Always Social: Social Media Art (2004-2008), Part One

Editor’s Note: Always Social is a three-part series that will explore the evolving character of social media. Part Two will appear on Wednesday, and the final installment will be published on Friday.

In the Beginning Was the Nerd … Some time in 2004, I logged onto Facebook for the very first time. My alma mater was one of the few allowed coveted access to the Harvard-originated social network. I filled out a profile, uploaded a picture and began adding friends. A coast away, Tim O’Reilly coined the term “Web 2.0,” declaring a new era for the web, one defined largely by the mainstreaming of social networking services.

A screenshot of ca. 2004
A screenshot of, c. 2004

It was nothing new to me. I was trading freeware on floppy disks when most of my classmates had hardly touched a computer, and by high school I was surfing Usenet, MUDs and IRC and regularly updating my AOL profile. Facebook was a natural continuation of all of this, except for one key factor: my real-life, non-nerdy friends were using it.

In some ways, 2004 is an arbitrary date, but it’s also an important one, since it was the founding year of the what is now the world’s most dominant social-networking service, which eventually made “Mark Zuckerberg” a household name. That same year, iTunes reached the Windows platform, making iPods — and therefore, powerful portable computers — accessible to the majority of computer users, and the ultra-hip were sending and receiving invites to a new email service named Gmail, provided by Google, which was then largely a search engine service.

Computers and the Internet, after decades of association with nerds and misfits, were on the brink of mainstream cool.

Casting a Wide Net.Art

A screen capture from Shop Mandiberg
A screen capture from Shop Mandiberg

As in computers, so in computer art. The early movement saw a lot of creative energy, with works like and Chat Circles stretching the possibilities of this new, networked medium called the Internet long before “social media” became a buzz word.“ A lot of people are calling bullshit on Web 2.0,” said Michael Mandiberg, a current senior fellow at Eyebeam, one of the leading art and technology organizations in New York. “These things existed beforehand; there was just a shift in infrastructure.”

In 2001, for instance, Mandiberg founded Shop Mandiberg, in which he sold all his possessions on the Internet, an act of openness that no longer seems radical today. “eBay and Paypal were like the first moment of opening up of access to exchange,” he explained about the piece.

Screen capture of the central question that guides the work of

I asked him about some of the important work to begin exploring this Web 2.0 idea of open access, and he pointed me to Nasty Nets. Started by Marisa Olson, John Michael Boling, Joel Holmberg, and Guthrie Lonergan, it served as a sort of proto-Tumblr where members turned Internet surfing into an art form by publicly and collaboratively documenting their Internet explorations. “It’s really important as a transitional project,” he told me.

“I think the Internet has changed significantly in the past 5-6 years,” noted Ceci Moss, the current editor at, a New Museum affiliate that supports art engaging in emerging technologies. “This is in part due to social media, but also mobile phones and high bandwidth connections. There are a number of new and exciting art practices that have emerged in response to certain changes in the online platform.”

Moss pointed me to the work of Lonergan’s MySpace Intro Playlist, which captures a period in Internet history that now seems quaint, with a curatorial flair.  She also pointed me to Cont3xt’s Tag Gallery, which explores the use of a Delicious feed as an alternative gallery space.

Real Life to Second Life and Back

What gallery hopping in Second Life looked like, c. March 2007 (via (click to enlarge)

It’s hard to imagine now, but there was a time when corporations were rushing to place ads and set up shop in Second Life. Currently overshadowed by the Web 2.0 behemoths, virtual worlds are inherently social, and they visually blend the real-world aspects of exhibition and performance with all the flexibility of the virtual world.

From Cao Fei’s RMB City to Eva and Franco Mattes’s re-performances, Second Life has provided a rich playground for exploring social media art in a manner that can feel familiar and comfortable to those accustomed to traditional visual art. Even online video games like America’s Army have become a space for performance, as in Joe DeLappe’s dead-in-iraq, where he put down his weapon and recited the names of those who died in the Iraq War.

It was Los Angeles-based artist Christi Nielsen’s explorations in Second Life, with the founding of Metaverse Gallery that led her, eventually, to other social media: “It was hard to find work that was successful. People would just send pictures without consideration to the space.”

Soon afterward, Nielsen founded the inter.sect art collective, which has done art with everything from mobile phone video to the now-defunct Recently featured at the Los Angeles Downtown Film Festival and Digital Art LA, they’ve now branched out into more mainstream forms of social media such as Twitter, YouTube, and Vimeo.

“On whatever platform I’m on,” she said. “I consider it a space. Each medium becomes a venue.”

From Art to Zuckerberg

Nasty Nets - a sort of proto-Tumblr by Marisa Olson
Nasty Nets - a “proto-Tumblr” by Marisa Olson

With all the hype surrounding Twitter, Facebook and the next social media-based startup, it can be easy to assume that an artist using the medium is the “first” to do what they’re doing, but precedents can be found with basic Google research or by perusing Rhizome’s rich digital archives. Even the current run of location-based apps have precedents in art projects like the Yellow Arrow Project, which swept the Lower East Side in 2004 with its mixture of mobile phones, tags, and secret notes.

I’ve inevitably left out many important works; the above survey is hardly comprehensive, and many others are more qualified to speak more fully on the topic. I write this introduction to my survey of social media art not as a historian but as a social media artist myself interested in understanding the deep traditions of and the early explorations of social media art that are often overlooked.

In any case, these early practices of social media art paved the way for what I see as an important marker — 2008, which is when social media entered the mainstream consciousness in many important ways, and social media art followed suit.


See Part Two and Part Three.

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