The People Formerly Known As the Audience

Our society has changed - dramatically - over the past few decades.  We talk about it all the time in the context of business (flattening), government and politics (opening) and community (connecting). 

What about media and arts?

The National Alliance for Media Arts and Culture's has convened a discussion at their National Conference in Boston entitled: "The People Formerly Known As the Audience.'  The focus is on how social media and other democratic technologies have shifted our thinking about the relationships between producers, consumers, and distributors of media and art.  My initial thought is that while the audience used to consume media and art; now we are in the middle of it.  The production, promotion, consumption, and creation of media and art is happening more, and faster than ever before.  And the impact of the media and art that is emerging, through technology and the internet or as a result of it, is having a significant impact on our culture and our society.

Ahead of the conversation later today, let me throw out five thoughts:

1) Big things are afoot. The public is more engaged than ever before, more capable of collecting and sharing information with a wider audience – for free – than at any point in our history.  This drives greater interest in media and art and the creation of a more diverse and interesting culture.  This isn't simply about having more people sharing stories, showing off their talent, building a following because the barriers to entry are lower.  This isn't just about finding hidden talent far down the long tail of media and elevating them to the status of super celebrity because the institutional structures that once controlled everything are breaking down.  The impact of technology and the internet on media and arts is profound.  This is the beginning of a shift that will redefine every aspect of our culture and our society.

2) Think bigger. We must resist the desire to define or contain this new, emerging culture too quickly, to focus our attention on finding ways to marketing and monetize it above all. We should be thinking bigger.  What is the potential for technology and the internet to redefine our culture, and what say do we want to have in that?  What must be change, or adapt, within our society to support media and arts flourishing in the future. Gone are the days when the majority of the population would sit for hours to read a newspaper from cover to cover or tune in to watch a show on television. Our information experiences have changed and our focus and goals in terms of media and art should change as well. The idea that we will find a mass audience for anything, frankly, no longer exists.  So instead, what can we do with small, dedicated, passionate audiences?  How can media and art connect communities and individuals, bring together disparate ideas?  If we aren't careful, media and art are at risk of following the same patterns that the news industry has followed -- becoming commoditized, and losing some of its value.  But if we think bigger, we can elevate media and art to a role where it influences how we think, act, and perceive everything.

3) Lots of stories to tell. The news media is missing out on a huge opportunity.  We should make sure our society doesn't miss out on the same opportunity.  You see, there are an infinite number of stories about how technology and the internet are impacting media and art, about the media and art that are being created with new technologies, or that are emerging because these new tools and channels exist.  No single publication, channel or service has the ability to cover the full range of media and arts happenings – so they don’t, leaving huge gaps in what is covered. Even though the marketplace for media and art has expanded, the long tail has flourished, the media is still picking and choosing what they want to popularize and promote.  Not finding the stories that interest them most, the audience is forced to look to other sources (increasingly blogs and other alternative news sites) to receive what they consider a complete and instantly current information experience. But those who pay attention to media and art still spend too much time lamenting the lack of coverage, criticizing the news media for not doing a sufficient job.  Instead, we should be seizing the opportunity to create that coverage, to tell those stories, and to elevate the discussion to the level we (and the rest of the audience) desire.

4) More! The very idea of art and culture, of media in general, should be bigger – more voices, more access to information, more collaboration. Our culture is obsessed with the business of media, that work of a handful of dominant companies or providers.  But, fueled by technology, we all have the ability to learn or discuss whatever we believe is relevant, to produce and distribute information so that it reaches audiences any time, any place, with a more diverse (and deeply invested) audience, and through any device.  Instead of a few companies, distributors, creators, or similar, there should be millions.  Everyone is a gatekeeper and a storyteller now.  Every person with a blog or cell-phone-enabled camera can create media.  Every person with a computer and an internet connection can demonstrate their creativity to the world.  It is happening every day.  But we spend too much time trying to contain media and art, to define it and channel it.  Instead, we should be looking to support and enhance it, to create more and better media and art.

5) Know the new audience. It is easy to forget what life is like for people who don't spend all their time online, buried in newspapers, reviewing blog posts, creating media.  There are reasons why people engage with organizations, with issues, why they spend time watching, listening, reading and experience various forms of media and types of art.  There are reasons why people log on to the various platforms we build and buy the products we sell. The reasons are personal, they are poweful, and they must be understood if you want to understand the potential for media and arts in the future.  We spend so much time talking about business models and monetization strategies.  We obsess about the most effective and compelling ways to push information.  But how much time do we really spend listening to, and hearing from, the audience - what they want, what they value, and how we can help?  You must know the audience if you want to reach them - because what tools they use, when, and how will define that.  You must know the audience if you want to create something they will help to promote or share - because the benefit they receive or the relationship they have with their community will define that.  It is easy to forget.  But it is also easy to watch and understand, and then adapt what are you doing to meet the audience's needs.

That's it for me.  How do you think technology and the internet are changing media and arts?

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