Sunday, December 02, 2018

How social networks became the market

As the arts funding landscape changes, crowdfunding is playing an increasingly important role in project financing. Crowdfunding has undoubtedly empowered worthwhile projects which would otherwise not have come to market, but that must not preclude discussion of its potential downsides. So this post discusses an important but overlooked point raised in a commentary on the business model of one of the most successful crowdfunding publishers. Namely that having a substantial social media following that can be effectively mobilised is an important requirement for successful crowdfunding. In other words, the social network has become the target audience.

Marketing to social media followers is cost effective, because of the direct and low-cost communication route from creator to audience. But, very conveniently, these followers are unlikely to admit to an error of judgement in backing a project. Instead they will post fawning 5 star reviews on Amazon and elsewhere. And the death of erudite criticism at the hands of citizen journalism means those reviews have influence - especially in social media's mutual admiration society. Moreover the inherent obsession with likes and approval means that any questioning of this herd instinct is, wrongly, branded as trolling. So not only are social media followers an easily accessible audience. They are also uncritical and compliant. Which eliminates the tensions that are vital to genuine and progressive creativity.

Much attention has been directed at the problems caused by reality distorting online filter bubbles. But no attention is being paid to the creation of the reality distorting bubble markets defined by social networks. Crowdfunding presents both challenges and benefits to the creative process. But the dangers associated with social networks becoming the target market for the arts extend much further. To give just one example: social media has become the distribution platform of choice for classical music, with highly influential ensembles such as the London Symphony Orchestra streaming concerts live on YouTube and Facebook. The audience for these live music streams is the ensemble's followers, and that is the rub. Maximising that audience means maximising followers. And the first rule of social media is that brown-nosing your audience maximises followers.

In his book Which Lie Did I Tell? the Hollywood script writer William Goldman explained that the difference between art and entertainment is that entertainment tells you comforting truisms that you already know, whereas art tells you uncomfortable truths that you don't want to hear. But anyone with any exposure to social media knows that the fastest way to build an audience is to feed them comforting truisms. And the fastest way to lose a social media following is to disseminate uncomfortable truths that people don't want to hear.

So an inevitable consequence of marketing the arts to social media networks is that comforting truisms displace challenging and uncomfortable truths, and as a result the dividing line between art and entertainment becomes very blurred. It was fortunate that Ralph Vaughan Williams composed his masterly Fourth Symphony back in 1935. Speaking of that landmark 20th century symphony the composer said "I don’t know if I like it, but it’s what I meant". If RVW had composed his symphony today it would have died the social media death. Because saying what you mean instead of saying what people like is a certain way to lose all your followers.

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