In today’s modern culture, technology is everywhere. We are constantly in contact with an assortment of different forms of technology and media. At the touch of a button we are connected to the world of the Internet. As we live and breathe this contemporary digital environment, we depend on the Internet and technology to connect to the world in a personal and professional manner. In today’s digital landscape, in order to be a successful artist, or for that matter successful in any profession, you have to everywhere. Modern technology is the easiest way to do this. One of the artists who uses the contemporary digital environment effectively to increase the profile of their art is Banksy. This essay will explore the most effective means of communicating online, the ways that Banksy uses common methods of self-promotion, with the aid of the Internet and other digital pathways to expand the audience for his work.
In today’s modern pop culture, staying connected is a necessity. From an artist’s perspective, the Internet is a great way to promote yourself. The online environment presents an artist with a range of different platforms on which to share their work, the ability to connect with a larger audience, but also a way to define themselves in the public sphere. Probably the most well-known artist of our generation, Banksy is not only a master of street art but he is but he is a genius of self-promotion.
The Internet provides individuals with varied avenues for information seeking (Cutbirth and Coombs, 1997). As Jaques and Ratzan (1997) argue, traditional media channels limit audience behaviour options and do not stimulate information usage. Another benefit of the Internet for communication is its interactive capability. The interaction between creators and consumers could never be achieved through traditional mediums (Kaid, 2002). The Internet is the communications cement that permits multinational corporations to function seamlessly around the globe, producing an economic democracy that is truly worldwide (Jamieson & Campbell, 2006). The same can be said for visual artists who achieve fluid communications and promotion via the Internet. The Internet has provided individuals from disparate localities, age groups and ethnicities with a holistic community in which they can interact. There are two key types of online communities: common-bond communities and common-identity communities. Common-bond communities are characterised by the interpersonal relations of their members, and support their members to connect with each other (Schwämmlein & Wodzicki, 2012). Conversely, in common-identity communities members are characterized by their mutual affinity for a common topic or interest and the community supports them in performing a common task or attaining a certain goal (Schwämmlein & Wodzicki, 2012). Put simply, common-bond communities support interpersonal interactions among members, whereas common-identity communities support collective exchange on a common topic (Schwämmlein & Wodzicki, 2012). When placed in a practical context, common-bond communities are communities such as Facebook and LinkedIn, and common-identity communities are sites such as tumblr and online forums.
Blogs have emerged as a key avenue for expression as they are significantly impacted the way people access and perceive information. All people need to do is to log on to their own computer and activate “a frequently updated web site consisting of personal observations, excerpts from other sources, etc., typically run by a single person, and usually with hyperlinks to other sites; an online journal or diary.”  The Internet provides a forum for individuals who are unfettered by commerce or government and are laterally positioned to interact across organisational, national, ethnic, religious, gender and business boundaries can become a polarising global medium. Indeed, blogs enable people with no official qualifications or experience to reach a substantial Internet audience, making their voices heard, opening their ears to the voices of others and expanding their influence (Al-Rodhan, 2007).
Dr Al-Rodhan (2007) presents a useful account of the unique features of blogs that enable us to consider them as an effective way for artists to communicate with their audience. Absence of editorial control allows blogs to achieve incomparable openness and freedom of topic selection (Al-Rodhan, 2007), with blogs able to publish opinions free of commercial and governmental restraints with a granularity exceeding corporate media to directly engage the masses. Traditional media feel threatened by bloggers’ ability to communicate directly to the masses, completely bypassing them and having the ability to diminish the power, wealth, and control of the press. Blogs are effectively cyber-enabled interest-groups that allow like-minded people to engage across geographical borders with anonymity and without censure (Al-Rodhan, 2007).
Twitter presents and interesting mix of social networking and microblogging as it occurs in real-time and can react to breaking events with additional postings minutes after events (Al-Rodhan, 2007). The speed of communication via twitter generates promotional potential by allowing general awareness of people to be raised and by enabling them to track events and issues in real-time from a range of perspectives to generate their own informed and influential opinions. The real power of twitter has been the user creation of the hashtag. Essentially keywords, the hashtag has given rise to a new style of interaction. Connections can be made by searching a hashtag. A conversation can gain followers and contributors by allowing searches to be conducted through the use of hashtags. Artists can use this function to group their content that they place online and attract new fans who search for that hashtag.
The ‘Facebook Principles’ outline that Facebook was built “to make the world more open and transparent” (Facebook Operating Guidelines, 2010). They outline the freedom for people to share whatever information they want, the ability for the user to own their information, and the freedom to access what others have openly shared. The key to social media engagement comes from the emphasis placed in social media to build connection in an environment of trust. Social media is able to support the construction of relationships between individuals, their networks and the corporate identities engaging in the medium. The cornerstone of social media engagement the ability to connect and share. Artists have the ability to interact directly with their fans, which until recently was not possible. Given Facebook’s operation style and emphasis on building relationships and establishing trust between users, the site offers a unique opportunity for artists to engage with their audience in an informal manner and build a personal relationship, albeit superficial, but on a platform where potential fans are communicating with their most trusted real world connections.
The greatest ability of social media is for fans or other users to endorse an artist like Banksy’s work. For example, Banksy’s official Facebook fan page (https://www.facebook.com/BanksyBook?fref=ts) has 839,800 ‘likes’ which means that every time Banksy posts via this page, the image is automatically seen by almost a million people. In addition, users are able to ‘share’ the photo on their own timeline (usually between 2000 and 5000 people), thereby increasing the exposure of the image as many people that are part of the network of the ‘sharer’ would not have been subscribed to Banksy’s Facebook page. This expands not only the viewing audience, but the potential for the fan base to develop and expand on a rapid scale. The speed of operation in the social sphere is the capital worth of social networking sites. In the case of Banksy and his street art, his following is built up as random, unconnected individuals take photo’s of his pieces and post them on various social media platforms.
This form of sharing is especially significant in terms of YouTube videos and their capacity to ‘go viral’. A popular YouTube video can, with the assistance of sharing via other social media platforms, generate hundreds of thousands of views overnight. It then starts to gather its own momentum and can be picked up by traditional media outlets, further increasing its exposure. Even though the example is not from my area of study, the example of Justin Bieber shows the power of YouTube as a medium for increasing an artist’s audience as his YouTube videos went viral and brought him to the attention of music labels. Recently, Banksy has moved from strictly street art to creating a YouTube presence. His recent residency in New York has seen him branch out into video art with his video ‘Rebel rocket attack’ (http://www.youtube.com/
watch?v=FsF3HspQY6A) depicting Taliban fighters shooting down cartoon character Dumbo. To date, the video has had over six million views and has been shared widely on social media. People who do not have prior knowledge of Banksy’s work will be drawn to the accessibility of this YouTube video and then be more inclined to explore his other work.
In terms of self-promotion and identity construction, Banksy is an interesting case. On one hand, he is a master of promoting the Banksy brand and achieving infamy and notoriety, on the other hand, he conceals his true personal identity, using the anonymity that the Internet provides to further add to the mystery surrounding him. The advent of social networking has given much more scope to individuals to create and manage their identity. Individuals use various self-presentation tactics to present themselves in favorable ways. Researchers concerned with self-presentation have provided ample support for the existence and use of various self-presentation tactics (see Jones & Pittman, 1982; Lee et al., 1999; Lewis & Neighbors, 2005). With online mediums, particularly Facebook, there are usually two motivations for impression management: publicity and likelihood of future interactions (Leary, 1996). In Banksy’s case, because few people actually know who he is personally, future interactions are not the motivation for his image-crafting, but publicity certainly is. Luke Tredinnick (2008) outlines the dichotomies inherent in the concept of identity in the modern age. He says that the range of personal information about us on the Internet means we have our identity imposed on us by our past actions, however, we also have more control over our identity via selecting the information we project into the digital environment (Tredinnick, 2008). Treddinnick (2008) also highlights the paradox that on one hand identity has become more fixed because there is a lasting record of our digital interactions, yet on the other hand it has become more fluid as we can choose to be in different virtual world. And on the one hand identity seems not to matter in the anonymous space of digital environment, but on the other hand it becomes essential to the radical trust through which our participation in digital culture is secured. These dichotomies reflect two very different effect of digital technology on the nature of identity.
Banksy’s anonymity creates a mystery around him that makes his work more elusive. In relation to anonymity, Cairncross (1997) has written that ‘paradoxically, the electronic media makes it easier for pornographers, hackers, and swindlers to hide behind anonymity while at the same representing a serious threat to privacy.’ While Banksy does not represent a ‘serious threat to privacy’ he is hiding behind his anonymity. Usually, this anonymity would make it difficult for artists to promote themselves or maintain the authenticity of their work; but Banksy has used online media to manoeuvre both these potential difficulties. During his recent residency in New York, Banksy has undertaken public artistic stunts, each of which have been filmed and placed on his official YouTube account, acting as great self-promotion and as authenticators of his work. One such stunt was setting up a stall, manned by someone else, selling original Banksy artwork for $60 a piece when his works have been known to sell for over $200,000. Only four pieces were sold throughout the day but the whole thing was filmed, allowing Banksy to use that as art and as promotion. In another such stunt, Banksy loaded a meat-packing truck with stuffed animals and a stereo system emitting screaming noises and had it driven around the streets of New York’s meatpacking district (the video can be seen at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WDIz7mEJOeA). In the days before YouTube, such a stunt would only have achieved exposure to the people that saw it live, however, now the audience is unlimited.
The more work an artist puts on the Internet for free, the more society will recognise them and their work. Additionally, this form of self-promotion helps them connect with their fans who feel privileged to get something for nothing. Artists like Banksy use their work to try and break down the barriers between artists and their audience. Banksy’s work shows a disdain for high art and its conventions. By connecting with his fans through social media, Banksy brings art to their level where they can relate to it. Through stunts like selling his own paintings for $60 when he knows they are worth a lot more, Banksy is taking issue with the conventional concepts of art valuation whereby a piece is seen as important because of the gallery it is displayed in or who the artist is, rather than for its intrinsic artistic value. This type of interaction side-steps conventional artistic gatekeepers and brings art directly to the viewing public. This can be seen as a parallel of the function of the Internet and social media in relation to traditional media. People from any number of industries can bypass traditional media gatekeepers and have their opinions heard through the power of the Internet and social media.
We can see that the contemporary digital environment, with widespread access to the Internet and various forms of social media by artists and consumers alike has opened up greater opportunities and audiences, and provided artists with greater scope to represent and promote themselves. Online communities of both the common-bond and common-identity variety present artists with platforms to promote themselves and their work, reach new people, and win new fans. Blogs, Facebook, twitter and YouTube all give artists the ability to interact directly with their fans, bypass traditional media gatekeepers and enhance their reach. In social media, the possibilities for promotion are endless, as sharing opens up new networks the artist had either not thought of or could not reach themselves. While online mediums give artists and individuals greater freedom to craft their public identity, there is also a paradox that the Internet also allows for anonymity. In the case of Banksy, he has always been a master of using diverse platforms, social media and the Internet to expand his audience, his notoriety, the respect for his work, and promote himself. The fact that the name Banksy is so well known but that people still ask the question ‘who is Banksy?’ highlights both sides of this interesting Internet dichotomy. Banksy uses his social media and more recently YouTube to increase hype around his brand and his work. Artists like Banksy are to art what social and new media is to media generally; both break down barriers of traditional communication and perception to interact with their audience directly. Banksy’s approach is best summed up by his own words: “Graffiti is one of the few tools you have if you have almost nothing. And even if you don’t come up with a picture to cure world poverty you can make someone smile while they’re having a piss.” (Banksy, 2003)
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