Comic Book Day: Digital DIY with deviantART’s Angelo Sotira
by Dan Casey on April 3, 2013
Since its humble beginnings as a computer skinning community in 2000, deviantART has evolved into one of the biggest online enclaves of artists, designers, cosplayers, and illustrators, with over 25 million members, 246 million submissions, and nearly 140,000 new pieces each day. That’s quite a lot of raw, untapped talent in one place, which is why over the last 13 years, CEO and co-founder Angelo Sotira has helped guide and shape the website into the thriving community it is today. Now with a brand new digital comics publishing partnership with Madefire under its belt, deviantART looks poised to take over the artistic world with its open source aesthetic. To get the inside scoop on the company’s latest initiative and the house that art built, I sat down with Angelo Sotira (with Madefire co-founder Ben Wolstenholme), and he filled me in on their step-by-step to world domination.
Nerdist: When I was fifteen years old, I was using the Internet to download Morrissey albums. When you were fifteen, you were using the Internet to create a company, DMusic, that would facilitate something similar. What drew you to starting your own company at such a young age?
Angelo Sotira: I don’t know. I was an entrepreneur by birth; I’ve always built companies. DMusic wasn’t my first company, it was my second “official” kind of company. I had a lawn mowing business, lemonade stands, and car washes, but mine went pretty far because I employed all my friends. For DMusic, the company part was second nature. The primary part was that I started pursuing my passions. It was fun because I was really excited about the MP3 format.
N: I can imagine that must have been an exciting time in the industry. Was that around the time when KaZaa and Limewire were really taking off?
AS: That was before that, man. Limewire came afterwards. This was IRC, Napster… all these networks on if.net. It’s a whole geeky world.
N: So you guys came out of the app skinning community, correct?
AS: Right, yeah.
N: Tell me about how deviantART came into being and how the company evolved from its first incarnation.
AS: Sure, well, when we were doing DMusic, we created Winamp Facelift. Winamp was this music player…
N: Oh, I still use Winamp every day.
AS: Good! Good. [laughs] I just love the brand. We built Winamp Facelift and the world’s best skin artists started posting their skins there. We got the crap beat out of us by the same engineer who built Facelift for us. He then went on and founded Customize.org. His name was Mark and he was kind of like, “Yo, I’ll build Winamp Facelift for you in exchange for server space for this new project I’m working on.”
N: Oh no…
AS: Yep! [laughs] And then that beat us because it had all these other skins. When it was time to start deviantART, we were like, “Okay, categories are the way to win.” We built an engine where you could add categories really easily and support any kind of art people wanted to make. We were one of the first mixed media sites – all the skins, applications skins, digital art, photography, whatever people had. Now we’ve won that too, so take that, Mark. [laughs]
N: deviantART was really ahead of the curve as far as social networking goes. Nowadays, it seems like such an obvious move, but what was the impetus behind the site? Did you want to create a central sharing nexus?
AS: My first business was a BBS. Did you ever use BBS?
N: Yeah, I did.
AS: Highly nerdy stuff, but before the Internet, you’d log into a BBS. I had one for Doom, Hexen, and Heretic - all the online games I was playing at the time. It was like Xbox Live before Xbox. I loved the feeling of a BBS; it was substantially different than the Internet when I was first online. I like that idea that you could see who was online, go hang out in chat rooms, play games together. I ran a news blog within it and had a ladder for all the best gamers where I’d talk shit about them. It was this beautiful little community, and we became one of the top BBS’s in Northern Virginia as a result of the community element. Then when I moved to New York, I kind of got bumped out and I didn’t want to log in long distance. I wasn’t about to pay $700 a month in phone bills. So, I don’t know, it started with DMusic, and with deviantART it kind of built from there. I was drawn to art because with music you can get sued… to this day you can’t have a music sharing service without getting sued, so it was a wise move to make the shift. The community’s a lot more vibrant around art.
N: So, you have how many users now?
AS: 25 million users. I think it’s about 16,000 new users per day.
N: Wow. Incredible.
AS: Not all those people become active super members. Something like 60% of them do.
N: You mentioned the perils of getting sued with a music service. One of the things I was impressed by with deviantART is the ability to place your works under a Creative Commons license. What was the motivation behind that service?
AS: deviantART has taken a tack of simply listening to the community and trying to implement what it wants. There was a moment in time when the Creative Commons license was a very big deal; I was actually very much engaged with what was going on around it and listening to the community to see if it was something they’d want. It was like a really hot item. We launched it because it was in demand. We still have to launch faceted browsing for it so you can sort artwork by license to see what’s available.
N: What’s been the most surprising aspect of deviantART’s evolution since it first started?
AS: I don’t know… probably ponies. [laughs]
N: [laughs] Oh god. That’s fair.
AS: Yeah, it’s been surprising. It’s also been interesting to see how on the mark deviantART is with what’s actually popular culture versus what’s perceived as popular culture. For a while people were saying, “Oh, it’s an anime community,” and now there’s lots of ponies and all kinds of different trends that become really big. DeviantART is really powerful in all different directions. Comic book art, hypermasculine stuff, really girly stuff – we cover the whole spectrum of the gamut. Super high-end street or nature photography. Some of these trends just go nuts, and deviantART is a really cool way to see how these fads play out. There’s no denying that people are really into My Little Pony right now.
N: Bronies are a unique breed.
AS: Bronies are amazing. If you look at what’s happening in that community, it’s really incredible.
N: They’re a liberal arts thesis waiting to happen.
AS: Oh, I’m sure.
N: Some users have been able to leverage professional gigs through their dA output. Was that one of the goals from the beginning or a natural side effect as the site grew in size and scope?
AS: I think it’s both. From the very beginning, we wanted to attract the very best talent. That’s how we started and how we grew – everyone wanted to come and be a part of that talent pool. It’s also cool that the community has been around for 13 years, so a generation has grown up using it. A whole generation of designers, artists and photographers grew up with deviantART in their life.
N: Do you find a lot of brands use deviantART as a talent pool?
AS: Oh yeah. I’ve heard that a lot of comic book companies will require you to have a certain number of page views before they’ll even consider you. It’s the primary recruitment tool for a variety of industries. It all feels like we’re really dominant.
N: Many of our readers strive to be content creators themselves. What’s something you know now that you wish you had known when you were first starting out in terms of either entrepreneurship or creating a business?
AS: I see people making this mistake often. They sort of use social media very passively like, “Oh, I have one of these accounts and one of those accounts.” You have to have a skill that you can develop of how to be in the conversation and how to be recognized within the conversation, and that will take an enormous amount of output. You have to have something to put forth, but then it’s about creating conversation about that output in the community you want to be in. You need to build a name for yourself, and it’s now easier than ever, but because it’s easier than ever that output needs to be way more focused. You should aim to put out roughly 15,000 messages per year. Something ridiculous like that. Comment like crazy whether its on deviantART or Twitter. Facebook’s a little different, but wherever you are, just work really hard on your platform.
N: Trying to get it out to as big of a network as possible?
AS: Exactly. I think people focus too much on getting the content out and not enough on being the human being that’s posting the content.
N: Do you still produce art yourself?
N: How active are you in the community?
AS: I’m very active in the community, but I don’t post my art to the community because the pressure is just too much. [laughs] And I’m not quite there yet. I do have another account that I post to and that’s been doing moderately well, so it’s nice to get a reality check when you don’t have your super account to work with.
N: Going undercover to get real feedback, huh?
AS: You get real feedback, but you also get less. I take for granted how much attention I get as a founder of the site, so it’s a real reality check. [laughs]
N: Who are some of your favorite deviants in the community to watch?
AS: It’s difficult for me to say, but I do have a number of folks I admire. There’s an artist named Jasinski who means a lot to me. He was one of our first members, and his were some of the first prints that ever sold. As a painter posting his work online, he really demonstrates the value that deviantART holds for traditional art. Also, it’s hard not to mention Artgerm, who’s probably the most popular artist in the world with a few billion page views. He draws in an incredible style, and whatever he touches, there’s a magic that I can’t even express. That talent really blows me away. There’s another girl out of Singapore named Zemotion; she’s a really incredible photographer, so it’s nice having her around.
Let’s see – who else do I really like? Dangeruss is really cool. He does 3D models of cars; he posts them, you think they’re real, and they’re all drawn. I’ve watched him develop since 2001, and he was a really important artist and a huge draw at the time.
N: That’s got to be a real trip watching these artists evolve and improve over time.
AS: Yeah, when I was a kid, my impetus was creating deviantART, but now it’s about being part of a community, and there’s just so much talent here. Watching it rise and hearing all the stories – no matter what platform these folks are on, it’s really nice to see them succeed.
N: So, you guys are entering the digital comics space now. What was the motivation there?
AS: Yes! Comics, storytelling for our community, are a critical next step. There are thousands upon thousands of stories locked underneath the deviantART community, but there isn’t much of a pathway for how they can escape. The independent comic book movement… I’ve watched so many titles launch out of nowhere and become hugely important. Napster launched out of a chat room that I was in and, more recently, I watched Uber, the car service, launch and how much it’s changing the world. I watched deviantART launch, Winamp reach its fame. I still have the Gnutella domain names – you know the service that Justin Frankel built? There’s just things that you start seeing in the battlefield that you see as patterns when these things blow up, and I see that in indie comics right now.
N: Especially now that you have the means to access a larger audience than ever before.
AS: It’s not just that. There’s something happening where there’s a thirst for indie comics, for more storytelling, and the tools – because of the iPad and the tablet, etc – are primed to bring a new generation of independent storytelling into the consciousness of people. It’s possible. We try to make that possible at deviantART with our Premium Content Platform, which gives creators 80% of the profits. It’s all digital-based. It’s usually the other way around, 20-80, but we’re even crazier than the rest, so we only keep 20%. It’s been growing really, really rapidly.
N: Well, it makes sense. If you’re a dA user, your community is already in place, so why not sell directly to your fan base?
AS: Marketplaces are very important, especially digital ones. Digital marketplaces is really where we’re focused. You know, there’s no iTunes for art.
[Note: At this point, we were joined by Madefire co-founder Ben Wolstenholme who helped fill us in about deviantART and Madefire's new comics publishing initiative]
N: Tell us about your new Motion Books initiative. Whereas other motion comics seem to be simply an animated version of a static comic book, these Motion Books seems to be more interactive. What motivated this as a design choice and what does this experience provide that typical motion comics don’t?
Ben Wolstenholme: Our goal has always been to create a reading experience, not a watching experience. Most book publishing is still aimed at a print output, but the world is reading increasingly on devices, so Madefire is focused on moving the reading experience forward with digital first publishing tools. Our books – Motion Books – are totally controlled by the reader. The reader is in control, and everything – sound, movement, and interaction – is in service of the story. With this as a brief, a new grammar for reading is starting to evolve.
We’ve learned from the explorations into Motion Comics, but in blunt terms, the material was never written and drawn for animation, and the results are forced. All our material has been developed digital-first for Motion Books. Or as Dave Gibbons puts it: “Motion Comics are like putting a horse on a motorbike. We’ve built a race car.”
N: Tell us a bit about the Madefire toolset. Does it function similar to Flash in that you can set up keyframe animations to go from point A to point B in order to convey a sense of motion?
BW: Yes, there are similarities in that respect. What’s exciting is that all of our publishing tools are browser-based (rather than desktop), so groups of people all over the world can collaborate on the same pages and books, and they can share assets and libraries of transitions, images, etc. We’ve tailored our platform to output visual books so that the Motion Book Tool makes the books, and then as you publish to the reader, it “plays” the books as readers interact with them. The Tool and the reader keep books optimized in layers and at the right resolutions for multiple devices and aspect ratios, so there’s a lot of multi-device and mobile and web device optimization happening, all in service of storytelling.
N: Obviously, you have a vast wealth of talent in the DA community. How can community members get involved and turn their ideas into Motion Books?
AS: In a couple of months, deviantART members will be able to create their own Motion Books using Madefire’s browser-based tool. The tool will technically launch inside of deviantART’s cloud storage solution known as “Sta.sh,” where members currently collaborate or store files until they are ready to be published. Soon, all deviantART members will be able to use their Sta.sh to create a Madefire Motion Book! All they need to do is go to www.deviantART.com/motionbooks to sign up for access, and they’ll be notified once the phased rollout of the tool starts.
This ability to publish books has been widely requested by the deviantART community, and we know that this news is riveting for a large number of our members!
We’re excited about the prospect of so many dA members following in the footsteps of renowned creators (and dA members) like Dave Gibbons and Liam Sharp – both of whom are on the Madefire team and are already creating stories using the Madefire tool.
N: Will user-created titles also be monetized? Can creators choose to make it available for free as well?
AS: DeviantART’s newly released Premium Content Platform permits all of our members to sell various types of Premium Content. Madefire Motion Books are equipped with the Premium Content Platform for all members!
Free is just as easy to choose as paid! Selling with the Premium Content Platform is a choice during the submission process. But regardless of the price a creator charges for titles, access to the Madefire tool itself will be free.
N: Getting Dave Gibbons on board is a huge coup, as he is an incredibly well respected creator. Apart from his Treatment, are there any other exciting titles from known quantities that you can share with us? For example, I saw that Liam Sharp and Bill Sienkiewicz are getting involved…
BW: Yes! We have already had the privilege of working with some of the greats in graphic novels and comics: Gary Gianni, Mark Texiera, Brian Bolland, Simon Bisley, and Mike Carey. The really interesting aspect – and the reason Dave, Bill and Liam all feel so passionately about this – is “Where will the new stories come from? Where is the innovation in the storytelling form going to come from?” We believe there’s no better place than from the largest creative community in the world – dA! Artists on there are actually some of the most respected and followed in the world already! It’s just that the “industry” hasn’t caught up to that fact yet. For Madefire and these creators, it’s about empowering the new myths of the 21st century. Passing the torch.
N: What is your hope for the partnership and where do you see it going?
AS: The union of the world’s premier online arts community and the motion book reader that sets the bar for excellence in this furiously evolving new area will serve as a template for deviantART’s emerging identity as being the “first place to look,” as being the tip of the spearhead of what’s happening in the pop arts. If the spirit and enthusiasm of the deviantART community fuses with the technological forward vision of the Madefire creation tools, the future bodes well for a long and mutually beneficial relationship of steady and amazing innovation in a new field of graphic entertainment.
So there you have it, folks. Are you an active deviantART user or an aspiring comic book creator? Are you excited by this new self-publishing toolkit? Let us know in the comments below.