How creator culture exploits the online art community

Before the rise of social media, communities for both professional and hobby artists formed primarily through niche websites such as DeviantART[1] and later Tumblr. Back then we tended to identify ourselves through pseudonyms and their online presence was more likely to be treated as secondary to their physical life. In 2022, everyone with regular internet access has the power to develop a following through their art...so long as we're willing to sacrifice for it.

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This essay began as a literature review for a qualitative study I'm proposing to the California Institute of Integral Studies this summer. It will look at the current psychological landscape of professionals and hobbyists in the online art community, including sentiments around creator culture, personal branding, productivity, and NFTs. If you're interested in participating or keeping up with this study, let me know!

When Instagram and YouTube gained international traction as places to have one’s skills seen and recognized, the prevalence of distinct online personas skyrocketed. Before the appearance of the “creator”, the term “microcelebrity” was coined in the late-2000s to define social media users who identified and filled small niches wherein they developed loyal audiences[2]. Microcelebrities largely found fame accidentally, by creating the right media at the right time and on the right platform to reach an enormous audience quickly, otherwise known as going viral.

By this time, “early adopters” to the activity of sharing art online began to experiment with monetization strategies, supporting their work through ad revenue or subscription-based models such as Patreon. When the financial allure of a large audience became widely recognized, the influencer was born. Unlike microcelebrities who essentially stumbled into fame, influencers set out to develop their social media platforms with the specific goal of accruing a fanbase.

From the mid-2010s onward, both titles melded together into the creator, an individual with creative skills who commercializes and professionalizes those skills on a social media platform[3]. This blanket term does significant heavy lifting across disciplines; it includes writers, bloggers, journalists, video producers, filmmakers, documentarians, photographers, musicians, painters, podcast producers, and nearly all other forms of creative production.

Subsequently, the body of work of such creators, regardless of genre or medium, came to be known as “content.” Some creators and critics have raised concerns over this large-scale flattening of the artist, positing that this descriptor is reductionist or even exploitative. Nonetheless, despite the immense diversity of each discipline, as creators find fame and followers, acquire brand deals, and sign professional contracts under “creator culture,” they can feel pressured to adopt the title assigned to them in order to maintain relevance.

The Rise and Expansion of Parasocial Relationships

Creators earn their following by their ability to showcase an idealized persona through their personality or work. At their best, the artist-audience parasocial relationship allows the audience to take inspiration and enjoyment from viewing the artist’s ongoing improvement and progress over weeks, months, or years, which in turn grants the audience opportunities to expand their own self-image, skills, or self-confidence without risk of social rejection or physical harm[4]. This provides both artist and viewer with a free, beneficial exchange of attention and external validation from one another.

Many creators lean into this parasocial aspect by hosting Discord servers or streaming conversations with their audience in real-time through Twitch or YouTube, among other models. These options for more exclusive interaction with the creator reward their audience with “sneak peeks” into their everyday lives or creative process, creating an even deeper illusion of closeness.

None of these engagement models are inherently bad or dangerous. However, creators who fail to live up to fans’ expectations can eventually see their audience turn against them, disparaging them on social media whenever demands aren’t met—or as a means of “punishing” them for bad behavior when deemed necessary, oftentimes resorting directly to calls for cancellation.

Social Media and Cancel Culture

Becoming an accidental microcelebrity was, and still is, a double-edged sword. Popular creators are more likely to be in their teens or early 20s, but while influencers are more likely to be financially solvent enough early in their career to plan ahead—perhaps by budgeting for public relations training, marketing staff, or legal support—microcelebrities regularly find grassroots success by carving out a niche through their favorite hobby, with little or no planning. Additionally, creators are often (but not always) high schoolers or university students with little experience in public relations, customer service, or similar crucial business-related skills—all of which are expected of a professional creator.

Still, young creators are keenly aware of the risks of being cancelled. Cancel culture is the phenomenon wherein a social media audience attempts to shame, frighten, or otherwise “shout down” a public figure from their platform as a means of expressing disapproval en masse[5][6][7]. This experience is often discussed in the realm of politics, where influence can have a tangible effect on policy and other societal concerns. While this form of dissent has been deployed to de-platform creators who have committed real, damaging crimes against another person, these campaigns can at the same time separate creators from their primary sources of income, alarm their real-life employers to the point of terminating their employment, or result in physical stalking. In these cases, especially on platforms with younger audiences, cancellation becomes nothing more than another highly potent form on online bullying.

Even for creators with relatively small audiences, the responsibility of maintaining an online persona, brand, or community can be overwhelming. Some young creators express fear or trepidation around having their online platforms discovered by peers, cognizant of the fact that it could potentially result in real-life bullying. Some create alternative, private Instagram accounts called Finstas, allowing them to compartmentalize their personas as well as segregating business engagements from interactions with friends and family[2].

Creator Culture’s Mental Health Implications

Small or large communities can form organically around shared love for a creator’s work, subject matter, or personality[4][8][9], which can have a positive effect on the self-worth of everyone involved. However, creators are held responsible for not just the creation and marketing of art, business structure and monetization of their brand, and the well-being of themselves and any staff they may hire to support this work, but also the well-being and behavior of the community built around them.

The pervasiveness of cancel culture on social media platforms suggests that the crushing downfalls that they cause can happen to any creator, at any time, and that that downfall will be at the hands of their own fans. Subscribers or followers can act on feelings of entitlement seemingly unbidden, and can become disappointed or angry when the artist fails to create content they personally want to see. This can create a dynamic of intense fear and distrust: when your brand is predicated on maintaining a persona that others can ascribe their own meaning to, “doing the wrong thing” or “having the wrong opinion” can lead your audience to aggressive behavior, potentially threatening your health, sense of safety, and financial stability in the blink of an eye. Fear of the potential of such interactions can further exacerbate distrust of one’s own fanbase, as negative exchanges within their community are more likely to be noticed by both artist and audience and spark conversation on social media[10][11]. This fear can compromise the creator’s ability or willingness to affect authenticity, in their public life and at home.

Alternatively, artists who successfully professionalize their work online can internalize this dynamic to understand their own art as beholden to the viewer, feeling themselves as though paying subscribers are always entitled to tell them what to create and when to create it, sometimes at the expense of their own mental health[2]. If the art of making art—or what is now termed, “content creation”—has been conditioned throughout the art community to to viewed as transactional[3], does that affect the artists’ motivation to create and share it?

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Works Cited

[1] Perkel, D. (2011). Making Art, Creating Infrastructure: DeviantART and the Production of the Web [Dissertation]. University of California, Berkeley.

[2] Leaver, T., Abidin, C., & Highfield, T. (2020). Instagram (1st ed.). Polity.

[3] Cunningham, S., & Craig, D. (Eds.). (2021). Creator Culture: An Introduction to Global Social Media Entertainment. New York University Press.

[4] Shedlosky-Shoemaker, R., Costabile, K. A., & Arkin, R. M. (2014). Self-Expansion through Fictional Characters. Self and Identity, 13(5), 556–578. https://doi.org/10.1080/15298868.2014.882269

[5] Ahuja, N., & Kerketta, J. (2021). The Omnipresence of Cancel Culture: A Balanced Contrast. International Journal of Humanities and Social Sciences, 11(1), 10.

[6] Bates, L. (2021). Men Who Hate Women: From Incels to Pickup Artists: The Truth about Extreme Misogyny and How it Affects Us All. Sourcebooks.

[7] Ronson, J. (2015). So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. Riverhead Books.

[8] Portes, G. P., & Haig, E. (2013). Seeking a methodology for the analysis of the influence of anime on brazilian youth – a post-jungian approach. Matrizes, 7(1), 247. https://doi.org/10.11606/issn.1982-8160.v7i1p247-262

[9] Stallings, J. W. (2021). Special Interest Connection Framework: Integrating Pop Culture Into Art Therapy With Autistic Individuals. Art Therapy, 1–7. https://doi.org/10.1080/07421656.2021.2013718

[10] Petersen, A. H. (2020). Can’t Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation. Dey Street Books.

[11] Zuboff, S. (2019). The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power (1st ed.). PublicAffairs.