Editor’s note: The following post was originally published in early May and has been published here with the author’s permission. Zachary McCune is preparing a series of posts that explore art and social media for Hyperallergic.

At the moment of their retrospectives, which artist is more popular: Cindy Sherman, now at the MoMA, or Damien Hirst at Tate Modern? Opened within 6 weeks of each other, the Sherman and Hirst shows represent two of the most powerful global art institutions anointing two of the most influential contemporary artists. But do Hirst’s sharks and spot paintings beat out Sherman’s movie stills and satirical portraits? I decided to investigate the question through social media, looking to examine which artists resonated louder and with more positive sentiment in the “networked public spaces” of FourSquare, Twitter and Instagram.

Shout Count (Twitter Volume)

Whenever people interrogate topics in social media, they gravitate towards Twitter mentions, hoping to quantify discussion in Twitter’s public sphere. One of the best tools for this very broad research is Topsy, which allows one to compare up to three terms in a month-long window. I actually had Topsy recommended to me by @AdamS who leads Twitter’s work in News and Social Innovation.

In the straightforward comparison of terms “damien hirst” and “cindy sherman” Hirst clearly leads in volume. This is partially down to good timing. His show opened on April 4, days before this graph’s range, so we’re seeing the buzz of that opening dominate on the left side.

As time goes on, Hirst has another explosion of discussion (on Topsy you can sample the top tweet of each day by clicking the node) before leveling out, very similar to Sherman, at about 200 tweets per day.

Twitter mentions of “Damien Hirst” and “Cindy Sherman” in April and early May

Next, I wanted to see how these numbers stacked up against other shows at MoMA and the Tate Modern. So I decided to add a third term of “yayoi kusama” who is also currently having a show at the Tate.  Her mentions are remarkably erratic, and while lower on average than Sherman’s or Hirst’s, still compares closely to their consistent mentions per day. Is their something about artists and 200 mentions a day?

Adding “Yayoi Kusama” (also having a show at the Tate Modern) to the comparison

For a third comparison, I looked at “kraftwerk moma” overlaid on our artist comparison. It’s clear that during their MoMA performances, the German techno troupe were widely mentioned and discussed. If you use the term “kraftwerk” alone, the electronica group far exceeds the amount of daily mentions Hirst and Sherman put up. But many these are related to fan’s listening to work, unconcerned for specific performances on institutional partnerships. Because Topsy defaults to finding both phrases in a tweet but not exact phrasing, this search returned all mentions of kraftwerk that also discussed MoMA.

Looking at the use of “Kraftwerk MoMA” alongside our individual artists

In their own Words (Twitter Sentiment)

Twitter volume is a solid foundation for assessing popularity online, but it tends to favor news stories and major media outlets that are retweeted heavily, boosting mention totals without adding unique voices. And it completely neglects the actual things people are saying, which may be quite negative. So sentiment analysis (or better yet, some qualitative assessment of tweets for topics and tones) produces a more nuanced understanding of popularity in social media spaces. 

Unfortunately, Twitter sentiment software is pretty bad. That’s because it requires heavy language processing and prefers to go with keyterms rather context . If ‘hate = bad’ and ‘love = good’ what does “I don’t get people who hate something as amazing as Damien Hirst” mean?

In any case, TweetFeel is one of the more accurate services and will sample about a dozen recent tweets on a subject and offer a positive/negative scoreboard overview. On TweetFeel “Damien Hirst”the score was tied 6-6. The TweetFeel for “Cindy Sherman” meanwhile returned a 12-3 score heavily biased towards the positive. Hate messages re: Damien Hirst focused on his (dishonest? exciting?) preference for hype and audacity, while positive messages about Sherman complimented her composition and humor.

On Sentiment140, mentions of Cindy Sherman were again very, very positive. Of the few “negative” mentions, all but one were actually positive.

Hirst, again, proved a debatable subject suggesting that one of causes behind his triumph in mention volume is engendering debate rather than simple affirmation. Compare:

Damien Hirst exhibition is very good… Although not recommended if you’re already feeling a bit morbid and existential

— Olivia Pinnock (@OliviaPinnock) May 6, 2012

@oliverrthornton Art – to me anyway – isn’t Tracey Emin’s unmade bed or Damien Hirst with formaldehyde tanks..It’s about ‘images’ and skill.

— Heather McDougall (@heatherm999) May 6, 2012

With more time, it would be great to dig further into the actual tweet mentions and see what topics or themes unite and perhaps explain Twitter volume.

Checked-In (FourSquare)

Smartphone location check-ins allow a peek at actual retrospective attendance. This is particularly valuable as museums rarely offer real-time show attendance data. And FourSquare’s own search tools are simple and fast, offering quick assessments of location popularity.

Unfortunately, smartphone location check-ins are also the “least popular smartphone activity” with just 12% of smartphone owners using services like FourSquare in a 2011 survey. In March 2012, FourSquare announced that it had just 15 million users, though half of those were outside the U.S.

In comparing the check-in counts, Damien Hirst’s show is clearly the winner. Not only does the show have 4x more checkins, it also features a slew of photos uploaded along user check-ins.

But is Hirst’s dominance only a symptom of the Tate Modern’s general dominance? No. MoMA roundly trumps the Tate Modern with 3x more total people and check-ins. Curiously, the photo upload race is much closer.

  • MoMA                                           50,470 people        76,690 checkins    1623 photos
  • Tate Modern                                14,093 people         17,969 checkins      944 photos

Seeing the Crowd (Instagram)

With more than 30 million users and a rapid adoption rate, Instagram is an excellent network to gauge the popularity of elements in contemporary visual culture. Though both retrospectives disallowed photography, users still managed to take hundreds of photos offering a good set of comparable data.

Searches through Instagram browser webstagram revealed that “#damienhirst” had been used on nearly 1,400 photos more than “#cindysherman.” Adding a misspellings of Hirst as “#damianhirst” and “#damianhurst” added another 140 photos, while just the surname delivered a further 522 images, almost all of which were his artwork at the Tate Modern.

  • #damienhirst                   1,731
  • #damienhurst                  86
  • #damianhirst                   54
  • #hirst                                522

On the Sherman side, tagged photos were much smaller in number and mispelling searches for #cindiesherman, #cindyshurman, and #cindysureman returned no results. The #cindysherman photos were also largely from MoMA promotional materials and views outside the show. It seems MoMA security guards are better at preventing photos than their London colleagues. Or MoMA crowds are just more respectful.

The #sherman tag did return over 600 images, but only some of these were related to the artist. Many were mentions of the fashion brand Ben Sherman.

  • #cindysherman               396
  • #sherman*                       637

Since Sherman’s work is usually left untitled, it is very difficult to find specific mentions of her art pieces. Hirst, meanwhile, uses far more memorable titles which return clear mentions of his art. Of 102 photos tagged “#fortheloveofgod“, 21 were from the Tate Modern’s display of the diamonded skull.

Wondering if Hirst’s advantage was due to a photographic preference for the Tate Modern over MoMA, I compared the two terms and found MoMA the clear winner. As with FourSquare check-ins, MoMA has a substantial overall edge, but Hirst continues to outperform Sherman.


While Damien Hirst has resoundingly outpaced Cindy Sherman in volume of mentions, photos and check-ins, his popularity is connected to some debate and discord. The popularity of his Tate Modern retrospective also goes against the trend of MoMA being more popular than Tate Modern on FourSquare and Instagram. Sherman’s photographs seem to have a more niche audience that celebrates her work and keeps Twitter mentions affirming and complimentary. Hirst, meanwhile, captures something in the photographic imagination that has hundreds more smartphone users illicitly snapping and sharing pictures of his work. Perhaps this has something to do with his penchant for the large, outrageous and unnerving. Or perhaps its simply that smart phone users are more willing to post to social media outlets when confronted by sharks, skulls, and butterflies.

About this (Casual) Research

My approach this research is fundamentally casual, something like a “weekend research project.” Rather than use advanced data sets and costly analytic tools, I decided to only use free tools that could be used by just about anyone online. The idea was to sketch an answer to this question, and provide a cocktail of services and approaches could be used by others to likewise quickly detect suggestive trends in quantified culture. I would also like to admit hat polling social media spaces does not singlehandedly prove the popularity of an artist, an art show or an art institution. The audiences who could be pressed to answer those questions are not necessarily speaking about art in social media. But many are. And for those populations who trace their thoughts and interactions with art in social media, we have a rich trove of data to examine. My hope is that museums and artists will not only consider assessing their work in this public sphere, but also find ways to engage these spaces around the very debates and themes their creative practices rely on.

Zachary McCune is a digital culture researcher specializing in mobile and social platforms. He has developed music visualizers for MTV, filmed a documentary on traditional Irish games, and written an...