Contemporary Social Media:
Facebook and Twitter
Gary O. Larson
G ary O. Larson worked in a variety of capacities at the National Endowment for the Arts between 1980 and 1996, and was a writer/editor at both the Center for Media Education (1998-2000) and the Center for Digital Democracy (2001-2007). The author of The Reluctant Patron: The U.S. Government and the Arts, 1943-1965 and American Canvas: An Arts Legacy for Our Communities, he has also written numerous articles on culture, technology, and the nonprofit sector. He was guest curator of "DiverseNet: Building a Scenic Route on the Information Superhighway" at DiverseWorks Artspace in Houston in 1996; has taught at the University of Minnesota, the University of Maryland, and American University; and lectured at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and the Smithsonian Institution. A graduate of the University of California at Berkeley, he earned his M.A. and Ph.D. in American Studies at the University of Minnesota.
The State of Artmaking on Social Media
Anyway, my initial request for membership under my given name was summarily rejected, presumably because Facebook's automated watchdogs enforced a strict quota on certain celebrity names (including the "Far Side" cartoonist's, apparently). I didn't take this rebuff personally (as I'm sure any number of honest-to-goodness Michael and Janet Jacksons, and countless others, were treated similarly back then). I simply transposed two letters in my first name -- from Gary to Gray -- which I never bothered to change, since I still haven't found a place for Facebook (or Twitter or Instagram or any of the others) in my daily life.
This is not to say that I'm not delighted to learn that so many artists do use these platforms, and not simply to share snapshots of their latest farm-to-fork extravagances, or to forward viral videos, or to weigh in on vile politics. As Prof. Malloy's Social Media Narratives course makes abundantly clear, these platforms have become fertile ground for creative expression. To which I say, bravo! Let a million messages bloom.
I'm not yet convinced, on the other hand, that social media represents a new promised land for the arts in the U.S. We've heard such claims before, after all -- first with radio, and then television, cable TV, direct-broadcast satellite, and finally the so-called Information Superhighway itself (along with all of the toll roads, business loops, and red-light districts it spawned over the years). And yet, despite these various technological advances -- or perhaps because of them -- the vast majority of artists still labor in the margins of media culture—analog and digital alike -- overshadowed by corporate-sponsored entertainment, celebrity gossip, and various forms of vox-populism. Trending now: the decline of Western civilization….
No, it's not really that bad (yet). But life online for artists—and for arts audiences—could be a lot better than it currently is. Nor would it be the first time that we’ve endeavored to make the virtual landscape more accommodating to serious artistic expression. Most of these efforts, it is true, were too-little-too-late attempts to overcome the deficiencies of commercial systems (e.g., channel set-asides for noncommercial stations on radio and TV; requirements for public, educational, and government channels on cable systems; and a 4 percent reservation of satellite TV capacity for public-interest programming), which had only limited success. Even our crowning achievements in this regard -- PBS and NPR -- as indispensable as they are to the cultural health of the nation, are pretty much closed systems when it comes to providing access to independent voices.
Those voices have found a ready home on the Internet, to be sure, where the barriers to entry are much lower than in the traditional media. But the odds of being noticed in what has been aptly described as "the world’s biggest popularity contest" are astronomically high. Just a glance at some of the staggering numbers of social media -- 4 million "likes" generated every minute on Facebook, 500 million Tweets sent every day, 400 hours of video uploaded every minute -- are suggestive of what online artists are up against. Suddenly the Mega Millions and Powerball lotteries start to look like sound financial planning.
None of this is news to those artists who have plied their trades online, of course. Most of them, I suspect, are not interested in either fame or fortune, but are committed to exploring social media as new forms of publication and performance -- a way to get their work "out there," and as all artists must at the conclusion of the creative process, simply "see what happens." Moreover, to the extent that social media art is interactive and fluid, even participatory in some instances, these new platforms offer advantages that galleries, recital halls, and print publications generally don’t: the opportunity to extend the creative process based on viewer feedback and response. Aside from the problem of inveterate naysayers and various other cranks that the Internet seems to breed like mosquitoes (offering innumerable variations on the old "my-ten-year-old-daughter-could-do-that" canard), fluidity and feedback are good things, right?
So perhaps my skepticism about the potential impact of social media on art (and vice versa) has more to do with the demand side of the equation. How do audiences find social media art in the first place? Will the works they discover still be accessible next month? Next year? Where can users go to find similar works (or, ahem, for students preoccupied with midterms or finals, where can they turn for some last-minute contextual or historical information)? Where are the virtual museums and libraries, the scholars and critics -- all of the institutions and support structures, in short -- that we've come to rely on in the real world for guidance and access to art and culture?
Their online counterparts are out there, certainly, in various incarnations for the several disciplines, from the 79-year-old American Music Center (now New Music USA) website (http://library.newmusicusa.org/?amc=true), to the 5-year-old, not-what-you-think U.S. Department of Arts and Culture (https://usdac.us, itself something of a work of art). But these resources, vital as they are to the cognoscenti, are generally distant, scattered icons in an online universe in which too often Google is our guide, Wikipedia our historical record, and YouTube our media archive. And Facebook, heaven forfend, our personal planner.
My basic question, then, is how can we contribute to a creative online environment that is even more accessible and accommodating than the nonprofit institutions that have served artists and audiences for the last hundred or so years? How can we map that nonprofit cultural sector, so clearly delineated in the real world, onto an online landscape that is still evolving—and growing more commercial every day? And how can we best organize, curate, archive, and promote the countless cultural treasures, major and minor, that are currently scattered across the vast reaches of the Internet? These are among the questions that I hope we can discuss this week.
Transcript of Gary O. Larson's Facebook conversation
Despite ample evidence to the contrary (including this sobering, rich-get-richer infographic of the "100 Websites that Rule the Internet"), I remain convinced that it’s still possible to make the arts more prominent online. Ironically, many of the same factors that enabled the “analog” arts to flourish in the 20th century -- including funding, education, and collaboration -- will prove no less vital in nourishing and promoting the arts online in this century. The strategies may differ in this new era, but the ultimate goal -- to create an environment in which the arts can flourish -- remains the same. Last century, this was accomplished through a combination of funding (individual, foundation, corporate, and eventually government support); education (the professional training of artists, along with elementary and secondary school curricula that regularly included art and music instruction); institution-building (thanks especially to civic pride and the tax-exempt status of nonprofit organizations); and human capital (including, lest we forget amid the current nativist tumult, the enormous positive impact of several waves of immigration that began in the 19th century).
This time around, I suspect, funding will turn out to be the least important item, out of necessity, since arts-support budgets both public and private are already stretched thin. But even a flicker of leadership from the National Endowment for the Arts would go far in raising awareness of the need to pay as much attention (if not money) to the online cultural environment as to the bricks-and-mortar arts institutions that have long attracted the lion’s share of both public and private support. As far as private funders go (which is never far enough, most artists would agree), I’ve long thought that sooner or later some enlightened, farsighted, and filthy-rich foundation will seize upon digital communications as a centerpiece of its support for arts and culture. This is not to suggest that this or any other foundation would abandon traditional arts support altogether; orchestras, dance companies, and museums will continue to get their share of support. But like all other institutions that have embraced the Internet, they’ll conduct increasing amounts of their educational, archival, and community-outreach activities online. A key aspect of foundation support of these organizations, accordingly, will be devoted to both curatorial and custodial functions that help demarcate cultural sites online, in much the same manner that we’ve established a variety of cultural “boundaries” in the real world: the so-called “arts district” downtown, the 88-92 MHz swath of the FM radio band, the 501(c)(3) tax-exempt classification, the PBS brand, the public library, the state college. All of these and more, the signs, symbols, and designations of the nonprofit culture, help us navigate the cultural landscape. In time, with sufficient support and a lot of collaborative effort, we’ll develop similar signposts and indices online, too. In the process, online culture will become much more accessible, at least to those who are actively seeking various forms of artistic expression -- or reliable information about such expression -- but who aren’t certain just where to find those items. The arts online will remain a needle-in-a-haystack proposition, of course, but for those who seek them, those needles will be a little easier to find.