Tailoring Online Media Platforms for Community Engagement

It’s easy to make assumptions about the limitations of new media platforms. But how can we turn our biases into benefits by addressing them head on?

A visual map plotting locations of artist studios nominated in the Brooklyn Museum's GO project
A visual map plotting locations of artist studios nominated in the Brooklyn Museum’s GO project

Twitter fiction isn’t new. What makes Elliott Holt’s recent Twitter mystery story so special is the care she took to turn what are usually seen as negative biases of the medium (its fickle subject matter and never-ending focus on transcribing the present, perhaps) into a robust, immersive, and smart literary experience.

Too often, organizations seem to take on the project of building an online presence without considering or questioning the starting assumptions about online media. It’s certainly accepted that we should be where our communities are, and that that somewhere is quickly and more often becoming an online space. It’s also true that, like our more traditional efforts to engage and transform our communities through the arts, our online efforts should be tailored to engage.

Excerpts from Elliott Holt's Twitter mystery story on Storify
Excerpts from Elliott Holt’s Twitter mystery story on Storify

One starting point for more effectively engaging our communities through the arts—and online—is to consider the biases of the new media platforms we use and to address them directly. By identifying such biases about these platforms, we can convert them into venues for rich and entertaining arts experiences.

Read on for examples of arts organizations that rethought common biases about various online media platforms to develop new opportunities for community engagement.

New York Neo-Futurists: Challenging audiences to re-think the short form play

  • Online platform: Twitter
  • Bias: Twitter can create distance and take participants out of their immediate experience and community.

Converting bias to serve the arts: “The Neo-Futurist aesthetic draws upon Dada, Surrealism, the work of the original Italian Futurists, and an array of other artistic and performance disciplines to create something new and different,” explains the website of the New York Neo-Futurists, an experimental theater group. “Learn more about us and our art by talking with us on our social media,” they encourage. On their Twitter channel, however, the New York Neo-Futurists do something quite beyond just talking.

The group challenges its followers to write one-tweet plays, often with specific constraints, such as featuring a blind date. The group’s social media community pulls together around the challenge, which is given structure by the brevity of Twitter as a medium.

This project represents an instance when Twitter sparks creativity and builds community in service of the organization. Often, the opposite seems the starting assumption about Twitter-driven engagement; it’s seen as a medium where people participate in bits and pieces, not substantial content. Without challenging this starting assumption, this great engagement initiative may not have gotten off the ground.

Selections from one-tweet plays, encouraged by the New York Neo-Futurists
Selections from one-tweet plays, encouraged by the New York Neo-Futurists

Brooklyn Museum: “Checking in” in support of local artists

  • Online platform: Check-in services, like Foursquare, or other mobile apps
  • Bias: “Checking in” on an online mobile can seem like a choice to participate less in-person.

Converting bias to serve the arts: Brooklyn Museum’s GO project, a community-curated open studio project which ended in a Museum exhibition by the crowd-selected artist, has received national attention. And rightly so. The program addresses the suspected bias of check-in services such as Foursquare and other mobile applications: that when people check-in, they check out of deeper kinds of engagement.

Instead, the GO project used check-in services to kick start game-ified community action. Participants “nominated” their favorite artists by checking in at local studios via text message or a GO project iPhone app. Statistics on nominated artists were cataloged and published live on the GO website. Finally, museum curators selected five artists to be featured in the exhibition from the top-ten community-nominated artists.

Large-scale community action, coupled with deep documentation that was shared with the field, converted a simple check-in into a project of great service to both the Brooklyn Museum and the arts field. Without challenging the assumption that check-in services diminish engagement, this great initiative may not have gotten off the ground.

Electric Literature: Compiling voices from project partners to curate literary recommendations

  • Online platform: Tumblr, Blogger, WordPress, and other free publishing/hosting services
  • Bias: Anyone can publish content online, so finding the good stuff is a challenge.

Converting bias to serve the arts: Electric Literature’s online-only Recommended Reading project, built on a Tumblr platform, uses recommendations to pull together the literary community through curation, identifying great stories while showcasing authors and independent presses. [Disclosure: I once worked for Electric Literature].

The curation cycle takes place over four weeks, with a rotating selection of stories chosen by Electric Literature editors, excerpts from project partners such as indie presses, author-recommended pieces, and archived stories from magazines. Each issue is accompanied by a note from that week’s partner, “introducing you to the work and their mission.” That the action of recommendation is showcased in its own right adds value to each story – it’s a personal connection and an extra reason why you might want to read and engage with it.

This format challenges the idea that access to more free online content means readers won’t be able to find a way to content that’s truly rich and engaging. Instead, that bias is converted into a community-building project. Without challenging that assumption, the focus on bringing together the literary community may not have emerged, and this great project may not have gotten off the ground. Not only can readers find their way to engaging content, but the process of curation and recommendation itself brings added value.

What biases do you have about using online media platforms to engage your community?

I’d like to challenge you to think about this kind of project in your work:

  • Do you have an assumption about a platform you’re using in your online initiatives (or about a platform you’re thinking about using)?
  • How could you convert the bias of the platform into an opportunity for engagement?

Of course, we could use more great examples. Have you come across other examples of projects that embrace and convert the biases of emerging media into rich experiences? Share them below.

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.