This week we're exploring the Digital Arts Market (or lack thereof). We're asking the tough questions: What will it take for a sustainable digital arts market to form? Is that even a possibility? Can the digital arts make money? And will they ever be incorporated into the contemporary arts dialogue? We invite you to participate in the discussion in the comments section, on your own blog (send us the link!), and on Facebook and Twitter (#DIGART). Let's get the conversation started!
It's time we get realistic about making money from selling internet art—it's not going to happen.
The commodification of internet art is not going to happen in the way the art market has traditionally operated or in any way currently being attempted. This all comes down to a simple square-peg-in-a-circular-hole economic dilemma, which is that digital content is infinitely reproducible and free while physical commodities are scarce and expensive. "But wait!" a Sean Parker-esque voice says in the distance, "What about Facebook, Spotify, Kickstarter? They're making money and they exist online!" Indeed they are making money Mr. Timberlake, but let's look at some of the business models today's online companies employ and see if they're able to provide a sustainable market for internet art.
1. Completely Free To Use and We Also Sell Your Data
This is the way juggernauts like Google or Facebook operate. These companies are able to subsidize (or take a loss) on the cost of storage they afford their users because the information these companies obtain about their users' social and consumptive habits is (or will be) worth significantly more than the free megabytes they offer up. Such profits are made possible by the scale at which the free-to-use companies operate. Because there are so many millions of users typing and clicking through their websites, free-to-use companies are able to sell their users' semi-anonymized data to marketing firms. Because there are so many millions of users gazing at the screen through their sites, free-to-use companies are able to sell ads because other companies know these sites will be surefire places where the online masses will be visiting. So far, this is one of the most profitable uses of digital information and it is also the least likely to be applied to internet art. No one wants demographic information or ad space on a single artist's website—there aren't enough viewers, their clicking habits are limited, and their typing habits are most often non-existent. Without any good information to steal, there's nothing good to sell.
2. Freemium, or, Free Up Until You Want Better Features
Coined by WIRED's Chris Anderson, Freemium is a term meant to imply general access to a site for free with additional features that come at a cost. For instance, anyone can log on to the New York Times website, but if you want more complete articles in the archive you have to pay for a subscription. The reason the New York Times is able to charge for additional content is because they are a trusted journalistic resource that provides in-depth coverage by award-winning writers. In other words, there is a scarcity to the information they are providing. With such a saturated market of images and videos, it should go without saying that no one is going to pay for access to an artist's Tumblr archive, and if they did it would be copied and reposted immediately.
3. Donation-based Personal Charities
How about making a kooky video and asking for money from your friends on Kickstarter for a big new art project? The idea here is that donors are not buying the final project but taking satisfaction in the prospect of allowing a pricey project to come to fruition. As an added bonus, donors sometimes get t-shirts as a "thank you" along the way. If you're popular enough and the project seems worthy, Kickstarting a project can actually work… once. I doubt many internet artists will be able to attract large sums of money from Kickstarter multiple times, and if they are able do it more than once that probably means they have access to large enough of a social network to look into other forms of sponsorship instead. Personal charities are a viable option in the short term but not a sustainable one. Besides—who wants to be the person to incessantly ask her friends for change? This brings us to the next model…
As opposed to the big, crowd-sourced singular project, micro-patronage proposes giving a little bit at a time to smaller, dispersed projects. Here, donors don't receive the satisfaction of knowing they've helped fund some epic project that is otherwise impossible because what they're funding already exists. Micro-patronage in the world of internet art—where the primary viewing audience for an artist's work is a peer group of other artists—is not unlike a community of people who have arranged themselves in an elaborate circle where they all simultaneously pass $10 bills to their right-hand side. In the end everyone has the same amount of money except with a little more spam on each other's walls. This is one of biggest problems with making money from internet art: it doesn't have a viewing audience apart from its group of participants. Everyone is a viewer, an artist, and a curator and in an attention economy a $3 donation may not be as valuable as a well-placed link or write-up.
5. On-demand Production
On-demand production, a lesser-trodden road in internet art, makes its relationship with commerce explicit and allows buyers to dictate some dimension of what they are purchasing. Art history has a long tradition of individuals working at the behest of wealthy patrons, creating portraits of bratty children or sculptures for expansive backyards. It would take creativity to avoid the normal pitfalls of performing the "look, I made this art-historically physical thing digital in a way that acknowledges the software I made it with" routine and some conceptual rigor to sidestep the "you're just a self-glorified oDesk employee" criticism, but I think this merger into a more overt relationship with commerce has potential for internet artists—or at least it doesn't have a tradition of failure. In all of the competitive social jockeying for attention that takes place among internet artists, I'm surprised no one has yet went ahead and attempted to sell commissioned website links on their Facebook page for money.
The problem with the mindset of internet artists thinking of how to monetize their work is that they continue to ignore the differences and similarities between themselves and a market-friendly abstract painter. What unites internet artists and their object-making peers (if and when this distinction can be made) is that when someone buys something from either of them, they are buying their art as a token of investment in the value of a brand—they are buying into a name through the guise of an object.
The event of physically displaying art has a two-fold benefit to the artist, it allows people to see the work and socially validates the importance of the artist whose work is being shown. There are all kinds of social exercises going on at an opening and all of them allow for the brand of the artist to come into focus in one fell swoop—the gallery may act as a broker between collectors and the artist, the artist's friends and peer group go on display the night of the opening, the artist must articulate herself or perform in front of a live audience as others stand around reading her CV. The gallery opening is a proven, well-oiled machine because it perfectly blends all aspects of branding into a contained theater of social exchange that can be digested in a single three-hour long serving.
The internet artist, with her pesky social networks serving as the prime site of social validation, is a brand constantly in progress. The monumentality of the gallery opening is substituted for an ongoing stream of contact within a balkanized network of peers. Online social validation is FUBU and there are few grown ups in the mix attempting to make inroads with outside audiences or communities. As an outsider, it would be hard to understand the social dynamics of this community without being part of it on a daily basis. To be made sellable, the internet art world needs to create social ceremonies that produce recognizable differentiations between participants and allow for the valorization of specific artists—just as the gallery world does through its openings. The purported currency of attention economies—website traffic—is useless if not made public and interpretable. Internet artists, for all of their digital-native wisdom, should know better than to think .JPEGs are a viable commodity when they've seen multi-billion dollar industries like music, film, and newspapers run around like baffled idiots for the past decade trying to figure out why they can't sell MP3s, MOVs, and PDFs like they used to in traditional media.
Art After Social Media, Brad Troemel (2012)
One website that has made progress in quantifying the seemingly abstract value of brands in social networks is Klout. As an application that interprets how influential its users are on Facebook, Tumblr, LinkedIn, and everything else, Klout assigns statistically based ratings according to the amount of social contact you receive and generate. If the website recognizes you as a trend-setter you can even get cool goodies like business cards or WNBA tickets. Klout is of value to this conversation because it provides a model for how online brands can perhaps be valued in the literal terms physical exhibition opportunities provide. And maybe, once internet artists have devised a better system for recognizing their own brands' social worth, the prospect of a collector buying a .JPEG or website won't seem so preposterous.
Materially speaking, a website isn't any more use-valueless than a piece of canvas with goop on it. Stock shares are interchangeable, it's the companies that are unique. I can hear it now, "But people aren't numbers, maaan!" some repulsively unkempt hippy says in the distance. Well of course people aren't numbers, Mr. Chong, but money isn't counted in reblogs… yet.
Brad Troemel is a writer and artist living in New York, teaching Digital Art at NYU. He publishes essays at DIS Magazine.