Thursday, 30 July 2009

History part 1 - In the beginning there was Facebook

This is how it started. Back in February '09, I was at work for a weekend during a hire of the gallery for a fashion market. I'd been vaguely thinking that I should set up a Facebook group for Fabrica with an equally vague idea of why, just that it might be a good idea for marketing. Somehow. At this point I ran up against the fact that I knew nothing about Facebook, I wasn't on it personally and had only the vaguest idea of how it worked. I'd been generally resistant to it on a personal level and had declined numerous invitations from friends to join. I spend enough time on a computer at work, I don't need it in my social life too, was pretty much my reasoning. Looking back and giving in already to the hindsight that I promised to avoid, that wall had already begun to crumble because at the end of last year I got an iPhone and actually the division between my online and offline life suddenly disappeared, in fact they began to overlap. With my phone never more than a few metres away I became permanently online, in a sense I began to live my life online. This is a digression but it's an interesting theme that I'm sure I'll return to, because I think it's probably central to what's interesting about this work.

So I set up a personal account on Facebook because, I reasoned, I needed to understand the ins and outs before I set up a group for Fabrica. Fast forward to exactly a month later and I'm back in the office again for a weekend of gallery sitting and I'm beginning to understand the attraction of Facebook. I have cousins scattered across the globe that I rarely see and we're all equally bad at keeping in touch but through Facebook I started to know what they were up to and where they were going and sometimes what they had for breakfast and I loved that, it made me feel that I was somehow more a part of their lives and them a part of mine. Please excuse this detour into my personal life but it is relevant because it was at that point that I began to have the first inkling of an idea that maybe Facebook could mean more for an organisation like Fabrica than just a way of marketing ourselves and events, that maybe it was about making yourself more of a presence in the lives of the people that chose to join your group, your audience.

So I set up Fabrica group and invited some people to join and during the course of the first part of the Anish Kapoor show Blood Relations the group grew to around 180 members and I posted events on the group and pictures from the installation of the show and sent out invitations and invited comment and…… nothing really happened and I started to feel a bit frustrated with Facebook. Then they launched pages for organisations or maybe I just caught up with the opportunity and on investigation something became much clearer. By joining a group, any group on Facebook, people demonstrate an interest in something that goes as far as a willingness to click on a button that says 'join this group'. But crucially that's it, and what you've signed up for is to be on a mailing list essentially and unless you choose to go and visit the group you get nothing more from it. Now I've joined plenty of groups but rarely visit them and I’m guessing most people are the same. The crucial difference with a page is that once set up anything you post on that page automatically appears in the news feed of all your fans. It’s a much more direct intervention into their lives. Of course you run the risk of people then deciding to undo their relationship with you because you post too much or post things that don’t interest them but so be it. You don’t want people that are not genuinely interested anyway. Of course if you’re regularly losing followers then you probably need to be rethinking your posting policy.

So next I set up a Fabrica page and invited, over the course of a couple of weeks, all of the group members to switch, warning that the group would be closed down on a specific date. About 130 of the group made the jump and the rest fell off. At the time I thought it was a shame that you couldn’t just switch all members of your group over to the new page but actually, sorry hindsight again, I think that a natural cull is not necessarily a bad thing. As I’ve said elsewhere, it's better to have ten great followers than a thousand who don’t really care.

So that’s where we are now with Facebook. We get a lot more comments than we did with the group though we’re always searching for more. We now have over two hundred fans and it grows steadily. As I’m, again, way over my word limit, I’ll leave this one there but will of course return to Facebook at some point. There’s plenty more to talk about.

Click here if you'd like to become a fan.

Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Some thoughts on the photo competition

Wonderful space. Cool gallery with cool staff. Unafraid of democratic photography unlike many establishments up themselves. - Stuart S

This quote from the Fabrica comments book back in April during the Anish Kapoor show really struck me. I love reading the comments book, I love that direct and generally unframed feedback. It's been knocking around at the back of my mind since then and came to the front when I started thinking about the idea of a photo competition. The full rules are on our website but it's essentially very simple. Take photographs of the current exhibition, The Elephant Bed, choose up to three to enter and put them on Flickr, tagged, so we can find them easily. We'll select a winner at the end of the show, who'll get a £50 Amazon voucher and a selection of the entries will go onto our website and eventually form part of our online archive. We will also select an image to use on our New Year card.

I wanted to keep the rules as simple as possible in order to keep to that low barrier to entry principle that I think is one of the most useful and interesting aspects of social media.

One of the guiding principles for me in this work I'm doing is to discover ways of encouraging dialogue with our audience, of encouraging them into a deeper engagement with Fabrica. We've known for some time that people take photos in the gallery and that many of them end up on Flickr, we often look at them but we've never, with one exception, commented on the photos or tried to establish any kind of relationship with the photographers. This now seems kind of foolish for all sorts of reasons. The one exception was in 2006 when we used an image we found on Flick for our New Year card. As is our policy we credited the photographer after seeking his permission to use the image. The image is below and was taken by Danny Hope (yandle on Flickr).
I hope and believe that the photo competition will deliver a number of benefits to Fabrica, to the entrants and to the wider audience and at a minimal cost-

-Encourage dialogue
-Open up the organisation
-Encourage the entrants to have a deeper engagement with Fabrica
-Allow our audience to create content for our website
-Allow us to see the exhibition from different perspectives
-Allow the entrants to have a creative relationship with the gallery
-Encourage the idea that we're interested in a creative response from our audience
-Give us a bank of images for our online archive that go beyond the relatively straight documentation that we now have
-Increase Fabrica's reach and online presence

I could go into a lot more detail on these things but I've given myself a 500-word limit for each post and I'm already nearly there. I'm hoping that all these benefits, which in many ways encapsulate a lot of the aims of this work that I'm doing, will be discussed in more detail in later posts.

I launched the competition a week ago and with five weeks to go we've had some great entries and I'm looking forward to seeing more. I'll blog about the outcome at the end of the show and whether I feel the competition has delivered what I was hoping for. Or I might pop up with the odd update between now and then.

Damn - I just went over my limit.

Sunday, 26 July 2009

Game plan

When I first thought about writing this blog I had intended to do a sort of chronological history to date but I've realized now that events and thoughts have overtaken me and if I do that I'll probably never catch up. So the new game plan is to write about things that are happening now and intersperse that with some of the history, which I'll try and write about without hindsight. Think that may be difficult but I'll give it a shot.

PS - as far as images that I'm using for the blog, at the moment my philosophy is to Google search images for a word in the blogpost and see what comes up. So the above image is 'hindsight'.

The Elephant Bed photo competition

We've had some great entries in our photo competition that we announced last week, you can take a look here

The photo above is not eligible mostly because I took it and I can't enter and also, whisper it, it's not that interesting though it's not bad. I'm going to write more about the competition later and the reasons for launching it but it's encouraging that people are responding positively.

A tweet too soon

On Thursday (23 July) I tweeted that Fabrica had just hit 250 followers, I think it's good to mark these kind of landmarks and to say thank you. Sadly that night Twitter did a spambot purge and the next morning we had lost about 20 followers so I'd tweeted just hours or maybe minutes too soon. I don't have any issues with losing the numbers of course, I'd rather have ten meaningful followers than a thousand not, but what surprised me is that roughly ten percent of our followers were spambots. That's a big number considering that I'm pretty careful to block anyone dodgy looking, you know the ones that are following two and a half thousand people but have like three followers themselves. Beyond that it got me to thinking about how we reach out to people as an organisation and how people are using Twitter. I read somewhere that 20% of Twitter users generate 80% of tweets, you know if you use use Twitter yourself that this seems about right. In terms of the Fabrica followers there are a hardcore who respond to tweets in different ways, commenting, retweeting etc but what are the others doing. Are they listening but not responding? Are we just lost in the twitter noise generated by all their friends? Are they people that signed up but haven't engaged since? I'm assuming that anybody who hates what we're tweeting has stopped following us. Of course it's all those things and probably more but it made me think that when we're thinking about how to encourage dialogue or get a message out we need to think about all those different users and their differing needs. Maybe that's obvious and I've been a bit slow off the mark but I suspect that many organisations using Twitter for whatever reasons think about their followers as a single body.

Thursday, 23 July 2009


Welcome to ‘The Tangled Hedgerow’. I’ll explain the name in a minute, but first, a kind of mission statement: the purpose of this blog is to document the work that I’m doing (and the fun that I’m having) as Fabrica’s development manager in developing the gallery’s digital footprint. I’m hoping that eventually, as it grows, the blog will become a resource for others, specifically other visual arts organisations. There’s a lot of digital/social media stuff out there to learn about and to do, lots of tools, a lot of it free and therefore very tempting but that’s just it, there’s a lot of it and a lot of it changes on an almost daily basis. So as much as I hope the blog will become a resource, I also hope it will become a focus for debate, for sharing ideas, successes and failures, and a place where others can also pass information on to me. I intend to be fully open about my ideas and those of the rest of the team here, and I encourage others to do the same. This stuff is all pretty new, and my guess is that as a sector we haven’t really started to make use of it beyond a limited marketing application. The opportunity exists to work together, and to think, debate, and play – above all play: there are no rules really, no established (n)etiquettes, and we have the opportunity be playful. We should always remember that – it’s not about tech, it’s about people.

I should probably own up right here to the fact that I’m no expert. I’m not an early adopter, not a geek, but once I started to look at all the possibilities and move beyond my initial marketing outlook on social media I started to get really excited, and I want to keep looking and keep exploring and to share that with anybody that thinks it might be worth coming along for the ride.

Just reading back through this I’ve made some assumptions in that you may not be my mother or somebody who works here, and you might not actually know the gallery or me.

Fabrica is a contemporary art gallery housed in a former Regency church in the heart of Brighton. It’s a place where artists come to make new work, and it supports and encourages the artists with whom it works to be adventurous and to test the boundaries of their practice. It encourages an open dialogue between artists and visitors within the gallery space and produces an integrated programme of education and audience development activity that strives to remove barriers to access, engagement and understanding. And yes, I did just lift that straight from our website.

My role at Fabrica is development manager, which covers a number of areas: audience, business and venue development; marketing; sponsorship and individual giving; and, you know, other things too that just need doing, as in all small arts organisations, I guess. I started working here in 2004 as a volunteer.

I could go on and on in this introduction about my emerging philosophy on the use of social media and other tools for arts organisations, but I’m thinking that maybe I should just let that emerge in later posts rather than make this an essay. I’ll round this entry off by explaining the blog’s name.

When the idea of the blog first came up I spent a lot of time thinking about a name for it; I roped in Matthew Miller, one of Fabrica’s co-directors, who’s renowned for his ability to come up with great titles. There were large pieces of paper covered in scribbles involved, scratching of heads, chewing of pencils and other cartoon depictions of deep thought, but the light-bulb moment didn’t happen and no name was forthcoming. Trying to sum up the purpose of the blog practically or conceptually in its name just wasn’t working – it was too complex. Finally I began to think that something random might be a better solution and, sitting on a train one day, the idea popped into my head: ‘The Tangled Hedgerow’. I liked it; it seemed admirably random and the more I thought about it the more right it felt. A hedgerow between two fields is like the space in a Venn diagram where the circles overlap, and that’s pretty much how I conceptualise the digital world in relation to an organisation, Fabrica in this case. There’s us and there’s the rest of the world, and there’s a space in the digital world where we can overlap and where interesting things can happen. Both sides can put things into that space and take things out, but the space also allows unique things to grow and prosper that can’t exist outside it. All things that are true of a hedgerow. The name also references Darwin’s ‘tangled bank’ theory of evolution, and I liked that and the idea of the gallery evolving in a new world and also trying to make sense of a complex and changing environment. So I give you (at length) ‘The Tangled Hedgerow’.

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