Zuckerberg to VIP Art Fair: “Users are fickle…”

the-social-network-movie-poster-david-fincher1There is a scene in The Social Network when Jesse Eisenberg’s Zuckerberg is laying into his then CFO, Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), for freezing the company account of the then-neo-natal Facebook. It’s the best 30 seconds on the fragility of a company’s online profile that one can possibly find, and it goes something like this:

Do you realize that you jeopardized the entire company?…If the servers are down for even a day our reputation is damaged irreversibly.  Users are fickle…Even a small exodus, even a few people leaving would reverberate through the whole user base. The users are interconnected, that’s the whole fucking point!

The VIP Art Fair is not Facebook.  It’s not a social media platform and was never billed as one. Rather, it is the first successful attempt at bringing something like an Art Basel or Armory Show to your browser. But here’s the thing: “Users are fickle.” And VIP learned that lesson the hard way.

The scrutiny and criticism have been relentless: my colleagues at ArtReview questioned VIP’s default email sharing/privacy settings (another Facebook lesson), about which collectors were pissed; bloggers, as they do, have offered comment and cattiness, on everything from the experience to the idea; everyone I’ve spoken to trashes the interface, or has said the art looks “flat” (you are looking at it on a screen, I remind them); and rumors abound that exhibitors have been asking for refunds.

Barring those rumors, all of this confirms that VIP is indeed a success, a qualified one, but a success nevertheless.  People logged on, looked, commented, contacted (too many it seems). This is what happens at an art fair. If the chat function didn’t work, or no one was manning the booth—well guess what? This happens at art fairs too.  And if there was no “buy now” button on the screen, if you couldn’t give your credit card number and get an email confirmation of your purchase, then again—that doesn’t happen at an art fair either. Those transactions have always been “offline” so to speak, just as they were here.

The issue is that we expect more from the online environment, or rather we expect different. It simply isn’t enough to replicate the experience, it has to be remediated and enhanced. One thing that it absolutely must be, however, is seamless. VIP is a success, but its reputation is damaged. Irreversibly?

4 thoughts on “Zuckerberg to VIP Art Fair: “Users are fickle…”

  1. Thanks for the thoughtful response to the VIP Art Fair, Jonathan. As a participant, I’ve received quite a few requests for *my response* to the technical issues over the first few days, as well as asking about the “success” of the fair, and as ironic as it is for an online venture, my gut has told me that we simply won’t know immediately. Yes there are visitors who immediately don’t like it, as well as those who have gone onto VIPs Facebook page to rave about the experience, but “success” from a gallery’s point of view here is difficult to measure if only because there’s nothing truly parallel to measure it against.

    In a real-life fair, for example, you can get a real-life sense for how serious someone may be about a purchase even if they don’t ask any questions (i.e., by how long they spend looking at a piece, how many times they return to your booth, who else the bring by to see the work, whether they take notes, etc.). None of that is available to us at VIP. There are other metrics, of course, (how many times a piece was viewed overall, etc.), but because we don’t know much more about their response (unless they reach out to ask us questions) than that, we may not really know how successful the fair has been until the follow-up phase is complete.

  2. Agree with Ed that it will take time to figure out the full implications. But first impressions do matter. After an exceptionally well executed marketing campaign, and high expectations raised, the technical glitches were disappointing. Concerns about privacy all the more so. I happened to be a in a room full of collectors Monday, including some who had been open to buying during the VIP fair. Their worry was less about the technical problems and more about their privacy.

    Looking further down the road, there may be another analogy to Facebook. Somebody soon will invent a widely accepted platform for online gallery commerce, a platform that will win out by virtue of being good, able to scale, and open enough for others to plug in easily and add functionalities to it. This is the real prize.

    Nobody seriously assumes that an online site, no matter how good, will offer a substitute for a direct encounter with an object or for the unique social alchemy of an offline art fair or a gallery deal. But this is a huge global business that cries out for a common online platform.

    This year and next we will likely see a battle between two or three first-movers. VIP has promising features that could make it a year-round trading and marketing site for the art business. As with Facebook, the need is clearly there. And as with Facebook, a lot will depend on who can get out of the gate early with an approach that attracts and retains a critical mass of users.

    It will take nimble footwork to revive trust and modify the VIP site to stay in the game. But the history of the internet is one of entrepreneurs who were willing to make quick modifications to their strategies and learn from their own mistakes.

  3. The Facebook analogy is a good one in underlining the relative unimportance of being a first mover. What’s important is being the first to get it right. And ‘it’ in this case is both the service/product offer, and user confidence.

    I am willing to make a small wager that the number of sales in the so-called ‘real’ art world that are jpeg-driven are already higher than ones that rely on standing in front of the art work to inhale the aura. Don’t think flatness of image is the issue here.

    The online world is brutal for those not willing to launch & learn. Lets see how VIP reacts.

  4. Gentlemen, whilst I agree that more and more ArtWorld transactions will either start, be influenced or take place online, I must say that, IMHO, this attempt at providing an environment for Artwork : Gallery : Collector interaction was particularly poor. Technical glitches and blatant email address laundering aside, the entire format was ill thought out and badly executed. It was as bad as the first attempts to provide gallery style experiences on CD-ROMs in the late 1980s. It looked and worked like the result of a discussion between an internet-illiterate gallerist and a first year programming student. I entered as a curious collector and became rapidly disenchanted.

    I actually believe the whole time dependent fair metaphor is a mistake online and the notion of a walled garden is what led to the downfall of AOL in the face of the then newly launched age of the open Internet. I do applaud efforts to provide collectors with ways to avoid traipsing up and down cold wet streets to get their acquisition fix, but I think it is more likely to be an always open market like ArtNet’s new site or an open network of galleries (no good examples yet) that will provide a service closer to the market’s needs.

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