Illustration by iggdeh
Social media as performance art: ‘expressions of social nonconformity through the merging of art and life’
Humans have been engaging in performance as a form of communication for millenia. But the integration of performance and art or ‘Performance Art’, began with Italian Futurists. They believed that “performance is the only way to reach a mass audience” and in the early 1900s, ‘Performance Art’ was defined as “art where the body is the medium or live action is involved”. The futurists put together performances aiming at taking up space that would have otherwise been left empty, similarly to how the intentional use of social media can be viewed as an act of artistic performance. The act of taking pictures and videos of oneself, as well as glimpsing into one’s immediate reality can be seen as a performance that is then shared on to an audience. The internet has allowed for humanity to have access to a massive web of communication, with the potential to reach larger audiences than ever before. This growth and expansion lets us interact with each other in ways that can be more intimate and jarring than we’ve been used to. This web of connection also gives us platforms, potential audience members, and a stage to express our personal truths. When used as a form of artistic expression, intentional social media use can generate huge audiences for individuals and communities. On the other hand, this increase of connection poses one major question: How is the internet forcing us to redefine borders of social acceptance?
Social media is one of many technological advancements that marked new territory for humanity. The internet grew, and the ways that we interacted with ourselves and others on social media and real life began to overlap. This overlap allowed for elements of artistry and performance to be seen through temporary moments that we immortalize by sharing. Without social media, a post would have only been a picture in a forgotten album or a fleeting memory. This merging of art and life makes social media like a performance in which each performer is also a member of the audience contributing to the show in myriad ways. As our social consciousness expands, ideas of truth become integral to the way we communicate. As more of our inner selves are seen by others on the internet, we begin to use the internet as a way to provoke thought, which then incites change through how we think about ourselves and the world. We begin to express emotion through social media posts on a scale that has the ability to directly influence thought patterns and the ways we all exist in the world.
Artists, musicians, and public figures continue to show the power and complexity of social media. One photo can “break the internet”. One song can go viral and have the entire world amazed, choreographing a dance that is then replicated by millions for weeks and even months. Like ‘Gangnam Style‘, by PSY a korean hit single that swept the nation and threw everyone into a frenzy. It was the first youtube video to ever reach one billion views and did so in only 5 months. Or like the artist Yeat, who landed a song called “Rich Minion” on the soundtrack of the Minions. The “Rise of Gru” brought out massive amounts of Yeat fans to see the movie in theaters dressed in 3 piece suits calling themselves gentle minions. The internet is powerful. And for artists especially, it seems like the sooner you understand how to navigate and leverage it, the higher your chances of success.
In individualistic cultures like the United States of America, expressions of truth tell a lot about identity and whether people will feel a desire to connect with you or not. What you believe about yourself and others can dictate the ways you exist and how you consciously and subconsciously feel about your existence. However, social media historically has not been used to express honest truths. It seems we are at the tail end of the age of false perfection, face-tuning and click baiting. And as we leave that period, we begin to enter an age of social media social justice (sometimes performative), social expansions of consciousness, and expressions of genuine emotion like love, joy, anger, and angst. In some ways I think this reduces the barrier between our conscious mind and the things we share on the internet.
In the same way that technology and our lives begin to overlap, the ways we think and the ways we express our thoughts begin to become the same thing. This removal of borders between the mind and expressions of the mind are parallel to the integral themes of revolutionary artistic movements of the past, particularly Surrealism, where artists intentionally honored their stream of consciousness. On social media this stream of consciousness can quickly turn into messy twitter threads, people oversharing, and constant feelings of fomo. Such intimate expression pushes and ultimately breaks the borders of social conformity we’ve grown accustomed to. It shows the parallels between life and performance by showing that the main goal is not always to please the audience, but to bring them through a range of emotions. Said emotions make us confront the boundaries we’ve created within ourselves. As audience members, and actors of this show, the many ways that we express ourselves communicates how willing we are to redefine and face borders that reflect the worlds we each live in. When faced with internal uncertainty, which way do we choose to go?
We are just beginning to explore the social media landscape. The first social media site ‘sixdegrees.com’ was invented in 1997. Myspace was launched in 2003, which grew to hold 25 million users. After Myspace gained popularity, Mark Zuckerberg started messing around with launching ‘Facesmash’ in 2003, which ultimately became Facebook in 2004. This was the beginning of a major shift. Now, 19 years after the creation of Myspace, social media has grown into more than just a website. It has grown into a way of life that billions of people across the globe (and probably in space?) have adapted to. However, now that social media has become an integral part of our lives there are norms to follow. There are unspoken rules about the types of things that are acceptable to share with the public. But who is the public? A shift in who we perceive the public to be, has allowed what once was socially unacceptable to become commonplace- like making jokes about dead people or sharing nude photos. Pretty much anything imaginable can be found on social media. With such a broad market, it has also become a common and essential tool for people to make a living, and because it seems that we use these platforms for just about everything, the artistry and divinity that exists in our daily thoughts and mundane activities are also broadcasted.
Although social media performance would be categorized as Contemporary Art, the artistic use of social platforms parallels the artistic movement of surrealism of the early 20th century. Surrealist artists honored their stream of consciousness and let their mind flow uninhibited into their art. Presently, I think this is seen in spaces where social media posts disappear after 24 hours like Instagram stories, or in spaces where the flow of content is neverending, like on Tiktok and Twitter.
Essentially, people ramble and express the authenticity of what comes to their minds in an instant. In the past, surrealist artists used different techniques that shed light on the human unconscious and the bridge between human unconscious beliefs and their realities. This breaking of unconscious barriers in the present, can rupture ideas of conformity that keep people stuck in the rat race of hustle culture. In a culture of individuality, people crave connection and social media provides opportunities to create community. There is beauty in this, but social media cannot replace the natural chemistry of fated interactions. If social media is used in an unhealthy way, the ability to build a community can grow into herd mentality, a way of thinking in which people blindly follow trends in an attempt to feel a sense of connection. In the end, this creates a herd of people who follow a crowd instead of pursuing personal fulfillment. But in rejecting conformity, seeing life as art, and using social media to document artistry, there is a sort of rebellion that can help us move past social expectations.
In the past, social expectation took precedence over authentic expression. The ways that people expressed themselves were heavily reliant on whether someone understood them or not, or whether it supported a narrative that was already in place. Colonialism provides many examples of people misinterpreting and villainizing aspects of cultural significance, simply because they were misunderstood. For example, this can be seen through the demonization of witchcraft, voodoo, and magic. In the past, people were exiled, humiliated, and even burned at the stake for expressing ideas and engaging in practices that went against the systems in place. However, when billions of ideas are expressed at once on social media, warfare happens artistically. All is fair in art and war and there is no way to defeat IDEAS. The human mind is the most powerful thing we have access to. Social media is the closest and easiest way to influence the minds of others. I remember learning about social media when I was young and being told to be super cautious of what I shared on the internet, because of the digital footprint it would leave behind. But now, the internet has grown to become a system that benefits from over-saturation. If people did not share their meaningless thoughts, social media would not hold the same power. There is power in how easy it is to immortalize our thoughts, immortalize our memories, and document mementos of beauty and inspiration in a way that uniquely speaks to us. After all, in the age of the internet, speaking to our experiences can be a way of finding work, opportunities and connections that move your life forward.
In the same way that life has become quite dystopian, social media platforms themselves have become more restrictive and reflective of the troubling status quo. With algorithms filtering the content that people see, we can get lost in the mix, missing the artistry of our lives and chasing a viral moment. With platforms like TikTok and Twitter that produce a constant feed of content that are catered to your interests, virality is much easier to access these days. There’s a polarity present that can’t be explored without analyzing capitalism and the ways that people have to work around it.. This dilemma is especially prevalent to people who use social media as a way to propel their careers. Artists and business owners find themselves trying to work with the mathematical nature of the algorithm to boost their content in a way that gets them more exposure, but at the expense of natural connection.
I’ve grown familiar with this feeling of becoming dominated by an algorithm. I started talking my shit on TikTok back in October 2021. What began as me minding my business, singing, and sharing my abstract thoughts spiraled into posting content to what felt like a cult of 100,000 “friends”. Initially, my expression was genuine and wholesome, but after a while, the validation I received turned into something a little more sinister. Seeing the constant flow of notifications made me crave them in two ways. I would crave the possibilities that flowed in with every new connection. Each new follower had the potential to turn into a creative or business partner, and there was always something to keep me excited and stimulated. I also began to crave the flow of attention, attaching my value to the numbers, which showed me that the content I was posting was entertaining or valid enough for people to resonate with it. As my following grew from 100 to 100,000, I began expressing parts of myself a lot more. Of the content I shared, I received more attention on videos that were ‘entertaining’, rather than videos that I wanted to share just for the sake of expression. My reign as a micro-cult leader lasted about six months before my account was suspended for me saying “fuck white people” and rolling up a joint on live. After spending time away from the platform and analyzing why it made me feel so drained, I realized that I’d become addicted. Addicted to the comfort I received from the constant validation. This made me realize the ways that the algorithm was influencing my expression, more than the people that the algorithm led me to connect with. My content was pushed towards mostly men of all ages. After reading comments and understanding the ways that these people interacted with my videos, it felt like I was in this internet room surrounded by men. Men that probably only saw me as an object on their phone screens. As I began to realize trends in the people that would flock to my content, I saw more of a reality of why I was chasing this validation. It was making me feel wanted, making me visible in a sea of content. But in a way, getting lost in this influx of attention forced me to confront the ways in which I was moving through the real world based on what I would subconsciously want to share on the internet! This forced me to ask myself, “how can I set boundaries so that social media works for me and doesn’t drain my energy?” I have to use it in a conscious way. I set out to use the algorithm to my advantage.
Toltecs believe reality is a dream we are all experiencing differently. Greek philosophers believed that nothing outside of one’s mind can be proven to exist; solipsism. Social media helps us express our separate dream-minds in ways that allow other people to draw parallels to their own personal experiences, making our realities more connected than separate. Every time I interact through social media I see two options for use. I can use the platforms I have access to as a way to share my truth or I can use the internet as a mask hiding what is valuable and true to me. But since every interaction holds the same potential, social media gives me the opportunity to revel in the mystery of what may or may not come from my expression. By expressing my individual truth, I break the illusion of separation that often leads me to think that my experience is in a bubble of its own. By expressing my truth, I give it space to become an expression of collective honesty. In many ways everything and almost nothing is possible on the internet. So, I invite the unknown. Because like true performance artists, I believe that art can not be separate from life, but is an action within life.
Trinity is a 1.5 generation Jamaican immigrant from Philadelphia. She is a multifaceted artist and writer who takes complex societal trends and communicates them through music and pop culture for easy comprehension.
More of Trinity’s work in Mixed Mag