Viral Connections

Pictured, at left: Detail of Ik Jook Kang’s “Happy World” mosaic mural at the Princeton Public Library, where many of the librarians are my Facebook friends.

Dec. 7, 2008 – the day that will live in infamy. That’s when I joined Facebook, by all accounts the most popular social networking site.

I joined at the urging of Madhavi Saifee, our Web director, to promote The Artful Blogger (www.packetinsider.com/blog/art), where I wax on about the visual arts.

I had other motives, too. As a member of PAACC – the Princeton Area Arts and Cultural Consortium – I was looking for a way to form a central New Jersey Arts network. And as a board member for the West Windsor Arts Council, I wanted to learn more about how to use social networking to promote the arts events we offer.

I went through the initiation stage everyone who joins Facebook must go through: Hearing from old high school buddies and boyfriends. There’s a reason the past is the past!

I also found that anyone under 35 was shocked, and creeped out, that someone of my esteemed age would be messing around on Facebook.

TIME Magazine columnist Lev Grossman wrote “Facebook is for Old Fogies,” describing how the networking site has been taken over by us old folks. There’s even a protest group: “For the love of God, don’t let my parents join Facebook.”

I discovered that my mayor and the entire town council are on Facebook – what a great way to keep track of everyone’s birthdays! All the librarians at Princeton Public Library are my Facebook friends. Sometimes, when I drive to work through the intersection between the Arts Council of Princeton and the Princeton Public Library, I’m amazed to see my Facebook friends crossing the street. It’s like looking at an architectural model in reverse.

My high school best friend (she’s still a part of my present, and is NOT on Facebook) is convinced that one reason for the economic collapse is that the whole world is sitting around friending each other on Facebook. And some people actually get paid to be on Facebook – more on that later.

OK, now for a little bragging: My Facebook friends include Opera New Jersey Artistic Director Scott Altman, Trenton City Museum Director Brian Hill, Princeton Public Library Director Leslie Burger, Passage Theatre Artist Director June Ballinger, Princeton area architect Max Hayden, West Windsor Arts Council President Ruth Kusner Potts and Vice-President Lisa Weil, and Artworks President Anne LaBate. I’m friends with the artists Ricardo Barros, Eva Mantell, Joanna Tully, Judy Tobie, Carol Schepps, Rory Mahon, Hetty Baiz, Lauren Curtis, Kate Graves and Aron Jonston. Dan Bauer from McCarter Theatre, Michael LaRiccia from Arts Council of Princeton, writer Robbie Clipper Sethi and poet Lois Marie Harrod are in my network. My retirement funds may be in the toilet, but in Facebook friends I’m rich.

And it’s not beneath me to scout out the friends of my friends and poach the ones who look desirable. For me, winning the game is not only about amassing the most number of friends, but creating this large network of people connected to the arts in the region. While attending a recent play at Passage Theatre, I saw Carolyn Stetson, president of Ellarslie, in the lobby. Although we had never before met, I walked right up to her and interrupted her conversation. “Hi, you’re my Facebook friend,” I said, like some weird person in a pick-up bar.

Last summer, I learned from Communications Director Marguerite D’Aprile Smith that the Lewis Center for the Arts at Princeton University was using social networks to promote its events. She is well aware that young people are not reading newspapers to find out about these events – and as a career newspaper journalist, I, too, am sadly aware.

Ms. Smith points out that not only does the Lewis Center have its own Facebook page, but students may create their own Facebook pages for events. For example, when a student produced “Othello” for a thesis project, that student created a page for the play, reaching a new set of people.

Through this viral network, the news spreads quicker than through any old-fashioned print method.
Ms. Smith also likes to use social networking sites to target a younger demographic. When I inform her about the TIME magazine article, she adds, “Sometimes we’re surprised to learn that alumni are finding us on Facebook and asking to be friends.”

Anne Sears, director of external affairs at Westminster Choir College of Rider University, says she joined Facebook to connect with students but “in the last month so many of my contemporaries have friended me.”
Westminster is also using podcasts of composers whose work is being performed.

McCarter Theatre uses Facebook to get the word out on its events, according to publicist Dan Bauer. McCarter also has a YouTube page and blog. And by joining fan pages of performing artists such as Dan Zanes and Kris Kristofferson, there’s even greater potential to get the word out.

Mr. Bauer says that while the original use for social networks was to target college students and people in their 20s, it has evolved to people of all age groups.

At the Arts Council of Princeton, Michael LaRiccia says e-mail marketing is what gives the greatest boost in attendance. Constant Contact is used to keep records of how many people open the e-mailed newsletter.

The council is looking to creating its own Facebook page. “You have nothing to lose by using this free service you can customize to a more electronic savvy audience,” Mr. LaRiccia says. “With newspapers, people are distracted by other things. With Facebook, there’s a straightforward plug in your in box.
Mr. LaRiccia prefers Facebook to MySpace because it’s easier to customize and safer, he says. “With MySpace you get spam and adult content through comments. It’s a different model, and one that advertising can infiltrate.”

“You can get spread thin if you attempt to use every social networking option,” he adds.
At the Trenton City Museum at Ellarslie, Executive Director Brian Hill has set up a Facebook page to “create more of a buzz” and “put out teasers.” In its first month, there were 70 people who joined. Whether it’s the Facebook presence or the poor economy, museum attendance is skyrocketing, he says.

“Facebook adds a fun aspect to museum activity. When it’s 11:30 at night and you can’t sleep, you get caught up with friends posting all night across the coast,” says Mr. Hill. “When we create an event, like our chocolate tasting, the announcement goes out to all who are friends.”

Classics Book Store in Trenton sent out its list of 100 classic books on Facebook. “Now I can see the books friends have read, and I can go to Classics Books to buy them,” says Mr. Hill. “It’s a wonderful way to get talking about art and literature.”

Ellarslie also benefits from getting the word out on its electronic newsletter. But there’s nothing like an old-fashioned stamp on an invitation for paying members. The rate of response to a snail mailed request is 50 times greater than with an electronic request, according to Mr. Hill. “There’s still a need for the tactile experience of writing a check and putting it in an envelope,” he says. “We’re in a changing world, and we’re still in the middle.”

I did attempt to interview several folks for this article on Facebook by writing in the “what are you doing right now” box that I was researching arts organizations use of social networking sites. “We use it all the time, but it worked ESP well to promote our young professionals series in the fall (shockers right),” responded Jim Atkinson of Jersey Arts Marketers.

Now, back to people getting paid to hang out on Facebook all day. That’s part of the problem. Because even though it’s a free service, it takes a good chunk out of a person’s day to manage these networks. Kelly Skinner, who does marketing for the State Theatre in New Brunswick, uses Facebook, MySpace, Friendster, Flickr, YouTube and Twitter. Although it’s too soon to tell if this is having an impact on attendance, she is spending up to 10 and 11 hours a day on the job, up about three hours a day since before she began using these tools.

“It may be free, but it’s not free time wise,” says Ms. Skinner. “A lot of people have these pages, but update one or two rather than all because of the time it takes.”
So, what’s the next big thing?

“Twitter,” says Ms. Skinner. “It’s getting bigger, more and more arts groups are starting accounts – it’s the way to go. Instead of getting info on daily basis you get it throughout the day. People like constant updates. You don’t have to pay attention if you don’t want to.”

“It’s evolving so quickly,” says Ms. Sears. “The biggest challenge is managing it and keeping up with it.”

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2 Responses to Viral Connections

  1. Ruth Kusner Potts says:

    Wow, Ilene! This is great information and so interesting to hear/read what the other organizations in the area are doing. What is scary is hearing how much time it takes to manage these accounts – and how measuring the impact is somewhat precarious. I think Brian Hill’s observations really sum it up.

    Thanks for keeping us informed!

    Ruth

  2. Hello says:

    Your blog seems to be the only site with pictures of the Princeton Public Library mural. Do you know where I could find more pictures of the mural online?

    Thanks!

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