Exploring Art in Online Communities
The advent of the virtual world poses challenges for the art community within the physical world. Artists who showcase their portfolios in galleries, coffee shops, and museums have shifted over to the Internet where their artwork reaches a wider network of people, leading to broader exposure. This exposure is crucial for artists who make a career of their art because it enhances their prospects of selling their artwork and earning an income.
In this exploration of World Wide Web, many social networking sites such as Facebook, Myspace, and Friendster have allowed people from separate locations around the world to develop close social ties, or to reconnect with a high school friend. Joseph Walther in his article comments that a social networking site like Facebook has “a million new users establish[ing] accounts each week”, attracting 52 million people worldwide (Walther 2008:532). So if communities are building rapidly in these online spaces, in what way does the artist and his or her art use the Web? We explore this question as a group of five undergraduates who are also artists. While each member of the group has taken on a different virtual online site that is aimed at creating or expanding a pre-existing art community, our focus is on the function of art on these online art communities. Is the art influenced by the social aspects of a website? How does the art in return influence creating social bonds? As users create a profile and log on with the intention of promoting their art, this intention evolves to expanding his or her own personal social network. However, inevitably this naturalized norm of socializing or building a network traces back in a full circle to the reason he or she logged on the website—the art.
Frame of Mind
What can be said about social networking sites and online art communities?When building a social community there is usually a medium, or space, for the community to communicate with and/or in. There are examples of this in the physical world- church communities, clubs at school, and sports teams. These communities communicate in the physical space of the church, the school building, or the field. The medium is verbal as well as physical communication. In church, it is often about the religion in which the community has collectively identified with. For the others, it is the theme of the club or the play of the game.
Online the space is the internet itself, and because of its ambiguous location the community becomes dependent on the medium to glue the community together in the virtual “space.” In this research the space[s] that communities have agreed to identify with are we art-related websites. This medium is heavily visual, with a textual interface. The cue is at first visual as the artwork initiates the attraction and introduction to art-networking sites such as Flickr, Tapsmack, and DeviantArt. Other sites such as Myspace and Facebook, which are less targeted towards artists, also participate in providing personalized community. This is accomplished through the broad functions, applications, and freedom of usage on the sites.
According to J. B. Walther, author of “Interpersonal effects in computer-mediated interaction,” there is a SIP theory (social information processing theory) in which people manage to find ways to use their environment in any means available to create a presence, identity, or impression, even when nonverbal cues are not present (Walther & Parks in “Too Much of a Good Thing? The Relationship Between Number of Friends and Interpersonal Impressions on Facebook,” 2008: 533). In art websites the cues that are mainly depended upon for social interaction initiation are visual because the environment is artistic at its core.
Aside from establishing that art websites have these social factors, we can see that these websites have drastically influenced the success, accessibility, and limitations for the artist. Chris Robertson, author of Majon International, one of the world’s top internet marketing companies writes in his article, “The Advantage of Interactive Online Art Communities,” that:
In the olden days before the communications revolution, it was a few assorted experts, art critics and art galleries that decided what was art and how desirable it was. Anyone who did not have access to those experts and galleries had essentially no chance to have their art seen and discussed by an audience outside of friends and family (Robertson, www.abcarticledirectory.com/Article/The-Advantage-of-Interactive-Online-Art-Communities/207558).
With the web, instead of waiting to be discovered by an art collector or gallery owner, artists can display their art on their own terms in their own online art gallery. In this manner fame is not guaranteed, as Robertson points out, but “it provides what many artists desire most: getting feedback from peers and enthusiasts and to be able to make their art potentially available to millions, no matter where on the planet they may live” (1). For example, when I surf through a new online community, I can click on any photograph and am instantly in contact with the artist. I can comment on their art, chat with them, buy their art directly, or interview them. This instant access to endless varieties of art, all gathered in one communal space, where any viewer only needs to click to interact with the artist, is revolutionary in itself and should not be overlooked.
For the purpose of this research, we did not want to be selective by narrowing our scope to one website source. Instead, we chose five primary websites, two that are art-designated in addition to the two largest social networking sites on the web: Myspace and Facebook. Our five websites included: Myspace, Facebook, Tapsmack, Flickr, and DeviantArt. Each member of the group was responsible for taking a website and creating an account. As such, we became active users of the sites and active artists of the sites. We promoted our own artwork for the necessity of truly fulfilling the role of an artist using these social networking sites. In addition to this, we regularly updated our accounts, posted news, joined groups and chats to gain acceptance within the online community and explore the functions and applications within each website. Our primary method was participant observation as we observed profile pages of other active users, top artists, artwork, and even our own status- as it significantly grew due to the accustomed habit of logging in. From this we found that many artists used these sites as a middle ground for their own personalized sites. Those jump links were then also explored and observed. In order to explore how these websites shape the artist’s success, it was crucial for us to present our research directly and in the lingo used by the community on message boards and in chat rooms. This was most effective on Myspace and journal postings. On Facebook in particular, joining art groups composed of artists was effective because contrary to our original assumptions, their artwork was not posted in a photo album and uploaded to the site. Once joining the art groups it became clear that Facebook was not favored as an ideal space for an artist to showcase her artwork due to its emphasis on social networking. However, applications such as posting an event, where artists could locate an art show held by their fellow Facebook friends, was utilized heavily as a form of building a presence within the art community. Within online art communities like DeviantArt, observing activity on artists’ profile pages with high activity rates, “Deviations,” “Features,” “Favorites” and “DeviantWatches” were all crucial for understanding the ways in which an artist utilizes the online space. Most importantly, the best results were yielded from participating in the activity of commenting on artwork or responding to comments made—which created a life of its own—threads of conversation that revealed much about social dynamics and the role of art in these online spaces. On Flickr, having a profile and being a part of many different groups was crucial- as was expanding one’s social network within the site as much as possible. Through the constant exploration of the various features on the site and the close observation of social norms, we are able to witness how Flickr flourishes under both its artistic and social aspects.
During the several weeks we followed art communities on Facebook, we observed several different types of actions. Facebook allows individuals to start groups based on different themes. Part of our research included joining different art groups to observe how they operate and to see how artists used these sites to promote their own art. One thing we noticed was that these art groups do not operate as a place for artists to showcase their work. None of the groups have wall space where members uploaded their own artwork. In fact, the only function that groups did employ within the group page itself was the wall. The wall served as a place for members to chat amongst each other about art; however, most of the sites had only a few wall posts, and others hadn’t been used in months.
Withing a couple of weeks after one member of our group joined one of these groups, the member started to receive messages. Messages appeared to be the one constant medium of exchange among these groups. It was surprising that all of the messages had the same theme—art shows. It appears that the real purpose of these groups was not to post pictures of artist’s work, or to chat within the group, but as a ground to publicize individual artist’s art shows. After receiving several invitations to shows, the member of our group started to befriend some of the artists. As this member of our group perused their profile pages, she noticed that only about half of these artists had photo albums dedicated to their artwork. In several Facebook chat interviews the member of our group asked why this was so, and received replies including “Facebook really isn’t the place where I post my art, I use other sites for that... I just use Facebook to tell me friends about my upcoming shows.” There appeared to be a consensus that many artists did not feel that Facebook was the best place to display their art. As one female college student reiterated, “On Facebook I just talk to my friends, and they have already seen all my work- so there’s no real need to post it again.” Conclusively, Facebook’s “events” and “message all members” functions are generally the most useful and popular tools among artists using Facebook.
One member of our group has been a member of Flickr for almost a year now, and in this time its complex social nuances have gradually revealed themselves. When this member of our group first started, she assumed that Flickr was just a medium for users to upload photos to the web and share their albums with friends, family, and the occasional stranger. However, as she explored further, she stumbled upon dozens of artists and photographers whose Flickr profiles generated thousands of hits a day, and for whom an image could yield up to 400 comments within hours of its upload. The images were amazing, the member of our group conceded—however, the member of our group could not understand how another artist with similar talent could have such drastically lower view-counts and comments on his photo-stream. Another mystery to me was the phenomenon on Flickr known as “explore.” Through a complex, secret algorithm, Flickr calculates the “interestingness” of every upload based upon “where the clickthroughs are coming from; who comments on it and when; who marks it as a favorite; its tags and many more things which are constantly changing. Interestingness changes over time, as more and more fantastic content and stories are added to Flickr” (http://www.Flickr.com/explore/interesting/). The photographs deemed “most interesting” by this algorithm are then conducted into the venerable pages of “explore.” This is a highly discussed and highly sought-after honor within the Flickr community, and a quick glance through the pages of “explore” will reveal some of the most fantastic images Flickr has to offer.
I quickly realized that to “make explore,” one must first establish a network of loyal “contacts,” or friends and fans of your work. These are the people who would provide the views, comments, and “faves” that would elevate an image’s “interestingness.” The more you comment and “fave” others’ images, the courtesy is for them to return the favor. Slowly, an increasingly wider social network is established through this process, until every image you upload will have at least several obligatory comments from your contacts praising your work. In this way, the social and artistic aspects of Flickr are inextricably linked, so that rarely can one succeed without the other. Only the most brilliant and effortlessly talented image-makers on Flickr can flourish without being social, and only the most sociable and comment-happy members on Flickr can succeed without having much talent.
As an online art community, Flickr has evolved to somewhat of a popularity contest amongst artists vying to become the most “interesting” photographer on Flickr. Because of the conveniently social and often competitive nature of online art communities, it is now easier than ever to gain widespread popularity on Flickr, whether you truly have talent or not.
When one member of our group first logged onto my account under my DeviantArt avatar name “thinkmadcrazy” to upload photos of her artwork, her work was added to three other users’ “favorites” collection, and she received four comments and sixteen messages—all within the first several minutes. This member of our group did not know these other members personally, but because her art was uploaded to a public viewing platform with instant access, her artwork acted as her agent, attracting future contacts. The art initiated our first introduction and further social interactions. As a beginning DeviantArt user, or a “newbie,” this member of our group wanted to further explore the purpose of networking with other artists and how these social interactions affect the art. One feature in particular on DeviantArt is the message alert system that functions similar to a “newsfeed” on Facebook creating a sense of immediate intimacy within this art community. On Facebook we have what Clive Thompson, in his article “Brave New World of Digital Intimacy,” calls “ambient updates-” which on the ‘Newsfeed’, “are all visible on a single page…they’re not really directed at you. This makes them easy to skim, like newspaper headlines” (Thompson 2008:5). Clicking on this alert system built into the site, called “DeviantWatch,” this “skimmable” inbox is divided into smaller categories: deviations, journals, news, polls, feedback, comments, replies, and activity. It is within this forum that most social interaction occurs.
“Deviations” are the images of artwork from other artists that pop up in your deviation inbox every time she or he has uploaded a new work of art. These works range in traditional art, digital art, photography, literature, artisan crafts, designs and interfaces, animation, manga, anime. In this way, the art remains the primary foundation for taking an initial interest in other artists. By clicking on an image that sparks interest, one is led immediately to the artist’s profile page where further text and visual information can be exchanged. However, under “Activity” and “Comments” was where the member of our group found herself having more immediate conversations with other artists.
Just having her artwork added to many DA users’ favorites also noticeably sparked a sense of excitement within this member of our group. In that moment she became more concerned with how other artists viewed my artwork, their thoughts or opinions, which were revealed in detail in the ‘comments’ section. While viewing and reading the comments, she noticed that conversation was often initially focused on the art, but often evolves into a free-form discussion on other topics.
The act of checking favorites, adding other members, and comments shows that “individuals are concerned to explore how it mediates between persons after publication. Indeed, the ease of online publishing means that they can devote most of their attention to how the weblog is received” (Reed 2005: 230). Within the space of “Comments” particularly, how art is received becomes a crucial stimulus to social interaction. These concerns of public feedback is crucial for developing closer ties such as “adding” other members or even buying art from that artist. Social interaction evolves from the subject of art to a more socialized textual atmosphere, yet still traces back to being about the art.
This member of our group also noticed that constructive criticism of the artwork is always in a very positive tone. It has become the social norm for DeviantArt users to comment positively on others’ work, while negative or hateful comments are often looked-down upon. This tendency to comment and communicate constructively regardless of the quality of the artwork and skill level of the artist seems to be unique to online art communities, and further establishes a communal bond that is centered on inspiring and creating art.
Functions such as commenting, adding members as favorites, or “watching” someone, all allow for a constructive community within a forum of ever-expanding social networks. However, because these social ties are founded upon the sharing of art-pieces, the community inevitably remains centered around the art itself, building relationships and expanding networks along the way.
Tapsmack is a young, up-and-coming web site that fulfills the roles of social networking and marketplace. As a social network, Tapsmack brings together non-artists who have ideas for art pieces and artists ready to showcase their talents by fashioning those ideas into visual art. As a marketplace, Tapsmack allows all users, referred to as “Smackers”, to vote on the best ideas and designs. All Smackers have the option to then purchase the designs for use on actual products such as clothing and tattoos.
Unlike a social networking web site, TapSmack does not have a “friending” system in place or a ready-made network to join upon registering. However, TapSmack is not simply an art website either; while TapSmack allows Smackers to maintain a portfolio of their artwork, TapSmack does not emphasize only art showcasing or sharing. In addition to presenting ideas and designing them into a visual artwork, all Smackers can vote on their favorite designs by clicking either the “Love It” or “Like It” button next to the design being voted. They can also give feedback on designs and ideas by commenting on the respective designs or ideas’ web pages. There are also incentives for Smackers to continue participating as both Artists and Idea Creators and contributing to the growth of TapSmack. First, TapSmack establishes a rank of Smackers based on seniority. In order to move up the ranks, a Smacker would have to earn SmackCash, the TapSmack “currency” which is used as participation “points” rather than actual cash- by posting ideas and designs, voting on designs, selling designs, and inviting friends to join TapSmack.
Some people are concerned about the commoditization of art, as demonstrated in the activities on Tapsmack. However, Tapsmack is a young web site with good potential as a worthy enterprise. Sales and consumption of art are made directly between artists and consumers. Tapsmack also encourages online participation in order to form an intimate community within a common space. Non-artists, in particular, are encouraged to participate and contribute their visions and ideas. In this way, Tapsmack becomes a community in which the central focus is on generating art for the purpose of both showcasing talent and making money. Through comments, votes, and criticism of the art created, a social community is born that regulates and perpetuates the art that is created. The art originates as the central theme of discussion, and through the social functions of the site, it is either rejected as a concept or fully realized through commercial sale.
Tattoos, as a form of art and business, have grown exponentially in popularity. Since the explosion of the Myspace community, a number of factors have contributed to the expansion and accessibility of the tattoo industry. With over 110 million monthly active users, tattoo artists have gained massive clientele potential. Internet search engines such as Lycos have revealed the popularity of tattoos, as it ranked “tattoos as the number two most requested search term on the internet in 2002.”
Myspace has provided a useful medium for tattoo artists to further their client base, network with other artists and get a better sense of “what’s being done out there”. As opposed to displaying photos of the artists themselves, most default pictures and avatars are pictures of the artist’s work. This allows for judgment based solely on merit, as people do not know what race or sex the artist is. Race and sex are not identity cues, as Wagner addressed in the article “The Skin You’re In”. Clicking on the avatars will likely reveal a profile page complete with shop location, hours, contact information and fliers for art shows. The “blog” section will normally exhibit merchandise such as sketchbooks, t-shirts and tattoo machines. Most notable is the “photos” section, containing portfolios displaying hundreds of tattoos and paintings the artist has done. In a sense, Myspace serves as a facilitator of business and advertising for the independently contracted tattoo artist, all created and personalized by the artists themselves.
Whether or not Myspace has “improved” the tattoo industry is an issue of debate among tattoo enthusiasts and artists. A 41-year-old veteran tattoo collector told a member of our group, “It’s given stupid people the ability to annoy a larger number of tattoo artists at one time.” Another tattoo collector said, “Well, for one the internet makes art much more accessible, and a lot easier to be plagiarized”. After hearing snippets of random people’s two cents, one member of our group decided to attempt to contact and conduct interviews with two world-renowned tattoo artists. Surprisingly, they responded and provided insightful information.
One of the artists felt that Myspace had not given him more clients or made him any busier than he was before Myspace, but has allowed for easier and more effective communication with customers from other countries. However, just as people believed the transatlantic cable would bring about positive world peace, the same cannot be assumed for Myspace’s impact on the tattoo industry. “Ever since people have invented things, other people have found ways to put those things to criminal use” (Standage 2007:105). An apparently negative influence of Myspace on the tattoo industry happens to be coming from the younger generation of tattoo artists. These upstart young artists have had access to worlds of artwork on Myspace. What results is the assumption that the profession of tattooing is an easy industry to enter. Thus, the youth within the community do not learn the ethics of the business or the way of the industry, disrespecting the veterans who paved the way before them. Many steal designs and plagiarize the work of other artists, making the older, more experienced tattoo artists reluctant to help their younger counterparts.
However, the connectivity and accessibility offered by Myspace has also raised the standard within the community in terms of quality and creativity. One artist told me that in the 70s and 80s, tattoos were generally simple and small. Now, the current standard of tattoos would have seemed impossible back then. Myspace has raised awareness about the incredible works possible in the profession, and has raised the bar for everyone.
Furthermore, other renowned artists also felt more positively about Myspace. One artist felt Myspace greatly helped his career as an artist by allowing him to network with thousands of other artists- resulting in more clients, more friends, and more opportunities to travel and work at different shops.
Through our explorations of the five websites—Facebook, Myspace, DeviantArt, Tapsmack, and Flickr—we discovered that art functions as a visual focus to initiate social interaction and relationships. As time progresses, the focus may shift slightly away from the art as social bonds are formed and networks of contacts are expanded. However, community attention will inevitably redirect itself to focus on the artwork within the community, and the primary reason most users log on remains for the purpose of sharing and distributing art.
Chatting with other artists, joining groups, commenting on artwork, and participating in buying or selling are all useful features and sometimes distractions within these spaces- however the art never leaves the online scene. Despite its advantages of providing a sense of community, feedback, and a space for the artist to reach a wider audience, online art communities have their drawbacks. For instance, plagiarism, blatant art theft, and cheapening artwork have become more rampant because of the internet. Furthermore, the social aspects of online communities can also detract from the art when users become too focused on gaining notoriety and popularity within the community, and pieces can become cheap ploys to generate hits.
Consequently, online art communities both benefit and detract from artists in a circular motion. The art will initially attract viewers and social contacts, but can evolve to the point where the quality and integrity of the art is compromised. However, with time, most members within art communities will re-balance their attention and harness the social and interactive aspects of the community to benefit their work.
This varies from our initial assumption that online art communities were just becoming networking grounds for socializing. We did not fully realize the complex relationship between an online social community and the character of the art within it. However, it has become evident that the internet has exerted great influence on the art world in more ways than one, and only one thing is for certain- the art community will never be the same.
Were we able to do things differently, we would probably have conducted more interviews with members of each site in order to gain insight into how other users view the complex relationship between the internet and the art world. Also, we would probably have focused more in-depth on one or two main online art communities, rather than dividing our resources between five vastly different communities.