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Conversation vs Information

Thursday, November 12, 2009 Leave a Comment

Adina Levin has a fascinating post building on a theory of Dave Weinberger's called The End of Information, The Return of Conversation. In it, Adina persuasively argues that Information - who has it, who doesn't, and how it is distributed - is no longer the primary mover of our culture.

Now it is Conversation, through the form of social media, that is in the driver's seat. Rather than engaging the world through Information obtained from a single reliable source; the world is increasingly understood through the context of Conversation. Comments on blogs and Facebook, tweets and retweets, Google Wave and Wikipedia are more than just crowd sourcing information; they represent a fundamental values shift in perception. Asking the question, and hosting the conversation, have primacy over providing a single answer.

In her excellent recent post The Future Of Politics Is Mutual, Hannah Nicklin issues a call to arms for the creation of an open sourced WikiPolitics, something my friend Matt Cooperider has been advocating for at Open Government NYC. As Hannah argues, the structures of social media are ideally suited to creating a more open, participatory democracy.

What does this mean for theatre? Primarily, it means that if you claim to want Conversation, it can't simply be your old Information dressed up in social media's clothing. Flux is taking steps towards this by directly soliciting feedback for The Lesser Seductions of History, but this is only a start. As WikiPolitics and Open Government movements increase the access and leverage of engaged citizens, we must encourage a similar level of direct and meaningful conversation with our stakeholders. What theatre companies are doing this well? Please post any good examples in the comments field; especially those that move beyond using new media as a platform for old content, and instead let their audience sit in some meaningful way at the table where decisions are made.


  • Randy Burgess said:  

    Gus said, "Please post any good examples in the comments field; especially those that move beyond using new media as a platform for old content, and instead let their audience sit in some meaningful way at the table where decisions are made."

    I don’t have any interesting examples to post, but the question intrigues me. I would like to offer a slightly different way of asking it.

    This past summer I made my way through the poet Lewis Hyde's well-known, difficult, and intriguing book, "The Gift," about artist-audience relationships in market economies vs. gift economies. Hyde argues that the fundamental transaction involved in art - be it a painting, a graphic novel, or a play - is gift-giving and gift-receiving.

    If we assume for a moment that Hyde is right, and that artists must & do find ways to get around the deficiencies of market economies, then we might rephrase your question this way: Can social media help nurture gift economies? What are the roles & relationships such media seem to create for artists and audiences using them?

    I like this better than the tired assumption that something called information is in opposition to something called conversation. Art has never been “information” in the sense we use the term, and conversation has never required social media, nor does it now. Social critics who like to talk about information sometimes seem to forget how young the term is - specifically, that its recent prominence has to do not with the politics of media, but with computing, starting somewhere around 1948 with Claude Shannon’s paper on information theory. Sixty years is infinitesimal compared with the 40,000 years we have been human, have been speaking to each other, and have been making art.

    But yes, I too would very much like to hear of good examples of blogs, online communities, etc., helping theater & even other art forms.

  • Seema Sueko said:  

    Hi - This is Seema Sueko, Co-Founder & Artistic Director of Mo`olelo Performing Arts Company in San Diego (www.moolelo.net).

    Conversation is a core part of our community outreach efforts for each of our productions.

    First, we deliberately select plays that provide an opportunity for us to target a community,or communities, that don't typically attend western-style theater. Then, six to 18 months before we go into rehearsal on a show, we start contacting these community groups and leaders and ask to meet with them. We try to learn about their community needs and objectives, we share the script with them, ask them to read it and share their feebdack with us, we listen, we listen, we listen, and then we brainstorm together how the production might benefit their community. We engage the community dramaturgically. Then over the next few months we work together on outreach activities, and by the time the production rolls around, they are major stakeholders in it and we've built trust with the community.

    As a result, our productions over the past few years have achieved 90-95% capacity... and much of our audience are first time theatergoers.

    It's a labor-intensive, highly-rewarding, conversation-approach to making theater.

  • August Schulenburg said:  

    @Whole Sight: "Can social media help nurture gift economies?" That's a great way of reframing the question, and I think the answer is yes, though I hope to have a more metric based analysis of that after we close the show.

    I think that before the printing press, Information was difficult to spread and therefore easy to control. After the printing press, it was harder to control, but much easier to commodify, and so Information went from a primarily power based relationship to a mix of power and market. In both cases, however, Information was valued as the expression of a single codified expertise, whose transmission through differing media did not fundamentally alter the message.

    Now, we have a situation where Information is very hard to control and difficult to commodify, and so traditional distributors of Information are crashing, while social media expands at exponential rates. Now, the media fundamentally alters the Information through the Conversation that surrounds it; so that the context of the varying opinions and ideas surrounding the Information is essential to understanding its meaning.

    That Conversation is something that, as you say, theatre has been doing for a very long time, and so I think it is a logical fit for social media; but most theatres are still operating as if Information was king.

    @Seema Sueko: Thank you for posting this beautiful synopsis of the work you do with Mo'olelo. It is an important reminder that no social media effort can top actual face to face audience engagement.

    I especially like the idea of soliciting the direction of the work from your community, and then engaging them throughout the process - we're doing the second part (though not as deeply) but the first is something I'd like to adapt to how Flux works.

    How much retention do you see from previous projects? Do a lot of these audience members return after your work has moved on to focus on a different community?

    Also, I'm trilled to see you have a blog - I've added it to my reader and am looking forward to following your work.

  • Seema Sueko said:  

    Hi August -

    Great question about retention from previous projects!

    Certainly, there are some community groups or individuals that might come to only the production that speaks to their experience and that's all... and that's perfectly fine with Mo`olelo. That doesn't make them any less important to us. On our end, though, we don't stop reaching out to them. We keep them informed of our projects, seek their feedback and invite them to participate... but it's up to them to determine what's the best use of their time.

    Increasingly, though, we are seeing community groups come to productions that aren't directly related to their community needs. For example, when we did a play that dealt with brain injury, we cultivated a deep relationship with the San Diego Brain Injury Foundation. Their members have continued to organize groups to come our other productions; and we've reciprocated by speaking at their community meetings and donating tickets to their fundraisers.

    We've also seen that some community groups might skip one production, but then come back full force for another one. We've seen this with San diego's Middle Eastern community especially. Their continued participation with Mo`olelo seems to depend on their current community objectives and our timing.

    Our company is only 5 1/2 years old, so we're still gathering info about long-term relationship building. But since all of our productions are "outsider stories," our real hope is that the community groups we engage will connect the dots across their community boundaries and see themselves reflected or connected to all our productions. We are currently exploring how we can use technology to better support our high-touch conversation approach.