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Editor’s note: This is the eighth in a series of commissioned essays for The World’s First Tumblr Art Symposium on Saturday, March 9, 2013.
One of the unique things about the internet is that it’s a quantifiable space. Every action that takes place online is basically an exchange of data, codified in ones and zeroes. Everything you do on the web is increasingly measurable and trackable, which is one of the reasons we’ve come to live in the age of what is being called “Big Data.” With metrics being such a pervasive part of internet culture, the net has developed its own unique value system, which tends to favor and reward two things: the size of your audience (number of eyeballs) and that audience’s level of engagement (how deeply people interact with your content).
The dominant coinage of the web is “social currency,” or the resources that can be gained by interacting within a social network online, a statistic that is measured in likes and reblogs. This data-driven structure goes hand-in-hand with the commercial enterprises behind many of the platforms we use online. As Kyle Chayka pointed out in his Tumblr Art essay, “Our experience of the internet is an inherently monetary exchange, with web-based businesses profiting directly or indirectly from our accessing of information that others have chosen to make public.” As it turns out, our chasing of social currency feeds directly into the commercial system of technology companies.
Users earn social currency by creating or curating popular content for the web, while the businesses get to mine their behavior and tap into the cultural zeitgeist, selling customized advertising campaigns directly back to the internet in the form of viral media or branded content. This exchange, which turns original content into data into commercial content, only serves to reinforce the behavior of popularity chasing. The majority of websites are actually engineered to promote this kind of “Like economy,” emphasizing the most-shared content, visually promoting how many likes and tweets a given piece gets, and giving users constant opportunities to spread content further through their own personal networks.
The result is a web experience that’s designed to constantly let you know how you measure up. In an environment so driven by metrics, it’s impossible not to wonder how this feedback loop of stats and analytics impacts the output of cultural creators and curators. Are they always chasing the elusive acknowledgement of a fickle internet audience spoiled by an overabundance of choice? Do they model their work on the successful examples they see online?
Tumblr has a particularly interesting ecosystem to consider when exploring these questions. There are several metrics an artist or curator on the platform might be influenced by: number of followers (the size of your overall audience), number of notes (a combination of likes and reblogs, whereby users indicate appreciation or re-post your work to their own feed), and inclusion on Tumblr’s Radar or curated tags (an acknowledgement from Tumblr’s editors that gives work higher visibility and a boost in popularity).
Our capacity to be influenced by these criteria is almost unavoidable. We’re far more likely to give a second glance to a work that’s been given the stamp of approval by thousands of unknown peers or a site editor (the cream is supposed to rise to the top, after all), and few of us can resist the Pavlovian call of the ticker’s ascent.
Some artists respond by optimizing their art to fit within Tumblr’s cultural and aesthetic parameters, designing it in such a way as to attract the greatest number of notes. Others choose to exploit and subvert the system in their explorations of the “like” economy and its limitations.
Matt Divito, aka Mr. Div, is a self-proclaimed “Tumblr artist.” He found unexpected success on the platform after posting GIFs of his motion graphics studies while he was teaching himself Cinema4D. His work is typified by simple, geometric shapes, optical illusions, and a fuzzed-out, retro-style feel that make it look like every GIF has been passed through an Instagram filter.
While Divito maintains that the aesthetics of his work are a reflection of his own personal taste, he himself is a product of art circulated on Tumblr and other contemporary art and design blogs. He also acknowledges that the GIFs are designed expressly for Tumblr: In a recent panel I organized about social media, art, and the “like” economy, Divito explained that his GIFs are designed with the site’s tech specs and audience in mind, and as such are completely native to the platform and would feel out of place in any other setting. They are, to some degree, in dialogue with the platform and its users — born of that particular context and responding to it.
Mr. Div’s GIFs have received hundreds of thousands of likes and reblogs. Divito’s tumblelog, when viewed in its entirety, reads like a chronicle of the artist’s technical and aesthetic development, with the Tumblr audience noting early successes and missteps. It’s a look inside his creative process, functioning almost like an open studio that allows the artist to share and receive feedback on new work.
Most likely, developing his style based on how well his posts performed was not part of Divito’s intent, but it’s probable that it was a subconscious part of the exchange. The system is just designed to work that way. That doesn’t have to be a bad thing, though — Mr.Div’s GIFs are actually good and have gotten better as his skill and reputation have grown, out there in public for all of Tumblr to watch and like. Sometimes, it is better to work in front of an audience.
This does require placing a good deal of trust in the audience’s ability to discern quality, however, a notion explored in Jonathan Vingiano and Brad Troemel’s “Echo Parade.” “Echo Parade” is a Tumblr bot that started out following 200 art Tumblrs and was designed to scan and repost popular content from them. It would automatically reblog anything that accumulated 15 notes in under 24 hours and follow the last five people included in the post’s notes. As it grew and its network expanded, the number of notes it took for something to be rebloggable increased to 25, 35, 45, and so on. In theory, this should have increased the quality of the content, but in fact, it did the opposite.
“Though it was initially thought the bot would monitor the internet art world on Tumblr, the increased note standards and widened network quickly lead out from the art world and into the more general Tumblr public,” Troemel wrote on his site. “Boy bands, memes, and cartoons came to dominate the bot’s attention in a matter of days. The bot crashed a month after it was released.”
By optimizing the bot to respond to the “best” material, as determined by Tumblr’s community metrics, the feed quickly turned from art into pop culture drivel in the form of “boy bands, memes, and cartoons,” as Troemel wrote. This begs the question of whether social currency can actually be an effective indicator of quality, especially as it pertains to art.
I think it can, but perhaps only when mediated by individuals who step forward as curators and tastemakers to steer the conversation. How would this project have been different, for instance, if it was following Tumblr’s curated #art feed? Unlike the “Echo Parade” bot, Tumblr’s editors and community contributors are able to take both metrics and artistic quality into account, and, by and large, the work they select for the featured #art tag is usually quite good. They’re also able to promote things that may not yet be popular, but which become popular through their endorsement, which is an important tipping of the Like economy’s scales.
Stats are woven into the fabric of the web and, tied as they are to the business prospects of many of our favorite service providers, the metrics aren’t going away anytime soon. If anything, we’ll probably see more attempts at the “gamification” techniques meant to encourage this behavior, like the addictive buttons and animated feedback that liking and reblogging currently feature. Short of choosing to disengage from the metrics system completely, as Benjamin Grosser did with his “Facebook Demetricator” project, which erased all visible numbers from his Facebook profile, there’s not much artists can do to extricate themselves from this data-driven system as long as they hope to make and display work online. The most successful creators will be those who choose to work within the system, but do so with self-awareness and purpose, and perhaps a good dose of humor as well.
Hyperallergic would like to thank Pernod Absinthe for their support of the World’s First Tumblr Art Symposium essay series.