Literary Participation at the Digital Frontier

It constantly surprises me that there is a such a slow uptake from literary organisations into the growing field of digital programming. I founded EWFdigital three years ago now (case study here) and remain one of very few people and organisations working in that space in literary Australia. The following is an excerpt from an article on online literary participation in the Digitalism issue of Island Magazine.

Technology is no longer separate to creativity and culture; art happens in a variety of spaces, both online and off. Within five years – perhaps even less – it will be just as commonplace to ‘go’ to (or rather, participate in) an event in the digital space as it currently is to head to a traditional venue for a programmed event.

Modes of digital engagement - how sophisticated is your use of the online space?
It would be rare to find a literary organisation that doesn’t accept that the internet is a key method of reaching and connecting with audiences. Most organisations and groups tweet, maintain a website, send out e-newsletters and set up Facebook pages. But while the interest in and understanding of online marketing and audience development have grown in the past decade, there has been little corollary interest in digital programming.

There are three ways that literary (and more broadly, arts) organisations are working in the online space. It is helpful to look at them as levels of sophistication, noting that the stages outlined below are not mutually exclusive. An organisation does not ‘graduate’ from one level to the next; rather, those who are working most successfully online are doing so by operating across all three modes of engagement.

Present: marketing (talking about you)
Marketing is the entry point for online engagement. At this level, online interaction is (mostly) limited to an organisation talking about itself. They might use their online channels (such as e-newsletters, websites or social media) to publish information about upcoming events, make organisational information accessible, and profile their artists. The internet has been a boon for arts marketing – especially for organisations with limited budgets – as it can reach larger and broader audiences. However, this level of online engagement is the bare minimum an organisation should be aiming for.

Engaged: community building (talking with audiences)
If basic marketing is about talking to an audience, a more sophisticated method is talking with an audience. Organisations in this category use the internet to connect with audiences (and potential audiences) in a way that is meaningful and sincere. It differs from a traditional marketing model of advertising in order to get bums on seats, and instead is a long-term process of developing a community of people who may be interested in coming along to your events (or joining your organisation) – or who may just want to talk about it. Community building often happens in conjunction with offline events – for example, having audience members use a hashtag at an event will encourage discussion about the topic in the online space as well.

Another common tactic is to publish dynamic content (such as blogs, video) that speaks to its audience, and facilitating discussion about that content (such as comments). Organisations succeed at this level when they become a hub for discussion and interaction within their area of expertise.

Sophisticated: artistic programming (creating literary experiences)
Programming goes beyond using the internet to promote and connect; it is about actively creating artistic activity in the online space. Online-only events and programming that cross over between digital and traditional spaces apply here. Online artistic programming creates literary experiences for audiences that are accessible through digital platforms.

Online learning is a good example of effective digital programming, and is a powerful tool for connecting and engaging remote or non-traditional audiences.

Another good example is the Queensland Writers’ Centre dynamic Rabbit Hole event, a thirty-hour writing frenzy where participants come together and attempt to write 30,000 words. Writers are also welcome to join the event by ‘playing along’ at home, and this online engagement is facilitated via a Facebook group, with interaction between the at-home and in-person writers taking place across the weekend. The Rabbit Hole demonstrates how traditional events can be complemented by running concurrent digital programming.

Digital programming is about actively creating pathways for audiences to interact with literature and literary activity online. Despite being the most exciting and creative area of potential literary engagement, it is also the least utilised, least understood, least tested and – in my opinion – least valued segment of programming potential.

A decade ago, the remit of a creative producer, festival director or program manager was relatively straightforward: create events that were so compelling, writers and readers would leave their desks and lounge rooms to buy a ticket and come along. Engage audiences, sell tickets, get bums on seats: this has been the model of literary activity for decades.

The rise of the internet has shaken this model to its core. No longer do arts audiences need to leave their home to take part in literary activity. They can talk to fellow readers online (even connect directly with their favourite writers), take part in discussions about literature, and access videos of their favourite authors reading or in conversation. It is not enough to hope or assume that audiences will continue to come to traditional events. Instead, literary organisations need to actively consider how they might better serve the evolving needs of their audiences.

With the rise in smartphone technology – aka the internet in our pockets – the distinction between digital and traditional programming is becoming increasingly porous. Technology is no longer separate to creativity and culture; art happens in a variety of spaces, both online and off. So why are most literary organisations limiting their online reach to marketing and community building, rather than experimenting with artistic programming in the digital space?

In other words: digital convergence is here. Literary organisations – and the bodies that fund them – would do well to keep up.

This is an excerpt from an article published in the latest DIGITALISM issue of Island Magazine. The article goes on to discuss What digital programming looks like; Audiences: the changing face of literary programming; Barriers to digital experimentation and Where to from here? You can buy the mag online here or download the article in pdf form from Island Magazine.