The real-time, short-form nature of social media invites us to tell the world about every nuance – subtle and not-so-subtle. It becomes a virtuous circle – or a vicious one, depending on how one approaches it. Messaging without remorse to the whole world may act as a form of tension release; a way to build one's profile through substance; or, simply, a way of broadcasting thoughts to a willing audience.
Some messages clearly have more emotional resonance than others. What interests Max Dovey is the detritus: the tiresome updates that would appear to be unnecessary outside of a platform to validate them.
In bulk and without prejudice, they have appeared in two of Dovey's recent projects, blending art, technology, and performance. Twitter Theatre is an improvised piece where two people act out scenes based on received tweets – without the tweeter knowing of their use in this way. Emotional Stock Market is a satirical installation, providing a "share" in the form of an automated till receipt, based on search queries of basic human emotions.
Both pieces were approached with Dovey's scepticism of Twitter, not a user of the service until he decided to develop these projects.
"Like many people, I thought that [Twitter mostly comprised of] trash talk: Justin Bieber and useless, throwaway comments about your own personal dramas that don't mean anything to anyone else. And, predominantly, it is that. It has been hailed by the media and helped revolutions and been part of all of these practical, functional things... but still, the core of it is this trash, garbage talk that you used to have on MSN and now also have on Facebook.
"Why are we using Twitter to communicate in this way as opposed to SMS or more private forms? Why are we using this public system for emotional information that means nothing to anyone, except to one person? I'm interested in working with people, and if they are interested in communicating their feelings through this form, then I wanted to tap into that. I wanted to work with people, networks and communities - and they are all now online."
The projects clearly signify that the frequently-cited assumption that "Generation Y" want and need social media, is an insubstantial one. Dovey's own thoughts and experience suggests that, as a new graduate, he approaches digital media with some reservation, until the core, critical value is found. After all, if such a generation is busier than ever, then perhaps it simply doesn't have time to broadcast all of its thoughts to the world. It needs to understand the relationship to genuine feelings and experiences. "What's the point of telling everyone that you're sad because it's raining? When someone says LOL, they're never laughing out loud."
However, what Dovey undertakes with subtlety and skill is to expose additional layers of issues of national interest. While Emotional Stock Market reduces emotions to a printed currency, it also critiques the Government's interest in "wellbeing". The work is saying, satirically, that it is possible through digital media to simply measure a nation's wellbeing, by analysing how many times that they say that they are happy, or how many times that they say that they are sad. But, it's the wellbeing agenda that really irks. "I'm dubious. It's as fruitless as Big Society. The 'Wellbeing Index' would be a complete distraction from GDP, which I think that these announcements were. 'Let's start another economy based on our national wellbeing'. Does happiness have to be worth anything?"
Dovey is also exposing the commercialisation of these basic human emotions. Mappiness is an iPhone app from the LSE which measures how happy you are on a scale, and reports when and where you are happiest based on your data. It was the first attempt that caught his eye, that aimed to measure emotion through technology. Emotional Stock Market attempts to do that with much more basic values, and is simplified greatly in order to parody what Dovey calls the "ridiculousness" of the situation.
When Emotional Stock Market is performed, tweets featuring happiness and love battle it out in an incredibly fast stream. Sad emotions attract a lower amount of tweets, at around 15% of the total, but as Dovey observes, are more likely to be genuine and raw in their content. Roleplaying a stock market is based on the assumption that we all basically know how to trade. Participants take a share, read out the tweets regarding the share, and attempt to trade it with others as the price fluctuates. Because the tweets are printed on till receipt paper, their tactility is used to signify that emotions are cheapened and valued through being represented in a commercialised, short-form manner. Ultimately, it is designed to question as to whether there should be an economic value of emotional wellbeing at all.
The work also questions the surface value of gamification, and its desire for consumers to play more, and to be more participatory in the gamed environment. From Tamagotchi to Farmville, consumers willingly pay to be told to participate at set times, securing engagement and ensuring that people keep on coming back through basic emotional drivers. But, as Dovey argues, gamification also has to exist in the real world. A status, verbally or numerically, has to mean something more than the status itself.
Twitter Theatre offers a similar polarisation of these emotions in real time. With a particular improvised scene, where a woman reads out tweets to her "boyfriend" and vice versa, their dialogue – and the audience's feelings - can be skewered by the rawness of the tweets. "Sometimes you get the most horrific-sounding breakups, or the most shocking news. People laugh at the work and at its ridiculousness and self-involved trashiness, but occasionally something crops up which is really shocking. However, you never know if they are exaggerating or genuine." It's a mechanism also used by Ryder Ripps in his recent work Facebook Suicide Watch: a republication of what should be the most extreme emotions, but are used as throwaway expressions online.
To Dovey, the utility value of Twitter Theatre is to investigate the function of the service: if it could be put to any other socially-useful applications, and to derive a greater value and resonance to a single expression in 140 characters. Dovey argues that electronic messaging is throwaway – messages are always "on their way to the trashcan". Rebroadcasting them as performance brings a new context to a reawakened life.
It has three audiences: the "unaware audience" whose tweets are being used; the live audience watching the performance on stage; and an audience watching remotely, as the performance is broadcast live to the Internet. Improvisation of tweets suggests a degree of complexity for the performers and the audience, that is hard to deal with in long periods. The improvisations last for 5 minutes; Dovey admits that longer sessions are hard to produce, due to the audience desiring a form of narrative. Playing with a "firehose of information that you can't really control" is difficult when battling against a sea of tweets that could take the work in all sorts of directions – or in no direction at all. However, the very nature of not knowing what's coming next places utmost importance on the quality of the originating search query. As is emphasised in both Twitter Theatre and Emotional Stock Market, the frailty of emotions such as "love" is debased when we tell the world that we "love" everything countless times per day.
Twitter Theatre works because the tweets are randomly taken from a stream; they are not consciously published to direct the performance. The danger of informing authors of the tweets, even after the event, is that they are then willingly told that their messages have been used in alternative ways, even though the data is public.
Dovey notes the tensions between commercial media and their recent use in democratic advancement. YouTube is singled out by Dovey as the place where tension is most in evidence. On one hand, it's full of cats falling off domestic furniture; on the other, it features raw, powerful, mobile video covering battles against government forces. Real social change is being published and broadcast on services owned by some of the world's biggest companies. While these services offer open publishing opportunities for now, their editorial impartiality is already being called into question, whether in terms of the implications of commercial ownership, or in terms of governments seeking to restrict access. However, while these issues remain under discussion, mass social change can become a great advertisement for their openness. As Dovey argues, "Arab Spring was a great launchpad for Speak-to-Tweet."
The current work of Dovey, while being playful and rationally considered, relies on an immaturity on the part of a mass audience. The audience's naiveté, its brash honesty, reflects an immature usage of social tools: a continual broadcast of structured and unstructured emotions which in many cases bypass the need to address the "why"s and "what for"s. The next challenge for Dovey will be to develop more complex work, as our mass usage of these tools becomes perhaps less personal, but more complex and subtle.
Max Dovey is a London-based artist.
"Twitter Theatre" also has its own site, where videos of past performances are also available.