Social networking, on the internet at least, is a phenomenon (or irritation) that's very hard to ignore and depending on who you talk to it is either the saviour of mankind or an unrelenting scourge that will be the end of us all. (the Imp appears to be in Drama Queen overdrive today! Ed!)
For the most part sites such as MySpace and Facebook (the two biggest networks) are places for companies or individuals to keep in touch with each other, spread the word about their activities, share videos and images, turn themselves into werewolves* and pretend to the world that they have lots of friends.
It's all pretty harmless stuff and when you strip all the marketing hyperbole away you realise that social networking sites are little more than old school bulletin boards on steroids. The overriding purpose of any social network is to facilitate communication and discussion.
Since the internet has little or no relation to the real world somebody, somewhere has decided that these things are worth, literally, billions of dollars of real money and when money gets involved people start taking these things very seriously indeed. So is dance getting in on this particular act?
Despite the fact you can create company profiles on MySpace and "groups" on Facebook that cover a particular company, activity or art form, they are pretty limited in scope and if MySpace gets any more useless and/or ugly the Red Cross is going to issue an appeal to have it humanely put to sleep.
A solution to let dance get into the game comes in the shape of, so-called, "white label" social networking platforms that allow pretty much anybody to build there own Facebook or MySpace website, sort of!
Thus far two have emerged; One from Kristin Sloan, the creator of The Winger blogsite, called 'The Intermission' (geddit?) and the other is, somewhat mundanely, called 'dance-tech.net' and concerns itself with all things dance and technology related. Both of these sites use a platform called 'Ning", which explains why, apart from the colour scheme, they look almost exactly the same.
When you join these sites you can make friends, kind of, post images, videos, ask questions, engage in some debate with your fellow dance folks and add a myriad of highly amusing widgets to your profile, none of which are useful in any way. Because these sites are devoted to dance and nothing else you know all the members are going to be interested, to some degree, in this profession, so that has to be a good thing! Right?
Here in TheLab™ we remain unconvinced about the power of social networks and their ability to bring people together.
Having specific places where those with an interest in dance can gather and chat among themselves is certainly a good idea in principal but meaningful discussion and the internet do not make good bedfellows. Message boards are notorious for people going off topic, flame wars, trolling, baiting and a whole lot more.
Imagine, if you will, trying to have a conversation with a person, face to face, on Oxford Street in London on Christmas Eve where every third person you walk past chimes in with their opinion even if they have no idea what you're talking about. That will give you a good idea of the average discussion being had on the internet right now.
When you look at the arts in general there are many who consider them to be elitist and unaccessible. 'The Intermission' compounds this particular problem by being a "members" only viewing experience. You can't look at any images or video or read the discussions until you are a member. Becoming a member is easy and free but if you want to talk about dance at least let other folks see what you're going on about without forcing them to sign up first.
'Dance-Tech', on the other hand, introduces itself with the following text;
"It aggregates and facilitates the flow of information and the distributed intelligence among movement, new media artist and theorists working in the confluence of embodied performance practices and new media."
A straw poll of dancers and non dancers suggested that the first reaction of anybody visiting a website that introduced itself in such a way would be to hit the back button or the person responsible for writing that line, whichever was more convenient!
If you really want to have a go at making social networking work for dance, in a meaningful way, then these two sites should join together, remove the restrictions and the pretension, make them open to everyone, strip out all the pointless "gadget" nonsense and leave behind the core functions; message boards, video and images. Mix that with some strong, written content, to promote discussion, and you're all set.
Would it work? There is no way to tell unless you give it a shot. Dance is already far too fractured an art form to support small social networks that further distill their user base into even smaller groups. You also need to minimise the hurdles you put in the way of your potential users and try very hard not to scare them off with overbearing, pretentious language.
These social networks are in their infancy but they are competing, like or not, with Facebook and MySpace for attention and those two sites have tens of millions of users. As with most things there is strength to be found in numbers and banding together. Consolidating your user base and growing your readership are the way forward.
If you want people to talk about dance then let them talk about it, and read about it too. Being precious won't get this art form anywhere. Take a look back over the last 50 years for all the evidence you will ever need.