A digital phenomenon swept the news feeds of Facebook recently.  I’m not sure where this meme began, but it has been affecting the arts community like a kindergarten in cold season.  An artist is nominated by another artist to share three examples of his or her work each day for five days and selecting another artist to do the same.  This is the latest intrigue in a developing cult of social network art sharing. 

As people have been discerning what role social media plays in their lives, artistic expression has taken a rigorous, albeit shifting, foothold in the digital landscape.  It’s fascinating to see the birthing of this vehicle and see how it both mirrors and diverges from past cultural experiments.  The look-at-me impulse and I-don’t-belong cynicism inherent in artists seem to wrestle with each other, finding a balance in social media.  There are artists who curb their self-doubt by crowd sourcing advice on work in progress or seemingly trolling for confidence boosts.  There are also those who share in kind to add to a larger art experience on the web.  Those individual habits have been further shaped by the initiative of fellow artists and blended with the reactions of digital neighbors outside the artistic milieu.  The promotion of and connectivity to art events has been given a real democratic boost with these services.  A real sense of community has taken shape.

The communal experience has loosened the definitions of who we accept as friends and created a surge of trust and transparency among those who are committed to the arts.  I’m now connected to a wide spectrum of cyber strangers from all over the world, vouched for by the unspoken code of artistic integrity.  Central to this expanding community has been in part a suppression of ego.  Rather than people just sharing their own artwork, the news feed has been a place to disseminate artwork that one admires, sometimes curated into albums according to theme.  Topics relevant to the arts are discussed and news is spread on art matters.  All this ephemeral content starts to organically form this space for art within another context.  It is one of many virtual ecosystems seamlessly cohabitating in cyberspace, but a unique and robust one that appears to be snowballing.  A new social network, tries to isolate this experience and create a community solely focused on the arts with a distinctly more sophisticated discourse.

The archive challenge of posting artwork for five days put a spotlight on this community and has perhaps emboldened its identity while creating doubts about authenticity.  With simple effectiveness the challenge links self-promotion to the promotion of other artists.  There is a nice humility in this act, throwing one’s creations into this homogenous format with everyone else.  It’s an odd paradox that putting artwork online commits it to a pseudo permanence of digital life and yet is almost instantaneously forgotten in the incessant flow of new data.  The exponential nomination mechanism created a wave that built up consciousness and enthusiasm for the experiment that at some point reached critical mass and subsided.  Over the arc of that development the challenge exposed many positive and negative qualities of art in the digital age.

For most participants this novelty was treated with real consideration and perhaps more gravitas than necessary for art appearing in between cat videos.  It was a mini taste of politics and the implications of curation.  Some took the opportunity to exhibit old work, some humbly chose less successful work that wouldn’t otherwise have the chance to be seen, some showed their best or their newest, and some used it to tell the story of life as an artist.  Nominations demonstrated efforts to make one look good by proxy, to nudge friends, to keep it in the family or reach out into other artistic circles, to give the less visible a chance to shine or to kiss other peoples butts.   It wasn’t long before folks were bending what little rules there were and giving a healthy blur to the boundaries that can hem in the arts.

As was more widely observed last year with the “ice bucket challenge” such a phenomenon of digital herd mentality brings both odd feelings of kinship and of being absorbed into soulless screen displays.  The siren call to stay in tune with the collective current of social media is strong and it is no small compromise to see art dragged into the mix.  With so many sensory aspects denied the online image and the reduction of its quality into lifeless pixels, it takes a very sporting relativist to accept art in such a context and yet so many of us have signed on.  But I like to think that the inclusion of art will in turn shape what we expect of our digital environment.