For more than 15 years, the Walker Art Center has been the innovative leader in teen programming, providing cultural institutions around the world with a successful model for engaging teenagers. Walker Teen Programs connects teenagers with living artists, raises their awareness of the art of our time, and provides ways for teenagers to voice their own creativity and comment on their own culture. The centerpiece of Walker Teen Programs is the Walker Art Center Teen Arts Council (WACTAC), a diverse group of 14 young people who meet weekly to create for teenagers programs and events such as artist talks, teen art showcases, and hands-on workshops. Programs designed by WACTAC draw over 6,000 people annually, and teens account for 10% of the total audience, excluding school tours.
Since 2000, Walker Teen Programs has had an on-line presence, teens.walkerart.org. The goal of the Web site was a to create a space where teenagers and museum colleagues could visit regularly to find information about upcoming programs at the Walker. It was developed primarily as a calendar and program archive; the site was regularly updated, but the information that was listed was didactic and institutionalized. Prompted by negative feedback from new WACTAC members, staff began thinking about a redesign of the site.
The Walker’s New Media Initiatives (NMI) department is widely respected for developing innovative on-line educational resources. In 2005, the Walker launched its official blog (http://blogs.walkerart.org) as a component of the main Walker Web site (http://walkerart.org). Since then, it has become a highly trafficked portion of the Walker’s site and is ranked among the most popular museum blogs on the Web. This success can be attributed to the precipitous growth of blogs and their consumption by the public as well as their accessibility on the Walker site. Through a high contribution rate by Walker staff and guest bloggers, the perception of the Walker as an elitist institution has been challenged. Walker blogs serve as a less-filtered conduit for both Walker- and non-Walker-related information and provide a space for the general public to interact with and gain insight into the personal interests of Walker staff, art-related or otherwise. This humanizes the institution and broadens its appeal in a way that more refined forms of communication cannot.
Once we started examining how the site would be used, two audience groups emerged. Each group had different goals and needs regarding what content should be there, where it should come from, and how refined it should be. One group - museum colleagues, educators, parents, and teachers - frequently requests didactic information such as the history of Teen Programs, general WACTAC info, WACTAC applications, and advice regarding best practice.
However, WACTAC identified teenagers as the primary audience of the site. They wanted to see the site include writing related to their own activities, to utilize multimedia tools, and to have the ability to display interesting things they have found. WACTAC was interested in the site’s representing their role within the Walker and their interests outside of the institution.
According to the Pew Internet Project on American Life’s study, “Social Networking Websites and Teens” (Lenhart and Madden, 2007), 93 percent of teens are on-line, and 55 percent of teens are engaged in social networking on-line. Of social networkers, “those who have such profiles are much more likely to be bloggers than those who do not have social network profiles.” Our informal sampling of WACTAC members showed that nearly every member was using social networking (MySpace or Facebook), and about half considered themselves generally Internet savvy. It was clear to us that in order to be successful, we would need to take aspects of social networking and incorporate those principles into the new teen site.
WACTAC and Walker staff also examined the sites designed for teenagers created by other institutions. We were impressed by the depth of content and interactive elements on a few sites, but noted that large amounts of staff time and museum resources would be required to achieve that level of production. In addition, it was not clear whether teenagers would repeatedly engage the seemingly static teen sites. Conversely, teens are accustomed to checking sites for frequent updates and place higher value on social networking profiles that are updated more frequently (Lenhart and Madden, 2007). According to a 2007 memo by Lenhart and Madden, “Almost half of social network-using teens visit the sites either once a day (26%) or several times a day (22%).”
As a part of our process, WACTAC looked at and responded to the aesthetics of social networking sites. Researcher Danah Boyd (2007) has written much on the divide between users of Facebook and MySpace and how they see the sites. Interestingly, Boyd sees that the way teens flock to the sites often falls across class lines, with more upper-class or upwardly mobile teens using Facebook, and other teens flocking to MySpace. Boyd writes that users of Facebook see MySpace as “gaudy, immature and ‘so middle school.’” Avowed users of MySpace, however, see the site as “bling” or “fly” and value the brash visual displays so often found on MySpace. After conversing with WACTAC about the aesthetics of social networking, we came to the conclusion that a customizable visual design element was another way for individual WACTAC members’ personalities to be represented.
Our first goal was to provide WACTAC with a sense of ownership of the site. Teen Programs’ staff believe that in order for programs to be successful, WACTAC must be involved with the process. All of the WACTAC programs and events are conceived and implemented by WACTAC members themselves. In order to make WACTAC ownership a priority, the staff had to treat teens.walkerart.org as an educational program in itself. The staff realized that if WACTAC actively engaged in the site, other teenagers would be interested. While a new site might bring increased traffic, we decided our measure of success would be the site’s relevance to WACTAC teens and their social circle.
Our second goal was to make the site a place where the teenagers could share their writing, arts criticism, interviews, and reviews. Past WACTAC groups have organized exhibitions showcasing teen artwork on-line, but these have served as one-time, event-specific vessels. WACTAC desired an ongoing on-line exhibition space for teenagers and a more integrated approach for showing teen work on-line. In addition to a teen art section, we also wanted to provide teens with a way to highlight events that they are programming or are interested in attending. These events could be happening at the Walker or elsewhere. WACTAC wanted the ability to curate a list of events they feel are relevant to themselves and other teenagers. Additionally, WACTAC felt there was a lack of information on all ages’ events in the Twin Cities. We thought this listing would be a great resource, serving as an “underage page” - an area of promotion that seems to be missing in the Twin Cities.
A third goal for the site was to incorporate Web 2.0 strategies. The final design would need to be capable of easily connecting to other Web-based tools such as YouTube, Facebook, MySpace, etc, where a teen audience already exists. At the same time, we didn’t want the site to be tied to a particular service provider or social networking site. We wanted it to be a hub for content that comes from or goes to other Web 2.0 services, and did not want to enforce a rigorous structure on the teens when they decide to add content to the site.
The final stipulation was that the site had to serve multiple audiences identified by Walker staff and WACTAC. Aside from the flashy Web 2.0 strategies designed to draw WACTAC and other teenagers, the site had to accommodate institutional information about Teen Programs, including program history, contact information, and WACTAC application materials sought by other museum educators, parents, youth workers, and teachers.
Based on our target audiences, we decided that the site should be divided into two distinct sections. We wanted to make sure teen voices were highly visible and dominated the structure of the site. The institutional information also had to be readily apparent but easily avoidable at the same time.
We created a design that combined these two different audiences and spheres of information into one site. The site creates an architectural framework that satisfies both the high design aesthetic of the Walker and the kitschy look of MySpace. The new Web site addresses two audience groups very directly by making the viewer immediately indicate what type of information they are seeking by simply sliding a divider.
The institutional side of the site is labeled “the business side of things” and houses all of the Teen Programs’ institutional information. Whereas the old site presented much of this content in disparate pages with a confusing navigational structure, the new site uses a condensed hierarchical structure allowing a visitor to quickly peruse the entire contents. We also added a FAQ section, making it easier to find information people are most often looking for.
‘The play side of things’ is the WACTAC-driven side of the site. It is blog-like in structure, using color-coded boxes in a three-column layout to differentiate the blog posts, links, events and artwork. WACTAC contributors use a custom-made interface to change the color combinations of sections, and can set headline text and background images. Since the launch of the site, WACTAC members have used a variety of on-line graphics generators and utilized Google image search to mine unique images. We paid special care to try to absorb the 1996-esque Web look of MySpace, but still have an organized modern feel, like Facebook. If the teens want to add “bling” to the site, they have the ability to do so, but also have the capability to tone down the aesthetics for a more neutral feel. The default theme for the teens’ side of the site is a unicorn-patterned background with a sparkling glitter-text headline.
For the WACTAC portion of the site, we decided on a blog-like structure that would consist of four main categories: blogs, links, events, and art. Blog posts were built in to the content management system and provide a very flexible vessel for just about any type of content, from arts criticism to an embedded YouTube video. Links serve as quick and easy content that is curated by WACTAC members. The Events category provides WACTAC with the ability to highlight both Walker and non-Walker events. The last section, art, is a special category of blog posts specifically designed to show images and artwork information.
The site is built using the open source blogging tool WordPress (http://wordpress.org). This gave us the flexibility to customize the site where needed by using plug-ins, creating our own plug-ins and making a custom theme. Rather than creating the site solely on a third party’s social networking platform, we used disparate Web-based tools ideally suited to the various types of content. We also used del.icio.us (http://del.icio.us) to collect the links for the links section on the site, and upcoming.org (http://upcoming.org) to gather events. Both of these tools allow us to tap into a wealth of links and events that are available with these services and give us access to audiences that exist on these sites. This approach gives us unparalleled control over presentation, and formatting, yet allows for institutional voice via the site’s structure, and frees us from being tied to a particular platform provider.
Whereas MySpace allows anyone to enter their own CSS code to customize the look of a page, our customization interface is more limited. The teens can choose colors using a color picker tool similar to that found in Photoshop. They can also set the background image and header text for their side of the site. The interface allows them to preview the changes before committing to a particular design. This structure gives the teens much of the same ability to customize as MySpace, but restricts them from doing things that would severely harm the usability of the site, such as making all the text gigantic or leaving fragmented code that would disable the page. In order to maintain a contemporary aesthetic, we used animated transitions and effects, such as collapsing the different types of posts when the user clicks on the header at the top of the page.
Each WACTAC member has a username and password and has access to posting a blog and adding a link, event or artwork. WACTAC wanted the ability to be able to post quickly with little to no administrative or editing intervention by staff. This type of ‘immediate posting’ gives the WACTAC contributors a sense of ownership because the content is not edited by the museum, making it free of stuffy institution-speak. In looking at other museum-based teen Web sites, we noticed that the majority of the sites displayed a highly produced, marketing-heavy approach. In response, the design of the new teens.walkerart.org employs a ‘Do-It-Yourself’ tone in terms of design and language.
We have been pleasantly surprised with the success of the site since it went live in October 2007. Before the launch of the site, we brought together a group of five WACTAC members to brainstorm ideas about content. Our hope was that this core group would provide the majority of the content. Thus far, 11 of the 14 WACTAC core members so far have participated in the content of the site by posting blog entries or artwork, and the visual theme for the site has been re- customized over 30 times. Since the launch, there have been 76 blog posts, 21 links, and numerous events listings. According to our internal server statistics, traffic on the site has increased dramatically with the new site. Page views went from around 4,000 views prior to launch to an average of over 135,000 between October – December 2007. Page views are likely inflated based on how the new site works (it uses AJAX heavily), but unique visitors have also nearly doubled in the same time range, from around 1,500 to just over 2,500. Most excitingly, user time (measured in seconds) on the site has gone from about 70 seconds to 376 seconds.
As our experience with the site grows, we plan on making a number of enhancements beyond simple bug fixes and updates. The first and most obvious expansion is a tighter integration with social networking services. One thing we learned working on other projects is that it makes sense to go where your audience already exists, rather than trying to pull people from somewhere else. Nearly all of the WACTAC members have profiles on Facebook, a site that allows developers to create applications that interact with aspects of members’ profiles. We envision an application that retrieves the content from the Web site and inserts the material into each individual WACTAC member’s Facebook profile. The audience is limited to WACTAC and their friends, but given the way that social networking works, that encompasses a fairly large group of teens.
While the site was designed to be a mish-mash of things, we would like to have an anchor feature on the Web site, such as video of studio visits with local artists. Along with this, the frequency of posting is something we are examining. Also, we have seen few additions to the art section of the site. Our initial intent was to use the Web site to showcase artwork created by WACTAC or non-WACTAC members, where teenagers could share, discuss, and critique each other’s artwork. To resolve this deficiency, we are considering linking to an existing social networking platform such as deviantart.com or flickr.com.
In the end, the most important guiding question for teens.walkerart.org is, “How do we stay relevant to teenagers on-line?” We learned that to be successful in drawing teenagers to our site, we must continue to be aware of new technologies that attract young people. We also realized that an open, flexible vessel for emerging types of content and numerous authors is a valuable asset. In the future we must take advantage of the applications that allow us the greatest flexibility without devouring considerable resources, and most of all, we must continue with a spirit of experimentation and commitment to youth directedness.
boyd, danah (2007). "Viewing American class divisions through Facebook and MySpace." apophenia [Blog], June 24, 2007. http://www.danah.org/papers/essays/ClassDivisions.html (accessed January 28, 2007).
Lenhart, Amanda, and Mary Madden (2007). “Social Networking Websites and Teens: An Overview”. Pew Internet and American Life Project, January 3, 2007. http://www.pewinternet.org/pdfs/PIP_SNS_Data_Memo_Jan_2007.pdf
Lenhart, Amanda, and Mary Madden (2007). “Teens and Social Media”. December 19, 2007. Pew Internet and American Life Project. http://pewinternet.org/pdfs/PIP_Teens_Social_Media_Final.pdf