Saturday, October 11, 2008

The New "American Artist" Online Community

American Artist this week formally unveiled its new online community for artists. This is a brand new social networking website for representational artists. You can find the new site at http://forums.myamericanartist.com and you can get to it by clicking the forums tab at top right of the American Artist website.

I was contacted and invited to join the new site this week. After a few days trying it out, this post introduces the new site, comments on its scope and functionality and considers how it will fit into the current context of other online communities for artists.

Today's Home Page for the new American Artist Online Community
We launched this web site to help artists pursue their passions and share that passion with other artists. This is a community for all representational artists working in all mediums—whether oil paint, sculpture, watercolor, pastel, colored pencil, graphite, printmaking, or charcoal. As artists spend time on the site, they'll see what an amazing resource it is.
American Artist Editor-in-Chief Steve Doherty.
The new site replaces their old forums following the acquisition of the titles "American Artist," "Drawing," "Watercolor," and "Workshop" by Interweave. These had to be left behind on the servers belonging to the previous owners but there is an intention to move all the old content over to the new site.

I became a member (you can find me in the people directory as 'makingamark') and have been test driving the facilities. It's fairly rudimentary at the moment in terms of both guidance and contributions but appears to be getting off the ground fairly fast. I certainly recognise quite a few names already! (Hello Val!) ;)

For the last 2-3 days I've been trying it out and during that time the number of members has been increasing very steadily - but activity on the site is taking a little longer to take off. I'm not entirely surprised as some of the facilities will feel very new to some people.

You'll find a summary of the features below followed by my comments on the facilities the site offers and my musings on where it might fit into the overall scheme of things.

I'm personally finding the site to be a sort of a cross between Wet Canvas, Facebook, Flickr and ning!
The facebook type features will probably "throw" traditional forum people and the tradtional forum set-up will feel very odd to the facebook people - but hopefully everybody can work it out in due course.

Forums

This section looks and operates pretty much like a normal bulletin board type of site with all the normal rules of engagement. At the present time it's very much in its infancy but I'm sure it will grow over time. This is where people who are used to web 1.0 structures will feel most at home.
However, the software is a bit different to anything used elsewhere and probably needs a bit more support to get people engaged. Demo threads - or links - in each forum showing people who to use the forums would be very useful.

At the moment the helpful threads are in the Community Help Forum - but are not showing up as links elsewhere - and I think they need to fix that fast. These are the two which I think need to be highlighted in all the Forums.
Blogging

I seem to recall suggesting to the chap who runs the bit of F&W Publications which owns Wet Canvas - in A new owner for Wet Canvas - that blogs were the way forward for the giant bulletin board sites if they want to fit in with the new web 2.0 world, but nothing has happened in the last 15 months. It now looks like the American Artist people got there first!

At present the only blogs which have been developed are being used by the American artist staff - Editor in Chief Stephen Doherty (Steve Doherty's Blog) and Brian Riley (The Gallery Blog), the senior editor for all the American Artist titles.

There's also a page where you can see all the blogs of members - so long as they've included them in their profiles. So far mine's the only one that's listed which makes me think it's either not the blogging community who've joined so far - or people haven't filled out their profiles (that's a lot of people) or they can't discover this page easily (that's me - it took me 3 days!). I was also wondering whether they intend to develop blogs for each of the magazine titles - as it was not immediately obvious from the home page for blogs that these already exist!

They have a neat bit of software which allows you to see the Most Recent, Most Viewed and Most Commented. Should be interesting!

Having a blog on a site supported by a major player in the American Art Community will make some people much more comfortable about blogging. However, in general, I wouldn't suggest people use sites like this for blogs if you want to have your own identity and control over what your blog looks, says and does as you can only really get this with your own site using webware and/or your own domain host. You also won't 'own' any hits to your site as these will only help the American Artist site and is one of the very obvious reasons from their perspective for having blogs on any site like this!

It's not clear what the criteria are for people to have a blog on the site - and you have to apply to join. However if you feel less confident having your own blog and/or would like to be blogging as part of a much bigger community - and I think that might be quite a few people - then a site like this might suit you very well - if newbies are permitted. What it needs now is for somebody to say 'who can blog' and/or show members what an 'ordinary' member blog might look like. If I created one all it's going to do is provide links to this blog!

Groups

You can develop groups pretty much in the same way as Facebook or Ning. Whoever creates the group gets to decide who can join and whether it is public or private and how it works. To post in a group you have to be a member. To post the the group blog I think you also have to be a member - and you can't comment either (or maybe that's determined by the group owner - it's not very clear)

It's been set up with two main categories for existing Art Associations (smart move!) and Member Groups. This is the bit which marks out this site as being distinctive from the existing online art communities outside the big and generic web 2.o sites such as Facebook or Flickr. It's interesting to note that after three days I'd say the bit which people have got to grips with most easily is the groups function.

Galleries and Videos

Each member can have an online portfolio and gallery - including a slideshow. I'm not commenting on either of these as I've still to test these out - but it looks promising. I don't think these can serve as substitutes for a website presence as my impression is that you need to be a member to see images. (I'm not sure because of the way I've got my security settings set to stop the automatic display of certain images).

People

The profile offered by the software is much better than on other forums. There's a lot of scope for customisation to make each page feel very individual - but that's not being exploited as yet. You can only see profiles if you join - and you can see mine here.

Where does the new site fit?

I started to wonder where this site might fit into the various art communities which already exist online.
The art world is a very large place. For those communing online there are different places which suit different people and I've written about this before in Art Forums - the ins and outs

Here are some of the bigger sites and more generic sites.
  • THE major player in the art forum world by a very long way (see Chart) is deviantART which has many more members with a much younger age profile. Many of the members are devoted to digital art, fantasy art and comics/manga - all of which have seen an absolutely explosive growth in recent years. It also includes a shop where members can sell their art.
  • Some people like the very traditional web 1.0 model as exemplified by places like Wet Canvas. F&W Publications own and run the site, and the administrators and moderators tell you what you can and cannot do. It typically tends to suit and support people who like buying instruction books and going to workshops and having people tell them what to do. Amongst its member there are a lot of hobby artists who tend to be middle aged or older. It does have members who are professional artists and/or young but they're not prevalent.
  • F&W Publications Artist Network site is the equivalent of what the old American Artist site used to be plus a few tweaks. It has articles and community forums plus links to videos created by the magazine staff, blogs for each magazine written by magazine staff. The forums are not very active and are presumably the reason why F&W bought Wet Canvas. Visits to the main site have taken off since it started to have blogs and videos on the site - but its communities continue to have low levels of activity.

Chart of the relative number of visitors for four different art networks/forums
Source: compete.com

Undoubtedly the new American Artist site has got some considerable scope to become one of the major players. It's got
  • a modern web 2.0 type structure which should help promote networking and attract those who want to move on from sites which only offer moderated forums
  • more scope for individuality which may also attract a younger audience used to the scope for initiating the sort of non-corporate groups and social networks enabled at Facebook and Flickr.
I think the big bonus of this site is the way it aims to link with existing art associations and allows members to start their own groups or blogs. It's a safe haven in a world where some of the other web 2.0 sites can feel a bit scary at times - especially if you're new to networking activities.

I'm not at all clear what sort of demographic the new site is aiming to serve - other than 'representational artists'. Does this mean contemporary artists working in an abstract or abstracted or conceptual way are not welcome? Does this mean younger people pursuing fantasy art won't find a home here? Is it only for people who like reading the sorts of magazine which the American artist set up produces? I think the site maybe needs to say a bit more about the sort of people who will feel at home on the site.

The need for help and support

There isn't really another site like this and I certainly haven't come across the software they're using before and consequently there are quite a lot of things which are confusing to me - and I'm very experienced in finding my way round a lot of different sites!

I think it's going to be particularly confusing because it would appear that the variables for how things work on some parts of the site can be determined by, for example, the group owners. However a lot of people are used to notions that the way it works on one part of the site is the way it works everywhere on the site.

So far, with a fairly quiet announcement, the site has been successful at attracting people. However only a small number are actively participating as yet - but we are talking the first few days and it'll be interesting to see what happens this weekend. It's well known that it's frequently the case that there are many more people content to observe than contribute, however they can only observe if there's content there to look at!

I think there would be much more activity if the site owners invest more time and effort in supporting the notion that people can be 'up and running' very fast - and then show them how to do this.
  • More effort needs to go into showing people how to use the site and providing really helpful FAQs pages for people to learn from.
  • The down to earth and friendly 'help' pages at some of the other generic web 2.0 sites have undoubtedly been extremely helpful in growing that site into an enormous archive of images with masses of image-related groups attached.
  • Formal help can't be expressed in threads, it must be part of structured and systematic approach to providing a FAQs service and helpdesk set up - which can then be linked to or commented on from any part of the site.
  • Language is all important - and they're getting there. You absolutely can't talk web 1.0 in a web 2.0 world and it needs to be very appropriate for the nature of social networking and the demographic groups it aims to target - whatever these are!
Personally I'd go for a step by step guide for newbies with sections covering absolutely every single part of the site. Plus a contents list which includes every section even if it's not written yet!

Overall Impression

At the moment I think the structure and software could be very helpful to creating an active online art community. It also has the big bonus of being backed by major publishers of existing art magazines.

I suspect it's going to attract people who want to move on from the traditional bulletin board but aren't quite ready or don't feel like they quite fit at Facebook. I rather suspect that could be a large number of people. My only concern would be about whether commercial considerations might make for tensions with artists who want to be creative and behave in a fairly independent way - as they can on places like Facebook and Ning. That remains to be seen.

My overall visual impression is that the site 'looks' extremely bland (grey blue would not have been my choice!) and is badly in need of a strong graphic identity and a colour design which supports artwork but marks it out as distinctive. Maybe they should run a competition to develop a logo?

I do hope the blandness isn't about the sort of art and artists they want to attract!

In conclusion:
  • The structure of the site and its backers means it offers a lot of scope to be an enduring and important part of the online art community scene.
  • In my view, this will only be realised if a lot of more support is given to new users in the form of support and instruction on how the site works. A prominent site map or index would also be very helpful - people explore when navigation is very helpful.
  • I predict that people used to forums will gravitate towards the forums and those who have experienced the web 2.0 world will make their presence felt very quickly in the groups and video areas - and that these latter areas over time will become the liveliest part of the site.
  • I predict that people who want to have their own identities as bloggers will probably continue to blog using blogging webware rather than this site. However the site might be a good place for people to try out blogging and see if they like it - if blogging by newbies is allowed.
  • The site blogs run by American Artist editors and staff are a very useful means of communicating with them but the blogs which relate to each Journal need to have a much higher profile - and some contributions!
  • Blogs for groups looks a great idea to start with - but then I wondered about what goes in a group discussion and what goes in a group blog - and I still haven't got an answer.
  • The scope to have a group site and associated blog for Art Associations is neat! A practical example of how this might work might create more engagement.
  • The graphic design needs to be strengthened. It's very inoffensive at one level but it could be more attractive for those who operate in a visual world.
Links:

3 comments:

mongoose1 said...

Hi Katherine,
It's neat to see you mention deviantART; I stumbled on that site a month ago and I was floored at the work the members were posting.

I play video games and read a lot of scifi so I liked the work that was in the fantasy realm as well as the gammer-type works.

I just joined the American Artist site due to your post, am looking forward to peeking around there.

Cindy

Robyn said...

I've joined too, thanks, Katherine. You did a great introduction. Very steep learning curve for me though, so I hope I have time to do it properly. I'm not a great member of Facebook because I haven't invested the time to use it properly. As you said, this has a lot of Facebook similarities.

A couple of thing have struck me on my first quick look at the site. Downloads of people's work is very easy - encouraged even. I've always felt uncomfortable about that. What do you think?

Your bio is very impressive. I couldn't work out how to insert my blog as a link in my bio. I see you have managed a number of links. As I said - steep learning curve. :)

Katherine Tyrrell said...

Robyn - thanks for bring up the 'invite to download' button.

I hadn't realised that this appears next to every image and a copyright notice does not. I'm not a happy bunny at all about this!

If you go the Feedback bit of the Community Forum you'll see I've already started to ask questions about this.

Hopefully we'll get an answer soon.

I'm going to be commenting on this on my blog post today as well - and I'm going to be recommending people do not upload images until the matter has been sorted.

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