"Many arts institutions even allow their audience members to write their own critiques on the organizational website. This is a scary trend." Michael Kaiser, President at Kennedy Centre for the Performing Arts, blogging on HuffPost, a while back.
It's not clear to me whether he thinks the ability of people to engage with each other is positive or negative for the performing arts, but he definitely says it's scary. (He might have meant that with regard to the demise of news-media critics and the rise of patrons providing their opinions online.)
In any case, in 2011, year 16 of the commercial internet, this amazes me.
It is neither scary nor new that arts patrons share their thoughts, reactions and recommendations about performing arts events.
Yes, the speed of this sharing is near instant - and potentially widely distributed - in the age of mobile technologies. Smart companies would want to harness this user generated content (UCG) on their own platforms as much as possible and indeed, they'd participate.
Imagine a social web strategy for a performing arts organization predicated on authentic relationships between their organization, artists and audiences: They might thank audience members for feedback, positive reviews, questions and being interested. The artistic director might comment back when they see a reaction that they want to shift to a different place. They could have a conversation and share information and perspectives. They might answer those "what were they thinking!" questions that people post on Facebook, Twitter or on blogs. Marketing staff could retweet and amplify the positive reviews you get. The company could give the behind the scenes insight, tell the back stories and facilitate creators, actors, musicians, dancers to speak for themselves (many do). They would not abuse these relationship for quick ticket sales, but they might occasionally highlight upcoming shows in their venue and in others. They might rally everyone around the love of the arts and spread it.
Can you imagine the power of these interactions for your company - your brand - in the long run?
For years, user generated content has been coveted by consumer companies and entire strategies have been thought up to get it - using contesting, short codes, value added info, exclusive perks. I used it as part of a place branding project for a city in Eastern Ontario back in 2007 with great results. Dove's Campaign for Real Beauty put an interesting spin on the genre. Today user generated content (the social media) has become ubiquitous through social networks (that's the platforms) and the real challenge is not the generation of it, but the harnessing of the conversation real people are having about you, your services, your products. (Real people is key, because there are all kinds of spam engines, and fake UCG where companies or their agents act as imposters - this is not social and it is not what I am talking about.)
The true irony might lie in what great art has the power to do:
It is supposed to be a conversation; an exchange between orchestra and audience through music; an exchange of ideas in theatre; a kinetic exploration through the body in dance; an entertaining experience (in the best sense of the word). It aspires to be: emotive, beautiful, thought-provoking, stimulating or even transforming. It examines the human condition. It can connect people both to each other and to a higher plane of being in whatever way they choose. It can foster greater understanding across cultures or socio-economic groups. And it does it by carrying on the conversations outside of the performance space.
I think, those arts organizations who have figured out to become part of the conversation are to be congratulated and celebrated. That's why I celebrate the vision and smarts at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa, or Shell Theatre in Fort Saskatchewan, Alberta. (Please add others who do it well in the comments below.)
They may just have realized that the conversation goes on without them anyways. And they can build authentic relationships by inviting audiences not only inside their theatres but inside their web presence, too.
Finally, new audience engagement modes reflect a generational as much as a technological shift. Back in 2006 even Time magazine had figured out the signs of the times by declaring You, yes, YOU, its Person of the Year.
By the way, Twitter and Facebook were in their infancy in 2006. Notably, Time's Person of the Year for 2010, was Mark Zuckerberg. The speed of business has increased tremendously and it demands nimbleness and adaptablility more than ever.