Online leaders look to create offline experiences
By Melissa Bell,
Frank Warren never set out to be the world’s secret keeper, but since 2004, he has collected and curated postcards sent to him by strangers, scrawled with their innermost fears, hopes and desires. Every Sunday, a new selection of cards can be read at his hugely popular blog PostSecret.com. The work led to books and a continuous national tour for Warren at college campuses and technology festivals, on small stages and large ones. Now, the Germantown resident is adding a new spin to his collection of confessions: He’s working on a play based on the story of the secrets.
From blog to Broadway? Perhaps. Warren’s still in the developmental stage, but it feels like a natural fit to him. Over a hot chocolate on a rainy day in Texas last month, he spoke about how he has long seen the potential and power of live experiences as a way to extend the work he created online. It gives his audience a space to share in the experience they enjoy online in a group offline. He hopes the theater production will further that experience, especially if high school students or college theater groups put the play on themselves. It’ll almost be as if he’s hosting a live event — without having to be there in person.
At the bottom of Warren’s Web site, there’s a counter marking off the number of visitors (when this article went to print, the site had been visited more than 522 million times). A popular pastime of readers is to refresh the page to see the counter ratchet up to a higher number — “It’s staggering to see how many people are checking out this site on a minute-by-minute basis,” one commenter noted.
One of the main characteristics of the Web is the ability for huge numbers to participate simultaneously in an event or a cultural phenomenon. A popular Web site or a popular video can quickly rack up millions and millions of views. There’s a pleasure in that ambient awareness, a desire to share in the continued growth of social media. However, as much as the desire to share increases, there’s an equally powerful motivation among humans: the desire for a unique experience. It’s something people are willing to pay for — but how to get people to pay for an online experience is something with which many companies are struggling.
There’s a revival in tours and music festivals because of a dwindling desire to pay for the recordings you can hear free online. It’s why media organizations, including The Washington Post, are experimenting with live programming, introducing a mixture of experts, reporters and writers to the readers in person. And it has encouraged Warren to work in the theater.
Cartoonist Nina Paley has used the Internet as a sharing ground for five years. She released her ravely-reviewed animated film “Sita Sings the Blues” for free online. She did it, in part, to avoid a copyright battle over the jazz music she wanted to use in the film. She also became a leader and an expert in what she calls “Free Culture,” espousing the belief that her audience will pay for her art in ways not understood, or yet explored by others.
Last week she posed a question to high school students during a . . . yes, in-person conversation: How would they support artists if they didn’t buy the artists’ work? One answer: live shared experiences. “They wanted to be able to say, ‘Remember that one time when that awesome show was here . . .’ They agreed seeing things in person is a more powerful experience than seeing things online, and worth spending more on,” Paley said.
She concluded her post with a quote from one of the students — her favorite of the day: “We don’t want everything for free. We just want everything.”