What happens when you apply the tools of the sharing economy to the mission of an enterprising arts organization? Four American theater enthusiasts create a community of four hundred that quickly explodes into four thousand and, together, amass a new bank of resources available to all. This is the story of HowlRound, a center for the theater commons where artists and theater makers promote best practices, share dissonant opinions, and engage in dialogue “with the hope of ensuring a vibrant future” for the field of theater arts.
Vijay Mathew, a co-founder of HowlRound, and his colleagues, David Dower, Polly Carl, and Jamie Gahlon, think of themselves as “infrastructure builders who’ve enabled a self-selecting group of culture makers to produce a commons.” Using insights from both popular sharing-based companies like Airbnb and theories and practices from the commons movement, Mathew and his team have designed online platforms where anyone can share their knowledge, no matter their motive. But above all, HowlRound promotes access, participation, and organizational collaboration in their unique approach to theater practice.
Despite HowlRound’s success, producing and stewarding a commons doesn’t come without its challenges—especially in a country where participating in cultural commons is a minority practice. I recently had the opportunity to ask Mathew about how HowlRound got its start, why the peer production model has been successful, and what’s challenging about running a center for the theater commons.
Jessica Conrad: How did HowlRound get its start?
Vijay Mathew: We started HowlRound in 2009 as a staff of four in Washington D.C. with offices at Arena Stage, one of the original not-for-profit resident theaters outside of New York. Arena’s history is interesting and relevant, so I’ll mention it: Zelda Fichandler, one of Arena’s co-founders, wrote a letter to the U.S. Treasury back in the 50s arguing that certain theaters should have not-for-profit status for the same reason we have public education and public libraries and public parks. Our public assets are government funded under the belief that they enrich and enhance our communities. Similarly, Fichandler believed that the act of creating art and theater existed completely outside of market logic. A few years later, her letter became part of the Congressional Record and set a precedent for the national movement toward non-commercial theater.
In 2009 we became interested in resurrecting Zelda’s idea of theater as an instrument of civilization. The sharing economy, the commons movement, and Occupy Wall Street were emerging, yet at the same time we witnessed not-for-profit theater adopting behaviors from for-profit entities. Many organizations were trying to contract artists at the lowest possible rate while all of their resources floated to the top—a classic 1%¬–99% dynamic. We also wanted to leverage the Internet’s power to enable peer production. HowlRound emerged and evolved around those themes.
Jessica Conrad: HowlRound seems to use the tools of the sharing economy—a movement among businesses clearly focused on profit—to support the theater commons. It sounds like that’s intentional?
Vijay Mathew: Lisa Gansky’s book The Mesh: Why the Future of Business is Sharing was hugely influential to HowlRound’s platforms. The sharing economy is so innovative and creative. I’ve always loved it.
The main idea we took from the commercial sharing economy is that there is incredible value in identifying latent or underutilized resources and putting them into circulation. It’s about making the invisible visible. Take Airbnb, for example, a market-based solution for short-term rentals. I think it’s brilliant. There are all kinds of similar services like Couchsurfing, which is a more commons-based approach to space sharing. Anyone with a spare couch or spare room has the potential to be a peer producer, or, in the context of the commercial sharing economy, a hotelier. The success of these services represents a huge shift in perspective about what constitutes a resource. That’s such a great contribution of the commercial sharing economy to the emerging commons-based sharing economy.
Of course at HowlRound we also use the Internet to identify and map resources, thereby giving more people better and faster access those resources.
Jessica Conrad: Can you describe how the HowlRound community contributes to your online platforms?
Vijay Mathew: Early on, we launched the New Play Map, which artists can use to document their work by literally putting it on a map. Visualizing how work travels from organization to organization reveals the infrastructure supporting the work—something that had previously been invisible. People across the country were given the power to produce a new knowledge bank.
We also have an online Journal where we publish blogs and in-depth articles about what’s happening with local theater in towns and cities across the U.S. The Journal is peer produced by a self-selecting, voluntary group of people; we don’t write much of the content ourselves. This strategy has been hugely successful in terms of producing new knowledge. We couldn’t do it on our own as a solitary organization.
Our third major project is a livestreaming video channel called HowlRound TV. The channel is for anyone who has something to contribute to the wider theater community. We don’t curate it at all—it thrives on self-curation. Any content that gets uploaded is both livestreamed and recorded. People share conferences, performances of plays, and workshops—all kinds of things that are relevant to making new work or new culture in theater.
We also use Twitter and the hashtag #newplay as tools for creating peer-produced knowledge. Even though Twitter just went public, we still feel that the medium itself is open access and facilitates a commons-based form of sharing.
Jessica Conrad: Through early iterations, you came to understand that HowlRound itself is not a commons but that the organization models a commons instead. Can you explain what you mean by “modeling” a commons?
Vijay Mathew: What we do on a daily basis at HowlRound is to support our community in producing a knowledge commons. It’s a commons because the knowledge is accessible, free, and exists for the benefit of an entire community. HowlRound itself stewards the commons by building infrastructure to support and enable people to contribute to our online platforms. In doing so, we hope to influence our community to think in a commons-based way.
Jessica Conrad: Has the not-for-profit theater community been receptive to the idea of the commons?
Vijay Mathew: Absolutely. But here’s the thing: I think our community’s excitement is less about commons-based peer production itself, and more about the sheer quantity of new knowledge that gets produced and shared. Tons of people have bought into the idea of commons-based peer production for that reason; in fact, many thousands of unique viewers come to our platform every month.
What I personally find interesting is that it’s the design of the infrastructure we use that enables people to act virtuously under a commons ethos. A few years ago, for example, when we became really active on Twitter using the hashtag #newplay, artists and organizations started promoting other people’s activities. That behavior was completely new. Before infrastructure for sharing and peer producing became available, artists and organizations operated primarily under a scarcity paradigm. People thought, “I need to promote only my own stuff because resources like funding, recognition, and social capital are so scarce.” But on Twitter we saw people retweeting and promoting work that had nothing to do with them all the time.
That’s a great example of people changing their “stakeholdership.” What we’re witnessing now is a shift on these commons-based platforms from people focusing only on themselves to taking a stake in both the overall community and its advancement. I find that to be a beautiful thing.
Another very specific example is the New Play Map. We modeled it off of Wikipedia, one of the most incredible cultural projects of all time for its capacity to accumulate such a massive knowledge bank. As with Wikipedia, anyone can edit anything on the New Play Map. Let’s say I happen to know something about a play or artist or organization. As a voluntary, self-selecting contributor, I can add my information to the Map even though I may not be associated with the artist, play, or organization. I can also go in and fix someone’s profile if there’s a typo or something. People contribute to the New Play Map all the time in those ways, and for us, those actions are two of the greatest positive behaviors in a knowledge commons.
Jessica Conrad: It’s exciting to learn how many contributors you have. Did you expect that many people would participate?
Vijay Mathew: No, not at all. Peer production was initially an experiment to address our organization’s lack of capacity. Back in ‘09, we were administering a program for the National Endowment for the Arts to support new play development, and part of our task was to document the progress of all the grantees. We were only able to dedicate one or two staff to the program, and, out of practical necessity, we had to come up with an entirely different production model. We got the grantees to document themselves, but at the same time, we developed a more ideological, philosophical take on peer production. After that, I think our platforms really took off in an interesting way. The new, peer-produced knowledge attracted more interest and more readers and ultimately more participants producing knowledge. HowlRound continues to grow in that way.
Jessica Conrad: So HowlRound’s success lies in its design? You seem to have created a virtuous circle.
Vijay Mathew: I think a knowledge commons can only be successful if it’s centralized. If all knowledge is decentralized—let’s say, for example, on personal blogs—it becomes really hard to amplify.
In other words, it’s all about shared infrastructure. Say 100 theater arts organizations each have a livestreaming channel that costs $5,000 per year—that’s a lot of money, especially given the fact that one channel could provide enough bandwidth for the entire community. By aggregating the infrastructure and tools in one place, all 100 organizations don’t need to have their own livestreaming channels. In this case sharing is enormously efficient and cost effective.
Plus when content is centralized, it’s going to get a lot more engagement. People who contribute to HowlRound know this, which brings us back to the question of intention. What we’re finding is that not everyone who participates in the knowledge commons takes a stake in the entire community—and that’s okay. People have all sorts of different reasons for why they want to livestream something or write an article for the journal or put something on the map. Maybe they just want to get a job. When designed properly, the infrastructure can morph that self-interested intention into something that will benefit the whole. So for us, you don’t have to be a card-holding member of the commons to be a commoner. Our platforms don’t actually require ideological buy-in.
Jessica Conrad: Do you use the word “commoner” to describe members of your community?
Vijay Mathew: No, we haven’t used it because we’re still struggling to communicate the basic idea of the commons—what it is and how it connects to culture and knowledge production. I think it would also be difficult for us to use the word “commoner” at this stage in part because it has a parliamentary connotation. Like in the UK.
Jessica Conrad: Do you face other challenges as a commons-oriented organization in the U.S. nonprofit arts sector?
Vijay Mathew: The market dominates media and the arts in the U.S., but we believe there should be a space outside of the market for stewarding an accessible artistic culture that benefits anyone who wants to engage with it. Participating in a cultural commons—through not-for-profit music, for example, or not-for-profit theater—is still a minority practice. It’s a huge challenge just to communicate this, especially since there has never been another arts organization working explicitly to design the necessary infrastructure for creating a cultural commons. There is no precedent. We have no road map.
Here’s a question we ask all the time: What’s a commons-based approach to fundraising? Do we just act like another 501( c)3, put donation buttons on our website, and give a NPR-like spiel about what the money goes toward? We have to create a new way of operating under a commons-based approach, but it’s challenging to think about these questions differently when it’s so easy to fall back on convention. One idea we’ve had is to foster a common pool of financial resources. If we claim our role as stewards and remain highly transparent, the community of knowledge producers could become financial contributors too. The pool of money would go back into the community, enabling us to continue producing knowledge for the commons.
Another challenge is how to reconcile being a traditional not-for-profit with commons-based governance. Our model has contradictions that we might never be able to reconcile.
Jessica Conrad: What’s the greatest opportunity for the theater commons today?
Vijay Mathew: The theater community has an innate ability, specific to theater as an art form, to collaborate. I think it’s important to point out because members of the community seem primed to become commoners.
I also think that it’s no longer ethical for art to exist only for art’s sake. Of course art has the power to enrich and transform our lives, but more and more we’re realizing that there are more tangible ways to help address the huge challenges facing our planet today. With HowlRound, we’re modeling a new way to organize and create community and hope to show others, outside the world of art, just how powerful peer production can be.
This interview was co-produced with Shareable .