This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 15, 2009 - In the middle of an event that was equal parts art showcase and social media experiment, Scott Lapp found himself discussing audience metrics. As in, how would he and other organizers measure whether the so-called artRAC Tweetup (a real-world meeting of people who use the microblogging service Twitter) was a success?
At a typical happy hour gallery event, that answer would be simple: Count the attendance. But this event, celebrating a public art dedication and the opening of an exhibition, "Time Well Spent," was about creating buzz, both in person and online. The idea was simple: Invite people to an open house, talk about social media, and ask guests to tweet about their experiences both with the art and the people they meet.
As is usually the case with Twitter, there was plenty of immediate gratification for the event's co-sponsors (River City Professionals, KWMU and the host, St. Louis Regional Arts Commission). People who attended wrote messages on the social networking site such as "went to my first tweet-up ... met some cool peeps," "Just witnessed 2 amazing StL public artists meeting for 1st time & exchanging stories," and "Wish I could be there in person, am home with the little guy tonight...Anyone at the opening yet?"
Lapp, founder of River City Professionals, acknowledged that it will take some time to judge the full scope of the online buzz. What will people be saying about the event days from now? Will more people follow the sponsoring groups on Twitter? Will they hear about other cultural events through social media?
“It’s a big experiment -– and we have to sit back and say, ‘How did it go?’ Lapp said Friday during the event.
As for the in-person component? A steady stream of people came to the commission's headquarters on Delmar Boulevard. The event looked much like other art openings, with people sipping wine and chatting in small groups. But if you looked closer, there were noticeable differences. For one, some of the guests wore nametags ;reading, "Hello my username is..." -- a slight change from the usual language used on such stickers. There were tweeters who struck up conversations not because they recognized a face but because they knew a Twitter name.
And by that measure, Lapp said he considers the event a success.
“Anytime you bring together people who don’t usually go to an art exhibition and you add a level of interaction, that’s good,” he said.
Added Madalyn Painter, director of interactive media for KWMU: "At art openings people often just talk to their friends. We wanted to help facilitate more interaction. People are more willing to talk to each other if they know maybe they've talked to a person online."
Painter also noted that people don't always talk about art at art openings. The event organizers did all they could to prevent that from happening -- they posted questions about different pieces on display and asked guests to respond using Twitter. One such question (my personal favorite) asked for a childhood memory of building forts. The exhibition, it should be said, celebrated collaborations among adult and child artists and included a fort (not made out of couch cushions, as mine always were). Another question asked what a certain dream-like work of art resembled -- and several tweeters responded with the same answer, M.C. Escher.
In another room, Bill Streeter spoke about the utility of Twitter, and guests discussed how they are using the service. Projected onto the wall was a web page that showed what people were saying about the event. Many of the posts were simple declarations of location (I'm here at the Tweetup!) rather than commentary about specific aspects of the event or pieces of art. That might speak to the function of Twitter, which works well for quick updates and opinions but is less well situated to be a home for cultural criticism -- not that the posted questions demanded that kind of response.
Guests like Darcella Craven and Danielle Lee, who heard about the event through KWMU's Twitter page, tapped away on their phones throughout the evening. They were eager to share the experience with friends. Both said they'd met new people and would return to future Tweetups.
Lapp said he'd like to have more events either at the commission or at other art galleries.