Digital Innovators: The Enormous Opportunity to Create a Community Far Beyond Google and Facebook

04/09/2013 06:12 pm ET | Updated Jun 09, 2013

Google and Facebook are digital juggernauts that may seem impossible to overcome if you're looking to create the next powerful community online. Yet new social platforms like Snapchat, Instagram, Pheed and others continue to enter the market with huge and loyal followings taking advantage of the opportunities available for a community to congregate around a niche interest.

To start off my series of interviews with digital innovators making an impact, I spoke with deviantART co-founder Angelo Sotira about his success creating a thriving social network.

Angelo helped start deviantART in 2000, creating an opportunity for artists to share and showcase their artwork in front of a like minded audience interested in an ongoing dialogue about the art world and supporting other artists through genuine feedback. Despite being a niche social platform, deviantART has 26 million registered members, 65 million unique visitors per month, 246 million art submissions and is one of the top 100 trafficked websites on the Internet. One of the most telling things about deviantART, alongside its massive user base, is its ability to continue to grow and maintain its relevancy over the years when services like Friendster, MySpace and many others have fallen by the wayside and the bigger players like Google and Facebook have gained mainstream popularity.

Lets dive into some of the insights Angelo shared with me.

Brian: How has deviantART been able to prosper over the years, while other social networks have come and gone?

Angelo: I think we're always on the bleeding edge, successfully. I think the reasoning for the success of deviantART is in the culture of our community. From the very first moment we delivered deviantART, we always embedded a culture of how we do things here. As well as, how we don't do things here. So, in the very beginning artists would post work and our team would comment on absolutely everything that was posted. We got to the point where we had to scale past that ability since there was 3,000 pieces of work posted a day and we just simply couldn't keep up anymore. We realized that in order to be successful, we needed to implant a culture of how we do things here.

First and foremost, we just imparted part of what we were doing on to our community. We said, listen, to be a deviant means to contribute to every artist you see, especially those in need of support. Watch artists using your watch list, be sure to stay on top of those artists, because they rely on your support in order to get their motivation to create their next piece, and in the arts, especially at the time, there was no main social media platform, it was deviantART and maybe LiveJournal. This was a time four years before Friendster. I think we really kept weaving into our culture the sort of the things that we expect.

We have an extensive team behind banning bad behavior and we ban people regularly. We don't allow you to do certain things at deviantART, and we keep a very refined culture because of it. It's gotten to be huge. We've had to implement systems in order to crowdsource themes of bad behavior so that our community, people and things are reported in scale and get reviewed and removed, and it's difficult to tackle, but it's the key to our culture, and culture is the key to a vibrant community. No differently than what a mayor would be in a city.

Brian: What are the advantages of deviantART over other social platforms focused on the creative world, like Behance or Dribbble for instance?

Angelo: I really like those networks; we've been very lonely in the creative space. We've been doing it in the creative space for 13 years. Many things have come and then gone - not many things have come and stuck around. It's good to see some of those things stick around. One of the things at deviantART, we are here to nurture artists from a very young age all the way through to later in life, to entertain, inspire, and empower the artist in all of us. Our advantages are simply in the sort of platform, the open approach, the acceptance of all, and the sort of deviation of one's self to create what comes out. And I think deviantART really brings that out of people, it lets people feel comfortable, to a place with open arms. I think that other networks have an enormous power because of their focus on a specific aspect. Our advantage is in nurturing all types of professionals and allowing not just what's expected from fine design but also what's not expected - the birth of a new art form, the creation of something that no one has ever seen before, that's perfect.

Brian: Since these competitors and other players in the industry are actually sticking around, has it helped deviantART push more and influence you to improve your service?

Angelo: Yeah, of course. For example, we realized and didn't know this before, that we didn't' facilitate community very well for professional artists, folks who wanted to stay with deviantART and in the ecosystem but wanted to connect with not just their peers but to also grow professionally, meaning they had less time. deviantART is a highly time consuming environment, but didn't offer an environment where you can simply focus on your professional aspects. I think you'll have a whole generation of artists who say, "Hey, the first dollar I ever made was because I was commissioned on deviantART." To facilitate this we recently launched DreamUp a few weeks ago. This makes the dream team of deviantART, the best of the best accessible, in a beautiful directory of portfolios. What we focus on there is the connection between the client and the artist, facilitating smooth commission transactions from start to finish.

Brian: What kind of problems did deviantART solve for the art community?

Angelo: Artists have many problems. First and foremost, there wasn't a place where artists could hang out and talk to each other on a global scale, but actually the problem is much deeper. There wasn't a way to do it locally either, artist communities have been very fragmented around the industry, and deviantART represents the unbelievable excitement of bringing these people together who you know couldn't find each other previously. We get into how artists represent themselves in order to get client work, how artists should position themselves to get into art schools and we solved education problems for artists who are unable to afford extremely expensive education programs that are now offered to them through our enormous community. We also provide audience. Artists need to have an online audience, instead of just a dependency on galleries and gallery shows. Our community and platform is one massive support group for artists, it's an extrodinary foundation for the art world to grow from.

Brian: Why is the creative process innately connected with social media?

Angelo:Feedback is extraordinary in adding motivation to the process. A lot of young artists especially need constant motivation to draw every day, and develop their skills. Social media community creates these environments, it's extraordinarily important, it takes a village to create an artist. And finding your village early is really important, finding your inspiration early is really important. The second thing is inspiration, directly, being able to connect specifically with people who are of your interest so that you can be educated faster is crucial. Social media is key in being able to connect artists with other artists that are further along on the path of success.

Brian: How would you define your success as an entrepreneur in the digital space not just with deviantART, but overall?

Angelo: I don't think about that too much. I've done things the way I've wanted to do things and our team has done things the way that they wanted to do things, and I'm extraordinarily grateful for the opportunity. I was 19 when I talked myself into deviantART, the deviantART community was just starting, and I had that moment of "Do I go to college? Continue wit deviantART? Do I start another business?" It was a very small thing at the time and we didn't know if it was going to be able to survive. Just looking at what was happening and the level of commitment I had at the age of 19, I sort of said "I can do anything. I'm 19 years old." Whole heartedly, I wanted to do deviantART. I was so infatuated with it. When you get to do what you want, and you get to do it your way, there's really nothing quite like it.

Brian: What trends do you see continuing and developing in the digital space? What do you predict?

Angelo: Prediction is no longer necessary. There's so much innovation that is projected as possible. I'm elated by the thought of Google Glass. I love Leap Motion, this motion company that basically created Minority Report for your computer. It can perfectly see and feel your fingers and your hands, and it will replace the keyboard and the mouse.

I don't like to focus on the product applications. I got to pick what I wanted. I didn't want to build the most powerful social network in the world, seemed too stressful. I didn't want to build all kind of things. I love art. I think of the future of storytelling when thinking of the future of creation tools. I think of what's possible with the human imagination, and hopefully technology can keep up with what's possible there. Human beings will take on these augmented systems, the Leap Motion and Google Glass of tomorrow, not the 1st version but the 5th. It's what the human imagination will do. There's something incredible with those things and those creations are what I'm interesed in. What are humans going to create in five years using all this incredible stuff? That's what I'm excited about in the future.

Brian: What advice would you give today's entrepreneur looking to make a worthwhile product suited for the digital age?

Angelo: I would say that if you read the media, read the press, you're going to hear a lot about how Facebook is web 3.0, Google will inevitably bomb your company, novel you up somehow, or tweak their software to eliminate you, but the reality is that there's an enormous opportunity far beyond what it seems for people to connect in a community setting. I believe in focused communities on a topic. It is going to be a very long time before technology will be able to beat custom build software for specific purposes, for specific communities. These businesses need to be built in all sectors of society and serve to accelerate these communities. Whatever aspect of society is interesting to you, a community will propel the people that are engaged in that same interest to connect faster, to learn faster and focus faster on problems to solve things. By building a community you're doing something that's good for the world, and it hasn't all been done yet - it's not even close. I highly encourage people to build communities and focused social software.

Brian: What's in the works for deviantART in 2013?

Angelo: For years deviantART has had an expansive community of creators and a huge demand by our community has been an ability to tell stories in an organized way. Today our creators are posting page after page of comics, stories and literature. This type of content hasn't properly supported the notion of a story on our network. Even more importantly, in looking at the space, there hasn't been an ideal platform that not only addresses the problem but also addresses where things are headed. Our new partnership between Madefire and deviantART, will do just that. The Madefire app brings powerful Motion Books to the web and to the deviantART audience of comic and graphic novel entusiasts. It's taking the comic book experience and improving upon it with fully animated content, Madefire has cracked the problem of bringing comics to a new medium in an exciting way for consumption and content creation as part of the deviantART culture. I think that our community expects a storytelling experience that can be as simple as image after image, or text after text, and what we're delivering is nuclear by comparison and is just so much more impressive. It's what's necessary, times are changing so fast.

Stay tuned for more interviews with distinguished thought leaders paving the way for innovation. Follow my column on Digital Innovators or with the #digitalinnovators hashtag on Twitter.