In November 2019, we brought together eight artists who have been building their followings on social media. We had the pleasure of discussing social media’s influence on the art world with Ladon Alex, Noah Kocher, Benito Longoria, Luna, Turner McElroy (FKA Charlie Alright), Idalis Reyes, Reilly Stasienko, and Zach Thompson. Led by Downtown 500’s Adam Yarsinsky, the artists’ discussion touched on a number of different topics relevant to all young artists, including how to best utilize social media to build a following, the importance of showing your personality, and what the future of the art world might look like. This article was originally published in issue two of 500 Magazine.
When describing Twitter’s art community, Turner McElroy put it best — it’s a “digital bohemia”. One could compare it to the art scene of New York City during the 1980s — tons of artists interacting with each other, inspiring one another, and continuously collaborating. Forty years later, such people are not reliant on a physical space to connect – there is no Andy Warhol’s Factory or any underground party for them to attend. Collaboration is now online, on a global scale, allowing these artists to create a community based solely on digital platforms. In reference to the communication evolution brought forth by the Internet, Reilly Stasienko believes that culture and art are “gonna change with that and you’re just gonna have to accept that and find a way to make it positive”, which is what the new generation of artists are doing. They use the Internet to their advantage to network with others, raise awareness of their art, create their followings and eventually sell their works.
Recently, social media became a goldmine for artists trying to make a name for themselves. Zach Thompson points out that in 2012, “the art scene on Twitter wasn’t really relevant in a sense. It was a very small group of people”. Now, platforms like Twitter and Instagram are full of visual artists sharing their work and supporting the work of others. These apps have evolved into much more than just platforms for sharing images and following other users; they have become essential tools for branding and networking.
As we enter the 2020s and look ahead to the future, it seems that social media will only become more significant for artists throughout the decade. Zach puts it best, saying that “now is the best time ever to be a self-taught artist”. He follows this by explaining how kids can “become anyone with the Internet” as long as they have “a phone, and Wi-Fi, and the means to make art”. He says that this is “extremely special and rare, and it’s happening right in front of us.” At the very least, the benefit of sharing your artwork on social media is the ability to garner attention from your ideal audience. Reilly touches on the importance of people seeing and reacting to your artwork, stating that “you can see your works’ relationship with the public in a way that you’ve never been able to before because you can see the types of people who like your art, [and] things that they say about it.” “Without the Internet, some people may not have access to such feedback”, Turner points out. He mentions that even if you live in an area with little to no influence of arts and culture, “you can still find it every day [online] and you can find other creative people to connect with” that you may not be able to find within “the next block [over] from you.”
Social media allows these artists to support one another and grow together. “It really does take the support of all the parties involved in art,” Ladon explains. “I would not be here without Noah and Zach specifically”. Noah agrees, noting how he watched himself and Ladon grow and experiment with different ideas and artistic methods over time. Reilly points out how she followed Idalis before she started working on her own art. “I think the first validation I received as an artist, like, real ‘you can do this’ validation, was through Twitter,” Reilly explains. Idalis notes that, even if your friends and family may not support you, “getting those words of encouragement [online]…is really the moral support that you need.” Zach Thompson was one of the earliest visual artists to have a significant presence on Twitter, inspiring many of his peers. Turner explains how Zach was seen as an example of “the dude who knows what he’s doing.” Benito said when he was 15 years old, he sent Zach an email asking for advice. Thompson appreciates the kind words from everyone, while also explaining that he is learning from his followers every time he sees their work. “It’s full circle. We’re all learning from each other,” Reilly agrees.
When thinking about sharing artwork, one might initially think of using Instagram the most, as the whole purpose of the platform is to share images. However, the artists agree that Twitter is a much better interface for building a following, connecting with others, and having conversations. Noah points out that “retweets are how you get people to see your shit,” later stating that the ability to retweet “changed the game.” Idalis agrees, saying that Twitter is the best way to go viral, also because of retweets. When an established artist with a more substantial following retweets another artist’s work, it can bring many new eyes to that artist and, in turn, gain them new followers. Additionally, Twitter allows for more natural conversations and connections. Turner compares Twitter to Instagram by saying that it encourages “valid discussion threads and [the ability to] actually talk about things instead of just having a comment section.” As a result, Twitter allows for better creation of specialized conversations based on a continuous sharing of opinions and ideas. Building a following seems to be simpler on Twitter than Instagram, but it obviously does not mean that it is truly easy.
“It took years,” Kocher says. “Transparency, too,” Thompson adds. Most of the modern artists with online popularity have spent a lot of time building their platforms to the point that they are at today, with the followers being the loyal fans of their work. However, it came quicker for some, like Luna. She says that the bulk of her following was built in eight months. However, for the majority of young artists, it takes years of daily work and online presence to gain recognition.
The best starting point is just posting your artwork. It’s essential just to get your work out there, even if you don’t think it’s as good as others’. Idalis says that “even if your art is trash” you should still post it because “you have to start somewhere.” She believes that artists should push past insecurity and start creating; focusing more on improving their skills and creative visions regularly. Reilly agrees, saying there’s nothing to lose from it. Turner adds that, if you want to build a platform, you’re going to have to “fuck up”. Most likely, it will take a while to build up an online presence – and it can be just as much about showing off your personality as it is about posting your artwork.
The artists prioritize the importance of showing off who you are as a person and staying true to yourself on social media. “It’s easy to go on the Internet and see people who switch up [their style] to follow a trend; [it’s important] not to pressure yourself [to do that] and to just have a presence that’s your own,” Idalis tells us. “It’s important for people to know that you’re a person and not just some robot making art,” Kocher states. Being yourself and showing your personality can lead you to find like-minded people who may not only make connections to your artwork but to you as a person as well. “You build a personality that can increase the value of your art,” Ladon explains. “It’s the same way how…if you’re a bad person, it comes across. If you’re too this or too that, the interest in your work is gonna decrease.” Turner puts it more simply by saying “you’ve gotta post memes from time to time…you gotta post stupid shit sometimes.” Making a personal connection with your followers will develop an additional “level of intimacy” with them, according to Thompson. He prioritizes the importance of focusing on trying to cultivate a following that is supportive and loyal, rather than simply building a large following.
As the discussion goes on, there are a few reasons brought up as to why Instagram makes it harder to build such a following. First and foremost, the artists mention how Instagram’s algorithm – the one that decides which posts to show users first on their feed – has become a mess. Idalis calls it “trash”, while Turner explains how it prioritizes more popular posts – ones that have already gotten a lot of attention. He says that this algorithm makes it difficult to start a following and that it can have a detrimental effect on one’s mental state. If someone were to post a piece of art and it doesn’t get many “likes”, it may seem as if people didn’t like the work, when in reality, they probably didn’t even get a chance to see the post. Ladon also mentions how Instagram’s image compression makes the image quality worse than intended. Idalis feels that posts look too small on Instagram’s feed.
Another negative factor to note is Instagram’s blocking of “adult content” – even if the nudity is represented in an artistic and non-erotic form. Luna touches on how a lot of her pieces feature nudity, specifically topless women, and says that a lot of her posts are flagged and taken down from Instagram because they feature female nipples. Now, no one is saying not to use Instagram – it is still an excellent platform to expand your following further and share your art with new audiences. It just seems that putting more effort into one’s Twitter presence may be a better use of one’s time, as more of a community and support system exists there.
Social media can be potentially toxic for new artists attempting to seek validation. Artists should not view social media responses and comments as a measurement tool for the validity or quality of one’s work. Idalis says that “you might post something and it might not get as many retweets or likes, and you might feel like that reflects its worth, but it really doesn’t.” It does not reflect the worth of your art – but it could have an effect on your mentality moving forward. Noah mentions that this is something he’s struggled with, but assures that “just because your art doesn’t get noticed by as many people it doesn’t mean it’s not special.” He says that one should appreciate their work simply because they made it. Indeed, low engagement can occur due to several factors and does not always have to do with people not liking the work.
Additionally, the artists say that getting too many likes can have a negative effect as well. If certain pieces get too much attention, an artist could get stuck on trying to recreate that style and overuse it until it becomes uninteresting for viewers. “The Internet and social media…can make you complacent,” Turner states. “Some people will get stuck in their ways if they see that it’s getting attention. So, people will continue to work in the same style instead of growing outside of [their] comfort zone”. Turner goes on to explain how it is easy to follow trends and get popular by appealing to a particular crowd but says it is important to challenge yourself and do something new and different. “If you’re really trying to make an impact with your art and you’re trying to say something important,” he says, “you’re not going to be popular for a bit. You’re just not going to have a large amount of likes and retweets because you’re trying to do something new. It might not catch on for a while, but you still have to have passion in yourself.” Benito then brought up the idea of taking away the “likes” system, stating that it would “cause more of an honest connection”. He thinks that people wouldn’t “be following people based on the size of their influence, but rather because of [the] connection to their images.”
Besides the potential dangers of likes and attention, the artists elaborate on the importance of not becoming overly reliant on social media. Zach explains how he thinks that social media is “a great tool” and a “great train to the next station,” while noting that he does not believe it can “take us all to our final destination.” Social media can be viewed as a starting point for artists to develop their style and make connections which can then be used in real-life situations. “I don’t think anyone should solely rely on it for connections or for validation as an artist,” Reilly states. Turner mentions that although social media is a helpful device to “sidestep the gallery system” or the “old-school version of what art has been,” an artist still needs to exist within the real-world system to some extent. “Sometimes our phones can be too much if we really get sucked into it,” he says.
The importance of taking breaks from social media is also addressed – a practice that is beneficial for everyone, not just artists. Zach says he encourages “every artist who operates on Twitter to also take breaks from it”. At the same time, he warns that a more extended break could be “detrimental to your following and support system,” especially when social media is generating a large portion of an artist’s income.
Artists have almost always relied on galleries to help sell and display their work, but now social media and the Internet have created a new paradigm for artists, where they share their work without as much red tape. Turner explains how social media allows artists to stop thinking they have to “get [their] name through a gallery in order to be successful”. Reilly expands on this, saying that it “takes away from the elitist idea of art”. She says that artists do not necessarily need establishing gallery space or meeting certain people in real life because nowadays it is possible to “make these connections online”. Reilly explains that she has gained all of her art-based income through Twitter and Instagram – and she’s not alone in that regard. “I don’t think I would have made the money that I’ve made from art to this day if I didn’t have Twitter and Instagram,” says Noah Kocher. Idalis agrees, adding that Etsy is also a good place to sell your work.
The methods of art creation, distribution and selling have changed during the last decades, which explains why people’s views on art and artists have changed respectively. “We’re not seen as just machines producing work as much anymore. There’s a person there, and this is the person that the work is coming from,” Reilly says. People are becoming more and more interested in what these young artists are doing; proven by how their content has gone viral, leading to increased attention on the individuals behind the work. People are connecting with them and giving them the support to foster further growth.
Social media now allows artists to be discovered and appreciated as they move through their creative journey. These human beings are dedicating their lives to a craft that adds beauty to our world and shines light onto their truths. “I think that with the Internet there’s this welcome freedom of accessibility towards the arts that a lot of people never had access to. I think that this is where we can start to see art in a classless age” Turner says. It is time to give these artists their spotlight and recognize the great things they are accomplishing – and the artists featured in this magazine are just the tip of the iceberg. With each young artist who decides to leap into creating and committing to their own platform, another step is made towards bringing the arts into the forefront of culture while eliminating the pretentiousness of the traditional art world. This new paradigm is the future of art, and these artists will propel us into it.