As Irish artist and blogger Liam Daly shows off his Motorola Zoom tablet, the nerve centre of his social media-driven painting tour around Ireland, he first produces an armoured yellow case. It looks as though it could be used to transport vials of some dastardly chemical weapon as easily as a tablet device.
His G-Form Extreme Sleeve is reputed to be able to withstand any fall and it has already been, “not intentionally”, put to the test during his trek around Ireland’s thirty-two counties. Luckily only the tablet and case ended up under the wheel of a tractor in Kerry and sore knees aside, Eolaí, as he is known on Twitter and his blogs, is in good health as he approaches the half way mark on his journey.
The case and tablet, and some dry-bags for covering his painting equipment were funded by ten paintings commissioned over Twitter, beginning a artistic journey around Ireland fuelled almost entirely by social media.
Liam was, “one of the lurkers” on Twitter in its first year and as he and around one hundred other Irish bloggers began the first wave of adoption of Twitter in Ireland, the idea first occurred to him to marry his passions of painting and cycling through social media.
“I can’t remember why, but someone that I knew through blogging, once said to me about visiting them and doing a painting for them, that basically I’d get a holiday, and they’d get a painting, and I liked it.
“It kind of niggled away at me for a few years, and liking Twitter as much as I did I thought, “I wonder could I do something mad like the whole country?” When I was much younger, and skinnier, I toured across America and across Europe.
“I keep referring to it as a social media tour, but it’s 95% Twitter, really. There is a slight angle on Facebook, but Twitter has really driven it and it’s the Twitter people for the most part that have jumped in with the commissions and jumped into hosting me.”
Although the idea had been with him for some time, when he made the decision to undertake the tour, he made minimal preparations, preferring the spontaneity of taking to the road, come what may.
With modest funding from his ten commissions, Eolaí gan fhéile (he translates this loosely as “guide without a festival”, meaning he’s no saint), took to the road, relying on Twitter users to provide bed and board in exchange for a painting.
“It’s a bit ambitious but so far it’s kind of worked. The ‘nowness’ of Twitter means you don’t have to necessarily plan. You could spend everyday planning the next day and then you don’t spend time with people, and it’s very easy to do that, because with Streetview, I could pick the perfect roads inch by inch.
“I’ve barely touched it for research like that, though, because that takes time and I’d rather be talking to someone in the flesh that I’ve been chatting to online for years and have now met for the first time.”
Liam tweets about his activities under his Eolaí account, including photos of paintings and of vistas soon to become paintings, and having resolved some technical issues plans to use Audioboo to make the tour an all-round multimedia experience. The hashtag for the tour is #paintingtour.
He has been reluctant to track too much of his movements, however, being conscious of the privacy of his hosts.
“With social media, some people are anonymous, some people are pseudonymous, and you want to protect whatever level of privacy they would like, so I don’t want to publish a map that guides someone to their house.”
Liam has seen his email usage decrease by what he estimates to be 95% since he started using Twitter and, having in the past been a user of MySpace and Bebo, he is uncertain of how long Twitter will retain its influence.
“If you’d told me six years ago that I would have been doing this, I would have thought you were mad. I wouldn’t have known that it [Twitter] would exist, that I would participate in publishing banalities that have a value, even in a business sense, and that I’d ultimately visit loads of people. That wouldn’t have struck me as right.
“Given that email has almost disappeared for me, I wouldn’t be surprised if in two years we were saying,“remember that thing called Twitter, wasn’t that great fun?”.
“It’s particularly Twitter that has driven this trip, and I’m not convinced it will always be there, and if it was to go very quickly I would have hated myself for not trying this.”
Twitter, Liam believes, has a unique character which sets it apart from other social networks. Although, after having seen other networks fade into obscurity, he is unsure about its longevity, he has found offline tweeters to be refreshingly similar to their online personalities.
This has made it easier for him to make the transition from social media to social acquaintance as he meets a new host each evening.
“There’s something about that whole 140-character thing that kind of forces an honesty out of people. It’s very hard to pretend to be what you’re not. As a result, whenever I’ve met people, they have been exactly as I thought they would be.”
“You’ve got that shared history. Either you’ve been following each other for ages, or if you haven’t, you’ve at least looked through tweets to get a sense of each other. They’re not strangers at all, they’re people I’ve been interacting with for years, in many cases.”
Having stayed longer in Galway than planned thanks to its famously inclement weather, a well-rested Liam is conscious that he is not always as positive as this about the trip; the physical side of cycling around Ireland has at times proved difficult.
“It’s great fun as a concept in a pub. There are times when my knees don’t think it’s that much fun. The overly-ambitious aim is thirty-two counties. That might not happen. If it doesn’t, fine. I’ll have met loads of people and painted lots of pictures and cycled around.
“The people of Twitter have been fantastic. From being taken for a drive to buy supplies, to giving me things, to packing me lunches, people have gone way, way above and beyond, it’s been fantastic.”