Designing Virtual Exhibits to Facilitate Better Social Interactions than Facebook

This post is the seventh post in a series on virtual exhibits. Here are the other posts (in case you want to check them out!):

  1. Should museums invest in virtual exhibits?
  2. What is a virtual exhibit?
  3. Who is going to visit your virtual exhibit?
  4. For virtual exhibits, the medium is the message.
  5. Personalizing Virtual Exhibits to Your Visitors.
  6. Giving Visitors Control Over Virtual Content
  7. Designing Virtual Exhibits to Facilitate Better Social Interactions than Facebook
  8. Virtual Exhibit Case Study: Making Friends around American History

*BONUS POST: Top 10 Virtual Experiences of 2020*

When I was a kid, my dad and I spent countless hours of quality time touring history museums together. During my teen years, I spent most of my free time wandering around museums with friends, occasionally looking at the artwork or artifacts, but mostly screwing around. I went on my first date with my now partner at a museum. Many of my most formative social experiences happen in museums

While most visitors aren’t quite as enthusiastic about museums as I am (cough *dork* cough), the majority of visitors come to physical museums with groups – their parents, their friends, their spouses, their kids – in order to connect with each other and museum staff (Ahmad, 2014, p. 258). As Adam Kozary,  social media editor at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, stated, “my best experiences in museums have come from talking to an enthusiastic tour guide, gallery assistant, curator or educator,” (Kozary, 2020).

Virtual exhibits should also be social spaces that give visitors control over who they engage with, how they engage, and how much they engage. This is especially true during the COVID-19 crisis, when people have few outlets for meaningful, safe social interaction. Unfortunately, I haven’t found an example of a virtual museum exhibit that promotes social connection effectively. But, there is a ton of great scholarship on the social interaction design of virtual worlds to draw ideas from. 

Virtual exhibits are one kind of virtual world. Professor and game researcher Richard A. Bartle provides an excellent definition of virtual worlds, “Real: that which is.  Imaginary: that which isn’t. Virtual: That which isn’t, having the form and effect of that which is. Virtual worlds are where the imaginary meets the real.” (Bartle, 2004, 1). 

People build real relationships inside virtual worlds and their virtual actions have real consequences on their social status, relationships, and emotions. The epidemic of cyberbullying clearly demonstrates that the virtual social sphere is no less important than the physical one.

Designing the social experience in a virtual world comes back to the core principles of interaction design. Ultimately, you can’t design interactions between people, you can only design the virtual spaces where they interact. As Mikael Jakobsson, a Research Scientist in Comparative Media Studies at MIT and the MIT Game Lab, states in his dissertation, “When we design virtual worlds, we basically provide a library of tools for the participants to use in their social construction of the worlds” (Jakobsson, 2006, 137). He argues that this library of social tools makes up “the fundamental material that virtual worlds are made of, rather than the graphical building blocks… the design process should begin at the interaction level as opposed to the function or structure levels,” (Jakobsson, 2006, 173).

Meaningful social interactions occur between visitors when a virtual space has high social presence. According to University of Kansas professor Jeffrey Hall, “social presence is the degree to which media convey social cues, including nonverbal behavior and personally identifying information or images, engendering a sense of relatedness or connection” (Hall, 2016, 5). 

Great avatars and profiles are the first step towards giving your virtual exhibit high social presence. Facebook is a simple example – it gives you a place to say who you are (a profile page), a photo to identify yourself with (an avatar), and a way to associate yourself with groups. Many virtual worlds also allow visitors to create a more robust avatar as part of their profile. The options that designers give visitors for constructing their profile and avatar are the foundational aspect of the “library of tools” that participants use in “their social construction of the worlds” (Jakobsson, 2006, 137). What information can visitors include on their profile? Are avatars anthropomorphic, animals, or out of this world? Can visitors customize their avatars by selecting discrete traits (hair color, body type, clothing, etc.) or do they select from a pre-designed menu of avatars? How do you find and view other visitors’ profiles and avatars? The decisions you make should be rooted in the goals of your exhibit. As Simon relates, you should be “designing profiles that are specific to the experiences available,” (Simon, 2017).

Tools that allow visitors to communicate with each other are also key to creating social presence. Chat functions are the primary tools of communication in virtual spaces. Therefore, unsurprisingly, chatting is the most common type of social interaction in virtual spaces, (Hall, 2016, 19). Group chats allow people who have things in common to come together. Functions that allow visitors to branch off of group chats and engage in a private chat with one person provide opportunities for intimate bonding moments. 

Virtual worlds can further increase social presence by incorporating body language and eye contact. In 3D virtual environments, avatars can simulate eye contact and body movements. In virtual worlds with video features, visitors can move their own bodies for the same effect. 

While trying to simulate body language is useful, resist the urge to make your virtual world feel too “real.” Designers often create virtual worlds that function like the physical world, which means they have the worst of the virtual and the physical. They have all the limitations of physical spaces (ex. gravity, friction, distance between locations) without the advantages of embodied social interactions (ex. touch, smell, taste). When we are in a physical space, there is a complex communication between our five senses, our bodies, our minds, and those of our interlocutors that, as of now, cannot be replicated in a virtual world (Lindblom, 2015, 274). To put it more simply, my partner and I were long distance for a year and, in cyberspace, I couldn’t give her a kiss full of the touch, taste, smell, sound, and images that create a social and emotional connection between us. As Jakobsson states, “physical environments are designed for doing physical things and when they are reproduced virtually, a gap reveals itself between the activities that might be meaningful to engage in within a virtual world and what the environment supports” (Jakobsson, 2016, 157). 

Virtual worlds are powerful precisely because they free us from the social limitations of the physical world. They allow us to bridge vast distances without traveling an inch. They have more levity than physical spaces, allowing us to explore serious issues in new ways. They allow us to become someone new or express a part of ourselves that we don’t usually uncover. Embrace the strengths of virtual worlds in your design (Jakobsson, 2016, 133-137).

While designers should take advantage of the virtual medium’s strengths, they shouldn’t totally get rid of “the real,” rather they should attempt to balance realism and fantasy. People need navigational reference points – landmarks they recognize from their day to day life that show them how to move through your exhibit. Your exhibit should also have regions with familiar functions – public spaces, private spaces, and exchanges (marketplaces).

Just like virtual spaces, the digital objects in these spaces have real meaning. By possessing certain objects, visitors can signal status and by sharing objects they can build relationships. For example, Jakobson reflects on a virtual world with a bar, relaying that, “although we will not get less thirsty, and we will not get drunk, buying someone a beer has social significance. It might serve as an invitation to a conversation, or a sign of gratitude or friendship. It does not matter so much that we do not have to sacrifice any money to buy a virtual beer, it is still precious to have someone engaging in the symbolic act of ordering a beer and handing it over to you in a bar. The meaning of that act is also conveyed in a virtual bar” (Jakobsson, 2016, 110).

In a virtual world, your museum artifacts are these meaningful digital objects. Therefore, a key question of a virtual exhibit is: how will you give the digital versions of your objects social meaning? In other words, how will you design the interactions between people, objects, and space in a way that conveys your object’s historical, cultural, aesthetic, scientific, and personal value? 

Now, we know theoretically how virtual exhibits can create meaningful social connections around meaningful museum content. But, how does this work practically?

In the next blog post on virtual museums, I explore how you can take all of this theoretical knowledge about social interaction design in virtual worlds and apply it to your virtual exhibit. Sign up for our mailing list to get this post straight to your inbox!

Sources (click on a source to access it)

“A Brief History of Personalization: Past, Present, Future.” TNOOZ and Boxer, June 2015. 

Ahmad, Shamsidar, Mohamed Yusoff Abbas, Mohd. Zafrullah Mohd. Taib, and Mawar Masri. “Museum Exhibition Design: Communication of Meaning and the Shaping of Knowledge.” Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences 153 (2014): 254–65. 

Arkenberg, Chris, Heather Rangel, and David Jarvis. “Rebuilding a Stronger Digital Society.” Deloitte Insights. Accessed October 12, 2020. 

“Authentication Versus Data Access.” Authentication Versus Data Access – Facebook Login – Documentation – Facebook for Developers. Facebook. Accessed October 12, 2020. 

Bartle, Richard A. Designing Virtual Worlds. Indianapolis, IN: New Riders Pub., 2004.

“Below the Surface.” Below the Surface – Archeologische vondsten Noord/Zuidlijn Amsterdam. Accessed October 12, 2020. 

Bonis, Bill, Spyros Vosinaki, Ioannis Andreou, and Themis Panayiotopoulos. “Adaptive Virtual Exhibitions.” DESIDOC Journal of Library & Information Technology 33, no. 3 (2013): 183–98. 

Byrd-McDevitt, Lori. “The Ultimate Guide to Virtual Museum Resources.” MCN, September 18, 2020. 

Cudworth, Ann L. Extending Virtual Worlds: Advanced Design for Virtual Environments. New York: CRC Press, 2017. 

“Digital Footprint.” Digital Footprint Definition. Accessed October 12, 2020. 

Doukianou, Stella, Damon Daylamani-Zad, and Ioannis Paraskevopoulos. “Beyond Virtual Museums: Adopting Serious Games and Extended Reality (XR) for User-Centred Cultural Experiences.” Visual Computing for Cultural Heritage Springer Series on Cultural Computing, 2020, 283–99. 

Gleave, Eric, Howard T Welser, Thomas M Lento, and Marc A Smith. “A Conceptual and Operational Definition of ‘Social Role’ in Online Community.” 2009 42nd Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences, 2009. 

Hall, Jeffrey A. “When Is Social Media Use Social Interaction? Defining Mediated Social Interaction.” New Media & Society 20, no. 1 (2016): 162–79. 

Jakobsson, Mikael. “Virtual Worlds & Social Interaction Design,” 2006. 

Katz, James E., and Daniel Halpern. “Can Virtual Museums Motivate Students? Toward a Constructivist Learning Approach.” Journal of Science Education and Technology 24, no. 6 (2015): 776–88. 

Komianos, Vasileios, and Konstantinos Oikonomou. “Adaptive Exhibition Topologies for Personalized Virtual Museums.” IOP Conference Series: Materials Science and Engineering 364 (2018): 012011. 

Koszary, Adam. “Has the Digital Museum Finally Come of Age?” Apollo Magazine, May 4, 2020. 

Kreijns, Karel, Paul A. Kirschner, and Wim Jochems. “Identifying the Pitfalls for Social Interaction in Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning Environments: a Review of the Research.” Computers in Human Behavior 19, no. 3 (2003): 335–53. 

Lindblom, Jessica. Embodied Social Cognition. Cham: Springer International Publishing, 2015. 

MacDonald, Craig. “Assessing the User Experience (UX) of Online Museum Collections: Perspectives from Design and Museum Professionals.” Museums and the Web 2015. Accessed October 12, 2020. 

Perry, Sara, Maria Roussou, Maria Economou, Hilary Young, and Laia Pujol. “Moving beyond the Virtual Museum: Engaging Visitors Emotionally.” 2017 23rd International Conference on Virtual System & Multimedia (VSMM), 2017. 

Shayna Hodkin, Swayy. “The Internet of Me: Creating a Personalized Web Experience,” August 7, 2015. 

Simon, Nina. The Participatory Museum. Santa Cruz, CA: Published by Museum 2.0, 2017. 

Yeh, Shea-Tinn, Jeff Rynhart, Thomas Dressler, and Fernando Reyes. “3D Adaptive Virtual Exhibit for the University of Denver Digital Collections.” Code4Lib Journal, July 15, 2015. 

Photo Credits (in order of use)

Photo by Matilda Wormwood from Pexels

Photo by Anna Shvets from Pexels

Photo by AronPW on Unsplash

Photo by Julia M Cameron from Pexels

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

Photo by ThisisEngineering RAEng on Unsplash

Photo by Alexander Kovalev from PexelsPhoto by Christine Sandu on Unsplash


One thought on “Designing Virtual Exhibits to Facilitate Better Social Interactions than Facebook

Add yours

  1. Once again absolutely terrific

    Andrew Singer Sound by Singer 242 w. 27 Street New York N.Y. 10001 917- 414 8760



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: