Social media and social conventions

On Friday I spoke at Sadlers Wells at the Arts Council's Art of Digital event, Do the arts speak digital? The topic of the talk and the subsequent Guardian PDA panel discussion was "does the phenomenon and the tools of social media change expectations and relationships with audiences?" A few people asked me to blog it, so here's (roughly) what I said. Having recently published Social by Social, I didn't want to focus on the details of the tools and how to use them - anyone looking for information on technology tools and how to deploy them should check out the book. Instead I focussed my thoughts on the new ‘social conventions’ being created by these tools, and the implications on our culture and power structures as a result of all these technologies. How does it affect my relationship with my audience if the audience can talk back, and talk to each other?

I began with a story my friend Charlie once told me about a speaking job he did in Finland. He arrived to find he was speaking to an audience of one man. He gave his talk anyway, as best he could, and was rewarded with a large and pleasing round of applause from this audience member. Moderately satisfied, he gathered his possessions to leave but was stopped by a cry from the man: "But you can't go yet: I'm the next speaker!" Because that's the thing about audiences: you never know who's in them or what they might have to say.

I was speaking here to a silent audience in a darkened theatre: a common format for these events but actually a relatively recent convention. Richard Sennett in The Fall of Public Man (thanks to Dougald for putting me onto this) narrates the shift in the 19th Century from performances where the audience talked and participated, to a new social convention of a silent audience. But in this talk, I had a Twitter feed behind me showing the things the audience were saying to each other about what I was saying. So what are the conventions for interacting with that? Is it rude of them to interrupt me, or is it rude of me to ignore their comments?

The point is, it's not the tools that matter: it's the impact they have on our social structures and conventions. The media has changed: we already have a completely new ecosystem of news. It’s changed marketing too, with sites like Dell's Ideastorm and Skittles turning their website into a Twitter feed for conversations about their product acting as living proof of the Cluetrain Manifesto's "markets are conversations". Organisations and work have changed too: my various friends and followers on Twitter act as a distributed consultancy and community of practice for me.

I see this as a time to play with social conventions and find new ways to interact, with and without technology. A conference is a set of social conventions of audience silence, expert performance and public conversations - and these can be played with, as we do at the People Speak with things like the Twitter stream visualisation, or the talkaoke table. A blog is another social convention, in which we agree to listen patiently to what the author has to say before making our comments on their ideas. Discussion forums are flatter, with no hierarchy except a custodian keeping the space active and safe. Twitter is more complex again, a vast multiplicity of asymmetric relationships, public and private conversations and even old-fashioned broadcast. With each of these new tools comes a set of new conventions, each of which - as Rohan Gunatillake rightly observes - eventually leaks back into the rest of our society.

So if it's a time to play with convention, it's also a time to challenge some of the 19th Century assumptions about how things "should" be done. At the same time as the silent audience emerges, so too does the culture of street silence, the shift from the noisy, sociable marketplace to the silent, impersonal shop as the context for commerce, and the shift from consumer-commissioning to mass production of products. Amidst technological revolution, economic recession and climate change, all of these conventions are now open to challenge.

School of Everything is a social marketplace for face-to-face learning. We're moving from a 19th Century broadcast model of teaching to a social media approach where everyone can be a teacher. Similarly, Mindapples is about respecting everyone's "expertise" about what works for their minds. As I say in the introduction to Social by Social, it's about helping people do things, not doing things to people.

So for cultural organisations, what is cultural production when it’s not mass production? What are the conventions and power structures for facilitating social production of and around the arts? And what are the implications for expert practictioners when they are not stood in front a silent audience? Someone asked a question in the following panel about quality control on School of Everything, and also about quality in arts production, and my answer in both cases is that just because an organisation isn't taking responsibility for quality control, doesn't mean individuals aren't doing it themselves. We can all take responsibility for assessing expertise, curating content and making our own judgements; and the price we pay for moving up the power chain is that we must sit through more poor quality material. Thanks to these new tools, the choice is ours.

I believe that social tools make the invisible networks of our culture visible, and therefore possible to engage with. A good arts organisation can rally a community around a cultural event, but all the ripples in the pond become visible too and arts organisations can engage with them. At what point does it become rude for them, and me, to ignore what the audience is saying? Cultural production can create meaningful culture, but it is social tools that embeds it and makes it diverse and relevant to a wider audience.

I think the biggest issue for arts organisations within these shifting social conventions concerns the role of performance. Social media is most certainly performative: when I Twitter I speak to a larger audience than were present at Friday's event, so don't for a minute think I'm not performing when I tweet. In fact, if you want to understand Twitter you could do a lot worse than read Keith Johnstone's Impro. But there are times when it is appropriate to improvise together, and others when it is better to be silent and listen. I don't want to send text messages during a play, I want to really watch the play (unless it's a really bad play...).

Arts organisations, like the rest of us, now need to consider the role of silence and performance in all their work, and deploy appropriate tools to assist the performance and embed the culture it creates. But that doesn't mean the moonlight sonata is improved by twittering through it or making Domain Exploration easier.