Blog / 2012 / Social Currency

May 16, 2012

If you’re an artist, corporations are out to get you.

Really! Big companies and enterprising assembly-line types watch independent creatives carefully, looking to capitalize off of the next great idea—like Urban Outfitters with their jewelry design heists or Asian sweat shops that try to manufacture custom art.

This is how the world works. Independents with their alternative lifestyles have a way of morphing culture in exciting ways, and it’s not something that the so-called creatives who work in cubicles can keep up with. The corporate environment will never be conducive to truly inventive leaps of the imagination no matter how innovative the management team tries to be. Corporations have the money and the influence that independents sometimes lack, but they can’t compete when it comes to creativity, so instead they appropriate.

And this scares a lot of artists. They live in terror of being noticed by a company who will steal their art. But with all the fear and the hate, independents forget that they have the ultimate secret weapon: social currency.

Social currency is a person’s reputation, the value that they have within their community, whether it’s online or off. If a person contributes in a meaningful way to the lives of people around them, that individual has a good deal of social currency.

painting of grizzly bear moms with some babies
Gwenn Seemel
Mama Bears (Grizzly Bear)
acrylic on panel
10 x 10 inches
(For t-shirts and totes with this image, visit my Redbubble shop.)

Some people think that companies can have this too, in the form of their brand identity, but the social currency of a legal person is very different from the social currency of a flesh-and-blood person. For one thing, an individual’s social currency is developed and augmented or diminished only by their own acts, whereas the reputation of a company is affected by corporate policies as well as by the behavior of every single person associated with the enterprise.

Those are a lot of factors to control, and, in the end, the corporate version of social currency always ends up feeling unfocused, distorted, and manipulated. Often companies will try to make up for their lack of true personhood by putting a single face on the company. A founder or beloved CEO can be used to give the corporation a human look, but that’s just a ploy and, on some level, we all recognize that. This kind of person—the legal person—will never actually be just one person.

By comparison, real human social currency cannot help but be more integrated and a lot more powerful. And therein lies the advantage for the independents.

If a company appropriates an artist’s work, it can only steal the work itself and not everything else that the artist and their individuality bring to the work. Things that have to do with the way a creative (and not a company) can interact with a customer. Things like:

  • the personalized interactions that go with buying from an artist
  • the one-of-a-kind feeling that comes from purchasing a unique item
  • the certainty that the money spent is helping to support another person’s life and passion
  • the satisfaction of adding to one’s own social currency by buying independent
  • the promise of the future work that the artist’s singular brain will create

The people who run corporations are aware of their weaknesses. In fact they’re so self-conscious about them that they hide them behind ad campaigns, a presence in social media, and a team of intellectual property lawyers.

If only independents were as aware of their strengths as companies are of their weaknesses! Then maybe we’d stop worrying about impractical copyright and start paying attention to what matters: the very real relationships we have with others in our communities.

Maybe this post made you think of something you want to share with me? Or perhaps you have a question about my art? I’d love to hear from you!


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