DeviantArt: Of Artists, For Artists

Screenshot of art sharing chatroom, Breed.

The Internet is a place to connect and artists have taken advantage of this main aspect of it for decades now. Internet art communities started off as BBSes and “underground” chatroom forums like Breed and Abnormis. As time passed, the Internet grew larger and so did these communities. Chatrooms were abandoned for more evolved, orderly sites such as DeviantArt. Despite them changing forms, they remained a place for artists to share their niche interests that weren’t normally shown in galleries, as well as a place to foster comradeship. This page will focus on DeviantArt and how it has remained a staple in the art community despite recent change that it has experienced.

What is DeviantArt?

Screenshot of DeviantArt in 2001.

DeviantArt is an online art community launched on August 7th, 2000 by Angelo Sotira, Scott Jarkoff, and Matthew Stephens. The three met in a chatroom online and bounded over their love for creating custom website skins. They wanted to make a website for artists and designers to share their website skins, and this is when DeviantArt was born. The site evolved from being solely about website designs to hosting a diverse conglomerate of communities. The communities on the site can be divided by medium, such as photography, videography, and artwork made traditionally and digitally, but it can also be divided by communities that exist outside of just the art world. Communities that evolve around niche interests such as various fandoms of shows, book series, and movies. There are many features on the site that are specifically made for artists to use like options to share tutorials, create interest polls for “watchers”, the name for followers on DeviantArt, and share professional art portfolios. It is these features for production that helps “deviants”, the name for users on DeviantArt, create the content that is indicative of what makes this site what it is. The artworks posted on the site are called “deviations”. Angelo Sotira, currently CEO of DeviantArt, explained the reason being the term in an interview with Antony Funnell on the podcast Future Tense:

Antony Funnell: The ‘deviant’ side of your site’s name, DeviantART, refers to deviation, to modification, and that was part of the original impetus, as I understand it, for creating the site back in 2000.

Angelo Sotira: Yes, it was about deviating your desktop, it was about wallpapers and what artists could do to make your computer look cool, and there were various ways that have become less popular now to do that. But the brand really connected with artists, for whatever reason, and I think it connected because deviation is very much at the heart of creativity, thinking about things differently, putting into your artwork something that makes it shine or something that’s unique. You are constantly trying to deviate, even maybe from your own work, and we love celebrating those types of moments where people are doing something uniquely creative or have achieved the status or a state of deviousness, so to speak, where people have risen above and consistently done innovative, interesting things.

Full podcast episode is below (timestamp for beginning of Angelo’s Sotira interview is 19:07).

Who’s on DeviantArt?

Picture from the animated short, “Bao”.

DeviantArt, like many sites that came before it, is a great platform for folks in marginalized communities such as LGBTQ+ to connect and gain a following. This is very important in how the site wanted to establish its identity as a place for people from ALL cultures and communities on the Internet. Creator of the Oscar-winning, Pixar animated short “Bao”, Domee Shi, accredited DeviantArt as the place where she got her start in an interview with The New York Times and went on to say this:

“Online art communities are probably a huge reason that you’re seeing a lot more girls getting into animation and illustration”

It’s no surprise either since there are many artists that used DeviantArt as a way to develop their skills. The site is very open to fledgling artists and professionals alike who want to obtain actual feedback on their work. Constructive criticism is a main source of interaction on the site and it holds a lot of value as opposed to the more shallow forms of social media interaction that can be found on Instagram and Twitter. In an interview for the Art Directors Club, creative director of DeviantArt, Ryan Ford, had this to say about the community feel that is fostered on DeviantArt:

“DeviantART’s bigger purpose is to expose people to art through a non-intimidating environment, and to convey the importance of embracing art in our everyday lives. For our artists, thanks to our amazing community, the site offers more potential for peer-to-peer feedback than anywhere else on the web. Many of our artists have quite literally developed their skillsets through the “continued education” they’ve found on deviantART.”

Ryan Ford, Creative Director of deviantArt
DeviantArt’s official mascot, “Fella”, created by DeviantArt user Switched in the mascot contest held on the site in 2001.

Akin to all social media sites, DeviantArt knows its demographic and how to accommodate them. Angelo Sotira even wrote an article in 2014 on what’s important to making a website that succeeds in building a community. He emphasized that while DeviantArt may be “old” now, the majority of its userbase most certainly is not. To him, establishing a sense of values for a site, like having an etiquette policy and consequences for breaking it such as suspension or being banned, is important in maintaining stability and longevity. The main purpose of this though is to foster long term membership with the site’s users and incite them to want to contribute value instead of just trolling around. Speaking of value, DeviantArt is heavily values freedom of expression its artists. This is something that is very important for all artists to be able to fully express who they are and what they love through their craft. However, this can be problematic in some cases…

Recent screenshot from deviantArt of the anime character, Konata from Lucky Star with Nazi imagery.

There is a strangely large Neo-Nazi community on DeviantArt. This page will not be diving into that community that exists on the site, but there is a great article by Vice about it. DeviantArt admins have already explicitly said that they do not tolerate hate speech. This is even stated in the site’s policy: “hate propaganda is met with zero tolerance”. And yet… they’re still there? This hateful, fascist presence on the site seems contradictory to the brand that DeviantArt wishes to display on the Internet. The consumption of this kind of content, while many trolls see it as a joke, is harmful to many other groups of people that call the site home. Hopefully, DeviantArt will resolve the issue sometime soon, since it knows that the majority of its userbase is adolescent and impressionable. Running the risk of attracting hate groups may just be the price to pay for wanting a site that’s free for artistic expression in content and themes. Speaking of price to pay…

Wix Acquiring DeviantArt

A funny haha meme I made about Wix acquiring DeviantArt.

In 2017, Wix bought DeviantArt’s 40 million users for $36 million. This was a shock to some, since the site has remained independent since its start in 2000, but Angelo Sotira said that this was a very well thought out decision. If a company was going to buy DeviantArt, then it had to be connected to the art & design community in some way. Wix is a website design company, and this may have been the best choice for the buyout since it had to have been nostalgic (or ironic?) for Sotira and colleagues that a site that got its start with website skin designs was bought out by a website design company.

Unlike the buyout of Tumblr by Yahoo, where Yahoo forcefully changed its known raunchiness in an effort to go towards a more “family-friendly” look, Wix vowed to keep DeviantArt’s core the way it is. Regulation is a difficult aspect for every website, but it’s most especially hard for sites like DeviantArt who have to manage the dicey relationship between allowing its resident artists freedom of expression and making sure they are also not exposed to harmful content, as we have already seen with the Neo-Nazi situation. While not nearly as problematic as Nazis, but still iffy, the plethora of fetish communities being on DeviantArt is a known fact of the Internet. DeviantArt has its restrictions like only being able to post one photo at a time as well as having to categorize every post and flag is it is mature content. These hoops to go through with posting has kept the site’s adult content under control, so it seems like Wix didn’t see a problem with leaving DeviantArt the way it is.

One of the main reasons for the buyout was the acknowledgment that DeviantArt has declined in popularity due to bigger, general social media sites like Tumblr and Instagram appealing to artists more. So this may have been perfect timing for DeviantArt’s revival, considering how Tumblr has become quite hostile to many art communities due to the NSFW ban in 2018 (if you want a larger scoop on this, check out my blog post on it here) and Instagram’s constant algorithm updates after its acquisition by Facebook has proved to be ruthless and insufferable (if you don’t post constantly, Instagram acts like you’re dead to your followers). Some new features Wix has offered to DeviantArt users is that they would get access to Wix’s state-of-the-art web design tools that can be used for commerce and other business ordeals. They also said they would be putting investment into DeviantArt’s mobile app that the company has been struggling with. Overall, CEOs of both companies were pretty positive; the CEO of Wix, Avishai Abrahami, in a statement on the acquisition had these optimistic words to say:

“The DeviantArt community is talented and robust and hungry for additional product expertise. We understand their passion, share their creative vision and are excited to offer the power of the Wix platform to their millions of artists”

Avishai Abrahami, CEO of Wix

Wix Acquiring DeviantArt: Community Response

There were many different opinions on the buyout in the DeviantArt community. Many said they felt it would be hard to maintain the “indie” feel of the site, but Wix promised that they had no intention to crush DeviantArt’s individuality. Another concern people were discussing was copyright. For many artists who use and post on the Internet, copyright has been a huge issue. There have been many cases where sites that people post art on have used artworks without permission in their promotions and failed to give credit or compensation to the original artist. Wix heard these outcries and addressed the valid concern in a journal post on deviantArt itself:

“Please know that the DeviantArt Submission Policy, Terms of Service and Copyright Policy all remain the same.  Deviants continue to own their own works.”

And probably the largest and loudest point of contention from the community was the announcement that DeviantArt would be getting a new design layout called “DeviantArt Eclipse”. Many deviants over the years have had very strong opinions about DeviantArt’s OG army green design, and Angelo Sotira himself even addressed the issue in a Quora post in 2012. Despite a lot of people absolutely hating the OG design and welcoming the idea of a new one, many were still attached to it specifically because the site has maintained that design for almost two decades. Veteran DeviantArt user Lois van Baare had this to say about the new design:

“It’s] like having to learn a new platform altogether! A lot of the people who use DeviantArt are attached to the way it used to be, so I think they’ll need to attract a lot of new members in order for this huge change to catch on.”

Lois van Baare, deviantArt user
DeviantArt Classic vs. DeviantArt Eclipse

Angelo Sotira recognized the split opinions on the new design and said that users can keep the original layout for as long as they need until the majority of users adjust to the new design. While the new design looks very sleek and modern, it does have its bugs and growing pains as expected. People are unhappy with the bugs, but this is just something that comes with changing a site that has been around for so long. Sotira said “The aim is to be DeviantArt for the next 10 years, not the past 20” and I think that’s a very good mindset to have for the site. Because while many may be nostalgic for what DeviantArt looked like in the past, there has to be innovation for new coming users. DeviantArt’s core representation, despite the new design and features, has not changed. It still wants to present itself as a place specifically for artists as opposed to other sites.

While many, like myself, have drifted off of DeviantArt and ventured onto bigger platforms in the hopes of reaching a broader audience, the platform fatigue is unavoidable. I have to admit, I find myself nowadays missing the niche feel of online art communities, specifically the support and engagement that was so fruitful within them. Posting on bigger, broader platforms like Instagram and Twitter feels like a race to fame against my fellow artists for the most retweets and likes on my artwork. I miss the days of posting on the Internet with the naïve intention of only wanting to improve my artistic skill and gaining friends on my journey. Maybe artists will head back to their roots with DeviantArt, the new design does look pretty fresh after all. But who knows what the future holds…

DeviantArt satire video by JelloApocalypse on YouTube