The Way Forward For Social Media Art

Paddy Johnson has responded to my response of her article, “Don’t Follow Twitter Art.” We obviously disagree and I think we’ve made our opinions rather clear, so you can make up your own mind. But before I move on to other points about art that uses Twitter I want to make a few points of clarification, particularly since Johnson is particularly harsh toward An Xiao’s work (she calls it “vacuous”) without having taken any time to get to know it with more than a passing familiarity.

First off, An Xiao’s “Being Telepresent” (2010), which I curated into #TheSocialGraph, was an opening night (not closing night) project, and the fact that she was actually in the gallery was not the point—the work was planned regardless of her location. In fact, she waited until the end, and after most people left, so that she could surprise her friends and some stragglers with her unexpected presence. But the work in no way was about that element of surprise. Instead, it was intended to be viewed as part of her continuing fascination with party photographers and the ideas of event openings and microfame, something she experimented with in another project, “Photoglam” (2010), during #Class. She was actually the party photographer for the event and I don’t know what one work — which she admits has nothing to do with Twitter and her article — has to do with the other. It is questionable why Paddy chose to attack another work without getting all the facts to justify her first misstep.

Art (and Criticism) That’s Social

But back to the bigger issues that this dialogue has created and that William Powhida touched upon in the comment section of Johnson’s most recent post:

… I think social media also poses a broader problem that Paddy started to get to at the end of her post when thinking about self-promotion. Building networks requires a lot of ‘liking’ and positive affirmation. Critique, criticism, negativity, cynicism … not so much. I feel like my ability to critique anything has been compromised by the relationships social media fosters. This is counter-intuitive, ‘social media brings people together!” Well, perhaps the artist and critic should not be so engaged, so part of the community if it means we start to lose our ability to see clearly and have honest discussions without worrying about upsetting somebody or losing a few hundred followers.

While that may be a concern, I don’t think it’s unique to social media. If anything, I think it lays bare the machinations that are usually obfuscated by the art world. I believe in engaged criticism, one that actively explores the work you are encountering and requires being part of a conversation. Removing yourself from the medium doesn’t necessarily guarantee any more access to truth than engagement; the only difference is the bias is less obvious at times.

Critics of social media encounter reactions to our opinions faster than critics who avoid it altogether. My concern is not any kind of positive feedback loop but a type of reality TV syndrome, where conflict attracts attention, followers and more conflict, often without any resolution … step and repeat. The secret of conflict on social media is that regardless of whether you’re right or wrong, the attention (maybe we should call them ratings?) is being generated and “rewarded” by followers. Sure, people may unfollow you for spamming them too much, but when it comes to content there is little you can do to offend everyone (and often it gains you a new following).

I also disagree with the idea that social media brings us “together.” I don’t know if that type of utopian idea was ever true. But social media does have the ability to connect people easier.

Getting to the Bottom of It

Now, what’s the way forward?

In my opinion, social media is often used as an easy out — which is also true of some artists who use animated GIFs — for many artists who have little programming knowledge. These media provide artists with the ability to create work online (often with few resources) without the need to spend hours perfecting their technical craft. I wish more artists would grapple with the technology itself. I wish they would play with the way information is transmitted, transform the way information is received or question the corporate entities that create the systems most of us use without a second thought.

Man Bartlett spoke to me once about finding a way to transmit video online without the corporate frame that Livestream, Ustream or other entities provide. But with limited financial resources, it is a challenge for any emerging artist to avoid these free services. I liked his instinct to challenge the frame or context provided by social media while maintaining a connection to its huge audience of users.

One of the reasons I chose the title #TheSocialGraph for the November exhibition last year was that I felt that artists were only starting to engage with the bigger revolution at work in social media. It’s neither the instanteous nature of communication, nor the access it provides, but the potential to learn from interactions with others and create new things or experiences based on that information.


The terms Social Media, Social Network, and the Social Graph are often used interchangeably but there are important, if sometimes minor, differences between them. I asked Hyperallergic publisher, Veken Gueyikian, who is also an interactive marketer and thinks about this topic quite a bit, to help me out by proving me with some clear definitions. Here they are:

 Social Media is the use of web-based technology and accessible publishing techniques to turn communication into interactive dialogues. These dialogues or interactions are often combined to create value and outcomes that would otherwise have never been possible or practical from individual uncoordinated contributions.

 Social Networks are made up of individuals (or organizations) connected to each other based on one or many factors that tie or connect them together, such as friendships, family relations, work experiences, common interests, sexual relationships, financial exchanges or beliefs. Early online social networks attempted to recreate these social structures online to strengthen existing connections and create new avenues for communication and discovery of common connections.

 The Social Graph, a term originally introduced by Facebook in 2007, refers to a global map of people and their relationships to one another within an online social network. While social networks exist both offline and online, a social graph is a digital representation or model of our relationships and defined explicitly by all the connections involved between people. Since it’s introduction, the term social graph has expanded to include not just a map of relationships between people, but between people and all types of information about their lives and the interactions they share online.

Have artists been able to grapple with the first two? Yes. Have they had any success with the third? Not yet.

The title of the social media art exhibition I created was aspirational. Only one project, Benjamin Lotan’s “The Social Printshop” (2010– ), grappled with anything even remotely approaching the idea of the social graph, but his focus was more on the idea of the social media startup itself and not on the technology and social graph. My hope is that social media-related art will take up that challenge one day. How artists will do that is not yet clear.

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