A few weeks ago I started playing with putting pictures of various sample projects on a table, to see how they wanted to arrange themselves. Today I resumed doing this, seeing some more emerging groups and themes, and exploring a particularly salient one-dimensional gradient: social risk.

Some groups

I started by laying the cards out on the table in no order, looking at each picture as I went so as to try to hold them all, roughly, in front of mind.

Quickly, I realized I had some categories I was already mentally naturally putting these projects into, and so I figured it was a good idea to make those categories real by writing them down and clustering the images around them. Since I made all the categories at once, it meant that each project could only reside in one group—I generally kept things in the pile that felt it captured the project’s most salient characteristics. Here were my piles:

These are projects that are defined chiefly by being beautiful visually or aurally. Of course that’s not meant as a knock against them—the inherent attraction people feel to objects or scenes of beauty is a wonderful thing to take careful advantage of when building an experience.

These are projects that require two or more people to work properly. Or at least, the experience is so fundamentally better when there is more than one participant that they practically require it.

I surprised myself by putting only one project into this category—the Exploratorium’s Resonant Pendulum. Of course though that’s a piece in a hands-on science museum and can be primarily educational, it of course can also be considered primarily a piece that rewards cooperation.

Possibly the most interesting category to me. These are projects that don’t merely suggest some vague notion of social betterment flowing from interpersonal communications—they sort of force people to walk the walk, or at least make it as easy as possible to do so. They are all about meeting other people for the social value of it, or in the case of Yobosayo, engaging in a purposefully civic way quite literally (since it’s an engagement at town hall!). Of course the Portals Project is specifically intended to bring people together across lines of nationalities and encourage them to recognize each others’ common humanity. It doesn’t get much more explicitly civic than that.

Another singleton category. While most of the mediated interpersonal experiences which use a machine or configuration to get two people to interact with each other are live experiences, I counted Small Kindnesses, Weather Permitting as a recorded version of the same. This is because all of the doodads that people touch or engage with play recordings of sound or video from local artists, students, or whoever else submitted material. This is to me a recorded interaction with a community member.

Probably the most straightfoward category: experiences or devices which intend to get two people to interact with each other, where the device is only itself a conduit and not, in my reading of the intention of the artists, supposed to be the actual locus of interest.

Things that either require people to literally touch each other’s skin to be fully realized, or otherwise require people to be closer to each other than might be normally socially acceptable between strangers.

A continuum of discomfort

I like the idea of giving people an experience that is somewhat socially discomforting, but not so much that they’re too off-put to continue to engage reasonably. (And of course I don’t want to facilitate any experience that ends up being scarring.) Obviously by addressing this question I’m referring to something that varies greatly between individuals and an experience that is one person’s idea of what would cause mild social discomfort may well be crossing another’s no-way-never-ever line.

I was expected that I’d arrange all the projects along this continuum and find a big pile way over on the left side of the scale (which I labeled “socially unthreatening”) and another pile way over on the right (“could freak people out”). In fact, I arranged things in a nearly even coating running all the way across. This is deeply unscientific in about twelve different ways, of course; so I’ll just say that I was surprised at the relative diversity of my perception of social risk that these broad range of projects present.

More rearranging needed!

Just as happened the last time I tried this exercise, I think I’ve found some value in allowing for the freeform associations that having actual physical images on a table can allow. So I’m probably going to be coming back to it again. But before then, I’d like to do a bit of writing about these categories and what relevance they have for my research.