Wanderway teaches how to use digital media creatively and ethically
Dance company Wonderbound filmed a behind-the-scenes video about how the sets were made for one of their shows. Theater community organization HowlRound created an online space for Latina/o theater practitioners. The Flynn Center for the Performing Arts invites a variety of creators onto their blog and social media to include many voices and promote dialogue.
These organizations are among those using digital and social media in creative and mission-driven ways. They’ve shared their experience and their advice for others in Wanderway, a new, free online course on digital engagement for arts and cultural institutions.
Getting Plastered: The Masks of Marie from Wonderbound on Vimeo.
Wanderway guides organizations to use digital and social media to share their work and build relationships. Museums, libraries, performing arts companies, and more from around the country are interviewed within the course, offering tips and examples of proven practices as well as resources they’ve found helpful. But beyond those specific recommendations, Wanderway is also designed to help people overcome their trepidation about putting content on the Internet, and to encourage them to reflect and be intentional as they do so.
The course was commissioned by the Wyncote Foundation and created by Beck Tench, an educator, designer, storyteller, and technologist based in Seattle; Sarah Lutman, a writer who leads a consulting and project management firm in the Twin Cities; and Jessica Fiala, a research associate with Lutman’s firm and a dancer with Ragamala Dance.
Wanderway grew out of a previous project Lutman and Fiala had worked on for the Wyncote Foundation, called Like, Link, Share: How cultural institutions are embracing digital technology. Released in December 2014, that report profiled 40 legacy institutions from around the U.S. on how they were engaging with audiences online. Lutman then presented on Like, Link, Share at several conferences, and heard overwhelmed reactions from many cultural institutions.
“Most of them said, ‘Oh. My. God. I am so far from being able to do the kinds of things that these leading institutions are doing. I don’t know where to start,’” she says. “Or, from smaller organizations, ‘Well, if you have millions of dollars, of course you can do projects like [the ones in Like, Link, Share], but what about us?’”
Inspired by those interactions, the online course that became Wanderway was planned deliberately to help organizations work within limited resources. With tight budgets and small staffs in mind, the Wanderway team was careful to use only what their audience would have access to: They found open-source tools and worked remotely via Skype instead of traveling to meet in person.
Wanderway’s creators also wanted to focus on ways to use digital media beyond marketing. Many organizations assume that social media is for self-promotion, but it’s more important to build relationships and create valuable and interesting content — people tend to tune out when organizations focus only on sales.
Museum Hue is one of the examples highlighted in Wanderway of using online media for a mission. The organization was founded to advance people of color in museums and cultural institutions, and to promote their visibility. Museum Hue’s social media supports that by seeking out and sharing images and stories of artists and museum professionals of color.
“They’re not trying to sell anything,” Lutman says of Museum Hue. “They just thought, ‘How can we use these [social] tools as a gathering mechanism to find and build community among people who are having like experiences?’”
Another goal for Wanderway’s creators was to build reflection into the course, reminding people to stop and write down thoughts at regular intervals. For example, in the section on voice, participants are encouraged to respond to the question, “How can you use your voice to serve your community’s needs and aspirations?”
The result is a course structure and tone that focus on mindset and intention, rather than advertising mastery of specific channels or tactics. Wanderway invites visitors to “befriend uncertainty”; it encourages “a spirit of possibility, experimentation, and thoughtfulness.” And though the course can be completed at the pace and in the order of participants’ choice, it officially opens with Section 1: Fear.
“We wanted to start right there, face it directly, and say this can be very scary,” Lutman says.
Fears about wading into online spaces are genuine: People worry about understanding the rules of online behavior, and worry that they won’t be able to keep up with rapid technological change. They worry about interacting with strangers they’ll never meet in person, and about being trolled or scammed. And they worry that digital and social media will consume hours of time on top of their already packed schedules. But beyond social media’s specific pitfalls, trying new things is also inherently daunting.
As an educator, Beck Tench is something of an expert in helping people face such fears head-on. A class she taught at the University of Washington in 2015, Digital Experiments in Museums and Libraries, had the stated purpose of “to try things that might not work.” Week one’s lesson: “You Have Been Assigned to Fail.”
Tench brought that approach and pieces of failure-related curriculum to Wanderway. The section on fear, for example, asks participants to understand that learning about digital engagement is an ongoing process, and that they will need to let go of perfectionism.
“It’s a practice, like if you practice a musical instrument, or a physical or meditative practice of some kind,” Lutman says. “The mentality is working on it and learning as you go.”
It was important, Tench says, to incorporate an ethical lens in the curriculum as well. For example, social media contains a lot of noise; there is value in being measured and intentional about how you contribute to the public conversation. Wanderway invites people to consider drawing boundaries and taking time away from online media, as well as thinking about the role their organizations play in contributing to a media culture of distraction.
The course also addresses other issues cultural institutions must grapple with. One such question is how to share art with digital audiences even if the organization believes that it’s best encountered in person. It’s a big concern, Lutman says: “What is the authentic cultural experience, and does it only happen live? If you’re not in the theater or the concert hall, are you really hearing the concert?”
For Lutman, it’s clear that social media users have made their decision: They’re eager to experience art online. “More people are engaging with cultural activities by media than they are in person, by a huge multiple,” she says. “Do you want to leave that only to commercial enterprises? Figuring it out is really worth it.”
Wanderway can be completed by individuals or in groups — at staff meetings, for example, or in public workshops. Lutman & Associates will teach a series of workshops this year with funding from the Minnesota State Arts Board, but the goal is to create a workshop guide that, like the course, is free, and that anyone can use to lead their own Wanderway sessions.
Wanderway’s creators will update the course to keep it relevant for up to two years. No matter how quickly social networks change in that time, though, Wanderway’s contemplative approach offers a humane guide to digital engagement for anyone seeking to learn more.