Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Broken Whispers

Whisper 1 - She smiled happily at the man who had sold her the amazing shoes and he smiled back, shyly.

Returned - She shocked everyone, for the man had given her piercingly sharp scissors, and she bled on them.

Whisper 2 - Smile and the world smiles with you, cry and you cry alone.

Returned - Celebrate after the river turns to custard, swim if you feel lucky

Whisper 3 - The shouting outside in the street was making them tense

Returned - Brown flying pterodactyls over the turkey was faked for Xmas.

When I was looking for an image to illustrate this post it occurred to me that it would have been great to have a cartoonist commissioned to come up with something to respond to the returned whispers. I'd love to have a cartoon of Gordon Brown piloting a pterodactyl over a giant turkey. Oh well, perhaps if I had, oh I don't know, a budget?

In some ways money, or rather the lack of it, is central to why I love these social media platforms and the opportunities they offer us at very little cost other than my time. And as I think I may have mentioned before, I come pretty cheap. At heart, I think that the way we use these social media tools should be playful. Interesting, engaging, informative to be sure but also playful. I'm very excited by the idea that our followers or fans are no longer just an audience but also a community, visible not only to us but to each other.

The idea of the 'Broken Whispers' game came to me as I was listening to Tina Gonsalves talk about Chameleon, the work she was going to show at Fabrica and the ideas behind it, broadly the idea of contagion, about things being passed on from person to person. The reality of course is that emotions are not passed on as perfect replicas, my happiness doesn't transmit itself to you intact, it's filtered by your emotional state. This reflects the way that the tech in the exhibition worked. It didn't just reflect your mood, the portraits weren't mirrors, the emotions were filtered and affected by the prevailing mood of the whole gallery. (For those that didn't see the show, you can see some information about it here.) So I started to think about the idea of memes and things being passed on imperfectly and then I thought about 'Chinese Whispers', the game that was pretty common when I was a kid. We called it 'Broken Whispers' at school, I think. I obviously went to a pretty PC school.

Then I got interested in how that might work as a game on Twitter. Obviously, the messages would be digital and the human intervention would have to be deliberate rather than a question of mis-hearing but I thought it'd work pretty well. I put out a call for people that might be interested to play a game based on the themes of the show without really saying what it was for. I initially intended to limit numbers to ten but in the end it got nearer to twenty and at that point I called a halt to adding more people, mostly because it was a kind of experiment and I wanted to retain control over it.

The idea of the game was pretty simple. I would send out a message from Fabrica and the next person in the chain would change two words and then send it on. Finally the last person in the chain would return the message to Fabrica.

It took a while to set up because I then had to email everyone to let them know about the game and the rules, confirm they were still interested and then DM them (direct message via Twitter) to tell them who they'd receive the message from and who to pass it on to. I had toyed with the idea of doing the whole game by DM but then it got into a confusion of people having to follow each other and it all started to feel a bit hidden and laboured. I also liked the idea of these slightly random messages being out there that other people might see. When drawing up the chain, I tried as much as possible to make it so that each person didn't know the person on either side of them, so that it became an opportunity to discover new people with whom you shared a common interest.

I should probably declare at this point that I had the idea of doing this before the exhibition started but what with one thing and another, didn't get round to setting it up until the last week of the show. That wasn't ideal considering that one of the stated aims was to get people thinking about the themes of the exhibition as a way of deepening their experience and understanding of it, but in the end I felt it was worth doing anyway as an experiment. In fact this is a good illustration of the problems that many small arts organisations face when engaging with social media, which is one of capacity. I devote quite a lot of time to it, have made development of it a priority this year and still don't have enough time to spend on it, enough time to carry out ideas.

So finally the first whisper (twhisper?) went out and I obsessively watched over its progress like an overly-anxious parent. I tweeted about its progress a lot, I prodded people in the chain to move it along. On top of my anxiety about it working, I am also extremely impatient and I couldn't wait for it to get back. In fact it got to the point that one of our followers who wasn't involved messaged to say that as a follower he was feeling alienated by the game. I apologised and tried to dial it down a bit. We didn't lose any followers so I guess it wasn't too bad but it's a reminder that Twitter is a public space and you do need to think about what you're putting out there and what it means to all your followers.

I put out three whispers over three days and they all came back, thankfully. I'd like to say that I got less anxious and less proddy but that wouldn't be true, though I did try to keep it to myself a bit more.

So did it work? Did it do what I wanted it to do? On the scale on which it was set up, I'd have to say yes. I think that our followers will have been aware of something going on, that we were looking for people to participate in something and hopefully that awareness and maybe even discussion about it from participants will have spread out further into networks that I'm not aware of. The more of these activities that you undertake, the more I think that people get the idea that a gallery isn't just a place that they go to see exhibitions, that it becomes something that they can engage with, play with. Something more accessible.

It seems that the people involved were pretty excited about the game, enjoyed it. I received a lot of messages from them saying so, I know that at least one of the other participants was following the progress of the whispers and I was able to see people talking to each other about it. I enjoyed the sense of community that that engendered. I was particularly excited by two participants who, to the best of my knowledge didn't know each other before being placed next to each other on the chain but who are both Brighton - London commuters, tweeting each other to discover if they were on the same train during some fairly typical train problems. Sadly they weren't but it would have been awesome if they'd been able to meet up. I'm hoping that some of the participants will post a comment when they read this and let us know what they thought. Hint. In fact I'd like to get one of them in to record something about their involvement. Another hint.

You could argue and you wouldn't be wrong, that the people that joined in are already engaged. Of course that's true but their engagement was, hopefully, deepened. After all, audience development shouldn't just be about finding new audiences. It should also be about the development of your current audience, providing new ways for them to engage that are interesting and fun and that encourage them to be advocates for you. In fact, in this case, one member of the chain was new to the gallery and was encouraged to join the game by one of our followers who thought he'd find it interesting.

So back to the question of success. I guess my benchmark for success for this type of activity, being as I don't know of any meaningful impact measurement could be defined as follows (at least for today)-

  • Assuming that people have the tech, what you're asking them to do needs to be as easy as possible.
  • The time commitment you're asking of people should be commensurate with the idea. In this case, for a simple fun game, a couple of minutes was all that was required.
  • It should deepen the engagement of your audience and hopefully engage new audiences.
  • Give people a different way to engage with an exhibition and its themes.
  • Develop the idea of your audience as a community.
  • Demonstrate an openness to engagement.
  • Demonstrate a commitment to other people's creativity and encourage their creative participation in the gallery.
So, check, check, check, check and check. Job done.

Seriously though, I am very passionate about the possibilities and working with our audience, to play with them. Our next challenge is to develop something that goes out into the social media world that has the ability to engage people beyond our current fans and followers. There's going to be a lot happening over the next years and dependent on funding we want to research the possibilities of developing an exhibition that is generated through social media in some way. So, you know how it goes, watch this space. In the meantime we'll continue to play around with ideas like 'Broken Whispers' and the remote drawing activity we did for White Night about which I wrote in the previous post. I'm very open to ideas from other people and I'd love to hear them because I'm just one person and much as I hate to admit it, I'm sure there are limitations to my imagination.

Just remember though, there's no budget.

Twitter follow stuff-