Audience Participation in Digital Culture

Community Building For Cultural Events Of The Physical World

Posted by JaFraFrie on July 31, 2009

How can the user potentials be activated and how can their participation be facilitated?

»Internet-communities aren’t websites where people meet,
but people
who meet there«
Michael P. Schmidt 2000

Social activities are expected to increasingly move towards the internet. This assumption is based on the new possibilities of the web 2.0. As a consequence this will lead to economic and social changes, increasingly driven by the networked communities (Maurer et. al 2008: 209). Crucial in this regard is an almost revolutionary mindset towards the internet. The technologies can be operated by any layman and every user can join in to produce his own contents independently. The progression from consumerism to »prosumerism« appears to be unstoppable. The user generated content (UGC) which has been developed to this end is the baseline for the web 2.0 and their communities. The consequences do not only affect the commercial sector, but also reach out to cultural non-profit organisations – thus leading to substantial changes. »The young generation grows up with interaction and participation – they will make a cultural institution share their own ideas and furthermore they will want to become active artistically themselves« (Janner 2008: 65).

The subject of »community building for cultural events in a physical (real) world« is gaining more and more impetus with the new conditions of the web 2.0.

An internet-based community is hardly any different from a community in physical space. Both are created by the meeting of people who share the same interests. Furthermore: both communities engage in the development of a network of relations among humans. The special aspect about internet-based communities however is the fact, that the people meet and exchange their ideas in the virtual as well as physical world. An online-community – according to Mühlenbeck/ Skibicki (2007) – is a group of people, who interact socially, i.e. exchange UGC and who share common interests, goals and activities. Furthermore they temporarily visit the same sites, which is mostly virtual. (Mühlenbeck/ Skibicki 2007: 15). Technical communications means also has to be provided to the group, in order to facilitate social interaction.

Jyri Engeström, co-founder of Jaiku, has defined five key principles for the setting up and maintenance of communities: (1) Define Your Object , (2) Define Your Verbs , (3) Make the Objects Shareable , (4) Turn Invitations into Gifts and (5) Charge the Publishers, Not the Spectators .

(1) This is the easy part, but perhaps most important. The social object will be the center of your network.

(2) This means what do you want people to do with your social object. Do you want them to comment? Rate it? Share it? Watch it? Etc. Make sure whatever action they should take is clear and highly visible on the site.

(3) This is almost a no-brainer, but you would be surprised how many sites have not made it easy (or even possible!) to share the object which their site is centered around.

(4) Want your friends to join you on the network? Don’t just spam them with an invite, send them something of value. Jyri mentioned how a purchase of a Skype headset years ago also included a set for a friend. Also, PayPal had originally offered a small amount of money posted to the account of your friends who signed up for the service.

(5) On any network, there are those who are creating and those who are passively consuming the content. You shouldn’t charge the latter, only the former. The people who are actively using the service and are getting value from it in some way are the ones who would be willing to pay for additional features or, in some cases, just to use the service itself

Furthermore the four-tier model by Armstrong and Hagel can be used in this discussion: (1) creation of a member-base by providing free contents and investment in marketing, (2) enhancing participation of members by making them create their own contents and providing attractive contents, (3) loyalty by promoting encounters and relationship-building among members, (4) use for commercial purposes such as advertising and participation fees as well as offering special services.

The »social object« established by Engeström is particularly essential for the success of a virtual community. It has to be created, shared, traded, modified and commented by the users. Such an element is needed by every social network, in order to operate successfully: in the case of YouTube it’s the video, at Flickr it’s the picture, at last.fm it’s the piece of music and at facebook and co. the status of the user. The opportunity to change, to pass on and to comment is of central importance for the social object of a community

The baseline of each internet community is the user generated content (UGC). It is what makes a virtual community come to life. It is the key to participation by members. In terms of sociology participation refers to the involvement of individuals and organisations in decision-making and opinion processes. In order to achieve an activation, the target groups and the world they live in have to be addressed.

Furthermore the opportunity to communicate within a community has to be given to the users, so they can become a community. This however only means that the framework has to be provided, not the content as such. The contents are generated by the community members themselves (UGC). Therefore particularly active users should be recognised for their participation and this should be guaranteed. Otherwise there would be no incentive to participate. These incentives could be perceived as »opportunity to increase attention« in the form of surveys, games, multi-media offers etc.

A closer user connection can be achieved by emotional components such as an extended user portrayal via profiles. A further incentive for members not to leave the community, is the disclosure of the member’s experiences, as well as the online status. Other ways to encourage participation in the community are furthermore: promoting the exchange among users, searching potential users on other platforms, making users committed by offering benefits and extras, as well as networking online and offline.

First experiments with communities have been accomplished in the field of arts and culture: virtual collections can be composed in the registration area »MyCollection« in the Smithsonian American Art Museum. They can then be retrieved and viewed randomly. The Tate Gallery invites visitors to up-load portrait pictures in the »Flickr« group set up independently for this very purpose. They will be shown on the website of the Tate Gallery in rotational sequence. With the assistance of experts the social object »art« – in the form of works of art and self-made pictures – is turned into the focus of the community. Activities related to the social object have also been defined and the exchange of information and communication between users has been advanced and made easier. Particularly the use of already existing platforms may lead to problems in regards to technical realisation. Unfortunately there are no survey figures available on those projects. The connection to an increase or decrease in visitor numbers would have been particularly interesting and helpful.

Because of the multi-faceted nature of the arts and cultural world, many social objects in this regard have not been cast effectively. An internet community that focuses on the social object »dance« is dance-tech.net. It boasts quite a successful development on the peripheral topic of dancing. Now it has already more than 1.200 members. Users can announce their events publicly. They can upload videos and pictures as well as make contacts and connections to other experts. The membership numbers of dance-tech.net do not compete with the numbers of visitors of internationally renowned museums. But this definitely must not be seen as a sign of failure. Especially the active participation of almost all members must be stressed at this point. Notwithstanding the co-founder Marlon Barrios Solano continually generates attractive content by including numerous interviews with in part well-known experts from the dancing scene. These contents attract more and more users. An interview with the choreographer William Forsythe for example led to 200 new member on one day only. Furthermore Solano has entered into various co-operations, particularly into media partnerships with organisations that have created a profile with his on-line community. In reply to the question of how he achieved this multitude in participation he simply said: »Just do it!«.

Solano also works as a consultant for the Dance Films Association in New York. They have done likewise and started an online community. The registration and membership however is not free of charge (starting at $25 per annum). The association offers a multitude of benefits to their members to compensate for this charge: e.g. invitation to openings, receptions and dance film labs, discounted entry tickets and screenings, previous announcement of screenings and workshops as well as support for independent projects. Additionally each member is being given the opportunity to curate in part the programme for the »Dance on Camera«-Tour. Registered users can furthermore view video-streams of events by the DFA. The community has been able to acquire more than 1000 members. The comprehensive opportunities to participate and the drastic increase in the number of members suggest that the effort of community building has been profitable for the association.

The biggest media art festival in the German-speaking world – the „transmediale” – tries to set up a similar community particularly addressing the last festival. However opportunities for comprehensive user participation do not exist. Besides there appears to be a lack of planning at this point. Users do neither experience involvement nor is there a social object, that they can shape, pass or comment on. Registered users also lack the opportunity to communicate, such that social interaction cannot take place. Only a personal diary for planning the festival can be created and saved or tags be added to individual articles. Again no figures are available on the usage. Therefore it cannot be rated as either success or failure. At this point criticism should be expressed on the procedures and realisation of the prospective community.

Organisations in the German-speaking world appear to be generally less willing to establish their own communities similar to the Smithsonian American Art Museum or the Dance Films Association. Already existing platforms for social networking are used instead, in an attempt to make and maintain friends or connections. The direct participation in a specific event or the direct link to an organisation must at this point be viewed critically. The connections that can be established via external offers are rather loose. The increasing number of members of the aforementioned online communities however speaks for growth of independent virtual communities. Moreover the question arises, if the participation can be transferred into the physical world in order to achieve an improved interaction between art and humans. In this sense: »Successful knowledge transfer involves neither computers nor documents but rather interactions between people« (T. H. Davenport)

Jadwiga Müller, May 2009


Armstrong, Arthur/ Hagel, John (1997): Net Gain: Expanding Markets Through Virtual Communities. Harvard Business School Press.

Janner, Karin (2008): Das Internet in der Kommunikationspolitik von Kultureinrichtungen – neue Ideen und Best-Practice-Beispiele. URL: http://kulturmarketingblog.de/wp-content/uploads/2009/01/diplomarbeit-karinjanner-das-internet-in-der-kommunikationspolitik-von-kultureinrichtungen.pdf

Maurer, Tina/ Alpar, Paul/ Noll, Patrick (2008): Nutzertypen junger Erwachsener in sozialen Online-Netzwerken in Deutschland. IN: Alpar, Paul/ Blaschke, Steffen (Hrsg.): Web 2.0 – eine empirische Bestandsaufnahme. Wiesbaden: Vieweg+Teubner | GWV Fachverlage GmbH.

Mühlenbeck, Frank/ Skibicki, Klemens (2007): Verkaufsweg Social Commerce. Blogs, Podcasts, Communities – Wie man mit Web 2.0 Marketing Geld verdient. Norderstedt: Books on Demand.

Perez, Sarah (2009): Building Sites Around Social Objects (Live from Web 2.0). URL: http://www.readwriteweb.com/archives/building_sites_around_social_objects_live_from_web.php

Online-Community dance-tech: http://dance-tech.net/

Dance Films Associations, Inc: http://www.dancefilmsassn.org/

Media art festival transmediale: http://www.transmediale.de

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