Sunday, November 01, 2009

Poke the other one, it's got bells on

Originally the title for this post was to be "Why a Morris organisation should adopt social media (and why they probably won't)", with what is now the title being reduced to the rank of a subtitle. Then I remembered that I am leeg, and as such humour is always better than content (certainly a lot easier). So we have the title you see before you.

Please bear in mind when reading the epistle located below that I'm fairly new to the whole world of Morris, and especially new to its political fiddle-faddle. If anything here seems to stereotype people or their motives, it's based on the experience of someone who can at best be considered an informed outsider. [And for those who are even more of an outsider than I am, Morris dancing is the name for a roughly-related collection of traditional English dancing styles, performed by groups called sides or teams. It's both good fun and a decent workout, give it a go.]

It seems to have been a problem for at least the length of my lifetime that Morris lacks any relevance to what, for sake of pomposity, I shall refer to as the man on the Clapham omnibus — taking the irony fully on board. That your average person sees no reason to engage with or appreciate the Morris. Why? Has the Morris really made much of an attempt to engage with or appreciate the life of the average person? Not, I would argue, at any concerted or large-scale level, leaving the final impression most people have of Morris dancers the same as their first impression: a bunch of old men in silly clothes hitting each other with sticks.

So, shouldn't I have mentioned the social media by now? Yes, I'm just coming to that, it's only a couple of paragraphs away now. First some context. There are three umbrella organisations for the Morris in the UK: the Morris Ring is the oldest, with its infamous men-only rules; the Morris Federation (whose website was broken at time of writing) started life as the less-infamously women-only Women's Morris Federation; then there's Open Morris, which to my knowledge has never had any infamous membership rules and is the youngest of the three organisations. None of these organisations takes on a promotional or advocacy rôle — or at least, if they do, they've done a bad job of it. They represent more of an internal support network, offering guidance, information, training and the like to the sides. If you don't believe that they aren't promotional bodies, take a look at their websites.

As a digression I will use this paragraph to mention the English Folk Dance and Song Society, which does indeed have advocacy, promotion and outreach as its goals. However, I'm not aware what the relationship between the EFDSS and any of the sides or morris umbrella groups is. That's definitely lack of knowledge on my part, rather than indicative of a lack of interaction. Certainly the three groups named above have all contributed to the EFDSS's magazine, ED&S, recently, although I haven't read their contributions. There's a lot of morris-related material in the EFDSS archives, too. By the way, I'm reliably informed that the society's name is pronounced "EFdəs".

There are, then, four groups identified who either do, or could take on if they so chose, a rôle in promoting the morris to the general public. Given the continued and increasing popularity that web-based media, particularly social media, has in the world, let's examine the part each of these groups plays.

  • Twitter Presences: 0.

  • Official Facebook Presences: 2. The EFDSS has a fan page. There's a group for Open Morris too, which looks like it could be run by the real organisation. I think that counts as user-generated content is part of the world of social media.

  • Official YouTube Channels: 0. Or at least none that I could find.

  • Myspace Presences: 1. EFDSS again.

  • Podcasts: 0.

  • RSS feeds (that scraping noise you hear, it's the bottom of the barrel): 1. It's the Morris Ring's news feed. I nearly fell out of my chair.

  • For completeness, I'll also mention that there's an unofficial mailing list called MDDL (Morris Dancing Discussion List) which is very active with a strong signal-to-noise ratio.

Now, why should any of this be important? Well, as you're reading this, you're consuming a blog. You either thought "I would like to know what leeg is up to, I'll read his blog", "I heard that some guy on the interwebs really lays into morris dancing organisations, I'll check it out", or something else which made you decide to spend time engaging with social media and user-generated content on the web. That's time which the various morris groups could have spent injecting your brain with Morris Dancing. Are they doing that? No. They're writing internal newsletters bemoaning the lack of traditional dancing in the national curriculum, and press releases for the Torygraph to pick up, claiming that morris dancing is dying out because all of the practitioners are getting too old. In fact, it's been nearly a year since that last one was done.

The problem is that you and I and everybody else don't give a shit about the Morris Ring Circular or their press releases, in the same way we give a shit about, say, procrastinating on YouTube, following interesting people on Twitter, catching up with friends on Facebook and so on. The people who complain about morris dancing fading into irrelevance are even managing to complain about it in an irrelevant fashion. Irony. They're doing it right.

And the most galling thing is that the social media and traditional dancing could go together so well. Take a photo like this, which I took at the Morris 18-30 in WakeField:

You may wonder why everyone's wearing different costumes; well the answer is that they're from different sides. A mash-up could tag the dancers with their side's name, and a link to their website. Your next question would, of course, be the same as mine: "but where the hell is Packington, anyway?" A map showing the location of each side could be available, perhaps even showing proximity of their practice venue to your current location and when they'll next be practising (please, do not get me started on the existing SideFinder pages. You would not like what I would become). Had I remembered what dance was being danced (I think it's Skirmishes, though I'm sure someone would be able to spot it from the photo), then information about that dance and videos of sides performing it could be available.

[Another aside: the relative obscurity of some teams' locations has consequences for those teams' performances. As an example, the fool of Adderbury Morris always wears a hat made of fox skin during the dances. This is because when the first team was formed, the fool went home to tell his wife about his new position. Her response is recorded as being "Adderbury? Wear the fox hat".]

"Aha," you hypothetically cry. "But I would not have seen the photo in the first place, had you not talked about it on your blog." Indeed no, but the point of blogs, Twitter, Tumblr and the like is that you get personal recommendations from people you either trust or consider expert in their field. So I think it's fair to have introduced the photo in that way; and that there's a space online for personal recommendation of trying out morris dancing. And that there ought to be some organisation helping people to do that promotion.

Incidentally, the Morris 18-30 is actually a good example of a group (or phenomenon, I suppose) building a decent website with good amounts of information, and providing an easy way for people to get their photos online. There are many sides which have done the same; Westminster Morris Men's YouTube channel has a decent set of videos including some from the archives. My point is not that this information is not being made available, nor that an effort is not being made — I chose the 18-30 photo for my example because I took the picture and have the right to re-use it in this blog.

I don't think that the fact some sides do well at promoting themselves affects my argument; those who don't have the skills or resources to do this work themselves are not being helped by the national/international bodies. People who might be interested in traditional dancing aren't finding out about it, because the nearest side who have any skill at marketing are in the next county. In a world where information can travel the world in a fraction of a second, that's ludicrous.

So the fact that 18-30 has a good website where people can share information easily is a good thing. The various mash-up suggestions I made would all be good improvements, and were they implemented by an umbrella group then everyone could take advantage of them. My point is that the umbrella organisations should be taking and collating the vast amount of morris-related information out there, and making it easy for people who are not (yet) in the morris to find. They should be using it to promote the dance form and the social activities that surround it, but they aren't. They should be providing a central service to make it easier for sides to share their own material, but they aren't. They should be taking their existing archives and making them available online, but they aren't. They should be looking at the innovations made by some of their members and applying them at the international level, but aren't.

In addition to existing content, there is plenty of scope for promotional material based on novel content distributed over the internet. The dances, music and even pub sessions could make great segments for a vlog or video podcast. Even mini-instructionals could be presented as video podcasts or on a YouTube channel, so that people can try things out without having to join a side first. "What's the point of dancing a team dance on your own?" — leaving jigs aside as PhD-level morris, some people may just want to find out whether they can do some of the basic stuff on their own before turning up to a practice session. If you're not sure whether you want to take part in an activity, would you have your first try in front of twenty people who've been doing it for years, and are each armed with a big stick? Maybe not.

So there's plenty of space for morris information to be distributed digitally. But, really, who gives a toss? That's where the promotional aspect comes in. I've already mentioned the personal level of promotion through Twitter and the like. There are obvious places where morris could be promoted; what's on guides, tourism sites, tradition-reporting sites and the like. But how about novel audiences? Dancers, like many British people, enjoy a Beer in the Evening. Given decent information feeds like the things I described a few paragraphs ago, morris data could be highly Mashable, featuring in those little Facebook games. If people like what they see, they will Digg it. Were one of the umbrella orgs to hire a dashing, intelligent, handsome developer-dancer they could even promote through the iPhone app store (though where would they find such a person?).

And what Americans like to call "the kicker" is this: real people drink beer, use websites and download apps. Most of the dancers I've met are either from families of dancers or already had interest in folk music; in that sense the person on the street is an "unexploited vertical" for the marketers of morris, and probably has been since the end of the first world war.

OK, so that's what could be done, who should be doing it, and why. Is it fair for me to put words in the mouths of the umbrella orgs in suggesting why they aren't currently doing it? No, but I will anyway. If you think this blog is fair, then I've got a slightly-used iBook I'll sell you for a great price.

I think that for a large part, the people in charge probably just don't use and therefore don't understand the potential of social media. But that doesn't explain why the morris umbrella organisations don't do any promotion whatsoever. At least one of the organisations may be wary of getting too much publicity for themselves; I'm not a lawyer of course, but the equality bill currently awaiting its 3rd reading in the House of Commons could require the Morris Ring to change its membership rules, as it "Extends discrimination protection in the terms of membership and benefits for private clubs and associations". I expect there isn't much in the way of training available to the organisations in the general field of marketing. I'm not sure what kind of budgets these groups run on, but maybe the three of them together could afford a part-time marketer.

Of course, there's some appeal to the idea that you're in a secret society, isn't there? It's quite exciting to think that you do something enjoyed by few others, and it's easier to become important in smaller social groups. Not that I'm suggesting that's a related point, oh no.

I apologise for writing such a long post. I didn't have the time to write a shorter one.