A digital painting using social network friends

In 2009 I visited my Facebook friends in person. On my trip I took their pulse through their wrist, and a physical souvenir. I used their pulse to create a "digital painting" of lighening bugs. For each Facebook friend there is a lightening bug, and each bug blinks at the same pace as that friend's pulse. The souvenirs were each placed on their own shelf.

social media art


Below is a 15 minute documentary done by my friend Josh Baron, who accompanied me on my trip. You can see some of the fun ... and awkwardness we shared. If you like any part of this project please send to it someone or blog it. Thank you for reading!


Art Statement

"Social Network" and its accompanying research explore the importance of physical and emotional connections to the success of new media art works. By creating a digital installation which addresses and questions whether digital environments can adequately communicate emotions in a similar manner to the aura of the unique art objects discussed by Walter Benjamin in his seminal essay "Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," I hope to understand the nature of our transformed social encounters in virtual communications such as Facebook. My research uncovers that communication through digital means can be limiting and that there are larger social repercussions to the emotional discourse in contemporary society. Can computers be used to express emotions and not just communicate information and ideas?

The "Painting"

The installation is a "digital painting" mounted amongst small shelves. The painting is of lightning bugs. For every social network friend there is a lightning bug. Every lightning bugs light pulse is that of the corresponding persons heart rate. It's important to note that this is not an application or tool. Although it has elements of data visualization, it is a work of fine art and its purpose is to challenge set ideas and concepts of social networking. It's not to state that social networking is good or bad, but to hope that people better understand the medium and how it shifts our social interactions.

digital painting

digital painting The heart beat represents emotional expression and individulaity. The lightning bugs and their pulse represents a desire to connect and find others in virtual space. The environment also pulses at a weighted average of the bugs. This represents a syronizatoion of ideas and memes. The trees are hand drawn and scanned in to show the unique hand of the artist.


digital painting The size of the bugs are governed by how often that friend shows up on my profile on the social network. Those who influence my experience the most take up more space in the digital painting. The position is chosen subjectively by me, the artist just as a painter might paint a painting. People that are closer related in my mind have their lightning bugs closer situated in the painting.


digital painting The background is a map or visualization of the internet by The Opte Project. Each day of the year the map rotates one degree, therefore the painting is different every day.


The Facebook Road Trip

To get each person's heart rate for my art installation I went on a road trip to visit my social network friends in person. I saw a wide variety of people in the last twenty years of my social life.

  • Present best friends
  • Childhood friends I hadn't seen in 15 years
  • Ex Girlfriends
  • Acquaintances I hadn't talked to more then once
  • Past and present coworkers
  • Ages from 14 to 60

I read their pulse by touching their wrist. As I read their pulse I asked them about a best friend from their childhood. The stories varied a great deal. Here are some examples.
The last person was a childhood friend of mine.

Friend Souvenirs

From each person I asked for a souvenir, an item that people couldn't share in virtual space. These items introduce a tactility to a gallery piece about virtual friends and connections. Each item had it's own space and shelf that represented the value of the individual's life. The shelves are sorted alphabetically by name as lives are sorted on social networks despite personal relation and importance.

In Conclusion

The focus of this particular work is the "digital painting," however I found the experience of the social network road trip to overshadow the painting on a personal level. I saw about 20 years of my social life in roughly 1 week. I gained a better understanding of social networks and social relations, but more importantly I gained a better understanding of self. I saw a recap of my own life through friends and acquaintances. I learned the value of such relations I might've otherwise taken as merely a series of digital updates. I recommend anyone take a social network road trip.