Participation = Success?

Today I was re-visiting a piece in the Wall Street Journal about Anne Pasternak, Creative Time‘s president and creative director. While explaining the success of Creative Time’s 9/11 memorial, Tribute in Light, Pasternak calls out the fact that the piece was heavily talked about, saying, “We fail when nobody pays attention.” This quote struck a chord with me.

“Tribute in Light,” by John Bennett, Gustavo Bonevardi, Julian LaVerdiere, Paul Marantz, Paul Myoda and Richard Nash Gould, 2002, at Ground Zero

In this day and age, how do we measure “attention?” It goes without saying that our society’s consumption of digital media (‘media’ being an umbrella category for anything that’s published online, from world news to a museum website’s artist video to a friend’s Facebook status update) is through the roof. The Internet has brought about many positive changes, but I’d be lying if I said I thought it did any good for our ability to think critically about that which we consume. Within the art world, the tools of the Internet seem to act as a double edged sword– as more artwork gets viewed and appreciated,  artwork and artists become more at risk of being dealt with topically and/or categorically. Consumers of media must make snap judgments about whether or not something is interesting before investing more than 2 seconds (this might actually be an over-estimate) of their time to attempt to understand what it is they’re looking at. The “tl;dr” (“too long; didn’t read) phenomenon is funny, yes, but it’s also worrisome. As somebody whose job it is to know what works (or, more to the point, what doesn’t work) on the Internet, I can say without hesitation that I am disheartened by the lack of effort that the average Internet user is willing to invest in reading/thinking. In fact, if anyone is still reading this post, I wholeheartedly thank you for getting this far, and realize that you could have easily gotten bored by now and drifted off to one of the 9,248,720,837,402,792,348 other blog posts out there.

Heeding that last paragraph, I’ll cut to the chase. Smart, forward-thinking institutions have already figured out that maintaining a robust social media presence is highly important, both for spreading the word about their organization and for fostering a sense of community amongst their pre-existing supporters. However, there’s another key piece that gets left out of this assertion, which has to do with the way in which social media followers engage with content. Based on popular opinion, the passive action of “liking” or “re-tweeting” something is currently recognized as a valid form of engagement. I fear that this is one of the reasons that so many social media nay-sayers still exist. Since when does clicking a button signify any sort of meaningful interaction? This goes along with the problem that social media managers have, which is how to gauge success in a world where return on investment is notoriously difficult to prove. Where does passive interaction end, and meaningful participation begin? This is an important question that I do not have the answer to. However, I do have a few ideas…

Some artists, such as Felix Gonzalez-Torres, incorporate passive participation into their work. In the case of “Untitled” (pictured here), there’s no record of any of the participants’ actions, aside from the proof that a supply of posters has been depleted. Do organizations need to go further than passive signals of engagement to quantify the success in a participatory project?

At SFMOMA, I’ve spearheaded quite a few projects which strive to get our online community to meaningfully “engage,” either by submitting a creative contribution, by commenting with a thoughtful response, or by following another type of prompt. As a rule, I veer away from calls to action such as “RT this if you love creativity!” or “like this if you love art!” It has been interesting to see how different projects have either exceeded or fallen short of my expectations for engagement, as the projects have varied immensely in terms of participation. I have come to understand that low-barrier to entry prompts are a necessity when it comes to generating responses; however, with these low-barrier prompts comes the promise of low-quality contributions, which could trigger another whole discussion about how to deal with participation that misses the mark. Obviously, the collectors of online submissions retain the ability to edit out the poor contributions, but can the quality of participation ever be so lacking that we’re desperate enough to accept whatever piss-poor contributions we can drag in? This is a worry that can keep many a social media editor up at night– how do we prove the value of participation when the quality of said participation is completely out of our control?

I started SFMOMA’s #SubmissionFridays last spring, and have thus far received more than 10,000 submissions. Is this because there’s no prompt to adhere to, other than “the artwork must be your own?”

For now, I’ll go back to Anne Pasternak’s quote, “We fail when nobody pays attention.” This gets to the crux of the issue, which includes a sober acknowledgement: the Internet is saturated with compelling content, and nobody has enough time to look at it all. If you’re going to launch a participatory project, you need to be doing it for a reason– and if you want to garner meaningful participation, that reason better be really freakin’ good. I’ve come to realize that a participatory project will not succeed no matter how honest or interesting the motives are if there is no return on investment for the participant. Something else to consider is that it is incredibly difficult to communicate that ROI without sounding completely douchey. “You’ll expose more people to your artwork! You’ll expand your network! You’ll learn from your own experience!” I still see these as valid reasons for responding to participatory project prompts, but based on the competition that has come from every brand/organization/museum ever attempting to host crowd-sourced/participatory projects online, you’re kidding yourself if you think these reasons are good enough. Is a cash prize what potential participants want? No. Do they want validation from the museum’s curators? Probably not. So what do they want…?

Perhaps the problem is not what we are/aren’t offering in terms of compensation for participation. I believe that there’s a communication gap right now between artists who want exposure and organizations who want nothing more than to build a community of creative participants. Why don’t more artists participate in museums’ social media projects? Is there anyone who’s aggregating a list of websites/social media initiatives where organizations such as museums and galleries ask for participation, so that artists can take advantage of these promotional vehicles? Is the problem that artists don’t want to buy into these sorts of prompted projects? Is the marketing initiative which is inevitably tied into all participatory social media projects to blame?

As I run out of steam, I ask for your thoughts: how can those of us wishing to foster an participatory museum presence online work more closely with the creators who seek more exposure? How can these sorts of symbiotic relationships evolve to make social media participation more valuable? Is participation even worth anything anymore?

As always, I treasure your feedback. Tweet @willak or comment below with your ideas!

One Comment

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