social media and art | more of less

If you’re reading this, there is an 80% chance you are a Facebook user (and if you’re the likely one who accessed it from Facebook, welcome to the 80%). If you’re under the age of 30, there is a 60% chance you have an Instagram profile. If you’re the parent of a teenager, there is a 75% chance your teenager is active on both Instagram and Snapchat. Instagram claims 500 million active users, and in June of 2017, Facebook recorded 1.32 billion daily active users. These aren’t empty profiles, as at least 75% of Facebook’s total users check in once a day.

I could bury you under the statistics being posted daily on a social network somewhere, but here is a concluding truth: in case you had any doubts, social media is here to stay. We post, like, share, scroll through a feed, and watch a story (although hopefully we’ve learned not to poke by now).

We could weep or rejoice that we’re seeing curated baby pictures from the college roommate we had for one semester ten years ago who lives in Denver and posts a daily yoga picture and just had her first daughter with her partner of eight years. Also, they just switched to cloth diapers. #crunchy

We could like or question the selfie our world-jaunting friend (who attends the same church, but doesn’t usually make it in time for first service) posted of The Ambassadors while on the British leg of her jealousy-inducing, culturally enlightening vacay. Note that the selfie was taken at just the right angle.  #foundit

We could enthuse with or judge the coworker who attended the midnight showing of that movie competing for the most headshots in cinematic history, or was it the one that claimed a Guinness record for its profanity? You can go back and check for their poorly-lit selfie in front of the movie poster. #worthit

I’ll step off my soapbox with this introductory admission: the pros and cons of social media can and should be called the joys and dangers of online connectivity. This article is not the place to discuss the full implications of social media on our lives and relationships. However, its pervasiveness established by the statistics above intersects with the desires of made | new to pose this question: how does social media impact art consumption? More specifically, what must we be aware of as Christ-centered theologians who both create and consume art through the lens of a society deeply entangled in the world wide web?

To begin to answer, I’ve chosen to highlight two characteristics (what social media is) and next week, two results (what social media requires), identifying the impact upon our art with each step. In short (placing a toe back up on that soapbox), let’s declare, inquire, and be willing to engage in judgment. We’ve been asked a question that deserves an answer.

What Social Media Is: Inherently Digital

This may seem obvious, but let’s remind ourselves: social media is not the old-fashioned networking of rubbing shoulders at a local business meeting or clinking glasses at a corner pub. Social media is digital in both form and access. Whether it is your smartphone or workstation or laptop or all three, these are the gateways to social media.

While social media can be the impetus to interactions outside of itself (a book club with Facebook invites but a living-room locale, for example), the point of contact is first between yourself and an electronic screen in range of the nearest cell tower or Wifi hotspot. Social media as an electronic tether is both the ball-and-chain and the key to the lock; we are obligated to digitally access our networks at the same time that we have chosen to create those networks as accessible only digitally.

What does this have to do with art consumption? One query is whether our art experiences are diminishing to electronic platforms; a sister question is the validity of our choices to limit them thus. Art galleries and concert halls are packaging their art to meet a digital culture, desperately seeking to bolster a shrinking public. The difficulty is utilizing the digital nature of social media to translate an experience that is not inherently digital. We can see the Sistine Chapel from our living room, but can we smell the centuries of tradition and reverence? We can hear the strains of Vivaldi via a live-streamed concert, but do we hear the dusty echoes of the last emphatic bow?

We can ‘Like’ the Facebook page of our city’s premiere orchestra, but at the performance we’ll be asked to disconnect from the very electronics that fed us the news in the first place. Afterwords, be sure to Like Us on Facebook and Instagram while we slot audible art into a visual medium, crop visible art into a filtered feed, and reformat scripted art into a convenient e-book.

Book excerpts used to be read aloud from the tome pulled off the shelf, but now they are digitally hand-lettered (its own oxymoron) against a foggy mountain background and uploaded to a platform that swallows it whole without ever tasting the words. This last small example is one that reveals a secondary, yet equally damaging loss that can be explained after a glance at our next primary characteristic.

What Social Media Is: A Form of Communication

The intent of social media is connectivity and communication, and no one can deny that it is highly capable of both. I’m not a Twitter user, but I’ve marveled over the creative confines of a 140-character constraint (although even that may be changing). Instagram lives by informal mottos both singular (“a picture is worth a thousand words”) and sloppy (“pics or it didn’t happen”), although corporate branding usually censors the latter.

Now we have something called Snapchat, which is still incomprehensible to the dinosaurs of this age (you know them, the ones who still use punctuation in their laborious text about walking the dog and seeing our neighbor, George, and having a chat with him… “XOXO Love, Nanna”). This platform is more difficult to describe; something along the lines of temporary visual messaging with the occasional voice distortion and themed/transmogrifying filters (think visual vomit to a select few or the whole world via a “story”).

It’s telling of our language that we call these pieces of visual communication “stories.” While social media trends toward the visual, Spotify is an intersection of the social with the audible, and Facebook is all things; if you write it, read it, draw it, watch it – you’ll find it there. Also, if you’d like a calendar reminder of when to do that, you’ll find it above the feed full of memes and fake news. And connectivity? The sky is the limit, but Mark Zuckerberg is not, as Facebook shrinks us far closer than six degrees.

When it comes to art consumption, I showed my hand with that header. Social media is a “form of communication,” and a limited one. Here, the digital nature and the communicative aspect converge in a way that expands our consumption (that connectivity again) and limits it (digital communication can only touch our senses in singular ways). The translation, communication, and consumption of art via social media is in a definitively blunted manner. Just as handwritten class notes require greater sensory and cognitive processing (and yes, affect your grade), so do real-world experiences.

To revisit our book quote example, can you recall sitting on the edge of your seat, hearing the unique lilt of another’s cadence as he read aloud from a book that would soon become your favorite? The scrunch of the reader’s nose when arriving at a description of scent, the higher pitch taken for a rapid line of dialogue, the deep breath before a weighty line; these are the experiences of art that are disintegrated upon entering the bytes and streams of social media.

Just as sound waves are compressed to shallower depths to facilitate online streaming, so do our discussions truncate themselves to fit into 140 characters or the lexicon of an online post. The brushstrokes are flattened, the colors muted, and suddenly we touch art wearing the metaphorical glove of social media, unable to truly feel the contours of what it was meant to be.

There is endless possibility to what we can touch, undoubtedly. But the sheer volume of communication buckles under its own weight, unable to further identify between information and communication, between creation and consumption, between experience and engagement. Social media involves far more of something that is far less.

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