In the absurdist style of the same photo every day accounts on Instagram, @world_record_egg has smashed past the 18 million likes of Kylie Jenner’s baby photo with a photo of a brown egg. A call to dethrone Jenner resulted in nearly 39 million likes within 10 days.
Fstoppers traced the image to DepositPhotos, a popular microstock site where the image can be purchased with a “standard license” that allows web use for about $4 (more highly discounted options are available). The image is credited to a copyright holder named gresey who probably earned in the ballpark of $0.30 (a generous assumption since it takes three subscription downloads to earn a full commission on an image according to numerous reviews).
I feel amusement and intense irony that a nothingburger of an egg photo displaced a member of the Jenner/Kardashian clan – a family whose popularity rests on virtually nothing (although I admit that they are incredible marketers). But the success of the image mostly reminds me of the worthlessness of popularity in the “like” economy, where much of the internet is fake, influencers can’t support themselves, and a teen set Twitter’s retweet record for Wendy’s nuggets.
Beyoncé’s pregnancy photo amassed over 11 million likes and was the Instagram’s most liked image of 2017 replete with symbolism.
Much of the image’s popularity was a reflection of Beyoncé’s influence, which is all well and good. But behind the image was Ethiopian-American artist Awol Erizku. I didn’t pay much attention to Erizku when Beyoncé posted, but as I was perusing the New Yorker’s Best Photography of 2018, I kept seeing these incredible images and every time I glanced at the byline, it was Erizku.
How much does Erizku care about Instagram likes? Zero. Because he doesn’t have an Instagram account. What he does have is regular commissions from the New Yorker.
There is no doubt that social media engagement drives eyeballs. There is no doubt that National Geographic photographers who post to @natgeo’s 97 million followers find success in growing their follower counts. And the egg is having fun building its Instagram Stories because why not. But chasing likes and worrying about engagement requires a trade off of time, resources, and mental health. In a cluttered world, these are more valuable than a dopamine hit.
For a small percentage of photographers, likes can bring endorsements and sponsorships. But likes don’t make you a better photographer. Likes don’t get your butt in the field. Likes don’t build creative inspiration.
The egg’s success can be interpreted as proof that we’re living in a nihilist simulation, but I’m hoping that it’s a signal that the like economy has jumped the shark. Here’s to finding more meaning and purpose for your photography in 2019.