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published: March 2004
mnartists.org's 10 Tips for Building Online Communities
Robin Dowden, Walker Art Center, USA
mnartists.org is an online resource of and for Minnesota artists from all disciplines visual arts, performing arts, media arts, literary arts, and design and architecture giving them a central gathering place on the Web, and ultimately, a community hub. Developed through a partnership of The McKnight Foundation (http://www.mcknight.org) and the Walker Art Center (http://www.walkerart.org), over 3,100 artists have registered with mnartists.org since the site launched in July 2001. In December 2002, mnartists.org launched a new version of the Web site that provides a range of services, including expanded news and feature articles, online forums, and streamed broadcasts of members' work a Minnesota arts channel with corresponding "off-line" events. This paper discusses the development of mnartists.org in the form of 10 Tips for building online community.
Keywords: online community, collaboration, Walker Art Center, portal, artists, forums, Minnesota
There are an estimated 30,000 artists in Minnesota. How many are making a decent living at it? That's what The McKnight Foundation wanted to find out when it conducted a survey of Minnesota artists in 1999. This survey pinpointing artists' struggles to survive revealed that the myth of the "starving artist" was much more a reality than a fable. Most artists reported that it was difficult to make ends meet, and that they needed to supplement their artists' incomes with additional jobs.
So The McKnight Foundation (http://www.mcknight.org) and the Walker Art Center (http://www.walkerart.org) decided to form a partnership that we hoped would improve the economic lives of artists in Minnesota by connecting them with arts organizations, the broader public, and each other.
mnartists.org is the result of that partnership.
mnartists.org is an online resource of and for Minnesota artists from all disciplines visual arts, performing arts, media arts, literary arts, and design and architecture giving them a central gathering place on the Web, and ultimately, a community hub. Any artist interested in promoting their creative work to a broader audience may register to get a free Web page to display images, text, sound, and/or video clips of their creative work and to provide information about themselves and their art.
Phase 1 of mnartists.org was launched July 2001. The primary objectives of the first phase were to create database-driven access to information about artists working or living in Minnesota and to build project awareness with key audiences (artists, art professionals/organizations, and art enthusiasts).
Phase 2, which began in March 2002, is continuing our efforts to build a comprehensive database of Minnesota artists and aims to make significant steps toward building a community infrastructure and program that goes beyond the directory. To achieve these goals, mnartists.org is providing a range of services including access to member-made collections and tours, expanded news and feature articles, online forums, and streamed broadcasts of members' work a Minnesota arts channel with corresponding "off-line" events.
mnartists.org represents a unique partnership between a preeminent arts foundation and a multidisciplinary contemporary art center who are combining their resources to provide an extraordinary new vehicle to support Minnesota artists by making their work accessible to anyone via the Internet.
10 Tips for Building Online Communities
Tip 1: develop a grass roots approach
mnartists.org is the result of The McKnight Foundation's desire to fundamentally change the economic status of artists and the Walker Art Center's mission to support local artists. The project's success, measured through usage statistics and feedback, is in no small part a result of the democratic, self-defining nature of the community. To date, over 3,100 registered artists have posted 12,000 works of art. As of December 2002, there had been over 2 million visitors to the site, spending 29,214 hours viewing 160,534 pages. Comments about the site have been extremely positive and suggest that mnartists.org is indeed making a difference in artists' lives.
On December 4, 2002, the St. Paul Pioneer Press wrote an article about the site and its public launch, proclaiming: "People today often use the word "community" as a demographic classification Artists registered with the mushrooming Web site mnartists.org have a more literal ideal they want to connect with each other."
To become a member of mnartists.org, you must live or work in Minnesota, define yourself as an artist, and have an email address. The artists and their work are not judged or critiqued by the parent institutions. From the beginning, the Walker and McKnight Foundation have embraced the notion that the community belongs to the participants, and that the participants, not the organizers, will ultimately be responsible for the project's success.
Tip 2: hire from within the community
mnartists.org is managed by the Walker Art Center. The Web site lives in the Walker's collocation facility and is administered by the Walker's Web master. The software was created through contracted services; the principal developer has been with the project since its inception. While the project could not have been realized without management and technologists, the community thrives because of the efforts of mnartists.org's "staff." This staff consists of an editor, Ann Klefstad, and a community manager, Colin Rusch. Both are practicing artists, living in Duluth and Minneapolis respectfully. Together, they are the face and real presence of mnartists.org.
Ann Klefstad, mnartists.org's editor, is responsible for soliciting news about Minnesota arts from throughout the state, and defining an editorial vision for the site. With modest stipends for writers, she publishes weekly feature articles, monthly interviews and bi-monthly reviews on topics ranging from how geography informs artistic practices to how art relates to spirituality. Ann is passionate about creating a larger context for the arts in Minnesota and furthering the project's goal to change the economic status of artists by paying, if only minimally, the writers who contribute articles published on the site.
Colin Rusch, mnartists.org's community manager, works face-to-face and online. A dancer by profession, Colin is responsible for developing relationships with artists and organizations throughout the state. Part evangelist, part definer of needs and opportunities, Colin is the project's most visible face.
Ann and Colin's relationship to the community as practising artists enhances their credibility as spokespersons for the project. The Walker Art Center and McKnight Foundation maintain relatively low profiles on the site, reinforcing the premise that the project is "owned" by the community that it represents.
Tip 2a: don't be afraid to ask for help
Running community forums is a multi-person job. The community manager moderates mnartists.org's forums with help from a member of Walker's education staff (Alicia Patrick). As moderators, Colin and Alicia read all posts, welcome new visitors, and help nurture conversations (in the first two months of operation, Colin posted 168 messages on topics ranging from simple greetings to thoughtful posts on how sanctity fits into American art). Colin is responsible for setting the tone, organizing discussion threads, defining rules of conduct, and dealing with aberrant behavior. Unfortunately, Colin's job is a part time position, and running the forums is just one of his responsibilities. Since the forums launched in January 2003, there have been over 800 messages posted in 50 topics. As the community continues to grow, the plan is to recruit volunteers from among the participants to help as forum moderators.
Tip 3: maintain the community's interest
All Web developers know that delivering dynamic, up-to-date content is key to maintaining visitors' interest. mnartists.org has taken this concept to a new level by making member-generated content the most visible element on the site. The home page, discipline "browse pages", and each individual artist's home pages are constantly changing, reflecting the most recent work uploaded by the membership. The images appearing on these pages are time dated, revealing exactly when the content was created. Reinforcing this concept, mnartists.org's logo includes a polygon whose points and rotation change daily, reflecting visitor page views (the rotation) and uploads (distance of a point from the center) within the five disciplines in which registered artists are grouped. The strength of this design concept cannot be overemphasized. The idea of getting your work on the home page motivates artists and organizations to post new material and provides the general membership the art enthusiasts with a constant source of intrigue.
Tip 4: throw a party
For the public launch of the new interface, mnartists.org organized an event that included on and off-line components which provided an amazing opportunity to recruit new members while simultaneously promoting the project. Entitled 5 Minutes of Fame, the event included a 28-hour Web cast of over 300 five-minute presentations of artists' work, ranging from moving image, to audio, slide shows, animations, and scrolling texts representing artists in every discipline. In conjunction with the Web cast, the Walker hosted a virtual ribbon-cutting ceremony and a party with guest artists who presented work across disciplines, including a reading from a book-in-progress and musical, theatrical, and new media performances. These live performances were broadcast on the Internet in the first of Walker's live-cast events.
5 Minutes of Fame was amazingly successful on a number of levels. Less than one month after launching the new mnartists.org, 170 new artists and organizations had registered, and over 500 new work records had been created. During the two days of the Web cast and live party, mnartists.org logged 8,100 user sessions in a 48-hour period more visits than the Walker Web site, which receives over 3 million visits per year, has ever had in such a concentrated period.
The results prior to the event were just as impressive. In the four-months leading up to 5 Minutes of Fame, over 700 artists and 2,000+ work records were created. During this same period, mnartists.org also worked directly with nearly 30 different arts organizations and began to foster relationships with local communities across the state. As we started a more substantial campaign to recruit arts organizations and continued to tap into local social networks, this event provided an opportunity to begin building the trust and working relationships necessary for developing a far-reaching online community.
Tip 5: learn from the pros
Although the Walker Art Center has a great deal of experience working with local, physical communities, prior to implementing mnartists.org's forums, our online community efforts had been restricted to listservs operated for set periods of time in conjunction with exhibitions (Shock of the View, 1998-1999, and EAT: Entertainment, Art, and Technology, 2000). To test the concept and gain experience running an ongoing community forum, we approached our neighbors and hosts of one of the Internet's most successful online communities, Caf Utne (http://cafe.utne.com). In April 2002, we contacted Caf Utne to host a Walker forum focusing on the meanings of names as they related to the work of Alan Berliner, an artist-in-residence at the Walker. Later that year, we approached Utne for training and mentoring services (12-15 hours per month for six months). Using the software that had been selected for the forums, mnartists.org's community manager and a member of the Walker's education department worked with an Utne conference moderator on a training program consisting of a series of reading assignments and discussions on the theory and practice of building and managing online communities. Utne staff assisted Walker and mnartists.org's staff in the evaluation of opening topic ideas, forum architecture, and tips for moderators. Post launch, the Utne moderator continues to participate in the mnartists.org forums and provides guidance on a variety of topics.
Tip 6: build the audience before starting the discussion
mnartists.org has been developed over a two-and-a-half-year period in two distinct phases. Phase 1 (launched July 2001) produced a database structure and application that allowed artists to register and contribute to a directory of Minnesota artists. Phase 2 (launched December 2002) introduced an entirely new interface with enhanced functionality (such as support of other media file types, including text, audio and video), a new membership type and profile for arts organizations, and the introduction of services that would allow participants to better interact as a community. Significantly, the forums did not actually open until a month after phase 2 was publicly launched. This delay allowed the membership to become acquainted with the new interface and provided us with the opportunity to send invitations and announcements get the buzz started before opening the forum doors. The results were impressive. Over 180 messages where created in the first week, and the conversation was stimulating.
Tip 7: be responsive to community needs and concerns (aka "Stop the Crop")
Building a successful community requires listening and responding to the community's needs and concerns. Beginning with a 1999 study by The McKnight Foundation, the whole process of developing mnartists.org has been driven by the desire to be responsive to community needs. The McKnight's Cost of Culture study, which polled 405 Minnesota artists about their economic and creative well being, spurred the Foundation to look for an opportunity to help individual artists at all career levels. The Web seemed like the perfect environment. Throughout the development of mnartists.org, McKnight and Walker have solicited community opinions and feedback through various methods, including focus groups, usability studies, member surveys, and most recently, online forums. The forums have become a natural vehicle for answering questions about the software and provide an excellent environment for the membership to discuss some of mnartists.org's more controversial design decisions (such as the cropping of images). The conversation among information architects, designers, and artists on the topic of cropping images is a great thread where everyone learns something about the other point of view and which will ultimately result in a better design.
Tip 8: let the community help define the rules
Initially, mnartists.org made the decision not to post explicit rules of conduct. Then on January 23, we had our first posting with profanity. The moderator edited the post, and a discussion about censorship and the community's general rules of conduct ensued. As Colin said in the first post on the forum entitled "Profanity or no in the forums:"
How does profanity fit into our standards of decency as well as the intention of this project? This issue is not mine to decide, but I will be the person ultimately responsible for maintaining those standards. Collectively let's figure out what those standards are.
Tip 9: seed discussions outside the forum walls
Provide gateways from site content to community forums to allow participants to encounter discussions without clicking on the Community link. For example, readers of mnartists.org's articles will find a link to the forum topic where stories are discussed. People who might not otherwise seek out forums may well be interested in more topically oriented subjects.
Beginning February 6, 2003, mnartists.org is hosting for the Walker Art Center forums that blend the real and virtual worlds. Related to the Walker's current exhibition How Latitudes Become Forms: Art in a Global Age, the discussion in these forums often begins with a lecture or panel discussion that is Web cast live and then archived on the exhibition Web site. Event attendees are encouraged to visit the forums after the lecture to join in a discussion that often includes guest artists and curators. This pairing of event and discussion spaces helps drive traffic among the Web sites and expands the mnartists.org community beyond its immediate walls.
Tip 10: welcome your guests and let them choose their level of interaction
From sending a welcome message to new registrants to greeting participants when they first post in the online forums, make sure that community members feel welcome while being respectful of their privacy. Registered members of mnartists.org are given options for how much or little they want to hear from the parent organization and site visitors. From the parent organization, registrants can choose whether they want to receive site update information only or more general email delivered to the list at large. Artists and organizations can elect whether or not to allow email subscriptions from users, and indicate whether or not they will permit their work to be sent as an email postcard. Individual permission fields in the artist's record allow the artists to control access to their addresses and contact information. In the forums, we host an "Introduce Yourself" topic where mnartists.org's community manager welcomes newcomers and encourages guests to speak and have a good time.
At mnartists.org, making guests feel welcome includes helping artists and organizations use the technology. The digital divide affects not only people's access to technology, but also their ability to manipulate it, as well as their strategic application of it. We have done a lot of work educating individual artists through regional organizations that provide technical resources (e.g., computer access, scanners) as well as the work that went into helping artists prepare their 5 Minutes of Fame submissions. Our work with organizations, while more strategic in nature, is fundamentally about building a level of comfort and understanding of the possibilities for operating in a networked community environment.
In December, the Walker submitted a proposal to The McKnight Foundation for continued funding for mnartists.org through June 2005. The primary goal of the grant period is to build on the success of the site to meet its mission as the leading, geographically based, internationally contextualized Internet service for Minnesota artists, providing public access to the artists and their work. This funding will assure the stability necessary for the site to become fully integrated as a critical resource in the Minnesota arts environment. It will be used primarily to pay day-to-day staff the community manager and editor as well as modest and ongoing resources for writers, a help desk, an ambassador program, technical maintenance, and marketing.
In this next stage, we have chosen to focus on programmatic activities, to build up the resources of the site. At some point in the future, we anticipate that the emphasis will shift more toward the general public, since their support and interest in artists and arts organizations is critical. However, for the next 28 months we want to focus on creating and supporting the conditions for a vibrant community that is active, largely self-directed, and growing. This is the best way, now, to attract a general public.
Another important goal for the next 28 months is to determine the best ongoing structure for mnartists.org. We know that we want it to be increasingly community-driven, but exactly how to implement this and ensure that the project is sustainable is still to be determined.