Pixiv as a Contested Online Artistic Space in-between Gift and Commercial Economies in an Age of Participatory Culture

Kohki Watabe, Cinema and Media Studies, University of Southern California [About | Email]

Yasuhito Abe, Department of Media, Journalism and Communications, Doshisha University [About | Email]

Volume 16, Issue 3 (Article 10 in 2016). First published in ejcjs on 23 December 2016.


This study is among the first to examine pixiv, an online platform for amateur anime and manga artists in Japan, as a key global network and to explore the platform from cultural, historical and politico-economic perspectives. These perspectives suggest ways in which pixiv users communicate with one another to constitute its service through visual media. This paper starts by examining pixiv from cultural perspectives, through which the first section draws on the concept of participatory culture and views pixiv’s specific function as a resource for cultural practice. We argue how pixiv users express their collaborative creativity beyond the level expected by the service company. We then investigate pixiv from historical perspectives and examine dōjin-shi culture, or fanzine culture in Japan, as a pre-digital era version of cultural participation in pixiv. By introducing the concept of gift economy, we put users’ participation on pixiv in the history of dōjin culture. Finally, we look at pixiv from politico-economic perspectives and illustrate the activity of Chaos Lounge, a young visual artist group in Japan, and pixiv users’ movement against the. We argue that the conflicts and negotiations between Chaos Lounge and pixiv users exemplify fundamental contradiction between gift and commercial economies.

Keywords: pixiv, fanzine, dōjinshi, online communities.


The growing accessibility of digital media and networks has provided artistic space for various cultural practices in Japan and around the world. This paper seeks to explore one locus of online artistic space with a particular focus on one specific Website for amateur artists and their fans: pixiv. In 2007, the Tokyo-based Japanese company pixiv Inc. launched its Website. Since then, pixiv has played a significant role in generating an alternative communication space for amateur artists and illustrators in Japan and beyond. With its slogan, “a place where drawing becomes more enjoyable,” pixiv allows its users to exhibit their artworks—mostly manga-style paintings and illustrations—and comment on others’, on the condition that the users register for the online service by providing the company with their email addresses. Subsequently, pixiv has become one of the key global networks for amateur artists and their fans. According to an official announcement from pixiv on Feb 25, 2014, the number of users had by then exceeded 10 million; monthly views totaled 3.7 billion, and the number of works published on the site reached 41.6 million (Pixiv, 2014). Currently, this Website is available in multiple languages including Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Russian, French, Thai, and English. Access from outside Japan represents 5.43 percent of all access (Pixiv Developer’s Blog, 9 Feb 2009). Despite the global popularity of pixiv in our digital era, however, pixiv has not attracted much scholarly attention, with a few exceptions (Noppe 2013).

This study will thus be among the first to explore pixiv as a key global network in the digital era. Previously, Noppe (2013) explored pixiv in comparison to deviantART and examined “digital conversations” between pixiv users. Rather than examining pixiv from a comparative perspective, this study focuses instead on the Website from cultural, historical and politico-economic perspectives. This approach is significant because these perspectives illuminate ways in which pixiv users communicate with one another to constitute its service as a global network through visual media. In other words, combining the three different approaches reveals why pixiv has emerged and developed the way it has, and sheds light on the opportunities and challenges pixiv faces in contemporary Japanese society. Just as Noppe (2013) rightly points out, it is important to focus on the cultural aspects of pixiv, but a combined approach incorporating historical and politico-economic perspectives can add even greater depth to a robustly contextualised understanding of pixiv.

This paper thus starts by examining pixiv from a cultural standpoint, drawing on the concept of participatory culture, and in the first section views pixiv’s specific function as a resource for cultural practice. Rather than focusing exclusively on describing technical aspects of pixiv, this paper illuminates how pixiv users take advantage of the online medium for cultural practices. We then investigate pixiv from a historical standpoint and examine dōjin-shi culture, or fanzine culture, in particular. More precisely, this paper draws on the concept of a gift economy and makes an argument concerning why pixiv emerged in the way it did in Japanese society. Finally, we look at pixiv from a politico-economic standpoint and illustrate the contested boundaries between pixiv and the contemporary art world in Japan. In particular, this paper investigates the so-called “Chaos Lounge incident” as a key event for formulating a critical analysis of pixiv in contemporary Japanese society.

1. Pixiv as an Alternative Space for Participatory Culture

This section draws on the concept of participatory culture and examines pixiv from a cultural standpoint. The concept was originally formulated and developed by Jenkins (1992; 2006) and others (Jenkins et al. 2007; Jenkins, Ito & boyd, 2015), and has attracted wide attention in the fields of popular culture and media studies. Jenkins, Ito, and boyd (2015) have described participatory culture as follows:

A participatory culture is a culture with relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement, strong support for creating and sharing one’s creations, and some type of informal mentorship whereby what is known by the most experiences is passed along to novices. A participatory culture is also one in which members believe their contributions matter, and feel some degree of social connection with one another (at least they care what other people think about what they have created) (p.4).

It is important to note that the Website of pixiv itself does not determine its culture. As Jenkins has rightly pointed out, it is people, not media that are a fundamental factor responsible for creating participatory culture (Jenkins, Ito & boyd, 2015). While it is important to pay attention to the technical aspects of pixiv, this section thus focuses on examining pixiv users and illustrates how they engage with the online medium.

Nonetheless, before engaging with an analysis of pixiv users, it is necessary to describe the technical aspects of pixiv briefly because pixiv users engage with the online medium through its original design/function. As a commercial online medium, pixiv has its design for its commercial profits and not surprisingly, it shares more or less common characteristics with other, comparable online services, one of which is the use of a ranking system. Pixiv allows its users to evaluate and recognise these works by adding viewing records, bookmarks, zero-to-ten scale rating, tagging, comments, and an “applause” button. These evaluations are designed to be immediately delivered to artists so that users can recognise to what extent their artworks are being seen by other pixiv users. This feature is one of the key attractions for pixiv users, both those who share their works and those who participate in evaluating others’ work. As with many other online media, these evaluations are reflected in the general ranking system at pixiv. Furthermore, pixiv allows each user to have a personalised profile page, by which other users can acquaint themselves with a given individual’s ability to draw, and his or her realm of interest. The personalised profile page (fig. 1) is designed to display six drawings: three from the user’s original works and three works by others that the user has bookmarked. The three works by the user’s hand represent the user’s competence in draughtsmanship, while the three bookmarked works represent the user’s connoisseurship of outstanding artworks from a vast number of posts in pixiv. While the technical aspects of pixiv are designed to encourage its users to develop the online medium for the parent company’s commercial benefit, they can also take advantage of personalised profile pages to cultivate the capacity to communicate with other pixiv users effectively.

Figure 1. Profile Page of pixiv (courtesy of Matsutake)

Watabe and Abe, Figure 1

In what follows, this section further investigates how pixiv users have contributed to shaping pixiv as an alternative artistic space, with a particular focus on the tagging function. It seems reasonable to assume that pixiv Inc. implemented the tagging function merely for the convenience of searching for other users’ works, but users have redefined tags as a means of communicating among themselves in distinct ways, partly because pixiv allows its users to create their own tags freely. More precisely, users not only brand their favourite artworks but also search for them for their own purposes using the tagging function. Arguably, one of the most distinctive tagging practices can be seen in “you-can (shitemo iinoyo)” tags, including subtags such as “you-can-draw (kaitemo iinoyo),” “you-can-paint (nuttemo iinoyo),” or “you-can-use (tsukattemo iinoyo).” Pixiv users take advantage of these tags to expand participatory cultural space in the online medium. By adding the “you-can-draw” tag to a work, the author of the artwork allows other pixiv users to draw a character in the original work as their own creation. In responding to the tag, other users can re-draw the characters tagged as “you-can-draw,” and more intriguingly, they can further add an “I-drew-this (kaite mita)” tag to their secondary works, showing their appreciation to the original author. As such, pixiv users take full advantage of the tagging function to engage in mutually participatory practices. This kind of communication with drawings and tags is further institutionalised in the “image response” genre of works uploaded to pixiv. A typical example of an “image response” template is an excerpt of a scene from a popular comic book or anime, with empty dialogue balloons for the characters in the scene. Pixiv users can freely add words, phrases, and dialogue in the balloons, competing with others to produce an entertaining scene or simply enjoying the gap between the play on meaning between these secondary creations and the scenes’ original context. A user’s “image response” posts are shown in the bottom of his/her profile page, along with his/her own works and bookmarked works.

Pixiv users invented “you-can” tags and “image response” to employ unique user-generated cultural practices such as Piku-gaku, an abbreviation of pikushibu gakuen (pixiv school). Piku-gaku was born as user-generated collaborative project at pixiv in January 2008, just half a year after the beginning of pixiv’s service, and allowed users to take pleasure in creating a virtual school life; they post and share drawings of fictional characters at the “school.” Users draw the characters’ looks, and log their background information including their school year, club affiliation, and personality on a single drawing and upload it with specific tags for this project. The organisers of this project then randomly allocate class numbers to the uploaded characters, so that users can communicate with other characters in piku-gaku by regarding their “classmates” as a basic unit. Since characters uploaded for piku-gaku are also processed as “you-can-draw” materials, other piku-gaku users can freely create secondary works using a database of accumulated piku-gaku works, and effectively play in a virtual world. As such, Piku-gaku has paved the way for a variety of user-generated projects spontaneously.

Fig. 2 is a typical profile illustration of a character made for piku-gaku by an active pixiv user from the early days of the service. The left half of the picture shows the character, Yazuya Kuroko’s whole body, while the right half provides detailed information about the character such as name, gender, blood type, birth date, personality and images of her various facial expressions. This fact sheet enables others to understand Kuroko, and incorporate her into their secondary works. Fig. 3, drawn by another active user on pixiv is an example of how others have used this character in their secondary works. In the first panel, Kuroko’s older brother (left), another creation of the artists behind Kuroko, talks with his two female classmates. One of these female student characters is the creation of this same user; the other is the work of a different artist, based on his sister. The board in front of the three students in the first panel informs them that the destination of this year’s school trip will be to the tropical, southern islands of Okinawa. In the second and third panel, the students imagine Kuroko’s behaviour on this school trip. Tomoko Ogawa, the female character on the right in the third panel, daydreams that Kuroko might dive into the ocean seeking food, and imagines the character catching a manta ray as a souvenir. What is intriguing about the comic, in addition to the collaboration among users, is the development of the established characters in it. The author of this fan art comic, to some extent, follows the guidelines specified by the originator of the characters of Kuroko and her brother. For example, the original artist’s profile illustration for Kuroko instructs that she should never show her bare legs. Following these instructions, the author draws her in black stockings, even in Okinawa. On the other hand, the original profile does not indicate that Kuroko has survival skills sufficient to catch a manta ray; the creator of this secondary comic made up these skills, based on other attributes referred to in the originator’s profile, and the catch phrase representing her personality: “I will punish those who waste food.” As this exemplifies, the mutual participation between users, which is actively encouraged on pixiv, becomes the source of new creations. It seems reasonable to guess that this extent of users’ mutual collaboration was beyond pixiv Inc.’s expectation: the company did not implement such a collaborative project like piku-gaku as a basic function when they started the service. Rather the users themselves created it by using the tagging system, initially provided as a basic tool of communication on the site.

Figure 2. Character Profile Drawing for piku-gaku (courtesy of Matsutake)

Watabe and Abe, Figure 2

Figure 3. Manga featuring Kuroko (courtesy of emuwai)

Watabe and Abe, Figure 3

This section examines the ways pixiv users contribute to shaping the site as an online alternative space for participatory culture. An analysis of pixiv users’ communication demonstrates that they engage with various types of participatory cultural practices on the site. The next question, then, is why pixiv users communicate with each other in the way they do. The next section investigates pixiv from a historical standpoint, with a particular focus on the issue of copyright. As will be illustrated, historical analysis suggests a wide range of cultural resources that pixiv users draw upon when engaging with cultural production on the site.

2. The History of Dōjin Culture and Pixiv as a High-Tech Gift Economy

The previous section surveyed how users participate in pixiv by uploading and sharing their visual works on the digital medium. These participatory practices may seem like a new phenomenon because of how they take advantage of the Internet. However, such collective participation was not first developed by pixiv or comparable sites featuring digital participatory culture, but rather is rooted in dōjin culture, which emerged long before the rise of the Internet. This section introduces the history of dōjin culture in Japan as a prehistory of digital participatory culture and explains the similarities and continuities between the two.

It is difficult to trace the origin of collaborative dōjin culture in the history of Japan because collaborative creativity has been historically ubiquitous. For example, renga poetry practiced in premodern Japan requires that multiple poets make a single poem line by line in turns. However, it is reasonable to go back to the Meiji era (1868-1912), when the word dōjin appeared for the first time. In the early Meiji era, young novelists and poets formed groups called dōjin, which meant “people of the same taste,” and circulated and mutually reviewed their literary works within the dōjin groups. They also published their works in dōjin-shi or periodicals for dōjin. Garakuta Bunko run by Ozaki Kōyō and Yamada Bimyō since 1885 was one of the earliest dōjin-shi. From that point on, dōjin-shi operated as a kind of talent pool for Japanese literature. After the Second World War, dōjin culture spread to more popular genres. Uchūjin, the first science fiction dōjin-shi in Japan, started publication in 1957. The rising popularity of manga likewise prompted the emergence of manga dōjin groups. Just as dōjin circles in Meiji fostered novelists, poets, and critics, participants in manga dōjin culture also published their works and criticism in dōjin-shi. Some of these participants went on to become professional manga artists. However, manga dōjin were different from other, preceding dōjin in one significant way: fan art was central in manga dōjin, in contrast to other dōjin cultures. This basis in existing works led to a faster spread of manga dōjin, compared to other examples of dōjin culture in Japan, since manga and anime fans could make their art by appropriating characters and settings from manga available on the commercial market. Eventually, the growing popularity of manga dōjin culture led to the formation of the Comic Market, an annual gathering that first appeared in 1975. The initiators of the event were opponents of the Japan Manga Convention organised by Sci-Fi fans following the conventions of non-commercial dōjin culture. Thus, compared to other dōjin events, the commercial nature of the Comic Market trading dōjin-shi is evident.

Pixiv can be placed within the history of dōjin culture in Japan because pixiv users organise in circles of similar interests and share their works, comparable to how analog dōjin group operated. Criticism has less importance in pixiv, but again, users can evaluate other users’ works by adding stars. Interestingly, in some ways pixiv practices signify a return to the pre-Comic Market era. Money had never been a primary motive in dōjin cultures in the past, nor in the present form of pixiv. Even the organisers of Comic Market do not define their event as a primarily commercial one, although the commercial aspect of Comic Market is, in fact, undeniable. In the Comic Market, visitors can purchase dōjin-shi as if they were commercial products, yet pre-Comic Market dōjin practices mainly demanded that people participate in the community as a precondition to reaping the fruits of their activities.

The idea of the gift economy, a concept developed by cultural anthropologists to understand gift practice in “primitive” societies (Malinowski 1922; Mauss 1990) is helpful to comprehend the nature of cultural activity in dōjin culture and pixiv in comparison with the commercialised Comic Market. In a barter economy and a market economy, goods and services are exchanged for the value received, while people in some “primitive” societies give gifts without a guarantee of return. For example, Trobriand Islanders conduct Kula exchange, a ceremonial exchange of non-use items. Participants of Kula exchange travel hundreds of miles by canoe only for the sake of exchange, risking their lives. The practice, first reported by Malinowski, caused considerable debate among anthropologists about why Trobriand Islanders give gifts without any expectation of monetary or any other kinds of practical profits. Based on the preceding studies of various gift-giving practices in “primitive” societies including Kula exchange, Marcel Mauss theorised that reciprocity was the basis of the gift economy and social relations caused by gifting. Even in a gift economy where people seem to give without expecting a return, social norms and customs make people feel obligated to pay back those who have been generous to them, even if the return of the gift cannot be practiced at the time of giving/receiving. This delayed exchange encourages people to maintain their social relations, while barter or commercial exchange tend to be one-time events. Thus, gift-giving is not an altruistic gesture, but rather functions as a means of maintaining social stability.

Lewis Hyde applied the idea of gift economy into his study of fine art in commercial economies. Borrowing the anthropological term, Hyde (2007) describes a space of value economy that people create by appreciating art and artists as a gift economy. By contrasting the gift economy with the commercial one, Hyde assumes that the art world is isolated from the general economy, comparable to the Frankfurt School’s interpretation, or to certain early-modern Romantic understandings of “fine art” as necessarily non-utilitarian. This view has something in common with the Situationists in Europe, who thought of art as having the social momentum to overcome capitalist norms in society. Likewise, for Hyde, a work of art is a gift, never a commodity, an interpretation that is applicable to the functioning of dōjin culture in Japan. At least for Meiji novelists and poets, or Sci-Fi fans after World War II, who could not expect commercial profit from their contributions to dōjin circles, their works in dōjin-shi were not commercial products. As in Hyde’s argument regarding gift economies, the participants in dōjin culture were able to establish an independent and intimate space where they could enjoy communication with other participants around aesthetic objects (novels, poems, reviews, or manga). In fact, the relationships of affection formed within a small group are key to understanding the continuity between pre-Internet dōjin culture and pixiv. Hyde repeatedly insisted that emotional ties are indispensable to maintaining a community of aesthetic gift economy, and thus only small groups can form a gift economy—because “[w]hen the commonwealth is too large to be based on emotional ties, the gift-feeling must be abandoned as a structuring element” (p.350). As the Piku-gaku case shows, pixiv users form ties with others via their affection for certain drawings and characters and thus establish an online aesthetic space in which creations based on other users’ works form a kind of currency promoting communication among users.

However, Hyde’s argument, which regards artwork as a gift, doesn’t fully explain commercialised cultural practices in the Comic Market. While Hyde regards the gift economy as confrontational with the commercial economy, fandom studies do not necessarily contrast the former with the latter. For instance, to explore the potential for fan empowerment and the creation of alternative public spaces, Henry Jenkins (1988) has studied the activity of Star Trek fans. The fans created derivative artworks from the original text and distributed their secondary works to other fans for free. In this case, it can be said that fans created a space for the aesthetic gift economy by harnessing commercial goods, and the logic of the market. Although Hyde limited the range of his discussion to canonical artworks, if we are aware of cultural objects produced by amateurs, it becomes apparent that the commercial economy and its products form the basis of contemporary fan culture. Jenkins’ argument is thus a great help in understanding the history of dōjin culture after the rise of manga dōjin and the Comic Market in Japan. Like the emergence of Star Trek fan culture that Jenkins examines, the extraordinary popularity of the Comic Market after 1985 and the nation-wide spread of the manga dōjin culture cannot be isolated from the development of the manga industry in Japan.

In addition to the advance of mass media industries, the emergence of the Internet further created an alternative opportunity for dōjin practices in Japan and fandom in the English-speaking world, and necessarily changed theoretical arguments about them as well. The advent of the Internet culture promoted scholarship on the complementary relationship between the gift economy and the commercial economy. Since the 1990s, many scholars and engineers have discussed the possibilities and practices of gift economies on Web 2.0. Although the Internet was originally developed as a part of the US military information system, since the new left ideology of the 1960s contributed to shaping the nature of the Internet culture in the 1980s, IT engineers and theorists have entertained the possibility of creating an alternative, networked social system. When intellectual elites dominated the Internet, the Internet culture was thus based on the idea that information should be open and free.

Contrary to Hyde, who thought of commercial economies as obstacles to be overcome, these idealistic IT engineers and theorists embraced the potential of realising a gift economy within the commercial one on the Internet. Richard Barbrook (2005), for instance, proposed the concept of a high-tech gift economy that would overcome the purism of both the New Left and neo-liberalism in capitalism. His examples of this alternative economy include Netscape, which, when faced with the threat of Microsoft’s rise to dominance, distributed its source code for free to survive. Ultimately, Netscape successfully survived because hackers created a space for the gift economy in which they improved the quality of Netscape on Linux. While Hyde assumes that the commercial economy is a necessary evil for the survival of artists, Barbrook maintains that “participants in the gift economy are not reluctant to use market resources and government funding to pursue a potlatch economy of free exchange.” As he points out, contrary to avant-garde movements such as the Situationists, in which intellectual elites pursued the possibility of a gift economy in opposition to the commercial economy, the contemporary high-tech gift economy shows that the general public is involved in both commercial and gift economies. Given the advent of the Internet, Barbrook asserts that “anarcho-communism is now sponsored by corporate capital.” This notion applies to the anime and manga dōjin culture in general. Regardless of whether we are referring to the commercial practices of the Comic Market or informal practices among fans—for example, in manga and anime societies in schools—fans utilise commercial originals as the source of their creation and collaboration. Pixiv is the prime example of such gift economies utilising resources from the external commercial economies in the digital age.

3. In-between Gift and Commercial Economies

The previous section surveyed both theoretical arguments concerning gift economy and the history of dōjin culture as a prehistory of pixiv. As pixiv’s slogan says, the primary goal of the pixiv site is to provide amateur artists with a comfortable space, away from the hierarchy in their real lives. In this sense, Hyde’s discussion of an artistic economy against a commercial economy can be applied to the pixiv economy. Given that the pixiv is managed by a commercial company named pixiv Inc., it is undoubtedly obvious that the pixiv gift economy is inevitably dependent on the commercial economy in the real world. As discussed above, the gift economy may bring a part of the commercial economy to its side in the age of the Internet. This section thus examines the relation between pixiv’s internal gift economy and the external, commercial economy that makes its existence possible by shedding light on pixiv Inc. as a commercial company that profits from users’ free labour.

Like other companies providing digital social spaces such as Facebook and YouTube, pixiv Inc. profits from membership charges and advertisements displayed to users. Also, the company raises revenue by holding off-line events and selling tie-in goods and books. For example, pixiv Inc. organised an off-line event titled “pixiv Festa” in Harajuku, Tokyo, from February to March in 2009. In this event, 145 pixiv users’ works were printed on A1 size posters and displayed for attendees who paid 500 JPY for admission. Visitors to the event were allowed to put star-shaped seals and tags on their favourite works so that they could enjoy communication at the exhibition site in the same, interactive way they do on pixiv. An article in IT Media (27 Feb 2009) reported that one artist who exhibited his fan work, Kisaichijin, was a part-time worker in Fukushima prefecture hoping to become a professional illustrator, and that he decided to contribute to pixiv Festa to “listen to the real response to his works.”

Pixiv Inc. also sells books and DVDs in which they collect, with users’ permission, the works uploaded on pixiv. These for-profit products include the Pixiv Year Book, published annually since 2009, Pixiv Girls Collection, which focuses on beautiful young girls, and the Pixiv Hall of Fame, a DVD of selected works viewed in a slideshow. Pixiv Inc. pays monetary compensation to users whose works are in such products, but the compensation is not very high, partly because each contributor has at most a few pages and is not a professional illustrator. Considering that sales of such products are to some extent guaranteed by the considerable numbers of pixiv users, it can be said that pixiv Inc. has successfully established a business model to convert users’ participation into economic profit.

Moreover, pixiv has the potential to function as a career conduit for amateur painters and illustrators. For instance, Ubiquitous Entertainment Inc., a Japanese company based in Tokyo, recruited an amateur artist active on pixiv as the principal art designer for Elysion in the Sky, a social networking RPG for mobile phones. The art director of the company was looking for a new talent to design their new products and found the artist’s work posted on a pixiv project subsite entitled Pixiv Fantasia 4, a user-led project featuring sword and sorcery fantasies. Users who join Pixiv Fantasia can choose their affiliation from 5 fictional countries and upload their works to support the country to which they belong. The countries sometimes conduct wars against each other, and the number of page views of works supporting the fighting countries decides the result of the battle. The CEO and the art director of the company went to Hiroshima to meet the artist and offer her a job based on her work in the project (Shimizu 2010). Before the emergence of Web 2.0, this situation would hardly have been imaginable in Japan, where cultural capital is concentrated in Tokyo.

Elysion in the Sky might be an exceptional case in which an amateur artist in a rural area seemed to be treated with respect. However, there are certain commercial companies that seek to exploit illustrators on pixiv on the grounds that the majority of amateur pixiv users have little knowledge of commercial customs such as the average price for illustration. In particular, IT enterprises that had recently established new content-oriented projects meant to harness the momentum of the social game boom in Japan, likewise are not usually in the habit of handing a new order for illustrations to amateur illustrators. An article written by a businessperson on Nikkei Business Associe shows what would happen in such a circumstance: “[i]f you find students who can draw or paint for your company’s game, you can produce a game at an unbelievably low cost” (Yanagisawa 2010). Companies regard pixiv as a source of cheap labour for cost reduction.

As such, pixiv is not a utopian space where a gift economy can operate in isolation from commercial interests. Although Barbrook’s “anarcho-communism sponsored by corporate capital” reflects the reality of the contemporary capitalist society compared to the preceding theorists, his view is still too optimistic or utopian. In Homesteading the Noosphere, Eric Raymond (2000) does not perceive hacker culture as an ideal system that is free from capitalism. Rather, he argues that hacker culture is a system in which people seek reputations from others. Since software is shared freely, the only criterion of competitiveness is the status of one’s reputation among others. Based on a world view that “[t]he verdict of history seems to be that free-market capitalism is the globally optimal way to cooperate for economic efficiency,” Raymond argues that “in a similar way, the reputation-game gift culture is the globally optimal way to cooperate for generating (and checking!) high-quality creative work.” In brief, Raymond regards gift economy as a social structure organised according to the logic of economic efficiency. Tiziana Terranova (2004) is similarly skeptical of Barbrook’s optimistic view of the possibility of a gift economy. Citing John Hovarth’s comment that “the free stuff is either a product that gets you hooked on to another one or makes you just consume more time on the net,” Terranova stresses that the digital economy has shared the traits of both a gift economy and late-capitalism since 1994. From a Marxist standpoint, free labour is the ideal working condition under capitalism precisely because capitalists do not then need to pay for the labour. While late-capitalism created an alternative space for free labour, it also ultimately capitalised on that labour.

To reiterate, Raymond and Terranova regard the online gift economy as an optimised sphere for late capitalism. They believe late capitalism is so powerful that it can exploit free labour within the gift economy while simultaneously enabling the gift economy. Their views are entirely applicable to our study of pixiv: the company encourages a reputation-game among users to foster the gift economy and, then, harvests the fruits to ship them to the market. As a commercial company, pixiv Inc. created a system to profit from users’ free labour. In this sense, as Terranova warned, the conditions of late capitalism allow for the utilisation of fans’ participation and free labour in pixiv.

On the other hand, it is undeniable that the economic incentive that drove pixiv Inc. did provide its users with a new, unique, and financially sustainable ecology for communication and pleasure, as well as official channels through which users could distinguish themselves. Even if the compensation for inclusion in pixiv Inc. print compilations is small, users are likely to be happy and proud of publishing their works in print. At the same time, users express collaborative creativity beyond the expectation and original conception of the site by pixiv Inc. As shown in Piku-gaku, users gave birth to a creative cultural practice that goes beyond implemented functions on the site. Of course, one can argue that the company and the market can exploit such voluntary creativity, and this argument is not totally wrong. However, just as dōjin circles in a variety of genres and media functioned as nurseries for professional creators, some users trained in the pixiv gift economy later became successful in commercial markets. Although we should not overemphasise such exceptional examples, pixiv should not be understood as merely a means of exploitation by commercial capitalism.

4. Copyright in Pixiv

The treatment of copyright in each and between the two economies is a notable example revealing the complexity between the two economies. As has already been explained, users’ tacit waiving of copyright encourages communication and collaborative creativity on pixiv. By adding “you-can” tags, users make it possible for others to adopt their works to make fan art freely. Such a tag use constitutes a form of gift-giving in the pixiv gift economy. However, a problem occurs here. The pixiv economy does not consist of copyright-free works alone. In actuality, users upload many secondary works based on copyrighted commercial works. If the pixiv gift economy were fully isolated from the commercial economy in the real world, this problem would never arise. However, as discussed so far, the pixiv gift economy is dependent on the commercial economy. Thus, pixiv touches on various issues related to copyright.

In the Japanese legal system, a copyright holder needs to claim the infringement of his/her copyright for a court to recognise the violation in fan art. In other words, secondary works created by manga societies in high school and colleges or the dōjin groups were not officially (but potentially) illegal; accordingly, the copyright of the works belongs to the secondary fan creators unless or until the original copyright holder claims copyright infringement. Therefore, Japanese fans of copyrighted manga and anime prefer to circulate their fan works within their closed community to avoid legal issues. In fact, many commercial manga authors—copyright holders—have been fostered in dōjin circles and therefore understand the activity of such fans. Manga publishers holding intellectual property rights to the original works do not usually problematise the circulation of secondary works because they know such fans support the sales of the originals on the market.

While smaller dōjin circles did not have to consider copyright issues too seriously, the Comic Market, where vast numbers of self-published books are sold annually, struggled to find a way to avoid legal trouble. One important principle of the Comic Market repeatedly mentioned in Comic Market Manual (Komiketto Manyuaru) (2013, p. 4) and on the official Website is this: “there are no customers; everybody is a participant.” The Comic Market requires that even visitors who do not sell their self-published books think of themselves as participants. First of all, this requirement is for the safety of visitors because defining visitors as participants rather than customers will help minimise risks of injury by encouraging the visitors to behave considerably in such a big event where more than 150,000 individuals come on each day, according to statistics from 2016. However, the strategy of enforcing “participation” also has another dimension, namely, securing the entire event and participants against legal claims related to copyright. According to the logic of the Comic Market, all visitors are participants of non-commercial dōjin activities who are distributing their secondary fan arts within a closed group. Thus, the distribution of secondary fan works is not commercial but just a dispersion among fans regardless of whether the work is sold or acquired for free.

Pixiv Inc. found itself in a similar position to that of the Comic Market regarding copyright because a non-negligible portion of works uploaded to the site is based on copyrighted materials. At one point the company tried to solve this problem by introducing the concept of “the commons,” an idea originated from Lawrence Lessig, which aims to enhance distribution and the sharing of ideas by intentionally limiting intellectual property rights. Well before pixiv Inc. introduced the idea of the commons into their service, for example, the video streaming site Niconico Dōga established Niconi-Commons, a set of copyright rules, so that users could create secondary fan works based on works of Osamu Tezuka. Pixiv Inc. studied the possibility of introducing a similar regulatory framework, planning to implement new copyright guidelines under the name “pixiv Commons” into their service (Pixiv Developer’s Blog, 18 Nov 2008). With the idea of pixiv Commons, pixiv sought to provide a flexible platform for users to control the range of secondary use of their works without interfering with a valuable function pixiv serves as a social networking service.

However, pixiv did not implement the guideline, continuing to rely on the tacit understanding among users. The failure to enforce the pixiv Commons shows the plight pixiv Inc. faces between the different functional principles of gift and commercial economy. If all the uploaded artworks are entirely original or based on copyright-free materials, it is natural and legal to recognise the uploaded works’ originality and the creator’s copyright. Such a situation is ideal for the company, from Raymond and Terranova’s point of view, because pixiv Inc. can make as much profit from the resource on the site as it wants without worrying about potential copyright infringement. In that case, pixiv Inc. could have easily enacted pixiv Commons to enhance communication, collaboration, and participation among users in the gift economy and thereby maximising the company’s profit. However, many works are, again, based on copyrighted works and characters. As a commercial enterprise following the established rules of the commercial market, pixiv Inc. cannot take the risk that by recognising copyright of fan arts, the copyright holders of the original materials can then claim copyright infringement. In other words, if pixiv Inc. enacted pixiv Commons and officially recognised users’ copyright, it would necessarily provoke copyright holders of the original commercial works into challenging pixiv Inc.’s profiting from technically illegal fan arts. Thus, pixiv Inc. decided not to touch this sensitive issue, while pixiv users adopted the same logic established by the Comic Market, leaving the problem of copyright violation in a gray zone.

The case study of copyright treatment shows how pixiv avoids confrontation between these two economies to enable its business model to operate across both. In conjunction with the theoretical arguments we surveyed, these examples demonstrate that it is idealistic and naïve to think that a gift economy can be free from the commercial economy. To return to Barbrook’s assertion that “anarcho-communism is now sponsored by corporate capital,” in the case of pixiv, too, mutually confrontational economic principles co-exist at the intersection of gift and commercial economies.

5. Pixiv and Japanese Art World: Case Study of the Chaos Lounge Incident

The previous section of this paper examined how gift and commercial economies coexist by negotiating the fundamental confrontation between the two. This confrontation and negotiation between the two different principles can be observed from another perspective. In this section, we further focus on the politico-economic aspects of pixiv by contrasting them with the Japanese art world.

Having based its service on targeting amateur illustrators interested in anime and manga expression, pixiv has also recently aroused the interest of the Japanese art world. Murakami Takashi, a Japanese contemporary artist who made artworks based on traditional Japanese art and otaku culture targeting the global art market, enthusiastically introduced pixiv into the Japanese art scene. His production company, Kaikai Kiki Co., Ltd., hosted an exhibition of pixiv works in Taipei from June to August in 2010. This exhibition included 30 works selected by Kaikai Kiki Co. from about 550 works presented in the past Pixiv Festa, plus works accepted from Taiwanese pixiv users (Kaikai Kiki, 2010). After this event, a close partnership between Kaikai Kiki Inc. and pixiv Inc. continued. The two companies organised several mutually beneficial events: a one-day bus trip to a workshop held in Kaikai Kiki studio in Saitama prefecture; a viewing in Kaikai Kiki’s newly opened gallery; and a joint new year party in January 2011 (Pixiv Developer’s Blog, 17 Dec 2010). They also co-organised the PixKiki Analog Exhibition at Higashi Nakano, Tokyo. Kaikai Kiki Inc. and pixiv Inc. determined the criteria for works shown in the exhibition as follows:

  1. All contributors must be pixiv users.
  2. All works displayed on the site must be original and non-digital works.
  3. All works displayed on the site must be purchasable.
  4. The contributors decide the prices for their works, while the gallery gets half of total sales as an exhibition fee. (Pixiv 2010).

These conditions themselves are not unfair or unusual as a contractual relationship between art galleries and artists in the Japanese art industry. However, it is evident that in the case of this exhibition, the commercial custom of the art world, with which Kaikai Kiki is familiar, overrode pixiv’s basic concept of free non-commercial communication via drawing. The “original and non-digital” criteria mentioned in the second condition deny pixiv’s characteristic as an online community of fans’ secondary work. As is readily apparent, the second condition is necessary to make the third possible. The gallery cannot sell digitally-reproducible secondary works of copyrighted materials as fine art. If exhibited works cannot be sold as art, Kaikai Kiki Inc. cannot profit from this exhibition, thus nullifying the conditions on which the organisation provided its gallery space.

What this cooperation between pixiv Inc. and Kaikai Kiki Inc. reflects is pixiv Inc.’s shift from being a space for online participants, to a business operating in accordance with the commercial and aesthetic logic of the art world. This change had necessarily caused a discussion among pixiv users who put more emphasis on the participatory and communal aspects. Some pixiv users resented the Japanese art world’s intrusion, not to mention the art world’s incorporation of pixiv into its logic and the threat of commercialisation represented in Murakami, an artist who had established a successful career by interpreting local cultural practice in Japan into the global logic of art.

The so-called Chaos Lounge incident further exemplifies the conflicts between these different discursive spaces and pixiv gift economy’s strongest resistance against the capitalist logic of the contemporary art market in Japan. Chaos Lounge is a group of young Japanese artists who use anime and manga images on the Internet, including one derived from pixiv, to create their artworks and justified their use by applying artistic methods. Uso Fujishiro, Chaos Lounge’s founder, was an active user of pixiv, and in 2008 he began inviting other pixiv users to organise group exhibitions in the real world. Chaos Lounge was a name of one of their group exhibitions at this moment. The exhibitions hosted by him functioned largely a social occasion, a place for pixiv users to establish friendships outside of the online space. The group had produced certain experimental artworks mobilising the collective and anonymous imagination on the Internet. This collective imagination was realised, for example, in works such as Let’s Make Tsukasa (Tsukasa o tsukurou, Fig 4) presented in GEISAI 14, one of the art events organised by Murakami Takashi, in March 2010. Let’s Make Tsukasa was a three-dimensional live-action painting of Tsukasa, a popular anime character, made by pixiv users (Chaos Lounge, Explanation of Exhibited Works). As a Japanese art citric Sawaragi Noi points out, the necrophilic expression of Let’s Make Tsukasa had a potential to represent a networked subjectivity and desire on the Internet (Sawaragi, April 28 2010).

Figure 4. Let’s Make Tsukasa (left front) in Takahashi Collection Hibiya (courtesy of Chaos Lounge)

Watabe and Abe, Figure 4

In the meanwhile, Yohei Kurose, an artist and critic, eventually joined the group exhibitions, renamed themselves as Chaos Lounge and published “The Declaration of Chaos Lounge.” His writing served to sharpen the movement’s critical potential. To clarify the logic by which Chaos Lounge justified their use of other amateur artists’ works without permission, we would like to cite a part of this declaration.

Google, 2ch, mixi, Flickr, YouTube Niconico Dōga, Twitter, Tumblr and so on. Chaos Lounge existed within the change of infrastructure called architecture. Anonymous imagination swirls and artworks less than artworks and content less than content flickered there; however, lumps who became aware of their authorship gathered there. The expanding architecture never recognises the mystique of art. There, everything is visualised, categorised, and manipulatable. There is no human inner world. Intelligence, sensibility, and everything is systematically assembled on the architecture. Human inner world evaporates by the engineering intervention of the architecture (Chaos Lounge, About, translation by the authors).

“Architecture” in their declaration is a technical term originally coined by Lawrence Lessig and developed by a Japanese critic Hamano Satoshi in 2008. The term architecture refers to the environment designed to control human behaviour, and Hamano adopted the concept to reinterpret the online media such as Facebook and people’s behaviour on the Internet. Armed with the idea of architecture, Chaos Lounge tried to demythologise the subjectivity and creativity of artists and human beings; from their point of view, the human mind becomes describable in engineering terms. Thus, the creation of art based on human subjectivity becomes impossible. In the part following the citation, the manifesto says that Chaos Lounge “collects the outcomes of calculation automatically processed by architecture” and “then, becomes another architecture to process a new calculation.” While this notion is quite vague, what they actually did was not so mysterious as might at first appear from reading the manifesto. Chaos Lounge justified its arbitrary use of visual images on the Internet because it imagined and defined itself as a non-human “architecture” that transcend human imagination. Simulationists’ appropriation techniques already institutionalised in the art world gave another justification for Chaos Lounge to use other artists’ works under the name of art.

It is not surprising that Murakami, who adopted the appropriation technique partially in his style, paid attention to Chaos Lounge as being representative of young, talented artists. After 2010, Chaos Lounge organised exhibitions at the Kaikai Kiki Gallery with Murakami’s complete support. After Bijyutsu Techō, a longstanding art magazine, published a feature on Chaos Lounge and the group’s close partnerships with both Murakami and pixiv Inc., the Japanese art world focused its attention on pixiv even more closely (Jun 2010). However, this new scrutiny and the activities of Chaos Lounge vis-à-vis the existing pixiv community caused various controversies, which led to discontent among many ordinary pixiv users. By 2011, some pixiv users were openly questioning the legal and ethical legitimacy of Chaos Lounge’s artworks, and their use of pixiv images as sources, on the Internet. For instance, Fujishiro made a blurred copy of a picture from a music CD jacket of a popular TV anime series by exposing it to water and presented it with his signature at one of their art events. The designer of the music CD jacket criticised Fujishiro’s action on his Twitter account (Kanaya, 15:32 (JST), July 26, 2011). However, Fujishiro kept presenting the wet and blurred copies without permission at the site and even sold it for-profit with other wet and blurred images originated by other artists. Chaos Lounge often utilised images from pixiv and even let the visitors to their event stamp with their feet on the copies of drawings in the name of art.

Eventually, Pixiv users began attacking Chaos Lounge for the ways in which the group’s artistic activities ignored the rules of the pixiv gift economy. Users took advantage of Chaos Lounge’s fundamental assertion that “images from the Internet are free” by uploading Chaos Lounge’s works to pixiv with the addition of a “contemporary art” tag. If pixiv Inc. tolerated Chaos Lounge’s use of other users’ works without permission, the policy should have applied to general users as well. However, according to an article in IT Media, pixiv Inc. immediately deleted Chaos Lounge’s works with “contemporary art” tags uploaded by anonymous pixiv users, yet never deleted Chaos Lounge works produced using other pixiv users’ works (27 July 2016). Angry users reported pixiv Inc.’s actions on the Internet. Other users, who regarded pixiv Inc.’s reaction as proof of their collusion with Chaos Lounge and Murakami Takashi, moved away from pixiv to other social networking services. Still, other users began experimental uploads of works with the “contemporary art” tag to test pixiv Inc.’s deletion standards, while also sharing the information on the Internet to broadcast and criticise the close relationship between pixiv Inc. and Chaos Lounge. As a result of such users’ activity, many users in the pixiv gift economy recognised Chaos Lounge’s artistic activities: Fujishiro’s wet and blurred copies of other pixiv users’ works; performative trampling of users’ works; and the commercial sale of pixiv users’ works without permission.

One work, commissioned from the theorist Azuma Hiroki at the time of the 2011 Tōhoku Disaster incited another controversy. Umezawa Kazuki, another artist who played a central role in Chaos Lounge, made a piece of work featuring a character Kimekona (Chimeric Konata) or Moetron in the English-speaking world at Azuma’s request. Kimekona is a mosaic of various anime characters based on Konata, the heroine of a TV anime series called Lucky Star. Kimekona is a highly exaggerated collage of “moe” elements, reflective of the argument Azuma made in his work Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals. Kimekona was created as a collaborative work by anonymous users on Futaba Channel, an online BBS specialised for image sharing, and 4chan, English-language version of Futaba Channel. Futaba Channel users, recognising the technical illegality of their creation in terms of copyright, hid it from the outside world within their online community, establishing an informal agreement that Kimekona constituted a community property only within the digital space of Futaba Channel. Thus, Umezawa’s appropriation of Kimekona as his work met with strong objections.

Chaos Lounge tried to connect the collaborative creation in pixiv to the functional logic of the contemporary art world. This attempt makes sense, from the standpoint of the art world. Murakami himself established his career as an artist by blending traditional Japanese painting techniques with the content of contemporary otaku culture, relying on the usual artistic practice of appropriation as well as on the reconstruction of familiar characters from anime and manga to develop his signature style. What Chaos Lounge was trying to do was similar to what Murakami did. However, there was a difference between them. According to Chaos Lounge’s manifesto, they wanted to present their works as if they bore no trace of the creativity of the original artists. By describing composite artworks as the “results of calculation automatically processed by architecture” in the manifesto, the young artists tried to put their activity in the context of collective imagination. This logic is not entirely unreasonable. If their artistic activities had strictly followed their words, Chaos Lounge’s activities might have been theoretically understood as a materialisation of collective subjectivity which overcame the Cartesian one. As mentioned above, Let’s Make Tsukasa, showed such a potential. However, the major theoretical problem of Chaos Lounge’s logic of “architecture” was that they could not fully erase themselves as originators, despite emphasising the collective agency expressed through architecture. In other words, they were trapped by the logic of commercialised contemporary art market, which still requires author for the system.

Even though appropriation is a legitimate method of creating art in the contemporary art world, the pixiv gift economy could not accept the logic of the art world and criticised Chaos Lounge. According to the logic of the gift economy, pixiv users felt that Chaos Lounge stole common property circulating within their gift economy and attached a signature to it to use it for profit in the commercial economy of the contemporary art world. Pixiv users were afraid that “where… the market alone rules, and particularly where its benefits derive from the conversion of gift property to commodities, the fruits of gift exchange are lost” (Hyde p.49). Therefore, pixiv users who internalised the morals of the gift economy criticised Chaos Lounge for the similar reason that Melanesians criticise people who conducted Kula (gift exchange) as if it is Gimwali (commercial trade) (Mauss pp.22-23, 1970). While Chaos Lounge fully appropriated other pixiv users’ works, Murakami Takashi never did so, even if his works contained obvious references to others’ creations. By maintaining the realm of craftsmanship, Murakami could dodge criticisms on the originality of his works. Murakami successfully maintained his authorship by making his works with his hands, and strategically establishing himself as an originator in the art market. In contrast to Murakami’s conventional performance of authorship, as their declaration clearly states, Chaos Lounge is critical of authorship. However, the fundamental contradiction of Chaos Lounge is that they expressed anonymous and collaborative creativity in works on pixiv only through their authorship. Even if Chaos Lounge’s self-contradiction about authorship and collective creativity is tolerated, pixiv gift economy could never welcome their activity. Gifts in a gift economy are neither altruistic gifts nor free resources that everyone can use freely. The radical concept of “information is free on the Internet” praised on the Internet and fundamental to the Chaos Lounge’s manifesto was not acceptable for pixiv gift economy.


This paper investigated pixiv as an online artistic space for amateur artists from three different, but more or less overlapping, perspectives. From the cultural perspective, this study started by focusing on pixiv users and outlined the process by which their digital social space was formed. Then, this study traced the origin of pixiv back to dōjin culture and illustrated how the latter provided cultural and historical resources that shaped pixiv’s specific structure and development between commercial and gift economies. Finally, we discussed two instances of copyright treatment and the conflict between pixiv and the contemporary art world in Japan.

Three key findings emerged.

First, this study argues that pixiv may not be understandable as a single and monolithic communication medium; rather it is necessary to study pixiv as a dynamic communication process. We show that pixiv users both made do with what pixiv provided for its commercial benefit and also used these existing tools to generate a participatory culture within the service. For instance, pixiv users, not pixiv, invented “you-can” subtags and enriched participatory culture for their own purposes accordingly. These subtags are historically and culturally bounded and may become obsolete in the future, but the creation and development of these subtags demonstrate that pixiv users engaged in participatory cultural practices, remaking pixiv as their own cultural resource. This finding indicates that in studying a new online medium, it is necessary to explore the communication between its users.

Second, whereas online media like pixiv are technically accessible to people around the world, it is perhaps important to take into account the national context where the media are embedded. Whereas pixiv as a Japanese company provided an online space where users engaged in participatory cultural practice, it is perhaps impossible to understand the space in isolation from the cultural, historical and politico-economical aspects of Japanese society. No doubt, it is important to avoid essentialising notions of national culture for an analysis of online platforms, but our case studies of the copyright treatment and the conflict with the Japanese art world indicates that focusing on national contexts provides rich resources for us to better understand online phenomena.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, this study indicates that pixiv should be understood as a contested space between commercial and gift economies. The two case studies exemplify that the commercial economy requires Cartesian subject, the strict distinction between self and other; the distinguishable property holder is necessary for appropriate distribution of profit in capitalism, while the artist as a source of originality is indispensable to maintain the art market. On the contrary, relying on the contents produced in the capitalist economy, the gift economy in pixiv operates without the assumption of Cartesian subject and, thus, necessarily contests with the assumption in the external commercial economies. Therefore, the failed implementation of pixiv Commons and the strong bashing on Chaos Lounge should be understood as expressions of such systematic confrontation. In this sense, this study clarifies the complicity between the two economies we have to consider in imagining alternative modes of an economy to the global capitalism.

This study combines three different approaches to examine pixiv with a particular focus on its users. In doing so, this study examines only certain cases of users’ artistic practices. In order to capture how these users engaged in making pixiv a participatory space for their own purposes, it would be necessary to interview all active pixiv users. Furthermore, this study is based more or less on anecdotal evidence concerning the conflicts between two different kinds of economies in contemporary Japanese society. However, the findings of this study suggest a way, in which amateur artists collaborated with each other to engage in making pixiv a participatory artistic space in contemporary Japanese society.


We are grateful to James Polk, Lindsey Nelson, Sarah Walsh, and Henry Jenkins for their helpful and constructive comments. Kurose Yohei of Chaos Lounge kindly permitted us to use the picture of Let’s Make Tsukasa on their Website. Finally, we appreciate that Matsutake and emuwai generously allowed us to “smuggle” their artworks on pixiv into academia.


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About the Authors

Kohki Watabe is a Ph.D. Candidate at Cinema and Media Studies program, University of Southern California. He received B. A. and M. A. degrees from the University of Tokyo. He is interested in where different systems face each other such as Japan and the United States, fine art and pop culture, and capitalism and cultural participation.

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Yasuhito Abe is an Assistant Professor at Department of Media, Journalism and Communications at Doshisha University, Japan. He received a doctoral degree in communication from the Annenberg School for Communications and Journalism at the University of Southern California.

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