Internet Matters in Beijing, Guiyang, Brooklyn and Del Ray. Conversations with Cultural Managers
Jeremie Gluckman spoke with the cultural managers working with or within arts enterprises in the U.S. and China – Sarah Horowitz, Dr. Liu Juan Juan, Nikiko Masumoto, and Nasrene Haj. These leaders are all using the internet to engage local communities and share stories with the world. All the while, they are wrestling with challenges related to representation when contributing to the sea of messages, information, and images online. They are also equipped with an awareness of skewed access.
Sarah Horowitz is Assistant Program Officer of the Citi-Guizhou Handcraft Development Program, a poverty alleviation and cultural heritage preservation program, and International Affairs Manager of Blue Flower, a social enterprise that sells Guizhou minority handcrafts to help minority women. Her interests include urban-rural transformation, alternative food systems, and cultural resource management.
Nikiko Masumoto is an organic farmer from rural California and an interdisciplinary artist. She recently worked on a co-design project to share arts-based skills as resources to meet the needs of non-arts organizations through the Center for Performance and Civic Practice. Learn more about Nikiko here.
Nasrene Haj is a project-based arts manager in Brooklyn, NY. She founded "The Creators Collective" in 2012, an arts organization that provides resources for collaboration and mentoring across ages and discipline. She works as Development and Membership Coordinator for Celebrate Brooklyn! at BRIC and is Chair of Teen Artists Learners and Leaders at Brooklyn Arts Exchange.
Dr. Liu Juan Juan is assistant professor in the Department of Landscape Architecture of Guizhou Normal University in Guiyang. In her career she worked on pioneering projects related to participatory planning and rooftop farm design. She holds a PhD. of Urban Planning form the Huazhong University of Science and Technology in Wuhan, China and was a visiting scholar at the Green Futures Research and Design Lab at the University of Washington in Seattle, USA.
Investing in visual storytelling shows returns
There is a balance between the needs of our shortening attention spans and online materials that foster emotional connection, understanding or even buy-in; but it’s not always easy to strike. Through trial and error, these arts leaders continue to fine tune strategies related to branding and generating meaningful engagement on the internet.
Sarah Horowitz shares stories and images about the traditions, patterns, and craft techniques her organization supports via email and on WeChat. WeChat is China’s most popular messaging app with over 650 million users in 2015. “A big part of my job is making connections. I do research online to find similar platforms and program models; I seek out new ideas for storytelling, marketing and branding. I also scout funding opportunities. What’s been most influential in terms of the Citi-Guizhou Handcraft Development Program’s online presence is that we just got a sales license. We set up a catalogue though WeChat Moments and are setting up a WeChat store,” explains Sarah.
Figure 1: Sarah Horowitz leading a silk printing workshop for Miao minority women in rural Guiz-hou
Meanwhile in Del Ray, California, the Masumoto Family Farm sees the internet as a tool for creating ambient awareness, generating a new presence, and making invitations. Nikiko Masumoto shares, “We understand that the power of images in internet culture is immense, so we try to craft our postings and online messages with a combination of words and images. We also work hard to reflect our honest voices and experiences; rather than selling things, we try to just tell our stories.” And powerful stories can sell. The Masumotos recently exceeded their fundraising goals by 52% on indiegogo.com with endorsements from colleagues, friends, and other close contacts.
Figure 2: The Masumotos saw great success as a result of effective storytelling.
Self-employed artists in China are also harnessing the power of online networks to increase visibility. Wu Kai, Feng Jing and Zhu Fangfang are artists in a village called Shangyuan in the outskirts of Beijing, far away from potential buyers. “I believe that we can use art to improve the quality of village life and the local environment,” explains Wu Kai. “WeChat makes it easy to share information and resources.”
Feng Jing adds, “Social media is an effective platform to promote myself, my work, and exhibitions. I use cellular data to access websites, WeChat official accounts and other platforms. I’ve been able to connect with art lovers and increase the reach of my work.” Zhu Fangfang concludes, “Though I live in the suburbs I’ve been able to make some sales online to further support my daily creation.”
Figure 3: When looked at as a work of art, The Creators Collective Instagram page is dominated by dark tones of blue and purple.
In Brooklyn, New York, Nasrene Haj, founder of The Creators Collective, has implemented some lean strategies to address the challenge of building a unified online presence. Aside from using ticketing software through Fractured Atlas and live streaming events on Periscope via Twitter, Nasrene focuses on aesthetics. “I’ve stopped posting at events because it removes you from the moment. But leading up to events and afterwards I’ve learned that your online presence needs to be an extension of your branding. We tint all of our artist head-shots with a blue filter, which is a quick way for our customers to recognize our band,” explains Nasrene. Paying attention to aesthetic details shows visitors and followers a sample of your product and demonstrates what your organization values. “Creating a unified and accurate brand is a challenge because anyone can craft a post or use a hashtag. We provide materials for our partners with language, links and images to share before an event. We also have a conversation about how we can cross-promote and grow followers,” she adds.
Because that’s the ultimate goal, right? To increase likes and follows. But an interesting way to shift the conversation is to think about who you’re not reaching. This allows an organization to reflect on how online outreach fits within a larger communications strategy.
Think about who you’re not reaching
Rural arts managers in both the U.S. and China recognize the importance of in-person tech literacy training and other offline outreach strategies, such as posters placed in social spaces or text messaging.
According to the Pew Research Center, cell phones are widespread amongst the U.S. population and therefore cell phone friendly crafting web platforms that work both online and off play a large role in engaging more remote populations. Nonetheless, “in our rural area, there are neighbors who have never used a computer,” explains Nikiko.
According to the China Internet Network Information Center, only 28% of internet users in China live in rural areas. When working with rural women, Sarah’s cell phone serves as a visual communication tool. “The women we work with live several hours away from Guiyang,” she explains, “and they don’t have computers. The few women who have access to cellular data can send pictures of works in progress, and I can provide feedback from the office. In the future, we will offer WeChat store set-up and management trainings for women who’ve migrated to the city, so they can help people in their home villages sell their goods.”
American studies reveal the need for funding that focuses on internet adoption in rural areas. Nikiko emphasizes, “I think there is a tendency to believe that access alone will solve these problems, when literacy is key. Just because someone has access, doesn't mean they have the tools to navigate the internet with critical reasoning skills and ease. These gaps are hard to bridge; they require using multiple platforms of communication and managing input of information from multiple sources and means.”
Figure 4: When looking over The Masumoto Family Farm’s Facebook page, the simplest posts get the most likes.
In 2012, 66% of American internet users use Facebook and 12% use Instagram. African Americans and Latinos are as likely as whites to own any sort of mobile phone and are more likely to use their phones for a wider range of activities. The Creators Collective uses its website in ways that appeal to people’s emotions while embracing cell phone technology to reach new audiences. “We’ve learned that spaces for free expression online are most effective when we set up clear guidelines for participation. For our collective storytelling project we set a goal of collecting 500 memories. We created an online forum, approached people in public spaces, and encouraged them to make submissions; all anonymous. These uploaded on one page driving traffic to our website while bringing attention to our youth mentorship and arts education work.”
New web users are on their cell phones
In American urban communities, a broader range of people are connecting on their phones. Therefore mobile technology is being used to bridge the digital divide. Being mindful of how your online presence looks on a phone is key. “We don’t have a physical space so outside of public events our presence in people’s daily lives is online,” explains Nasrene. “Therefore it’s important for us to maintain our website, make our Facebook and Instagram accessible, and send out e-blasts.”
In 2014, 70% of China’s new web users are doing so via their phones. Through self-media, which refers to media producing through non-official channels, arts managers have learned to be effective and efficient at generating engaging stories related to causes they care about.
“You need to be very clear about what you want and what your goal is,” explains Dr. Liu form the School of Geography and Environmental Sciences at the Guizhou Normal University in Guiyang, China. “I created my own official account on WeChat called ‘The Greater Huaxi Urban Greenway Project,’ and started posting targeted articles. I created chat groups and convened local artists, NGOs, education leaders, students, and the business community around complex conversations online using my phone. These connections have translated into innovative programs as well as in-kind and monetary contributions to support my work.” He continues, “WeChat is changing China. It used to be harder for people from different sectors to share ideas. We connect while keeping in mind the internet is a tool for disseminating information, not free speech. Community empowerment as a government concept does not really exist, but circles online try to do things together to improve city life.”
The structure of WeChat as a messaging app lends itself well to sparking conversations based on media post or prompts. Nikiko continues, “We haven't yet used them to make space for two-way exchanges, debates, or other kinds of engagement. Most of our online presence is designed to be reflective of a truth of our lives and most often function in the realm of the positive. I think it's challenging to use online mediums to explore more difficult topics because the anonymity of the internet can lend itself to polarity; it’s hard to have a more dynamic exchange with people.”
Conversations online in the U.S. and China
Both American and Chinese cultural managers focus on visual communications and storytelling. They know that there is skewed access to the internet that favors urban residents, and understand that more and more people are surfing the web on their phones. This calls for new strategies when getting the word out about your work.
In China, the concept of community doesn’t really exist. The word literally translates to ‘small area’ or a residential compound, either private or run by a company or a ‘social area’ describing the territory or people under the administration of a resident or community committee. But networks online are creating spaces that generate new synergies.
One striking conclusion is that social media platforms like WeChat lend themselves well to having complex and nuanced discussions around an issue whereas posts on American platforms more often than not gravitate towards polarity. While the window for online discussion around certain topics is limited in China, depending on when censorship algorithms kick-in American web searches are prioritized depending on who can pay for increased visibility, which can skew the substance and content of discussions online.
Overall, insights from the U.S. and China reveal the clear role of online media as a hook either to promote events, share information, strengthen ties with partners, make new connections, or to solicit responses when trying out an idea. Internet communications is a platform for arts organizations to get people to want to take part in the conversation, but once you have their attention, it is essential to provide clear guidelines on how they can be involved.
A few takeaways about online engagement
- Have a clear objective in mind
- Your online content should tie-in with your organizational narrative and branding
- Good stories are what generates support, not the number of followers
- Develop a mechanism to track outreach and inquiries and identify key metrics and indicators of success
- Posts or emails serve as hooks that link to clear instructions on how to attend or take part
- Reflect on who you aren’t reaching both online and off
- Be aware of how your online media looks on a cell phone
- Harness the power of images
Further links and information
- Overview of Chinese social media platforms
- Report on the impact of WeChat
- Resource for marketing on WeChat
- Resources on U.S. rural broadband adoption