posted on Aug 04, 2018

The Anatomy, Life and Death of an Online Art Community in Iran

Post Mortem of

by Amirhossein Erfani

Hello everyone. My name is Amir and I’ve been running a digital art community in Iran for 10 years. It was indeed a monumental experience and made a difference, and involved many events, competitions, international achievements and everything you can imagine from an art community, but more importantly it was a community and a part of a creative ecosystem. The whole undertaking was mostly a community as a work of art itself, rather than a business. From a commercial point of view, it was an absolute failure, while regarded as an extraordinary success in other aspects. Whether you are a community enthusiast, a socially active artist, or simply a reader, the story of should be an interesting read and I’m more than happy to share what might be of use or provide something to learn from. An overview first, if you care.

10 Years of Work, Abbreviated

Back in 2007, I was personally pursuing a dream of becoming a digital artist, plugging myself into the virtual world and learning from the resources I could find. Living in Iran, there wasn’t a school, community, or even a workshop session to find people like myself to share with and learn from, which led me to establish a website for fellow artists to join and share their art and experience. Back then, I didn’t know what a community was and I just wanted to gather people together based on common interests to geek out about digital art. Day after day, more people joined and after only a year there were about 200 people who checked the website on a regular basis.

Witnessing the very first signs of social engagement unconsciously made me think of a mission and all I was thinking about was firing up this progressive development. I instantly contacted Wacom and organized the very first digital art event of, with more than a hundred participants and a lot of organic exposure, not only for the artists, but also (and mostly) for the digital arts itself in that time and in my country. I wasn't and am not a businessman and had no idea whether this could lead to financial success or not; I just wanted to do this for the sake of making the difference this whole thing was managing to make. Event after event, superstars and big names in the industry joined this journey, from John Howe (the legend behind the art of The Lord of the Rings) to Scott Robertson, Raphael Lacoste, Andy Park and big companies like Blizzard and Ubisoft (in Dominance War events). It was crazy and year after year it was turning into a source of inspiration both for the members, and in some cases, some international artists and communities as well.

As ambitious as I was, I got us a booth at SIGGRAPH Asia three years in a row (2011-2013) to showcase to the world this amazing potential and to try to make a good name out of a Persian artist, regardless of all the conflicts or the wrong images the media kept narrating about Iran. Don’t get me wrong, I was not doing this for the sense of nationalism, but only for the magnificent coupling of art and technology, as well as seeing the amazing talents around me who had yet to be discovered. Seven years after its establishment, managed to be invited to SIGGRAPH 2014 Vancouver as an emerging “movement” in the Middle East and landed a TED Talk for me as its leader.

It was regarded as a community, but in reality, it became an important part of an ecosystem that industries like games and animation started benefiting from, both from inside and outside of the country. It was like a reference library, and even some Wikipedia stories started referring to its interviews section. More than 250 workshops, lectures, panels, and gatherings were organized and designed, while services like job-searching were added to the daily interactions. It was like a big family of talents and many priceless sparks of daily inspirations that surprisingly did change the lives of many people and made them better artists or made them want to do art in the first place. It was crazy, every single day a better idea, a new ambition, and more people to share with, in a super win-win and healthy model. Except that it was not that much of a win for me in the end from certain aspects, and it was sure not healthy at all. Let’s hear about some other sides of the story, and the unwritten lessons for leading a movement like this.

Business of Cool

It all goes back to the very fundamental characteristics of the founder. When I started, I didn’t know that by founding and leading a progressive social art service, I was unconsciously listening to the deepest parts of my personality, and every micro-decision was backed by something that I instinctively thought might be correct or not, cool or uncool, based on who I am and nothing else. If you ask half of the artists out there, “Why do you post daily art on social media?” most of them may not admit a little narcissism might be involved in this act, which is totally cool and natural and a necessity of being an artist in the first place. But being aware of it instead of ignoring or having bad feelings about it is absolutely a positive point to being more aware of the decisions you’re going to make through your journey, especially if your decisions are about to affect something that involves other people.

The same thing about me. In the beginning of this journey, when I was just 20 years old, I had no idea about a) what exactly I was doing, b) what was this going to turn into, and more importantly, c) based on what experience exactly was I supposed to make my decisions for such a unique, creative act of social influence? So, what did I do? I trusted my instincts. And good or bad, my instincts followed my very personal characteristics and probably a handful of genes. Why this is important? Because either you know what you are going to do with something that you have a plan for, or you are just going with the flow to see how it ends up eventually. I picked the second road, and now that I think about it and do a basic analysis, I see a lot of things that make sense, like my ambition, compassion, narcissism, collective intelligence, ego, lack of financial sense and, last but not least, the brand-new “cool” factor. Therefore, this community became a very cool home to digital artists, with a very ambitious set of activities, helping many newcomers and intermediate artists with free resources and educational sessions while being promoted in some very notable international events and venues. The lack of financial sense, though, later became one of the reasons of its death, which I will explain shortly.

So, know your psychology as well as that of any other people you involve in your main team. This helps with the life-changing decisions you’re gonna take especially in a creative process, and if you want to achieve uniqueness, don’t manipulate your decisions based on a self-awareness session with yourself, just be aware of them in order to spot those who might later be responsible for the important decisions. Again, no matter how many people are with you in this, at the end of the day it’s the founder who influences the vision.

The Life Cycle, and the Founder’s Trap

Everything has a life cycle and studying a few simple management books will teach you how professionals do their best to keep their businesses alive and hyped for a longer amount of time. And guess what, there’s a “founder’s trap” step in the life cycle, which you should be very worried about and ideally avoid. In my case, I didn’t know about any of that, not even the life cycle itself. I used to think, “it’s gonna get bigger and bigger, until it’s something special that everyone is going to talk about or benefit from.” This mindset is not bad, actually; it’s very necessary because it feeds your ambition and helps whatever you’re working on grow. But on the other hand, it hits you hard when you start realizing your creation is aging. With aging comes reputation and experience and with all those come expectations right after, like suddenly I realized all the moves that I used to do and categorized as extraordinary (which took a lot of effort) were being regarded as normal after a few times of making them (but still took a lot of effort). The need to impress is a never-ending road that may someday get bigger than expected. And meanwhile, your member count is growing as well, and so not only do you need to impress better, but now you need to impress even more people with different tastes and expectations.

In my case, whatever I planned to do was objectively impressive and even needed, as nobody else was doing it, especially in Iran, and it was like creating a new part of the creative ecosystem that needed to be nourished. The problem was, the community itself didn’t think so, and after half of its age (five years) things began to look very normal, though everything still needed an extraordinary idea and amount of effort. It’s okay because that’s what aging is all about, but trying to balance experience and creativity is a huge deal to consider.

Also, at some point, the founder’s trap might show up. Not everything the founder thinks or does might be helpful for the system, but there’s also a trust in the founder’s vision that sometimes interferes with the decisions taken. As the founder, sometimes I didn’t know what might be good for the community, simply because of the freedom of design, but neither did everyone else around me. That’s the founder’s trap, and when you’re stuck in it you start to realize that some decisions are not perfect and, in fact, they might be destructive to the nature of the community itself. No matter what you create as an entity, you are definitely going to face these challenges at some point and knowing about them might be of a great help.

The Anatomy, Also Known as People

It’s true that the founder is responsible for a lot of genes in the community’s DNA, but the thing about the communities is that they consist of people and every single member, old or new, can bring a whole new set of potentials to the being of the community. Some are very positive and prosperous, and some are negative and destructive, especially if we’re talking about online communities, where people’s behavior is sometimes more exaggerated than in reality. It’s not difficult to deal with a fair amount of insecurity coming from people every month, but that’s the tricky thing about negativity; it can reproduce and cast a tiny cloud of negative vibes, sometimes even for no specific reason. I organized at least 20 big, notable art competitions with some big names in the industry, and competitions are not always the best things to do if you want to keep everybody happy. I know that it’s not a recommended action to try to keep everybody happy, but when it comes to a community, it’s a must. Fortunately, these competitions made a lot more positive influence and progress rather than the negative sense of “not winning” (and no, we didn’t give away participation awards!) but even if it’s one tiny cloud of negative vibes at a time, those things are indeed still a very important collective power.

Not only that, but you are also going to be inevitably in touch with many of the members, and in my case, as many of these people that lived in the city I used to live in, so you end up with a new circle of friends, which is even more difficult to keep everybody happy in. The closer you get with the members, the more productive or destructive these relationships can get. I was lucky to make some incredible friends during this journey (which I’m most grateful for), as well as some sworn enemies and simply unhappy people. It’s the nature of a decent community, and your ability to manage the founder’s trap. You might think of an anonymous approach to deal with this, but then it can take much longer to bring trust to the process. It was not a company nor a business, and mutual trust was a fundamental foundation to build everything else on, but well, it has its downsides, as well, even with only a tiny group of unhappy members.

Money Kills

The reason I didn’t monetize this community was not only because I didn’t know how to, but mostly because I believed it affected the originality and creativity. Sponsors were difficult to find and more difficult to convince, and any start-up type of idea would fail because of the state of the infancy of almost everything. At several points, I was offered some very tempting proposals that would have solved the financial needs but would have also called for injecting a totally unrelated or “uncool” strategy, or in some cases, ideology, into the activities of this community. What did I do? Like a crazy, passionate individual, I fed the needs of the community with my own income while getting help from some sponsors, in the case of a few events. When we attended SIGGRAPH 2012 Singapore, my personal income from my own gigs (at least six months of work) funded the financial requirements of attending such a big event. I know, crazy, but I couldn’t make money even if I wanted to. The whole SIGGRAPH thing led us to establish a SIGGRAPH chapter, and as a big step for academia, it was again a contribution to an ecosystem before it became any kind of service that could be monetized. I was, and am, totally happy and satisfied with the result, but again, it became an issue in the long term, threatening the existence of the community.

“UX” Just Got Real

Back in 2007, there was no Instagram, and Facebook was just getting populated by people and artists, creating a whole new culture for online communications and sharing content (and art, in this case). I used social media only as a tool to empower the community itself, but later it became the only place people were ever-present. This was both good and bad, if you were capable of inventing new strategies to keep the community united and creative. As social media itself grew, audiences were becoming more and more designable rather than being an organic crowd to be in touch with and communicate with. Analytics and UX were becoming more important than originality and creativity. I didn’t like this, and so the community was slowly losing its reach, although I was doing my best to keep everything alive everywhere. The problem is that when you acknowledge that you have the power to formulate or foresee the success or failure of a strategic move, in this particular case at least you either end up a service or an audience-driven community. It’s not bad at all, they’re just two different visions. It’s like if you choose to make a movie just to satisfy the viewers, or to express your own artistic abilities. One can be very successful financially and last for years, and the other can be a sparkle of magic that fades in a decade. It’s like mainstream versus indie. Again, based on my values and characteristics, I chose to go indie…yet another reason for the whole thing to die.

The Show Must Go On

Not everything that is cool and serves a society is meant to live forever and block the way for new ideas and movements. This community was not functioning like an enterprise; it was teaching some unwritten values to us all. I was happy to see that many people were growing, sharing and landing jobs in some very big companies, but I was also worried about this inevitable, monopolistic approach and the fact that it was becoming the only thing people were referring to. What if I was wrong in some decisions that didn’t have any good results? People’s dreams and life goals were being played on this table and I couldn’t risk those. I was aging as well, experiencing my twenties and I had a lot to figure out in my own life first and, as I explained, there weren’t any eligible substitutes to pass the torch to. The vision would either be translated into a mediocre and dumb business or something else that would change its identity in a bigger picture (it’s very complicated to explain)!

But a good thing happened at last; the spirit of “if you know, I’ll know, and if you grow, I’ll grow” was established and many things that looked impossible became possible to many, including myself. Just imagine DreamWorks coming to your booth at SIGGRAPH and wondering about the undiscovered quality of Persian digital artists with an intention to consider working with some. For me, my mission was accomplished pretty much at this time, showing the world what we’d been all creating as an active, prosperous, creative and impressive act of social movement. After a decade of hard work, was shut down in November 2017 (there’s an archived version up and running) and I paid my version of a contribution to the creative society. From a businessman’s point of view, this was cool but still a failure, though from the intersubjective point of view of many people, including myself, it was an effective journey full of incredible moments, sharing and shaping a way of thinking, as well as a social movement. I’m sure I’ll witness the influences of this story in the next generation of social storytellers and art lovers.

I hope I managed to deliver most of the things I had in mind when I was asked to share this story with you good people. I am very happy to be a part of the awesome digital art family and the ignition of a new idea or a new journey to get crazy about again. 

Cheers all.


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