Political debate as culture wars: A TripAdvisor for the arts

As I’ve argued elsewhere, most public debates on policy – and I suspect on pretty much everything else – tend to take place as culture wars. In a culture war the ‘sides’ are well defined – usually mapping pretty well onto ‘left’ and ‘right’ terrain. The identities of the various things at issue are taken to be stable and clear – and the debate then takes place in terms of less and more (funding), pro or anti – various well understand positions/sympathies/people. You take your side and then it’s clear who the goodies and the baddies are. This pretty much rules out constructive engagement between the sides of the debate, and anyway, the sides usually have vested interests of various kinds. Thus, as I’ve argued, debates on STEM tend to take place as culture war and as cargo cult.

What’s the problem with this? Well culture war type questions need to be answered. I’d say they’re questions like ‘how much funding’ should this or that activity receive? But there are a whole lot of other questions, and given that mainstream political parties tend to agree to within a few percentage points of outlays on the size of outlays, the harder, more interesting and far more neglected questions are questions about internal transformation.  Perhaps the best example is education, where funding is obviously important, but where we’ve got lots to learn about how to build a high quality education system that is essentially independent of the funding question.

I think there are two drivers behind this tendency in political discourse.

One is the fact that the ‘engine’ behind political discussion is affect – it is, as Joseph Schumpeter argued to such effect, driven by emotion and expressive desires rather than reason. And, though no-one would discount self-interest as a motive, even self-interest tends to be filtered through a range of affective filters. (For one thing it’s not really in anyone’s interest to vote, because it takes an hour or more of most people’s time and what do they get for that investment?  An infinitesimal change to the odds of eventual political outcome. In this context arguments like “Do you want Australia to be a clever country or a dumb one?; We should support our teachers more than screen jockeys and advertising agents; Our kids need more discipline” roll off the tongue far more easily and travel through the memeosphere far more effectively than the equivalent slogans for bringing about some transformation in teaching practice (one that’s speculative as our state of knowledge is pretty poor on this point).

Secondly the institutions that fund the factoids and talking heads that will do battle will be practicing media management 101 in which there are goodies and baddies and you represent the goodies. So if you’re an advocate for teachers, or the education system, if you’re really at the top of your game you might begin a sentence with some general concession like “well nobody’s perfect but . . .” however you’re there to say that your people need more support, more sympathy and more money. So system transformation doesn’t get a look in.

In any event this is a kind of background to the column below. Martin Foley, the Victorian Min for the Arts asked me to be on an expert reference group to make recommendations on the arts. Most of the ‘experts’ came from the arts and you can guess whether they wanted more funding for the arts or not. I’m OK with the idea of more funding for the arts, but as a member of the traditional owners of the land on which we met, the latte latte people, I would wouldn’t I? But as it is, I think in terms of improving outcomes, most of the money spent on marketing the arts is wasted. So if we’re to spend more money on the arts, we could spend more of that money on the arts.

Anyway, as someone perennially amazed at how little imagination economists and other policy makers have shown in identifying practical ways to improve information flows, I’ve for a few years been trying to improve information flows in markets for arts. I’m someone who likes the arts, but am pretty frustrated with how difficult it is to stay abreast of what events are on in Melbourne that might appeal to me. And this despite tens of millions spent marketing the arts.

Troppo’s guides to film festivals is one small attempt to address this frustration. But when I was chair of the Deakin University Arts Participation Incubator (API) I took this a bit further and tried to interest the people there in this problem. I put together a great meeting at Deakin Uni attended by API people and other Deakin Uni arts academics, Linda Fleet from Arts Victoria, Rupert Myer, Chair of the Australia Council and Adrian Stone, the founder of start-up incubator AngelCube with Stuart Kearney, co-founder of Slant beamed in from Silicon Valley.

Adrian tackled my idea of seeking to build a ratings app – a TripAdvisor for the arts – on the grounds that the pathway from from MVP – minimal viable product – to success  would be a too uncertain and difficult. How could we make our platform the place for people to go to swap their reviews. Verily o reader, it was a knotty problem!

After some consternation and further discussion we all agreed that what would make more sense would be to aim to build a more general data platform for the arts. There are lots of data the more professional arts organisations have that would be of much higher value as a shared industry wide public good than it is to the organisations themselves hoarded as a private good. As a consequence if arts organisations couldn’t agree to build such a public good themselves, Governments, who fund them could exercise considerable suasion to make it so, and if suasion failed, then they could, as they do when funding research (and administering other things like mining rights) require beneficiary organisations to reciprocate by making their data available as an industry wide public good – subject of course to satisfactory arrangements to protect privacy. This then creates a platform on which all manner of apps might be built, not least a TripAdvisor for the Arts which might tell me what arts events might suit me.

And so, with that former – but no further – ado, herewith my recent column for the Age on the subject.

When you last went to an arts event, how did you become aware of it and decide to go? Arts organisations staging events from art exhibitions and operas to rock concerts are big spenders on marketing. Yet from the public’s perspective, most of it’s for naught. They’re in an ‘arms race’; each elbowing the other aside to buy a slice of your attention – in newspapers, on billboards and the net.

And they’re merchants of spin. In marketing Laura Marling’s show, the official guide to the recent Melbourne Festival quoted the UK Telegraph’s five star review of her latest album: “A masterpiece”. But not Now Toronto’s three star review suggesting it was “a tepid listen”. As consumers we develop immunities to all this. We switch off and discount marketing claims.

Elsewhere things have been changing! Review sites are burgeoning – for books, holidays, hotels, airlines, you name it. If you fancy a meal, TripAdvisor, Yelp and Urban Spoon have already turned the marketing budgets of restaurants (they usually pay a small subscription service) into really useful information for consumers – by curating it from their peers, not the marketers.

And they’re driving a revolution. Service quality is soaring and great restaurants can now locate themselves in cheaper, more unlikely venues with a line of customers following their smart phones – Pied Piper like – to the latest, greatest, coolest, yummiest place.

How can we bring this revolution to the arts?I’ve taken a small step myself. When I become aware of a new film festival I get my research assistant in India to read the movies’ reviews and identify a short-list of the best films and their synopses. I bear a small cost to cut through the marketing hype and you’re welcome to free-ride off my efforts at ClubTroppo.com.au.

Doing this for all the arts is a challenge – with the variety and transience of so many arts events and the diversity of tastes. But Victoria could lead the way. Last night, Victorian Arts Minister Martin Foley released a report of the Creative Industries Taskforce supported by an Expert Reference Group (on which I sat). Amongst other initiatives, it proposes establishing a platform to “capture data from arts providers, promoters, funders and patrons”. That’s a platform on which a TripAdvisor for the arts could be built.

Though that platform might be specific to the arts, it’s part of a larger innovation agenda. When we move banks, utilities, doctors or residences, why can’t we authorise our data to move from one provider to the next with a mouse-click? Since 2011 the UK has been hard at work on this ‘personal information management services’ (PIMS) agenda. It requires a secure, trusted platform on which people can store their data and decide who accesses it and on what terms.

That’s why the Taskforce specifies that its proposed arts data platform be “managed according to accepted standards of privacy and consumers’ control of their own data”. If you stored your data on it you could then release it, as one does with Facebook connect, on terms you agreed; for instance to streamline arts bookings or to more easily access waiting lists. You could release your data to brokers who’d match you with arts events to your taste – perhaps with special offers.

As consumers started using the platform, producers would want access to it for the same reason restaurants want to be on TripAdvisor. And though arts producers have little individual incentive to share their own data with others, they’d have more to gain from accessing all the other data on the platform than they’d have to lose from sharing their own. So in theory the platform could be built privately.

Yet so far it hasn’t been. So governments should nudge the process along. They should require arts organisations to share their data as a public good as a condition of funding as governments are now doing when they fund scientific research.

As it succeeded, Victoria would become a global leader in building a new world in which:

  • Arts organisations spend more on their art by spending less on marketing;
    They’re in closer contact with arts-goers both before and after events to enrich experiences, develop loyalty and help organisations develop and plan future offerings;
  • Arts-goers more easily find events to their taste including by being in closer touch with networks of like-minded people.
  • Better matching arts-goers to events facilitates more adventurous programing, with successful experiments growing more quickly as the platform and its apps turbocharge word-of-mouth.
  • Talent is spotted and cultivated sooner with new avenues of support – like crowdfunding and enthusiastic arts-goers sponsoring artists’ development with artists reciprocating via studio tours, private rehearsals, backstage passes and so on.
  • Oh and built on that success, Victoria could pioneer personal information management services (PIMS) more widely, something that UK research suggests would make Australia’s economy over $10 billion a year more productive.

Amid all the pep-talks intoning the need for tough choices, how fitting for the arts to show us an alternative way of working smarter, not harder.

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10 Responses to Political debate as culture wars: A TripAdvisor for the arts

  1. RexR says:

    Nicholas, I thought for a moment that the duplicated text was an ironic way of ramming the point home. That is until it went on for a bit too long. Now I just think you accidently cut/pasted the entire article into your post twice.

    • Nicholas Gruen says:

      Thanks Rex,

      You make a good point.

      Mind you in your position I always look at the incentives. As a contributor you probably know that you’re paid proportional to your contribution – which in the Troppo Operating Manual (TOM) is measured by the proxy of word count. Are you with me here? Double the word count, double the pay.

      Still given your departure from union rules on this matter, I’ve deleted the duplicative documentation.

      As you were.

      • RexR says:

        Very chuckles . I wondered why the union wasn’t offering me up a safe seat (In the Troppo Merecedes even), it’s the word count thing. I see that now. What ever happened to those old ideals? Gone the way of comrades Thompson and Jackson I suppose. Very well. I shall review my very long list of new year’s resolutions, and see if I can lift my game in yet another area.

  2. peter says:

    An interesting and timely proposal. As someone who was once on the periphery of ‘friends’ with Australia Council connections, I was occasionally the beneficiary of free tickets to ‘events’. I often felt a little guilty of such largesse and whether my ‘word of mouth’ acclaim (expected) was paying the bill. I’m sure it still goes on and may have some value, but a better system ought to be possible in this day and age.

  3. Patrick says:

    That sounds like an excellent idea, although you might, for reasons you have amply covered in half-a-dozen previous posts, be better pitching it directly to tripadvisor ;)

    • John walker says:

      Why not indeed, good idea, the person who is looking for information about restaurants and places to stay etc, could also be interested in things to look at etc.

    • Nicholas Gruen says:

      TripAdvisor are in a good position to do it, as are Yelp and Urban Spoon, but they’re all pretty much into the quickly scalable. Also I think you need the state to chip in with some help here – not monetary necessarily but in terms of getting data onto the platform – something the state can require as a quid pro quo for funding.

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