Discussing how online creative communities affect culture and communication, and their potential benefits for creative professionals
What Are Online Creative Communities?
As the creative industry continues to change and be shaped by culture and technology, it becomes increasingly important to understand the ways in which creative professionals can take advantage of and learn from digital media. Online creative communities are used by millions of people, and millions more have heard of them, but they’re still largely ignored in the mainstream.
They’re used every day to communicate, share ideas, and diffuse information and culture, but they’re disregarded due to a mix of the stigma surrounding them and a lack of knowledge about how best to take advantage of them. Many such communities exist on the web, some more popular than others, that cover a wide variety of mediums from writing to artwork to comics to videos.
Obviously, creative sharing exists over far more websites than can be covered within the scope of one article, so in order to define my topic, I’ll first explain what I’m not talking about. I’m not talking about:
- Creative blogs and social media accounts—they aren’t structured in the same way as an online creative community.
- YouTube—it doesn’t constrain itself to any one type of subject or content or rhetorical style, and really, it’s so massive that it should be analyzed in a class by itself.
- An individual’s or organization’s personal or professional website—by definition that is not a community of users.
I am talking about Wattpad, Writers Cafe, DeviantArt, Line Webtoon, Tapastic, Scribophile, Fanfiction, Archive of Our Own, and many, many more small sites.
Hallmarks of these kinds of sites include the ability to:
- Make a personal profile
- Post your own work
- View the works of others
- Give praise or constructive criticism via “favoriting” and commenting
- Collaborate with other artists.
- Focus primarily on the creative content over the social aspect
- Join for free (sometimes offering a paid subscription that includes some special features)
Personal and Professional Benefits
Websites that allow users to publish original work have a lot of benefits: creative types can post their original prose, poetry, essays, articles, artwork, comics, and more on a free platform that puts their work out there and allows them to develop a readership.
It’s much easier for an unknown creative professional to develop an online following through a site like this than trying to self-publish and distribute work that their audience has to pay for. It’s easier than ever to find and recruit the best of the best as they naturally rise to the top within their online communities.
According to Scott Belsky, the ability to ‘like,’ ‘favorite,’ or ‘follow’ talented individuals allows the online community to “curate itself.” And because most of these communities are pretty kind and encouraging (it’s both an established rule of most such communities and a social norm among participants), artists are reinforced with positive feedback from ‘favorites’ and comments that can encourage them and help them improve. Some people even parlay their work in these communities into paid work by networking, selling what they’ve created, and being commissioned through the community.
As of 2015, Wattpad has over 45 million registered users and over 100 million stories posted. Image Source
The biggest benefit, however, is the potential for exposure: the ability to put your work out there and develop a following. This also shapes the way people network and show off their work; while there is a huge difference between a collection of work you post online and a legitimate online portfolio, it wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine that employers or clients could find the different accounts your name is attached to. Assuming it’s work you’re proud to associate yourself with, then that’s free advertising.
The important thing to note about these communities is that their main purpose is for entertainment. Very few people go into it thinking they’ll turn a profit; they’re amateurs, and the level of talent varies from one extreme to the other. But the professionals who use online creative communities already have support behind them and a leg up to forge successful careers.
DeviantArt has had over 1.4 billion views in the last month. Image Source
Since many of these sites are focused on or include some amount of fan art or fanfiction (creative works made by fans of a book, show, film, etc. featuring characters and settings from the original work), they face many of the stigmas and prejudices associated with fan works. Author and fanfiction writer Emma Lord says, “It’s sad that, as a kid, with no prompting from the outside world or other fan fiction authors, I already knew that talking about writing fan fiction was social suicide. Even in 2015, when fan fiction is more prominently known than ever, I can see people getting genuinely uncomfortable with me mentioning it.”
However, fan works, both writing and artwork, also serve a valuable purpose. They’re great for authors who want to add on to a canon that they already know and love. They can work with established characters and settings, get easily inspired with “what if” plot ideas, and work on skills and forms that make them better writers if they ever aspire to publish original content. There’s no cost to submit work to these sites, and it’s easy to find an audience and get feedback on their work.
Overall, these types of sites can be very appealing for creative, personal use. It mostly comes down to being a fun hobby, a way of practicing a craft to improve, or a way to advertise skills.
Shaping Culture and Communication
Of course, these sites are more than just repositories for creative content—they’re communities, and they behave as such. Nobel Prize-winning political economist Elinor Ostrom famously studied the human ability to successfully manage a shared ecosystem or cooperative society. She found that successful “institutions for collective action” (systems set up by groups of people to organize, govern behavior, and overcome common problems) all meet certain criteria.
It turns out that these online creative communities operate under many of the same rules (3), including:
- The use of clearly defined group boundaries
- The ability for community members to create, modify, and petition rules
- Systems in place for monitoring behavior
- Members helping to undertake the monitoring
- A graduated system of sanctions in place for any breach of community rules
This is one of the ways that communication and authorship are changing as a result of these online communities—there’s no longer a producer/consumer dichotomy because most producers are also consumers and many consumers produce work of their own.
Communication between creator and consumer is also more available and encouraged than ever, which builds a sense of collaboration among community members. The social element of these sites is also valuable to users, offering a sense of artistic identity among a group of like-minded, supportive individuals.
1 Emma Lord, “13 Things Fan Fiction Writers Are Very Tired Of Explaining,” Bustle, 2015. Source
2 Scott Belsky, “Shaping the Future: 7 Predictions for the Creative Community,” 99u, 2010. Source
3 Credit: Elinor Ostrom. Source: Howard Rheingold, Net Smart, 2012