How to think like a social media artist

by Alexandra Samuel

If you want to sharpen or deepen your use of social media, try going to art school.

That’s the big takeaway from my first months here at Emily Carr University of Art + Design. I can’t say I’m “going to” art school — my role heading up the new Social + Interactive Media Centre has so far kept me out of the classroom, though I’m dying to audit everything from the course on art since 1945 to the Continuing Studies class in Arduino.

But I’m nonetheless enjoying an eye-opening immersion in the work and world of the practicing artists who make up Emily Carr’s faculty and student body. Through their exhibits, presentations and conversations I’m discovering a new way of thinking about my own creative expression through social media.

Of course, it feels presumptuous to even draw the analogy. But in many ways the experience of an individual participant in a social media site is analogous to the role of an artist, particularly if your definition of art isn’t contingent on its aesthetic value or tangible social impact. Blogging is much like memoir or criticism; photo sharing online is not unlike exhibiting in a real-world gallery; YouTube contributors are amateur (or not-so-amateur) filmmakers, and podcasts are often more like spoken word performance than like journalism.

It is journalists, however, to whom social media creators are most frequently compared. “Citizen journalism” is a very real and powerful phenomenon, and has shifted some of the power to narrate our contemporary experience out of the hands of established institutions and into the hands of individuals and small groups. But to hold social media creators to the paradigm of conventional journalism is to obscure much the impact of their creation, which is significant not just in how it speaks to the world but in how it transforms the creator herself.

The transformative power of social media is better understood by looking at creators not as journalists, but as artists. And it’s not such a tremendous leap to do so. After all, much of contemporary art transcends the traditional idea of art as painting or sculpture: conceptual art and installation art are now included in the exhibits of museums all over the world. There’s also a long and strong tradition of art that comments on political or social issues, so the content of social media should be no obstacle to considering it as a form of art. Finally, we should look at social media in the context of the thriving digital art movement, in which everything from video games to virtual sit-ins has been presented in exhibition. By all of these standards, the contributions of social media participants look a lot like art.

Artists Social media creatives
Express themselves in text, performance, photos or film Express themselves in blogs, photo sharing and video sharing
Collaborate on ambitious projects and performance pieces Coordinate online by combining related works
Engage with political and social issues through their art works and activism Undertake online activism through creative expression in blogs, photos and video
Embrace new technologies to create new forms of art Create and use technologies as a form of creative expression
Incorporate traditional crafts into works of art Foster and market crafts online

You don’t have to identify as an artist to use social media to explore and celebrate your creativity, and turn that creativity into an engine for personal growth. In fact, getting away from the artist label – from what we think about as Art – can help make creative expression less daunting, more approachable, and more rewarding. What matters is to find the path, platform and tools that will help you connect creativity to the world and to yourself.

Alexandra Samuel is the Director of the Social and Interactive Media Centre at Emily Carr University of Art + Design. Alex is an expert on social media and online participation. Her work at the Centre focuses on developing research projects, industry partnerships and community events that connect BC companies with ECUAD faculty and students. Alex blogs at Harvard Business Online and on her personal website.  She holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from Harvard University and a B.A. in Politics from Oberlin College.

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