Social Media is Ruining Photography

Social Media is Ruining Photography

In the U.S. and most industrialized nations, we have a collective infatuation with technology but a poor understanding of its effects – both intended and unintended. We love asking Siri to play our favorite song, but don’t fully consider the privacy implications of allowing the device to persistently listen to us. We love the convenience of smartphones, so much so that we’re willing to engage in destructive behavior like texting while driving. And we love the connectedness of social media, but are virtually powerless to the dopamine-dependent culture of likes and comments.

At this year’s Photo Plus Expo, I had the opportunity to participate in a panel discussion along with Adriana Teresa Letorney (CEO and Founder of Visura), photographer Dusty Wooddell, photographer Rhynna Santos, and moderator Greg Scoblete of PDN to discuss the role and value of social media in photography, and it sparked a lot of competing thoughts.

Is social media ruining photography? A simple yes or no answer is unhelpfully reductive because the answer depends on the context. As the year comes to a close, I thought it would be beneficial to give the topic a more nuanced look on a complex topic that permeates both photography and life in general.

Remember, we’re the product

Sociologist Katherine Cross explained the confounding reality of social media on The Verge’s Why’d You Push that Button podcast:

“You are the product being sold by Facebook, Twitter. It shapes not only how we use social media, but what we do to each other on social media. It creates an environment where people are incentivized to turn other people into content b/c the currency of social media is attention. It’s getting likes, followers, raising one’s profile.

How do you raise your social media profile? You have to create content. And the nature of social media is such that it creates these perverse incentives for people to farm each other for content regardless of consent. Regardless of the ethics of doing so b/c that’s what is salable in that attention economy.”

In other words, connecting people is the byproduct of a system that collects user-generated content and provides an incentive (likes and comments) for us to literally become addicted. This addiction leads us to behave in ways that often flies in the face of standard kindergarten-fare morals and ethics. This reality is the starting and end point for any discussion over the value of social media. Now let’s add some nuance.

Exposure

Social media creates a direct line of communication with an opt-in audience – rendering traditional gatekeepers less important and less potent. In the print days, the gatekeepers were comprised of a narrow band of publications – with historically white photographers, editors and publishers – that led to a homogenous gaze.

Digital publishing effectively drives the cost of publishing to zero. Unfortunately, distribution isn’t as egalitarian. Anyone with a Facebook page is aware of the “pay-to-play” dynamic and algorithms that opaquely decide what content gets seen.

Nevertheless, voices that would otherwise be marginalized, ignored and never be seen can be accessed in fractions of a second through the Internet. And social media enables potential virality. Projects like the various incarnations of “@everyday[insert place name]” have become important to dispel stereotypes of exoticism and otherness.

The ability to directly amass an audience has led to the rise of the influencer class. As pundits debate the rise and fall of influencer marketing, it is clear that photographers like Chris Burkhard, Brandon Woefel and Murad Osmann wouldn’t otherwise have built such massive followings, which allows them to make a living through photography in non-traditional ways.

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Followmeto the night temples of Chongqing with @natalyosmann..love shooting them with a central perspective, so that these temples look like endless stairway to heaven…places like that fill me up with creative energy and gives me ideas. What are your secret places that broaden your creative mind? #Chongqing #CQIFS Следуйзамной в ночные храмы Чунцина. Люблю снимать с центральной перспективой – они всегда кажутся как бесконечные лестницы в небо. Такие места наполняют креативной энергией и идеями, а какие у вас любимые секретные места?

A post shared by MURAD OSMANN (@muradosmann) on

The exposure potential provided by social media means that we can instantaneously notify our followers about new work or a new exhibit. We can collect RSVP and admission online. We can use social proof (e.g.” Your friend Amir is going to this event”) as a way to hook other people’s interest. These tools are both powerful and damn convenient. We don’t need to argue the counterfactual because we know what the pre-social media world was like: a postcard, a fax, a flyer and a prayer in hopes that people showed up.

Gatekeepers

The art world provides a perfect example of a twisted world of gatekeepers where a handful of galleries have largely determined what is valuable (see art critic Jerry Saltz’s commentary on The Price of Everything).

The phenomenon is paradoxical. On the one hand we rely on curators to help us filter all the noise, and a handful of platforms to amplify (e.g. TIME’s 51 instagram photographers to follow in the US). We need what are hopefully well-informed domain experts to help curate the world. But many Buzzfeed-esque sites use the same information to generate their own lists leading to a frustrating sameness. Surf photographers can’t possibly the only genre of photographer in Hawai’i.

On the other hand, the cost of digital publishing is virtually zero. So for better or worse, we can all have a voice. Washington Examiner commentary writer Becket Adams told Vox, “Social media has given us the power to spread nonsense further and faster than ever before.”

With everything accessible at our fingertips, we still need a way to access information. On the web, SEO is the basis for discovery. Social media platforms from YouTube to Facebook to Instagram tend to be much less sophisticated. Algorithms help with discovery (as do geotags, hashtags, etc). What you “like” influences what you see leading to bubbles of reality.

Community

Social media has fulfilled a potential to connect disparate people around the world around shared interest. This ability to build community is true for Neo-Nazis as it is for photographers of different ilk.

From a marketing perspective, the question photographers should ask themselves around social media participation is “Who is your audience you have, and who is the audience you want?” If building a social media audience around your intended audience won’t lead to more paid work, then spending hours trying to build a following is a dubious proposition. But for photographers selling prints, books, workshops, etc, having a big social media following allows for very inexpensive marketing opportunities.

Community extends beyond marketing because a community can support a photographer in non-financial ways. A community is resilient. A community is there for the long haul. You participate, ideally, as an equal member of a community vs a client/service provider relationship. Online photographer communities regularly assist its members with pricing questions, copyright infringements, and other business concerns. I’ve seen more than a handful of photographers ask for financial support through social media for things not connected to their photography (e.g. health issues, natural disasters, personal causes, etc). Social media makes these types of interactions possible.

The weaponization of photography

I’ve written about the weaponization of photography in the past. Suffice it to say, the climate has only gotten worse with the public’s increasing distrust of the media and the misappropriation of photography on wedge issues by both political parties and trolls alike.

For every warm and fuzzy dog photo, there’s a meme-ified migrant photo used out of context, and designed to provoke outrage and fear. Social media amplifies messages of good and hate alike and the gatekeepers (i.e. Facebook, Twitter, etc) have barely acknowledged their responsibility, let alone figured out how to solve the problem of weaponized misinformation.

A glut of photography

Social media isn’t responsible for the glut of photography. As with all creative fields, the emergence of digital technology has driven the cost to produce content to fractions of the analog counterparts.

Social media does contribute to visual sameness and environmental degradation.

But it also allows niches of photography to build passionate communities. Astrophotography, for example, has grown increasingly popular over the past few years, undoubtedly fueled by Milky Way photos on Instagram. Participating in astrophotography necessarily makes the photographer aware of a range of environmental and natural phenomena like dark skies and moon phases. It generates the sale of specialized gear from fast wide-angle primes to tripods.

The ability to find inspiration and cultivate creative agency through social media is enormous.

I’m pro social media

Social media can often cause me unnecessary anxiety. I was a very inactive participant on Twitter until recently, and have found that the increased knowledge on certain issues has largely been outweighed by the noise and anxiety it has induced. We can’t be outraged at everything. We can’t live our lives in search of a snarky response that reaffirms our world view. We can’t be invested in what some cute person that we have a parasocial relationship with ate for lunch.

But despite this, I’m inspired by the ability to give a voice to the minority, and I’m not just talking about racial or socioeconomic minorities. I mean every photographer who wants to go off into their corner and shoot bugs, bird feathers, cosplay, the Bronx, or food.

The community you deserve is the one you help build. Our participation on social media should be reflective of the real-life world we’d like to live in. Finding creative inspiration and constructively critical voices that help evolve both the business and artistry of photography make social media a powerful, but imperfect tool.

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This article was written by

Allen Murabayashi is the Chairman and co-founder of PhotoShelter.

There are 14 comments for this article
  1. Jim Goldstein at 7:40 pm

    As an early advocate of social media as a tool for photographers I have since held back on my social media efforts over the past 5 years to the point of no longer sharing photos. Part of this is just a change in lifestyle, but the majority of the reason is that I didn’t like the direction photography was taking in the world of social media. I never went public with that perspective because as someone who espoused social media as a great tool I realized it was a fine line to walk and a much longer conversation.

    Why the change in attitude? As someone who amassed large if not decent followings on social media (G+ 1.5M at launch, Twitter 30K, etc.) it would seem hypocritical given my seeming success. That “success” was never what it seemed and I had several conversations about this in private photography communities. Other photographers could never believe that the numbers were of little help in converting to business.

    Like a lot of things in the online photography world (photo sharing, social media, etc.) photographer are quick to get sucked in and distracted from their photographic work and efforts to their obsession with numbers and cracking algorithms that will result in greater exposure. The question photographers should ask is:
    1. What will am I going to do if I gain added exposure?
    2. What will the quality of leads be from my new found exposure?
    3. What can I realistically do to reach those quality leads?
    4. How is it helping my photographic vision and execution?

    Questions 1 is where photographers get lost. Social media is going to fix the ills of their anonymity. In actuality, it turns out it often becomes a burden and distraction.

    Questions 2-3… all those great leads…are seldom realized because the quality leads are few and far between when it comes to sales. Its great to be adored and validated, but much of what I found was a big ego boost but nothing more.

    Question 4 … gaining a large following in itself is going to do little to nothing to help you grow as an artist. Being part of a community of quality like-minded photographers will help more. If you’re spending all your time pumping social media you’re likely depriving your creative development.

    I still am a huge advocate for developing your own following, like on a blog. I hit 200K+ subscribers on my blog, but again after a while, I questioned the quality of those followers. Still better than nothing. Over time though for mostly personal reasons I’ve tapered off from sharing work even there. That will change in the near future.

    Where did I land with all of this?
    I just take photos for my enjoyment and focus on my limited but focused sales/licensing channels. My background image on my phone is a publishable photo, but it’s never been submitted to be commercially sold and has only been published publicly on my phone. It gives me personal satisfaction. Greater satisfaction than obsessing on how I keep growing my audience. Photographers need to question are you creating and marketing photography or are you selling cult of personality. While controversial, I would argue many “social influencers”, without naming names, are the later. Many photographers have a hard time differentiating the two and that creates a lot of unnecessary angst.

    • Eddy at 3:38 pm

      Thank you, Jim. Your comments have helped me reassess the landscape and where true worth and focus should be. I also liked the quote from Katherine Cross in Allen’s blog. I belong to a small group of keen active photographers whom I discovered on meetup and we’re like minded and active. So, the point on community is excellent and, in the final analysis, what really works fur me. .

      I must say that I lament the fast scrolling that has become the norm for consumers of images. It doesn’t necessarily mean that social media has ruined photography but it highlights it as a key change agent.

    • John H Newton at 4:22 pm

      I too started to stumble down this road, but quickly realized that quantity was vastly overrated and that quality out weighted quantity considerably.

      I maintain a website with some of my photos, as well as a small FB page. These are mostly for my friends who wish to keep up with what I’m working on.

      I shot only for myself. I don’t do commercial work. Every once in a while someone will like one of my photos and actually purchase it. This does more for my ego that a couple hundred likes or thousands of followers.

      Now that I’m retired I don’t need to hustle and continuously try and sell myself. If you like my work, thank you, please buy it. If not, glad you could stop by. Maybe I’ll have something you like in the future.

  2. Pamela Kelso at 7:12 pm

    Allen. Thank You. It seems like every time I spend an afternoon trying to wrap my head around current events, my photography and how to grow it you post something like this.

    I have done all the social sites. All I have now is Pinterest and my blog. I never check stats anywhere because I know what Jim says is very true. All the hype in the world does not guarantee a sold image.

    When I tried to find the data for all the sites that photographers were using frequently (esp. Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn) about amount of sales in relation to the different sites it was nowhere to be found and stating that online was not a good thing to do. It seemed that they really exist to get a bazillion users and then sell the company for a huge profit based on the traffic and what kind a data you can mine from it.

    This is such a good post, Allen and Jim, thank you again.

  3. David Roddis at 2:46 pm

    A very good analysis of the social media scene in relation to photography.

    If I have 75 followers on Twitter and another “competitor” (I don’t really think that way, but for lack of a better word) has 7,500, does that mean they’re a hundred times better than me? Well, a hundred times better at amassing followers, obviously. Creatively? Not so much, if “better” is objective and it can be measured, two propositions which I doubt.

    I am not a Luddite, by any means, But I was a latecomer to photography as a pursuit, passion and part-time career. My earliest dabblings ended up on Flickr, where I was sucked into the “you been invited…!” and “you’ve just won the best ——- of the day award!” reward system. Holy cow, an award! Then I reclaimed my adulthood and took a step back. Flickr was causing me untold anxiety and rewarding my safest, blandest work. I hadn’t found my voice or my confidence, just meaningless, random validation.

    My “satori” around all this went: 1. I will be lost in the sea of billions of images here. How is it possible to rise to the top, and why would I want to? 2. I need to work on my art and craft and stop comparing and seeking validation. 3. ANYONE can now take a technically competent photograph. Therefore it’s the concept/idea which rules 4. I don’t want to be one out of a billion thumbnails on a screen. I want to print my work. 5. No one will pay for something that they believe they can do just as well themselves. Therefore, I need to go big.

    Those last two became the drivers of how I now create.

    Social media is the solution to a problem no one had. In its devious way of convincing us that it matters it has done serious damage to how we connect, converse and in the case of the U.S. elections, even seriously undermined democracy. I say, let’s use social media as another marketing tool, to get a bit of exposure, sure. But then let’s get out in the world and make real connections with real people.

  4. David C. Lester at 3:20 pm

    Allen, thanks for this thought-provoking post. There are huge roles for social media in photography and other endeavors but, for photography at least, driving business is not always one of them. I agree with what Jim and Pamela said. I once had a FB page for my photography business, and even started paying a few dollars for “extra promotion.” I received thousands of likes when I posted new images, but did not receive additional visits, or business, from the FB page. I wondered why people were eager to “like” my page and images, but weren’t motivated to visit the website. Made me wonder what really drives people’s decision to “like” something in the first place.

  5. Morris at 6:47 pm

    An epiphany, very insightful article on the direction one needs to take as a photographer visa vis marketing oneself on social, Thanks Allen. I also agree with what has been said in some of the comments that those “likes” don’t necessarily translate into huge sales or work. On the contrary, may keep away some potential clients in my part of the world, Kenya.
    A freelance photographer, I work as a part time tutor in Nairobi and I use social media only as a tool of engagement with my students/mentees sometimes and that’s about it. Hence, social media “over here” plays a crucial role in enhancing visual literacy within and around the communities who until now never took photography as a serious viable profession. You can say, locally, social media and smart phones have revolutionized it on scale never seen before in as much as the “likes” are concerned and younger photographers are taping into it for “attention and validation” as has already been pointed out. Having said that, I let my website take care of my business side of photography.

  6. Sue Risk at 12:56 pm

    Something that your article overlooked is the wealth of interest generated by the digital exactitude offered on Internet, as it records photography’s’ many settings toward perfect or unusual works. Photographers can discuss the process, or pp, as well.
    As a former fine artist or graphic artist, I have approached photography with keen but amateur interest. I found it easy to get enmeshed in hours of study onFlickr, as well as writing contacts. On the good side, the contacts are welcome friends, whose works are always admirable and whose self estimates are a lot more humble than one would imagine. This, alone gives an amateur hope as well as inspiration.
    The best perspective upon social media and photo arts is that there are many tutorials and hints about photo tech.

    Having access to articles like yours improves my interest in the intellectual side of photography, which is far beyond the commercial needs of the community.
    Though it is time consuming, I have read many articles or photo logs, blogs, and personal outreach toward the arts community.so, it’s a matter of what one prefers in the arts. It’s the community of explorers, those nature lovers who are similarly wowed by the infinitesimally beautiful works of Creation, the travellers who risk their lives to make sure the world knows about huge problems in Yemen. Without the depth of richness or concern that our fellows are sharing with us, we would be back to stealing someone’s hard won negatives, or vandalizing the darkroom so the next guy would not succeed.
    Having created photo cards and a photo book for sale, I have been subject to vandalization as well as identity theft, so joining with a like minded body of eager and loving professionals keeps my heart and soul focussed on what’s really important, that is sharing and expanding upon each discovery, feasting our eyes, minds and hearts.
    I know, your claims as well as those in the workshop with you have great validity. And one of the correspondents lamented that fast scrolling certainly squelches the careful blogging and finer points of some of the more esoteric of images. In that case, all of us are better off spending a week with one photographer to witness his or path I depth, because who knew what that tiny fossil was, posted on week 28 of 104? No one had the time, and sadly, the online process allows for science to interrupt discovery witnessing by subbing imagery that will mask the subject, should the land area be sensitive. (Just one example). I have no solution for this, because cyber editing can wipe out the actual record on all recording materials.
    I know, I’ve had negatives subbed and the originals disappear in the old days.
    So, at least your aim and point spectacles can quietly reside in social media if you don’t say anything to anyone except by personal notes or talk! This is probably the only way.

    I do want to say to you, don’t give up, because IT has made life so boundlessly exuberant. I thank you for thoughtful articles like yours, and for the opportunity to join with pros, as shabbily inept as my production has been!

  7. Micha Fire at 12:52 pm

    As an amateur photographer I am thankful for social media posts/publishing of high quality photographers. Especially if they add at how they made the photo (either with camera settings or with digital editing). It helps me learn more about photography and how to take better photos – even if they are only for myself. I rarely publish any photos “for an audience”; most are purely for a hook to the texts I add; thus “bad quality” photos.
    Still, I do like to get “likes and comments” on those posts. It’s like visiting a party: you go there to connect with others and have some chats. Most of it will only be for that one party (low quality talks) – but some are of a quality that makes you want to connect with the person more intensive and maybe you even become friends.
    And sometimes I do manage to make a “good” photo that I’m proud of – and I will always be happy if others can see that photo too.

  8. Marian Kraus at 11:55 am

    Much appreciate all perspectives that were shared here. In the end I believe that it all comes down to balance and commons sense. Contributing factors to these are exposure, application and collecting experience and results with these modern tools of ‘marketing’. Then one can make an educated decision about what to do next…

  9. Jon Stocker at 11:44 am

    As a pro who made his living photographing proms and like events, social media and cellphone cameras killed this business over the past five years. There is no more professional prom photography in my area. Professional volume photography is a buggy whip business. Have a nice day.

  10. John S Tyler Jr at 7:41 am

    I have to agree..social media will help you get your work seen but at a price. After reading this fine article I took a step back and asked myself..”What do I need to do to get my business going the way I would like?” So I decided to stop posting all my to me creative hard earn work to Facebook just to get lies and hear comments, since I now in my heart my work is nice and get it onto my website which has been neglected! Which is the main reason for having a website to drive people to you and to let them see what type of work or artist you are. Facebook, Twitter may help a little but in the end if you want to think that they are going to give you more exposure you have to pay for an upgrade so why not use that money to promote yourself with your own website!

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