“How much has AI art affected your career?”: Artists of Reddit React

By: Adriaan Odendaal

In the closing months of 2022, there was a flood of generative text-to-image AI tools such as DALL-E 2, Midjourney, and Stable Diffusion released to the public. Social media platforms were soon inundated (and continues to be so) with the creative, funny, often surreal, and sometimes uncanny, images that these AI tools generated in response to user text prompts such as: “A raccoon playing tennis at Wimbledon in the 1990s” (Fig. 1) or “Courtroom sketch of Gandalf suing Darth Vader”.

Fig. 1: Image generated by DALL-E 2 from the text prompts “A raccoon playing tennis at Wimbledon in the 1990s”

As attestable by the public demand for access to DALL-E 2 (with over 1.5 million users creating over 2 million images a day) (OpenAI 2022), many people have embraced these new creative tool. Yet these tools have also been met with plenty of public apprehension. Resistance from those in the creative industries is especially perceptible as boycotts against AI-generated art has emerged on popular online art platforms such as InkBlot, DeviantArt, and Artstation (Edwards 2022) (Fig. 2). Since the end of 2022, AI has seemingly become a central concern and preoccupation within creative industries. But despite the initial knee-jerk reactions, what impact has AI tools actually had on artists and other creative professionals so far? Perhaps by taking a look at how AI tools are currently discussed in these communities — as opposed to in sensationalist news-headlines — we can get some more substantial and considered insights about its actual impact.

Fig. 2: Members ‘spamming’ ArtStation with AI art boycott imagery in late 2022.

Artists coming together on Reddit

While a lot of the online art websites mentioned above do have longstanding and well-organized communities, few of them actually provide a place for their communities to congregate. Instead, these art communities often gather in digital spaces such as Twitter, Discord, and especially: Reddit.

As one of the largest and most active online community platforms around, in recent years social science researchers have increasingly turned to Reddit as a rich source of data to study social phenomena related to specific groups, communities, or publics (Lee and Jang 2023; Proferes et al. 2021). The richness of the data (constituting posts, comments, discussions, multi-media, memes, and more), and the fact that the data is accessible to researchers (the posts and comments are public and collectable via the platforms API), makes it a particularly alluring research data source (Proferes et al. 2021; Hintz and Betts 2022). It is, however, Reddit’s structural organization along the lines of subforum communities called subreddit (indicated within the platform vernacular with the preposition ‘r/’) that makes it particularly useful for researching specific topics related to specific communities (Lee and Jang 2023). Subreddit communities often form and organize around shared interests (e.g. Formula 1 racing in r/formula1), characteristics (e.g nationality in r/southafrica), concerns (e.g. societal collapse in r/collapse), circumstances (e.g. diabetes diagnosis in r/ diabetes_t1), hobbies and occupation (e.g. r/art), and more. In these subreddits, pseudonymized members who identify as part of that subreddit community consequently share highly topical stories and experiences, participate in relevant debates and discussions, and also actively respond to content shared by others.

Finding the most relevant artist subreddit

To gain insights into how artists are reacting to the phenomenon of generative AI tools, we can potentially turn to the subreddit community r/artistlounge. This subreddit, with 123 thousand members, is described as: “A place for artists from […] other art-related subs to come together and discuss all non-business things related to art”. As such, more than the popular subreddit r/art where artist’s predominantly share or promote their work, r/artistlounge is a place where artists from across Reddit habitually engage in specific topical discussions and debates relevant to the artist community. As such, discussions from this subreddit can serve as the perfect source for learning more about how AI tools are impacting artists and other creatives.

However, turning to Reddit for research does come with a caveat: often social science research using Reddit as a data source is criticised for ignoring the specific context of Reddit as the data source (Hintz and Betts 2022). As such, by looking at discussions on r/artistlounge, we can only gain insights about how artists — specifically from and in the context of this online community — are reacting to the advent of DALL-E and other new emergent generative AI tools.

Finding the most salient AI discussion on r/artistlounge

To find the most salient discussion about AI tools on r/artistlounge, I used the “AI Discussion” flair (a meta-tag with which users can organize posts within subreddits) to identify the most-engaged posts made by an r/artistlounge member within the last year on the topic. The top post I followingly identified was titled: “Professional artists: how much has AI art affected your career?” (Fig 3).

Fig. 3: The most-engaged post about AI on r/artistlounge.

With 321 unique member comments, some up to 600 words, responding to the post’s question and to comments within the post, this single thread constituted a relatively large and rich (albeit perhaps not statistically significant) data source. For analysis, the post and all its comments were scrapped using a Python script and the Reddit API PRAW (a prevalent method in Reddit-based research (Proferes et al. 2021)). A grounded theory approach (Glaser and Strauss 2010) seemed particularly appropriate for the subsequent short analysis as it offers a useful framework for understanding “specific phenomenon [that] is still emerging” (Lee and Jang 2023). As such, I was able to identify several core themes related to how artist on r/artistlounge are reacting to the impact of AI art on their professions and practices.

Here is what I found:

From hostility, to ethical concerns, to no concerns at all

The most prominent concepts that emerged from analysing the expansive discussion that members were having within the above post were clustered around: pessimistic feelings about the future of the creative industry; ethical concerns about the technology; perceptions about the quality of AI-generated art; the limited impact AI has had on their professional practices; and convictions about why AI won’t replace human creatives. These were organized into the following themes:

There is nothing to worry about… yet

The members who most directly replied to the question of the original post were, not surprisingly, most often self-disclosed professionals in creative industries (ranging from oil painters to video game concept artists). What was surprising, however, was that these members were almost unanimously reporting that new AI tools have actually had little to no impact on their professional careers or practices. Responses ranged from more reserved “it didn’t affect my income or clients at all. I thought it would” to categorical “AI has zero influence on my work”. The fact that contrary to the tech marketing hype, media frenzy, and public reaction to generative AI art tools, professional creatives of r/artistlounge did not seem to find this technology that disruptive in practice.

Foremost in their reasoning was the conviction that technical artistic proficiency is only one part of their professional skillset. Many members made the point that clients use their services because they are able to intuit or understand — and respond to — specific client needs. As one put it, part of their skillset is to be able to know “what a client means when they say ‘Hm, I don’t know, it just doesn’t *pop*”. Another similarly argues this point by stating: “My average client is not going to mess with […] image editors on their own”. The self-disclosed professional artists in this discussion made the argument that despite the potentially proficient outputs of generative AI tools, succeeding as a professional creative relies as much (if not more) on building your brand, creating professional relationships, and acquiring and retaining clients. As one reflected:

“the majority of doom and gloom feelings coming from aspiring artists or beginners shows they have no clue what working with clients actually entails”

Yet while professionals seem unperturbed by these new technologies, at the same time there was a common accompanying acknowledge that it is just that they have “nothing to really worry about […] yet”.

There was a general concern that while these tools have little current impact on their professions, “it’s possible that [this] will change as newer models are released”. There was uncertainty about what unforeseen consequences and capabilities newer technologies will have. Coupled with this concern was the realization that the technology is moving at an alarming pace. “The tech is relatively new and it will only get better”, one wrote.

AI art is predictable, unoriginal, ugly… and also really impressive

Despite the relative calm of the members who replied most directly to the post’s original question, when diving deeper into the cascading comments underneath, much of the conversation quickly devolved into off-topic denigrative appraisal of AI-generated art. Members consistently derided art created by tools such as DALL-E 2 as easily recognizable (“by just glancing at it”) due to being low quality (“stiff and generic”), unoriginality (“They can’t do anything without art that’s already been made”), and it’s weird or uncanny outputs (“you can see limbs merging into others, fingers disconnecting from the hand”) (Fig. 4). Yet often, these commentors would contradict themselves by simultaneously acknowledging that AI-generated art is actually also really impressive. As one member stated: “midjourney art in particular is very easy to recognize. But a lot of it could easily pass for human art” or “I am both impressed and at the same time underwhelmed”. It is also here that the pervasive derision started to turn into concern over the future. Members remarked on how “The good stuff might be flying under the radar”, and how you’ll increasingly “never know” how many pieces of art you come across is not “human art”.

Fig. 4: A meme making fun of AI art by demonstrating its uncanny rendering of hands.

With these speculations come the fear that AI tools will take away artist commissions and work — effectively automating them out of future jobs. Many member’s fears seem to come from the perceptible inevitability of this future scenario. As one puts it, they feel like they are “tied to train tracks; the train only a few meters away”. Yet again, this stands in stark contrast to the reservation with which the self-disclosed professionals appraise the technology’s limited impact.

AI art rips off real artists — its unethical!

Tying into the fear and apprehension about AI’s impact on artists, members brought up a range of ethical concerns as arguments against the use and support of generative AI tools. Amongst these were that misrepresenting AI-generated art as your own art is unethical (“selling AI art AND claiming that you drew it? Yep, you’re a scumbag”) and automating creativity is “completely wrong”. However, the foremost concern, and one of the most prominent concepts that emerged throughout the analysis, was that AI art “directly rips off human art”. There is a predominant preoccupation with how these AI tools use artworks from real artists, scrapped from websites without the foreknowledge of the artists, as training data for their generative models. The main issues identified in relation to this is that of copyright, artist compensation, and intellectual property theft.

This ethical concern seems to galvanize and serve as a spearhead for most of the anti-AI art arguments. This connected with concern about how the tech industry is increasingly infringing on creative practitioners’ domains (“techbros bereft of ethics encroaching on my way of life”, as one particularly vehement member lamented). As such, AI becomes not only an existential threat to artists’ livelihoods, but this threat becomes elevated to some kind of moral danger to society: it is “evil” and “feeds off what humans have created” without producing anything original.

Hostility is counterproductive; more nuance is needed

It is on the subject of “AI art = Stolen art” that the least nuance in the conversations was to be found. Some balance was perhaps provided by those responding with possible solutions to this ethical quandary, such as: finding ways to offer artists compensation if an AI model uses their artwork in their training data; or creating systems that requires artists’ consent to use their artwork as training data.

There were, however, some members who interjected in these anti-AI tirades by arguing that “being overly hostile” or “gatekeeping art” is counterproductive. In response to a particularly vehement diatribe, one of these members stated:

“The discourse is mainly emotional and very polarised. Resulting in rational arguments and general knowledge being drowned out.”

The prevailing anti-AI sentiments throughout the comments, another argued, results in counterproductive refusal “to participate in the ethical progression of a technology that wont go away”.

It is perhaps on this point that its necessary to reflect on how Reddit functions as an echo-chamber where popularly held ideas are self-reinforcing (Cinelli et al. 2021). Some members even admitted that Reddit is their primary source for information about AI. Another member’s statement also almost unwittingly demonstrates how such echo-chambers reinforce convictions by stating:

“In my view the meme that AI Art = Stolen art has reached critical mass and cannot now be stopped. For the simple reason that it’s essentially true”.

In response to this, many members called for the need for countervailing perspectives to add nuance to the conversation about AI in art. Technical literacy came up in this regard. Some argued that if “you’re going to have such a strong opinion about the topic” it is important to “at least understand the basics”, or be “accurate about how it works”. Such understanding , they argued, can produce more sober appraisal of the limitations of AI as well — and thus reduce anxiety over the threat it presents. As one member argued: “Once you understand how ai actually works, it becomes less impressive”. A more practical assessment of both the capabilities, and limitations, of this technology seemed important in appreciating AI is just another tool (“neither good nor evil”). This was especially a perspective advocated by self-disclosed professionals. As one industrial designer describes their own experience:

“It helps greatly in the early thumbnail sketching phase because I can always run one of my sketches through the AI to see a more refined version or play with colors variations very quickly”.

Many of these members likewise felt that rather than supplanting them, generative AI technologies will become just another tool that can be incorporated into their professional and creative practice. “I think AI will be less useful by itself,” one commenter ventures, “and more useful as part of a larger workflow”.

Where do we go from here?

This short analysis of a discussion around AI art on one post in r/artistlounge by no means give us an expansive understanding of how creatives are reacting to the impact of this emergent technology and its disruptive potential to their professional practices. However, it does show us that creative practitioners are in the process of negotiating the disruption that these tools have caused — often offering counter-narratives to the more “doom and gloom” reactionary discourses. From the handful of professional creatives that contributed to this Reddit discussion, it is clear that with more AI literacy and a greater appreciation of the multifarious skillsets that creatives deploy in their professional roles, more nuance can be added to the conversation and offset those acute reactionary fears. After all, new generative AI tools have clearly not been as devastating to these professional creatives as is often feared. At least, not yet.

References

Cinelli, Matteo, Gianmarco De Francisci Morales, Alessandro Galeazzi, Walter Quattrociocchi, and Michele Starnini. 2021. ‘The Echo Chamber Effect on Social Media’. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 118 (9): e2023301118. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2023301118.

Edwards, Benj. 2022. ‘Flooded with AI-Generated Images, Some Art Communities Ban Them Completely’. Ars Technica. 12 September 2022. https://arstechnica.com/information-technology/2022/09/flooded-with-ai-generated-images-some-art-communities-ban-them-completely/.

Glaser, Barney G., and Anselm L. Strauss. 2010. The Discovery of Grounded Theory: Strategies for Qualitative Research. 5. paperback print. New Brunswick: Aldine Transaction.

Hintz, Elizabeth A., and Timothy Betts. 2022. ‘Reddit in Communication Research: Current Status, Future Directions and Best Practices’. Annals of the International Communication Association 46 (2): 116–33. https://doi.org/10.1080/23808985.2022.2064325.

Lee, Claire Seungeun, and Ahnlee Jang. 2023. ‘Sharing Experiences and Seeking Informal Justice Online: A Grounded Theory Analysis of Zoombombing Victimization on Reddit’. Victims & Offenders, February, 1–20. https://doi.org/10.1080/15564886.2023.2171169.

OpenAI. 2022. ‘DALL·E Now Available without Waitlist’. 2022. https://openai.com/blog/dall-e-now-available-without-waitlist.

Proferes, Nicholas, Naiyan Jones, Sarah Gilbert, Casey Fiesler, and Michael Zimmer. 2021. ‘Studying Reddit: A Systematic Overview of Disciplines, Approaches, Methods, and Ethics’. Social Media + Society 7 (2): 205630512110190. https://doi.org/10.1177/20563051211019004.

--

--