Warning: I haven't really thought this one through, so it might ramble a bit.
I've seen a couple of friends talking on Facebook about "likes" and how they relate to "success", and this has been a sensitive topic for me in the past. I've always felt like an environment guy over a character artist, which, when you are starting out, is a bit disheartening. In general, online, people don't respond as positively to work without characters. In art school, I had to constantly fight the feeling of failure, because my friends were all getting commissions and hundreds of instagram followers, while I felt like I was languishing in the weeds. If they did fan art, the difference was even more extreme. If you've ever tabled at a comic convention and tried to sell your own stuff, you know what happens - hundreds of people swarm to the guy next to you selling Deadpool and sexy Harley Quinn prints, while you get a couple of brief nods, or people actively try to avoid making eye contact. It's gotten so obvious that there are people out there stealing comic art, making some adjustments in photoshop, and then selling "new" prints with great success. Fans are hungry for characters and intellectual properties they know.
Ok - If you want to be a hit at local comic conventions, you know what you have to do.
...but what drives your work? Do you want to be popular? Do you want to make mad cash? Do you want to tell stories? Do you want to work for a studio? Do you want to do freelance "one-off" jobs? Do you want to create your own IP?
For several of these, Facebook "likes" and Instagram followers are pretty key. If you want a "B to C" (business to consumer) model, you need to reach consumers and give them what they want....which probably means characters that they know....easiest way is to do fan art, harder way is to create your own intellectual property and expose enough people that it's known and popular.
If you want to work for a studio, the only people that need to have heard of you are art directors. Same for freelance illustration. Sure, if it is a good fit, having lots of social media followers increases the likelihood that some of those followers are ADs, but there are other ways. You can send postcards. You can attend industry events. You can rely on friends in the industry sharing your work. There are hundreds of artists working every day in the entertainment industry that most people have NEVER heard of. It's not a popularity contest for that industry.
You could even make the case that being too popular could hurt you as a concept artist. We've all seen how "the next big thing" gets copied by thousands of people - some of those copiers may be better at executing than you are! If you have a unique thing, getting it shared online may very well dilute your value to the industry.
There is no wrong answer - There are many different kinds of success, and different skillsets to reach your goals. My skillset and interests didn't push me to instant success with fans - but I had a studio gig before many of my more "popular" classmates. I have other friends that make excellent money at cons, and rely on the odd graphic design job in between for money. I have yet more friends that work a hybrid mix of the two. It's all good, but I think you might want to have an idea where you are trying to get to before you feel super good or bad about where you *are*. You may sell $3000 of Batman fan art at a con, but you are unlikely to trade that into a studio concept art job unless you have additional skills and interests that don't relate.
Don't feel bad if you aren't the god of social media "likes". Sometimes, worrying about that is putting the cart before the horse.
Thanks for reading! Please help me share my blog and get the word out. Every time you guys share, I definitely see an increase in readership - It really matters, and I can't do it without you.