Interactivity has been redefined in the past few years. Newspapers used to think they were interactive because they ran letters to the editor. Rarely did they respond to the letters (unless those letters demanded a correction), but “hearing from the readers” became a mantra for the focus-group-driven news organization.
Arts organizations have also prided themselves for being interactive. Applause, of course, is the first-line of that interaction. But the state of one’s box office sales also helps focus the attention of a presenter.
When websites started allowing readers to comment on content, newspapers weren’t sure they liked the idea. But once they saw how popular comments were, most papers began letting readers weigh in online. Many newspapers now also run email addresses of reporters so readers can contact the writer directly.
A few (not many) arts organizations have allowed audiences to leave comments on their websites. Most are afraid that some commenters will say negative things. So mostly commenting isn’t allowed. Can you blame the artists? Check out the comments section of your local newspaper, and you can see how quickly most comment threads degenerate to the lowest common denominator.
And yet, there are comments sections that are terrific. When we do short issue-based group blogs on ArtsJournal, invevitably the reader comments are as good as if not better than those of the official bloggers. I’ve come to think of the bloggers in these events more as discussion leaders rather than panelists who merely dump information and depart. Look in the comments section of blogs like PostClassic or Sandow and you’ll see smart interesting people discussing things they care about.
But the two-way commenting interaction is the old interactivity. Successful web projects these days think of themselves less as producers of content than they do infrastructure that allows a community to talk to one another. They’re not after the two-way interactivity of producer-to-receiver; they want to create many-to-many interactivity, with themselves in the middle of it all. They act more like leaders of a community rather than owners of it. They aren’t afraid of the community criticizing what they do; they depend on that community to give them a sense of what works. And what doesn’t.
It isn’t all about the community leader’s project. People are drawn to the community out of shared interest. Those interests extend out. If you’re a publisher and running a site built around your trashy romance novels, it’s far more powerful to be THE place where people come to check out romance novels in general rather than just your books.
Arts organizations share a problem with news organizations. News is expensive to produce, and competition to get stories is fierce. When a newspaper owned its market, it had a captive audience. Now the news consumer has exponentially greater choice, and increasingly the news junky turns to people or services that scan through all the dreck and deliver a picture of the world that makes some sort of sense. Bad news if you’re the local paper. You’ve been reduced to being canned peas on the grocery story shelf. Fine if the shopper wants peas, but not so good the next time when he decides to try the beets instead.
The point is: if all you mean to your audience is a consumer transaction, a box office sale, then you’re one product among an increasingly crowded shelf. If there are 800 things to do, the chances you’ll be the first choice even once in a while is slim. No matter how good you are. This is why Starbuck’s sells the “experience” at its stores as much as it does the coffee. Starbuck’s wants to be that place where a community can interact so you’ll keep coming back. How many arts organizations are still working in a consumer model when the world has passed on to an experience economy?