Are Social Media ‘Likes’ the New Age Patrons?
The era of ‘Attention Economy’ has dawned upon us
In 1985, Carol Ann Duffy published her poem ‘Standing Female Nude’, wherein a simple young woman poses for a portrait. The woman is hopeful of the outcome “I shall be represented analytically and hung / in great museums. The bourgeoisie will coo / at such an image of a river whore. They call it Art.”
And yet when the painter finishes and she covers herself with a shawl, she notices that the painting looks nothing like her. The painting in question, which inspired Duffy to write the poem, was created by Georges Braque, an artist who worked closely with Pablo Picasso and employed the Cubism style of art.
To the woman who is not familiar with the celebrated art form, the outcome looks like a caricature. The poem makes the reader ponder, how truly accessible is art with its layered forms and gilded movements?
Decades have passed, newer movements have emerged and the world has changed. The internet blew in like a whirlwind, and art was suddenly open to all, to create and access, showcase and view. Internet access is the only required currency.
Soon, Instagram became the new Facebook and along with the world, poets too found their niche within its democratic squares. Some rebelled and stayed loyal to their paper notebooks, and others flourished online.
Adrija Ghosh, a multilingual poet based between Edinburgh and Calcutta, who often publishes her poetry on Instagram, spoke of how it came to be so. “During the separation enforced by the pandemic, Instagram became a means for me to share my poetry with my friends, despite being scattered across different countries, time zones and borders,” Ghosh said, adding that social media is a “great equaliser, one which transcends distance and democratises accessibility”.
When asked if she’s ever been tempted to curate her poems to suit the Instagram aesthetic Ghosh said , “yes actually, I maintain a ‘black-and-white’ account, striving for consistency in my visual presentation, ensuring that they align well with the overall mood of my account, characterised by chiaroscuro and a flaneur lyric like”.
While Ghosh prefers the online world, celebrated poet and queer activist Akhil Katyal uses both conventional publishing and Instagram as he feels the “same work acquires different lives in both fora.”
In recent times, the structure and use of social media has changed rapidly and the era of ‘Attention Economy’ has dawned upon us. It commodifies human attention as the desired product and quantifies the length of the attention span.
Videos have become shorter, decreasing from several minutes to a few seconds. Song hooks are added to video snippets, and Reels are a literal blackhole encompassing millions of videos created by millions of users.
Digital fame has become most desirable, and people are pondering on a dazzling question: What is Instagram worthy?
However, Urooj Ali Rizvi, an upcoming New Delhi based poet who is making waves in the poetry circuit believes otherwise. They choose to publish their work through the channels of conventional publishing houses. “Social media quantifies ‘likes’ and I do not feel comfortable determining the worth of my writing through ‘likes’”, Rizvi said.
Unlike Ghosh and millions of others, Katyal chooses to not conform to what is considered Instagram-able. “Lately, I make it a point to purposely counter what Instagram might need, which is shorter, more mobile verse. To do so, I write longer pieces as well, pieces that might be construed as more demanding or which require slightly studied crossovers between languages,” Katyal said.
In the 19th and early 20th Century, newspaper poetry and magazine verses were commonplace. Kevin Stein writes in his book ‘Poetry’s Afterlife: Verse in the Digital Age’, that with the commencement of Modernism in the wake of the First World War, the “bourgeois sensibility of newspaper poetry died”.
In fact, Emily Dickinson’s poem “A Day” first appeared posthumously in the newspaper ‘The Prison Mirror’ in 1891. The practice has now been erased completely.
The Citizen asked Gauhar Raza, whose career as a leading Urdu poet has spanned and flourished across many decades, what he thought of putting his work on Instagram or other social media platforms. “I don’t use Instagram but I often video record my poems and put them on Facebook and Twitter. Through social media the advantage is that the poem reaches thousands of listeners in a short period of time,” Raza said.
And does he care to alter his work? “While video recording the poem, care is taken to fit in the maximum time limit allowed by Twitter, however while writing the poem, I have never thought of fitting into any boundaries. Normally I do not edit my poems, once they are written it is final. Most poems are written in one go, on paper, in Urdu script,” he added.
The year 2023 heralded the coming of ChatGPT, an artificial intelligence chatbot and voila, it could write poetry too! Of course, the prompts had to be specific and the verse produced left much to be desired but it was a scientific feat nonetheless.
This peculiar year when robots have started spinning verse, The Citizen spoke to Ishaan Chawdhury, who has successfully used Instagram to gather a tight knit band of followers. Asked if he has ever felt threatened by ChatGPT, Chawdhury was pragmatic, “Art survives because people want it to survive. If, at some stage, we as a species find ourselves preferring poetic expression of the code we built then that is merely us transitioning, the natural order of the world.”
In 2021, Jeanette Winterson published 12 essays drawing on the human experience with Artificial Intelligence. Winterson displayed hope regarding the changing world and yet in one of the essays she points out how, the algorithms fed into the system by predominantly male scientists, drawing from their lived experiences have resulted in AI showing a rather strong male bias. So perhaps, despite all the hullabaloo, the world hasn’t changed very much, at all.
This story is published as part of The Citizen's two week mentorship programme.