Fran Simó

Calls for participative projects online for established cultural institutions: basic ideas.

Last week a cultural center in Barcelona contacted me to get ideas regarding a project. We spoke for a few hours and I told them about my experience with Barcelona Photobloggers as far as organizing participative photographic projects. At the end, I had the feeling that this talk could help other centers so I decided to publish it, hoping that the quantity of calls for participative projects would increase, and above all, so would the quantity of participants.

Usually, in the context of stable cultural institutions, an online participative project is a marketing event and has to be organized keeping in mind quantifiable objectives and be directed towards a defined audience.

An online participative project doesn’t mean creating a website and inviting 1000 people. A participative project accompanies expansion, due to which, it should amplify, question or affirm it. It has to be integrated into an exhibition space and a discourse. It’s not a game to attract audience. It’s culture. Such participative sections should be interesting for all the visitors, not only for those who have submitted their photographs.

There are other ways to do online promotion that are less risky. Participative projects are very powerful but imply effort and risk. It takes effort to create a compatible and continuous space for a successful exhibition and risk to change the rules of the game “the artist speaks and the audience listens”.

Online participation is always a two-way street. If you ask the public to participate by delivering content, you have to give them something in return, something that might interest them in time and form. It’s very important to study the interests of the target audience. The people who design and manage online communication for this participation should be just like the audience in question, have similar objectives and concerns and, at the same time, knowledge about the entity for which they are working. This can be achieved with mixed teams. Somebody who knows the institution can collaborate and also, it’s necessary to have the support of people ‘from the street’, someone who is part of the target audience.

It’s essential that all the terms of participation are clear from the start and don’t change or stay open. What the participants deliver and get should be written in terms and conditions. Even if there is a chance to better the conditions as the process comes along, it doesn’t make sense. People usually don’t value gifts that are free. If you gift something that wasn’t in the terms and conditions, people will tend not to value it.

These days another cultural center of Barcelona is calling for participation with “Send in your photos, there will be rewards.” What rewards? What will they do with my photos? Will they be exhibited? These are the questions that will immediately come to any potential participant’s mind. Such doubts should be clearly explained in the call for participation communication and shouldn’t change.

Another important topic is the validity of the organizing party. Users don’t trust entities without a face. All Barcelona Photobloggers’ calls for participation are done by directing members of the association and include full names, e-mails and contact telephone numbers. We don’t ‘hide’ behind the name of some organization. Credibility on the web is established person to person. Organizations are built on that (unless you are MoMa). If anybody has a question, we are always available. People know us through our activities and because we attend events organized by other institutions since photography is our interest that goes beyond Barcelona Photobloggers. We wear our T-shirts to every exhibition opening so that people who want to get to know us can find us.

In order for a participative project to be successful, it’s necessary to be online for at least two months with all the software and advertisement in place. And it’s a very minimal estimate. Usually when we are faced with such projects, we try to have four months ahead of us.

The final goal of citizens participating in a cultural project is happiness of all those involved in the game. People who invest their time and material to enrich a final product of a cultural center should feel that they are a part of something, that they are valued, heard and rewarded for their effort. This feeling will turn them into true ‘fans’ of the center/museum. Such fans online are the key to large scale advertisement that’s free of cost. They are the ones who will always participate in activities and increase the number of visitors not in a sporadic way but in a constant way.

Many years ago a friend told me: “We are clowns; that’s our job.” We, cultural project managers, are clowns. Our goal is to spread entertainment, not thought. It’s especially true when it comes to open participation calls. The whole experience should be pleasant for the audience that attends and for those who attend and participate. If you are reading this and realize that being a clown is not for you, it’s better if you don’t design and participative project open to general public.

It’s better not to start a project unless all its stages are thought out and matured. If not so, it’s advisable to wait for the next one. The risk of opening communication with an immature product is losing the respect of the participants, which could mean that they would play once but never in the future.

Barcelona Photobloggers was born out of online interaction with photoblog users. We have been organizing participative/collaborative projects online for galleries, cultural centers, malls and the town hall since 2006. I have developed special software for online participation with photographic content.