Art Commission Red Flags

I don’t have an exact count, but I’ve paid artists for roughly 150 commissioned comics and illustrations during the past five years. This isn’t because I make lots of money (nope) or somehow had lots of money to begin with (also nope), but rather because I’m passionate about art and comics and creative collaboration. I understand that “passionate” is a word a student might use in an application essay, but I have a hobby that I really enjoy, and I don’t do it for the sake of “advancing my career.” I do what I do primarily for selfish reasons – because it’s fun – but I also genuinely want to support the online communities whose work I enjoy.

So, to summarize: I’m not wealthy, but I love art and want to support artists.

I feel as though I have to say this as a preface because I’m afraid people will read this post (or not read it) and jump to the worst possible conclusion about who I am and what my motives are for writing this. Still, I think it’s worthwhile to share my experiences with commissioning artists, because these experiences have gotten much better as I’ve learned from my mistakes.

I’m going to say that about 19 out of 20 commissions go well, by which I mean there’s good communication with the artist and the final product is delivered as expected. There are key commonalities between the projects that don’t go well, by which I mean (both or either) communication fails or no art is ever created. Here are the five major red flags:

– The artist says they’re open for commissions, but they have no examples or prices listed. Even someone taking commissions for the first time should have, at the very least, a formal commissions post (or comparable online form).

– The artist approaches you to commission them, or a mutual acquaintance asks you to commission them on their behalf. “Doing a favor” for an online stranger rarely ends well, especially if there’s money involved.

– The artist is misrepresenting their age and is actually under 18. It’s important to support young artists, but it’s illegal (and more than a bit creepy) to pay them if they can’t legally use PayPal or Venmo. Some young artists have technically polished and creatively sophisticated styles, so how can you tell? Well…

– The artist’s main social media feed gives you a bad feeling. Many creative people are socially and politically engaged, and this isn’t about white-coded “professionalism” or “tone policing.” Rather, if someone’s entire social media feed is intensely negative and filled with strong language, they might not be in the proper headspace to work on a creative project with a stranger. Also, it’s important to trust your gut instinct when it comes to certain dog whistles. (One of the most bizarre failed commission experiences I’ve had culminated in the artist sending me a long chain of angry DMs filled with homophobic and ethnic slurs, that was wild.)

– The artist insists that you sign a commercial contract for a private commission. You should not be entering into a commercial contract unless you’re commissioning an image for commercial purposes. In the case of fandom commissions, a contract like this is blatantly illegal, and the party who bears the legal guilt is the one who offers money for the theft of someone else’s intellectual property – you, in other words.

Regarding that last red flag, it’s my understanding that many professional “fine artists” require contracts for private commissions, generally due to the amount of money and labor involved. And if you have the means to pay a professional painter $5000 to create an oil portrait of your D&D character, then you should absolutely live your best life. Still, the contract you’re signing won’t be commercial, with the main difference between “private” and “commercial” contracts being a matter of usage rights. Generally the sort of people who advertise for commissions on social media aren’t going to be expecting this, but I’ve had few surprises. What the request for a contract means is that you’re probably not the sort of client the artist is looking for, and it’s best to respect that.

If a commission fails, for whatever reason, I think it’s important for both parties to walk away with no hard feelings. For me, this means not badgering the artist, not badmouthing them within the community, and not asking for the commission fee to be returned. In the end, commissioning art is supposed to be fun, and the ultimate goal is to support artists, especially early-career artists who are willing to create custom illustrations that even someone like me can afford.

Still, as I said, I’m not wealthy. I love art, and I love working with artists, but I’m only able to do so through very careful budgeting and corner-cutting in other aspects of my life. I assume that most people who commission art projects can sympathize, and it doesn’t benefit anyone to throw money into a hole. You can support an artist by contributing to their Ko-fi or Patreon, or simply by sharing their work. Failed commissions are tough on both you and the artist, however, so it’s best to avoid trouble before it begins.

It’s always a good idea to be careful with giving money to online strangers, even if they’re very talented online strangers. Still, I want to emphasize that the vast majority of my experiences commissioning art and comics have been overwhelmingly positive. If you’re interested in commissioning art, please allow me to encourage you to go for it!

Voices Are Not Commodities

I Know I’m Late
https://medium.com/@rebecca.albertalli/i-know-im-late-9b31de339c62

So why do we keep doing this? Why do we, again and again, cross the line between critiquing books and making assumptions about author identities? How are we so aware of invisible marginalization as a hypothetical concept, but so utterly incapable of making space for it in our community?

Let me be perfectly clear: this isn’t how I wanted to come out. This doesn’t feel good or empowering, or even particularly safe. Honestly, I’m doing this because I’ve been scrutinized, subtweeted, mocked, lectured, and invalidated just about every single day for years, and I’m exhausted. And if you think I’m the only closeted or semi-closeted queer author feeling this pressure, you haven’t been paying attention.

And I’m one of the lucky ones! I’m a financially independent adult. I can’t be disowned. I come from a liberal family, I have an enormous network of queer friends and acquaintances, and my livelihood isn’t even remotely at risk. I’m hugely privileged in more ways than I can count. And this was still brutally hard for me. I can’t even imagine what it’s like for other closeted writers, and how unwelcome they must feel in this community.
As someone who was disowned by my family after being outed at fifteen, and as someone who was very recently forced to leave a stable job after disclosing a disability, my position on the matter is clear: Personal identity is complicated, and no one should be made to feel pressured to disclose sensitive personal information in a public venue. This is not social justice; it’s real violence performed against people in vulnerable positions.
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Also relevant:

Fun Times on Etsy

During the past 24 hours, I’ve received three separate Etsy orders (each for one inexpensive item) that appear to be from spambots. The email addresses associated with the accounts are strings of random characters, as are the mailing addresses they provided.

I canceled and refunded each order with a short message to the “buyer” stating that I can’t mail anything to a nonexistent address. I also blocked the users for good measure. I then sent a support request to Etsy for each order to report the account and notify them of suspicious activity.

I feel like I’ve done my due diligence, but I couldn’t find any other accounts of sellers receiving orders from spambots. What I did find were reports of all sorts of other scams and misbehavior on the platform.

Based on an hour of research, most of which was spent browsing through various forums, I learned that there are two main types of scams targeted at sellers. The first involves the sale of small items (generally crafting supplies, such as individual beads) for the purpose of stealing the tracking numbers. In other words, the buyer will use the tracking number you provided to “ship” an order they received and have no intention of fulfilling. The second involves high-quantity sales shipping to freight distributors (generally in Florida or California), which will forward the merchandise to another merchant who will then resell it. “Scams” might not be the right word for these transactions, which seem to be associated with overseas merchants from a certain country, but there’s still something fishy going on.

I also learned that the knitting community on Etsy has a lot of drama. It’s apparently not uncommon for someone to buy a digital pattern and then offer it for sale at a cheaper price on their own store, for instance. It’s also not unheard of for someone to make something directly from a pattern they bought and then sell it at a premium without contacting or crediting the original artist. On top of that, there are people who will spend actual money to hurt another seller by purchasing a lot of inexpensive items and then using those orders to bomb the store with bad reviews and formal complaints. Even crazier, some people will order a ridiculous quantity of a custom-made listing (which generally don’t have inventory limits), knowing that the seller will cancel the order and that they will be able to use the cancellation as an excuse to report the store to Etsy.

Along the way, I read a few horror stories about art and crafting commissions gone horribly awry. With two truly bizarre exceptions, every commission I’ve done has been as smooth as silk, and I was shocked by the behavior I read about. To summarize, many people seem to expect that, because they’ve paid the initial commission fee, an artist must devote endless hours to making a long series of requested changes to their work. People also seem to expect that, after this work is done, they can reject the finished piece and ask for a full refund.

In the cases involving individual people (as opposed to overseas businesses), the story generally included a lengthy lead-up in which the buyer raised all sorts of red flags in their conversations with the seller. I think there’s a lot of pressure on people selling their creative work to be “nice” and “accommodating,” and I think this pressure influences them to tolerate strange interactions with people who make them uncomfortable.

The take-away point from all of this is not that Etsy is broken (which is a different conversation altogether), but rather that setting clear boundaries is good professional behavior. The standard American customer service mentality that “the customer is always right” only makes sense as a social contract if both parties enter into it in good faith. If the customer is unbalanced, however, that level of accommodation is toxic, and sellers – especially young women selling their creative work – need to feel empowered to cut off communication and step away from bad transactions.

Social Media Self-Care

During the past few days, I deleted about four hundred posts on Tumblr:

Posts where I reblogged people’s stories, meta, and art with supportive comments and tags, posts of original art and stories and jokes I made for people’s ideas and headcanons, and reblogs of people’s creative projects and commission info.

I applied the same level of attention to weeding my blog on Tumblr that I’ve devoted to developing my island on Animal Crossing, and it was incredibly cathartic.

I don’t need to see a snapshot of myself going out of my way to be kind and friendly to someone who thought it would be a good idea to send me a message asking if they could commission me to drink an entire bottle of NyQuil and pass out with a plastic trash bag over my head, for example.

I was never friends with any of these creeps. It never happened.

For me, the purpose of Tumblr is and always has been to create a small garden of things that make me happy. I scroll through my own Tumblr when I’m stuck in a waiting room, or during some impossibly long train or car ride, or when I’m exhausted but can’t sleep. “Interesting but relaxing” is the vibe I’m going for, and I think I’ve gone a decent job, for the most part. After all, I’m fairly skilled at catering to myself as an audience of one.

I’ve never been comfortable with the expectation to behave like a brand; and, regardless, activity on Tumblr has declined rapidly during the past month or so. I’ve gone from getting well over a thousand notes a day at the beginning of the year to getting less than a hundred a day during the past three weeks, and it only takes me about fifteen minutes to scroll through an entire day’s feed – if I even bother, which I mostly don’t.

What has ultimately come out of my social experience of fandom on Tumblr are lowkey but lasting friendships with professional artists and writers who have mostly moved to Twitter. I understand the value of online anonymity, but I think there are benefits to allowing yourself to be a real and fully-rounded person online. There are also benefits to being able to mute people, as well as being able to choose never to see certain tags and keywords. I’m not saying that Twitter is a good platform, because it’s objectively awful, but it’s become a much easier place to manage the social aspects of fandom.

To be honest, it’s because of Twitter that I no longer think of “fandom” as a discrete area of my life that needs to be contained and concealed as a shameful waste of time. I am a writer who writes reviews and critical essays about media. Sometimes I write fiction and draw comics. This is who I am, and I’ve found it much easier to interact with people when I don’t have to hide aspects of myself. I’ve also found it much easier to pick up the sort of high-quality freelance assignments that enabled me to quit the soul-crushing job that was making me sick.

Maybe it took me a little longer than other people to find my voice and surround myself with a supportive community, but I’m happy I’m here now.

Toxic Fandom Culture

Waking Up: Neil Gaiman and Toxic Fandom
https://thelearnedfangirl.com/2018/07/waking-up-neil-gaiman-and-toxic-fandom/

There is no shortage of examples [of toxic fandom]. Much of this behavior is based in misogyny and racism, some of it is not, and all of it seems to shriek, “You did not do what I want, therefore you are bad, and I am going to tell the world.”

This is not love. It is not even fandom. It is a mob.

Preach.

I should mention two things about this short essay. First, it’s about the author being a fan of Neil Gaiman, not about Neil Gaiman himself. Second, it was written in July 2018. I was going through an intense online experience at the time and wondering what in the world I had done to deserve what was happening, and reading this essay then would have helped me a lot, I think. It’s definitely worth saying that, outside of a genuine #MeToo (or similar) situation, no artist or writer deserves this. I’m tentatively hopeful that this sort of culture has started to fade, not in the least because we all have much better things to devote our time and energy to.

Re: A Golden Mean

Okay, I’ll admit it. There’s one thing Twitter is extremely useful for, and that’s organizing grassroots protest movements. I wish, though…

…and I’m not saying that everything needs to be SERIOUS BUSINESS all (or even most of) the time, because lord knows life is hard and we all need a break, but…

…I wish that conversations about social justice on social media were less about attacking people who like “abusive” fictional characters and more about sharing concrete resources (not to mention specific times and places) for civil disobedience. I’m so fucking scared of mentioning anything even remotely related to race and gender and sexuality and disability in fandom that sometimes I forget how incredibly empowering it feels to actually be a part of a real social movement.

That being said, I’m happy that I’ll be moving to Philadelphia, where community action and organization tends to be easier to access and join in person. I’d like protest to be an aspect of my daily life, not something I can only learn about and join when I get the news that something is happening on Twitter.

As a bizarre side note: This was a weird time to learn, without doubt, that J.K. Rowling does in fact spend time on TERF blogs and forums. Yikes. I hate call-out culture when it’s directed against independent creators in marginal positions, but this is the sort of thing I would in fact like to know.

A Golden Mean

I’m currently working with someone on a comic commission, and it’s going great. We’ve developed something of a friendship, and over the course of our exchange we traded a few paragraphs about Ganondorf’s nose as it relates to his character design. I had a few years of research and observation to contribute, and it was fun putting everything in down in writing. I realized, however, that I can never, ever post any of this on Tumblr.

I first joined Tumblr because I used to love reading the essays people posted there, but the general culture of the site has shifted so far to “performatively woke” that it’s become really scary to say anything that might be taken out of context.

For example, this morning I reblogged an interesting post about how Lord of the Rings isn’t really “heroic fantasy” in the way that many people criticize it as being. The context, for me, is my continual process of working through the narrative structure of the games in the Zelda series. What I’m afraid of, however, is that someone is going to read my act of reblogging this post as a defense of certain fantasy tropes with unfortunate implications in light of a recent (conversation?) (debate?) (trashcan fire?) about D&D on Twitter. A normal person would say, “That’s a crazy thing to think,” but the truth is that I’ve received disturbing hate mail for far more innocuous things.

The Discord interface continues to annoy me, and Twitter is deliberately designed to be awful and upsetting. I never thought I would say this, but I’m spending more time on Reddit these days. People posting there tend toward the pedantic at times, and the site sometimes feels like one of the last bastions of the “well actually” school of comic book guys (who are super annoying in the Zelda fandom, btw); but, for the most part, everyone is relatively sane and hate speech gets moderated out.

A week or two ago I read through an archived thread about how people in multinational marriages tease each other, and it was very sweet and wholesome. “One day I asked my Russian wife why she has to put dill on everything,” one post read, “and she got annoyed and asked me if I wanted a side of guns with my big American hamburger. I love her so much.” I’m in a line of work where almost everyone I know is in a mixed race/nationality/culture relationship, as I am myself, and it was nice to see people making silly jokes about how they resolve the tensions that can sometimes rise from different expectations, communication styles, and life experiences.

I can’t even begin to imagine what a thread like this would look like on Tumblr. There would be assumptions and accusations all over the place, and it wouldn’t be pretty.

The problem with Reddit, however, is that the person who is super helpfully walking you through the latest Zelda clone you’re playing might also be a moderator on one of the boards dedicated to political action meant to keep the American South gerrymandered in order to facilitate voter suppression. I offer this as an example because it happened to me a few months ago. About three years ago I received a similar shock when I realized that one of the stars of a Neko Atsume subreddit was heavily involved in an ultranationalist group operating out of r/The_Donald.

What I’m trying to say is that it sure would be nice to belong to a large and active online community that occupies a comfortable middle ground between xenophobic white supremacy and sending death threats in the name of social justice.

Karen Would Like Your Attention Please

How ‘Karen’ Became a Coronavirus Villain
https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2020/05/coronavirus-karen-memes-reddit-twitter-carolyn-goodman/611104/

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, “Karen” has been adopted as a shorthand to call out a vocal minority of middle-aged white women who are opposed to social distancing, out of either ignorance or ruthless self-interest. It’s the latest evolution of a long-standing meme. In The New York Times last year, the writer Sarah Miller described Karens as “the policewomen of all human behavior,” using the example of a suburban white woman who calls the cops on kids’ pool parties. Karens have been mocked for being anti-vaccine and pro–”Can I speak to your manager?” They’re obsessed with banal consumer trends and their personal appearance, and typically criminally misguided, usually loudly and with extreme confidence.

Their defining essence is “entitlement, selfishness, a desire to complain,” according to Heather Suzanne Woods, a meme researcher and professor at Kansas State University. A Karen “demands the world exist according to her standards with little regard for others, and she is willing to risk or demean others to achieve her ends.”

This is a relatively short article, and it’s worth reading to the end. I would say that it goes to a surprising place, but at this point I’m not actually all that surprised to learn that some of the more high-profile Karens on Twitter were manufactured by right-wing content farms.

Desktop Pets

About desktop pets & virtual companions: discussing the inhabitants that fill the void of our digital spaces
http://www.nathalielawhead.com/candybox/about-desktop-pets-virtual-companions-discussing-the-inhabitants-that-fill-the-void-of-our-digital-spaces

I see a strange irony in how people used to say “Don’t download Bonzi Buddy! It’s adware!” when (today) our web and desktop environments are so much worst of a privacy nightmare. Some of our current, completely normalized, practices of user tracking would legitimately qualify as extreme “spyware” back then.

Between the push and pull from platform holders slowly turning the desktop into an environment that only they own, that only things licensed from them can run on, that only things that adhere to their quality guidelines can exist on, that only allows licensed software from certified developers rich enough to pay for that… contrasted against shareware creators making the space interesting with things like desktop pets, experimental software, digital pranks, or parody software… I kind of view creating a desktop pet to inhabit this polarized space as an act of rebellion against that ever impending content monopoly.

The idea of making something that is meant to just simulate an inhabitant in a polarized virtual void is special for how it keeps the dream alive.

I think I might be too young to have any actual memories of desktop pets, but this sounds like a neat subculture from the 1990s. This isn’t what the article is about, but the author mentions how Neopets launched the careers of a lot of young artists and programmers. I thought the culture surrounding Neopets was kind of creepy and ended up on LiveJournal instead (which was totally not creepy, definitely not), and I wonder how much generational overlap there was between the two platforms.

Twitch Studies

The Twitch streamers who spend years broadcasting to no one
https://www.theverge.com/2018/7/16/17569520/twitch-streamers-zero-viewers-motivation-community

The rise of popular (and profitable) influencers on platforms like YouTube and Twitch has also made the idea of being an online influencer aspirational. Some parents note that their children pretend to unbox toys to a nonexistent audience, and teachers report that their students often say they want to pursue YouTubing as a career. But when seemingly everyone wants to record footage or live stream, who ends up watching the content?

Starting a career on platforms like Twitch often means spending some time broadcasting to absolutely no one. Discoverability is an issue: when you log into Twitch, the most visible people are those who already have a large following. While there are tools to find lesser-known streamers, most people starting out without built-in audiences from other platforms or supportive friends and family end up staring at a big, fat zero on their viewership counter. This lonely live stream purgatory can last anywhere from a few days, weeks, months, sometimes even years, depending on your luck. According to people who have gone through it, lacking an audience is one of the most demoralizing things you can experience online.

I found this article by searching for the title, which I saw in a screencap photo in a Kotaku article about a professor who taught a session of his class about Twitch on Twitch.

Although I sometimes fantasize that I’m recording myself when I do 100% completion speedruns of Legend of Zelda games, I have to admit that I never got into Twitch. I understand the appeal, but like… Okay, how do I put this.

So much of being considered cool in high school and college is about sharing communal experiences. You can’t just watch a movie and talk about it, you have to watch it with your friends and share inside jokes that mainly take the form of repeating the lines from the movie that everyone in your friend group laughed at. I enjoy spending time with people, but I have trouble relaxing enough to passively consume content in the company of a group. Doing something like quietly watching a television show or sports game has always felt like having to sit through an awful and boring lecture.

What I’m trying to say is that Twitch isn’t for me. I’m not suggesting that Twitch isn’t worth reading about and writing about and teaching an entire college class about; but, to me, it’s really nothing more than how teenagers and people in their early twenties have always spent time with their peer groups.

The primary difference, I guess, is that people aspire to do this professionally. In fact, some of my own students are already well on their way to making a career out of streaming or Let’s Play videos.

Anyway, I was thinking about teaching a class through Twitch (or possibly Discord) myself, but I ultimately decided against it. I understand the drive to hold class sessions via videoconferencing, but I also don’t think it’s entirely fair to assume that everyone will have access both to a good internet connection and to a quiet space where they can be alone, especially not during an arbitrarily set time, and not while they’re back with their families. See also:

‘Zoombombing’: When Video Conferences Go Wrong

https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/20/style/zoombombing-zoom-trolling.html