The Rise and Fall of Internet Art Communities

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.

Wolfgang Staehle et. al., The Thing, 1991–95. Bulletin board system. Courtesy of Wolfgang Staehle and the New Museum.

As digital imaging advanced, the internet expanded into the multimedia universe we have today, and, perhaps paradoxically, its art communities dwindled. Users traded dedicated artist communities for major social networks, leaving links to their new Instagram and Facebook accounts on their abandoned profiles. In the 2010s, users asked on forums if their beloved communities were indeed dead. DeviantArt—though it remains active—has lost its culture. And more recently, Tumblr, formerly a haven for LGBTQ+ artists, issued a major crackdown on adult content—alienating many creators who found refuge in its sex-positive, queer-friendly environment.

There are a myriad of reasons people leave platforms—an unfriendly interface; outdated design; increased spam—but the shift away from tight-knit spaces for collective creativity marks more than just a natural fall in popularity. As the internet consolidated, it moved toward homogeneity and passivity, and the internet’s once-vibrant art communities became casualties in social media’s rapid, obliterative rise.


Art in the wild, early internet

Screenshot of the DeviantArt interface, 2019. Used with permission from DeviantArt.

Before advanced search engines, information floated on databases like a string of scattered islands. Communities formed out of necessity to help early users surf the boundless web.

Art discussions even appeared in the primordial text-based internet on Usenet newsgroups, bulletin board systems (BBS), and email listservs. In 1991, two years before the first digital image was uploaded to the web, Wolfgang Staehle, an early net artist, started The Thing as a BBS about art and criticism; members traded links, shared gallery announcements, and debated creative and cultural theory. In 1995, Nettime—a listserv for “cultural producers”—followed, as well as Rhizome in 1996; in one particularly zany “cyberdawg ramble” on Nettime in 1998, Jon Lebkowsky declared that the internet was there to stay, “like rock ‘n roll.”

The first publicly available browser, Mosaic, came in 1993. It allowed images and text to load in a single window, and the masses joined in navigating the wild early web. GeoCities launched soon after, introducing in 1995 the ability to organize personal sites by interest into “neighborhoods” and “suburbs.” Computer sites could be found in “Silicon Valley,” shopping sites on “Rodeo Drive,” and so on. In November 1995, GeoCities added the “Soho and Lofts” neighborhood for the arts.

Before social-media profiles, artists primarily cultivated digital identities through clunky personal websites. Broskoski, of are.na, who was involved in net art communities in the 1990s, remembered making a site called “Welcometohell.com,” which listed links to other websites—a common practice at the time. “You were sort of making or creating who you were by pointing at the other things that you liked,” he explained.

Visiting early personal sites felt like stopping by someone’s house, with quaint greetings like “Hello visitor” or “Welcome to this homepage!” And if artists’ personal pages were their homes, their social outings took place on forums. The Thing was followed by more open art communities like Sijun and Eatpoo: The former was known for its young, vibrant culture; the latter for its lively and—as its name suggests—often uncouth atmosphere.

Ellen Formby’s 2018 artwork, ellen.gif’s Wayback Machine (video clip), which incorporates screenshots (extracted via The Wayback Machine’s archive) of her websites constructed on Matmice, an Australian webpage builder that offered free webpage development similar to Geocities, c. 2007–08. Courtesy of the artist.

Another forum, WetCanvas, greeted users with a cropped picture of Vincent van Gogh next to the line: “If the web would have been around during his time, we could have done wonders for his career.” Scott Burkett, an Atlanta-based software developer, launched the site in 1998 after developing an interest in oil painting. He often had to spread the word the old-fashioned way, inviting artists to join over the phone. The early site had forums for traditional art mediums, and each night, at 9:30 p.m., members hung out in a chat room called “Café Guerbois,” named after the famous Parisian café that Édouard Manet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir frequented.


The rise of platforms

Screenshot of the Conceptart.org interface, 2019. Used with permission from Conceptart.org.

Around the same time WetCanvas launched, a then-16-year-old Matt Stephens had art ambitions, a computer, and a pirated copy of Photoshop. He founded WastedYouth, a website where he posted over 500 tutorials on art that included lessons on creating desktop art, or “skinning.”

The first type of art made on computers was art made for computers, and in the 2000s, the more customized desktop, the better. Like true “internet kids,” the three DeviantArt founders—Stephens, Scott Jarkoff, and Angelo Sotira—met in a chat room and connected over a shared interest in skinning. (In even truer internet fashion, to this day, Stephens and Jarkoff have not met in person.)

When “Deliciously Deviant Deviant Art!” went live in August 2000, it focused on wallpapers and webskins, though it eventually branched out into more digital and traditional art, becoming the first large-scale online art community. Like “deviating” your desktop, artworks are known as “deviations.” Arts education is “very much about deviation,” Sotira noted, adding that artists learn from riffing off of one anothers’ work.

Unlike the quantifiable interactions such as “likes” and “reactions” that pass for interactivity in 2019, there was genuine engagement on DeviantArt.

From the outset, the DeviantArt founders envisioned a community-oriented space. For the first six months, they commented on every single post on the website with constructive criticism. On the side of each page, a “shoutbox” had a constant stream of conversation. “Our mentality back then was [to] allow people to interact wherever we can,” Stephens recalled. “We were inventing a lot of the stuff as we went.”

In doing so, DeviantArt created templates for later social sites, rolling out the ability to create avatars and write on each other’s profiles, the latter of which would eventually be adopted by Myspace and Facebook. In addition, “[DeviantArt] had the ability to follow people long before that ever became an idea,” Jarkoff explained.

Maja Wronska, a Polish artist who makes watercolor cityscapes, was particularly sensitive to DeviantArt’s design and atmosphere when she joined a decade ago. She had been on Poland’s “wannabe DeviantArt,” but found the environment hostile—owing in part to a feature where users rated artworks on a scale of 1–5. Wronska said that some users even made fake accounts to downvote her work and elevate their own. In contrast, DeviantArt was warm and welcoming.

Screenshot of Maja Wronska’s gallery page on DeviantArt, 2019. Used with permission from DeviantArt.

Unlike the quantifiable interactions that pass for interactivity in 2019, such as “likes” and “reactions,” there was genuine engagement in DeviantArt’s chat rooms and forums. “A culture developed on DeviantArt where comments simply saying things like ‘cool!’ and ‘nice!’ were frowned upon,” Van Baarle explained. “People wanted in-depth comments and feedback, with constructive criticism.” Today, she added, the quality of conversation is “disappearing on the big social-media platforms like Instagram.”

Such meaningful interactions were not limited to DeviantArt. In 2001, artist Jason Manley announced plans to launch Conceptart.org, which he founded with Justin Kaufman and Andrew Jones under a similar premise: to educate and connect artists. Inspired by Shamus Culhane, a Disney animator, Manley built the site in the spirit of Culhane’s advice for aspiring artists: “Find your circle.”

The internet presented a breadth of opportunity for all kinds of artists—often of marginalized identities or with artistic interests unrecognized by institutions.

The online community soon translated to real-world meet-ups. At the first one in Amsterdam, Kaufman remembers looking around, awestruck at artists from around the world drawing in each others’ sketchbooks. At art school, he explained, “you’re around other artists, but you’re geographically limited. The thing that was amazing about Conceptart.org was the fact that it was worldwide.”

This transnational nature of the internet spurred creativity in and of itself. Burkett recalled a collaboration between WetCanvas users that borrowed from the collaborative mail art of the 1960s: One artist painted a home that represented the style of architecture in their country, rolled it up, and sent it to another artist in another country, who would add to the painting, and so on.

WetCanvas members around the world pose with a collaborative painting featuring architectural scenes from different countries represented in the online community, c. 2004. Courtesy of Scott Burkett.

But internet art communities didn’t just facilitate unlikely friendships—they also launched careers. Domee Shi, who won an Oscar this year for her short film Bao (2018), recently credited DeviantArt for helping her find like-minded creatives. And Emmanuel Laflamme, a Montreal-based artist whose work blends the art-historical canon with digital iconography—the Mona Lisa with emojis; Renaissance figures holding tablets—said that DeviantArt gave him “the push [he] needed when [he] started.”

On Conceptart.org, Kaufman recalled watching “hundreds of kids grow into working artists.” Likewise, Manley said that nearly anyone who works in entertainment art today has some tie to Conceptart.org. Among them is one of Marvel’s most esteemed comics, Marko Djurdjević, who painted the cover art for comic titles like The Amazing Spider-Man (2007) and Black Panther (2009).

Emmanuel Laflamme, La Persistance de la Mémoire Vive, 2012. Courtesy of the artist.

Emmanuel Laflamme, Adoration of the Golden Apple, 2012. Courtesy of the artist.

Emmanuel Laflamme

Monawesome, 2011

Vintage Deluxe

Emmanuel Laflamme, The Rage, 2011. Courtesy of the artist.

Emmanuel Laflamme, Jesus Saves, 2014. Courtesy of the artist.

Emmanuel Laflamme, Adoration, 2011. Courtesy of the artist.

Along the way, there were challenges: finding space to store all of the data; managing digital platforms the size of cities; and dealing with the effects of the dot-com bust that bottomed out in 2003. But ultimately, these early platforms lost their ethos as a changing internet made it impossible to sustain what originally made them so stimulating: community.


The era of big tech

Screenshot of the Tumblr interface, 2019. Used with permission from Tumblr.

In 2005, broadband surpassed dial-up in popularity in the U.S., allowing the flow of faster and larger amounts of data, and facilitating the rise of visually oriented sites like YouTube and Facebook. Meanwhile, digital cameras had become more accessible and affordable in the early aughts, spurring the birth of photo-sharing sites like Flickr and Photobucket.

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.”

Screenshot of Aaron Jasinski’s gallery page on DeviantArt, 2019. Used with permission from DeviantArt.

The founders of DeviantArt foresaw the fracturing of the community early on. “There were probably 100 of us in the original community, and that was already a lot of people trying to have a conversation,” Stephens said. “What happens when that chat room is now 500 people? Or 1,000 people? All of a sudden, it’s a concert venue.” And the very concept of “scaling a community” seems oxymoronic. It is a problem that plagues the internet today: How do you make a now-sweeping internet feel smaller?

As tech began consolidating around the big five—Amazon, Google, Apple, Facebook, and Microsoft— the experience of the internet shifted away from the wacky and creative and became more streamlined. Broskoski likened it to everyone living in seven skyscrapers, when “there’s actually this huge weird landscape [where] we could be building” eclectic homes or “other small villages.”

As the internet moved toward homogeneity and passivity, once-vibrant art communities became casualties in social media’s rapid, obliterative rise.

However, in the mid-2000s, smaller villages still thrived, cropping up around internet “surf clubs”—sites where artists mused about internet culture and aesthetics. Nasty Nets, founded in 2006, looked like a throwback to a classic, cluttered GeoCities page, and featured 39 different artists during its tenure. Co-founder Marisa Olson recounted their influences in an email: “We were very inspired by Del.icio.us, a social bookmarking site, and a culture of surfing, sharing, and remixing material found on the web in an era that pre-dated Tumblr.”

When Tumblr did launch in 2007, some surf clubs set up shop there, such as the extant Computers Club, which focuses on digital renderings and illustrations; and R-U-IN?S, which is known for its distinct futuristic aesthetic. Larger blogs that centered around art also fostered community on Tumblr—Jogging featured posts by 1,000 different authors.

Uninhibited by the austerity of banal Facebook profiles, Tumblr is a bridge between the internet of yesteryear and today. Pages are customizable, meant to be an extension of your personality; and the platform’s reblog feature echoes the link sharing of communities like Deli.cio.us, a favorite hangout of net artists.

Molly Soda

Don’t Be So Sensitive , 2016

Annka Kultys Gallery

Molly Soda, an artist who uses the internet as a medium and a platform, commented: “Tumblr was really the first space that allowed me to connect with other people who were thinking about similar things artistically.” A self-described “hoarder” of images and files (such as sexy dancing girl GIFs), Soda began “obsessively” posting them on Tumblr in 2009 and submitting to Tumblr zines, like Beth Siveyer’s Girls Get Busy. She connected with other artists like Signe Pierce, Maisie Cousins, and Grace Miceli through the platform, and even met Arvida Byström, her co-editor on the 2017 book Pics or It Didn’t Happen: Images Banned From Instagram, on Tumblr. Soda also noted Tumblr’s strong influence in contemporary visual culture—pastel colors in “millennial aesthetics” can be traced back to Tumblr movements like pastel goth and soft grunge.

Then, in the 2010s, Instagram capitalized on the mass adoption of smartphones, and Facebook grew into a site larger than any country in the world. And while artists have made their mark on all of the major social-media networks, these new, bigger sites have changed the way we communicate and consume. Algorithms steer us back to similar content in echo chambers that inhibit both critical and creative thinking. Platforms incentivized to keep users scrolling discourage long-looking and render users as passive consumers, rather than active seekers of inspiration. They aren’t a space for productive feedback, either: Art takes on a different tone when it’s surrounded by dog GIFs, political memes, and your cousin’s baby photos.

Lois van Baarle, ImagineFX issue 150, 2017. Courtesy of the artist.

Lois van Baarle, Various sketches, 2016. Courtesy of the artist.

Lois van Baarle, Ariel, 2006/2011/2015. Courtesy of the artist.

Lois van Baarle, Moon, 2018. Courtesy of the artist.

Lois van Baarle, Sour, 2017. Courtesy of the artist.

Van Baarle, who has 1.5 million followers on Instagram, expresses exasperation at the platform. “It’s about posting bite-sized content as frequently as possible,” she said, in order to game the algorithms that choose what followers see and reward frequency with more visibility. She also noted that it is tempting to post simpler artworks to Instagram. “Most social-media platforms don’t reward the extra time and effort that goes into [detailed digital paintings] anymore.”

Even Tumblr’s influence has waned: In July of last year, one writer called it “a joyless black hole,” citing rampant harassment on the platform. And following the platform’s decision to ban adult content this past December, media outlets and Twitter users have all but predicted its death.

Adult content has been a hot issue on open platforms since the early days of DeviantArt. The founders penned the first policy: If it could hang in a museum, it could stay on the site.

With Tumblr’s new puritanical ethos, artists might just retreat to the aughts icon, which is in the process of rolling out a new redesign. Or they could move to other newcomers, like Ello or Pillowfort, the latter of which received a flurry of attention after Tumblr’s NSFW ban. Either way, users will have to carve out new communities in an increasingly monopolized cyberspace.

Art takes on a different tone when it’s surrounded by dog GIFs, political memes, and your cousin’s baby photos.

Many sites vying for artists’ attention—such as Dribbble, Behance, and ArtStation—are more suited for professional artists building a portfolio of work. While they are valuable tools, they don’t leave space for the same kind of learning, open brainstorming, and wild experimentation seen in earlier art communities. Today’s communities “aren’t quite the same,” Stephens noted. “I was really lucky that there was that platform for me to learn from other designers in a collaborative and safe environment.”

Ultimately, today’s internet is full of contradictions. There are more people to connect with than ever, and yet less room for the exploration and creativity that cultivates strong artistic communities.

If in the early days, we “surfed” the internet, today we are submerged in it. But in the wake of data breaches, election scandals, and studies that social-media sites are taking more than just our time, another shift may be taking shape. Interest in digital wellness and a “slow web” is rising as users are looking for ways to spend their time online more meaningfully.

Some relics and rituals of the early internet are probably better left dead—the acronym “TTFN,” the dial-up modem tune, the wait for images to load line by line—but the collaborative, creative culture it fostered is bound for a revival.

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