This paper seeks to answer the question: How can mobile apps encourage and support meaningful, face-to-face social interaction in museum spaces? Museums are increasingly focused on creating more engaging visitor experiences, in part by encouraging participation in dialogue and social interaction in the exhibit space. At the same time, we are embracing mobile technologies. At first glance, social interaction and mobile engagement might seem to be antithetical. Many popular museum mobile apps divert visitors from interacting with exhibits, objects, and each other, undermining social interaction and dialogue.
In surveying the top-rated museum apps in the iTunes store, as well as popular social apps outside the industry, we identify how apps both limit and nurture real-space social interaction. We identify key characteristics of mobile-supported social exchange, assessing which app features provide the best opportunities for fostering meaningful social interaction, both between visitors and other visitors, and between visitors and the museum. We explore specific social interactions conducive to the museum environment—game play, team work, polls, affinity-mapping, creating and sharing content, conversation prompts—and align them with mobile app features. We both analyze existing social engagement models with the greatest potential for contributing to mobile-museum projects, and identify opportunities to leverage those successful engagement models to create new types of mobile experiences.