How Might A Background in New Media Theory Benefit Today’s Arts Marketers?

Emerging technologies have become essential components of arts marketing strategies. Is it important for arts leaders to have a theoretical background in media criticism to fully understand the implications of these technologies?

Detroit School of Arts students take a photo by smartphone with jazz legend Marcus Belgrave after a UMS school-day performance.
Detroit School of Arts students take a photo by smartphone with jazz legend Marcus Belgrave after a UMS school-day performance.

When I applied for the Blogging Fellowship here at ArtsFwd, I was asked to describe the most pressing adaptive challenge for arts organizations today – which, in my opinion, has to do with the relationship between technology and the arts. How can technology enhance arts organizations’ existing competitive edge of providing transformative, live arts experiences? (Hat tip for this “competitive edge” idea to Art Priromprintr of International Festival of Arts & Ideas, member of my ELI cohort at APAP.)

In Douglas Rushkoff’s book Program or Be Programmed, he reminds us that often, technologies can seem to create distance between us and the present moment (for example, continuously checking your Twitter feed at a party to learn about what else is going on, instead of just hanging out at the party). These distancing technology-based experiences seem to conflict with the special experience of “presence” offered by the arts (that “competitive edge”). But technology and live performing arts don’t have to conflict. Rushkoff argues that in order to effectively manage our digital world (and, its possible conflict with “present” art experiences) we need the right digital skills.

Would we, as arts leaders, tackle this pressing adaptive challenge more effectively with the “right” set of skills – perhaps a background in media criticism and theory or better technology skills – so that we can understand more fully the implications of our programs?

I asked this question of activist, non-profit communicator, and media theorist Cayden Mak in a recent interview. I should note that I don’t have a strong academic background in theory, aside from dusty undergraduate coursework and personal reading.

Anna Prushinskaya: You’re an academic, but you’re also a social media “wizard” with the non-profit 18 Million Rising, and you often collaborate with people with “mixed” backgrounds when you work on formal events (such as Detroit’s Allied Media Conference) or informal events (your activism work). How does working across various realms inform your thinking about innovation through technology?

Cayden Mak: A major thing that I’ve come to through various kinds of work is that people see technology in different ways. As a result, collaboration and sharing is incredibly important: the way I as a strategist, developer, and activist think about technology might be quite different from the way a musician, engineer, or entrepreneur does. And neither of those thought processes are inherently right or wrong.

Sometimes the most innovative work is figuring out how to use an “old” technology in a new way, or through doing something “incorrectly.” A lot of this has to do with understanding a technology tool’s affordances and hacking them.

AP: What do you mean by “affordances”?

CM: A technology’s affordances are the uses suggested to us by its design. What are the uses suggested by the design of your smartphone? Whose interests do those uses serve? Is there underlying ideology there?

When I say we should hack the affordances of popular technology, I want to suggest that there are ways to get around the given uses of particular tools, like smartphones or Facebook, that gives much more agency to users than they were initially designed for.

AP: You’ve also mentioned that the power of online campaigns isn’t in getting someone to buy what you’re selling, but in getting someone to buy your story. Do you think we need to have a theoretical background or better technology skills to do this more effectively?

Participants in a social media-based engagement campaign for 18 Million Rising
Participants in a social media-based engagement campaign for 18 Million Rising

CM: Early adopters, like young people, see right through a lot of coercive methods of attracting eyeballs through online campaigns. However, these users are also deeply moved by methods of engagement that hit them close to home and make them feel empowered and fired-up about something. When we at 18 Million Rising roll out a campaign that gets people not just talking about and sharing our content, but adding their own, that’s the biggest win we can get. It means we’re tapping into something that’s already there but needs to be articulated in a way that’s accessible and meaningful.

I don’t think specialized knowledge is required to see and understand this “win” when it happens, but I do think that my background in media criticism and theory has helped me make this distinction between coercive and empowering technologies.

I arrived at my understanding of these things via critical theory, and much of my work is deeply rooted in my scholarly work with Walter Benjamin, the Frankfurt School, and also critical race and gender studies. I’d like to think my commitments to empowering users, resisting racism and sexism, and building what Benjamin called “housing for the dreaming collective” for the digital age comes through in my work. I wouldn’t have those touchstones without my theory background.

AP: Do you think there’s any difference in an approach to the arts as opposed to an approach to a more “issue-based” non-profit or activist work?

CM: To a certain extent, I think that it’s less about “industry” than it is about goals. If your goal, like ours, is to build a base of users who really care about something, whether that’s arts programming or immigration reform, I think these lessons apply.

So much of what works online is about getting critical masses of well-connected super-users to care about and share your work, but also getting users who have average levels of engagement to feel like their voice matters.

I think the shift in the way that small businesses, arts organizations, and activist-oriented internet “brands” are using the internet is indicative of problems with late capitalism, but it also points to a better future. Ultimately, the biggest mistake any of us can make is uncritically buying into narratives that either condemn media-based work as evidence of a broken culture or praise technology and media as our last great hope for a free and equal society.

It’s helpful to me think about the internet in a similar way to how Benjamin thought about the cinema. It’s a way to meet people where they’re at, but it won’t be revolutionary so long as it’s controlled by capital. How we escape that control is, in my opinion, dependent on our ability to address the ways big technology is trying to limit our vision of the possible and resist its coercive uses.

After the interview

The idea that anyone can understand the difference between “coercive” and “empowering” uses of technology intuitively is simple and lovely. But, for me, something is still missing – when I plan a technology-based project at my arts organization, I want to understand the underpinnings and implications, though I buy that “knowing more” won’t necessarily make the initiative “more effective.”

I’d love to hear your thoughts. Do you have a background in theory or deep technology skills that you do or don’t use to innovate within your organization? What are your thoughts on whether this kind of background is useful?

Anna Prushinskaya explores the possibilities of technology for the performing arts at UMS (University Musical Society) in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She first became interested in technology and the arts through the world of publishing, where she's still involved as Midwest editor at Joyland Magazine. Follow her on Twitter at @anyavp.