Searching for the Profound in Social Media

I’m giving a talk at Northern Voice this year entitled From Permalink to Profound: Where is the Art in Social Media? Here’s the blurb:

When an artist considers a blank canvas, she dreams of painting something beautiful.

When a blogger looks at a blank WordPress form, or a YouTube user stares at his own image in a webcam, he dreams of describing his lunch.

What are the most popular works that arise from social media? Sex tapes, silly dances, essays on open source software and renditions of Pachelbel’s Canon on electric guitar. They’re sleight of hand or stupid pet tricks, not profound art.

Social media seems to discourage the profound. Why is that? Where is the art in blogging or Twitter or Facebook? Can we create works of deep meaning and lasting achievement in social media?

That’s a big fish to fry in forty minutes, but I’m hoping we can have a conversation about lasting human creation and the social web. I’ve been using the Northern Voice wiki to assemble some of my thoughts and take a shot at my thesis.

If you’re interested, I encourage you to read over what I’ve done so far, and edit, add, disagree, suggest and otherwise contribute in the comments here or over there on the wiki.

To summarize, the central question I’m struggling to answer is something like this: who is making the lasting, universal, profound works of art on the social web?


  1. Compelling question Darren. I have a feeling there may be many gourmet chefs already cooking with a few open seats, but people are lining up for McNuggets. Perhaps it has to do with the way we use computers – where they are in our lives. We have galleries for art, we have solitude and libraries for books, we have walks on the beach and concerts for music – but every time we’re blogging, we are in front of a computer, and I think that might affect what we put back into our blogs etc.

    No idea.

  2. I think Post Secret ( transcends and yet it enjoys popularity. It’s collaborative art that would have fewer contributors and lesser distribution without the online medium — but it’s interesting that it uses a very old distribution system (snail mail) as well.

  3. Davin’s really not far from my opinion on it, which is that the interface of social networking tools strongly dictates how we end up using them. There’s a term used in both psychology and interface design: affordance. Affordance is a concept that describes how we know how to use something without thinking about it. For example, a chair has the affordance of sitting; a button has the affordance of clicking, etc.

    This maps to social networking tools; they all have different affordances. Twitter, for example, has the affordance of describing, shortly, what it is you’re doing *right now*. LiveJournal has the affordance of telling people about your personal life in great detail, including your current mood and the music you’re listening to. This indirectly forces people to use the tools a certain way, which is why there are so many twitters about what people are having for lunch, or Facebook pokes, or haircut blogs, etc.

    You do get outliers though, where people start changing the way they’re using the tool. Ze Frank is a really good example of this; he was getting frustrated by the way his commenting system was working during the year-long run of The Show, so he implemented a King of the Comments functionality where comments could be voted up or down, and the order would be set according to those votes (Breaking the traditional first-past-the-post system). Graham Linehan (IT Crowd, Father Ted) recently used Twitter to host a Bad Movie Night ( ). The art is there, but it’s found in the outliers, the people who break out of the affordance of the tool.

    (If anyone is interested, there’s more about affordance and its influence on bloggers here: )

  4. @Catherine Indeed, PostSecret is a great example. Maybe no individual postcard is a masterpiece, but the act of collaboration and collection might be.

  5. I made a note on the wiki about whether profound masterpieces already exist in the social Internet, but the medium may be too young for us to recognize them yet.

    James Duncan Davidson is talking about art in photography, but his third bucket post may be relevant too.

  6. @Darren That’s a good point about affordances. I’ll add something in my talk about that, and credit you.

    @Derek That is a possibility. Interesting metaphor about the buckets there. I’ve been thinking about the art and craft of acting in similar terms lately.

  7. Thanks Darren – the original citation for the term affordance is Robert St. Amant at NCSU, who derived it from James J Gibson.

    If you’re interested in following up and reading the original article, here’s the full citation:

    St. Amant, Robert. “Planning and User Interface Affordances” Proceedings of the 4th 
    international conference on Intelligent user interfaces. 1998. 

    It’s available at

    (You may have to be on a university network to gain access to this article, or pay a small fee to access it)

  8. Darren, just an afterthought and something perhaps someone brought up at the conference, but I think that in addition to affordance, which is a much broader look at functionality, another instructive idea here might be Marshall McLuhan’s concept of media as message. Print verses image driven communication encourage different kinds of content for example. Social media is no different. But I think the temptation to judge the sheer volume of content on Facebook is like judging the printing press by the millions of pamphlets circulated in Eurpoe and America during its reign instead of by, say, the King James Bible. My two cents…

  9. Shawn – definitely a good point, which is why I tell anyone who will listen to think about blogs, twitter, etc, as separate media, rather than separate genres, a notion I adopted from danah boyd.

    One thing I noticed when writing my MA thesis on blogging was how many researchers approached the blog as an autobiographical genre study. But people are using blogs for so many other things, very few of which are concerned with autobiography.

    Blogging as a genre study leaves you with a fairly uninspiring study of autobiographical writing (hopefully my former supervisor doesn’t see this!), because you’re fairly limited in how you can approach the material. But if you shift blogging to being its own medium, all of a sudden things start getting much more interesting – now you can talk about blogging as much more than an autobiographical writing, but as so much more: a tool that produces identity; a new form of journalism; a social movement, etc.

  10. I’m glad you covered this topic today, and thanks for the opportunity to converse about it. I really think we’ve refined authoring and publishing, and I’m really interested in exploring ways of refining research, editing and curating.

    I think it’s well worth investing some serious energy into getting the appeal of the timeless and profound the same reach our current neophilia gets today.

  11. Exactly! When you use the term “film” meaning a movie, are you talking about one of the Star Wars movies, an avant-garde short by Jean Cocteau, an Errol Morris documentary, The Beatles’ “Hard Day’s Night” or a Hearst newsreel? You’re talking about all of them, of course, and a good deal more, so why should a blog, vlog or any other social media be any less broad?

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