Art History 2.0: Digital Art Hashtags

Is there a Hashtag for Digital/New Media art activity and/or should there be?

For the last ten years or so I’ve been working with the artists and organisations who pioneered the use of internet technologies for art discussion. Back in 1991 a Bulletin Board System (BBS) called Thing was one of the first dedicated online spaces for debating art and culture. Soon mailing lists/list serves were popping up all over cyberspace and throughout the late 1990s/early 2000s, lists such as Nettime, Rhizome, the Syndicate, organised and archived a tremendous amount of art talk.

The reasons these lists were so popular and prolific was that they were not dedicated to just any old art, but art that wrestled with its relationship to technology. To put it another way, these lists focused on art that is known variously as Digital art, New Media art or Computer art and, in a more specific vein, Internet art or Net art (including net.art). And though such lists revelled in the mix of content from so-called professionals and amateurs alike they, for the most part, provided an invaluable resource for the thousands who used them.

The history of the rise and fall of lists is a complicated one and over the years, for a variety of reasons, many once popular lists have become less active or have ceased to exist at all. Of course, one of the main reasons for this has been the rise of social media. While sites like Facebook don’t exactly replace the sustained debates that lists were known for, they do provide for a certain type of sharing which is, at times, hard to resist.

Now we have the Twittersphere I find myself asking what Twitter is doing, if anything, for this still strong community?

Hashtags are the system used by the Twitter community to flag up certain content in tweets and they are used in a variety of ways. A well-known Hashtag, for example, is #ff, which stands for ‘Follow Friday’, the day of the week when tweeters provide lists of people they follow on Twitter and would like to recommend to others. Other Hashtags might relate to conferences or series of events. For example, the current Digital art and design exhibition, ‘Decode’, being held at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum has used the Hashtag #decode09. Tags such as #decode09 really come into their own when, for whatever reason, you can’t attend a conference but can get near your computer to set up a search for the tag to watch live comments roll in from conference attendees – which is exactly what I did with the ‘Decoding the Digital’ conference, a spin-off of ‘Decode’ itself.

Yet despite a tremendous amount of web-savvy among its members, the Digital/New Media arts community does not appear to have reached consensus on a Hashtag. You only have to look at the tweets of key organisations such as Furtherfield.org or Rhizome to see that there is no common or shared Hashtag in use. But why? Is this because we still don’t know what to call what we are doing – certainly a long been a debate has raged over what to call the realms of activity surrounding art and technology. Or is it because we are working so hard to break Digital/New Media art out of its ghetto that we’ve neglected to use one of Twitter’s most important tools?

And, here’s the thing, there is a Digital art Hashtag (#digitalart)!

However, as any self-professed Twitter expert will tell you, it is important to get the balance of Hashtag use right and what has happened with #digitalart is over-use. You only have to start reading tweets bearing the #digitalart tag to see that people are using it on any old thing they throw together in Photoshop. While I’m not in principle against discovering all manner of digitally re-mastered cat portraits via Twitter, the Digital art Hashtag fails to provide any true orientation on Digital art.

I’m lost on whether there should be a tag that reunites the tweeted content of Digital/New Media artists, curators and their various supporting organisations. What content could a Hashtag more usefully co-ordinate? And how might we implement one without being too ‘top-down’ about it? While I follow a good range of practitioners, I’d like to follow more, and the Hashtag is a great way to find them but, right now at least, I don’t know the tag the for the job and don’t know if, in light of the debates about what to call it and efforts to desegregate it, whether this is actually, truly at tag-able field?

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