Contemplating Key Metrics in Art.

2014·09·15

While reflecting on my recent exit from Twitter, from its new endlessness of death photography and its furious, discordant commentating on the smokescreen minutiae of day-to-day analog life, I began to laser in on one feature of social media that bubbles around as some digitally divine pseudo-indicator of relevance: metrics. This is, amalgamated and sold to the masses under a crisp cellophane shell of necessity, branded sweetly as Engagement.

This carefully chosen word “engagement” can trigger many associations: an official union of two youth in love; the near-rhapsodic order of a handsome space commander; or perhaps the next livestreamed rapturous act of real military theater. As someone whose day-to-day revolves around art, most of my daily engagement with the world, a sharp staccato of curiosity and creative calculation, forages centrifugally toward its questions: what is art? how does it exist? does it have an aim? and so forth; inquiries, for better or worse, with which I am concerned as someone who chooses to identify himself socially as an artist. But without sinking into those myriad rabbit holes, a truly and often perverse intellectual picnic in hell, and instead approaching the art world from a Twitter-minded perspective, I wondered, what, superimposing the modes of Twitter across art’s analog space, constitutes its key metrics, particularly from the viewpoint of an artist: impressions, link clicks and Twitter card clicks, detail expansion, a favorite, a reply, a retweet, and a profile click?

Twitter Key Metrics

The key metrics in Twitter Analytics

First, one must draw some simple congruencies between the digital and the analog in order to create a bit of clarity for this inquiry. This requires a bit of distillation and simple-handed categorization, but done for the benefit of brevity. These correlations occur across two domains: digital Twitter and the analog art world.

If one considers a Twitter user to be an artist and hence each of their tweets is the output of an artist, let’s consider each tweet to be the artist’s work. Similarly, if one considers a twitter user to be a critic or computer chair theorist — an explicator of art work — each of their tweets would be an explicator’s judgment. But continuing this line of sub-distinctions slowly unpacks the picnic basket into those rabbit holes; there are simply too many varied operators within the analog art world to continue such a delineation of the digital populace. So, in order to successfully gnaw a baby carrot of brevity, the disjunctive supposition that one is either an artist or one is not an artist will facilitate this analysis. As such, we will correlate those who are not artists as observers. And whether one is or is not an artist qualitatively is irrelevant here, since it can be agreed that there are self-identifying artists on Twitter whose designation therein is acknowledged in assent by observers, those Twitter users whose functions range from mere sideline observation to engaged in-your-face criticism.

A Twitter impression is the seeing of a tweet on Twitter, obviously by someone other than its author. An analog impression would be each time an artist’s work is seen within the art world by an observer, whereas “seen” is correlated as to be sensually experienced. The visual experience of a painting, the audible experience of concert solo, the olfactory experience of a chocolate-wallpapered room, the experience-in-motion of approaching a suspended boulder — any and each occasion in which an artist’s work is experienced by a person who is not the artist of such work would constitute an impression. Without an impression, there is no opportunity for any further interaction. As such, it is clear, impressions are the most important metric of the lot.

Beatific and Needy, Lari Pittman 1991

Beatific and Needy
Lari Pittman, 1991
Courtesy the artist and Regen Projects, Los Angeles

A Twitter link click is an occasion when an observer “clicks on a URL or Card in the tweet.” This requires some explication. A URL in a tweet is a visible hyperlink, which almost always but not exclusively directs the observer to something other than that tweet; this acknowledges the uncommon possibility, but historical and likely re-occurrence, of tweets which link to themselves, as some sort of slick play or meme or masturbatory annoyance, et cetera. In general, a link is an external reference. Works by an artist often contain explicitly embedded references to the world outside the work itself, many of which, with some research, deepen an understanding of the reference’s inclusion or enrich, perhaps clarify that particular or the whole experience of the work. For instance, Lari Pittman’s series of paintings variously titled …and Needy contain repeated inclusions of two images: the number 69 and owls. Whether viewed singly or in a group, it is quickly clear that these elements likely hold reference given their spatial and chromatic command of the painting. Certain observers may not need to research these links given their own browsing history throughout the art world, while, plausibly, the young or uninitiated might need to do some research before it clicks that the number 69 and owls are symbolic of intertwined fellatio and death’s harbinger, respectively. Of course, these symbols link elsewhere, too, and continued engagement with Pittman’s works link together for observers the artist’s faithful offering up through art of queer history for beautiful consumption.

Twitter Cards are specialized attachments of “rich photos, videos and media experience … that drive traffic to [one's] website,” as defined by their manufacturer. More importantly, they are meant to “drive engagement from … tweets.”

Drive Engagement

These “beautiful consumption” experiences are actually just interstices that exist between the tweet and an external reference. In essence, they are no different than a detail expansion. The mechanics of the action and the result of Twitter Cards and detail expansions are the same: an observer clicks a tweet, but not a link, the tweet expands and provides more information without bringing them to an external reference, which would require further action. These interstices are common within the art world and are usually found beside many art works, particularly in museums, where observers often find what are commonly called, in curatorspeak, headstones, printed information cards that list title, artist, date, and perhaps some chunk of explication appended underneath. The “headstone” moniker is no accident, as simple observation in the art world reveals the frequency that such cards act as nothing more than dead ends: viewed first, to gauge whether exploration of the work is warranted, or viewed last, to parse whatever data one might desire before moving on or moving out, either in rapid, unengaged fashion. This is, of course, not always the case, but is certainly a fair assessment given a day’s research in any popular museum of gallery, having witnessed endless tourists engaging with the headstones more than the art. In contrast, headstones can also be incredibly helpful for observers, providing key details in situ for an enriched impression or introducing new artists to an observer’s browsing history. Still, Twitter Cards and detail expands are often dead ends that can stop observers from researching external references unless they take further action. Given this obstructive nature, suspicion of how and for whom that nature serves, their usefulness as engagement is questionable.

But perhaps these obstructions, Cards and expansions, lead to a user profile click, which is self-explanatory. This is a moment when an observer investigates the artist, and not the work, per se. The observer desires more information about the artist, perhaps they want to follow (or unfollow) their presence and become a fan or an opponent. Within the art world these clicks exist in myriad forms: artist statements, biographies, curricula vitae, paragraphs of press releases. These actions are not necessarily interstitial, not necessarily external, either. Their quality of engagement is questionable, too, since a profile click, like an artist’s statement perusal, does not necessarily lead to any further action.

What remains to be analyzed are the three key components to operating in the Twitter world: replies, favorites, and retweets. For artists and observers on Twitter, these actions are the most directly interpersonal.

Criticism As Retweet

Published criticism.
Art world retweet?

A reply on Twitter is generally directed toward the author of a tweet and is not only public for anyone to see, but also distributed into the feeds of anyone who follows the respondent and also follows its addressee, thus creating what can often become a rich dynamic conversation or a snarky bitchfest. Replies can generate more impressions, too, if a tertiary observer’s detail expansion presents it as a product of the action. Respondents could instead choose to initiate a private conversation through direct message, but the metrics disregards this action. Yet, isn’t this engagement? Certainly in the art world a direct message from an observer to an artist could be a very valuable engagement, even if it never becomes public. But, direct messages act as a convenience feature on Twitter, which is really a platform whose ethos is about publicity. Twitter replies are not always seen by their addressee and neither is art world explication either. So, public, published explication throughout the art world acts as a reply, and it’s safe to say many artists crave such engagement. The mechanics of art world explication also obviate the broadcast limitation to parties lacking follower simpatico and can often have a much larger reach. Generally, published explication also cites the work and re-presents it as a part of the observer’s judgment, thereby generally functioning more like a Twitter retweet.

Join Conversation on Twitter

The retweet, a proprietary action that rebroadcasts the tweet of an artist from an observer’s feed directly to their own followers, which unlike a reply might be seen by different and significantly more users than the artist’s followers. Hence, retweets can become high-volume engagement. In essence, an observer reflects an impression without comment. Alternatively, observers can sidestep the native retweet function and instead append “RT” or another conventional variant to a new, partially copied tweet, to denote that action alongside their own comment or truncation, and then broadcast that to their followers; however, Twitter certainly doesn’t count these multifarious variants in their metrics and tallies only their proprietary reflector-function. But, the edited retweet can be gold, as observers’ context can make link clicks more appealing, lead to more impressions, and encourage observers to “join the conversation.” So, while a native retweet facilitates a direct increase of impressions but cannot really be thought of as a judgment — “RT does not equal an endorsement” is a practically boilerplate, logically dispensable, yet often pathetically necessitated Twitter profile tattoo — an edited retweet often acts as a judgment and only interstitially facilitates an increase of impressions, like a Twitter card.

Please Retweet

Twitter users know the potential engagement power of a retweet — the jet fuel of social media virality, the grand slam of engagement — and, that being the case, many artists beg observers to perform the action, panhandling for publicity, organ grinders cranking the crowd. In the art world, begging for observers’ judgments can border on the pathetic, as many gallery insiders will tell you that artist-begging for attention does the artist more harm than good. Perhaps in the Twitter world, and certainly for less widely known emerging artists, there is less risk for being pathetic, and in fact there uncannily exists a lot of encouragement to be so. But, for being stupid, or a racist, or any other sort of potentially crucifiable moron significant risks exist, as everyone who has experienced Twitter knows tides of moronic tweets can be jet fuel for a moment of astonished, appalled, widespread retweeting meltdown. #ChingChong, anyone?

While everyone is afforded their customary awkward lapse, their occasional moron moment in the Twitter world, the bona fide morons of Twitter are an often entertainingly favorite channel for many to observe, and select moronic tweets often receive Twitter’s most questionably purposeful engagement, the Favorite. A favorite adds a gold star icon to a tweet in the observer’s feed, increases tweets’ visible favorite tally by one, and informs the author of the action. Twitter recently shifted sails and began to use favoriting to algorithmically plug unsolicited tweets into the feeds of users who don’t follow its author, contrary to Twitter’s original, heretofore sacred ethos. The change received rancorous criticism across the platform. Before this recent change a favorite didn’t really do much except the three aforementioned results. Even after much thought it’s very hard to correlate a worthy analog of the favorite in the art world. An observer’s pat on the back at a well-received opening? That seems like a reply: it’s public, it’s directed toward the artist. But a favorite — another carefully chosen word — varyingly acts in so many capacities: like a dogear, a nod to your friend, a chuckle. Thus, the favorite really is a non-verbal (non-textual) reply, and given that, one should ponder whether observers’ purchases of an artist’s work constitutes a non-verbal reply.

The purchase of an artwork typically carries with it some assent, since the action acknowledges a sense of value in the work and performs a function of desire satisfaction. Institutions similarly assent to a work when it is acquired for a public collection, and perhaps later replies to the work with a special exhibition or a curator’s essay, and so forth. Even the practice of placing a holding deposit on a work with a gallery gestures like a favorite, a dogear to which one later returns to either complete the acquisition or, perhaps, reverse course. After all, all favorites exist impermanently and the action of a defavorite (or is it an unfavorite?) is another gesture absent from Twitter’s key metrics, which connotes engagement as an always-positive course of action and disregards its negative facets. The Favorite is a key representation of the opaquely cello-wrapped candy-like nature of social media Engagement: interactions with our products, not necessarily your (the artists and observers) work, is nutritive toward goals. Its suggested engagement value, too, is questionable.

At this juncture, let’s correlate Twitter of the Twitter world to the gallery of the art world.

Commercial galleries generally offer a space to artists to exhibit their work, facilitate its publicity, ameliorate and bear risks by representing it within their space, and share in the accolades of success, especially when a mode of success is sales. Artists on Twitter, as demonstrated, take advantage of all these correlates by continually showing their work on Twitter. Quantifying success, certainly if measured in sales, from continued engagement is nebulous, maybe just as nebulous as in the art world; Twitter doesn’t take a commission, per se, but it generates advertising revenue in the interim, so in a CPM advertising sense, Twitter’s income from continued engagement is more guaranteed than any artist’s. Not to say that sales for either party are a bad thing, but let’s face it, that detailed analysis is another intellectual picnic with Marx in Wonderland.

Maybe now we should just momentarily pause, blow up the distinction and brandish the supposition that everyone, anyone, is an artist on Twitter. Just as it is in the art world.

Twitter Wonderland

Returning to metrics, to those impressions, that which galleries, exhibitions, museums, publication, and so forth are truly all about: venues to experience artists’ work. Twitter’s recent intimation of forthcoming algorithmic feeds suggests impressions will become more of a gatekept privilege than a default, although my personal experience suggests the fix is already in. Galleries, exhibition spaces, and the like are all obviously warranted in their hand-picking of what they would like to present, and yet trepidation stirs amongst the Twitter gallery-goers that curation may become tighter. Perhaps the reality that social media engagement is much less nutritional than its cellophane label purports is coming farther into the light with each incremental tweak of the tweet. Twinkies look delicious and satisfy a craving, but after awhile… not so much. Nevertheless, the analog-digital comparison shines some light onto the attitudinal congruence between personal justifications for how we operate with digital social media inasmuch as we operate within the art world. Is social media a way of connecting with friends, staying in touch, having public conversations, as well as publicizing one’s art practice, exhibiting their work, poking the market for analog engagements, and how fair are the results of such efforts on each side? Should we keep sticking around — should I keep sticking around — in anticipation of being found? Am I just getting lost pursuing my artist’s goals through Twitter? Is it time to sober up?

Some artists are out there for the replies, some are out there for the retweets, some have wholly repurposed Twitter as a primary working medium, and still others are hoping by way of maximum engagement to monetize the platforms on which they exist. Inasmuch as I believe Twitter could go the way of Friendster, I believe the current art world platform might reach obsolescence, too. The corollary seems to solely depend on those who supply the content to the platforms exiting for elsewhere; however, given the expanse of the art world populace and its myriad users begging for various retweets and favorites, observers included, that’s going to be a hard sell without a new platform already waiting in place.

This analysis is by no means sold to its readers as complete, or sufficiently thorough, or even marginally sane; the list of omissions is significant. As an artist in the internet age, it’s worthwhile to question the value of supplying your work — whether aphoristic thoughts or complimentary, perpetually licensed imagery — to a corporate gallery for worldwide distribution. No matter the case, this is personal, but intentioned, sufficiently informative, and helpfully speculative reflection on the use of a multiplayer real time computer program that emulates spheres of analog life, a grand matrix of which I am a part, a reflection of my experiences after suckling onto a “Drink Me” bottle I serendipitously found one day on the internet.