).

      • kyliepine 10:27 pm on April 11, 2009 Permalink | Reply

        Very interesting! I wonder if our sign helped a bit? We’re all so programmed to look for instructions, maybe seeing “Puppet Theatre” written helped to legitimize the experience. Although, I’m not sure I’m comforted by the fact that a handmade sign was all it took to legitimize an activity…

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