How DeviantArt died: A.I. and greed turned a once-thriving community into a ghost town.

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Photo illustration by Slate. Images by Vladimir Sukhachev/Getty Images Plus and Vladyslav Severyn/Getty Images Plus.
On March 27, a large group of artists and creators from across the web noticed the frightening extent to which a once-beloved, highly influential community platform of theirs had, like so many others, fallen prey to the artificial intelligence juggernauts plundering the internet.
As VFX animator Romain Revert (Minions, The Lorax) pointed out on X, the bots had come for his old home base of DeviantArt. Its social accounts were promoting “top sellers” on the platform, with usernames like “Isaris-AI” and “Mikonotai,” who reportedly made tens of thousands of dollars through bulk sales of autogenerated, dead-eyed 3D avatars. The sales weren’t exactly legit—an online artist known as WyerframeZ looked at those users’ followers and found pages of profiles with repeated names, overlapping biographies and account-creation dates, and zero creations of their own, making it apparent that various bots were involved in these “purchases.”
It’s not unlikely, as WyerframeZ surmised, that someone constructed a low-effort bot network that could hold up a self-perpetuating money-embezzlement scheme: Generate a bunch of free images and accounts, have them buy and boost one another in perpetuity, inflate metrics so that the “art” gets boosted by DeviantArt and reaches real humans, then watch the money pile up from DeviantArt revenue-sharing programs. Rinse, repeat.
After Revert declared this bot-on-bot fest to be “the downfall of DeviantArt,” myriad other artists and longtime users of the platform chimed in to share in the outrage that these artificial accounts were monopolizing DeviantArt’s promotional and revenue apparatuses. Several mentioned that they’d abandoned their DeviantArt accounts—all appearing to prove his dramatic point.
Worse still, DeviantArt showed little desire to engage with these concerns: Film concept artist Reid Southen (The Woman King, Jupiter Ascending) pointed out that the site’s social media managers had hidden dozens and dozens of critical replies to the tweet that boosted Mikonotai. Right after this blowup, DeviantArt’s Twitter account posted artwork from Nozomi Matsuoka, who was forced to clarify that she’d already wiped her DeviantArt library in protest of its A.I. integrations. The account took down the post soon after.
The death of DA is truly heartbreaking. It was a starting point for many of us. & our community, inspiration & home for a large portion of our creative lives. To see WIX take it, and turn against all of us who made it the success it is today. Is maddening, and depressing to watch— Key 🪶 @Zzzz (@KeyFeathers) March 27, 2024
This isn’t the first (or most recent) time the 24-year-old social network has invited such rancor over its A.I. experiments. Much of the ire comes from current and former members, who’d made it an essential resource for illustrators, photographers, cartoonists, and other visual masterminds hoping to show their works, network with peers, and break into creative industries. The first real round of A.I. furor hit DeviantArt in late 2022. As generative-A.I. tools like DALL-E 3 and Midjourney breached the mainstream, DeviantArt partnered with the startup Stability A.I. to roll out an internal image-generation tool called DreamUp, which had the ability to scrape “every single piece of art on the platform” for training purposes, per Artnet News.
Outcry from users caused a quick walk back from the company, which noted that “deviations”—creations shared to DeviantArt—would now be “automatically labeled as NOT authorized for use in A.I. datasets.” This did not satisfy the platform’s “Deviants,” who noted that DreamUp was still based off the underlying architecture of Stability A.I.’s popular Stable Diffusion tool—which had already scraped tens of thousands of DeviantArt entries to train its model without creators’ permission, as writer Andy Baio reported and as DeviantArt itself later admitted.
In January 2023, three prominent illustrators (Sarah Andersen, Kelly McKernan, and Karla Ortiz) filed a copyright-infringement and unfair-competition class-action lawsuit in federal court against DeviantArt, Stability, and Midjourney, whose own app trained on the same database that powers Stable Diffusion. Notably, they alleged here that more than 3 million DeviantArt images had been scraped in the training sets used by all three companies.
The suit hit a legal barrier last October, when the judge advanced only Andersen’s infringement claim against Stability while dismissing the rest of the charges—albeit allowing the plaintiffs to refine their case and try again if they chose. And refine it they did, by bringing on seven other artists as fellow plaintiffs. This extended the suit to include popular A.I.-creation firm Runway, which helped to craft Stable Diffusion.
They also amended their complaint against DeviantArt to specify that its rollout of DreamUp constituted direct copyright infringement, a breach of its terms-of-service agreements with DeviantArt users, and a “theft” of revenue from the artists whose works were expropriated as training data. This updated lawsuit, which added pages of visual evidence demonstrating A.I. output that looked nearly identical to users’ artwork, now had additional support from famed artists like Adam Ellis, Gregory Manchess, and Jingna Zhang.
1/ Mega pleased to give you all a hell of a class action update! Our MASSIVE 96 page amendment is out! Look at the AMAZING roster of artists joining @GeraldBrom, Greg Manchess, @zemotion@GrzegorzRutko14@upandoutcomic@adamtotscomix & @HawkeSouthworth !— Karla Ortiz (@kortizart) November 30, 2023
In Zhang’s case, this is neither her only courtroom appearance nor her sole advocacy effort on behalf of artists in the age of mass reproduction. On Friday, she prevailed in a yearslong plagiarism suit against Luxembourgian artist Jeff Dieschburg, who used a 2017 magazine photograph shot by Zhang as a “model” for a 2022 painting he showcased at the Strassen Contemporary Art Biennale—and for which he won a cash prize. Zhang celebrated this verdict, which found that Dieschburg had violated copyright law by using the photo as a source for his art without adding due credit, as a “win” for “artists and photographers everywhere … especially in [the] time of AI where our rights seem to be quickly eroding.”
Zhang told me in an interview that this same copyright principle was what she wanted to bring to the fore in joining the stateside A.I. suit, although this battle is no less personal—and not just because hundreds of her works have been scraped by these companies. “I’ve had an account on DeviantArt for 22 years,” she said. “I actually dropped out of school because I grew a following on DeviantArt. My first job for Mercedes-Benz happened when I was 20 years old because they found my work online.”
She’s far from the only DeviantArt success story. Southen, who joined DeviantArt in the mid-2000s, told me he’d established friendships there that have lasted to this day.
“It was a super important place that had a lot to do with my development as an artist and where I’m at today,” Southen said. He added that the folks he connected with on the site “have helped get me work, and I’ve helped get them work.”
R.J. Palmer, a concept artist who worked on Detective Pikachu, claims to have gotten that gig thanks to the “Realistic Pokemon” illustrations he’d shared on DeviantArt back in 2012, which subsequently went viral. “I’ve been on the site for almost 20 years,” Palmer told me. “I met my long-term partner on DeviantArt in 2009. We live together now.”
Although Palmer and Southen are not directly involved with the litigation against DeviantArt, they’ve found themselves drawn into the battle for artist rights and protection as generative A.I. swallows up more of their industry. In many cases, the tech eats into creative opportunities once readily available to them and their peers. That goes for everything from big-budget movies to even the opportunity for publicity and revenue offered by online platforms like DeviantArt and even Etsy.
“Some people I know that use Etsy have basically seen their income dry up entirely over the past 18 months,” Southen said. “Which is really disturbing to see, because what’s happening is they get buried, and then 50 A.I. people all making $300 a month are effectively making it so someone else can’t pay their bills.”
Why would a site like DeviantArt allow for this—especially when it had once so closely mentored its human users and curated promotional opportunities for them? It seems to have been a long time coming. When it started in 2000, DeviantArt was an early and popular prototype for what we now know as social media, predating the rise of Facebook. It was a casual mixer for artists of all stripes that turned into a serious enterprise as more users across the world logged on to the web throughout the 2000s.
A Canadian illustrator and educator who’s had a DeviantArt account for 17 years (and preferred to stay anonymous) told me that DeviantArt, in contrast with early art-focused message boards where community members offered substantive feedback, “was more of a place for young up-and-coming amateur artists to post their work and get an ego boost with people commenting, ‘I love it.’ ” Since it also provided a centralized portfolio gallery, it was soon “used as a recruiting tool for art directors and people looking for artists for board games.”
“DeviantArt was just big enough, and early enough, that it made careers for a lot of people,” Zhang explained.
By the time streamlined social platforms began to emerge in earnest, the site had trouble catching up. For one, it never branded itself as a place to go professional, and it never intended to be. That role was played by now-dead sites like CGHub, a platform Zhang helped to build, and successors like ArtStation, whose users have also revolted against its A.I. policies. DeviantArt took a different tack by allowing free rein to more friendly interactions and unorthodox drawings. (As Southen bluntly characterized this dynamic: “It became flooded with a lot of really low-effort hentai and porn stuff.”)
Plus, highly capitalized and mobile app–optimized platforms like Tumblr and Instagram offered more organized feeds with smoother user experiences. “Because Tumblr specifically allowed multiple images per post, it was much easier to showcase comics and image sets,” Palmer said. “Another problem is DeviantArt didn’t have an app for a long time. When that finally launched in 2014, it was just terrible.”
Not only did DeviantArt lose users and revenue opportunities to the bigger social platforms, but it lost the kingmaking clout it had gained from its early web presence. So it missed out on potentially sizable revenue streams. “It become another one of those places that served more ads and made you pay for a ‘premium’ service, which I did for several years,” the Canadian artist said. The site-building company Wix acquired DeviantArt in 2017 and “relaunched” it two years later with a new design called Eclipse, even though Deviants made clear they’d much preferred the earlier iteration.
As artists delved more deeply into professional and traditional realms, their DeviantArt accounts remained on the backburner, albeit with a long-reaching effect. “Even these days, when I’m writing about generative A.I. or something about my Luxembourg lawsuit goes viral, people will be like, ‘I recognize your avatar. I used to follow you on DeviantArt 15 years ago when I was a child,’ ” Zhang said. “It’s the only reason I keep the same avatar, so that it helps people to find me.”
Palmer, who was in so deep with DeviantArt that he’d become friendly with its staff, was awakened to its A.I. efforts in a Twitter Space that DeviantArt executives set up in late 2022, when DreamUp was introduced.
“Lots of artists were pissed off about it the morning it launched,” he said. “On the Space, the leadership came off looking like bullies—like out-of-touch tech people that just want to make money off this thing. They wanted the artists to be like, ‘This is OK for you to do.’ That burned DeviantArt for a lot of people.” DeviantArt’s social media managers later deleted the tweet on which they’d hosted the Space.
It wasn’t the first time DeviantArt had incorporated a new tech “innovation” and gotten burned. Look no further than the NFT flood of the early 2020s, which DeviantArt attempted to monetize by offering an exclusive, subscription-based “protection tool” to notify artists when their works got ripped off into salable nonfungible tokens. While DeviantArt could take a cut of proceeds from price-inflated digital apes, it could make even more with small transactional fees from A.I. “works” uploaded quickly and in bulk.
“Making $25,000 or $12,000 as a DeviantArt user, like those A.I. accounts did, that’s not typical—that’s on the high end for a lot of stuff,” said Southen. “If you have to have almost 10,000 images up and sold to make $25,000, that’s a sheer volume game. It’s not a quality game, and it’s not an interest game.” And these days, it’s a game that’s ever easier to automatically engineer.
If 30 people on a set will lose their jobs when a photoshoot is generated—I care! So what if ppl are willing to adapt? AI causing multiple industries to downsize means wherever they go there are no jobs—there’s nothing to adapt to. People feel it now. 2/— Jingna Zhang (@zemotion) April 13, 2024
Now artists who made their way into the industry via platforms like DeviantArt are working to figure out how to preserve such avenues for another generation of artists.
To take it from the publishing industry, A.I. is already decimating once-common job prospects. An April report from the Society of Authors found that 26 percent of the illustrators surveyed “have already lost work due to generative A.I.” and about 37 percent of illustrators “say the income from their work has decreased in value because of generative A.I.”
There’s little relief to be found in other sectors like gaming, where companies like Activision are already hiring young artists to “polish” generative-A.I. output. Or even in cinema, per the Canadian artist: “I’ve heard stories about companies going all in on A.I. imagery for matte paintings for movies—those sorts of things that used to be done by a digital artist—and then discovering that A.I. can’t take feedback.”
Jingna Zhang is hoping that—by suing her old home of DeviantArt and in suing Google over its Gemini image generators in a proposed class-action suit she filed with other artists last month—she can center these knotty discussions of artist ownership and copyright. It’s anyone’s guess as to how the DeviantArt suit will go, especially as other litigation continues against these A.I. firms from journalism outfits, actors, and audio narrators. In one promising sign for these plaintiffs, though, the district judge overseeing the case indicated earlier this month that he will likely allow the amended copyright-infringement complaints to proceed to discovery. (He may also dismiss the breach-of-contract charge against DeviantArt, whose attorney continues to argue that the site’s actions constitute “classic fair use.”) Here, Zhang may have help from other advocates like Southen, who’s published results from experiments with Midjourney that have spit out copyright imagery from big-name intellectual property titans like Marvel and DC.
In the meantime, Zhang has also been running Cara, a volunteer-controlled digital portfolio and social app that explicitly ensures that the work shared there is human-made. Incidentally, one of its users is Angelo Sotira, who co-founded DeviantArt back in 2000. On his most recent post, he wrote that he’s “so sad to see the abandonment of real artists by other platforms in favor of AI generated stuff” and that “it’s so nice to check into Cara and see the soulful communication happening between real artists.”
This piece has been updated to clarify Jingna Zhang’s early role in the creation of CGHub.