February 7, 2012
The cosplay community and content management systems

This was born out of a Skype conversation with Andy a few weeks ago (by way of the Dewey decimal system, incidentally). Basically - being a design nerd, I ended up going off on a long rant about how basically every cosplay community site (ie, places you can join rather than an individual or group's personal cosplay page) has the worst interface ever (or absurd arbitrary rules for joining, for the few I haven't tried), and are terrible at actually sharing information about costumes and process, which is ostensibly what they are about. And she replied that in the cosplay community nobody cares about process, so why would they bother? Which, honestly, is completely true, and kind of depressing.

To steal a way of looking at things from the fiber arts community, there are kind of two ways at looking at a crafting project, mindset-wise - the process mindset, and the product mindset. They're sort of a spectrum: the process extreme is that you could be making absolute gibberish in physical form and it wouldn't matter, because the joy is in the making; and the product extreme is that every step of making the thing could make you want to go into the wilderness and gouge your eyes out with blackened sticks, but as long as the end result is what you wanted, you're okay with that.

Most people, obviously, fall somewhere between the two. For me, when I'm doing knitting or crochet, I tend a little more towards the process side of things - small mistakes won't get me in a huff, whereas when I sew I'm more concerned with end results. Recreation costuming (that is, trying to duplicate exactly an outfit that already exists somewhere) is, by necessity product-focused. You have a strong incentive to make your product as close to the source as possible. The cosplay community (focused mostly on doing Eastern-media recreation costuming) goes about this by foisting a lot of the product onto the physical attributes of the costumer, rather than the costume itself.

This drives me crazy. Crazier, I suppose. Because this is a community where someone who handsewed a fully-lined jacket with bias tape trim and perfectly matched buttons will be discarded for someone who bought their costume on ebay but by genetic coincidence looks more like the character. The latter person is, by the community's standards, 'better'. Also, as an aside, you want to know why everyone thinks Japanese cosplayers are the bestest ever? 1) everyone links around the good pictures (I've gone to actual Japanese cosplay sites, and honestly, some of them a pretty crap too) and 2) photoshopping the hell out of things in the norm. You don't need crafting skill when you have a photographer with photoshop!

As you cross boundaries into other types of costuming, the process/product balance starts to shift. Western-media recreation costumers are also product-focused, but in ways that take into account the effort put into process and technique (google the 501st or the Rebel Legion, for example). Then the steampunk and the more freeform original-design edges of the sci-fi/fantasy get even more into the 'how' of things rather than the end result.

And, well, I love talking about process. Which is why I post WIP photos everywhere and go on long rambles and have most of a thousand-word post on working with plastics written up for tumblr. I want to make beautiful things. And I want to not be constantly judged on my results of genetic roulette while I do so. Which is basically why I avoid the bulk of the cosplay community (and particularly the ones that love to fat-shame. That shit's not on)

Back on the topic of cosplay websites. So you have a beautiful costume and you want to share photos of it! Awesome! Here are your choices:

-CosplayLab - lets you upload one photo per costume. Writing about it has to fall into one of the questions the page asks for. Still has one of the better frontend and backend interfaces I've seen.

-Cosplay.com - The behemoth. Used mostly for the forums. Uploading photos is an exercise in futility, and trying to create costume pages equally so. Seriously, it would be easier to make a Geocities page by hand, and it would look nicer too. Search has no real set backend database so you're pretty much relying on the cosplayer to have used whatever character/series name spelling you are. Searches also don't filter well.

-ACP/ACE - Okay. To be straight up, I find the idea of having different sites for male and female costumers to be 1) super creepy and 2) borderline offensive (for bonus creepy, for a long time only the female version existed), so I don't have an account and can't comment on the backend. The database search is pretty good, though but not good enough to make up for the creepy.

-Cure - used to be Japanese-only, and while they have an English interface now, it's honestly still Japanese only. I can't even comment on the site because it's not viewable to non-members, but I've been told that it's pretty much just image-sharing.

-DeviantArt - NOT EVEN A COSPLAY WEBSITE and yet, it's one of the better ones for uploading photos, linking to other users in the pictures, and sharing with groups.

So, in other words, all terrible. This is even more highlighted by my participation in Ravelry, which is a site for knitters/crocheters/spinners, and basically has a user interface that is made of unicorns and rainbows, metaphorically speaking. Seriously. The design is that good, and the site has one coder. Yes. One. By way of example for non-Ravelers, here's a project page as shown to a logged in viewer. It's got lots of nice links to the yarn I used, and the pattern, and yardage info, and nicely displayed photos next to a freeform 'Notes' section, after the more technical info. Here's the same project, on the editing side of things. Lots of nice info boxes! A button to click to search for the yarn I put in, and match it to ones in the database! I can share it with as many Ravelry groups as I'm in to be listed in group projects!

My dream is to have something like this for cosplay. Instead of a pattern database, you'd have a character database, and be able to magic-link to that, so searching would be easy. Instead of having info like 'needle size' and 'yardage', you'd be able to add a 'compenent' - say 'Gloves' or 'Shirt' or whatever you felt like breaking it down into, and you could talk about each piece individually, as well as having a general 'Notes' section. Have it so you can share the costume with a con you wore it at, so someone can look up the con and see all the costumes that were a part of it!

Unfortunately, getting a community site off the ground is a lot of work, both in coding and in attracting enough users to make it a viable community. My smaller goal is to maybe code an easily deployable content management system (like the blogging software for your webserver. Hopefully someone other than me actually knows about those these days....) that would make adding costumes easy. You wouldn't be able to interlink things the way you could on a community website, but you could do everything else, and have skinning functions, too.

Of course, first I gotta learn Perl *g*