Biznet joins the virtual town hall movement

James Munson News Reporter The Yukon arts community was made its voice heard during the last federal election - protesting $45 million in arts funding cuts and organizing an debate for the four Yukon candidates vying for a seat in Parliament. Artsnet, a g

The Yukon arts community was made its voice heard during the last federal election – protesting $45 million in arts funding cuts and organizing an debate for the four Yukon candidates vying for a seat in Parliament.

Artsnet, a group representing Yukon artists, used a discussion-forum software program called Listserv as its secret weapon in mobilizing artists.

Now, after seeing its success for the arts, local business is tapping the social networking tool.

“During the federal election, there was a lot of traffic on the various positions of arts and culture of the federal parties,” said Scott Wilson, Artsnet’s secretary-treasurer and its Listserv manager.

“It was an effective tool to keep up with various policies in regard to arts and culture,” he said.

Listserv is like a virtual town hall, where important topics are put before the public, fostering discussions. Subscribers sign up for the e-mail and can respond to posted topics.

It started as a way to organize events, but the election marked a shift for Artsnet’s Listserv. No longer was it a place to just share show dates; it was used to mobilize and educate people on a pressing political imperative.

“Artsnet was just this loose association of Whitehorse performing arts presenters who were looking for ways to work jointly together on common initiatives,” said Wilson.

“It was a very informal organization and one of the things I proposed at that time was using a discussion or mailing-list format, like Listserv, to keep communication among all those groups, rather than having to get around tables for meetings all the time,” he said.

The Listserv started in 2001 and brought together 10 or 12 performing arts groups and the Yukon Arts Centre.

But it didn’t stick to scheduling for long.

“(Artsnet is now used) for things as simple as a prop call or a visiting director needing accommodation,” said Wilson.

New funding, grant submission deadlines and national arts policies are also posted.

“It’s anything that comes to bear on the arts and culture sector,” he said.

Listserv has tapped the community’s potential in unpredictable ways. It now includes galleries, writers and government officials, alongside its original performing troupes.

“(Artsnet) started out with about 75 people and it sat there for a few years and then slowly started climbing and I think we reached a critical mass,” said Wilson.

“Now we’re upward of 485 people on the list at this point,” he said.

Artsnet produces between 15 and 20 e-mails a day.

“But the subject lines are very relevant so, generally, you just go through and delete the e-mails if they aren’t of interest to you, so it’s not that much of a hardship.”

Wilson began using Yahoo groups to do research on the genealogy of his family, he said. Artsnet also uses Yahoo Groups.

The business community took notice of Artsnet’s success.

“One of (the business community’s problems) is that we aren’t really talking to each other enough,” said Whitehorse Chamber of Commerce president Rick Karp.

“One business doesn’t know what the other business is doing,” he said.

Amanda Leslie, who manages the chamber’s Partnering for Success program, was a subscriber to Artsnet.

In a discussion with Leslie, Karp discovered his chamber’s communication problem wasn’t new.

“That use to be the case with the arts and culture community, that it would schedule plays all on the same night or the same weekend,” said Karp.

The chamber went to Wilson for help and Biznet was born in March 2008.

“(Last year,) we started to dabble in it and see what it was all about and got pretty excited,” said Karp. “This year, the chamber is using it very extensively and we’re posting a lot of stuff.”

“It’s not big right now and we’re attempting to get more businesses in it and understand it,” he said.

It has barely tapped into the potential of advancing the business community’s agenda.

“(A discussion) could be something about the city, it could be something with land development, maybe the labour market,” said Karp.

The chamber use to send out surveys and newsletters, but it would only get a response from around 15 to 18 per cent of its membership. But because Listserv is user-driven, it engages people like nothing before.

“We don’t just want an answer to a question, we want a discussion,” said Karp.

Biznet has evolved since being launched, igniting a broad discussion on downtown parking issues last year, said Wilson.

Biznet currently has 52 members.

“I would expect that Biznet will grow,” said Wilson. “I think that what happens is that you reach a critical mass of subscribers and you also have to reach a critical mass of relevant postings.”

“Once you get there, people see the value of it and it seems to grow from there,” he said.

The survival of these Listservs depends on whether the right issue can be sparked, said Wilson. The election was one of those “relevant” issues.

It’s also suited to the needs of a culture bombarded with internet sites.

“Everybody’s lives are so busy these days that having information come to you that you can filter through is a much more valuable thing than trying to keep up with various outside sources of information,” said Wilson.

“That’s the shift in thinking once a list like this reaches that kind of critical mass.”

People feel they aren’t going to miss anything and they don’t feel like they have to go out and actively find information, said Wilson.

That’s what made the arts community’s reaction to the federal election so different last year – people could keep track of it in a way that mattered to them.

It also creates a common purpose around issues that in a simpler age wouldn’t normally bring people out into the streets.

Listservs could be used for municipalities and communities to discuss upcoming laws or events, but this has had mixed results, said Wilson.

Wilson is also the secretary treasurer of the Wold Creek Community Association, which experimented with a Listserv through Yahoo Groups.

“Sometimes these Listservs get set up and they just don’t seem to catch fire in the group that you were hoping to join,” he said. “I have had a couple of instances where the setting up of those lists isn’t used and it just lays dormant.”

It eventually fell to the wayside.

“But Artsnet is the other end of the spectrum.”

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