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Platform Paper 27
One of the most dizzying examples of the transformative power of the Internet has been the popular emergence of self-broadcasting websites and individual blogs. Only last month the world watched, dazzled, at the speed with which news was transported, supporters amassed and consensus achieved, apparently invisibly, by the citizens of Cairo in Tahrir Square. Audiences for these social media are no longer restricted to receiving information from a central broadcaster, they engage in a dialogue by generating and publishing their own content.
For the performing arts community these changes present significant opportunities. This paper identifies these developments and explores their capacity to replace the heavy tools of mass communication with more flexible instruments of self-expression. The potential is infinite, writes Reid, but progress itself is not without risk, including IT addiction and information overload. He highlights areas of conflict, such as current copyright and intellectual property legislation, issues of site administration, privacy and quality control, and discusses opportunities for the arts with some of the leading experts in the field.
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Blogs, like wikis, are more closely related to anoral than a written practice, and a blog communitymight be thought of as a ‘deliberating group’ suchas Sunstein describes. Without trying to come todefinitive conclusions on issues, blog discourse doesdefine its own set of cultural values, and in so doingis subject to … subtly distortive effects
John Bailey is an arts writer for the Sunday Age, RealTime and other publications. he lectures in the school of Culture and Communication at the university of melbourne and maintains several websites based around melbourne arts and culture.
An early section of Robert Reid's Hello World! offers a much-needed engagement with the troubled history of archiving in Australian performing arts. 'There's nothing new about the assertion that Australian theatre repeats itself out of ignorance of its cultural heritage,' he says, before going on to unpack one of the great paradoxes of the information age. We often think of online media as ephemeral, without weight or lasting impact. A blog post or tweet is not a book or a clipping that we can store in a vault. Yet with a few keystrokes I can summon up reviews of productions ten years gone, search out the histories of their players, and discover what they're up to today. Though as tangible as sunshine, these electronic records are more accessible, and in their own way enduring, than a fading text locked in a conventional archival institution. Perhaps it's doubly appropriate that theatre, itself such a transient medium, should find an ally in the dispersed and ever-shifting realm of the internet.
But Reid is far from an ecstatic evangelist for the democratising possibilities of new media; as he rightly notes, emergent modes of communication have brought with them new structures of power and accessibility. The internet does offer the potential for new voices to make themselves heard, but not everyone has the particular urge to take up that offer.
While I firmly believe that anyone can write, it often turns out that the pleasures and frustrations of writing attract particular personalities. This is something that applies to both online and more traditional forms of written expression. While Reid suggests that blogs and the like can best be understood along the lines of oral, rather than written, histories, I think there are limits to that notion. If writing of whatever sort is a conversation, it's a peculiar one that evades many of the demands of live discussion while throwing up new limitations of its own.
Any blogger will know the weird sense of beginning an online 'conversation'. It's akin to delivering an informal lecture to an empty auditorium. In most cases, you're met with silence. This is no different from a newspaper review, or a novel, or a message scratched into a bus stop seat. If your thoughts provoke lively debate or passionate exchange, you're not there to be part of it. And while blog posts do enable responses from any and all readers, in practice it's a small minority who feel compelled to add their voice to the mix.
Of course, most writers probably do want to be part of a conversation, but it's a particular kind of dialogue that proceeds at a more controlled pace. Writing is the preparation of ideas in a quiet room, usually in isolation, with enough time (one hopes) to be confident that what's being expressed is close to what one intends. This is a process with a great deal of psychic appeal to those who make it a foundation of their lives; but again, it's not everyone who finds in themselves the need to measure their thoughts out in this way.
My point here is that I think it's no surprise that almost every person blogging on the performing arts in Australia is already a writer of some description. To return to the keyboard again and again despite little reward, to keep starting conversations that never engender a whisper of response, to lecture to that empty auditorium, requires a certain degree of fortitude, if not a masochist streak. And it needs a pay-off that isn't confined to the reciprocal actualisation of identity allowed by genuine interpersonal exchange. We make who we are through our interactions with others, but the form of self-expression afforded by writing is a guarded, partial kind of interaction.
When we move from the longer form of blogs to social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter, this dynamic does shift. More audiences make use of these to participate in exchanges about the performing arts; but while Reid doesn't address it explicitly, the second half of his essay is haunted by the 'signal to noise' problem of online communications. Useful discussion or analysis can often be lost in torrents of 'OMG best show ever' and undisguised publicity screeds. Very few people re-tweet a bad review of their production, even if it does come in at under 140 characters. While a lot of conversations about theatre end with, 'we really need more dialogue', increased volume doesn't necessarily mean increased quality.
Reid's examination of creative works which themselves involve new media furthers these points: 'The participatory element of social media [...] offers the opportunity to become the performance itself.' But not every audience member wants to be the production, and the responses to some of the works he describes suggest that giving audiences the opportunity to be heard isn't particularly useful if they don't have anything to say.
Just because the Web promises new ways of engaging with the performing arts doesn't mean we should (or can) force people to take these up. Theatre is an offer, not a command. In this light, I particularly like Reid's suggestion of an open source wiki devoted to Australian theatre history, in which a community that chooses to can create a dedicated and self-regulating archival resource. I don't know that we need more 'hubs' that attempt to aggregate everything of interest in the world of the arts-there's simply no way of casting a net that wide, and the growing presence of the arts on the Internet has been enabled not due to concentration but dispersal. Individual blogs die out, users stop checking into Facebook, but none of these are the lynchpins holding together communities. Yet sites that are admittedly incomplete, subject to communal revision and which develop outside of commercial needs would seem to me worth supporting. That's how real conversations work.
James Waites worked in the australian print media for over twenty years, specialising in theatre reviewing and broader arts commentary. these days he has a theatre website (www.jameswaites.com), financed by his work as an interviewer for the national library of australia's oral history and folklore unit. he is the author of platform paper 23, Whatever Happened to the STC Actors Company?
Robert Reid's Platform Paper Hello World! Promoting the Arts on the Web covers a fascinating range of topics, but I shall only respond to the one with which I am most directly connected, blogging.
It is clearly of concern that the print media have decided to no longer engage meaningfully in cultural debate in the form of hiring, keeping, protecting, paying and publishing 'qualified' theatre critics. As someone who has been in such employ-at the National Times in the 1980s and the Sydney Morning Herald in the 1990s-I have enjoyed the privileges and challenges that go with this kind of work. I could wax lyrical on the days when it was not uncommon to be allowed up to 1,000 words for one of my reviews, none of which was touched without my agreement, in newspapers that were read regularly by tens of thousands of people. And look what we have now: Martin Ball has just resigned from the Age because he has been told he must restrict himself to a maximum of 250 words. What room is there for anything else after outlining the plot and describing the set? The job could be done by a well-programmed robot.
More disturbing is the cosy relationship between the marketing departments of big arts organizations and the major print media, where there is now an implicit understanding that income from advertising will have a 'constraining' effect on 'negative' editorial content. I believe that in a very real sense these big companies have helped facilitate the 'death of criticism'. Whatever the imagined short-term gain in silencing potential dissent, in the long term we are left with no history.
Blogging, writing on the 'net', has come along just in time to save the day. But it's not the same. As Reid rightly points out, blogging at this stage in its evolution, is essentially an amateur pursuit-'amateur' in the literal and best sense of the word, done for the love if it.
In the long term, the money factor will have to be faced. Personally, I am happy not to be paid. I enjoy the freedom money can't buy. But I was paid for years as I learned my craft in the print media, as was Alison Croggon, whose outstanding work in the field Reid refers to several times, and most others currently writing interesting theatre blogs in this country. Over the next decade or so this connection with experience and training will die out. Where, after that, will the skilled commentators come from?
I am sure Croggon would agree, blogging also brings new challenges. Because of its interactive nature, it often requires a lot more work per assignment. Croggon's recent review of Baal promoted over 90 comments, many from her as she guided the sometimes excited debate away from over-heating. What ensued was a fascinating roller-coaster of an exchange, highlighting all that is good about theatre blogging. It is an easily overlooked fact that writing the initial review online is one thing and managing the debate that follows is quite another. Not just more time, but extra 'people' skills.
I worry about the future. If Australian theatre is going to enjoy good 'criticism' well into this new century, where is it going to come from? What can we do to cultivate an environment from which more good bloggers might emerge? Is it time we started to look at ways of training reviewers? And if so, who is going to take responsibility for that? As for the question of remuneration-well, who knows how that is going to pan out?