In my last few Meanland posts I spoke about* audience engagement and online programming – two areas I am passionate about. It constantly surprises me that more literary (and, more broadly, arts) organisations aren’t experimenting in the digital space. In this post I am going to talk about the issues that I see are barriers to entry for organisations to begin using the digital space in more creative ways – and how to overcome them.
Lack of care and understanding about the medium
The internet is still perceived by many as a non-serious or non-literary space. The perception that things that happen online are inane or frivolous, that they are separate to ‘real’ life or ‘proper’ art, vastly underestimates the complexity and intelligence of online audiences.
Another challenge is a lack of understanding about how people connect, communicate and create online. Similarly, there is a lack of knowledge about how to do digital programming, or even that it is a possibility. There are few models, accepted principles, traditions and even very few case studies to look at (especially in Australia). That means that organisations – and the people working within them – need to create in innovative and untested ways, a challenge that is too daunting for many to tackle.
Work-arounds: *Get serious about the internet! Get online, connect, and discover how audiences and other arts organisations are using the digital space. The internet is here to stay, and those who don’t appreciate its importance to audiences and artists quickly get left behind.
There are a lot of principles and theories emerging about digital programming and online engagement (including on Meanland!) – read up and get skilled and inspired about this field. Smaller and independent organisations are leading the way in this field, as they have the agility and flexibility to test and experiment, and tend to be less risk-averse and bureaucratic than more established orgs. As these orgs are often artist-led, they are closer to the creation process and therefore more able to adapt to changing conditions.
The great thing about the digital space is that its newness lends itself to experimentation. There are no right and wrong ways to go about things, and savvy orgs are constantly testing, testing, testing. So you can jump straight in and if you don’t hit the mark straight away – try, try, try again!
Lack of resources
While a lot of what can be done in the digital space is refreshingly low cost, it is certainly not a cost-neutral zone. In addition to the time it takes to creatively develop new kinds of programming (especially projects that are experimental or designed as test cases), online events are often very time-intensive to deliver. There can be different kinds of event delivery costs in the online space – such as design, programming and app development. Additionally, artists appearing in a digital program must be paid at the same rate as their offline counterparts.
Work-arounds: * Building bespoke solutions is overrated. Instead, go to where your audience already hangs out – Twitter, Facebook, your website, and start working there. If there is demand for what you are doing you can build on it later.
If you do build, look for open source solutions – no use re-inventing the wheel.
Do not skimp on paying artists! I mean it. I will come after you.
Another resource issue is access to high-quality internet. Australia has suffered from expensive and slow internet connections for some time, making it difficult to work in the online space.
Work-arounds: * Roll on, National Broadband Network!
No box office models
While most arts organisations are comfortable with the process of setting prices (or not) for traditional events such as panels, launches, conferences, performances and workshops, there is a distinct lack of experience and expertise when it comes to setting prices online. Additionally, there is the perception that audiences won’t pay for content online. Many organisations find the financial risk of online experimentation too great to consider.
Work-arounds: * There is little data about how or what people might be willing to pay for online programming. (Queensland Writers Centre is making it work for them!)
Don’t be daunted by the mainstream media’s inability to create online profits. Instead, start small, experiment, and find the things that your audience can’t live without – if they love it, they’ll pay for it.
A model that seems to be effective for writers is to have some free content and some paid, premium offerings (see freemium). I believe this is a great way forward for arts orgs.
Lack of funding support
Perhaps the biggest barrier to online programming experimentation is the slow response of funding bodies to digital media as an art form, and a lack of understanding about how to classify and fund it.
Certainly, funding bodies recognise that digital arts are a growing space, but are unsure about how to classify the work that takes place in that space. Additionally, many funding bodies are unsure about what areas need development and support in the digital space. Websites and smartphone apps can be a kind of catch-all for funding bodies – a tangible outcome that is easy to quantify and therefore fund – but perhaps not the best use of resources.
Work-arounds: * Many small organisations are funding digital works in non-traditional ways, such as crowdfunding. Crowdfunding can help get individual projects up and running, and assist in filling funding gaps. It is especially useful for anyone attempting to push out experimental programming, not least because it creates a testing ground for the concept: if the organisation doesn’t reach its funding goal, it could assume that the audience is not interested in that kind of project.
Be experimental in how you approach funding bodies – and put your requests in terms that they understand. For example, the Emerging Writers’ Festival has been successful in receiving funding for online activity by listing our web portal as a ‘venue’ alongside our bricks and mortar venues.
Attempt to get artist payments from your funding bodies and look elsewhere for the resources to build the online infrastructure necessary to host them.
Creative solutions for a digital age Successfully moving into programming in the digital space is all about experimentation, testing, and coming up with creative solutions. I firmly believe that the arts should be leading the way in digital engagement and programming. After all, we have the best stories to tell, access to amazing artists, and – I would hope – the most creative minds! This post is an extension of an article I wrote for Island Magazine’s Digitalism issue. You can read the article – Literary Participation at the Digital Frontier – on their website , or buy the issue for loads of great digital literary-focussed articles.
*I apologise that this is not a video post! I am currently living in Ubud and – ironically? – internet connectivity issues means that I was unable to upload the video.