As much as I love the art and science of photography, a part of my psyche cannot help but wonder in which direction photography – specifically, digital photography – is going in the age of social media. My experience with sharing my photography via social media has been a mixture of different experiences, ranging from wonderful to remorseful, from merriment to resentment. There are many positive, captivating sides to sharing one’s photography via the innumerous networks of social media available and there are pessimistic sides that leave me feeling downtrodden and irritable.
I will spare you from going off on an endless diatribe about the negative experiences of digital photography in the social media age. Chances are that you may be a photographer, or know a photographer, who has similar circumstances and grievances. Maybe you are an entrepreneur who has experienced similar scenarios in your own industry. Nevertheless, this article is not about the accolades and laudations of social media and what it has done for digital photography in the 21st century. That would also be a disservice.
Instead, I would like to share a story that gravely disappointed me. It pertains to the widespread and ridiculous myth that photographers are only as good as the number of people who “followed” them, or the size of his or her respective audience online. I had recognized, incrementally over time, that popular people and personalities on social media were equivalent to the “squeaky wheel” metaphor. The squeaky wheel tends to receive the most attention. Nowadays, popular people on social media with thousands or millions of “followers” are the ones who possess the most influence in their respective field of interest or subject matter. Sadly, that same standard applies to popular photographers on social media, be it Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, and the multiple social media networks that feature photo-sharing today.
One can be a lousy photographer with lousy equipment, but if this lousy photographer has a boisterous, outspoken, or humorous personality, he or she could possibly land a commercial contract with a major company. This area delves into the whole subject of extraversion vs. introversion, and I will avoid steering towards that tangent for now, but it does play a role in what we see in social media today. Basically, if I were to summarize this bizarre phenomenon as a simple generalization: the basis of how to find success in Western civilization is not necessarily to be good, but to be unbearably conspicuous as often as possible ad infinitum. If one is both talented and conspicuous, chances for success are greater for that individual. If one is the former and not the latter, chances are not as great, but should lean in one’s favor inevitably…right? If one is the latter and not the former, our strange reality seems to reward this particular trait with success that may not even (or ever) have been solicited by the attention-seeking individual. Desire for attention does not translate into desire for success. Such an outcome cannot be premeditated – or at least, one typically couldn’t predict this phenomenon before social media became a part of our reality. Social media seems to suggest that with the right gimmick, timing, and atmosphere, success can be manufactured. No talent or hard work required.
The point is that the popularity of a photographer on social media often overshadows the quality of the photographer’s content, unless the photographer’s content is exceptional, which is still a matter of opinion from one individual to the next. Many photographers deserve the popularity they’ve earned because they are masters of the art and/or science of photography. Many of these masters also have extensive experience in photography dating back several years or decades.
With our social media tools, however, one does not have to be talented or experienced to be a photographer, or to garner attention from the masses. If you have an audacious attitude, attractive physique, or over-the-top online personality, whichever photos accompany that personality can transform the individual into an internet sensation, thus developing a massive following…which is based on superficial hype instead of bona fide substance.
I will admit that I find most of this stuff to be infernally ridiculous, but this is the Information Age (or, as I have personally dubbed the last several years, the “Age of Idiocy and Anti-Intellectualism”). This is the reality in which we all find ourselves. Talent, know-how, experience, and dedication to one’s craft often seem immaterial when one lauds the work that people find “groundbreaking” nowadays.
This leads me to an episode regarding a third-party photo license company based in New York. For laughs, let’s make up a name and call the company “Lacklustre”. I do not wish to share the company’s real name because it does not deserve the publicity. Plus, what I’m about to share could be considered disparaging to the company.
Before I terminated my membership with Lacklustre, one of its lead associates contacted me with a message that I found distasteful and counterintuitive to the company’s own mission, which was to connect photographers with media buyers seeking photography for different projects and assignments. This company was the bridge between the photographer and the buyer.
I registered with Lacklustre in 2012 or 2013. At the beginning, Lacklustre didn’t charge fees for membership, but if the photographer’s work was chosen by one of Lacklustre’s customers (i.e. an author, advertising agency, publishing firm, or international media conglomerate, etc.), the company would take a percentage of the overall sale for its own income. It wasn’t an outrageous amount, and it explained how the company partially sustained its operations. Its terms for membership and payment for licensing images appeared straightforward, reasonable, and fair.
That’s how it typically starts, right?
Over time, Lacklustre’s popularity increased. In fact, it would be more accurate to say its popularity skyrocketed as more photographers, both professional and amateur, registered. As a result, Lacklustre began to make changes to its membership program, such as charging monthly fees for different tiers of membership. If a photographer paid these fees, he or she was guaranteed to earn the entire sale for a project if the photographer’s work was selected by a media buyer. The obvious catch here was that if a photographer’s work was not chosen, he or she still had to pay monthly fees to Lacklustre. If one chose the membership that cost $60 per month, then Lacklustre made a profit of $720 from that member annually, whether a buyer selected any of her photos for a project or not. As a result, for this new membership fee to make any financial sense or benefit to the photographer, he or she had to hope to earn more than $720 a year through Lacklustre’s various clients.
Alas, many photographers, including myself, began to question the value of this service. I questioned the program even more when the selection process of photography for a buyer’s project resembled a lottery instead of a system based on the merits or requirements for the photos themselves. Additionally, the public profiles of each photographer were reformatted to let people “like” the individual photographer or his or her photos. There was also a new running tally for how many times a photographer’s public profile was viewed or visited. None of these features existed when Lacklustre was just a start-up trying to recruit photographers for membership. Rather, so many of the attractive qualities about Lacklustre from its debut had changed (to me) in a negative way. Lacklustre was raking in thousands of dollars from so many photographers competing for the attention of prospective media buyers. It began to look like a rat race and an obnoxiously excessive waste of time.
I was turned off by this, but then Lacklustre struck me once more, pulling one final gimmick that made me lose respect for the company altogether. One day, in mid-May 2016, I visited the website and had the following message from Lacklustre waiting in my account:
A real quick question for you. We’ve been getting a lot of requests from buyers looking to find great photographers that have a large Instagram following. If you have more than 5,000 followers on Instagram, could you please click on the smiling icon below please? (If you have less than 5,000 followers, click the frowning icon). Thanks!
After I read this message, I was deluged with disgust. Lacklustre was essentially asking me to recruit popular photographers from Instagram. I decided to perform some research. I read some of Lacklustre’s blog articles and the commentaries in response to them. From what I learned, it became clear that having these popular photographers with large followings would be beneficial to Lacklustre’s growing business. That was great for Lacklustre, but why was it asking its member photographers – paying members for Lacklustre’s services – to recruit? Lacklustre’s original mission was to help photographers, be them amateur or professional, popular or unpopular, and showcase their work to buyers. A long-term objective was for Lacklustre’s photographers to eventually develop a professional relationship directly with the buyers for future projects as a result. Reading this letter and the research I conducted thereafter convinced me that Lacklustre’s mission had changed course. It had become yet another company only looking out for its bottom line while having the audacity to ask its paying members to help them find popular Instagram photographers and lure them to Lacklustre.
Come hell or malfunctioning memory cards – there was no way I was going to participate.
Incensed by the message, I felt the urge to deliver a response. Lacklustre’s request was unacceptable to me. Hands hovering above my keyboard, I typed the following retort:
After several years of being a subscriber, I’ve decided it’s time to cancel my membership. The primary reason is that, despite my efforts to follow your guidance about uploading photos to the repository and to my profile, there has been virtually no traction or response to these images.
Before I was registered for your premium account, I had to submit my portfolio for Lacklustre’s consideration numerous times before being accepted. The ongoing lack of response – for what appeared to be several months – gave the impression that my images were not of interest to your network.
There were many times your associates would contact me about a client’s interest in one of my photos, urging me to upload a high-resolution version of the image as soon as possible, only to find out that the potential transaction or deal was inconclusive. I understand that many business deals with buyers do not work out, but I disliked the fact that I was never informed about them. In essence, if there was potential for a sale, I would hear from your associates frequently. Once it became obvious that the sale was not going to happen, I would receive no communication. Instead, I would have to follow up numerous times to find out the status. I believe that status notification should have come from your team. This happened so often that I inevitably expected the same cycle to repeat itself, and it did, leaving me a poor impression on how you communicate with photographers who pay for this service.
Lastly, I was very disappointed to be approached by either the president or one of your team members about recommending people from Instagram for Lacklustre. More specifically, you had asked for recommendations of Instagram photographers who had more than 5,000 followers. This was insulting as it made it clear that Lacklustre also has a bias for quantity of followers instead of quality of photographs, which is, unfortunately, very typical of the way photography is viewed in the ephemeral world of social media. It was an inconsiderate and inappropriate request to the professional photographer who is trying to do business through your network.
In conclusion, I’m very disappointed with my membership and exasperated with my interaction with your associates. I don’t know or understand how you elevate or promote photographers within your network who have not sold as many images compared to those who do frequently. With this premium account, I’m paying you $60 a month, and the account would be worth having if I could break even each year from the investment, but that hasn’t happened, and I don’t predict it will.
Thanks for the experience.
Whether Lacklustre ever received my letter remains uncertain since I never received a response. My guess was that it was not the first time the company had received that kind of complaint, but even a generic reply would have demonstrated some tact, concern, pretense of concern, or professionalism in attempt to retain a dissatisfied member. I cancelled my paid membership, unsubscribed from the daily email distribution, and closed my account soon thereafter. If Lacklustre really wanted to recruit popular photographers from Instagram, I was certain it had the means to develop an algorithm or formulaic method to do this without using its own members for the effort.
Given all of this, I’m disenchanted with the direction in which digital photography is going in the Information Age. Images do not seem to be valued the way they were when initially published, bound, and distributed some 20, 30, or 40 years ago. I remember, as a child, subscribing to different magazines, like National Geographic World. I remember being mesmerized by the images of rare animals and faraway locations on a single-page or double-page spread. Not only that, the images were so captivating that I kept the magazines and would look at them repeatedly years later.
When I fast forward to 2019, it’s heartbreaking that photography has become so ephemeral that one can swipe through hundreds of images in one day on a cellphone application, double-tap on the images one likes, and forget about them almost instantaneously afterwards. It all seems so meaningless.This is not how photography was meant to be consumed, in my humble perspective. Social media, to the horror of most people who rely on photography for their livelihoods, has made digital photography cheap, transient, and significantly less meaningful to the population at large. Also, cellphones have made every person who owns one a “photographer”, whether he or she has any true talent or knack for it. This is part of the reason why, for more than a year, my Twitter and Instagram profiles stated that I was “in pursuit of quality and integrity, not popularity.”
For many individuals who frequently engage in social media, and who may be without concept of when photography was more revered and valued as a source of information, reference, illustration, and artwork, my profile statement on social media may come as an affront or basis of bewilderment.
If social media was not meant for drawing attention to oneself, then why would anyone be using social media in the first case?
What the heck is quality and integrity in 2019?
Both are legitimate inquiries that I pose to myself frequently. It’s part of the reason why I left Facebook at the end of 2014 when I had nearly 20,000 subscribers. (Personally, I don’t like labelling consumers of my content on social media as “followers.” It seems to suggest, albeit vaguely, that they don’t have minds of their own). Most of these subscribers were not even real people. After conducting an in-depth investigation, I discovered they were what we refer to as “bots” in contemporary times. I could never understand why I had so many fans in the Philippines, Bangladesh, and Indonesia until I found out what Facebook had been doing. My recollection of this is still quite bitter…and that was in 2014! Needless to say, Facebook has not been pleasing a lot of people around the world five years later, for significantly similar reasons that are much more treacherous.
Many of my friends and professional contacts told me I was “so brave” to leave, but I didn’t see it that way. It was a deliberate decision to end my social media presence on Facebook because it was a complete waste of time, not to mention thousands of dollars in online advertising fees. It wasn’t brave. It was astute. It was logical.
As an entrepreneur who would love (and still anticipates) to inevitably rely on my photography as my primary source of income, it really doesn’t matter how popular one is on social media networks. If that popularity isn’t yielding any income for one’s business, then it seems rather pointless to remain active on that network over time. I understand that many people who share their images on social media networks may not be professional photographers or entrepreneurs. Some people simply enjoy sharing their entire lives online because they can and possess the tools readily available to achieve this. That is the age in which we live currently.
I still believe social media is effective when it is used properly (a.k.a. not abused). The whole popularity aspect appears to be a byproduct of social media in which too many people have become overly obsessed. The popularity byproduct undermines the reasons why the individual initially became popular. When this fact is also lost to the individual…well, look no further than how we behave with social media today. It’s all about the number of followers that determines that individual’s influence and credibility as a source, but to what end?
Furthermore, should that specific individual be regarded as an expert based on his or her number of followers? A lot of content shared via social media seems pointless unless it comes from a world leader, politician, scientific expert, CEO, celebrity, faux-celebrity, or stranger who has thousands, or even millions, of followers. I take issue with the last three groups in the previous sentence. The more followers one has, the more relevant or important that individual apparently is, and that can be both advantageous or disadvantageous depending on how he or she uses social media. Nevertheless, it is the reality of our time. I continue to struggle with developing strategies on how digital photography can return into its own element, in which the art and science of photography can be truly valued again. Abandoning all social media outlets does not appear to be the solution, but neither is staying on the networks in false anticipation that they’re all going to miraculously evolve into something more sophisticated and intelligent sometime soon.