The conference on Access and Discoverability of Francophone Cultural Content in the Digital Age was held at the Grande bibliothèque in Montreal on October 23 and 24 2019. The event brought together a large number of international speakers to discuss the issues of visibility and diversity of cultural expressions in the digital context. The majority of the interventions focused on changes in the music and audiovisual industries with the arrival of transnational players such as Netflix and Spotify.
If these industries have to rethink their business models, the situation is slightly different for the interdisciplinary arts sector. I hypothesize here that the modes of creation and distribution in our communities, rather than being completely disrupted, have been diversified with the development of digital tools and the web.
Visibility of interdisciplinary arts practices
Since our practices occupy a different economic space, less directly linked to the sale of products, the issues of discoverability are not necessarily commercial, but rather related to visibility and influence. I thus observe more opportunities than threats in the “digital transformation” of our sector (I say this by deliberately avoiding the important question of the curiosity and engagement of audiences with the arts today). Digital transformation is transversal and can involve all stages of the production chain of a work, from creation to preservation, including dissemination. The question of discoverability as defined by the speakers at theconference concerns, for its part, activities related to the dissemination of a work and the visibility of an artist online. For an interested and curious audience, the web and the various levers of discoverability represent as many ways to get in touch with artists, works and events that will draw their attention.
The many levers of discoverability
Several levers of discoverability were therefore discussed during the conference. Josée Plamondon and La Cogency have developed an enlightening model to illustrate these strategies. These are grouped according to their immediate target – human or machine – and their short or long-term implementation. The levers that target humans include different promotion and digital marketing strategies: media coverage, partnerships with influencers, advertising, campaigns on social networks, etc. The levers that involve a conversation with machines include search engine optimization or SEO practices, actions related to the description of web content through the use of Schema structured data markers and the integration of our content into a linked data ecosystem, the Wikimedia universe for example.
The recommendation paradigm
A large part of the interventions during the event’s panels focused on the notion of recommendation. This model is gaining in importance on popular platforms like Google, Amazon, Netflix and Spotify. Recommendation systems are based on the collection of data from users and the development of algorithms that process this data to promote content that should meet the user’s expectations. The opacity of the recommendation algorithms and their development in line with the commercial interests of web giants and their partners have been named as points of tension with defenders of the diversity of cultural expressions, particularly in Quebec, Africa, France and Belgium.
Pragmatically speaking, the main impact of recommendation technologies for our artistic community is the results displayed by Google’s search engine. It is then a question of ensuring the quality and relevance of the information we publish on the web both for humans who visit our pages and for Google’s machines, in order to appear in the system’s recommendations. For an artist, this may mean describing his practice, presenting his curriculum vitae and a selection of representative works; for an organization, it may mean providing accurate contact information, structuring information about his events, etc.
Perspectives for our ecosystem
Thus, in the world of research/creation in contemporary arts, the web represents a window on our work and a place of exchange and memory that is added to an already well-established ecosystem – artist-run centres, schools, residencies, festivals, communities of interest, museums, magazines and newspapers. In its simplest form, being discoverable online can mean having a well-built website and participating in one or more communities of interest on social networks.
For those who would like to deepen their reflections on the concept of discoverability, however, there are many issues at stake, as demonstrated by these two days of panels: digital literacy, copyright and privacy rights, artists’ remuneration, cooperation, data sharing and the protection of diversity in the face of cultural imperialism are all relevant angles of approach. It is therefore a large playground in which governments, businesses, artists and cultural workers have a strong interest in thinking and working together.