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The Art World on Facebook: A Primer

What’s so good about Facebook? Most art bloggers will tell you it’s a good way to connect with the people who read their blogs. They were at the forefront of innovative social networking in the artosphere, and began setting up their Facebook profile pages back in early 2007, shortly after Facebook lifted the requirement that members be affiliated with an educational institution. Links posted on blogs announced Facebook membership, and a few readers began joining, but initial interest was halting and tentative. Skeptical friends either ignored email invitations to join, or joined but discreetly eschewed their newly created profile pages. The digitally unconnected didn’t feel any need for a “social networking” site at that point, and thought Facebook was for lonely computer geeks, singles looking for love, and college kids. But then, on November 1, 2008 at precisely 9:53 pm, a seismic shift occurred. New York magazine art critic Jerry Saltz, whose account had been set up by one of his students, joined Facebook. By January 2009, it seemed as though the entire art world had jumped on his bandwagon.

Facebook is conceptually simple. Each member has a profile page that can only be viewed by friends in their network. His or her list of friends, however, is usually available for anyone to see. The idea is for members to surf through friends’ friends, and if familiar faces pop up, to invite them to join their own friend networks. In this way, each member’s friend list is an evolving, organic community, connecting members with friends, friends of friends, and so on. Once someone invites another Facebooker to join his or her list of friends, and the Facebooker confirms the friendship, they gain access to one another’s personal profile pages. The pages, in turn, contain more substantive information, like employment history, websites, pastimes and interests, group memberships, and contact details. The members become part of one another’s news feeds, which means that they will be apprised of their friends’ Facebook activities, conversations with other members, status updates, and other interactively expandable sources of information.

Most new members get started by exploring the status updates, and a fair bit of thought has been given to what makes a good one. In its most basic form, a status update is a sentence or two objectively describing what a member is doing. Some different approaches include the oblique haiku, the self-advertising news item, the existential update, or external links to articles and/or blog posts. The update appears in your news feed, but Facebook algorithms determine which friends’ updates you’ll get in your feed. One parameter is frequency. If you go to a friend’s page fairly often, you can be sure his or her update will appear in your feed. But if you have hundreds of friends, your feeds will display only the updates of the people with whom you are most in touch. Accordingly, chances are that Jerry Saltz or Vik Muniz, who each have over 4,000 friends, probably aren’t getting your status updates unless you really are a personal friend.

Then there are the wall posts. Profile pages have a “wall” where you can leave messages for a friend. It’s the electronic equivalent of taping a note on a buddy’s locker in high school. Everyone else in your friend’s network can read it, and as long as your privacy settings are loose enough, each time you write on someone’s wall, the action appears in your news feed. At the same time, people can comment on wall posts and status updates, so any ensuing conversation also appears in the news feeds of the participants. For instance, one day Jerry Saltz dissed Marlene Dumas’ MoMA show in a trenchantly sardonic status update. Within minutes, a snarky debate had begun. Hundreds of Facebookers joined the fray. Saltz apparently enjoyed the process, because his status updates ever since have baited potential dissenters. One pithy gem read as follows: “Jerry is against ‘The New Seriousness.’ Art will do what it does. Irony is a form of laughter; no one should wish any form of laughter to die. Go away Purity Police.” Therein lies one of the crowning virtues of Facebook: it constitutes a highly efficient intellectual testing ground. That is, Facebook presents the opportunity to neatly package an idea, quickly get it out into the community for multiple reactions, and expeditiously arrive at a consensus on its validity.

Of course, it’s not all about cerebral exploration. For ambitious artists, consumed with finding recognition for their work, making connections on Facebook can be addictive and, consequently, viral. As more people from the art community joined Facebook, a degree of self-promotional opportunism was inevitable. Images of new work can be posted in the “Photo Albums” where networked friends can see it and make comments. Using the “Events” feature is a cheap and effective way for artists and galleries to disseminate information about shows, discussions, and presentations to a precisely targeted niche audience. Invited guests RSVP to event invitations, and the individual responses (with profile pictures) are posted at the events page. If you want to meet, say, Laura Hoptman (323 friends and counting) from the New Museum, you might want to go to a few events she’s planning to attend. The downside of event posting is that it’s a little like a teen popularity contest, the results of which everyone can see. You could, for instance, invite 500 guests to an opening but only get three takers. You can adjust privacy settings so that the results aren’t displayed, but that seems churlish and insecure. “Living out loud” as Jerry Saltz calls it, may be invigorating, but it can exact at least a small price in chagrin.

At the same time, bloggers tend to be communitarian by nature. Most shrug off embarrassment quite easily, and support each other by posting links to each other’s stories. While adrenalized me-me-me self-promotion on Facebook is discouraged as uncool and may cause people to drop (or “unfriend”) a participant from their networks, low-key entrepreneurship mixed with earnest community building is considered the norm. As Loren Munk of the James Kalm Report wrote on his wall recently “If you’re going to be a shameless Facebook whore, you should be the best dang shameless whore you can be.” Thus, as long as a Facebook member shows reasonable obeisance to the communal spirit, adapting Facebook to more nakedly entrepreneurial uses is perfectly acceptable. For example, at first, bloggers would import posts into the Notes sections, but, soon realizing that merely doing that didn’t increase blog traffic, they began coyly using their status updates as teasers with links to the posts. Employed in this way, status updates function like headlines for news stories. People who might not ordinarily read blogs unless they were so cued can click on the link if the subject interests them, and the poster gains a potential devotee.

Museums too have realized that Facebook, as well as other social networking media like Flickr, YouTube, and Twitter, offer a new means to communicate interactively with their audiences and build communities. The Hirshhorn, the Getty Museum, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Cleveland, The Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art, and the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston were early adopters. Currently, the Museum of Modern Art Fan Page has over 60,000 members, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Facebook Fan Page over 56,000. The Brooklyn Museum, which recently switched its Facebook modality from a Group to a more flexible Fan Page, has drawn nearly 7,000 cyber-loyalists. Museums can communicate with their networks via email messages, wall posts, news feeds, and other virtual mechanisms. Fans, in turn, can respond to museum posts through comments and wall posts.

Facebook, as arguably the most handy and versatile social networking tool, has succeeded in erasing geographical boundaries and enabling a more flat, non-hierarchical community in which top critics and curators are at least accessible if not truly friends. For journalists and writers, Facebook is also an invaluable research tool. As Art Fag City’s Paddy Johnson noted, it’s the phonebook for the art world. And not being on Facebook is tantamount to being phoneless. I recently met an artist who barely had Internet access, let alone a Facebook profile. I came away wondering if I’d be forced to write her a letter or call her on an old-fashioned handset. Diehard analoggers, disillusioned with what may seem like superficial connections, may drop out or never join at all, but they’ll wind up farther and farther out of the loop. For the techno-forward, maybe Facebook is a transitional phenomenon that will soon yield to the faster-paced, pared-down Twitter, which in turn may give way to something still more instantaneous and unmediated.

Wherever it stands in the evolutionary scale of art-world communication, Facebook has signaled a sea change in the way artists relate to one another. The barrier between solitary creativity in the studio and social exchange at gallery openings has gone the way of the Berlin Wall. It has allowed artists to invite their self-selected village into their workspaces without sacrificing their privacy or interrupting their creative processes. This is uncharted aesthetic territory, and where it will lead is as unknowable as anything else these days, but at least we know we’ll be among friends.


Sharon L. Butler

Butler is a professor at Eastern Connecticut State University and blogs.


The Brooklyn Rail

MARCH 2009

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