Sharing, Theft, and Creativity: deviantART’s Share Wars and How an Online Arts Community Thinks About Their Work

Dan Perkel is a Design Researcher at IDEO. Last year, he finished is doctoral work at Berkley’s iSchool. His dissertation, Making Art, Creating Infrastructure: deviantART and the Production of the Web, involved an extensive ethnographic study of deviantART, a massive online community site built around sharing digital art. As part of our on going Insights series of interviews Jane Mandelbaum, co-chair of the National Digital Stewardship Alliance Innovation Working group and IT Project Manager at the Library of Congress, was excited to take the opportunity to talk with Dan about how his work might inform and connect with the digital preservation community. Their conversation explores how creators and users of art in the deviantART community think about their rights, their values and intellectual property. Readers will also be interested in how he went about his ethnographic work, gathering and collecting copies of pages and web content using Zotero.

Jane: What do you think might be the most interesting aspects of your current work to the digital preservation community?

Dan: There are a few things that come to mind that might be interesting (though I would be interested in hearing what a preservationist might see interesting in my work before I presume too much!).

First, although there is still uncertainty of the long term value of initiatives to archive everyday conversations that happen through Twitter (or Facebook status updates, etc), those people who find such projects important may also want to consider the value of sites such as, sites that have more focus. deviantART can be thought of as a database that is a window into how at first hundreds, then thousands, and now millions of people talk about that elusive concept of “art” (starting back in 2000 when the site launched). Many of these people are young or just starting out and deviantART plays a role in crucial, formative stages of their artistic “careers.” Others are experienced artists, amateurs and professionals, who have brought well-formed ideas about art from elsewhere in their lives. And it’s a global site, an aspect of the site that adds to the complexity of trying to make sense of all of these conversations.

Related, deviantART hosts more than 200 million submissions. The pieces reflect various artistic styles, genres, trends, media, and even representations of the processes used to make the pieces. It’s hard to know what kind of value this could be to historians of popular culture or art 20, 50, 100 years from now, but theoretically it could form the foundation for some incredible research. I should add that besides just looking at the conversations or the art, deviantART’s classification system would also be worth thinking about in terms of preservation. It has evolved from a handful of categories to thousands. These categories play interesting roles in how people think about their work and how the site organizes its management and operations.

Thinking about changes to the categories and taxonomies on the site, raises a third topic that may be of interest to those thinking about how to preserve these kinds of sites and their content (or how to make use of preserved material). A question that came up for me was how to think about going back and “reading” a site like deviantART from a historical perspective when many of the structural elements are continually in flux.

What I mean by “structural” elements is the design of the site: features, functionality, layout, content, etc. I studied the site ethnographically and archived thousands of pages—using Zotero—as I experienced them. Sometimes I would go back to the same URL and compare how that page looked and felt as compared to my archived version and it was quite different. How the site was structured when I joined and how the site evolved afterwards had a tremendous impact on how I studied it and understood it (in ways that are hard to even document).

This issue raises questions about going back and looking at old content that may have been framed and presented very differently when first posted by members. To make things even more complicated, members’ experience of the site was shaped by how they understood what art was about and how they understood the web. Members’ experiences had a tremendous impact on the site and its features. When I think of “digital preservation” in light of these findings, I wonder what aspects of deviantART (and other sites) should actually be preserved to make sense of it at a future date.

Jane: Can you talk a bit more about your study of deviantART? I’m particularly interested in what you mean when you talk about property, sharing and theft as it relates to deviantART members.

Image of persistent navigation of DeviantART

Dan: Taking a step back will help contextualize this answer. My study started out looking at how participation in a site like deviantART shaped people’s identities as artists—the social recognition of someone as an artist. But, I was also interested in how the specific, designed technical features of sites like deviantART were being transformed in use. For two years I studied the site and its participants ethnographically and supplemented my participation on deviantART with time spent at fan conventions and comic book conventions where I hung out in the “artist alleys” (where artist set up tables, networked and sold work). I structured the findings of this research around themes and topics that were crucial to deviantART’s members and related them to specific features of the site.

The relationship between theft and sharing is an example of one of those themes. From the first week I started hanging out on deviantART, I noticed the prevalence of people talking about “art theft.” People wrote about theft in their journals on deviantART (like blogs). They announced cases of theft in deviantART’s news section. They brought up theft in interviews, even when I didn’t bring it up.

Given its importance to deviantART’s participants and what I already knew about the important of copyright as a contentious topic amongst policy makers and advocates, I spent time analyzing what people actually meant by theft. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there was no clear definition. There was a tremendous amount of heterogeneity and diversity. Three issues came up consistently, however: permission, credit, and material/symbolic gains (e.g. making money or accumulating status).

To some people theft hinged entirely on the question of whether one received permission for use. But not everyone felt all uses required permission. Yet it was also not as simple as whether a use was deemed “commercial” or “for profit.” Nor was there always a clear relationship between what people meant by “theft” and what different laws stated about copyright. In a way copyright law was not the reason some act was wrong; it was evidence that something was wrong. In the end, one of my conclusions was that concerns over theft were moral concerns more than economic ones and they were very closely tied to what it meant to be an artist. For many, theft was a moral threat to one’s very identity as an artist. A longer introduction to this topic can be found in a blog post I wrote for Material World.

Sharing became an important issue when deviantART launched a set of fairly conventional “share tools” in 2009 and many people accused these tools of promotion theft. I was less interested in whether that was a fair characterization and more interested in how a set of technologies could play into this confusion between sharing and theft. I also saw this as an example of the amount of ongoing work done by everyday people to actually make a set of features (like the share tools) feel conventional and simply “the way the web works.” This might be something that preservationists should consider. I recently gave a talk that delves into all of the details.

Jane: You talk about a conflict among deviantART members that surfaced old tensions about art and creativity.  How did that conflict come about and what did you think is most interesting about it?

Dan: As I noted earlier, I organized my work around themes and sets of tensions that came up over the course of my research. Once you start to think about art or popular culture, many of these will start to sound very familiar, issues that seem to come up over and over again in the history of art (here, I am talking about the past 200 years or so).

For example: fights over commercialism in art, arguments that sound very much like “art for the market” versus “art for art’s sake” that so many sociologists and historians of art have written about. Another example came out when I investigated theft. I observed disagreements and tensions about what kinds of control an artist or author can expect to have over their work once it is public (their legal rights, their moral rights, etc.). Despite all of this new technology, these are very old issues.

The web seems to have provided a new medium where these old issues play out. What seems to be new is how in some cases, like on deviantART, the web has brought different art worlds together in ways that may be unprecedented, where conflict is generated when different worlds collide as they all come together around a seemingly common set of tools and features. Seeing the web this way challenges rhetoric of the web that couches it as revolutionary. It also raises even more empirical evidence to be skeptical of claims about “digital natives” or a “digital generation.” But, it also shows how things might change over time rather than being a simple reproduction of past conflict. Finally, to return to something I noted earlier, these conflicts over old issues can have real material consequences on the production of the web itself. The “share tools” on deviantART resemble share tools elsewhere, but that doesn’t mean that they just came about because that’s how the web works.

Jane: What do you think have been the most important changes in how web content is being created or used in art?  What do you think will be the most important changes in how web content will be created in the future?

Dan: I am not sure about “most important,” but certainly the fact that some pieces of work were born digital complicates some of the historical tensions that I talk about. For example, in the legal world “theft” and “copyright infringement” are very different. Those people on deviantART who tried to shift the discourse about “theft” away from such morally charged language did so with support of how these terms are defined in the law, where “theft” deals with the misappropriation of a physical work. Infringement is the illegal use of a copy or derivative work. But if a work never had a non-digital basis, does that mean it can’t be stolen?

Related to this conversation, of course, is the fact that digital material can be seamlessly incorporated into new digital works quite easily. As has been clear from the past two decades of writing on the topic, this raises a whole host of issues about what derivative uses should be considered “fair” and which should not be (both legally and morally).

Jane: How do you think web content creators could or should fit into the life cycle of website preservation?

Dan: There is a big question as to how much say they should have in the long-term preservation of their own work. There are many examples of art and literature where the wishes of the creator to destroy his or her own work was ignored by friends or family and we are the beneficiaries. What kind of control should people be allowed to have over material that the law might deem is “theirs”? This is a particularly important issue as people argue about the right to permanently delete or destroy content they upload to sites like Facebook or Twitter.

I guess I should also add that perhaps we should recognize that everyday users already play a role in the life cycle of website preservation, particularly when they help recreate the histories (through words and images) of the very sites in which they participate. They also play a role by the work they do in filtering, ranking, promoting and categorizing work. They are aided, perhaps even guided, by algorithms and political decisions made by deviantART’s designers and staff. All of this work affects the efforts of those coming back later to think about preservation. For example, if you go to the Internet Archive and look through snapshots of, what appeared on the front page at a particular moment the snapshot was taken gets “preserved” in some form. So, how did that work come to appear on the front page in the first place? There is an important social process behind this that needs to be considered.

Another set of issues raised by the question of digital preservation relates to how a work posted to the web is framed by the artist’s comments, various bits of metadata, and the comments that may accompany any piece of work. Are these elements superfluous? Or are they essential? At times they felt essential to the interpretation and viewing of the work, just as the placement of a work at a museum. The web provides new means of commentary and metadata that can accompany a work as it “travels.”

It would be useful to try to relate the questions that deviantART raises to similar ones already raised by the digital preservation community with respect to other contexts.

Jane: Has any of your work provided insights that might inform how web sites should be categorized and/or collected and managed?

Dan: I have a few thoughts with respect to categorization, but I would like to learn a bit more about how preservationists go about categorizing websites, particularly as these sites might change over time in response to business goals, customer needs, designers’ interests, and so on. Studying deviantART taught me how difficult it is to categorize websites, particular based on particular feature sets or qualities that seem “fundamental.” For example, deviantART resembles a “social network site” in so many ways. But by some definitions of that term, deviantART is not a social network site. What deviantART “is” was highly dynamic and fluid and it remains to be seen how those in the future might try to look back and categorize what deviantART “was.”

Jane: Do you think web content creators consider their outputs as traditional formats on a different platform?  Or as a completely different format? Is it more about the web or more about the type of content (text, graphic, photograph, movie, etc.)?

Dan: I saw evidence of both. But for the most part, people on deviantART saw themselves as contributing to formats that predated the web. The site was a new medium to distribute (or at least represent) those formats.

Jane: What do you see as the trends in the views of ownership of content on the web?

I am not sure about trends. But, what I can say is that even young, technically-savvy artists, versed in the web and social networking, are embracing very old views of content ownership rather than re-writing the rules. The web may make it easy to copy (or “share” or “steal”), but it also provides new ways for people to assert control and authorial ownership. It’s not one or the other. It’s both.

Jane: How do you think content creators could or should support long-term preservation of their content?

Dan: This question relates back to the earlier one about the role of content creators in the life cycle of digital preservation. In order to protect their work from theft, members of the site didn’t necessarily want to make the highest resolution version of their image available for easy “theft” or “download.” For a work that was “born digital” (rather than a photograph or scan of a work created using a non-digital material), the highest resolution is the closest thing to an “original” with the exception of software file (e.g. Photoshop version) that has all of the layers intact. This raises the question as to what version of a piece of content should be preserved and why.

I think that deviantART made it possible to upload one version but then display a lower resolution version (I am not 100% sure at this point what all of the options are or were). Certainly it would be easy to do this and other sites do something like this. So, should there be policies in place to have people upload high-resolution versions of their files even if they never want them available on the web in that form?

Jane: It would be interesting to get blog reader feedback on that question.  I’ll be interested in seeing what our readers think!

One Comment

  1. Grae Caruso
    September 17, 2012 at 11:37 am

    No every conversation should not be archived…really….. it would take someone “young” to think that everything they say or do should be saved for posterity. Let me tell you a story… My mother, over the course of 80+ years took about 4000 family pictures. My children snap pictures of their children every time they turn around.. thousands in the course of a year, most just not very good pictures. We look at my mother’s pictures and value each one of them, even though there are really quite a few. We spend lots of family time looking at them. We don’t do this with the pictures of my grandchildren because it is to difficult to wade through the hundreds of not very good pictures to get to the really beautiful ones. What we save and what we throw out is important for the future.

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