How artists use social media

Artists use social media in a variety of different ways but at least two main categories come to mind. Social media is either used as a canvas or as a brush to use rather simple metaphors. Artists using social media as a canvas use social media mainly as the material and space of their work, whereas the brush metaphor refers to the leveraging of social media as a source or inspiration for the work. Then of course there are the different modes of using social media as with all technologies in which people (artists) either embrace it or critically question it (and as always there is also the in-between). What seems to be evident however, is how many artists use social media as a type of performance art, either by staging a performance on social media platforms, or using social media as a component in a performance, for instance by letting the audience decide on the course of the performance. Some of the many ways in which artists are using social media include:

  • Interactive art created on basis of input from active participating users in which an audience determines the work: Examples include the inter.sect Art Collective who has created several exhibitions where random status updates are sent to the artists who then translate it visually and post it back into the social media stream. In the case of Dance Theatre Workshop’s Twitter Choreography they create dance and performance almost entirely based on Twitter users directions and suggestions.
  • Artists using social media to generate ‘crowdsourced happenings’: @Platea is a good example here and I’ve written about it before. It’s an online art collective doing online performances using social media in which everyone that wants can participate.

Ellsworth Kelly Hacked My Twitter
  • Art created on basis of user input from unwitting participants: Whereas a lot of work asks users to provide input as to how a particular piece of art is to be made, or progress in the case of many performance pieces, other artists also use the large amount of user input, or user generated content that is out there as the content and  the material of their art. On my recent visit to Vancouver the Diane Ferris Gallery showed a social media art exhibition called Twitter/Art+Social Media. Brian Piana, one of the artists in the show, exhibited several pieces created by using actual Twitter data. For instance the piece “Ellsworth Kelly Hacked My Twitter”, creates a color grid based on the most recent tweets from people he follows, or Journal of the Collective Me” that presents a real-time chronicle of anonymous tweets that contain the word “me”.
  • Many artists also use social media to reach out to people and get them engaged in their work. In these cases social media is used to create communities and facilitate interpersonal interaction. Social media becomes a means for artists to connect both to a potential audience as well as to other artists. This is particularly valuable as many artists work rather isolated and detached from their audience.
  • Art that explores the social and cultural aspects of social media by using social media as its canvas: Lauren McCarthy’s project Showertweets used tweets from the shower to question the limits of our public private lives, or Rachel Perry Welty’s Facebook-based performance “Rachel Is” in which she attempted to give an accurate status update on Facebook every sixty seconds from 7:30 in the morning to 11 at night to explore the ways in which people craft a persona online. One of my favourite examples is the I’m Not Stalking you; I’m Socializing project by artist Liz Filardi in which she critically explores several aspects of social networking such as status updates, and “following” somebody

Rune by Matt Held
  • Lastly, and this may be the most common way to use social media for artists, is to use it as an inspiration or source for their artistic projects that are often crafted in other more traditional media. Artists still paint oil paintings or use printed matter with different motives taken from the social media world. The artists Matt Held for instance paints Facebook portraits , as does the Brooklyn based artist Nic Rad

Battle of the features, it’s question time

These days Facebook has launched a new feature called Facebook Questions. Basically it lets you ask and answer questions from your extended circle. But Facebook is not the only one experimenting with the potentials of the Q&A communicative and informational form. Yesterday I signed up for a service called Replyz that integrates with Twitter on leveraging the amount of questions asked on the popular microblogging platform by mining all tweets that seem question-related. The service also lets people ask questions or give answers beyond their Twitter network. At the moment Replyz is in a semi-private beta trying to figure out how to make the most out of what appears to be the latest trend in social network features – questions.

Facebook even seems to consider questions to be an important part of the company’s future. Beta testers of the Facebook questions feature have been asked to “ask great questions and provide great answers about their favourite topics. Economics? Skydiving? Relationships? Mexican Restaurants? Now it’s “What do you want to know?” and “What’s your question?” instead of “What’s on your mind?” and “What’s happening?”

I’ve tried both Facebook and Twitter’s questions feature. While the questions feature is not directly promoted through the Twitter website, any questions posed via Replyz (provided you have logged on via your Twitter account) gets automatically posted on Twitter. Facebook on the other hand has integrated its questions features as part of the toolbar on the left and promotes it as a preview right above the news feed these days. However, both social network sites still have a long way to go before the questions feature seems to be useful. Right now it all comes across as rather confusing and messy. In the case of Facebook I can’t seem to access the question I posed yesterday. It merely states that I have participated in asking a question but the question itself and potential replies have disappeared out of sight. The questions feed consists pretty much of the question “What is the best restaurant in Cambridge?” repeated 13 times along with different answers. There are two other random questions in the feed right now and all three questions have been posed by a friend of a friend. Unfortunately I am not overly interested in restaurants in Cambridge at the moment.

Likewise, my question posed in Replyz hasn’t received any replies yet, although the service boosts with the promise of getting replies in real-time. Now I can’t see how Replyz is any different from a normal Q&A feature. Inquiring the ‘view conversations’ tab on Replyz for the most recent questions, looks rather unpromising in terms of actually getting questions answered. The tab reads just like any other Twitter feed where questions quickly disappear as new questions appear, all of them with 0 replies. The service lets you search for questions, but this seems somewhat counterintuitive. Who searches for questions when what one wants is an answer? Those likely to search for the same things that you are interested in are also the most likely to wonder about the same things.

Questions is an attempt to have a say in the market for search online. As a feature, both Facebook Questions and Replyz deal with social search, that is, search that leverages the knowledge base of a social network. The idea is that there are certain types of questions that a normal search engine cannot answer properly because they don’t have a single right answer. Social search is therefore about subjective questions, advice and opinions. Social search and Q&A services have been up on the rise lately with Google purchasing the social search service Aardvark in February 2010, Yahoo Answers, and Quora and Formspring as merely the latest additions. The fact that Facebook calls the beta testing of its feature ‘a help for building the future of Facebook’, attests to the ways in which the Internet is first and foremost about getting questions answered, i.e. about information retrieval. Status updates may provide the main feature of Facebook right now, but it remains to be seen how long other people’s moments can uphold peoples’ interest in the long run.

Facebook and Twitter have some advantages over other Q&A services that keep popping up though. Many people probably trust their Facebook friends more than anonymous people on Google or Formspring. Facebook Questions could have a real potential in terms of asking for opinions and recommendations rather than proving facts. The downside is of course even more information. Asking questions is easy, getting people to answer them much harder. Unless there is a way to heighten peoples’ incentives about answering questions it seems somewhat unlikely that a service like Replyz will actually be useful.


see also article on Replyz by Search Engine Land

Podcast from SXSW 2010 on social search