“PR folk are always asking how do you measure the value of social media? I’m glad I don’t have to rate every conversation I have.” @Documentally
Over the past few weeks I have been to two ACE Get AmbITions, and the Shift Happens conference regarding the use of digital media in the arts. Get AmbITion I’ve already blogged about, and I did say that I was going to wait until this Sunday to do anything about Shift Happens, but I really want to address something that’s come up, several times, at all of the aforementioned conferences, and I want to talk about it now. Here it is:
‘Bums on seats’
Several times that phrase has come up, and even oftener has the general sentiment been expressed:
‘This is all very nice, very modern. But how does this translate into our making money, how can this be measured?’
Let me just add a brief caveat before I get into this. I am not just a consumer of art. I am not longing after some ideal world where the arts get the equivalent of the defence budget (or at least the money that’s supposed to be going to renew Trident), nor do I think ‘real’ art comes out of people living off a pittance in some squat in whatever part of London is next going to become fabulously cool and bohemian. I understand the material realities of theatre-making. Granted I’m young, but I have worked in two theatres (Terry O’Toole and Loughborough Town Hall Theatre) as well as working for just over a year in a mid-scale company (Foursight Theatre), and (currently) freelancing for another (Theatre Writing Partnership). I also write for theatre, and through that have been involved with Nottingham Playhouse, the Royal Court, and smaller non RFO companies like Box of Tricks and Scary Little Girls. I am telling you all this because I want you to take me seriously. I may be young, may be idealistic, but I do understand the intricacies of funding agreements, I have seen boards poring over budgets, I understand how hard it is, and how much has to be justified, how RFOs have to prove themselves in ‘deliverables’, I also understand that ACE have to have something to measure, otherwise how do they know who do give money to? I understand all of this. I just don’t think that is how things have to be in every inch of our art.
A theatre company operating now, with no involvement in social media, is like a painter having no involvement with the colour blue.
‘But how does this translate to bums on seats’
This question was asked at the Shift Happens conference, during a Q&A after the Hoi Polloi video diary/twitter presentation. It was asked how all of the social media involvement ‘translated to bums on seats’. I was one of the people who responded to the question. However I am a little concerned that I put my point a little awkwardly, I was sitting in the circle, and so had to bark my answer down, I’m worried that I may have sounded harsh. If I sounded exasperated, it’s because I was, but not at the questioner, rather at the imperative to measure that casts its shadow over the whole discussion of social media. So I want to try and put my ideas across to you
This is how I see it: I know that you need money to grow art. It’s like manure, it works ok without, but much quicker and shinier with it. But this does not mean that everything in art should be measured against the money it cultivates.
“Marketing people are talking about the wrong bit, the product, you should be talking about the process – make it accessible” DK @mediasnackers at Shift Happens
The value of social media can and should not be measured against old, analogue-world ideas of promotion and product. Speaker after speaker told us this.
“Digital distribution has changed everything. It’s no longer about pushing product. The consumer will pull what they want” Charles Cecil at Shift Happens
The idea of ‘bums on seats’ is no longer relevant, in the context of a digital universe (and make no mistake, your future audience is certainly living in one) you cannot sell, you cannot push. Old ideas of marketing just wont wash. If you are worried about getting people to your performances or exhibitions, then you should not be shying away from social media, you should be jumping in feet first, wading around, making a splash, because the arts don’t just need to be involved in the digital world, they need to be at the roots of it, prodding, seeing where it goes, asking where it might take us. What is the value of being involved in digital worlds? Because right now it is the only thing that will keep us alive, it is the only thing that will keep us relevant. What the online-conversation dramatises is the connection between art and its audience. One which, if you look at our typical audiences, is beginning to be lost.
People exist now as many different aspects, in many different contexts, as people are finding new ways to love, laugh, lose and cry, each moment is simultaneously created, destroyed, viewed through a lens. If you don’t understand these new ways of being, how can you make art? If you dismiss a generation’s way(s) of being (including the worst of it, Youtube comments, trolls, the proliferation of paedophilic material, as well as the hardest to fathom, WOW and 4chan) how dare you tell people that you have anything worth saying? How dare you?
I believe art should speak to us of ourselves. I believe that we should try and learn about every moment, every second, I believe we should talk about the future, in order to look at now. I also believe that the digital world is an almost entirely untapped source of story. Where better to explore the relationship between avatar and RL, than on a stage, framed, where people play characters? Where better to ask how it is that groups of people consent to pretend that the on-screen, framed [bracketed, if we’re getting phenomenological] world they are looking at is somewhere else, an alternate reality, with alternate concerns, aims, multi-string narratives, and people represented by avatars than where it is already happening? Where better to tilt-shift the digital world so that we can see it anew, distanced, objectively emotive, questioning?
“Using an open source model of work reduces the cost of collaboration and provides you with a skillset limited only by your network” Alex Fleetwood @ammonite at Shift Happens
You might argue that I’m being very airy, very conceptual, perhaps even a little conversational? Well here’s what else social media can get you: more resources than you could ever dream of. What do we do when we can no longer ‘push’ – can no longer try and convince people that the story we’re telling them is what they want to hear? Well how about we listen to them, we let them in on the process, tell them that they’re worth listening to, engaging with. And how about we look at the world–changing concept of open source working- the WIKI, the dev environment.
“Why do people need your walls and stage when they’ve got Youtube? They’re you’re competitors” DK @mediasnackers at Shift Happens
We are fighting for the attention, now, of a generation who have become used to being their own protagonist, accessing their own world, controlling their own characters. If you open your process up, if you engage with people, if you tell their stories, ask them questions, offer them involvement, ownership, they will want to see the work you make. You will have made participants, not an audience. If you can make them laugh, if you can make them wonder, if you can connect to them in a human way, in conversation – you will not just have a bum on a seat, you will have a heart too. And hearts come back.
Don’t just join in now, look to the future. Is open-source, wiki developed work the next step in devising? How does theatre writing exist in a wiki-world? Is streaming a new testing-ground for new work? What is the potential for using these tools to find new talent, to help people, to reach out the disenfranchised and disaffected? How can the digital world work on stage? Is the digital world a stage?
Social media is a conversation, not a piece of equipment. This is a call to arms, for democratisation, for anarchy, consensus. Be exited, embrace your fear, jump in. There’s almost always a back button. If you are exciting, if you are relevant, if you engage, your social networks will not be a task, your participants will create them for you.
“[The world of ideas is changing] the news is becoming mutual, Obama’s politics was mutual- not driven by spin, broadcast control and brand […] It’s all about the pull […] Think pirates. Think mavericks, think renegades [They will re-form our world, they can tell us what the future might look like] It’s critical that artists are engaged with the digital world, not for marketing, but to ask difficult, big questions of it” Charles Leadbeater @wethink at Shift Happens [brackets = paraphrasing from my twitter feed]
So find the new stories, ask the big questions. We’re heading to a new universe of narrative and being, someone needs to throw ideas around, ask big questions, to “make a mess so we know where we are”, to ask who we are, who we might become. Let’s keep art vital.
Further reading: I have also written a short, all-in introduction for tweeting for artists and arts organisations. Twitter is a very easy, cheap way to get started. You can download my document here. Share and share alike :)