Cultivating Citizen Critics

This post originally also appears as part of the Arts Marketing Blog Salon hosted by Americans for the Arts.

mpf1For years, I have heard the lament for the rise of “citizen critics” –individuals who use blogs, social networks and other social media tools to share their reviews of performances, exhibitions, films, etc. I have listened to a number of artists, directors, curators, and other arts managers bemoan the replacement of “true” cultural critics in traditional media with these self-published citizen critics. The complaints typically revolve around a perceived lack of credentials and lack of understanding for the discipline.

While I, too, bemoan the loss of criticism in much of today’s traditional media, I must point out that citizen critics are not new. In fact, they have been around for as long as there has been art about which to have an opinion. To be blunt, we are all citizen critics. Have you ever told someone your opinion about a work of art, a concert, a performance, etc.? Of course, you have. We all have. And more of us are sharing our opinions with each other (and the world) thanks to rise of the social Web.

In August, a brouhaha erupted online between two bloggers and an actor from Canada’s Teatro la Quindicina in Edmonton, Alberta after one of the bloggers wrote a critical review of a play in which the actor appeared. Aside from serving as a case study in how NOT to deal with citizen critics, this online fracas brought to the surface a disdain held by many artists and administrators.

The reality is that citizen critics are not going away. So rather than lash out at them or quietly complain about them, why don’t we identify ways in which our organizations can cultivate them?

Consider this perspective from *ahem* blogger Corinne at Blogging by the Numbers:

Theatre blogging is a niche pursuit. But then going to sit in a darkened auditorium and watch people speak – or in the case of opera, sing – someone else’s words multiple times a month (or some times a week) is also a niche pursuit. The internet, in all its multifaceted joy, allows a niche to flourish. Like attracts like (or compels like). It not only cements tendencies (that of reading about theatre, of continuing going, of knowing more than you could ever keep in your head), it also allows tendencies to grow. Knowing there is a community of people out there doing the same thing – theatre-going is a tribe as much as anyone else. Of course not all repeat theatre goers blog but, in 2010 with the ease of Google, I’d be surprised to find a repeat theatre-goer (who wasn’t directly involved in the industry*) who had never read a theatre blog. These people – the people whose names might otherwise be simply one in a marketing database – should be hugely valued (and respected).

How can you embrace citizen critics? Here are a few initial ideas to consider:

  1. Send press releases optimized for social media to citizen critics whom you’ve identified in your community.
  2. Host “meet-ups” for local online critics, where they can interact with each other as well as directors, performers, writers, curators, etc. There are proponents of hosting these “meet-ups” prior to the artistic experience and others who prefer to host them as follow-up events.
  3. Draw inspiration from programs like the Broward Center for the Performing Arts’ Teen Ambassadors and encourage young audience members in your community to write reviews and share them with their peers through online social networks?
  4. During intermission, encourage the audience to pull out their mobile phones and send status updates or tweets with their impressions of the performance.
  5. Consider using tools like Talkbackr to actively encourage your audience to provide you with feedback.

That’s enough out of me. What ideas do YOU have?