A social app for creatives, Cara grew from 40k to 650k users in a week because artists are fed up with Meta’s AI policies

A social app for creatives, Cara grew from 40k to 650k users in a week because artists are fed up with Meta’s AI policies

Artists have finally had enough with Meta’s predatory AI policies, but Meta’s loss is Cara’s gain. An artist-run, anti-AI social platform, Cara has grown from 40,000 to 650,000 users within the last week, catapulting it to the top of the App Store charts.

Instagram is a necessity for many artists, who use the platform to promote their work and solicit paying clients. But Meta is using public posts to train its generative AI systems, and only European users can opt out, since they’re protected by GDPR laws. Generative AI has become so front-and-center on Meta’s apps that artists reached their breaking point.

“When you put [AI] so much in their face, and then give them the option to opt out, but then increase the friction to opt out… I think that increases their anger level — like, okay now I’ve really had enough,” Jingna Zhang, a renowned photographer and founder of Cara, told TechCrunch.

Cara, which has both a web and mobile app, is like a combination of Instagram and X, but built specifically for artists. On your profile, you can host a portfolio of work, but you can also post updates to your feed like any other microblogging site.

Zhang is perfectly positioned to helm an artist-centric social network, where they can post without the risk of becoming part of a training dataset for AI. Zhang has fought on behalf of artists, recently winning an appeal in Luxembourg court over a painter who copied one of her photographs, which she shot for Harper’s Bazaar Vietnam.

“Using a different medium was irrelevant. My work being ‘available online’ was irrelevant. Consent was necessary,” Zhang wrote on X.

Zhang and three other artists are also suing Google for allegedly using their copyrighted work to train Imagen, an AI image generator. She’s also a plaintiff in a similar lawsuit against Stability AI, Midjourney, DeviantArt and Runway AI.

“Words can’t describe how dehumanizing it is to see my name used 20,000+ times in MidJourney,” she wrote in an Instagram post. “My life’s work and who I am—reduced to meaningless fodder for a commercial image slot machine.”

Artists are so resistant to AI because the training data behind many of these image generators includes their work without their consent. These models amass such a large swath of artwork by scraping the internet for images, without regard for whether or not those images are copyrighted. It’s a slap in the face for artists – not only are their jobs endangered by AI, but that same AI is often powered by their work.

“When it comes to art, unfortunately, we just come from a fundamentally different perspective and point of view, because on the tech side, you have this strong history of open source, and people are just thinking like, well, you put it out there, so it’s for people to use,” Zhang said. “For artists, it’s a part of ourselves and our identity. I would not want my best friend to make a manipulation of my work without asking me. There’s a nuance to how we see things, but I don’t think people understand that the art we do is not a product.”

This commitment to protecting artists from copyright infringement extends to Cara, which partners with the University of Chicago’s Glaze project. By using Glaze, artists who post their work on Cara have an added layer of protection against being scraped for AI.

Other projects have also stepped up to defend artists. Spawning AI, an artist-led company, has created an API that allows artists to remove their work from popular datasets. But that opt-out only works if the companies that use those datasets honor artists’ requests. So far, HuggingFace and Stability have agreed to respect Spawning’s Do Not Train registry, but artists’ work cannot be retroactively removed from models that have already been trained.

“I think there is this clash between backgrounds and expectations on what we put on the internet,” Zhang said. “For artists, we want to share our work with the world. We put it online, and we don’t charge people to view this piece of work, but it doesn’t mean that we give up our copyright, or any ownership of our work.”

Image Credits: Cara

An avid Go player and fan, Zhang learned about the potential of AI eight years ago, when Google’s AlphaGo system defeated Lee Sedol, one of the best players in the world.

“We will never have the same experience as pre-AlphaGo,” Zhang said. “The beauty and the mystery of Go was that you wanted to see how far and how interesting a human’s play could be. Now, the highest achievement would be if you can defeat an AI.”

But what’s more depressing is that in a recent interview with Google, Sedol said that he might not have become a professional Go player if AlphaGo had existed in his youth.

In a blog post, Zhang explained, “Lee Sedol made so much of Go history and was an icon of our time, a role model for me. So to see him say that if he were to choose again, he wouldn’t become a pro—because of AI. Words can’t adequately describe how heartbroken I feel to hear this.”

But because of Zhang’s interest in Go, she had a head start in thinking about how AI would impact her career as an artist.

Cara isn’t Zhang’s first attempt at building an artist-friendly social network. But aside from the good timing, she thinks Cara has stood the best chance at longevity because she herself has grown as a founder. From managing an esports team to attending Stanford’s Ignite program, she learned how to work in a group.

“I think it’s experience and maturity. You get to learn from all of your previous experiences,” she said. “For me, I was a national athlete for Singapore and then a photographer, and both times I have done really well in the specific fields I’ve chosen, but they’re very individually driven — you just have to be very, very good yourself. Let’s say, my teamwork was not the best.”

Image Credits: Cara

Now, Cara is having its breakthrough moment. But this explosion in popularity doesn’t come without conflict.

Founded in late 2022, Cara is fully bootstrapped, and much of its engineering support comes from volunteers. Any company would struggle with an unexpected 1525% increase in users, let alone one that’s operating with such a small team.

On Wednesday, Zhang opened her email to find a horrible shock: her bill for using Vercel, a web hosting company, would cost $96,280 for the last week. After she posted on X about the bill, Vercel’s vice president of product Lee Robinson replied publicly, claiming that his team attempted to reach out ahead of time – but Zhang was so swamped by the platform’s rapid growth that she missed Vercel’s emails.

“The team and I are standing by, ready to work with you to ensure your app is running as efficiently as possible on our infra,” Robinson wrote to Zhang on X. But it’s unclear how this issue will pan out, and if it could put Cara on life support.

Zhang told TechCrunch that she hasn’t sought out venture funding because she doesn’t want to have to answer to outside investors – and it can’t be easy to find an angel investor who’s committed to supporting the interests of artists.

The next few weeks could be make-or-break for Cara, but at least Zhang has a community of like-minded artists on her side.

“Building a product is a bit like making art,” she said. “I think you just make something that you like as a person, and know not everyone will love it. But some people who have the same point of view, they would, and then you can grow your community from there.”

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