deviantART, Twitter, and the Death of the Social Media Subscription (And why tumblr might be getting it right.)
Okay, so I've been thinking about making this post for the last couple weeks since Twitter started melting down, and now deviantART is melting down as well which adds an interesting new twist. This post isn't going to discuss AI art directly, but I will touch on userbase feedback/administrative response in relation to what happened with dA.
Firstly, a little background on me: I grew up on dA. It was my first social media site and for a long time my only one. I started using it without an account when I was around 10/11 and made my first account when I was 12 in 2007 (which, of course, involved lying about my age). From then on I LIVED there. I uploaded art, I joined and ran contests, I became a volunteer for the forums in my mid teens, I alpha and beta tested new features, I wrote detailed write-ups of new feature launches, I watched the site launch multiple new versions of itself, I filled out feedback surveys, and I paid for years of subscriptions before I got seniority from being a former volunteer. Hell, they even offered me a job once, but I was 18 and no amount of money in the world would make me willingly move to Hollywood where they were based.
Point is, I was tuned in. Immensely. So what I'm talking about here? It's from that point of view.
dA has had subscriptions the entire time I was a member. They were always relatively affordable and offered you features that made the site better, but if you didn't have them the site was still perfectly usable. The subscriptions originally got you stuff like using journal skins, putting custom CSS on your page, access to private subscriber forums and chats, more storage room, etc.. Perks, but nothing you couldn't function without. Over the years other things were added, like being able to schedule uploads or change your username, but, again, these were PERKS. The site was still totally usable without those features. Your art still got seen, people could still find your content in the search, people could still leave comments.
But here's where Twitter and it's current nonsense comes in: as part of a dA subscription you got a special symbol in front of your name. These symbols changed over the years and originally were just standard keyboard symbols. For example, as a senior, before the symbols changed to what they are now, my username looked like this:
^Katy-L-Wood (which was affectionately referred to as the senior hat.)
If I was staff, my username would have looked like this:
There were other symbols as well for things like volunteers, deactivated/banned users, and regular users. Everyone had their symbol and it worked so well. It let you know at a glance if a member was a trusted staff member that would give you real information about something, or a volunteer that could help you with harassment in the forums, or a senior member that likely knew all the ins and outs of the website.
To me, it feels like that's more in line with what Musk should have done with Twitter. He should have left verification as it was, and then introduced a new symbol to denote subscribed users. A blue plus sign or something. If you were verified AND subscribed you'd get, IDK, a blue check with a white outline around the blue. (And, even then, an additional symbol wouldn't have really been necessary, but everyone just likes neat little badges. They're like stickers. Everyone loves stickers.)
Then give the subscribed users special features that ENHANCE the site, but don't serve as a detriment if you don't have them. Give them a more robust inbuilt scheduling system. Give them security features like inbuilt auto-deleting of older tweets. Give them larger upload limits for images and videos. Give them more profile customization. Give them a longer bio with multiple links. Give them the newsletter feature. Give them the monetization features.
Because you know what? It is totally valid for a website to offer subscriptions, to try and monetize themselves. It costs money to run a big social media site, and advertising as we know it is dying. Websites need to figure out other ways to bring in money, and a good subscription model can do that.
But Twitter did not choose a good subscription model. They chose one that caused chaos to the tune of billions of dollars across multiple major industries. They choose one that would have made the site totally unusable without the subscription, due to how it was supposed to push subscribed users tweets onto the main feed.
Then we circle back to deviantART. I could talk about the downfall and now death of deviantART for HOURS. But we'll focus on subscriptions here. Because their subscriptions are no longer worth it. The majority of the fun perks are gone. There's levels to the subscriptions now, and those of us like myself who were supposed to have lifetime subscriptions as a thank you for helping moderate the site are not at the topmost level, which feels like a kick in the teeth.
And the limited features the subscriptions do have now? Many aren't perks. They are major functionality aspects. You want to get any sort of analytics for your page? Pay for them. You want to be able to take commissions via the website for more than $100? Pay for it. You want to customize your page to suit you and your work like you used to be able to do with a subscription? Well, you only get a couple choices now, and no custom CSS.
Then there's Fragments. IDK why, but deviantART seems obsessed with coming up with weird little currencies that cause a ton of harm. Their first one, Points, tanked the art market EVERYWHERE, even outside the website, in a way that still has an effect well over a decade later. Now they've gone and added a second one on top of the Points, which are still there as well. This new one is called Fragments. Fragments can be used to purchase little badges that you can award to deviations you like, comments you enjoy, etc.. There's three levels and the third one, the diamond badge, is the issue here.
See. As a senior member I get gifted 300 of these Fragments every week by dA, and I get to use them to purchase the badges. A diamond badge, specifically, costs 300 Fragments, and if I give someone a diamond badge (and they're not subscribed yet), it ALSO gives them a free month of the lowest level subscription. So every month I can, essentially, hand out a free month of subscription to anyone on the site.
I just checked my account and, as I've never used Fragments, they've just built up in my account. I have over 18,000 of them right now, which is enough to award 61 months of membership. A month normally costs $3.95, so all told that's about $250 worth of memberships that I can hand out using just over a year's worth of fragments.
Clearly, dA is banking on people getting a taste of subscription and then paying to continue it. But they're still essentially handing every subscribed user a $250 check every year. 10 users and that's $2,500 they're not getting. 100 users and it's $25,000. For a company hemorrhaging money and struggling to hold on to its userbase, there are a lot better ways to keep users around that don't involve trying to coerce them into paying using underhanded marketing techniques.
It doesn't matter, though, because ever since dA launched their new "Eclipse" version of the site, and now this fiasco with AI, there are no recovery options left. They're done. They have exhausted all goodwill anyone had for them. They took away tons of subscription features, they took away tons of site features overall, and time and time again since Eclipse launched they have 100% ignored user feedback. AI is not the first time they asked "hey, how do you feel about this?" a few months before launching a new feature, and then completely ignored every single thing the userbase said and launched the feature anyway. Then, this time with the AI, they not only did that, they were outright rude towards those who rightfully called them out. During the live meeting with the CEO and concerned artists the CEO repeatedly talked over those who were present, dismissed concerns, and just outright acted like. Well. An asshole CEO.
All of this is to say: a subscription model CAN be a great way to keep a website alive, to not be beholden to a world of dying advertisers, but you've gotta do it right and you've gotta do it consistently. Twitter did it wrong, and it'll kill them. deviantART started out doing right, did a 180, and now it's going to help kill them.
But tumblr. Ah tumblr. Our little blue hellsite. They've dipped their toes in the water of subscriptions and, so far, haven't really gotten those toes chewed off for doing it wrong. And why? Because they've made it fun to give them money in support of the website. It's fun to get crabs or a shitty horse on your dash (or inflict them on others), it's fun to mock the Twitter downfall with the special double blue checks, but the site is still totally usable without these things. (Er, well, as usable as tumblr ever is, lol.)
I, personally, would like to see tumblr build a more robust subscription/monetization system, because I think it could be what saves this site we love so much. But they have to keep it fun. They have to keep it optional. They have to keep the site usable without it. They have to make people want to subscribe, not force us to because there's no other way to use the site, or because we've been tricked into it.
(Putting the words "Long Post" here so they'll stay attached even in reblogs.)