Art on Demand

The article below is a product of the Harvard Political Review. Review articles and viewpoints expressed are written and edited exclusively by Review undergraduate students, not the staff of Harvard's Institute of Politics.

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Olivia Zhu


One of StoryTellerBob’s best works is a short story entitled “Ten Years.” In 7,000 words, the author grapples with the problem of what it might be like to relive a decade
 of one’s life, and the twist at the end is akin to what one might see in a Borges or Poe tale. Yet StoryTellerBob is no published author, and it is unlikely that any of his writing has made it into a bound book. In fact, nobody who reads “Ten Years” even knows StoryTellerBob’s real name. He is one of many novelty account holders on Reddit, a social news website known for how actively its users submit content and comment.

Along with StoryTellerBob, users such as Poem_for_your_sprog, Etch_A_Sketcher, illustratingReddit, and StoryAboutThisPost have proliferated and risen to prominence, their popularity driven in part by their humorous and talented responses to other users’ comments. However, the phenomenon of individuals earning fame and fortune on sites lacking attributions to real-world names or profiles contradicts what society would expect from artists and authors in search of recognition, especially considering that Reddit emphasizes anonymity and the protection of contributors’ privacy. These novelty account holders often appear to write, draw, sketch, and create for their own pleasure, sometimes to great acclaim and sometimes for no recognition at all. In an Internet forum rife with crude jokes, memes, and trolls, these individuals give the Reddit community a breath of literary air.

So appreciative are Reddit users that these artists and writers are often “summoned” to a thread for the purpose of illustrating a point or adding artistic nuance. How interesting that the masses, surrounded by more easily digestible entertainment, would prefer to call out for art that is more poignant than the rest of the content on the site. A key question, then, arises: why do these artists produce unique and touching art for Reddit in the first place?

Karma, Gold, Paypal, and the Market

The first motivation for artists depends on the fact that the increased attention on these micro-publishers has brought with it increased social status and real-world profits. Reddit users show their appreciation for their peers’ comments by “upvoting” statements; each upvote accords the original commenter Reddit “karma,” a form of social currency that is valued highly by the site’s multifarious users. Artist Kevin Kuramura, who goes by the Reddit username Etch_A_Sketcher and produces work in his eponymous medium, told the HPR that “the thing about Reddit karma is that it’s a rough way of indicating how much you’ve made people happy or made them laugh,” a metric that is not necessarily accessed by artists who hang their work in galleries. The best novelty accounts, including StoryTellerBob and Shitty_Watercolour, are also some of the top karma aggregators, and it appears that the account holders take pride in both their work and their karma points.

Karma contributes far more than just pride, however. Reddit’s official virtual currency, Reddit gold, is purchased by users for one another in monthly units and affords individuals special access and benefits on the site. Users like AWildSketchAppeared have years worth of this currency, staying flush and gaining access to certain site privileges on others’ contributions. It appears that these artists and writers are the curbside caricaturists of the Internet, happy to exchange their artwork for virtual pay. Reddit certainly benefits, too, as these purchases are allowing them to cover their own costs.

Other users have become savvier. Long before Reddit gold was introduced, StoryTellerBob had set up a PayPal account by which he could receive donations from other Redditors. To circumvent Reddit’s anti-solicitation rules, he privately-messages the PayPal links to fans, a clever way to be paid for the work he initially puts out for free. Additionally, Kuramura and other Redditors have their own storefronts on Redditgifts, a type of online marketplace; however, he notes that it’s “something that has been very low key,” and he only has sold about twenty preserved Etch-a-Sketch pieces. Reddit has nevertheless allowed Kuramura to access a client base for a “very specialized art form,” and he is looking forward to “expanding it a little more.”

The Artists’ Incubator

In a way, Reddit serves as an ideal incubator for budding artists. User Shitty_Watercolour’s paintings were, at first, aptly described by his online moniker. Though British university student’s first few hundred paintings did not receive much notice, but his work eventually attracted a loyal following. “They got better and people liked them,” he told the HPR. “So that definitely inspired me to keep going.”

Over the past year of the account’s existence, Shitty_Watercolour has had his artwork featured in various media publications—he is now a painter for the BBC. Most notably, his portrait of Barack Obama, painted during the president’s AskMeAnything thread in June, was hung in the campaign headquarters. Reddit was key to his success: “I would have stopped a long time ago if the paintings that I did weren’t well received on Reddit,” Shitty_Watercolour admits.

StoryTellerBob has also used Reddit as a practice space for his work. “One of the reasons I’m writing short stories is that I’m just not a very experienced writer and there’s a lot of areas I’m not quite comfortable with,” he says. Given that he has been able to receive donations from the site’s users, Reddit also appears to be a useful space for StoryTellerBob to partially support himself through writing as he matures as a writer.

Reddit serves as a particularly ideal space for these artists and writers, in part because spaces such as deviantART and LiveJournal are already saturated with creative individuals, some of who are highly skilled. Kuramura notes that a “motivating factor for producing work on Reddit is to improve oneself,” and “there have been a few accounts that have said they did this to keep doing more work,” an effective strategy for the budding artist. Moreover, he suggests that few professionals populate Reddit because established artists and writers “run the risk of devaluing [their] actual work” by placing pieces on the Internet for free.

It appears the novelty account holders are testing the waters here first before leaping into real publishing, and that new users may look to real-world successes like Shitty_Watercolour as role models. When asked if he plans to live off his paintings, he said, “I’m going to take them as far as they’ll go.” He is now thinking about illustrating books. Not only has Reddit allowed artists and writers to grow, but it has also served as a launch pad for budding creative professionals.

The Accessibility of Art

Reddit has allowed users to become patrons of art, supporting their favorite writers, painters, and sketchers via not only monetary donations, but also encouraging comments and upvotes. In a way, the platform has democratized creation: it has lowered the barriers for individuals exploring new techniques while allowing the masses to support them in smaller increments than what you might find on the Met’s donation circles.

Users like StoryTellerBob, Etch_A_Sketcher, and others are, perhaps, most compelled to create by the community around them. As a result, they also attempt to return the generosity, not only in the form of their works, but also through philanthropy. Inspired by Shitty_Watercolour, who raised over six thousand dollars for charity by selling his paintings, Kuramura has also allowed donations to local charities in lieu of payment for his Etch-a-Sketch pieces.

It seems that the Reddit art community mirrors that of the real world in many ways, while cultivating and educating of a new crop of semi-professional creators. As a platform, it has served as a hotspot for talented amateur artists looking to grow—and has served several very well. Perhaps the StoryTellerBobs and Shitty_Watercolours of Reddit will soon become the David Foster Wallaces and Quentin Blakes of this generation, just crowdfunded by karma instead of patrons.

Correction, 12/31: In exchange for outside donations, Mr. Kuramura has done sketch requests, but has not created preserved artwork.

Image Credit: Shitty_Watercolour