Julio Cortázar’s La Autopista del Sur is an amazing book for at least three reasons: literarily, marketing wise and because it tells some universal truths about community building and participation. Which is why I mention it here.
Literarily it’s a compelling account of a traffic jam in the south of France that lasts for a couple of days. The characters in the book, named after the cars they’re driving, represent society. They form small, competing communities to get food and water and pass the time. Marketing wise it’s a nice book– at least my edition – as it’s sold as “great literature you can enjoy in the time span of a movie and at the cost of an entry ticket.” Bookstores should sell more of those.
Most of all, however, it can be read as a guidebook to build communities and to design participation.
Today I attended an expert meeting on online participation for the cultural and heritage sector. For a couple of hours everybody talked about technological innovation, community building and Wikipedia. Some good things were said. However, I have the strong feeling the limited view on participation also limits our abilities to see participation and community building are not as difficult as perceived. They happen naturally, every day. They are as much part of the human being as the need to breath, eat and be loved.
Our challenge, as cultural institutions, is to understand these natural processes and tap into them, so our audience and we alike benefit from them. And to do so, we need to look beyond Facebook and Wikipedia.
In a wonderful TED talk posted today Tom Chatfield gives a simple participation equation: wanting + liking = engagement. It summarizes what happens in Julio Cortázar’s story. Car drivers want to eat, drink and pass time in the days-long traffic jam. They take a liking in some of the cars around them and after some initial trouble their wanting and possible liking results in engagement with each other. A community is born.
The simplest combination of wanting and liking is being with other people. Successful cafés use that combination, as do most book clubs and conferences. Whenever you can get people together and make sure they want and like to be there, engagement comes naturally. Last week we organised the Night of History and I think part of its success was this simple equation. We added a good programme and some participatory side projects and tapped into the energy of the engagement-happy crowd. The biggest neurological turn-on for people is other people, says Tom later in his talk.
The second undeniable truth about participation is that not everybody participates in the same way. In Cortázar’s account the nuns take care of the sick, the brave men hunt for food. Well-designed participatory projects, such as the Johnny Cash Project Nina Simon describes on her blog, allow for different types of participation. Most successful web 2.0 and collaborative projects do so too.
When I’m in discussions about online participation in the cultural sector however, often there’s only a focus on one type of participation. Usually it’s the ‘ideal’ type of participation in which an unknown user, out of the blue, adds all her knowledge about an object to an online database.
Which brings me to the third point, people need to get used to participating. In Cortázar’s book there’s a driver who only after a long time starts to contribute to the community. The other drivers look down on him for not helping immediately thereby raising the bar for him to participate. All he needed – however – was to do something small first in order to truly participate afterwards. Some people need to watch thousands of videos before they’ll make one comment on YouTube, let alone post a movie themselves.
There’s a lot we can learn about participation by simply observing and participating in everyday activities. Most of these lessons translate perfectly well to online participation. I’m not saying you should make sure there’s a traffic jam at your parking lot or put a nice loading bar on your website as we remember from times when Flash was already invented but 28k8 was still normal speed. I’m saying we need to stop worrying so much about the specifics of online participation for cultural and heritage institutions and focus on learning from and tapping into successful everyday situations in which communities are built and participation happens.
And we all should read more Julio Cortázar, although with all my best intentions I can’t find any useful lesson about participation in Rayuela.
Photo by Tarisa K on Flickr.