Outside the Frame: Social Networks as Fodder for Art

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Amanda HirschFreelance writer Amanda Hirsch, former editorial director of PBS Interactive, blogs about documentaries and the Web in her column, Outside the Frame.

The beauty of nature, the gruesomeness of war…and Facebook status updates? Yes, Facebook can now count itself among the muses of history, having inspired Wisconsin artist Stacey Williams-Ng to create a series of paintings showcasing her friends’ answers to the Facebook prompt, “What are you doing right now?”

For example:
Painting of a woman on the couch with a framed photo of Robert Frost over her head. By Stacey Williams-Ng
Molly E. is hot for Robert Frost.

Painting of a bird and some telephone poles in spring. By Stacey Williams-Ng
Rafiq A: Spring… the end of my winter of discontent or just the next pithy chapter?

To learn more about the paintings, read this article from Mashable, or visit the artist’s website.

This series got me thinking — if status updates can inspire paintings, what other forms of art can they inspire? Imagine, for example, crafting a documentary by collecting people’s status updates, from either Facebook or Twitter — after all, as filmmaker Louis Abelman opined earlier this year, here on this very blog:

Certainly you can observe a lot about someone by reading the accumulation of in-the-moment information they have left behind in tweets. In that sense, it is similar to vérité.

Let’s use a friend of mine — I’ll call her “Abby” — as an example. Here are her “tweets” (Twitter updates) from over the weekend:

Sometimes perspective, wine and a good meeting are all you need.

That just made me want to cry.

You have got to be kidding me.

Tried to find individual tweet to sell Troy on value of Twitter. Failed. Overall trust/cred of community u create. Want T in that community.

Heart. Burn.

I am so thrilled that the man I am seated next to for the next 5 hours of my life can acquire sustenance inside his nose.

Lying awake for past hour thinking about conversations I need to have and conversations I wish I could have. I think I’ll just start my day.

Just did my mother’s day call to mom. Talked to step dad longer. I try. I try.

Step dad in response to me saying Mom never calls, “She thinks she annoys you.” Me, “She does.”

If a camera were following Abby instead, how much of this information would it have captured? What would it have missed? What is Abby leaving out?

Imagine watching these events — the meeting, the lying in bed, the phone call — with the option to view her Tweets simultaneously on screen. Or inviting an animator to imagine what Abby looks like, based only on her verbal online persona, and animating a documentary about her life.

Facebook and Twitter are full of stories. Do these stories warrant a documentarian’s attention? Or are they just digital detritus?

Ruiyan Xu
Ruiyan Xu
Former POVer Ruiyan Xu worked on developing and producing materials for POV's website. Before coming to POV, she worked in the Interactive and Broadband department at Channel Thirteen/WNET. Ruiyan was born in Shanghai and graduated from Brown University with a B.A. in Modern Culture and Media.
  • http://www.mistcat.com Nate “Tap Money” P.

    FOREIGNID: 18270
    Have you seen we feel fine? fascinating social media art project! Great talk by the guy who did it at TED last year too.

  • http://www.amandahirsch.com Amanda

    FOREIGNID: 18271
    Yes, I have, but I’d forgotten about it – thanks for sharing!
    Also, someone responded to this post via Twitter and said he’s used social networks as part of theater productions, as a way of conveying exposition prior to a show. Imagine reading Hamlet’s tweets…Pretty cool.

  • http://www.riverruntheatre.org David J. Loehr

    FOREIGNID: 18272
    Yes, we used Twitter to create two feeds for characters in our December production, which was a premiere. I wrote the tweets for one character while my editor wrote the other half of the conversation. The idea was to have a little extra story and exposition both before and after the timeline of the play; because it took place around Christmas, the whole thing worked in close to a real-time timeline.
    What made it fun was, we didn’t really coordinate what we were going to say. We only used the script to go by. I wrote the script, so I had a little bit of a headstart, but much of what I was doing was reacting and replying. So it was fun for the audiences, but it was also fun for us as writers trying to keep up with each other.
    The script didn’t need it, and a good portion of our regular audience didn’t even know what Twitter was. We didn’t go wild promoting that, just had links from our site, mentioned it in the program and mentioned it before the show. Some people discovered it by chance, like an easter egg on a DVD, and they loved it. We’d like to think it added to their appreciation of the show. I do know that we had packed houses for the entire run, and the reaction we got from the Twittering was very positive.
    It’s something we’re going to try again, I think. We have a show coming up in D.C. this summer that has a Twitter feed–@rg2underworld–but it’s not a show that lends itself to the same kind of conversation. Too many characters, for one thing. But it’s a fun, easy way to spread the word about this show…