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Seth Godin made an interesting post that intersects somewhat with the questions arts organizations are having about putting content on digital platforms. Alas, I don’t know that it provides any of the answers being sought but he makes a crucial point about not confusing distribution capacity with influence and power.
He start with the following statement:
To be powerful, a medium needs two things:
The ability to reach people who take action
The ability for someone in charge to change what those people see and hear and do
Then he provides a number of examples which illustrate that impressive statistics about the extent of reach can be essentially meaningless. This is something to keep in mind when people cite number of impressions for websites, broadcast or print media outlets. But on the other hand, he notes that sometimes the people with control are exerting it haphazardly without any sense of how to focus it effectively:
People in the music business are flummoxed by the number of new acts that are showing up out of nowhere and becoming hits on TikTok. They’re talking about how powerful this company is.
But it’s not. It’s simply reporting on what people are doing, not actively causing it.
The folks with the power are the anonymous engineers, tweaking algorithms without clear awareness of what the impact might be.
The last bit he writes puts me in mind of my ongoing discussion about how the criteria we use to measure the value of something is frequently irrelevant, but people will be convinced of it measure’s importance.
Google and Amazon used to invite authors to come speak, at the author’s expense. The implied promise was that they’re so powerful, access to their people was priceless. But the algorithm writers weren’t in the room. You ended up spending time with people who pretended they had influence, but were more like weatherpeople, not weather makers.
There are still cultural weather makers, but they might not be the people we think they are.
Certainly that last line applies to those of us who work in the arts and culture industry. Sometimes we are the weather makers and no one gives credit, but sometimes we think we are the weather makers and don’t recognize what is really moving the winds and tides.