HighTalking: Scott Kirsner Discusses Art & the Social Web


Journalist Scott Kirsner has been writing about technology and its effects on business, entertainment and every day life since the high times leading up to the dot-com boon in the 1990s.  He writes a weekly column for the Boston Globe called “Innovation Economy” and edits the blog CinemaTech.  He also contributes to Fast Company and Wired.  He just finished writing a book on how social media is changing the way artists interact with their audiences called “Fans, Friends and Followers: Building an Audience and a Creative Career in the Digital Age” (try saying that three times fast).   Scott was kind enough to answer our questions about his new book.

Scott Kirsner

Scott Kirsner

HighTalk: First a personal question.  Why do you love art?

Scott: I basically just grew up going to art museums and movies and theater. I don’t think the world would be much fun without it.

HighTalk: Are we entering into the age of the businessperson/artist?

Scott: Definitely, if you mean that artists also need to develop strong business and marketing skills. I’m not so sure it’s true that all business people also need to be artists — but it can’t hurt.

HighTalk: How do you think the term “audience” has been changed by the web?

Scott: The audience used to be this passive, unknown entity that you wrote or painted or made films for. You didn’t interact with them much until it was time to sell them your product, and at that point they were really just customers. Now, people want to be more active and involved, and support the creative process of their favorite bands or novelists or filmmakers. So I think the most forward-thinking artists are experimenting with ways to open up their process — allowing people to get a glimpse of the work as they’re developing it, influence it, share it with others, remix it or make derivative works of their own, and even finance it. It’s becoming more of a community of collaborators than a passive audience.

HighTalk: At the beginning of the “Fans, Friends and Followers” you mention the relationship Hemingway had with Scribner and Stevie Wonder with Motown.  These were world-class artists working with major publishers.  Do you think the same quality will be found on the web?

Scott: Eventually, for sure. There’s a lot more noise on the Web, but I do think we’ll see important talents emerge.

HighTalk: What will happen to the idea of cultivating talent? Rarely, for example, is a writer’s best book her first one.  But by working with editors and publishers, she can find her voice. The input and editing can greatly improve the novel.  Won’t that be missing?  Are we ruining a system that has given us the great novels, music and films of the 20th century?

Scott: But how many novelists are there who’ve had one book published and been dropped? Or musicians who’ve had one album released and then abandoned by their label because they didn’t immediately connect with a big enough fan base? I think the Internet is amazing because it gives people a longer time frame to cultivate a following, develop their own talent over time, and experiment with different genres and forms and formats.

HighTalk: In this new system outlined in “Fans, Friends, and Followers,” does the best art rise to the top, or the art with the best social media marketing?

Scott's new book on art and the social web.

Scott's new book on art and the social web.

Scott: I don’t really know what the “best art” is. A lot of stuff that the culture decides is the best art (say, Rodin’s “The Thinker” or the novels of Jane Austen) may be totally meaningless to a given individual. I think the Internet is already giving people an opportunity to find art that matters to them, and connect with the artists — in much more powerful ways than ever before.

HighTalk: Many of the artists you interviewed seem to be “performers” rather than artists.  Should there be a distinction between “art” and “entertainment”?  Does entertainment art do better through the web than serious art?

Scott: Sure, funny stuff does better on the Web — because people have a reason to spread it. But I think other kinds of work will find an audience too. Most of the people I interviewed for the book do tend to work in more popular art forms (animation, say, rather than opera singing). But I think that’s just a function of some kinds of artists being a little further ahead in their use of new technologies. The guys at JibJab, who are in the book, have been making animations for the web, and learning about the dynamics that cause them to spread, for ten years now.

HighTalk: Some artists have an aversion to self-promotion – due to discomfort or even shyness – doesn’t this new model make it more difficult for them to succeed?

Scott: Probably. Some will still find allies (like agents or publishers or art dealers) who shepherd them along and market their work. But I think that pathway is becoming narrower and narrower.

HighTalk: So what’s your take?  Is the web ultimately going to help or hinder artists?

Scott: It’s already a huge help, offering ways for them to sustain a creative career, make the work they want to make, and connect with their fans and supporters in new ways.

HighTalk: Do you want to add anything else about “Fans, Friends and Followers”?

Scott: Just that there’s a free 35-page PDF sample available on the Web site. Otherwise, thanks for taking an interest in it!

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