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Monday, April 2, 2007

Maintaining Relevance in the Web2.0 Space

The term "web 2.0" is jargon oftentimes utilized as a referential term pointing to the more recent wave of new ideas and concepts online. It is much along the lines of the "information age" being a blanket term for the age of internet technology and information sharing.

With this prevalence of information and increased competition for our online attention, websites must constantly strive to provide services or experiences that make things easier and more enjoyable for us, the common internet user.

There was once a time when people thought that huge technological inventions would constantly change the face of humanity. While this is true in many respects, over the last 1-2 decades the technologies that have really impacted our lives have not been groundbreakingly new, but have instead been efforts of lateral thinking. That is, they have been new uses for already-existing technology.
A fantastic example is Apple's venerable iPod. It's a cliche example, I know, but look at the phenomenon it has caused. It didn't reinvent the wheel at all, but instead took a concept that already exists (digital media playback) and simplified it. Apple removed all of the fluff and clutter that people didn't want, and instead gave them only what they need. They made it damn simple to get media and play the media anywhere they went, and because of this the term "iPod" is almost synonymous with "mp3 player," much like band-aid or kleenex is synonymous with bandage or tissue, respectively.

It is the ease of use, the convenience, the simplicity that now draw our attention in the "web2.0" space, and the websites that do not offer this typically fall by the wayside in place of more successful experiences.

YouTube revolutionized the idea of sharing. Everybody has gone to Youtube and has seen a video from there at least once in their lives. It is unavoidable, because sharing the media you enjoy is so simple and so attractive. We oftentimes come upon YouTube not because we're searching for something, but usually because a friend of ours sent us a link to a video and we checked it out. YouTube has quickly become a source of viral marketing efforts, as well, because marketers (in their infinite wisdom) see the popularity the site has as well as the free usage and think "hey, lets make a really crazy video and put it up there for everybody to share." It doesn't always work, mostly because intentional viral marketing is almost impossible to do. Aside from that point, YouTube's media is easily share-able. Heck, you can even embed videos from YouTube in your own website or blog, thus increasing the power each video has.

Now let us focus our attention upon DeviantART, the site we somehow continue to come back to time after time. Recently, a journal was posted questioning DeviantART's relevance on the internet, pointing out other competing art/media-related websites currently in existence. Some cited that DeviantART still was relevant, citing its huge community, its wealth of artwork, and its extreme popularity. Others decided DeviantART was no longer relevant, citing the implementation of pointless features and the huge delays of seemingly important ones.

I would have to say that both sides are correct. As it stands right now, DeviantART's popularity is at an all-time high. It has more artwork in its databases than all of the other competing sites combined, and its name is almost synonymous with artwork on the web. Its community is unmatched anywhere, as well. Conversely, there are also problems with DeviantART. It can at times be slow due to its huge popularity, the majority of the artwork here on the site is of questionable quality, and the community it holds so dear is in a constant state of flux because many people quickly grow tired of the atmosphere that seems to be nourished here. One also cannot ignore the fact that many of DeviantART's most promising features (groups, chat) are unfinished or buggy, and some of the ones that have been implemented aren't widely-known of or easily accessible (pasties, faq, sharing).

Let me clarify some of the points above with a bit more detail, if I may. Back in 2004, DeviantART began working on a system initially called "party mode," which was later renamed to "groups." The idea was simple, but brilliant: allow users to create their own mini-communities (ie, clubs) and manage them as they saw fit with dA-supported features like forums, chats, galleries, etc). It was a great idea, but it still hasn't seen the light of day. As it stands right now, only admins can use the groups system, but my last encounter with it was some time ago and at that time it was horribly buggy.

Then there is the chat system. While having the ability to chat with people is a great idea, the chat system is still full of bugs and errors. It is not supported across all browsers, and only functions some of the time. Committed users of the site have actually released little patches and bug fixes on their own, but to date nothing official has come from DeviantART with the intent of fixing the known bugs and opening the chat application up to a wider audience.

Next comes Pasties, which is a great feature that allows people to embed artwork they like into their own, non-dA webpages or blogs. This allows anybody to have access to artwork on DeviantART without visiting the site, but the problem is that it is difficult to use and understand. There are no clear instructions that make using Pasties quick and painless, and to my knowledge it is not beyond beta at this time.

The FAQ is an embarrassment. Not because it is inherently flawed. No, quite the contrary. People have gone to painstaking lengths to build an FAQ (that was initially written and built by volunteers) so that users of the site would have immediate, uninhibited answers to the questions most frequently asked. Here's the embarrassment, though: try to find the link. The only link that is visible without user interaction is way at the bottom of the page, requiring people to scroll all the way to the bottom of typically lengthy pages just to click on the link. This is assuming, of course, that they already know it exists in that location. I know many will be quick to point out that there is a "Help + FAQ" link in that magical drop-down menu that appears when a user clicks on the little "DA" logo in the top-left corner. No, not the big logo, the little one...right there next to where it says your name. Oh, you didn't know you were supposed to click on it? A lot of people don't, at least not until they become familiar with the site and begin exploring all of the functions. So yes, while there is an FAQ button in that menu, the people who tend to have knowledge of that menu's existence are oftentimes the ones who are already mildly familiar with the site. In my experience, people who are familiar with things tend to have less questions than those who are completely new to things. As such, those people with the most questions will have nowhere to ask them and instead turn to (drumroll please) the forums, which are oftentimes filled with nonsensical or simple questions that are usually responded to with a direct link to an FAQ article (as if the person asking the question should've already known where to look).

Our next stop is to focus on the new Sharing feature. You may not have known this function existed. Neither did I until just recently. When you visit a piece of artwork, the menu on the left-hand side now has a Share button. Clicking on it opens up a modal window, which allows you to share the work with a friend (via notes only) or by posting it on Digg and other similar sites. This is actually a feature I recommended to one $spyed not too long ago, and I'm glad to see it implemented. Whether or not it was being worked on before my recommendation, I don't know. It's a good idea and it's why sites like YouTube work so well. But unfortunately, dA missed the major point of sharing: we tend to share things with lots of people at a time. DeviantART is assuming that all of our friends and family members are already members of DeviantART, which is why it only allows us to share via notes. I don't know about you, but 85% of the people I know are not at all familiar with DeviantART and actually tend to think it's some sort of perverted sex-art website (the name + the type of work you tend to see on the home page is why). So while the idea of Sharing is great, users need the ability to share with non-members.

So with all of these problems, is there a light at the end of the tunnel? Of course there is. As it stands right now, DeviantART is huge. It has something like 80 billion (estimated) pieces of artwork and I don't know how many members. Worldwide it is the largest art website out there, and ranks amongst the top-visited websites alongside Yahoo and others. So yes, it's popular, but with all of this popularity comes slower servers and an increased need to actually purchase new servers at regular intervals. Otherwise, how are they to store all of that art?
DeviantART has been growing exponentially, and it currently shows no signs of slowing down. But realistically, we know there will come a time when it does slow down. It won't come to a crashing halt, but users' interest will dwindle and people might upload less. This will partly be due to many of the reasons I mentioned above, but will mostly be due to a need for dA to learn to maintain its relevance. How can a website like DeviantART remain relevant for years to come? It's actually not too difficult, at least on paper.

First off, DeviantART is a free website and always should be. Its power is in its open nature, where anybody and everybody can upload work. However, there is an issue regarding the quality of the work that is uploaded. While it is unrealistic to expect a site such as this to have nothing but good artwork on it, there needs to be motivation on the company's part to attract better artists. This comes through better brand support.

DeviantART, right now, has no brand. Literally. If I were to put a mascot like Fella in front of my grandfather, he wouldn't know what the hell it is, nor would he associate it with DeviantART. He would just see a puffy dude that looks kind of angry, and that would be that. Fella is not DeviantART's brand. Some might say this gray-green is DeviantART's brand. It's not. You cannot use grey-green by itself as an identifying symbol in marketing materials of any sort. Okay, so that leaves the logo, right? No. The logotype (the word "deviantART" in the top-left corner) was actually designed by myself and Anthony Scerri. It was a huge compromise, and quite frankly it could've been a lot better. There was a large motivation to appease the community on the whole, and this turned it into a design by committee situation...and those always end in stale work. The ligature mark DeviantART uses every so often (the "da" symbol) isn't successful either. Without pre-existing knowledge of DeviantART, that symbol doesn't tell you anything about the company nor the website. Nothing. It literally says nothing. A good logo tells you something about the company; be it a feeling, a style, or a clear message of what they do. As it stands right now, DeviantART has no communicative brand, and no way of selling itself to the public.

So the first effort should be on creating a real brand. A brand that can be used across a wide array of media. A brand that actually says something to people unfamiliar with it to begin with.

The second effort should be in the support of non-web-based artwork. DeviantART should create a presence in the worldwide art space by supporting art galleries (large and small), by releasing publications of selected DeviantART work, and in turn by promoting those publications in the press. DeviantART should also support art-related educational institutions, at the very least to legitimize its name. The purpose of all of this is to link the name "DeviantART" up with "art" in the minds of the public and to hopefully supersede the initial reactions to the name "deviantart" as it being an erotic/porno website.

The third effort should be on fixing the problems mentioned above. Streamline the site, release features that actually make the site more enjoyable and easier to use, fix bugs in features that already exist, and reduce the transparency of the company in the community space.

Wait, reduce the transparency of the company in the community space? Huh? Well, right now there are a lot of admins, and everybody knows who they are. Knowing who the top admins are is fine, but people shouldn't know who the lower-level staffers are. Why? Because it causes too much corporate saturation in an otherwise community-based atmosphere. If people have problems, there should be channels by which those problems can be funneled. The channels should be clear and easy to find, and the problems should be responded to as quickly as possible. Setup hotlines for paying customers (yes, subscriptions should stay) so they can get help in uploading their work or get problems resolved faster. Overall, make those who are high-level employees clear, and remove the appearance of officiousness in those who are simply volunteers or staffers. This will allow the site, on the whole, to become more community-driven and more focused on the artwork rather than the dealings of the of "evil company."

Finally, in conclusion, and to end my writings here, let me just say that my suggestions here come from a place of love and caring. The biggest fans are oftentimes the biggest critics, so don't take criticism as heresy. Things cannot improve unless there are problems to be fixed, and recognizing the problem is the first step to recovery.

- Ryan Ford
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