Monday, April 15, 2013

DeviantART and the Teenage Psyche

There's a fun little game you can play online. Go to DeviantART and search the site using any two words in the English language. You win this game if your two-word combination has more than ten search results, AND does not contain anthropomorphic animal-people, variants on cat-people or dog-people, sonic the hedgehog, sonic the hedgehog's friends, furry pornography, anime pornography, or anime in general. If your search contains any of these things, you lose.

Let's start with something fairly mundane and innocent, like "tea pot".

Dammit! This was on the second page of search results.

What about something completely out there, like "oceanography moon"?

Hey, seems like - wait, YuGiOh fanfiction?!

It's a harder game than it seems.

But why can we even play this game in the first place? What is DeviantART, what kind of people does it attract, and what does it say about our culture as a whole?

DeviantART is designed around offering a place for artists to exhibit their work. The website format itself is straightforward - you can create an account, which gives you a web page for displaying your artwork. Other DeviantART members can comment on your artwork and on your gallery as a whole. The website itself is fairly well-designed, with solid search functions and a home page that showcases the newest uploaded artworks. This makes it easy to discover new artists on the website. There are also internal site functions that allow you to bookmark other artists' pages, which help artists stay connected with another. This functionality - along with the ability leave comments for artists - have allowed DeviantART to develop community circles within the website.

And, let's be fair to DeviantART up front: There are some good artists doing work on the website. The website offers a service that has permitted some legitimately good artists to get some basic publicity and feedback.

But the search game on DeviantART wouldn't exist if there wasn't a clear and major presence of subpar to terrible art, often with strange, perverse, or downright creepy themes.

Here, have a photodump. This is a sampling of some of the crazy (note: some links in this paragraph are not work-safe).  There's a strange fixation on Sonic the Hedgehog. And a strange fixation on animals, anthropomorphism, and furrydom. Not to mention bizarre fetish fodder. And lots of it is drawn terribly.

It seemingly never ends. Search around DeviantART for yourself. No, really, go nuts for a few minutes. Then come back and read on.

Let's start by assessing the crowd of people that we're talking about on DeviantART. Who are the people that draw these bizarre things? We'll answer this by using Quantcast - essentially a version of Alexa that pulls from a smaller sample size, but offers more statistical breakdowns. The functionality of the statistics remain the same - they are a relative measure of site audience compared to general internet audience, so there's more qualitative value than quantitative value.

Taken 4/11/2013. You know, I really hate my demographic sometimes.

This tells us that DeviantArt skews towards a younger population, with a strong showing among people ages 24 and under. Notice the strong presence among teenagers.

The 18-24 year old demographic is also very distinguished, and can be interpreted in a number of ways. They could represent long-time DeviantART users. Since DeviantART was launched in 2000, and since the minimum age for making a DeviantART account is 13 years old, we can expect some of those 18-24 accounts to belong to former teenagers from the mid-2000s. We can observe a steady flow of new users joining DeviantArt through the past decade (despite launching in 2000, the site is still very much active), implying that aging members with older accounts do have a presence in these figures.

Another important factor to consider is that there are incentives to lie about your age on DeviantArt. A lot of content - particularly the kind of content that we are discussing in this post - has viewing that is restricted to accounts for people 18 and over. Content of this sort can include nudity, violence, and even ideologically sensitive material - all topics that may entice a teenager enough to want to lie about their age on an account. In fact, it may be that a portion of the site's 25-34 year old user demographic represents accounts with falsely inflated ages from several years ago. This is a more palatable conclusion than believing that a woman in her mid-20s would actually draw stuff like this.

What is this all pointing to? DeviantART is a website whose main demographic is teenagers.

Well, that makes shit like this make a lot more sense.

The teenage years are tumultuous. Hormones are raging through your body. You're at an age where you're developing an identity for yourself. Your sexual impulses are awakening and you have no idea what to make of them. DeviantART is an incredibly fascinating insight into the teenage psyche once you realize that most of the strange and disturbing content on the website is most likely made by teenagers.

The sexual stuff is easy to explain. It's difficult for most teens to find a proper outlet of discussion on sex. They're usually hesitant - if not outright scared - to talk about it with their peers, just in case they'd be made fun of for not having it yet, or for thinking about it too much, or whatever other nonsense. They're probably hesitant to talk about it with their parents, especially when you consider that nearly 40% of American parents would likely only push abstinence on them anyway.

So they turn to the ultimate safe space - the Internet, where you can be anonymous and you can explore your thoughts in a public space to however extent that you want. For some teenagers, this probably doesn't amount to much more than seeking out some porn every once in a while. Others might want to take a less passive approach to their own sexuality and find ways to express their thoughts and impulses.

These sexual thoughts are probably malformed and distorted. The whole concept of 'sex' is still a mysterious and taboo subject to most teens. Because sex itself is so taboo, they might express their sexual thoughts in pieces that are also taboo - self-harm, body distortion, even completely abstract association. Even in this safe space, perhaps a teen would be hesitant to speak about sex so plainly, for it might betray certain aspirations about their personal identity. Would they really want to be someone who could express sex so clearly? What if someone found out about it? They obfuscate the concept of sex behind unrelated concepts so that they can absolve themselves of guilt. They associate sex with outrageous acts because they still perceive sex as an outrageous act.

Can you think of a weirder way to express "My body is changing!"?

The development of identity follows a more generalized pattern to the development of sexual expression. You can express facets of your personal self online that you couldn't in person. You can project yourself in however way that you'd like online - and you can be as unique as you want to be.

And so, once you are online, you are free to create your online avatar. Think about how appealing this is to someone just beginning to figure themselves out. They can project themselves in any light that they want, emulating their greatest heroes. They can place their avatars in the most heroic of situations, undergoing exploits that the internet user only wishes they could do (and when you think about what we were just saying about sexual expression, you can get into some really strange projections).

The problem with safe spaces, however, is that a lot of personality quirks can be left tolerated. Especially personality quirks that would have otherwise been stamped out with conventional interaction.

Not all individuality is useful.

In a place like DeviantART, people can check out each other's work and leave feedback. The owner of each profile gallery can moderate what comments are left on their page. If you have a bunch of teenagers looking for affirmation, they'll tend to just block out the bad comments and keep the good ones, creating an echo chamber. These kids can find validation - even if their art is terrible, even if their thoughts don't deserve praise. That validation can translate to an oft-unwarranted self-importance that would not have otherwise existed. The website itself has a strange attention economy; even on even the most unrelated of threads, you'll inevitably find people who post just so they can get attention to their gallery.

These musings don't even get into the specific oddities pertaining to DeviantART. The strange pornography and body distortion makes sense in a teenage context. The shock value content also makes sense if you consider teenagers finding value in "pushing" their sensations, or seeking novelty to associate with their identity. This fixation on individuality didn't start with DeviantART, and it definitely didn't end with DeviantART.

But why the apparent fixation on anthropomorphic animals? Certainly, furrydom predates the Internet, and humans have been interacting with other animals since the beginning of human existence, but why is furrydom so prevalent on DeviantART? Are animals just a natural branch of imaginative thought? Did the anthropomorphic characters from '90s cartoons and video games have a particular effect on the '90s generation? Is this something that could only have boomed on the safe space of the Internet? Did DeviantART's visual medium and established presence happen to make it the first epicenter of furry activity?

And what about Sonic the Hedgehog? Why Sonic? Is it just because he happens to be the only major video game character that's an anthropomorphic animal? If so, how did Donkey Kong avoid the DeviantART crowd? There's another game you can play on DeviantART: search "<your name> the Hedgehog". What do you get? I'm fortunate enough to have a name that's too foreign to get any results, but chances are you'll find some interesting hedgehog-related results for your name.

This was the least provocative of the "Sam the Hedgehog" series I could find.

Does the existence of this safe space say more about teenage development, or the world that teenagers have to develop in? We've already discussed the generation gap with Internet use, and we've seen the age demographics for this particular site. Is there more difficulty communicating with other people nowadays than there was 30 years ago? Or was it always difficult, and previous generations just didn't have the option of a safe space?

I don't particularly think that DeviantART's content is too distressing. A lot of these pictures are dated - some of them are over four years old. It's likely that some of these pictures are artifacts in people's lives, and don't represent them anymore now that they've grown up. Maybe they went off to college and realized that people aren't as terrible there as they were in high school. Maybe they were confronted with a demanding obligation that pushed them in a different direction. Whatever the case, this website is probably not a symptom of a greater ill.

But it's still funny as hell to look through.

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