The Rise and Fall of Internet Art Communities, from DeviantArt to Tumblr
Today, sharing art on social media is like running on a treadmill forever. At least, that’s how illustrator Lois van Baarle describes it. “You have to post constantly,” Van Baarle, who got her start in the early aughts on DeviantArt, explained. “Otherwise, the algorithm decides you’re not interesting, and will not show your posts to your followers.”
Before big tech shepherded the vast number of online users onto a handful of sleek websites, there was a scrappier internet—where offbeat chat rooms and eccentric niche websites reigned, and carefully crafted “away statuses” were a kind of personal branding—back when you could be away from the internet. Until attention spans became a commodity, the internet was dreamed of as a “bastion for people to direct their own education,” as Charles Broskoski, co-founder of internet bookmarking site are.na, remembers.
Artists, too, forged communities in the spirit of collaboration and learning. From the gothic underworlds of Breed and Abnormis, to hyper-specific pixel art sites, to larger communities like DeviantArt, the internet presented a breadth of opportunity for all kinds of artists—often of marginalized identities or with artistic interests unrecognized by institutions.
I was a member of the DeviantArt community on-off from late 2003 through to 2016, and it was much different from the web of today. Sadly, as the article explores, social media has mostly supplanted the collaborative and expressive communities of old.
Sotira said that as the internet grew, DeviantArt lost the portion of its users who were using the site primarily to host images or chat with people. “We aren’t a photo-dumping site and we aren’t a social network—we are an art community,” he said. Though there is a case to be made that that DeviantArt is still a popular platform—it’s still one of the top 200 websites in the world—many artists feel that in 2019, the site is not the same.
“What I liked most about [DeviantArt] then was the intimate feel of the network because the audience was relatively small,” artist Aaron Jasinski, who joined the site in 2002, said. “That’s a hard thing to scale.” And Van Baarle, who has since migrated to Instagram, commented that “the user base is way less vibrant, young, aspirational, and motivated compared to before.…DeviantArt is sort of a dinosaur or living fossil in the internet world.” Kaufman had similar things to say about Conceptart.org, calling the site “an empty husk.”
Perhaps the pendulum can swing back, and new art communities form from a resurgent open web — but it's unlikely as long as the attention of current and future generations is controlled by the likes of Facebook and Google.