XPost- Middle Spaces: Emerging Forms of Art, Episode 5

The Social Object

M. Scott Tatum

Can we talk?

In exploring, in more depth, the current trials and tribulations of various classical music organizations and whilst looking at emerging forms of the arts in this Middle Spaces blog, a rather heady theory about social interactions, and their root and causes, came across our screens.  Hugh MacLeod’s The Social Object begins to help us understand what might just be missing from some of the Fine Arts and why an ever decreasing audience is the result. In a nutshell:

“The Social Object…is the rea­son two peo­ple are tal­king to each other, as oppo­sed to tal­king to some­body else. Human beings are social ani­mals. We like to socia­lize. But if [we] think about it, there needs to be a rea­son for it to hap­pen in the first place. That rea­son, that “node” in the social net­work, is what we call the Social Object.”

In taking apart this superficially simple concept that we need things to talk about if we are going to talk, the arts quickly becomes a stodgy, reductive, redundant, and ridiculous social tool.  By this I mean that, we in the fine arts, are so often drawn to claims of fidelity, tradition, and cultural certainty that we not only ignore or are unaware of the world changing around us but actively decry this change as blasphemous.  We wrinkle our foreheads in shock that ANYONE would dare not understand why and how this symphony or painting or 300 year old play could possibly be considered useless in today’s society.

The Social Object-ification of the arts, as a default, is an older mode of a time when the landscape wasn’t nearly as dense with opportunities to create meaningful social connections.  Today, social objects such as a bottle of wine and dinner (see above), bowling, Star Wars trivia, charity balls, a recent new book, your child, and even the new iPhone draw people into connections that result in meaningful dialogue, relationships, and action.

And perhaps this is what is missing now…the point of the Social Object.  The Social Object cannot be the only portion of the formula.  In fact, it is just the very beginning, the impetus.  Social Objects help draw in people so that they may share human connections with each other.  As the arts have become more insular and obsessed with their own tradition, the arts for art’s sake argument has taken on a greater prominence and has lead to a great defeat of its place in modern culture.  What to do?

Creating Social Objects Around New Trends and Technologies


In an article from the New York Times last year, Jennifer Preston explores the work of several art museums attempting to leverage social networks to revive their product, their Social Objects, to a place of importance that can be appreciated by more than just a few in-the-know types.  The efforts come in a few different ways:

1. By following each other on Twitter or subscribing to feeds on Facebook, people with affections for certain Social Objects (in this case, art and art information) can be aware of the happenings in their lives.  If Susan is seeing a lecture on architecture, she can let people know what she’s up to in 140 characters and her network of friends and followers will be aware of this and other events.  If you multiply that by even 5 people going to different events, due to their different spheres of information and influence, you create a stream of things to do on your calendar, created by like-minded people.  This is the new word of mouth advertising.

2. By embracing location aware “check-in” services such as FourSquare or on Facebook, through either direct asks or incentives, organizations can combine the aforementioned worth of mouth advertising with data collection that places unconnected parties enjoying the Social Object into groups. Direct advertising possibilities for the organization and creation of a peer group for the people means an organic and expanded audience base who tie their friendship, social experiences, interests, and resource expenditures to your brand.

3. Using sites like Meetup.com to create normalized and ritual based excursions that are open to any and everyone can engage curiosity, social grouping, and give a reliable source of audiences for an institution.

By taking these and other ideas to the next level, we can imagine a set of instances where the blurring of cultural event, technological communication and everyday life could be the norm.  But what about getting people more involved in the creation of art?

Crowdsourcing Art

Through tools like Kickstarter, we find that artists are attempting to leverage their Social Objects in a way that will help fund their work.  By packaging their projects with splashy videos and giving incentives, Kickstarter campaigns have become Social Objects in and of themselves.  The layered concept that one must create a Social Object in order to excite interest in funding an additional Social Object is not lost on advertisers (see: Superbowl Half-Time Commercials) but is a newish thought to most in the arts.
But this is not the only way that we could think about Crowdsourcing, or having many people help do one thing, the arts.  Instead of crowdsourcing patronage of a particular artist, http://phonearts.net/  encourages its contributors to create the art themselves (see an example above).  By turning over control to a large group of people with smart phones (around 500 million of them sold in 2012 alone), lowering the media/materials bar to something accessible by many, and encouraging experimentation, Phone Arts created an online gallery of work created solely on a phone.  What’s their Social Object? The phone and the artwork they create with it means that conversations, through the tumblr model, are active and viral.

The Magic Tate Ball

Finally, a quick look at a Social Object that lives somewhere in between all of these discussions so far:
“Magic Tate Ball is a new location-based mobile app from Tate, inspired by the iconic Magic 8 Ball, where players shake the ball in search of an answer to one of life’s mysteries. The difference is, when you shake your phone, this clever app presents you with an artwork that is linked to your surroundings. Using date, time-of-day, geographical location, live weather data and ambient noise levels the app will trawl through a selection of artworks from Tate’s collection for the best match.”
Location, time, date, weather, and noise aware…provocative and share worthy with in-person communication…specific to a certain organization…and expandable once you interact with the actual museum.  This product has the opportunity to take full advantage of its nature as a Social Object to create meaningful connections between humans and with the institution.  The result is a restoration of the art institution to its place as the original Social Networking site.