DeviantArt has become a web 2.0 fixture among everyone with even a passing interest in art. Like many social networking sites, it takes a hands-off approach that allows the user to make whatever use of the site he or she wants, offering a wide variety of features such as contests, print sales, and journals while n0t being pushy about getting people to use them. Unlike its spiritual predecessor, Elfwood–and no doubt accounting for much of the vast traffic gap between the sites–it makes no effort to define or police what does and doesn’t count as art. Users can upload anything from short stories to image macros. This makes DeviantArt a haven for artists of all skill levels. Professionals post concept art while beginners upload sketches on notebook paper.
This range of purpose and skill level creates an interesting stratification among the site’s 14 million users. Even outside of the formal groups, people tend to network and associate with others of a similar skill level and, to a lesser extent, in mentor-mentee styled relationships with people with somewhat more or less experience. Therefore, one generally ends up in a microcosm of people similar to oneself. But there is no structural enforcement of this stratification; anyone can end up interacting with anyone else, for better or for worse.
Since there are no obstacles preventing a beginner from liking, following, and commenting on an experienced professional’s account, DeviantArt seamlessly combines art creation and art appreciation. You can get updates from contemporary artists you admire just as you get updates from your friends. And you may get on the professionals’ radar, too. The potential for discovery is great.
DeviantArt tries to help the discovery process by providing extra ways to get attention. Should you win a contest or have a picture featured as a Daily Deviation, you’re bound to pick up a lot of followers. But what kind of art gets featured as Daily Deviations? Art that is exceptional by the standards of all DeviantArt users. If you aren’t already among the top artists in the community, you won’t get featured.
Similarly, contests have no age or experience categories; everyone competes against everyone else. In a way, this is flattering to beginners; they don’t have to accomplish anything or meet anyone’s standards before they can compete alongside the big kids. But the downside is that beginners can’t win. They simply stand no chance. Pictured is the winner of the One Cat, One Fruit, One Clock contest (did I mention that many of the contests are silly?); you can imagine what it’s like to enter as an amateur.
DeviantArt has also taken the more egalitarian approach of allowing members to vote on the winners, rather than having a judge (usually an art professional) decide, but that simply makes it a popularity contest; people with more followers get more votes. No one can get discovered that way.
The lack of formal stratification actually makes it difficult to avert this problem; there are no readily-evident metrics by which to divide entrants into categories. Having a premium membership, for instance, has no relationship to talent; thankfully DeviantArt never restricts contest entries on that basis.
DeviantArt features no barriers that keep beginners out of the main community. The flip side, though, is that it also features no barriers that protect beginners from the rest of the community. If you take introductory drawing at a community college, everyone will expect you to draw like a beginner and you shouldn’t have to worry about criticism from people who expect you to be Picasso right out the gate. But if you then make a DeviantArt account to display your drawings–which you have every right to do–you open yourself up to an audience that has no idea that you’re a beginner, or worse, that may resent the presence of beginners in a community that they regard as belonging to more experienced artists.
It can get ugly. Not being a beginner myself, I haven’t had to deal with this, but I’ve known people who did. You can delete disparaging comments, of course, but if someone wants to create a gallery called “crappy art” and add your drawing to it, there’s nothing you can do about it.
This is the price of being part of such a large community encompassing such a range of skills. You can rub shoulders with people far above your skill level, but you may also be overshadowed or belittled by them. You just have to take your chances.