The bikini bridge and other social objects

In The Participatory Museum, Nina Simon discusses the “social object,” which seems to be a term coined in 2005 to mean “conversation piece.” (I prefer “conversation piece”, because to me “social object” sounds like an object that is social rather than something that has a social function.) These are items that spark conversation, like dogs or babies or a bizarre hat. They provide easy entry points to human interaction that may be less threatening than directly initiating a conversation.

They may also be curious or controversial sculptures, websites, or memes — things (not necessarily physical) that get crowds of people talking. A recent example I encountered is the bikini bridge meme.

In this case, the meme was deliberately fabricated by 4chan, but once they got the ball rolling, the word quickly spread throughout the internet. Arguably, the social object here was the hashtag: #BikiniBridge2014.

Simon lists four ways that objects can be social: make a personal connection (e.g., an Erector set invites someone to relate a story about *their* first set), impose physically (e.g., a car crash nearby), provoke a response (e.g., graffiti on a wall), or create interactions (e.g., a football). The bikini bridge is definitely provocative (responses range from people who think they’re sexy to people who think the idea is yet another way to objectify women), and for many, also personal (e.g., those who posted a selfie to share their own bikini bridge with the world).

At JPL, we make use of social objects to connect with people outside the lab. Speakers often bring a life-size replica of one of the Mars Science Laboratory’s wheels to let people experience for themselves how big they are and examine the design up close.

I can think of several social objects that inspired me to interact with others just in the past week:

  • a purple origami necklace in the shape of a rocket
  • a USB flash drive shaped like a storm trooper
  • a curiously shaped iPhone case that turned out to be created by a 3D printer

… and the entire poster session at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference (LPSC), filled with more than 600 posters, was a smorgasbord of social objects, deliberately created to invite interaction!

Perhaps research posters could borrow ideas from Simon’s suggestions about how to make museum/display objects more social:

  1. Ask visitors questions: The goal is for the visitor to personally engage with the exhibit (poster). Perhaps questions like “when did you first see a solar eclipse?” I’ve yet to see an interactive poster that allowed you to post or write in contributions as a visitor, but it might be fun to experiment with!
  2. Provide live interpretation: This is already a built-in feature of poster sessions. When the presenter is present, that is.
  3. Make it provocative: Everyone loves a controversy!
  4. Offer visitors ways to share: Create your own hashtag? Microblogging was rampant at LPSC. More pedestrian: hand out business cards or printouts of the poster.

What’s your favorite social object?