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From Permalink to Profound: Where is the Art in Social Media?


This page includes notes for my Northern Voice talk. I encourage anybody to make changes, amendments, additions, comments or otherwise contribute, if they're so inclined. First off, here's the session description:


When an artist considers a blank canvas, she dreams of painting something beautiful.


When a blogger looks at a blank WordPress form, or a YouTube user stares at his own image in a webcam, he dreams of describing his lunch.


What are the most popular works that arise from social media? Sex tapes, silly dances, essays on open source software and renditions of Pachabel's Canon on electric guitar. They're sleight of hand or stupid pet tricks, not profound art.


Social media seems to discourage the profound. Why is that? Where is the art in blogging or Twitter or Facebook? Can we create works of deep meaning and lasting achievement in social media?


This conversational (opinions will be eagerly solicited from the audience) talk will explore whether there is profundity to be found in social media, what it looks like, and how we can make more of it.


"There can be a big difference between what you think is great and what you actually like." -- Stephen King


If you look at the all-time most popular videos on YouTube, you'll find a bunch of cute animals and music videos. Sample a blog post at random and it will probably be about the mundane, personal details of the blogger's life (guitly at charged).


I spend a lot of time on the web, and I'm surprised at how rarely I see something--a blog post, a video, a podcast, a photo, much less a tweet--that strikes me as genuinely profound.


What is Profound?


First we need to start with a definition of 'profound'. From Dictionary.com:


pro⋅found /prəˈfaʊnd/

adjective, -er, -est, noun

1. penetrating or entering deeply into subjects of thought or knowledge; having deep insight or understanding: a profound thinker.

2. originating in or penetrating to the depths of one's being; profound grief.

3. being or going far beneath what is superficial, external, or obvious: profound insight.

4. of deep meaning; of great and broadly inclusive significance: a profound book.

5. pervasive or intense; thorough; complete: a profound silence.

6. extending, situated, or originating far down, or far beneath the surface: the profound depths of the ocean.

1275–1325; ME < AF < L profundus deep, vast, equiv. to pro- + fundus bottom


To summarize that set of definitions, we're talking about a sense of deep insight or understanding, of knowledge or experience that's pervasive, broadly inclusive and thus shared.


What is profound? When do we experience profundity? Some common examples: extraordinary wilderness, sex, religion, great art...


It's telling, I think, that people often use spiritual language to describe these experiences: "I had a spiritual experience", "that experience really moved me", "I was inspired by what I saw" and so forth.


Shared, Profound Experience of Art


Today I'm interested in that particular human creation, art. I'd prefer to avoid the unwinnable debate about "what is art?" So let's just stick to the conventional definition: whatever you could learn in a university fine arts program -- visual arts, writing, film and video, theatre and so forth.


I'm interested in our experience of the very "best" of this art. This gets into another very thorny subject--what is "good art"? There's the very legitimate argument that art is in the eye of the beholder. One man's Monet is another man's "Dogs Playing Poker", as it were.


For centuries, we've used curators, publishers and critics as the human filters to determine what gets ranked as profound creations. How well have they done? Who knows? We can't really guess at how many great photographers, painters and playwrights these gatekeepers have overlooked. I usually enjoy what I see in a gallery or theatre, but that's only evidence of what we've found, not what we may have missed. On very rare occasions I think I experience a little of the profound.


What's profound for me? It's Glenn Gould playing "The Goldberg Variations". It's Henri Rousseau's "The Dream". It's the Cowboy Junkies playing a cover of Springsteen's "Thunder Road". Great art, it's generally agreed, has a universality and a timelessness. It moves you today, and it'll move your grandchildren in 50 years.


What's profound for you is almost certainly different. However, before the web (and in particular the social web), there was a reliable, reasonably broad consensus about profundity in art. Certain paintings hung in galleries. The rest didn't. Certain plays got produced, the rest didn't. Certain books got published, the rest didn't.


Curation is (or at least was) useful. I'd prefer not to pay $20 to visit the Vancouver Art Gallery and see a randomized set of all the paintings that have been produced in BC in the past 100 years. I don't want to go to the theatre and see any old play.


Curators did us the service of building a kind of consensus about what belongs "on the most popular page" and what doesn't. It was a service because it took a great deal of time, specialized access to the art and professional training.


Many More Masterpieces


In his terrific book "Here Comes Everybody", Clay Shirky writes "the future presented by the internet is the mass amateurization of publishing and a switch from 'Why publish this?' to 'Why not?".


The cost of publishing artistic creations has, of course, dropped precipitously.


There are 175 million users on Facebook, more than two billion photos on Flickr, more than 130 million blogs, and millions of videos viewed each day on YouTube.


In theory, this massive amount of content ought to generate more masterpieces of photography, video and writing than ever before. In practice, though, I find it incredibly hard to find profound works of art with broad appeal created on or for these social media channels.


Why is this? I'm not sure, but here are a few theories:


  • Crowds aren't wise. Or, rather, they don't have a taste for great creations. The most popular or highest rated videos on YouTube are a good example of this phenomenon at work. Flickr's "interestingness" algorithm seems like a possible exception to that rule. Though that may just be a side effect of the medium.
  • Making profound art takes a great deal of practice, time and effort. See also Malcolm Gladwell's new book "Outliers", in which he proposes that one needs to work at something for 10,000 hours to achieve a level of mastery. Most of the creators of social media haven't put in the time.
  • Artists go pro. If you're making profound work, then you get snapped up by galleries, Hollywood studies or publishers, and your creations first appear in other, more traditional media.
  • Derek K. Miller: These new media are too young, and we don't know how to measure their masterpieces yet. How long did it take for people to recognize photography as an art form rather than a technical pursuit? Decades, it seems. Similarly, Elvis Presley's "Mystery Train" seems like epoch-making art almost 60 years later, but at the time Elvis was just a dangerous fad with those silly kids. Perhaps it will take some time for true profundity to emerge from the social Internet, and then we'll recognize some of the art that had been here all along.
  • Darren James Harkness suggests that the affordances of social media tools steer users in a particular direction (in most cases, away from making great art).


Is there any validity to those theories? What other possibilities exist?


Where are the Examples of Profound Art in Social Media?


There are exceptions, of course. I think of a video by Matt "Where in the Hell is Matt?" Harding feels a little profound. It reminds us of how small the world is, and of the joy of physical expression. It's worth noting that Harding had to work pretty hard at producing that video, traveling thousands of miles to dozens of locations.


And I imagine that there are bloggers who act as curators and, occasionally, identify really extraordinary art that's been created on the web. We Make Money, Not Art might be an example of this kind of project.


There are obviously zillions of examples of art created through and for social media channels. Most of it has a very particular audience in mind, and that's great. However, I'm looking for examples of art that has that universal, timeless deep impact on a lot of people.


More to come.



Exploding Dog - "hi my name is sam," user generated, simple, childlike drawings, made their way to many desktop, avatars and email. for over a decade? not sure.

Tiny Mix Tapes - a similar approach to mix tapes


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