Online Strategy for the Arts

I spoke today on a panel at the Australia Council for the Arts looking broadly at the futures of online engagement by arts organisations.

The opening presentation of the day was given by Stephanie Hutchinson who set up the ‘Discover’ education programs at the National Theatre in the UK. I was really inspired to hear about this extensive program of community engagement by a major institution in the UK both in practical, face-to-face activities and their extension into the online environment. It was the philosophy of community engagement that I found really compelling because it’s the place where any successful online strategy needs to start.

National Theatre Discover program

It’s true the National Theatre has several natural advantages over its Australian counterparts. It is already an established global brand that has strong associations with names like Laurence Olivier and Helen Mirren. It’s budget is also relatively large yet neither brand nor budget are necessary pre-requisites to adopting a strategy of direct engagement with audiences.

The online sphere is still young enough that it is possible to build a substantial global presence from scratch given institutional commitment to community engagement. This needs to be followed through on all channels, including online. I don’t see this leap being made often enough in Australian arts institutions and it’s a shame because it obviously creates many new opportunities.

These are the notes I prepared for my brief presentation which outline my views on the future of online engagement in the arts.

Does online digital media have a big future in the area of arts education? The answer is yes but the jury is still out on whether traditional arts organisations will lead online or if they will be supplanted by more nimble creative players.

The challenge of online is not about ‘having a good web site’ any more. It’s about maintaining a constant presence online that is dynamic, exciting and 24/7. And to do this properly it costs money and requires a serious long-term commitment to community engagement both in the physical and online worlds.

To succeed in the online world you need to consider who your competitors are: this is a global medium and there are no barriers to entry. Remember, the long tail of content is about professional and amateur content co-existing side by side. Artists aren’t so special any more, you need to take amateurs seriously, online they are your competition and also potentially your strongest supporters.

You need to commit to publishing useful information for people online. One of the biggest challenges faced by all educators is to compete with the vast amount of information that is already out there and available online. While a lot of this information is not great, the best material does tend to rise to the top of search engine rankings – the sheer weight of numbers of people contributing and viewing material online is overwhelming.

To engage with an online audience you have to understand how the medium works. People are out there looking for answers to questions online – and they find them through online search or through ‘human search’ – crowd-sourced answers to questions on social networks such as Twitter. If your answers are relevant this is one way you can ensure you are found online.

Arts organisations all have high levels of expertise in various specialist areas. A commitment to education is a commitment to sharing that information with a community and also a commitment to listening to their input. Social networks demand that we put out more about ourselves online – this also follows for institutions. Because if institutions are to successfully make the transition to the online world they have to humanise themselves which means not only answering questions but also listening for them.

The ability of any organisation to be found online is going to become a bigger challenge in the future – for everyone. Because it’s becoming harder to bring traffic to your own web site and more and more important to distribute your content on as many online channels as you can – particularly those social networks.

Overall though, it’s about how you communicate your artform and passion most effectively to an online audience – monitoring what questions are being asked and how best to answer them. It’s about value adding to what you are already doing –providing rich resources online – video, photographs, games alongside relevant and up to date information.

So is this education or is it something else? Borrowing again from the National Theatre strategy, maybe ‘discovery’ is a good way to look at it.

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Gamecrush: move over chatroulette

Gamecrush is a new service out of San Francisco that is reportedly so popular online that its Beta service

is temporarily unavailable due to the incredible user response (more than 10,000 inquiries in five minutes)

Not a bad PR stunt to kick off a new service that combines online gaming with online dating. Word is spreading fast, I found out about it from one of my students who presented it in class as an example of online innovation. By the end of the day I heard it being referred to in a number of conversations – perhaps because it promises a new method for young people to make money.

Whether the reality lives up to the promise remains to be seen.  For $6.60 gamers can connect by 2 way video link with an online date while they play a game. Playdates can earn up to $5  for taking part in a ten minute session. According to my students this “sounds better than flipping burgers”.

And if you’re still able to concentrate on the gameplay the online gaming experience will range from casual online games all the way through to Call of Duty and GTA. The service is apparently going to be offered on the XBox Live Network and will be extended to the PS3 and even WOW according to the press release.

Who’d have thought that webcam stripping and online gaming would meet in this kind of sandwich? I didn’t spot it, but then again, my server isn’t falling over.


OK here’s the Big Pond rant

BigpondI have spent many hours ‘on hold’ this week listening to Telstra’s selection of music waiting to get a problem with my home broadband service rectified. I changed to Big Pond about 2 years ago and when I get really pissed off with their call centre staff I comfort myself by comparing it to some of my previous horror experiences with Optus. But that’s really not good enough is it? Competition is meant to be about delivering the best service rather than competing for the worst.  I have threatened Big Pond call centre staff many times with” ” I’m now no longer under contract, I will sign up with another provider”. But when I get off the phone and think of what that would entail I generally go weak at the knees. I just don’t have the strength to endure four hours on hold as I work my way through call centre staff before finding one that has a clue, reciting my date of birth, user name and address multiple times, talking to that freaking voice recognition system yet again – and then there’s the general institutional incompetence which means they’re guaranteed to get something wrong at least twice.

Last week my broadband connection just started to spontaneously drop out for hours on end in the evenings, exactly the time of day I wanted to use it. One tech support guy referred me to an ‘Apple specialist’ when I told him I didn’t have a PC and gave me a phone number to call. When I dialed that number turned out he’d given me Apple tech support, not Big Pond Apple support. Sure, they’re going to be interested in my Big Pond cable modem! Another, after getting me to plug and unplug the modem at least three times, clear my browser cache then reboot my computer arranged a technician to come to my house the next day.  I breathed a sigh of relief as I was sure the heavy rain in the last week may have flooded some of the Telstra boxes in the street. Next day I came home early from work and waited till 8pm for a technician to arrive before dialling 133 933 yet again. I got an American accent that night and was told there was no record of my request for tech support (Does this mean that since the financial collapse Telstra is relocating call centres to the US rather than India? If so, they don’t seem to be talking to each other. When I quoted back the reference number for the tech callout she told me with a giggle that the technician had been booked for someone else, not me. The comedy of errors continued and I finally got a service call booked in for Monday. Meanwhile the system seems to have ‘self healed’. Friends in the area also said they had had service interruptions so I suspect it was a network problem outside my home. Why can’t they tell me this? It’s not hard to communicate these things with your customers and we’d be greatful of an update even if it was a Big Pond tech twitter feed. Hell, your technical support staff might benefit from it for a start.

So to add insult to injury I had to get on the line to 133 933 again tonight to cancel the technician visit. When I booked the call I was informed that I had to phone through to cancel the booking, there is no email or other means of communication to call the whole thing off. There’s really got to be a better way guys and while the aloof ‘don’t talk to me’ corporate call centre strategy might keep bolshy customers in their place, as soon as something better comes along I’m off.  30 Mb/s on my cable modem keeps me happy for now while the thing works. When it doesn’t all I want is a clear line of communication that is easy, does not consume hours of my time and doesn’t make me listen to dreadful music. Give us a forum or a twitter feed or something where consumers can talk to each other and we can see the information that your call centre staff can see. If there’s an outage, tell me about it, just don’t leave me hanging on the line, it’s not that hard. Failing that I’m going to post to my blog, if anyone else is similarly frustrated, please don’t hold back.


Age of Stupid

stupidRemember that amazing pair of documentaries ‘McLibel’ (1997, 2005) which told the inside story of the UK McDonald’s libel trial? McLibel director Franny Armstrong has moved on from McDonalds to take aim at inaction on climate change in her new project ‘Age of Stupid‘.  It’s part film and part internet-fueled activist campaign and will culminate in a series of live webcasts ‘The Stupid Show’  during what they call the ‘Copenhagen Un Climate Summit’ between the 7th and 18th December 2009.

Peter Broderick is a well known advocate of low budget digital filmmaking, direct distribution to audiences through event screenings and DVD sales. ‘Age of Stupid’ goes way beyond any of the examples I’ve heard Peter present and shows documentary makers what is possible by really embracing Web 2.0.There are a series of worldwide screenings being run in response to the demand of the audience and it premiered in Sydney at a solar powered cinema with live satellite links to Franny Armstrong and star Pete Postlethwaite. What’s evident is that is a place for a whole activist community to converse and organise around the themes of the film. And what’s really interesting is the way this community is being organised to fund future projects.  If you go to the ‘making of’ tab you can see that every line item in the budget of ‘The Stupid Show’ is listed for donations. The film was funded in this way raising over 850K pounds in donations via crowd-sourced investment.  This is one of the most sophisticated uses of the internet I’ve seen by any filmmakers and that includes the multi million dollar efforts of many of the Hollywood studios. If more filmmakers took the ‘Age of Stupid’ approach to their internet presence they’d attract much bigger audiences to their films.


Games Creation Made Easy

scratchI just bought an HD video camera from Big W for $148. Thank God the Flip phenomena of cheap flash card video cameras has finally crossed the Pacific from the US. Mine came directly from China, another brand variant but no doubt there will be others and the price point will continue to drop.

The ubiquity of cheap video cameras (Flips and webcams alike) is helping to fuel the explosion of online video content and some of the best material is being made by kids. While filmmaking is becoming just another skill in the communications arsenal, it doesn’t seem that games have got there yet. While games are being played more widely and on more platforms,  user created games haven’t yet taken off in a big way. But I think it’s only a matter of time before the educational value of making games reinvigorates the mathematics curriculum. Well, we can only hope.

This month’s ACM Communications journal profiles a tool that has been created at MIT to makes games creation more accessible. It’s called Scratch and it is certainly intuitive. The free software (Mac and Windows) can be downloaded and used to create simple 2D games using a modular, lego-brick-type programming interface. The complexity of computer programming languages has traditionally been a big barrier to entry for people who just want to create games. Scratch is designed to be used in the classroom and has the ability to incorporate customised artwork and the creators claim it works because it is   ‘tinkerable’, ‘sociable’ and ‘meaningful’. The ability to publish games on the web and interact with an online community of users is obviously an important part of the educational experience.  15% of Scratch games are remixes and there is a Creative Commons attribution system designed to encourage this. It’s worth checking out the games remembering that many are the first explorations of school kids creating interactive media. If you’re after a bit more complex content you might want to move up to Game Salad. The drag and drop games creation tool now offers a $99 pathway to iphone application development and there are already a lot of these games available at the App Store. I can’t wait to see these tools being integrated into creative education programs and I’m beginning to work up a few ideas of my own. Also announced this week, free downloads of Unity 3D and the Unreal engine available. With all these options there’s no excuses anymore. Let’s make games!



Streaming Live from The Reef

Locationwater5Australian Director Andrew Traucki of Black Water fame is currently shooting his next low budget suspense feature The Reef. The crew have been shooting for 3 weeks on location in deep water and will be web streaming live from the set later this week: Thurs 5th November at 9:30am EST in Australia – put it in your diary now. You can follow the progress of the shoot on Andrew’s blog which he genuinely seems to be updating himself (when he can get out of the water) and the same goes for the twitter feed.  You need to sign up for the live stream by going to the film’s website which also hosts a trailer and some very scary shark footage.  Peter Jackson set tongues wagging a few years ago with his Kong is King series of vodcasts often on the set of King Kong as he was shooting it.  It was also interesting to follow the tweets of director Robert Luketic as he was shooting ‘The Ugly Truth’ recently and get some insight into the the process of Hollywood filmmaking. To witness the exchange of conversation between actors and key creatives on the team made you feel like you genuinely had a window into the process. The Reef is going to take this synchronicity one step further by streaming live video from the film set. It will be interesting to see how choreographed the experience is for the audience because my enduring memories of working on a film set is that there’s a lot of waiting around… but then again, I was rarely in a key creative role, so hopefully the web stream will put lots of focus on Andrew, the actors, cinematographer and other key people in the team. And keep a look out for a viral video campaign closer to the time of the film’s release. I blogged last year  about some of the great viral videos that appeared prior to the release of Black Water.  Meanwhile the YouTube Channel has some pretty recent updates promoting the live stream.