An essential tension exists in the making and the marketing of expression—be it books, plays, paintings, music, newspapers or blogs. Finding an audience is an essential step, but it is not as simple as the usual quantifying approach suggests. One of the big ideas in the Internet space over the last five years is Chris Anderson’s Long Tail and his claim that this was a delivery system that could put you in touch with the “right” audience, wherever they are. I subscribe to Anderson’s point of view but there are lots of other factors in that process that are being played out across so many fields. Here’s an excellent piece by Douglas McLennan on his blog diacritical that articulates some of those issues:

A movie studio exec once told me that if it were true that Hollywood was only interested in making money, the studios would have long ago ditched what they were doing and made porn. Huge money in porn, apparently. Who knew?

Much as it’s easy to dismiss the moguls for chasing money, there is an aesthetic at work. And much as it’s important to have an eye on the bottom line, to succeed over the long term, it’s rarely good business to stay focused only there.

This is especially true on the internet, where publishers can track exactly what people are reading. When first launched 15 years ago it had a terrific culture section. Music and book and art reviews, essays, an amazing literary travel section. Salon had lots of money early on and it built a sophisticated tracking system that could tell exactly what readers were reading.

When Salon got into financial difficulty, it increasingly (and unsurprisingly) focused on stories that got more traffic. Editors discovered that any headline that had a sexual reference got a spike in readers, even if the story wasn’t about sex. Soon the headlines were a spicy bubbling brew of them. Eventually much of the culture coverage melted away.

It’s easy to fall into the stats/data trap. Most new bloggers I’ve known get enslaved by their stat counters. They’re reading me in Bangkok! In Peru! Pretty cool! It’s quickly apparent which kinds of stories “sell” and which don’t. As a publisher of blogs at ArtsJournal, it’s easy to see what blogs get traffic and which don’t.

At some newspapers, if a story hits the home page and it doesn’t immediately get clicks it gets pulled from prominence, sometimes in as little as 10 minutes. At some newspapers, the ability to track readers through a site ends up driving the news product. So you have sections full of reader-submitted pet pictures and navigation architecture that values traffic over important stories.

Most arts organizations learned long ago that following the crowd doesn’t necessarily lead to sustained success. Surveying the audience you have gets answers from the audience you have, not those you’d like to have. Program only for the audience you have and you set up a feedback loop of diminishing returns, attrition ensuring erosion.

In the old production model, artists created and audiences consumed; newspapers reported and readers read. Interaction 1.0 was a conversation up/down in which the audience talked back to the artist or newspaper. Interaction 2.0 is the artist or news organization attracting an audience around content and making it possible for that audience not just to talk back to the artist but to interact with one another. Everyone’s there – initially at least – because of the content, but they’re loyal because of the community.

Which makes it even more important to be clear what kind of community you’re trying to build. Most newspaper comment sections are crap because editors don’t take care in curating them or developing the community who comments. They let traffic drive content rather than content drive traffic, and as a result they don’t have audience they wish they had. Arts organizations fall into the same trap if they plunge into social networking without being clear what kind of community they’re trying to build. The goal can’t just be numbers. Otherwise, just make porn.