Art online knows no borders, no boundaries or limits. The presence of our digital collection is not only confined to our website but actually, due to the viral aspect of social media, our artworks are in a continuous online tour, travelling far away across different networks.

During the past few years we have seen an increase in the number of visits to the website coming from different social media sites such as Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Tumblr, Reddit or StumbleUpon. We use some of these platforms to highlight our collection, helping people discover and enjoy art. In order to understand the impact of these activities, it is also interesting to know how far our collection travels on social media.

Analytics information provides us with the total number of retweets, reblogs or repins. However, these figures do not tell much about the actual story behind the circulation of an artwork through the different networks, nor if there were people in the distribution process who amplified this viral effect. To visualise the journey of our artworks we use a social network analysis open source tool called Gephi and here are two examples of how we implement it.

Joseph Mallord William Turner, 'Yellow Sun over Water' 1845
Joseph Mallord William Turner
Yellow Sun over Water 1845
Watercolour on paper
support: 238 x 334 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856

#TateWeather pushes an artwork directly to our social media channels. Every Friday a work from the collection is posted to illustrate the weather for the weekend. It was sunny a few weeks ago and the selected artwork was Yellow Sun over Water by J.M.W. Turner. The retweets, as shown on the map below, came from many different locations around the globe.

Map of the retweets from the Tate weather forecast, nodes in different countries

Another nomad artwork is the portrait of Miss Cicely Alexander by James Abbott McNeill Whistler, which is currently on display at Tate Britain and also has a page on this website. In the past couple of months, this eight-year-old girl has been cybertrotting all over the place. Last February Tate Collectives organised the 1840s GIF party and members of the public were invited to transform selected artworks from the 1840s gallery at Tate Britain into animated GIFs. A selection of these GIFs were then uploaded to the Tumblr account.

James Abbott McNeill Whistler, 'Harmony in Grey and Green: Miss Cicely Alexander' 1872-4
James Abbott McNeill Whistler
Harmony in Grey and Green: Miss Cicely Alexander 1872-4
Oil on canvas
support: 1902 x 978 mm
frame: 2215 x 1300 x 100 mm
Bequeathed by W.C. Alexander 1932

This GIF was reblogged over 300 times and the image below shows how starting the journey from the Tate Collectives Tumblr, the GIF travelled to specific communities across the network and shows key users who had a big impact on the virality of the GIF.

Social network image showing the reblogs of the image

Download Tumblr reblogs visualisation [PDF, 32 Kb]

These are just two examples that illustrate how visualisation can help us understand how far an artwork has travelled - in the first case geographically and in the second, across various community clusters. Different distribution structures develop depending on the content and on the particular social media site. Sometimes, the impact is ‘15 minutes of fame’ for the artwork where there is a peak of visits to the website or thousands of shares, but often the result is a long-lasting journey where people keep on sharing the artwork.

Social media provides opportunities to expand audiences’ access to art, bringing the collection closer to people who could not otherwise visit the galleries or who may not even know about Tate.