Wednesday, May 13, 2009
Co-Modify: Were you Hoodwinked? by Ingrid Murnane
There was always bound to be some kind of backlash in relation to a performance project like Co-Modify. Imagine that you are checking your tweets or your Facebook homepage and someone you know or follow is suddenly mentioning a particular brand, over and over and over again. Inevitably you're going to wonder what on earth is going on. Given the amount of spam which we all recieve (and generally filter out) of our online lives, you will have been forgiven for wondering why on earth individual people were acting as if they were sponsored.
Of course, the whole idea of commodifying is to make something commercial; in this case our online lives, in the form of tweets, status updates and other manifestations of social media interaction. Where once we would engage in a monologue or dialogue about our lives and our interest, there seemed an intruder: a sponsor. So, did it seem as if we had sold out to these corporations of which we were seemingly so enamoured? Or had we always been fans, but had now become particularly obsessed? Or maybe we were just being a bit eccentric (some of us have been accused of that on more than one occasion).
In general, the 43 performers who took part in Co-Modify were very well received by their online audience, but a minority did receive some negative responses from people in their online social networks. There were also some comments left on the @Platea blog pertaining to the Co-Modify concept as a whole. It has been very interesting looking at people's reactions and the reasons behind them. Here is some of the feedback which we have had before, during and since the performance.
Before the Performance
As a member of the @Platea steering committee I helped to get the word out to potential performers. One place I posted about it was in the forums of the social network for knitters, Ravelry. There were quite a few responses and some rather NSFW witty banter to boot. Some people seemed interested, and a few ended up joining the performance. As was to be expected, Co-Modify was not for everybody, with a lot of 'disagrees' scored for that post on the forum voting buttons in relation to both the concept and its execution:
'I guess I’m not seeing the point. I’m supposed to give a company free advertising, and that’s art?'
Some others were very forthright in their disapproval, sending notes within the site's messaging system with threats to 'run me out of Ravelry' if I went ahead and performed. I have to admit that this, rightly or wrongly, did affect how I had planned to perform on Ravelry and as a consequence, I very much toned down my sponsorship by Sirdar (a knitting company) on there.
Once Co-Modify got underway, our online social circles began to receive updates and interactions 'sponsored' by brands: this led to a number of negative reactions. It is important here to note that unlike myself, most performers staged the week's sponsorship with no prior warning. The reactions which the performers engendered included confusion, concern, annoyance, disgust, and feelings of being 'played'.
Some performers lost followers in the course of Co-Modify, including New Curator. Sponsored by Red Bull, he added the drink's logo into his own QR code logo on Twitter and Facebook and included the brand in his status updates. One response to this was a follower commenting that 'This is a very stupid marketing performance,' before unfollowing and unfriending on Twitter and Facebook respectively. New Curator decided to address this by engaging in some diplomatic dialogue and pointing the person towards the @platea blog for further explanation. As was the case with the followers of some other performers, New Curator's follower did not like 'being involved as a participant in an art project without being asked.' (Participant in this case meaning being part of the audience.) What is interesting here is that this is by no means the first time that New Curator has mentioned Red Bull in his tweets (it being somewhat of a favourite), but with the accompaniment of its logo, it led to a much more vehement response. With both @Rubaiyat and New Curators' negative experiences being focused somewhat on their profile pictures, I wonder how far this backlash has been escalated by the presence of visual branding?
On a positive note, the person from Ravelry who had decided not to participate because she just didn't 'get' it left a note on my Facebook page, mid-way through the week. Explaining that by seeing the performance she now understood what we were all trying to do, she led the way for a number of other comments of the same nature. But does this defeat the point? These people knew what was going to be happening before Co-Modify began. Would they have felt the same way had they not known? Would it have been even more confusing?
Is it Art? Is it Spam?
TheWilk2 commented on the blog during the performance:
So that's what this is about? Seriously, it doesn't come across as Art in any way, shape or form to me. Seems more like Spam... I don't get this, and I don't like it, sorry. If some of you weren't also great people I'd be blocking your tweets SO HARD!
She makes a very good point. As I mentioned at the beginning of the post, this performance might well seem like spam. All of our inboxes receive spam, and the reaction of most of us is to block it. So how would you differentiate between 'genuine spam' (there's an oxymoron!) and this fictional sponsorship? Part of the answer to might be that this advertising was being done by individuals; individuals whom you were already following. However this only works if you are an established follower of the performer. There are definitely questions surrounding how this might affect new followers or friends of a performer: ones who do not yet know that person's online style and presence. Would it make them think twice?
She went on to add:
All the companies mentioned have huge advertising budgets and viral ads have been around for years.
Again very true. The companies do not need us to be doing this for them. The intention of Co-Modify was not to just give brands free advertising; they do not need us to do this for them. As mentioned in previous blog posts, performers such as Joelle Held were being rather subversive in their sponsorship. Joelle was advertising all the products which Microsoft does not make in a parody of its ever-expanding empire. Even so, in doing this Microsoft are still gaining attention. This does not sit easily, and is ripe for discussion.
The point of Co-Modify was to draw attention and provide a commentary about the fact that everything we did in our online social lives could be monetised and that advertising could become embedded deeper and deeper into our social lives to the point of the individual. It really was, as An Xiao says in her previous post, Ars Ad Absurdum: art taken to the point of absurdity. In fact so absurd that often the point was missed.
The Reveal and its Aftermath
Once Co-Modify drew to a close on Saturday, most of the participants had explained what they had been doing. Again there were mixed reactions to this reveal. One of @rubaiyat's followers felt as if she had been played, one of mine breathed a sigh of relief that I hadn't sold out to big business and other followers questioned where we drew the line between art and actually providing free ads for these companies. An Xiao's recap of the performance attracted comment from Annie B who did not like Co-Modify and chose not to participate. Like TheWilk2, she had a couple of performers in her Twitter stream and 'almost blocked them until I realized they were performing.' She argues that it is not how she wants her Twitter experience to be. 'I want to hang out with real people' as opposed to those marketing the same message over and over again. She added in later correspondence with me that 'it seemed that the performance was playing to the system' citing the interest of the Sharpie rep in @buddhagirlAZ's performance. (I'm not sure if @BuddhagirlAZ was one of the participants who Annie B was following or not.)
Just to note, not all of the feedback that we got was negative: in fact most of it was very positive!
I think that many more people enjoyed the performance than believed that they had been hoodwinked or spammed, but it has been important to engage in discourse about those negative aspects of the performance. It gives a much fuller picture of how the performances are recieved and whether we have achieved what we set out to do. Of course, it will help in the planning of future projects too.
Over to You
Co-Modify rolled out over a whole raft of social networking platforms and was performed in a myriad of ways: it is a complicated thing to discuss. I feel that in this rather verbose post, I have thrown out a lot of topics for discussion and probably asked more questions than I've given answers... I'd like to turn these negative experiences into a positive now, and open the dialogue. In order to learn and grow as a performance art collective, we'd like to hear what you think.
Please do leave us your comments below on this and all aspects of Co-Modify. Alternatively email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, send an @reply or DM on Twitter or leave us a comment on the @Platea Facebook page.
Time to hand over to you chaps: what do you think?