Enabling a geek network
I just tweeted about this, and then realised I have a question/need that goes much further than 140 characters, so I should explain myself! I NEED YOUR GEEK HELP!
The Geek in Residence program is well underway with now all our teams working busily to solve problems in general operations, artistic programming and audience development. The bigger picture goal is to help people who work in arts organisations to be better equipped (dare I say, better geeked-up) in their day to day arts working lives.
I’m thrilled to say we’re discussing a second round of this program – it’s not all confirmed yet so please don’t start sending me applications or melting my phone/inbox with requests, <update - Geek in Residence is now OPEN!> – but the conversations themselves are fascinating. Sure, we’re starting with ‘what worked, what didn’t, where can we improve on x/y/z… what have we learned’. But we’re also wondering what else might be worth a try and what legacies we can enable even outside of this potential second funding round.
One of the biggest things that I found from last time was the incredible enthusiasm with which the geeks launched at this challenge. I have heaps of gorgeous quotes that I can pull at random from the 120-odd geeks who applied in the first place, here’s just a few tasters:
“I think this is a terrific idea, and whether or not you are able to match me with a host who can make use of my skills, I just wanted to say > top stuff. I hope you get plenty of interest and look forward to hearing more”
“Do you know how exciting it will be to officially be known as a geek?”
“I love to make things happen and I can work with you, your ideas and your staff to create something wonderful… I’m really excited at the prospect of doing something completely new and would love to make a difference somewhere”
“Everyone always calls me a geek, so I may as well get paid for it”
What broke my heart last time was that there were only 9 places where these guys could eventually, possibly, work. In the end we found that multiple geeks suited one host, so we now have 9 hosts and 13 geeks. This is a learning curve for us, so we’re prepared to be flexible in our own deliveries.
So, now, what I’d like to do in the run up to presenting the second version model for internal approval is to ALSO have a really solid space to help people to help themselves. Now, this can be done through existing models, so I’ll explain a couple of those, then outline what I’m looking do achieve, and then if you know of any equivalents/have any suggestions you can let me know.
- Synapse, run by Australian Network for Art & Technology. Synapse supports artists working with science institutions through residency programs. Rather than ANAT being responsible to connect those two partners, the artist/org have to find each other and then develop a proposal as a team. Vicki Sowry therefore manages the database, approving or rejecting those artists who want to become a member of the list, to be sure that it isn’t ‘just another artist list’ and the people represented there will have a particular resonance for scientists.
- The Loop - one of many independently run freelance directories. Anyone can sign up and pitch their skills under a number of creative industry tags. Much more of a free-for-all, but a lovely example of the diversity of creative communities and online self-support infrastructures. It wouldn’t surprise me one bit if those freelancers go searching for other freelancers in the same network to outsource elements of their contracts.
So… what am I trying to do and why is this network any different to any other?
1. Often people who don’t know technology think what they need is an X (at huge cost, time demand and complexity) but what they actually need is a Y (which is, invariably, free with a bit of initial well articulated setup time).
I can’t tell you how many times we get requests for grants to build a bespoke social media platform, when what they really need is a facebook page, wordpress blog or something simple so they can build a community and see where else that might take them. The problem here is invariably that some commercial company* has targeted them, sold this grand expensive story and the poor arts org has no one else to tell them any different.
But we know different, don’t we geeks?!
(*NB I’m not saying all commercial companies are evil, btw)
2. I am also asked ‘but where do we go to find these people?’.
The answer is ‘you want to hang out with geeks? well then go where geeks hang out’ - Dorkbot, Hackerspace, lan groups, media arts events/festivals… the INTERNET! Anything that you see around which looks bonkers, interactive and generally very geeky… go to it, hang out and talk to the people there.
No one minds if you ask silly questions; geeks love to share how geeky they are. Everyone LOVES it if you offer them a bit of cash to go talk geek at them for a couple of hours. The best place to go for geek arts advice really shouldn’t be the government’s arts funding agency. It should be right at the heart of the geek activity. Go find them, sign up to forums, get chatting. No, it’s not the solution in a box that some commercial company might try to flog you, and yes it takes some time immersing yourself in a new and uncertain space… but it’ll empower you, rather than result in an off-the-shelf product that then becomes obsolete and leaves you in exactly the same place you were at the start (only, much poorer).
Want lists of media arts orgs? Well, this isn’t really the place (although if you ask me to make one, I will). But you should certainly read Realtime Arts, sign up to Australian Network for Art & Technology, visit a few festivals likeElectrofringe, or pop by an Experimenta show. At the very least, try googling ‘media arts’, ‘electronic arts’, ‘digital arts’, ‘geek arts’ …. I did and got a page from the Culture Portal which is pretty old and not being updated any more, but hey it’s a place to start. Oh and you can follow our facebook page and our twitter feed for more regular bites.
3. Why doesn’t the Australia Council just publish everyone’s details and let them find each other?
1 = data protection. We asked for these guys to send us their info for a particular purpose, we can’t just go sharing that publicly, it’s not fair on the geeks and it breaks the law.
2 = responsibility. We are hand-holding an experimental relationship between geeks and arts orgs through this program. We have a responsibility (both legal and human) to take care of both – and ourselves.
By offering a big list and letting people just rock on and find each other, we are putting ourselves in the dubious position of recommendation. Ask any consultant about the legal ramifications of advising people to work with someone you don’t know and haven’t fully researched yourself – they will (at the very least) wince. We can’t do full due diligence on every possible geek who pops up, nor can we have worked out in detail exactly what that arts org needs. There are sharks everywhere and some very naive (but lovely) folk out there for them to hunt; I’m not going to enable that.
4. Why aren’t we recommending that the geeks go target all the arts orgs directly?
Well, frankly because this is still a really nervous zone for many of these arts orgs. It’s a brave new world we live in and some have only just noticed that it exists. We, as geeks, need to accept that it still requires baby steps to make a beautiful geeky marriage.
5. Why don’t you just manage a network, forever?
The digital program is a strategic initiative, not an ongoing permanent program. I might not be employed here in the future and as Australia Council’s own Geek in Residence it wouldn’t really be fair or responsible to drop something like this on them when I might not be here to keep it going.
- Setting up a social network where I personally authorise every member (as Vicki Sowry does with Synapse), then let everyone post what they want/can offer. Problem is, if/when the digital program ends, that leaves Australia Council in a tricky position of supporting something they might not be able to maintain. It also leaves open the responsibility/recommendation angle.
- Adding on a function to the geek network online (which currently helps the geeks talk to each other and their hosts and will eventually have a public section where they can share their outcomes more broadly). But that brings me back to just publishing a ‘come find each other’ list with a disclaimer and still leaves me worried about what happens after I’m gone.
- Partnering up with something like The Loop. But that could lose people due to all the extra creative industry noise going on in those spaces.
- Building a referral network interface through something like Zoho Creator. But that leaves another web interface to be managed by someone else if/when this program ends.
- Spending a fortune on a purpose-built dating/matchmaking interface that sits outside of the normal Australia Council functions and includes conditional signups to remove our responsibility from any engagement that takes place, then letting the referral network deal with itself. Maybe even start up a whole new company just to address this one issue! But I just can’t bring myself to spend money on interfaces/startups instead of on new art/enabling. (And, no, AusCo does not provide startup grants for new businesses, even if they do support arts).
Actual outcomes & plans
The Geek in Residence program has shown the uninitiated how cool geeks really are. It’s shown the Australia Council how many awesome people are out there who want to help the arts. It’s shown arts organisations that a small amount of effort and attention ‘here’ can cause intense excitement and output ‘there’. It’s shown that the arts need help and that there are people out there who are falling over themselves to try to provide it. There’s even a new scheme with the same title in Edinburgh - how cool is that?!
The very least I can (and will) do is to run some networking events around the country that include the speed-dating exercise I always wanted to deliver for the Geek prog. I’ll be running around the country in October – dates to be announced – where this will happen. You can tell me if and how you might want to be involved.
So… this has turned in to one heck of an essay, but what I know about my awesome geek community is that you just LOVE to solve problems. And this problem is one that eventually helps you.Please share this issue, come back and talk to me about it, offer models you know about that work, give me your opinions about directions we could take. This is an open slate… bring it on!
Image: pinched from Lauren Brown‘s first blog post about her new role with WestSpace. Lauren, of course, pinched it from the very many places it’s appeared online.