What are online platforms missing when it comes to art?

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Up until the late 20th century, artists relied on word of mouth, galleries, and their local communities in order to make a living and reach fame. It was difficult for the average artist to earn a decent living, giving birth to the “starving artist” stereotype that is still a popular joke today. Nowadays it is easy for artists to share their work with the world, using the internet as a platform. Beginning in niche websites and chat rooms, traversing to a larger, specialized community in DeviantArt, and finally finding a place in the most popular social media platforms, where all kinds of people are interacting with each other.

Many artists use Instagram and Twitter as their main platform, as they have some of the most active user bases in social media right now. Others may prefer to use Tumblr, DeviantArt or other platforms as well, as they have a strong artist community or better features, though the user base on them is less active than the previous two. In general artists can be found all across social media, and most will use several platforms to gain an audience to their work.

However, social media has plenty of issues for artists, most of their algorithms leave much to be desired, promoting meaningless text posts, stolen art, or content made by users with thousands of followers already, it is not easy for newer or unlucky artists to grow their audience or make a living off their work. This is discouraging, but especially to beginner and younger artists, who hope to have some kind of impact as motivation to continue. This isn’t the case for every artist of course, but it still affects many of them in their willingness to share their art online, leaving only the established artists with massive followings and no room for diverse styles and perspectives.

In response to this, I conducted a survey, and shared it with other artists on social media, asking them what platforms they prefer, how they benefit them and what features can be introduced to improve these platforms or even in creating a brand new platform. Using the responses, my own research and experiences with different social media platforms, and research on the way that social media algorithms work, I will clarify the problems, improvements that can be made, and things that are already successful.

What’s the problem?

To begin with, most popular social media platforms cater to users who are able to be active constantly, typically tracking how often they post daily, this is especially true for Instagram. These algorithms benefit artists with a fast output, though usually leading to severe burnout and a significant drop in engagement. This is also a disadvantage to artists with slower outputs and more active lives, students and people with full time jobs are left in favor of full time artists. This unfortunately also gives more attention to pages dedicated to reposting other artists’ work, most often without crediting them, and reducing engagement to the original profiles.

Many popular platforms used by artists also lack features and options that would benefit them. Twitter has standardized post layouts, limiting artists to creating work at certain aspect ratios to be able to show off their work more effectively, videos are also limited to individual tweets, forcing users to create threads if they wish to include them. Instagram prioritizes influencers and users with large follower counts. It also limits the size of posts by only accommodating square or wide images to a certain aspect ratio, some users work around this by splitting an artwork into several images and allowing the user to swipe through it on the post.

Twitter, a major platform used by artists, lacks some kind of archive to view several older posts in a grid format, this makes it especially difficult when looking for art by a user that posts other things as well, this is not an issue on Tumblr or Instagram, with an archive page and grid profile respectively. This forces users to scroll endlessly through the media tab or to search for a “moment” which was a useful feature for artists to gather art related tweets into one place, unfortunately this feature was removed from the mobile app, which most users and artists prefer to use, so it has become less common.

Finally, the art focused platform of DeviantArt has alienated a major part of the user base. How has this happened? The first issue was the points system, which equated 1 US dollar with 80 points, this led to many artists undervaluing their work, selling commissions for less than a single US dollar. They were also limited to use on the site, and could not be transferred to real currency, making them useless and causing a phenomenon of undervaluing art as a whole, even 11 years after they were first introduced and subject to endless criticism. The second was an unfriendly design. DeviantArt used to be easy to navigate and explore, but now it is difficult to use the site at all, causing many users to leave for better websites.

DeviantArt’s home page in 2011 via https://web.archive.org/web/20110517041405/http://www.deviantart.com/
DeviantArt’s home page in 2021 via https://www.deviantart.com/

What would improve the experience?

Something important should be an algorithm that allows users to find less popular posts, for example, Twitter and Tumblr allow you to browse “top” and “recent” posts, but a tab for “unseen” posts would be good for finding smaller artists, especially when looking for a topic that hasn’t be part of current discussions for a while, where top posts don’t change for months. This is a negative that many artists have discussed before, many of the responses to my survey even mention this outright, as it’s a real problem for the visibility and longevity of art.

Twitter got on top of a major problem recently, the automated crop of images to fit a standard size for every tweet. This used to undermine the hard work of artists by automatically cropping onto the feet or small pieces of text on an image rather than the highlight, usually a face or the center of the image. This was solved by allowing images up to a certain height to be shown in full, making portrait format work appear much better than it had for years. These still get cropped if they are too tall in order to prevent users from clogging the timeline with a single image, overall this was a welcome change to Twitter.

So what does work?

For a lot of artists, their friends and family follow Instagram pages and even Facebook, this gets them their first interactions, in likes, comments and shares that eventually lead to higher overall engagement. The story feature on a few apps is good for raising the user’s activity and giving sneak peeks to boost engagement for the final post, but it isn’t a feature that many users care to use outside of Instagram or Snapchat.

I am in agreement with other artists that Tumblr’s tagging system and DeviantArt’s galleries are necessary features that do similar things. Tumblr’s system allows users to browse through an artist’s works under a specific topic e.g. landscape, Hades, God of War. DeviantArt’s galleries allow artists to organize their work into folders under different topics. Both are good because a single artwork can be found under multiple tags or galleries based on what types of content they feature, characters, shows or even things like environments, I would say that it is a bit easier to do on Tumblr, by typing in the tags all at once rather than trying to get through a list of galleries.

Image via https://bubblehouse.com/

Tumblr’s archive page and Instagram’s profile page work well as a way to view a gallery of the artist’s overall work and style without scrolling through individual, irrelevant posts, this way you can easily see what type of work an artist is proficient in and what they prefer, this is definitely something ideal for artists who prefer to share their profiles as portfolios as well.

A newer platform called Bubblehouse has one of the most innovative features list I’ve seen for an art sharing platform thus far. I was captured by the “evolution” and “before and after” features. “Evolution” allows you to post a turn around of 3D media with a scroll feature to allow users to turn it freely, showing off the work at several angles easily. The “before and after” feature allows you to post progress images overlaid over each other to show off the way a concept reached its final iteration by splitting the image with an interactive slider. I feel that these features are really beneficial for sharing results and the artistic process with others, showing off the differences in how each artist works. So far the app is IOS exclusive with an Android app on the way, it is also still being improved, and has a small user base, so be patient if you decide to try it out.

Artists have been asking for any kind of accommodation and for features that improve the experience of themselves and their audiences, while it seems that Twitter might be going in a direction that is beneficial, going back to art focused websites and apps might be the way to go for online art sharing.

References

https://www.socialreport.com/insights/article/115002968786-The-Twitter-Algorithm-What-You-Need-To-Know-To-Boost-Organic-Reach

https://later.com/blog/how-instagram-algorithm-works/

https://escapeartmagazine.com/the-social-media-algorithm-artists-on-social-media/

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